Dear Barbara: Thank you for addressing your querying letter to me.
In response, I have been writing to you in my head, on trains, walking
around, and sitting still, and now want to write everywhere, all through
what you ask. You make me want to condense everything I know about gender
and poetry and poetics into one heavy leathery medicine ball and to
throw it towards you and to your "generation" or "genderation"
- Hey CATCH! But if you can write the kind of letter you just did indeed
write (and have written over all the years we have known each other),
you are, without a doubt, working towards answering your own questions.
Catching your own ball. So to speak. That much passionate desire to
define, to understand, to formulate will not go unanswered-by yourself.
And in the mean time
But there is not simply one "ball" of "stuff."
Do you remember Matisse's "Red Studio" (1911)-in MOMA, and
once, in my kid years, my favorite painting in the whole wide world.
The painting displays some of his own work reproduced in miniature-seven
or maybe eight paintings, some sculpture, and empty frames, some ceramics,
and some blue chalk and maybe brushes too, waiting to be used, some
décor (a trail of vine in a vase) all set inside a passionate
deep-but-flat red field-his studio, where the furniture magically recedes
into outlines so that the work can float, hang and entice in this blood
red space. Little mini-women are depicted (as Adalaide Morris reminded
me)- as a statue, on a plate, in a painting-these figures are artifacts
of Art as an institition, part of what is made, contained, and set within
his magisterial red world. This a kind of Matisse-kit, the way the valises
are a Duchamp-kit. But, to speak of red, we have also to account for
another red painting, the odd, busier "Red Room" also called
"Harmony in Red"(1908) in Leningrad/ St. Petersburg. A female
servant, a table, bowls of fruit, wallpaper and tablecloth both aswirl
with large blue baroque patterns, and in the window, or in a painting,
stage left-a bluegreen field of flowering fruit trees. A bourgeois interior
filled with gender ideas of making beauty in family service. Given these
red paintings, it might be dangerous for the female figure to claim
a Red Studio or a Red Room-looks like I might get absorbed into decor.
So in the contrarian manner that got me naming a book The Pink Guitar,
extending Wallace Stevens where he wasn't himself going, I think I'll
call this Blue Studio.
Studios are places to work. Working and praxis. Let's do it. I want
to make a Blue Studio as a set of arcades of thought in which one might
wander. But together they add up to more than just any one "painting"
or "arcade" or "position." Blue mischief, blue as
the color for boys, blue for the Blau part of my name, blue as the "color"
of open thought. Therefore blue gender trails out to various horizons.
These were sometimes called "azure" in favor of an airy space
beyond, a symbolist empyrean, but I'll try to stay a realist and just
say "blue." This is because I want skepticism, formulations
that don't necessarily stay still, but urge transformative, progressive
practices. I believe in your questions and in mine; I believe in the
power of our observations. So therefore: Hardly in the spirit of a fixed
"answer" but in the spirit of friskiness, pensive loose ends,
and rumination--I give you this. A blue studio of arcades, through which
Arcade 1. "Hurricanes are named to prevent confusion when there
is more than one active at a time. Since 1953, Atlantic tropical storms
have been named from lists originated by the National Hurricane Center,
which are now maintained and updated by an international committee of
the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The lists featured only
women's names until 1979 when the WMO was persuaded to use male names
and to name the storms in an alternating 'girl-boy-girl-boy' pattern."
(Information pamphlet from AMICA insurance)
Do you find this as amusing as I did? Amusing and riling. That agency-less
"was persuaded," loses those whose efforts did the persuading.
The syntax makes turgid, lumbering institutions refigure themselves
as originators, from their own benevolence, of a new clarification.
Official History: there it is. Well-can we expect to get thanked? Whereas
the truth of the matter-surly, intransigent, annoying questions, loud
voices, and ironic contempt ("I mean they even name STORMS only
after WOMEN"), anger about the deep cellular imbedding of ideology
in every detail ("storms after women-so destructive, so femme fatale-ish,
like Men are never destructive!")-the whole raucous assemblage
of rage, flair, critique, shoving, pushing, and analysis that was The
Women's Movement did change culture. We took initiative; we called it;
we "told it like it is"-translation-as we saw it. And "it"
was "everything." The women's movement still has the capacity
fundamentally to call social and cultural arrangements into question,
But Culture here, in the form of the WMO, opens its wide gullet and
swallows the critique whole. What critique? it says, licking its chops.
Now think of the university. We had the guts. Some got the glory. But
you have to not want glory, but want to do things, to say things, to
perceive things because they need rectification. So we have challenged,
we have changed the naming storms.
The naming of storms like ourselves.
Arcade 2. I remember sitting, lonely and isolated, in approximately
1971 or 1972, in Lille, France, where I was teaching. It washed over
me (such was the force of One of the Great Books of the early cultural-social
feminist movement-Kate Millett's Sexual Politics) that all of
culture would have to be reseen with feminist eyes from the very beginning.
Everything would have to be remade-the Greeks, the Bible, the histories
of literature and poetry, all cultural products, all-name them! I could
not even begin to name the number of genres-fairy tales. Children's
books. In a mini-second, far beyond drowning in the enormous sea of
this, I lifted up as on a gigantic blue-green-grey wave; I might have
imagined being on a tremendous surfboard-I don't even have the metaphor.
Riding the "second wave"? A long march through the institutions
is more like it. Everything! Remade! Ever since, I have been doing what
I could. It's not euphoria or fashionableness-those could never motivate
30 years of work. It's more like Conviction.
If "language is possible only because each speaker
sets himself up as a
by referring to himself as I
in his discourse" (Emil Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics,
one might be bemused
by all that "he" "his" and "himself" or
(it's not emphasized, not in italics)
Saying "language is possible only because each speaker
sets herself up as a subject, referring to herself
as I in her discourse" is not wrong
but it's not the form that our Generalizations
it sounds more particular, less authoritative, less applicable to All.
Makes a specific observation, not a statement in Theory
What is the "lesson"?
"When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you" (T. S. Eliot, The
so there is a third
travelling ahead of us or beside us (the ambiguity is fascinating)
-"who is the third who walks always beside you?"
looks like (is it an Antarctic hallucination? from the deep poles
of ideology?) looks like
Arcade 3. Let's say a word about "Woman." At all moments
in feminist theorizing, the term "women" is a twisted but
necessary umbrella caught in the crosswinds of strong political and
ideological storms. In a storm, you might want that umbrella. Although
to some, "woman" might look just like a female person, the
term women has had a historically and temporally variable content,
and has pointed to a variety of meanings necessary at various times
to embrace and deplore, to worm out of, and to process, to affirm and
to deny, to feel as central to oneself, and to feel as unimportant.
For example, are women (Coca-Cola we might call them) "equal"
and parallelly the same as that other gender (Pepsi we might call it),
or are they different, which means emphasizing differences of all kinds
in relation to production, the praxis of writing, theme, motif, subjectivity,
dissemination, and reception. This long-standing dialectical debate
between equality/ sameness and difference has created a very rich terrain.
Faced with this insoluble debate, some people might find it annoying,
rearticulating a position curiously similar (in a different context)
to that taken by high-minded, pioneering women of the 1950s--gender
does not matter at all. Or, under the rubric of queerness, they might
take a pluralizing position-so many gender places to combine and articulate
(Jolt we might call this position).
I always cite Denise Riley at this kind of moment, and I might as well
do so again. This comes from the final pages of her important book "Am
I That Name": Feminism and the Category of 'Women' in History
(University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 113-114. "So feminism must
be agile enough to say, 'Now we will be "women"-but now we
will be persons, not these "women."'
To be, or not to
be 'a woman'; to write or not 'as a woman'; to espouse an egalitarianism
which sees sexed manifestations as blocks on the road to full democracy;
to love theories of difference which don't anticipate their own dissolution:
these uncertainties are rehearsed endlessly in the history of feminism,
and fought through within feminist-influenced politics. That 'women'
is indeterminate and impossible is no cause for lament. It is what makes
.The temporalities of 'women' are like the missing middle
term of Aristolelian logic; while it's impossible to thoroughly be a
woman, it's also impossible never to be one."
Arcade 4. To call for, to notice, to gloss, to comment upon the productive
presence of women artists and writers in this era and the eras long
past is to be indebted to feminist cultural criticism and related modes
of cultural poetics, such as gay, lesbian, queer and ethnic criticisms.
To call for, to notice, to gloss, to comment upon the productive and
generative presence of gender ideas of all sorts-from the lurid to the
utopian-in male and female writers is to be indebted to feminist cultural
criticism and related modes of cultural poetics. I could go on. But
I would like simply and openly to declare our collective debt
to feminism, no matter that some people might reject, balk, wonder,
resist, demur, take themselves away or out of that, see it as a trap.
Feminism, and related gender-curious investigations have changed the
terrain of the possible.
Feminism. As Virginia Woolf said in A Room of One's Own, certain
material differences between men and women are constructed and perpetuated
in our societies. It is the task of feminist politics to resist these,
to try to dismantle them, and it is the task of feminist inspired gender
critique to understand the impact of these material differences on the
production, dissemination, reception and continuance of artists and
texts. Feminist criticism is a materialist perspective, but it also
investigates how this "matter" plays and is perpetuated in
forms of the symbolic order-in ideology from poetry to religion, from
"women's place" to representations. Thus feminist thinking
tries to hold in a single thought both materialist and ideological studies
in their interactions. Their mutually supporting and mutually confounding
Once this is said and acknowledged, I don't particularly care who calls
themselves/ herselves/ himselves "a feminist."
Women had a lot of different ideologies to help them take voice and
vocation as writers (and certainly a passel of ideologies and practices
impeding that claim to voice and vocation). Powerful writers might gain
power for themselves or possibly cultural power by separating from the
"group" Woman and/or from any "label" attachable
to that group, from "feminine" to "feminist." This
might be seen (judgmentally) as a form of "denial," or more
neutrally as a circumstantial strategy. Certainly no one has to claim
that feminism's rising tide helped their production if they don't feel
it did. But I think you are annoyed at the disingenuousness of others.
So be it. Signing up, signing on is the issue-what does it mean to be
a "feminist poet" or a "woman poet"-and of course
these are different, for one is an ideological category and the other
might be descriptive or laden with assumptions or both mixed up together.
One little attitudinal (and therefore methodological) practice that
one might learn from the practice of feminist criticism-whether or not
one likes, admires, cathects to, or loves any individual woman writer--is
the necessity to offer at least as much empathetic understanding to
the products of women as to those of men. This is linked to the historical
responsibility to examine what women did and are doing, and why: motives,
constraints, their own reigning ideologies as they entered the world
to speak. (These reigning ideologies need not be attractive; they can
involve self-disparaging, resistance to other women, brilliant rage,
saccharine charm and so on.) This point comes from my historical experience
of the notable erasure, disparaging, and undervaluing of women's cultural
products and testaments. This point must not be misunderstood as being
uncritical of nor sentimental about women. No more empathetic understanding
than one offers the work of men-just approximately the "same"
calibration. This statement comes from a feminism of "equality/
sameness," not one of "difference." At the same time,
because the literary products of women are still a bit rarer than those
of men, one might offer a tiny dollop of identification, going beyond
the extra mile. This statement comes from a feminism of "difference,"
not one of "equality /sameness." Watch out-I just somewhat
contradicted myself. Look at the oscillation, the dialogic shimmer,
the wobbling, the wavering, the fluidity, the tacking between semi-contradictory
positions! having A and not-A coexist-both/ and thinking (as I said
in "For the Etruscans," written 1979). Or speaking, as Anne
Waldman does, immediately in Iovis I, of "both/both,"
beyond even "both/and." There's the blue studio of my feminism.
Another parallel working space occurs in the negotiation of similarity
and difference among women-inside the group called "women."
These differences could be class or race or sexuality, or other social
locations for subjectivity. The projects of feminism were transformed
in the US by theoretical and pragmatic positions taken almost simultaneously,
by lesbian women and by women of color, but by other supportive women
also. This position asked forcefully how to perceive, understand and
acknowledge differences of position and interests while also acknowledging
similarities between and among women.
Arcade 5. There are at least four spheres in which your letter plays,
and I want to separate them because I can only, really, speak to some.
First: The largest political-social-economic arena: the difficult time
in which we live and from which (as nice white US citizens) we vaguely-and
precisely--benefit even when we do not desire to benefit. Second: The
university as a workplace and as a site of cultural production and reproduction.
As our workplace, set in a certain country at a certain time, it demands
from us certain activities and tasks ('grading," "analysis,"
"teaching writing,"), the forbidding of other tasks (can't
refuse to grade, for example), and inducing political choices (graduate
student unionizing drives, for example). The university is emphatically
part of the political-social-economic arena. And, as an institution
of cultural dissemination, production, articulation and processes, the
university is also part of the cultural sphere. Third: The cultural
sphere, meaning the place where art products, writing and culturally
valued objects and ideologies get made and used. This cultural sphere
has numerous institutions and practices attached to it-whether these
are coteries, magazines, poetic careers, reward systems, funding lines.
Fourth: A fourth sphere (poetry) is hooked to all, but it most obviously
intersects with the second and third-a site of activities and practices
making poets who make writings and writings that make poets. The particular
realm of poetry is vitally important to us. I know most of my answers
are from a more particular realm than your questions, which seem sometimes
to spill between these realms. However, the whole stage on which we
act is the desire for social justice.
Arcade 6. I find my explorations for you occur along the line of cultural
production, cultural dissemination, and cultural reception. You begin
with a comment on production: a woman poet "producing" her
own biography, rubrics, archive. This is, we would like to think, "secondary"
to poetic production, but sometimes I wonder! It is clearly a very serious
enterprise, part of the controlling of reception that many poets negotiate
as significant work within their production. Your observation leads
immediately into your comment about reception. "Canonized or forgotten"
is your somewhat binarist formulation for women; one might add some
other possibilities-minoritized, disparaged though remembered, frozen
at one part of their career only, remembered for quirks and weirdnesses,
remembered for their sexual partners, not for writing. But I take your
point. Your sentences capture some of the sense of panic and avidity
that characterizes our cultural moment. It is also interesting that
your remarks suggest there might be conflict and contradiction between
(in this case) production and reception. The person saying "I am
not a feminist poet" might nonetheless be struck that her reception
seems to be occurring under the rubric of "feminist reception."
. (I assume it's a her! why would a male poet say that? Think
carefully about the meaning of that answer.)
So I'm going to talk about two of these three-production and reception,
but, as you already said, they all loop together. One issue is "feminist
production"-or more colloquially "I am/ am not a feminist
poet." Choose one, apparently? A second issue is "feminist
Arcade 7. Let's begin again. The kinds of cultural questions you are
asking emerged for me under the rubric "feminism." But, aside
from alluding to the importance of that formation for culture and politics,
and declaring my indebtedness, and aside from suggesting (in a friendly
tone) that everyone declare their collective indebtedness (see
Arcade 3) to the gender materials that have changed the terrain of the
possible, I am agnostic, of two or three minds, whether another
individual will accept that term, or even, whether she/he needs to.
Such a refusal should, to be most effective, not be simply reactive,
"against" something. Reactive, paraphrased something like
this: "I reject the term because the powerful and annoying women
of the generation before me embraced it, and I need to distinguish myself
from them." Or "The positions taken by feminism are out-dated;
we don't need them any more." Or "We need to get on to other
issues." Debating with feminism, or going beyond it, should be
creative, generative, coming from another space of the social and culturally
possible. But, in my view, such a position must have a dialectical relationship
with feminism-precisely sublating it and transcending it. Indeed, this
is not refusal or negation, but dialectical negativity.
What is feminism? To me it means gender justice in the context of social
justice. We do not have either, here in the United States, nor do people
have it consistently in the world at large (a vast understatement),
although some people, mainly in the first world, might do better than
US women in particular legal and social rights (around child care, for
example; around mandated gender balance in legislative representation,
as in France). One needs gender justice only in the context of social
justice so women do not benefit in their freedoms from the exploitation
of other people, male and female. Since in some places, far from gender
justice, the systems of gender and social repression, and multiple exploitations
are intense, "feminism" seems like a good word to want to
claim. At least until another comes along that can offer solutions,
analyses, precisions, and hopes for gender justice in the context of
When a person refuses such a word or does not acknowledge the force
of gender and sexuality in her/his political analyses of other issues
(globalization, ecological disaster, health care policies, rampant nationalisms
and fundamentalisms), it can appear as if the issues concerning gender
justice and social justice are unimportant for that person. Now a quick
segue to our privileged workplace: In the university, this non-acknowledgement
might play into hands you (I don't mean you) don't want to be
in, might leave a person holding hands with positions a person doesn't
want to be linked with-or used by. Loosely-the neo-cons. Or even the
hand-wringing privileged. (I love those "hand" metaphors.)
Strategically, if a person refuses the word "feminism" too
assiduously or forcefully, the effect will be to isolate the women of
the feminist generation, curtailing their effectiveness as mentors,
as allies, as companions. Some simple results-people who study cultural
products of women will once more be marginalized and minoritized as
was formerly the case. Syllabi will not reflect the intellectual force
of feminist and gender-laden scholarship-in romanticism we will not
study romantic era women writers, for instance. People who do serious
research on the recovery of women's texts will go unrespected. It will
be automatic to say, as was once commonplace, that their work is not
up to "standards," or shows "low quality," or concerns
"backwaters." Issues important to women and gays in the workplace
will be placed last, below last on the institutional agenda (like partner
benefits). The marginalization of a prior feminist generation would
be unstrategic for women newly entering the university, not in their
Arcade 8. However, also strategically, a person might not want to affiliate
with all the positions ever taken under the rubric feminism. Of course!
The whole point is disaggregating the blanket term, making it precise
and situational. This seems obvious, but worth repeating. "Feminism"
is a capacious, historically mobile term filled with its own intellectual
and political debates, filled with the tugs and pulls of other social-subject
locations (class for example, ethnicity, racial ideologies, religious
cultures, national interests) and it (the same concept, "feminism")
has had features that would be plausible and necessary to criticize
by other wings of feminist positions. Indeed, any political position
would have criticizable aspects. So the question must be to ask what
feminism, where, facing what, defined by what, responsive to what, blind
to what, hostile to what. That is-the questions must be the usual, normal,
always new analytic questions.
To say feminist-the fear might be that such a word brings in its wake
lockstep allegiances and inflexible -- as well as unsubtle analyses.
This, too, could be a problem with any political or politicized position.
Surely one cannot use feminism as a convenient "whipping girl"
for all that! That is, for the rejection of or claim of superiority
to "the political." But one might want the following "rule":
never let theory eviscerate matter. To claim NO or NEUTRAL or UNMARKED
or UNIVERSAL "identity," to claim that superior people don't
bother with these mired and specific social locations but rather transcend
them (doesn't everybody? my dear!), to assert that you (poor
inadequate thing) have prejudices, biases, localisms, but I see the
big picture and oh so clearly) are nasty policing devices that blindly
favor hegemony and its interests.
Why should feminism be reduced to its own sentimentalities? Did it
not have more to offer even to those who are invested enough in its
meanings to attack it?
Arcade 9. Here are three examples of uses of feminism in the arena
of culture by members of (loosely) your generation. They are all notably
serious, committed, inquisitive, and it does not matter whether each
or any of them would claim "I am/am not a feminist poet,"
for they are all doing work in this "blue studio" of yearning,
hope, and gender horizons. They may not be in precisely the same arcade.
The first is by Rachel Levitsky. It is published as the enabling statement
of a chapbook series she has produced from a reading series that she
curates (2000, 2001) in New York City: "Belladonna is a reading
series at Bluestockings Women's Bookstore that promotes the work of
women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved,
multi-form, multi-cultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious
to talk about, unpredictable, dangerous with language." The desire
for what I once called "polygynous poetry"("married"
to many women) is one I resound with-all those multi's make this a very
attractive statement. But it's more the notion of poetry as engaged
with thought and language, with politics and poetics at the same time,
that also attracts me to this statement. Because this is in the form
of a list, it is not necessary to elaborate the exact relationship of
these elements to each other. That's lucky, and it also allows for a
generative fluidity of potential linkages.
The second is by Linda Russo. It occurs in Rust Talks 7 (April
2001), a set of materials from Rust Belt Books in Buffalo, and it is
in the form of a speculative letter. Hence it is less finished and summarizable.
In the passage Russo talks of reading Irigaray and appreciating "her
concern for the need to inscribe a feminine genealogy-not as biological
imperative, but as a cultural one, a philosophical and political one-because
we live in a culture, an era, where the feminine remains largely uninscribed,
where women have little influence in how we perceive our world-our myths,
images, institutions, our very notion of the subject, the language user."
I am not sure I would only say "the feminine" here-but also
"the female"AND females. That culture as we know it has notable
ambivalence to the female I agree with absolutely; that this lack and
ambivalence are inscribed deeply in ideology, I agree with absolutely.
She goes on to say that "Irigaray points out that a feminist genealogy
needs to be created to exist alongside the existing one." I am
not certain that Irigaray wants two parallel ideological tracks, except
as a provisional cultural step. In any event a "feminist genealogy"
seems, at first, to be a useful project for Russo. But then later, Russo
talks of writing poetry "in search of a mother," adding "I
don't think I meant, to move over into metaphor, that I was in search
of a genealogy of mother-writers-a not uncommon feminist project. I
don't consider my self a feminist, and I'm wary of my making of that
project." Here many of the concerns of feminist thinking-including
the critique of gender ideology, including the desire for a new subject
position, and including Irigaray's challenge to make a new symbolic
order, a genuinely bi-gendered symbolic order -are hinted at, but only
a specific "parental/maternal" project is called by the name
of feminism-and resisted. While I think this is a limiting statement
of the many aspects of feminist projects, I do know what she means.
The "recovery" of women writers was imbued with a variety
of psychic needs. It would be interesting to examine these needs, to
articulate the fascinating twist between the object of study and the
apparent subject/ critic, to study these with an empathetic and analytical
reach. Women critics are, however, not the only ones to identify with
the writers they study-anyone ever look at most Pound criticism before
about 1980 with an eye to that issue? A lot of different things are
implicated for Russo here (including the sorting out of female/ feminine/
feminist), but it is also clear that what is at stake exists in the
cultural sphere of gender materials. Whether or not Russo calls all
this, or herself, "feminist" does not faze me one way or the
other, because I read it emphatically as a gender arcade, or two.
A third statement from your generation occurs in Tripwire 3
(Summer 1999)--the issue is, in fact, devoted to gender. The statement
at the head of the issue, written by the editors Yedda Morrison and
David Buuck, reads: "The following pages contain a selection of
writers and artists actively grappling with the complexities of gender
as it pertains to daily life and social practice. Various tendencies
seem to color these works: the continued influence of feminist theoreticians
on current aesthetic, formal, and political practice; a recognition
and inclusion of daily (domestic) life in both content and form; the
desire for a simultaneous celebration and eradication of the traditions
of one's gender; a deconstruction of male-female binarisms, towards
a critique of gender itself as a rigid and socially dictated location
which limits and delineates its citizens; and the recognition that any
move beyond the confines of gender-based identity and sex-based roles
cannot manifest itself by mere proclamation or aesthetic liberty, but
must navigate the deeply embedded material and historical relations
of patriarchy." This admirable statement shows the conscious interplay
between ideological and material understanding, between the end of gender
and its continuing presence; between existing feminist thought and assessment
of that thought in practice; between queer thinking and gender inscriptions.
It is a notably dialectic statement.
When I read these manifestations of gender-inflected thinking, I am
not depressed (not blue that way), for it appears as if the struggle
for a new subjectivity in which gender debates play a central role is
well on its way. The major reconsideration of gender arrangements, and
their implications for thought, daily life, and art seem notably, even
thrillingly alert in these Gender Arcades.
Arcade 10. However, a person saying "I am not a feminist poet"
might be taking another ideological position-that of individualistic
performance, beyond "group." One sees the temptation-to be
taken as an individual. "I'm not a feminist poet; I'm just a poet."
Or even better--"I'm not a woman poet; I'm just a poet." Good
luck, sez I.
These remarks, however apparently negating, are working in the cultural
terrain opened by gender-inflected thought-that is, by feminism. Here
one must become appreciative of cultural ironies. Poets who thought
that they were just poets, not women (for example, Louise Bogan), have
now benefited from the existence of a feminist criticism born out of
the women's movement; have had their work valorized as part of the group
"women" even if they just wanted, in some cases desperately
and damagingly, to be poets, just ungendered poets. Other poets, who
declared fast that they were feminists, in this gruesome apolitical
time, have their solid, principled positions, their solid poetry found
an annoyance, inadequate (for example, Adrienne Rich-this remark is
dated very precisely in May 2001; by 2010, it will look bizarre, inexplicable).
At this point, Black Nationalism looks teachable and "quaint"
(please forgive me, if you don't understand I am dripping with irony),
but feminism looks again like all those serious girls in ugly clothes
who neither know how to put enough makeup on, nor know how to put on
enough charm. To play in the cultural field, one always needs a strong
sense of irony.
How about a female person saying "I am a human being, not a 'woman'"?
There have been a number of feminist critiques of Woman as a concept,
feeling it so riddled with bad ideology as to render it useless, suggesting
that we need another name for that female person-once upon a time Monique
Wittig polemically offered "lesbian." There have also been
a number of reactions going in the other direction-the implicit-I am
a woman not just a human being/ man-because women are better, sweeter,
nicer, kinder, more fluid, less linear (a kind of "boy scout"
position, so to speak. here there is a gap between ideology and practice).
But for the "human being, not woman" statement-- the rejection
of "Woman" is a time-honored position within feminism, not
outside it. This is because the person's saying "I am a person,
not a woman" has seen, even dimly, some disability and hampering
attached to the social meanings of "Woman"-and would love
to declare herself exempt. Who wants to be a woman, who thinks she is
a woman, a woman only, a woman all the time, a woman in every fiber?
(Read that Denise Riley passage again.) If I am going to hallucinate
"gender" in my cold trek through culture, let me at least
have freedom of visualization. Who is that third, fourth, fifth and
sixth who walks there beside you? Who doesn't now want female masculinity,
males' girlishness, feminine and effeminate texts and acts by males
as well as females, androgyny (hey there-lookin' GOOD, again); poets
embodying "malehood" (Olson's terms) or "spermhood"
(my phrase on Pound), butch straight girls, male lesbians, matri-sexual
persons; who doesn't want an array of subjectivities in their studios,
engaging in what they imagine is "self-fashioning"?
How, under these plural conditions of subjectivity, could we not want
"women-as-just-persons" among them?
This is (I think!) what Alice Notley says in 1980 in her wonderful
essay Dr. Williams' Heiresses (Tuumba, 1980). Notice how many
contradictory, or unfinished positions on this subject she squeezes
into her apparently innocent prose: "I'm not all that interested
in being a woman, it's just a practical problem that you deal with when
you write poems. You do have to deal with the problem of who you are
so that you can be a person talking." [np, circa "p. 12"]
Is she or isn't she holding for issues affecting women here? for woman-poet?
for just-poet, no gender? The first sentence-it's a practical problem,
one expected to finish with the statement-when you go out on the street
and get harassed, or when you want more money on the job. What does
it mean not being interested in being a woman if you are one-the way
you used to have to dress? or some issues of ideological expectations,
perhaps, whether internal or external? What is the practical
problem of being a woman when you write poems? Isn't the practical act
of writing gender-neutral? Or do we want to talk about interruption,
domestic life and so forth. In what sense is being a woman "who
you are"? This seems an interesting acknowledging of the force
of woman-poet issues, even as they are somewhat shrugged away as an
But maybe Denise Riley's wily temporalities operate here too-that is,
sometimes a verse-writing female-person inhabits the position "woman
poet" and sometimes not. In an interview with Ed Foster (Talisman
13 [Fall 1994/Winter 1995], 76), Anne Waldman precisely illustrates
this-the strategic shifts around gender position, for within the space
of a half page, she says the following things-not contradictory, exactly,
but taking up different emphases and different temporalities within
the "feminist poet"/ "woman poet" /"not"
set of variables. 1) "the information I'm providing in this roundtable
discussion is not bound by gender" One would imagine it is not.
But there are issues in reception based on gender; sometimes when women
speak they have less authority. Or sometimes, people take their words
as being authoritative only when they speak on "gendered"
(minor) things-ok to talk on the snack for kindergarten, not ok to talk
about nuclear disarmament. In this caveat, Waldman acknowledges the
force of assumptions about gender power. 2) (about Jena Osman/ Juliana
Spahr's journal Chain): "Well, this is a group of very strong
women who feel that there are stories that need to be told and possibly
wouldn't get told unless there was a specific forum foregrounding women
and their experience." That is exactly and precisely the kind of
thing another person would have said about twenty years earlier about
Chrysalis or Calyx or Heresies. 3) Yet she goes
on to say, also about Chain: "If it were just a magazine of women
writing about being women, it would be like other soapbox feminist magazines
and, by definition, limited." This notably unappreciative remark
is a rejection of feminist issues spoken in poetry while paradoxically
using the "untold stories" argument that was perfected by
those interested in feminist cultural critique. Soapbox is a curious
word for Waldman to have used, since she accepts and champions an energetic
politicized chant-rant poetry; indeed, she herself has produced enormous
jeremiads and-not so much on gender-"soapbox" declamatory
poems. So is it simply that declamation on any topic except gender is
acceptable, but gender is not? This is an issue to reconsider. 4) "I
think you naturally write out of your gender at times. It's one of the
energy sources." Naturally, indeed. What does "natural"
mean in this problematized setting? And later in the same piece (p.
78), her closing remark 5) "I think bisexuality is the actual mental
Arcade 11. Oh, to be judged and appreciated as a person, not a woman,
with all the assumptions that might entail. Wouldn't that be lovely?
Maybe. Since men and women have different social and cultural positions,
whose standard will we be using when we discuss the female of the species
as persons? What is "universal" in this instance? Whose criteria?
Who controls them? (This is a statement from "difference"
feminism.) To want simple equality! to want simply to be judged as a
person! Wasn't that all Mary Wollstonecraft asked for, too? To yearn
for the unmarked category.
A better response, in my view, is to mark the male-the formerly unmarked
category-and make analytic sport of gendering in the cultural arena
for both genders. This position mandates the end of any unmarked, universalizing
category with its unspoken powers.
"In proposing gender as a basic problem and an essential category
in cultural and historical analysis, feminists have recast the issue
of women's relative identity as equally an issue for men, who, upon
ceasing to be mankind, become, precisely, men. Thus gender has emerged
as a problem that is always implicit in any work." Myra Jehlen,
"Gender." In Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed.
Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. University of Chicago Press,
You ask, at the end of your piece, "what now?" and one answer
is more gender studies more more more, including (what has already begun)
gender studies of male figures, masculinity, male privilege, the varieties
of male formation. Historicizing forms of manhood, ideologies of masculinity.
No longer can "men" function as the unchanging flat backboard
against which feminist balls get lobbed. This work is "feminist"
in its sources and implications; it is politically and intellectually
crucial work. I can think of Gail Bederman, Peter Middleton, Michael
Davidson ("Compulsory Homosociality: Charles Olson, Jack Spicer,
and the Gender of Poetics," in Cruising the Performative,
eds. Case, Brett, Foster, 1995), Kaja Silverman's work, some part of
my new book (Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures); Libbie
Rifkin's study of gender and the poetic career (Career Moves),
unpublished work by Andrew Mossin and Eric Keenaghan. I can think of
dialectics of gender-male and female together (as in Barrett Watten's
essay on Hettie Jones in Poetics Journal 10). I can think of
the notable article by David Buuck in Tripwire 3, that uses both
male and female critics and poets to explore: "how masculinist
privilege remains a deeply embedded problematic for any attempt to further
a political and aesthetic praxis that-ideally-would work against (and
not simultaneously benefit from) any such privilege." [Tripwire
3 (Summer 1999], 30.)"Malehood" is a new frontier-of feminist
thinking. Doing all the things one did with women, with men, too.
This is complicated work, for the dangers of apologetics are manifold.
Also, the dangers of taking attention away from women and the art work
of women-this is probably the deepest danger and would need to be explicitly
addressed and individually solved by anyone doing this work. To say
the least, such work must self-consciously position itself as deeply
rooted in feminist, gay/queer, and gender-inflected thought. So there
is no doubt that we need as assiduous and politically-acute, deconstructive,
skeptical and suspicious analysis of "male positions" as of
Arcade 12. Of course feminism began, and usually begins again, precisely
with personhood in mind-the refusal of the ideological burdens of being
lumped with all those droopy "women," the sense of specialness,
the horror-and shame, too, of being so mired. Look at the ambivalences
of Simone de Beauvoir. (Just as feminism usually begins to be a little
suspect when women are recommodified-c'mon, girls, you can wear nail
polish and do swimsuit issues and be cute, and be powerful too! Why
this is-our "flapper" moment after our "suffrage"victory--I
am not totally certain, but commodification might be key. Leading to
questions of where power really lies, what and who are hegemonic.)
But quickly, this painful feminism of dis-identification turns to find
what gets analytically dumped on women-and proceeds to get angry in
the name of all women (perhaps that was over-identification). To turn
to female writers, for example: there are plenty of women writers whose
gender basically controlled all the things critics said about them.
All this has been well documented in an early article by Elaine Showalter
(in the Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran anthology Woman in Sexist
Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, 1971) tracking the
reviews of nineteenth century women writers, and it was complemented
by an earlier, but parallel witty polemic by Mary Ellmann (Thinking
about Women, 1968) on the critical flyting of twentieth century
women writers. I can think of an incisive chapter by Svetlana Boym (in
Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet,
1991) about the poetess-the contradictory mix of excess and lack bespoken
by critics constructing any woman poet as a poetess, and the woman poet's
sometimes acceding: her fate is that subjectivity. (What does "self-fashioning"
mean under the regimes of gender?)
So I guess, historically, I see moments of painful, self-conscious
dis-identification ("I am not a woman like those other women")
("I am not a feminist, but
") as the seed-bed for new
efflorescence of gender-progressive thought.
This individualist personhood is what Dora Marsden was doing in 1913
with the Egoist-meaning not narcissist but individualist. And
no longer a "free woman" but a "free person"-precisely
the "I am not a woman but a person; I am not a feminist writer
but a writer" that we have been discussing. My words (ventriloquizing
Marsden's position, not my own) were "feminism, o that old thing."
Then you later cited (my paraphrase of) Marsden's curious corollary:
"Now women can forge ahead. The burden of proof is one you. So
write, women, write!" (Pink Guitar, 45) This kind of statement
reveals that there is still a mark or stain of gender-women have something
"to prove." BTW, I didn't say that last thing in my voice
either-it's not the kind of cheer that I would enact (in my little cheerleader's
uniform) nor dispense as advice. I was being ironic about (as you say)
"what such an invitation commands"-but it is the position
of the Egoist, that important modernist journal -that there are
no groups, only individuals. Historically, one would have to see this
as originating in an internecine struggle inside feminism, between social
purity and sex radical positions, a struggle which, as the journal's
Egoist incarnation took shape, rapidly became an objectively a-feminist
position, disinterested in affiliation with any group. (If this interests
you, take a look at the "Seismic Orgasm'" chapter in Genders,
Races, and Religious Cultures, 2001, at Janet Lyon's superior book
Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern, 1999, and at Bruce Clarke's
incisive Dora Marsden and Early Modernism, 1996.)
In the cultural sphere, to say, right now, "I am not a feminist
poet" can mean (and imply) a lot of things. Some of those things
are contradictory, and some of those things are shorthand for debates
and historically attested events that are being alluded to or summed
up. In simple, it is part of an attack on hegemonic mainstream poetic
practices, thematic rectitudes, and stylistic markers without necessarily
seeing why people engaged with them. On the other hand a lot of wonderful
work in poetry has been done by people who might well accede to feminism
as a political and social demand for gender justice, but who might not
particularly engage with the "women's poetry movement," as
Alicia Ostriker names it in Stealing the Language, 1986. One
might rather like equal pay for equal work (certainly one would not
reject that demand, nor affordable decent child care, nor research on
health issues affecting women mainly, like breast cancer), and not like
every single poem in Rising Tides or No More Masks!, etc.
I actually prefer agnosticism about the feminism of production. I don't
think women writers need be feminist; I certainly don't think
they all need conform to my idea of feminism.(Lucky that-since they
don't and won't!) It's enough that they found their way to writing and
that I have the benefit of their careers and can watch, appreciate,
respond to their struggles, struggles conscious or occluded, with gender
and with other positions. I want them to write, women, write (!) in
an exploratory, serious and roused way.
Arcade 13. Feminist poet. It is always valuable to try to slow down
somewhat and to articulate what the content of that phrase is. Saying
this implies that there is a well-understood entity denominated "feminist
poet," but like any such entity ("objectivist poet";
"New York School poet"), it is only as good as the family
resemblances extrapolated from a field of examples that you yourself
have assembled (or that someone else has assembled, but you are agreeing
Here's a little incomplete list of possibilities, some quite contradictory:
Feminist poet=one who talks a lot about gender and sexuality in her/his
work. No, wait-that would be lots of poets--Olson, Williams. So try-a
poet who marks the constructedness of gender and sexuality in her/his
work, takes gender as an ideology about male- and femaleness and wants
to investigate, to critique, not simply to benefit.
Feminist poet=woman poet
Feminist poet=woman poet consumed (studied, read, appreciated) under
the regime of or in the economy of feminist perspectives, whether or
not she is a feminist. One might want a different term for this-see
the note on "feminist reception" below.
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who has certain themes in her work, themes
(tautologically?) agreed upon as feminist. These themes-Alicia Ostriker
names a number: self-division, anger, investigation of myth, assertion
of the female body-are very palpable, valuable ways of organizing poetic
texts, but have the flaws of their formulizable virtues: of being reductive
or making the poem one-dimensional.
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who writes poems about the liberation of
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who resists stereotypes of women-in her life?
in her work? both?
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who resists stereotypes of women and men-again-where?
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who comments on gender issues in her critical
work, who thinks about gender in the cultural field
Feminist poet=woman poet whose work is selectively seen, certain materials
heavily valorized because of the existence of feminist criticism and
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who takes certain themes of "difference"
involving women's experiences -menarche, menstruation, childbirth, kid
life, sexisms experienced, rape, incest--as central subject matter (some
of these topics are not exclusive to women)
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who tells the truth about her life as a woman.
And with that verbal emphasis on truth and the unmediated communication
of experience, one also might want to investigate the word "tells"
or representation. As Margaret Homans so presciently said about Rukeyser's
rousing manifesto "No more masks!": "Lines like Rukeyser's
and the expressions of faith derived from them are always exhortatory,
never descriptive, because to speak without a mask is an impossibility,
for men and for women
." (Women Writers and Poetic Identity,
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who used to be called a poetess
Feminist poet=[woman] poet in a certain anthology (like No More Masks!)
Feminist poet= poet who destabilizes the normative terms of gender/sexuality
and makes some kind of critique of those issues in her/his poems. This
is closing in on the word "queer" as synonym for "feminist"
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who refuses (self-censors) certain themes
or solutions, certain images or insights because they do not explore
or lead, in her view, to the liberation of women
Feminist poet= [woman] poet who calls explicit attention to the relative
powerlessness of women and the relative power of men-or who exaggerates
this positionality into female powerlessness, male power in all cases.
Feminist poet=[woman] poet historically coming to her production in
some relation to the liberation of women, and to the cultural critique
of female exclusions made by feminism in general
Feminist poet=[woman] poet writing something "politically involved
delicious to talk about, unpredictable" (to cite the Belladonna
formulation from Rachel Levitsky)
Feminist poet=[woman] poet affronting the complexities of sexuality,
eroticism, desire, odi et amo, frank and startling, decorum breaking
(like Dodie Bellamy or Leslie Scalapino)
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who investigates language, narrative, genre
and representation in its ways of constructing gender and gender roles.
This is Kathleen Fraser's argument: "I recognized a structural
order of fragmentation and resistance" that was anti-patriarchal;
her argument for the crucial intervention of formally innovative and
investigative poetry into a feminist field in Translating the Unspeakable:
Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, 2000)
Feminist poet=a person who is a feminist, and who also writes poetry
Feminist poet= angry woman, writing poetry
Feminist poet= ironic woman, writing poetry
Feminist poet=[woman] poet who is "disobedient" (Alice Notley's
term for herself); transgressive (like Carla Harryman); "resistant"
(my term about myself); imbuing knowing with its investigative situatedness
(like Lyn Hejinian's "La Faustienne") in full knowledge of
Feminist poet=a poet radically skeptical about gender ideas and arrangements
in a culture
Feminist poet=a poet who knows what she thinks about gender ideas and
arrangements in a culture and does not particularly change her mind
Feminist poet= a poet who sometimes shows herself to be ironic and skeptical
about gender and sexual arrangements, but other times is not, or not
Feminist poet=a woman protesting the place of woman in culture and society
(in her poetry? not in her poetry? I didn't say)
Feminist poet=one who finds herself "mounting an enormous struggle"
within culture, including poetry, because of its deeply constitutive
From that contradictory, jubilant and annoying list, there's sure a
lot to choose (and you might want to suggest still more options). Feminism
in poetry is absolutely not one position. Indeed, one might say that
feminism will circulate among, or manifest itself as a number of somewhat
alternative positions. Further-remember-these might be inflected with:
Difference (women are really different from men; have their own life-themes)
(Some women are really different from each other). Androgyny/ mental
bisexuality (best person is fused genders in some way). Rights/ sameness
(equality of access, of laws, of treatment, generally). Transcendence
(have gender but transcend it-it does not play in the realm where writing
is made). Queering (breaking the binarist gender norm; eroding the social
and aesthetic forms that depend on binarist hierarchies) Just speaking
personally, I've probably been in or around all five positions.
And there will always be a woman poet who may right now be wishing
there were no such thing as gender. (Could there be a male poet
so passionate on this topic? Think of how their investments differ.)
Seems unrealistic, but who can blame her. One might see the position
as a Blue Studio-as utopian, not as dismissive.
Arcade 14. A lot of the above list is implicitly about production.
That is-to define feminism in poetry, many people have settled upon
a feminism of production: having the poem "come forth" as
a "statement" that shows certain "ideas" or "themes"
and their "rightness." What indeed is the "role"
of ideas or the delivery of knowledge in poetry? So we are here; this
much debated issue, another one that isn't going to get solved. It is
impossible to hold that ideas and knowledge do not occur in poetry explicitly:
Dante? Milton? Blake? Ginsberg? Lucretius? or implicitly: Niedecker?
Wordsworth? Or both: Yeats? Oppen? I'd even have tried to say ideas
are best if the reader only surmises them-that is, if the writer has
carefully hidden them-but that cuts out Dante and Milton. Whoops. A
nice correct thing to say here is that it's all about subtle thought,
faceted thought. That tends to leave out Pound in certain moods, Eliot
in other moods, Swift, etc. So it's not only about subtle thought-poetry
can sometimes be about very crude thought. Well, there's always persona
theory to work through-who is really "speaking" these ideas
and did s/he really "mean" it?
Ideas in poetry and nothing else gives you a poem that is "an
example of" something-of a certain position. This is not terrible,
but it doesn't necessarily give more than a sermonizing rhetoric, something
to swing to. I've always preferred essay to sermon (sez I smugly-well,
you know that I do.).We want the evocative! the porous! the subtle!
the imbeddings in language! but I am having a hell of a time defining
it. I think it is about conviction that happens inside language within
the deepest sensations of language and structure. I think, personally,
that poetry should not be bits of tidy patness, embodying thoughts good
for me, in poetry. In part this is a manipulative and "rhetorical"
use of poetry-someone has in her mind to convince me of something, out
of her (or his) benevolence. Let there be one genre that does not Sell
Me Something, that does not Condescend to me, that does not Teach me-please!
That is, a poetry of meditation, of thinking as praxis, that compels
the language to offer up all its resources of play. Let there be one
genre that thinks its thinking, and is not a pill or message I am being
forced to take! A lot of poetry that uses ideas is really like a fancy
glossy advertisement in an upscale catalog. Pottery Barn Poetry. That's
what I am arguing against. Didacticism dressed up in attractive language.
"We write to find what we believe and what we do not believe:
there are things we believe or want to believe or think we believe that
will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem,"
said George Oppen (Sagetrieb 3, 3 [Winter 1984], 26).
Message-bearing poetry where the message has been fixed beforehand,
not tested in the acts of language, will make me, as a reader, fly away
in the other direction and hide in the eaves. One might then subscribe
to the loosely projectivist idea of discovering content/as form and
form/as content in the act of writing, or in the practice of writing.
This is my position. But I can't be naïve as all that. I know damned
well that poetry is full of ideas and positions that preceded the writing
of any particular poem. Olson wants to convince me of Jung, and so does
Rich at a certain point. Baraka wants me to face racism and my race
privilege. Hopkins wants to show me the power of his Christian witness
and struggles. H.D. wants me to see the mother matrix under Graeco-Roman-Christian
culture, whose occlusion has created our cultural and psychic problems
even unto war. These people have ideas, and they don't put the ideas
aside when they write. So what am I talking about? Is it that the ideas
are enacted or performed in language, as if discovered anew in language
and structure, inside all the means and mechanisms of poetry? Yes, something
like this. As if the language discovers that these ideas are "right"-right
for this poem, right here, right now. The poet forgets and then remembers.
The reader may remain agnostic, or entranced.
Is it the old "they shouldn't have "designs" on me?
Sort of, but sort of not. I seem to have just said this-am I taking
it back now? But how is that possible-don't the writers embody their
conviction? What's wrong with, say, Susan Griffin having a few designs
on me (in Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her), making me
think certain gender ideas or reminding me to be uplifted or critical?
What is wrong with Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette having
plenty of smart designs on the reader about tyranny, about the internalization
of ideology, about the collapse of society, about some male privilege,
some male pain and female quest? The poem even, drastically, accepts
the necessity of well-managed spiritually engaged assassination to "kill"
the tyrant inside and outside and thus to liberate those trapped on
the subway. If this isn't a feminist poem of ideas-what is?
I think that the poem I want is the poet's real struggle on the page
inside language, inside poetic traditions, inside ideas, inside her
time and place, and not the packaging of "fake struggle" set
forth either to edify and patronize the reader or narcissistically to
embellish the poet.
After all, a test case of "ideas" in poetry is Christianity
in Poetry. I mean Herbert, Donne, Milton, Hopkins, the later Eliot-the
whole panoply of practitioners whose poetry is absolutely in an idea
frame, a whole mythology and set of allusions, a closural, telelological
loft ("My God! My King!" kind of ending). I can't not deal
with it-it is one central formula of the History of Anglo-American Poetry.
Indeed, I see it as an effective mythopoetic tradition, like Greek myths,
but telling a different story. What's then wrong with contemporary feminist
mythologies and thematizing? Just that it has no churches? (Believe
me-I am not calling for this!) Just that it is not as hegemonic as Christianity?
Perhaps criticizing awkwardly correct feminist poetry is making women
pay the price for the non-hegemony of their gender insights. Or maybe
it's just picking out bad examples of period style and saying "oh
pooh on that" while ignoring dim examples of period style that
are less radical in opinion. Or maybe it's criticizing feminism for
acting as if it is Christianity-or any teleological religion, always
potentially sanctimonious, and filled with the Right Knowledge of Correct
Paths to Salvation.
But all of this is why I do NOT want a "feminism of production"
to be taken as the central cultural act performed by feminists and their
intellectual kin. I am enough of a liberal and civil libertarian to
resist obdurately anyone telling me (or strongly implying to me) how
to write in the correct period-style, what to write, and what formal
or linguistic solutions to come up with, what themes are acceptable,
and what moves to make with an eye to making rules and boundaries for
expression. And I am not fond of anyone's implying that radical poetics
are the only route to salvation, either. Any fixed concept of Salvation
serving as an inflexible structure of feeling is the problem.
If feminism is someone telling me, you, her or him how and what to
write-this is emphatically a problem in the cultural field. And insofar
as "feminism" has done this, it deserves to be criticized.
BUT it does not, however, deserve to be treated as if it were the only
set of conventions trying to impose themselves (and be imposing) in
a cultural field. Indeed, a newer, rawer ideology or praxis upthrust
or fissuring through the accepted is much more visible than the "Old
Mountain" of Ideologies that have Always (oh yes, and Already)
been "there" and are so scrunched in your cells and your landscapes
that you don't feel them, see them, or acknowledge their telling you
what to do, what to write, how to make it all come out. That's just
called "good writing." Now think of The Four Quartets.
When people complain about the quick and sketchy invention of a set
of conventions made by writers calling themselves feminist, they need
a quick and sketchy dose of understanding how conventions occur-have
always occurred-- as historical formations out of cultural practices.
Arcade 15. This is why I am agnostic about the feminism of production,
but want to say a VERY strong positive word for the feminism of reception.
What does this mean? To maintain feminist (that is, gender-alert) RECEPTION
is crucial, not to insist that certain forms, styles, strategies, subjectivities,
themes are more female, feminine, male, masculine, gay, straight, queer
on the level of production. The feminism of reception
means a high level of analysis making legible gender materials and the
materials of other social matrices, and showing a subtle alertness to
the play of gender (plus) and its deep structures, in culture, everywhere.
Gender-alert, materialist-inflected reception is interested in
the discussion of social location not only of artists, but of genres,
discourses, images, textualities, ideologies, communities. Feminist
reception demands that everything that has been written needs multiple
modes of gender analysis. Feminist cultural poetics has, to date, primarily
engaged itself with female subjectivity and female agency,
but with the tools developed from this phase of feminist thinking, one
can begin to talk about male subjectivities and agency. Thinking about
gendered subjectivities, performative genderings, styles of femaleness
or maleness, sexualities as represented in artworks, thinking about
ideological attitudes to gender of any individual author are all modal
moves within the feminism of reception.
Note-I am not calling for "feminine reception," as Terence
Diggory called my position in his introduction to The Scene of My
Selves: New Work on New York School Poets (National Poetry Foundation,
2000) in which the title of my article is "The Gendered Marvelous:
Barbara Guest, Surrealism, and Feminist Reception." That slip of
the pen ("feminine reception") is his little accident within
ideology. A metonymic posy from Reception = Receptivity = Femininity=
Note-the "feminism of reception" will be continuously alert
to the issue of erasure. As Elizabeth Treadwell points out in Tripwire
4, "The problem of erasure is everreal. It is never, I've found,
that women weren't there [in literature], but that they were there and
it takes us forever to re-figure it out." And later: "Those
of us who find ourselves figured as Other-in whatever era, in whatever
way: We are never silent to ourselves." Tripwire 4 (A Letter
to the Editor), Winter 2000-01, 180, 181.
But this "feminism of reception" will try to position the
recovery of women artists as events in the general history of literature,
not solely or narrowly as an act for women. (This point from David Buuck,
Tripwire 3, 31)
Arcade 16. Since "feminism" changed the cultural landscape,
willy nilly, there are plenty of people who are indifferent to "feminism"
and agnostic about "women," but who have become, as you suggest,
a poetic "nexus." This idea that you've enunciated is a very
important one. Dare one say a "feminist" nexus, taking "feminism"
to be an act in reception, not production-that is a "nexus"
read under the influence of feminism, a reading strategy that has allowed
us to become very very curious about the ways women poets have negotiated
their gender, within their writing and their poetic careers? "Feminist
nexus"? A number of those involved might not agree with that phrase.
"Gender-inflected nexus"-means a lot of very interesting women
writing each other and reading each other, but the phrase is dim and
jargon-esque. "Women's Nexus"? Well, nexus is a key word,
anyway. As Peter Quartermain and I said about The Objectivist Nexus
(University of Alabama Press, 1999)-the participants didn't have to
agree; they didn't have to like each other, nor be a school nor sign
a manifesto-but they had to be engaged with each others' work for the
majority of their writing life. Their work was magnetized by the fact
that a certain rubric was set in motion; their work got involved with
certain historical responsibilities-in this case the pressure of feminist
thought and action. The writers kept reading each other, kept poking
at each others' ideas, engaged, even if annoyed at the turn some took
in relation to each other. The idea of "nexus" seems thoroughly
apropos, allowing for the fact that not one set of linked terms in one
seminal essay is the propellant (which was the case for the Objectivists).
In Zukofksy's 1931 essay, the terms are objectivist, sincerity, and
objectification in relation to the materialist political/cultural movement
of communism, socialism and the progressive left. For the "Female
Nexus," there are several terms and several waves of "originating"
interventions (around woman, gender, feminist, feminine-the latter as
in French theory) in relation to a materialist political/cultural movement
called second wave feminism. There does, indeed, seem to be a "Female
Nexus." Alice Notley has recently argued the same thing. In conversation,
she calls all the women writing in this period "the group without
a name." (I think she's said this in print too, but I can't find
it.) The critic Ann Vickery states: "We need a map of Language
writing as a field of rich and diverse feminisms"; she has gone
a long way towards providing a beginning. (Leaving Lines of Gender:
A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing, Wesleyan UP, 200, 50)
Her topic is clearly this "Female Nexus" (though it is also
specificially "Language"women and not a wider field of innovation).
Can one call this "feminine"? This writing, marked by a greater
allegiance to the post-structuralist rupture of humanisms, selfhood,
and identity, and marked by the influence of experimental modernisms
has, in some criticism, gone by the name "feminine." One might
thereupon have two attitudes-contradictory, of course. To call non-linear
structures, cross-generic experiment, collage, non-narrative play with
subjectivity, temporality, syntax-by the name of "feminine"
follows "French feminism" of Cixous and Irigaray. One could
nod approvingly, as does Joan Rettallack in her article in Feminist
Measures, accepting the word "it is the women (among experimental
poets) who-for the first time in large numbers using "feminine"
formal processes-are presenting us with our strongest, most challenging
models of literary feminisms" because they actively explore multiplicity,
unintelligibility, the "articulation of silence" and so on.375
Also, following Irigaray, the feminine is the principle of the transgressive,
and that which resists univeralisms of all sorts (346). So the female
use of the feminine is especially striking for Retallack; she calls
it the poethical. Her eponymous punning other, Genre Tallique says "
Feminist writing occurs only when female writers use feminine forms"
359, mainly because Tallique is overly concerned to avoid "the
feminism of polemic"(359 bottom) (That means that no man could
ever write a feminist work, even in feminine forms; this is a polemic
argument that is, in fact, quite exclusionary).
Or one could dissent, uncooperatively, both from the original denomination
of the term feminine by Cixous and Irigaray-in my opinion they both
mean something like "ecriture bisexuelle" (essay on the essay)
and because the term feminine is too mixed up with its destructive elements,
at least for someone brought up in the 50s. If one wants to say transgressive,
resistant, anti-hegemonic, why not do so in as many words? And why not
call this transgression of women and about women's position in society
"feminism"? Why not be able to analyze just where Bram Stoker
or D.H. Lawrence was feminist and just where each could not go further
and became self-compromising and politically retrograde? One would,
of course, have to broaden this term as applying to forms of female
resistance in cultural products. I am not sure, but it appears that
Retallack wants to resist the term feminism as tainted (presumably by
Alicia Ostriker and other pioneers), while I want to resist the term
feminine as tainted.
Go to p. 245 of American Literary History.
Of course, as soon as this attack on the term "feminine"
is complete, I find this citation from Cixous's "Castration or
Decapitation" (1981. Signs): "A feminine textual body is recognized
by the fact that it is always endless, without ending: there's no closure,
it doesn't stop, and it's this that mat very often makes the feminine
text difficult to read.
a feminine text starts on all sides at
once, starts twenty times, thirty times, over" and I am so attracted
to this that the whole subject is open again. Probably one cannot use
the term feminine without at least acknowledging that we are not talking
about a stylistic marker here, but about a relationship to the body
of the mother-the feminine as access to the preoedipal desire. Another
tonality, other voices, the mishegoss on the page. So in that sense,
what does it mean that I write feminine texts but do not want to acknowledge
them as such? Am I denying the body of the mother and my desire. or
am I expressing ecriture bisexuelle, the struggle on the page between
the mother and the father tones, modes, authorities.
What is this Female Nexus? It's the "polygynous" (post patriarchal?)
poetries within the years of, just after, and in some cases parallel
to the women's poetry movement and the feminist political movement-and
I use polygynous precisely to suggest the Kristevean polylogue, the
radical poetics of this group of writers. But historically, I would
factor in the propulsion from both the feminist movement in culture
and analysis and theory and "the women's poetry movement"
as an as-yet under-acknowledged spur. Some of the most fruitful moments
of women poets' exchanges on these issues came during the twenty-plus
years from the 1980s to the present under the rubric of "innovative"--when
at least multiple sets of women writers were engaged, at least sporadically,
in utopian projects, in their own Blue Studios--to examine what the
regime of gender-marking gave to culture and to see what the economy
of gender-investments gave. A tremendous number of fruitful cross-fertilizations
have emerged in the past two decades--kind of like everyone going into
the Tunnel of Love and coming out with different people's lipstick smudged
on them, and smudging in return. This has indeed been a very merry and
lively moment. There have also been those travelling, at times, through
opposite tunnels-tunnels of annoyance and ambivalence, of rage and suspicion.
But being in a nexus does not demand assent (see Oppen vs. Zukofsky);
it simply demands attentiveness, fixation, sureness that these poets
must be read. This "nexus" moment of great significance to
the consolidation of innovative women's writing as a practice is perhaps
best represented by Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders anthology
(Talisman House, Publishers, 1998). But the Female Nexus came into being
as a "nexus" both in linkages between coterie formations (St
Mark's; early Language; HOW(ever), ) but also in relation to
the "women's poetry movement" and the French feminist theory
interventions by which some of its work is marked (some of this is Vickery,
some is not).
Arcade 17. A moment of silence. For the women who jumped from windows,
away from the blue.
Arcade 18. If you are impatient with other women for having to go over
that ground again and again ("the same old arguments simply recirculated
/ regenerated or, even worse, left to stagnate") and then, if you
say that you didn't "fully understand [at one point in your own
life] that my own thinking might be considered 'feminist,'" take
a look at what you've said! These two statements construct a great generative
contradiction (saying 2 opposite things, A and not-A) from which you
might make a number of surmises and dialectical resolutions. One might
be patience with the positions of others. Though I know it is hard to
be that which is called, and calls itself feminist. You can become a
lighting rod for many a free floating electric strike. But if you were
once "not" (not quite) willing to say feminist about yourself,
you might see others the same way. Perhaps they will become your allies
in a little more time. And/or you might also allow that you could change
and not want to call yourself feminist. Though this seems unlikely.
Arcade 19. Can one be a political feminist-committed to gender justice,
to resisting (as possible) hierarchies and inequalities based on gender,
privileges and constrictions in the social and economic realm AND also
be a cultural agnostic, demanding the interest of complexity? Can one
admire Olson's projects and his omnivorous claims, and resist a lot-almost
all-- of his gender politics? Can one encourage women to talk in class
when they often hold back, and then listen to them present mushy, even
ridiculous opinions about issues you hold dear? Can you protect the
right of a male student with an even higher sense of entitlement to
say even worse, stupid things? Of course. You can also outline the terms
of debates in all cases, the reasons people might want to rethink this
or that. Can one be rigorous and empathetic? Anti-simplistic, but with
clean lines; Can one illustrate opacity and confirm clarity at one and
the same time? You'd better believe it.
Tell her "she"
Tell her "her"
tell her what
Arcade 20 This exchange dates from 1978. "Anne Waldman: I was
talking to Diane di Prima last week and she said that so many of the
talented women of that time and place (New York City or San Francisco
in the fifties) who could've blossomed, didn't because they were uninformed.
They just weren't getting the information from the so-called master
and male poets." Note the particularity of "uninformed"-
translated as-what? out of the loop? excluded? too identified with that
particular loop and unwilling to bond with other women? needing the
male to shepherd, chaperone, and otherwise connect you to the scene-not
allowed to connect yourself.
"Ted Berrigan: They didn't know how to convert this male information
to female value.
But it was true, it wasn't a very good time
From an interview by Anne Waldman & Jim Cohn of Ted Berrigan (August
In Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan. Ed. Anne Waldman.
Coffee House Press, 1991, 107.
Note how the flaw has passed from men's not including/ informing women
(that is, from clubbiness and exclusivity) to women not able to convert
whatever information they were getting. This is a slide from being a
"men's problem" or a problem between men and women to being
solely a "women's problem." Notice the statement of difference-male
information must get converted to female value, in order to be useful
to women. I am not saying he's wrong or right (women might feel enabled
by at least having a place of difference in this array); I'm just looking
at the structure of feeling. There are no "just human" people
here; these are definitely gendered folks, acting in ways rather sharply
differentiated by gender. Note how, after a little material that I cut
(not on this subject) the subject of women's exclusion comes back, the
return of the repressed. "It wasn't a very good time for women"-a
firm litotes. Not only a pensive understatement, but also another glissade-why
is such a situation "not a very good time for men and women"?
Why indeed. The answer is in ideology: women are women's problems. Men's
attitudes are women's problems. Women are the repository of everyone's
"gender problems," and they are the synecdochic marker for
such problems. Men, presumably, do not have gender problems; they are
neither responsible for such problems nor do they have any agency in
facing the issues.
Time for the wake up call-do we want it to revert to not "being
a very good time for women"?
"Rise up paginal" says Anne Waldman (Iovis I, 187)
vaginal page, erect
page in service apprenticed to culture
in the Blue Studio
Arcade 21. So, you ask, am I a feminist poet? The easiest answer is
yes. But in fact, only in certain ways. Only by certain of the criteria,
above. I would resist some of the others. An easier question is, am
I part of the Female Nexus. There the answer is emphatically yes.
I am certainly a feminist who is a poet. I have had some feminist projects
in poetry, notably the revisionary myth poems "Eurydice" and
"Medusa," in Wells and "Crowbar," in Tabula
Rosa. "Crowbar" is a work that angrily and thrillingly
takes on the voice of the "Lady" in trobar clus poetry,
but she uses a language crowbar to pry up and resist ideology about
female figures. It's both overtly feminist and verbally tricky, radical
and elegant. ("Crowbar" is my anthology piece, Susan Howe
once winningly told me, but it was never in the anthologies it should
have been in. It, and the poem "Writing" are works of significant
leverage and turn in my writing.) My current project is inflected with
gender resistance to some of the "scripts" or ideologies of
poetry as an institution. I'd say, to cite Arcade13, that I have found
myself "mounting an enormous struggle" within culture, including
poetry, because of its deeply constitutive gender ideas.
My long poem Drafts has been going on since about 1985-86-so
2001 makes them 15 or 16 years old. I am rounding into having written
about 47 of them (an average of 3 per year-this statistic is mildly
interesting to me-I am curious about all the little functional details
and deep positional feelings of writing a long poem). The feeling of
doing this work is sublime: it is a readied, incorporative, flexible,
and open form, that is also a grid of relationships. As you know Wesleyan
is bringing out Drafts 1-38, Toll in just a few months (October
2001), and I am composing the next group of nineteen (the next "fold"),
Drafts 39-57. Drafts is poetry that at the same time as it reaches
deeply and saturatedly into poetic traditions of all kinds, wants enormously
to resist "poetry" and to reconfigure what it can do, how
it is regarded, and what its scope and meanings are. I really want to
write (as Oppen did) a poetry of critique. Of driven, stricken skepticism.
This is a large thing to say, and thinking the poem will be judged and
read against this kind of statement makes me---not frightened, but happy.
Arcade 22. My poetry has been a way, for a long time, of thinking about
gender. But some of these thoughts are registered indirectly. Thus-generally
I work with gender not directly through statement and image and theme
(though sometimes I do), but obliquely through consideration of the
constitutive structuring materials of any poetic text set in a critical,
responsive relationship to poetic tradition. For example, each of the
new poems that I am currently writing is dedicated to a specific person;
thus the works in Drafts 39-57 construct a variety of "I-you"
relations not typical of the power and gender ideas often expressed
in short lyrics, in which "I"/author has the power of the
word in relation to the "you"/listener, a generally female
figure. Instead, the poems create a varying inter-subjective space between
addressee and speaker. The creation of a "space of the between"
has a gender meaning in eroding the former I/you relations of poetry.
Feminist ideas about the position of women in discourse, conventions,
and culture, the works of certain male and female writers, and the position
of female figures inside poems are materials that I have examined throughout
my scholarly career; indeed, my critical work has helped to foreground
these issues. Some of the same concerns animate my poetry. I want consciously
to alter gender traditions that have been institutionalized as poetry
itself inside poems, often providing their climax, their justification,
their satisfactions. I mean such idea-embodiments as muse, female figures
and their relationship to language, poetess, male speakers/ female listeners
or recipients, poetry as transcendence of the real, even "feminine"
rhyme as lesser, light, comic, popular. With my poetry, as with my scholarship
and my essays, Pink Guitar-ish interventions, I want, essentially,
to change poetry and to change how poetry is understood.
Arcade 23. To name the whole work and its individual cantos "drafts"
is to make a statement about this praxis (alias, genre). I start from
the metaphoric presumption of provisionality--these poems are pretended
(and it is a generative and wonderful pretense) as "unfinished."
That means that none is perfect, iconic, static-something, as I just
said, that has gender meaning for me as a criticism of the uses of the
female/feminine in a good deal of the poetic tradition. As Drafts,
these poems are open to their own revision and disassembling. The interest
in having no stasis, having so much in any poem, having links and ties
to prior work in the series all ruptures the iconic. I desire to create
hybridity and mixed kinds of texts.
I am building a work that mimics memory, that plays with the textures
of memory, including its unexpectedness, its flashes, its fragmentations,
and its erasures. I do this emotional and thematic work in two main
formal and structural principles that help me construct memory formally,
and as well, help me formulate individual units within the grid-like
space in which this poem now takes shape. First, I create linkage by
randomly repeating lines and images throughout, a recontextualization
of materials and a building of traces that eventually gives the reader
the feeling of having heard it all before. This sense of déjà
vu is quite important to the main thematics of the work. This repetitive
repositioning of material goes with genre in that it suggests that any
one poem is only a "draft" of something else that is palpable
but unattainable. Second, the works are organized on a periodicity of
nineteen, with a structural idea I've called "the fold." Discovering
that I wanted to do this was a stroke of tremendous luck, in a poem
in which all the choices have been made on the ground, in the doing
of the act of writing. (Here an analogue is Robin Blaser's Image
Nations.) Beginning with "Draft 20: Incipit," each new
draft corresponds in some sensuous, formal, intellectual, allusive way
to a specific "donor" draft. This tactic creates a regular,
though widely spaced, recurrence among the poems, and a chained or meshed
linkage whose regularity is both predictable and suggestive, textured
with internal relationships, yet making the work malleable and porous.
So the poems hold together in a grid, something that has strong analogues
to contemporary art, but within that grid, there is elasticity and variation.
Both the tactic of randomized repetition--recurrence of lines, phrases,
situations, words--and the "folding" of one unit of nineteen
poems over another are ways of making the work act like a gigantic memory
These formal tactics make the already-written poems the "muses"
for the next work. Speaking, already spoken lines and words are muses
for the next poems. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. The structure
of repetition and folding makes related drafts stand as muses for themselves:
the poems already written are the muses for the unwritten. This short-circuits
the issue of the silent female muse-figure well-known in poetic tradition
but whose silence and semi-visibility are very problematic for actual
women writing, women like myself.
Arcade 24. Drafts responds thematically and structurally, in
texture and in conception, to memory and time. But the work wants to
resist the memorializing functions often ascribed to poetry, and especially
to lyric poetry. Drafts therefore undertakes the task of replicating
the open-ended displacements and random waywardness of memory, rather
than making an iconic object that eulogizes what is lost. Since these
iconic objects are both poems (in the extra-diegetic) and female figures
(inside the poem, in the diegetic)-the resistance to the iconic is in
a general and loose way based in a gender critique. This is, and I've
argued this before, my resistance to the "pure lyric hit"-that
narrow, lovely thing-a feminist resistance that sees that kind of poem
as working with deeply imbedded ideas about female and feminine. That
I've overstated this does not make the idea less powerful for myself.
My critique of lyric in my own mind can be organized more largely as
this kind of resistance: from W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn (New
Directions, 1998, 194). "at times it seems to me
as if all
works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely
of sugar." That is precisely the artwork I do not want to write.
Nor, mainly, do I want to consume anything like it when I read or see
There is no doubt that poly-interruptibility and a sense of multiple
vectors, the collaging of these, the play with "sequence of disclosure"
and rhythms of understanding mark my work in both poetry and the essay.
I have also made a serious gender critique of the "lyric tradition"
and want to encircle, rupture, torque, destabilize lyric poetry as such.
But, carefully (and with a little help from my friends-Hank Lazer and
Nathaniel Mackey), I do not reject "lyricism" or melody as
one effect built among many in a poem (sound, segmentivities, charms--though
I do emphatically reject the charming, the decorative, the pretty. I
have a principled resistance to "beauty" as a marker of verse,
a serious claim of dissent and resistance, but my creolizations are
not ignorant of beauty. Nor do I reject syntax as one means of directing
attention, the "sequence of disclosure"-in George Oppen's
wonderful phrase (Sagetrieb 3, 3 [Winter 1984], 26). I am fascinated
by the way syntax intersects with and interacts with any poetic line
or unit of segmentivity. I use sentence and fragment, argument
and disjunction, putting rapture next to rupture, so to speak. I want
the passion, sense of the ethics of writing synthesized with discursive
variability, and linguistic/ textual creolization.
Arcade 25. My critique of lyric in my own mind might also be articulated
under Theodor Adorno's famous "After Auschwitz to write [lyric]
poetry is barbaric."(Prisms, The MIT Press 1983, 34) (I
am strangely aware as I write this to you that your name is Barbara,
and you have been given some secret stake in this debate.) This complex
statement has had many midrashic glosses made upon it, as well it must.
Not the least are several by Adorno himself, some of which misquote
himself to deny that "after Auschwitz you could no longer write
poems." (See Negative Dialectics, 362, as cited by Lyn Hejinian
in The Language of Inquiry-for her midrash, see the essay "Barbarism"
[University of California Press, 2000]; but also see Shaping Losses:
Cultural Memory and the Holocaust, eds. Julia Epstein and Lori Hope
Lefkovitz; 204 has Julia Epstein's midrash [University of Illinois Press,
2001].) Of course, his emphasis is not so much on lyric but on the barbarous
and the barbarity of Shoah and the sheer inadequacy of any artwork in
the light of such a reality.
But in terms of the impact of this magisterial comment on praxis, here
is my particular midrash at this moment. I no longer write lyric poetry,
but am engaged in a complex and odic/ ex-odic heterogeneric work, resisting
"pretty poetry" and little poetry-this resistance, as I've
mentioned, being (for me) also feminist in origin. This makes a double
resistance to the lyric, or to the lyric only. This means something
about "genre"-or, to say it with a less static feeling, something
about the rubric under I currently put my praxis. There are, in all
the Drafts, "debris" and "fragment"--a formal
and an ethical issue coinciding. These words are used by the mid-century
German philosopher Walter Benjamin. One presiding presence in this work
is his angel of history, displaced in the storm blowing the angel backwards
into the future, while it is still staring stunned at events and their
unfixable detritus ("Theses on the Philosophy of History,"
Illuminations, Schocken Books, 1969).
I want in this light to mention that gender is not the only social
location for the subjectivity writing Drafts nor for the subjectivities
created in them. Curiously (to myself), quondam Jewishness-a very secular,
skeptical cultural Jewishness-is important. Thus I am haunted by moral
nightmare, ambiguities about authority, and the demand for awe made
by the Abraham and Isaac story, alluded to in "Draft 25: Segno"
and elsewhere. As is Unitedstateness, given the compromises and strange
estrangements of that global privilege. Thus I am being haunted, by
homelessness in "Draft 24: Gap," and the sense of moral or
ethical losses of community. I am haunted by the "outsider"
artist ("Draft 22: Philadelphia Wireman"), whose powerful
wire sculptures came close to being lost, thrown out with the trash.
As is a spiritual yearning and awe to which I do NOT give the name of
any existing (or future) religious formation or allegiance. Figured
too are the vastness of the universe and the littleness of the dot,
or letter, or self, something that appears in these works repeatedly,
as a pinhole, as "any bit of fleck along the crack" (in "Draft
24: Gap"), as the (smallest) Hebrew letter, "yod," and
in other guises. There is also a strange thing to say-the social privilege
and location of being alive and well enough to say all this, to say
anything I can in the time it takes, given the existence not of real
ghosts but of ghostly traces of those without most of this privilege.
I am haunted by the losses of many people in the holocausts of the twentieth
century, represented over and over in my work, for instance in the "hoops
of unforgiveable bone" in "Draft XXX: Fosse," in "ghosts
of ghosts at the open fosse" in "Draft 27: Athwart."
Many of these poems speak of the enormousness of the universe, and the
enormities of what has happened in our milky corner of it. These are
haunted poems, poems of commitment.
Begun 21 April 2001, completed 21 May 2001