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C.N.P Poetry 

  • Writer's pictureCathexis Northwest Press

On Learning an Art Teacher Was Fired for Using the Word Vagina

By: Michael Waterson

Displaying O’Keeffe’s flower paintings

to eighth graders, saying,

… resembling the female creative principle,

or … similar to Gothic cathedral portals,

might have drawn

an administrative yawn.

Referencing the Christian ichthys,

while mum on its vulvar shape,

would have been peachy,

as would icons of the Virgin,

framed in a vesica piscis.

Likewise, abstraction

should have garnered a pass,

as might a light touch

upon labial associations,

pointing out the artist’s

pointed denial of same.

But the board feared

growing hothouse fantasies

in the silken ridges and hollows,

glistening hints of nectar,

undulations begging

rapturous caress,

transfiguring art to ecstasy.


Michael Waterson is a retired journalist with an MFA from Mills College. His poems have appeared in California Quarterly, Blue Unicorn, Every River on Earth anthology and many others. He is poet laureate emeritus of Napa Valley.

"The poem was triggered by a news story out of Michigan about a substitute teacher's dismissal after she used the word "vagina" in a discussion of Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings in an eighth grade art class. The event stirred a number of emotions in me: outrage, scorn, rueful hilarity, sadness and despair that education in our country is still hobbled by prudishness and ignorance. It seemed to me, the major lesson administrators taught in this instance was shame for human anatomy, instruction that breeds the prurience they are trying to suppress, as well as the kind of emotional conflict that keeps therapists in business. What gave legitimacy to use of the word as part of an artistic discussion (if any was needed) was the fact that the association of the colorful, close-up, large-scale flowers with female genitalia was first made by O'Keefe's husband, Alfred Stieglitz, an association the artist herself strenuously denied was there!"


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