GUILFORD — When Vermont poet Verandah Porche traveled to Boston University this past weekend for its annual "Power of Narrative" journalism conference, she was scheduled to speak about working with "ordinary people" on "Retrieving the Poetry of Local Life."
First, however, she unsuspectingly sparked a national social media firestorm surrounding the event's legendary keynote speaker.
It started last Saturday, when bestselling author Gay Talese took the stage to talk about his six-decade writing career at such prominent publications as the New York Times and Esquire, Harper's and the New Yorker magazines.
After Talese spoke to 550 fellow scribes, Porche, hearing him cite "all these male writers who are guys' guys," raised her hand and asked, "Who are the women who write who have inspired you most?"
The Vermonter was not prepared for the response.
"Did I hear you say what women have inspired me most?" replied Talese, according to a conference transcript.
"As writers," Porche clarified.
Talese offered the name of the late author Mary McCarthy before sputtering out, "I would, um ... think ... of my generation ... um, none."
"It probably isn't true anymore," Talese continued, "but when I was young, maybe 30 or so, and always interested in exploratory journalism, long-form, we would call it, women tended not, even good writers, women tended not to do that. Because being, I think, educated women, writerly women, don't want to, or do not feel comfortable dealing with strangers or people that I'm attracted to, sort of the offbeat characters, not reliable. I think educated women want to deal with educated people."
That's when the educated women in the audience took to Twitter. (Or, as the poet recounts: "There was a kind of hiss, a syncopated intake of breath, and I could tell there was a barely audible clatter of people starting to punch their machines.")
"In many ways Gay Talese is a revolutionary," one female Massachusetts freelancer tweeted, "in others (eg his views of women nonfiction writers), he's an 84 yo guy from NJ."
Added New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean: "#womengaytaleseshouldread Lillian Ross. Joan Didion. Janet Malcolm. Jane Kramer. I'm just getting started here, folks."
And actress and author Tina Fey, speaking to the Associated Press: "Nothing by Gay Talese has moved me."
By the end of the week, the New York Times was reporting a story headlined "Gay Talese Goes Through the Twitter Wringer," in which the author clarified, "When I was in my formative years, there were no women in journalism who inspired me — the women who inspired me were fiction writers."
But Porche's question has inspired a conversation she hadn't intended.
"It's not like I had an ax to grind, or this was a gotcha question," she said. "I heard him list this whole catalogue of men and thought he might inadvertently have left out some people who it would be valuable to hear about."
Porche has a Twitter account — "rooted vagabond, with a slew of words," it sums up her biography — but hadn't posted anything in five years before she asked her more technically literate colleagues to add a message over the weekend.
"I asked Gay Talese the Woman Question," she tweeted. "This conference attracts brilliant young writers, mostly women. Sexism or senior moment?"
Porche has her own answer.
"Whether he was confused or not by my question, a certain clarity emerged," she says. "Women in the room got a clear message of the old straight guy pattern of exclusion, indifference, the idea that women are meant to be muses, not narrators of important and gritty stories. I felt there are so many brilliant women who could have been part of that conversation."
Starting, perhaps, with herself. The 70-year-old, a co-founder of Guilford's storied Packer Corners commune in 1968, has published such well-received poetry collections as 1974's "The Body's Symmetry" and 2012's "Sudden Eden."
"You could mention," Porche concluded, "that people might want to read my poetry."
Kevin O'Connor is a regular contributor to the Reformer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.