Monday, March 31, 2008

Rachel, you've said that when you were starting out in poetry that you were, "Too feminist for the Objectivists, and too Objectivist for the feminists." I've heard similar things from other experimental women poets of your generation, like Alexandra Grilikhes for instance. When I first met Alexandra she was always complaining that she had to chop out her own patch in the feminist and gay and lesbian literary worlds. She also said that in many ways it was her defiance to write what she knew she wanted to and had to write that defined her, as much as it also strengthened her writing, this time of struggle.

It's always been odd to me that groups with radical, experimental forces at work to change culture and politics often can't seem to translate that energy to the poems. Dealing with the "Too Objectivist for the feminists," can you give us details to better make a window into that for us? I'm not asking you to repeat things you've already written, but if you could give us examples? That time period you're talking about was an important and exciting time in many ways, but this is a part of the story that never seems to get itself revealed.

I'm also of course hoping you cover what you mean by "Too feminist for the Objectivists," as this part of the statement makes me just as curious, frankly! Ever since hearing this I've wanted to know "what exactly happened back then?"

There are so many elements mixed into this question that it is hard to know where to begin. So this is going to be a really long answer. One non-personal thing to say first is that desires to change culture and politics often get mapped onto languages and conventions that already exist. This, sometimes, for the sake of "efficiency" or even "communicability." Like the joke about socialist realism—instead of boy meets girl, it's boy meets tractor. But some structure of feeling remains—"boy meets…" hasn't changed; the romance hasn't changed. Just the object has changed. This kind of syncretism is both powerful and absorptive (like Catholicism assimilating pagan and polytheistic holidays and materials), but it may mean that fundamental structures of genre, language, convention are not destabilized or restructured but just undergo point-for-point substitution. That's why a person can't assume that political radicalism means or implies literary radicalism. They are separable goals. (Whole books have been written about this! Often, in the current climate, by Language- inflected poets!)

We might have to wind up agreeing to disagree on this, but I'm not sure these always need to be "separable goals," as you put it. You bring up LANGUAGE -inflected poets as an example of who is agreeing to this, yet the politics of the LANGUAGE poets are very apparent, and I'm not just talking about the Socialism that comes up in the collaborative memoir The Grand Piano, but sometimes in the poems themselves. My feeling is that their politics, their desire for a better, different politics for the world translates into the same desire for the poems. Their philosophy of a poetry outside the narrative "I" for example, trying to reign in a more collective structure, a bigger world view for the poem. This is just one example of course, but my point was that it feels strange to me that sometimes radical change does not ripple through all aspects of what people are wanting.

An idea I've had is that revolutions like the Women's Movement and the Gay and Lesbian Movement ultimately had goals geared toward gaining as close to total assimilation as possible. Or rather, some elements within these revolutions wanted such assimilation, and won the argument for such goals, or so it seems. And did so because in the end maybe it's easier to blend in? I'm trying to NOT be cynical and claim that it was JUST about wanting to have what the Other Side had. Anyway, I'm meaning to say that, as a result, if this is the case, then the poetry also wouldn't want to change; it would WANT TO BE similar to the place of equal footing, that perceived and desired power structure. Maybe I'm just trying to come to terms with my vision of how I prefer that things had turned out, I'm not sure. A big part of me relishes Mina Loy's Feminist MANIFESTO where she asks IS THIS ALL you want, to have what men have? Her call to instead take the world of men and TEAR IT TO THE GROUND is destructive, but appealing to me (for the sake of women, but also for the sake of men), especially when I look at the world today, seeing how far we've come, only to be confronted with various forms of backlash trying to convince us we were wrong all along when thinking we could gain equal rights, equal protection. But at least with Mina Loy's MANIFESTO it's not asking for a merger, or, as Winona LaDuke says so brilliantly, "We're not asking for a bigger slice of pie, we're asking for a different pie!" But Mina Loy, in her FIRE BURNING for a different way out, in turn, wound up writing poems which were outside the structure of those of her peers.

All I can say is that I am fascinated by Loy and her manifesto; in fact have analyzed it and some of her poems in one of my books, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry. It is a very generative document, and also one so bravely, brashly critical and suspicious of culture as usual that it calls for the surgical destruction of the hymen at puberty so that girls can no longer trade their virginity for a marriage and a good establishment. To be against parasitism (i.e. marriage the old way) and prostitution (perhaps also marriage!), as she was, is to still hold a very radical, a VERY radical position on gender. However, in her life, she was also "for" really manly men and womanly women--she is interested in the extremes there, too. PLUS, and I love this, she is for "mongrel" language and diction. All cultural figures who take the risk of writing at all have to be seen as complex.

Anyway, in order for me as me to answer this question, you might need some personal benchmark dates. We (Bob and I) moved to the Philadelphia region (from NYC, France, then Trenton as the final stop before Philly) in 1973. We actually lived not in Philly but in Swarthmore. (I could say many things about being a poet in the suburbs, a place where, especially as a "faculty wife," which I was, you can often hear "Oh, you're a poet; well, I write, too.") I was hired by the English Department at Temple University in 1974. I participated in Philly poetry scenes sporadically but seriously during all those years. I went to McGlinchey's; I went to the Y, the
Bride—all reading sites. I remember (for example) seeing Reznikoff at the YMHA about a month before he died. That must have been in December 1975. Somewhere around 1978, Temple's Creative Writing MA was founded; I became drafted into that important zone as a faculty member probably 4-5 years later, that is, a couple of years after my first book of poems was published in 1980.

Background: from 1968-1970, when we left for France, I was a feminist activist. From those early stages of second wave U.S. feminism, I have held a feminist vision of culture and society, a desire to change all social, political, economic and cultural institutions toward gender justice in the context of social justice. My small bit was done in a (roughly) liberal/radical feminist context— Columbia [University] Women's Liberation. I was a founding member of Columbia Women's Liberation in 1969 and helped to create one of the early, influential statistical surveys of women's status in the university, a polemical move of liberal feminism—wanting to participate in the professions for which we had been trained. (Imagine that!) After, I worked then in a [roughly] organic intellectual and subsequently field-based context—of feminist knowledge production and of inventing, sustaining and supporting the institutions for this knowledge production. ("Feminist knowledge production" is a great phrase—it may be common now, but I heard it first from Mary Hawkesworth.) In my particular sectors (the university and cultural production), I have contributed to, and am committed to the epistemic revolution that feminism has brought about in knowledge and culture.

In real life terms, that meant I was working as a member of the editorial collective on the innovative scholarly journal Feminist Studies (which always published poetry and creative work—I was rather in charge of that insistence for many years); what people might need to understand is there WAS no space for feminist scholarship until people invented and sustained those institution (journals, conferences, structures of verification, intellectual networks). That is— the women of my generation were literally inventing new intellectual paradigms, and then institutions and practices out of a social, political and ideological commitment to major changes in the sex-gender system. Then I was trying to write my own feminist literary criticism (which eventually became my first critical book, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers, 1985), and I was trying with a lot less take-off to write poetry. At that latter task, I had very mixed success (or failure) and was rather gunked up about my desire. I had a native tilt to non-mainstream poetries—it was a mix of working on Williams, Pound and of knowing Oppen, being deeply affected by him. But my poetry was very titrated—it was coming out only in little dibs. It had no scope or sense of how to develop its images, how to really move into a poetic project.

The late 60's and then the 70's experienced an enormous opening to female imagination, feminist thinking, major cultural questions about institutions of art making, what it meant to be a cultural worker with a feminist eye, and everything was up for question: imagery, narratives, publics, subject matter, decorum, female attitude toward all forms and modes of oppression, experience, barriers, and conventional ideological and so-called aesthetic limits. What was female, feminine, feminist, woman, what was gender, what was sexuality, what was—well, everything, since genders / sexualities are some primary aspects of the self, of subjectivity, and that fact meant that no element of life was untouched. This began as a women-oriented "re-vision," as Adrienne Rich said. I took this to be a massive clarion call to cultural critique, to re-see everything by asking paradigm-shifting questions around gender, social locations, and political/cultural power. I was hardly alone in this. But others, one's "sisters" in the sense of the day, took re-vision as a call to solidify lines, attitudes, stances, and sudden new conventions emerged as if full blown. That is—this is not surprising and it has happened elsewhere—some people aroused in a socio-cultural and political upsurge take it as a critical wedge to see and understand against the grain, and others take it as a conversion experience to a new religion.

That basic bifurcation between a call to critique and a call to religious certitude explains why during those early 1970s, the feminist movement was struggling with an upsurge of hardening. Is that a weird way to put it? In many ways, I felt the urgency of the upsurge. The two poems of revisionary mythopoesis in Wells ("Eurydice" and "Medusa") were born out of that upsurge. It made me want to see everything anew—plot, myth, personal relations, all literary products. Feminist thinking at this era really was a revolution of mind, a conceptual revolution. No intellectual or cultural field was untouched. But there was a downside when this secular vision clashed with a quasi-religious structure of feeling—feminism as the new church.

I had the oddest experience of one shifting of cultural "lines" with the (quite wonderful and admirable) journal Aphra. I once, early 1970s, sent them work. Among my submission was the pleasant poem called "I dream of women," which presented the whole feminist awakening in eroticized terms, ending with the mildly yearning line "we could kiss each other; it would be no surprise." Aphra rejected it. A little later (a year or two?) I was approached to send work. I wasn't writing a lot, so I said, "but you rejected this poem (and a couple of others) and I don't have other work." The editor read (re-read) the poems! expressed astonishment that she had rejected them! promptly accepted the same poems! I was thereupon published in Aphra (1973 it was). What had changed? I assume, an opening to lesbian-like (woman-loving) imagery. I hadn't changed. The poem hadn't changed. My "sexual orientation" (antiseptic term) hadn't changed either, one way or the other. This is a very small example, but it is a cute one, of the roiling around between various positions.

One must also acknowledge the incredibly febrile sense of emotional and intellectual arousal common to the times, and almost impossible to communicate now. (See my poem "Draft 49:Turns and Turns, an Interpretation" for an attempt.) There was some coagulation of a woman's poetry event in Philly. I now cannot remember the terms but one of the universities (it might well have been Drexel, through Alexandra Grilikhes, or Penn) ….why don't I remember?...anyway, some institutional body brought Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser to give seminars/workshops to and with a hand-picked group of women poets. There was a good deal of competition to get into these workshops, and I have a very strong image-memory of the one with Rukeyser— who
was a powerful, intense, charismatic figure, come as a gift to us. At one point, in one memorable session, out of and from the intensities of the moment, the sense of the stakes, the grandeur of our cultural ambitions and our sheer vulnerabilities—from everything, one after another every woman in that workshop burst into tears. This was, I might add, a very logical outcome of this event, and it seems to indicate the heightened sense of those years.

Yet I felt the hardening of the upsurge very strongly. I did not want to write pious poems. Or, to say it better, I actually tried to write pious poems, but I couldn't—the positions they presented were too pre-thought. (I don't want to make me sound like the "Miss Priss of Sincerity," but my orientation was more to critique than to religious structures of feeling. Yet of course gender remains a central topic for my investigation.) But even from the mid-sixties, I had been writing poems (like "Psyche" in Wells, which is the oldest poem in that book) filled with bisexual, androgynous imagery. So I was back and forth about lots of possibilities in my poetry. Mainly unfulfilled possibilities.

Slowly I was able to write the poetry I wanted to read. My first book of poetry was published in 1980; a number of my works in that book, Wells, and in Tabula Rosa (1986) consider the female figure in culture, for example by retelling Greek myths with female personae centrally placed, or trying to speak the " 'history of poetry' " as if a woman poet had written some of its works. In 1986 (with a "portal poem" in 1985), I began writing capacious canto-length long poems called Drafts. ("Portal poem" is Ron Silliman's smart term for that phenomenon of a take-off into a very long work.) I would like to write more than 100 of them. I have, to date, completed 89. Numerical tallying is a symbolic stand-in for the information that this is a very ambitious, even fierce project. This project is so large, so hybrid, so poly-generic and intense, that sometimes I say I am not writing "poetry" but rather writing "otherhow."

I was always trying for a poetry of thought. Experiment, for me, is not a formal tic, some avant-garde glaze or fashionista look. It is a processual question of writing some thinking into the page in the medium of language. Further, for me there was no (one, single, unified) "woman's language," woman's imagery, women's mythology, etc. Those notions seemed a generative mythos for writing, and certainly with issues about mythology I was at times interested in the possibility of telling what I and others then called "the other side of the story." (Now I would say—why did we think there were only two "sides"?) One could be inspired by thinking of some female specificity and absolute uniqueness, but it was not fully accurate to the material reality of cultural products. Good for production; not accurate for a critical reception is my finding.

So what then is female "difference"? It seems as if females were and still are in a mobile, yet differently focused relationship to and with culture as constituted. They/We were differently positioned as producers and as iconic figures represented in culture (in poetry, in opera, in painting, and so forth). The point was to study, to leverage, to examine, and perhaps to resist these cultural formations. When I was writing "The 'History of Poetry'" (in Tabula Rosa), the stark epigraph from Joanne Feit Diehl says it all: "She cannot forget the history of poetry because it is not hers." The real striking poem in that group is "Crowbar"—an important turn on trobar clus. My sense of literary history was, of course, a bit too stark. There are and always have been women poets. "The silenced" is a relative term, perhaps a motivating mythos—to do away with silencing forever is a utopian (earnest, possibly unrealizable) goal. But the sense of marginality and resistance that motivated this project in "The 'History of Poetry'" should give a clear portrait both of me at that time and of the era itself.

So let's talk about the "women's poetry movement" as I experienced it in the early to mid-1970s. That phrase is Alicia Ostriker's—I use it somewhat more resistantly than she does; her term is both descriptive and approving. At some point things solidified into (I hate to say this) conventions even before the dust had settled. The door had opened, and then, apparently, it closed. A feminism oriented toward the production of products from a feminist "line" became predominant. This was a thoroughly noble, politicized version of expressivist goals, but it had very ambiguous ends. Be careful what you wish for. So gender-alert poetries seemed to emphasize a feminism of production: certain themes, voices, findings, tones, and dictions were valorized. There were, of course, many exciting themes, insights, images, tones, affirmations, and it seemed as if every day a barrier around decorum, topics discussed, tones, and attitudes was, happily, smashed. One did have a sense that many pioneering poems were being written and also that some older work was being seen in these new contexts. But at the same time, there were many poems built only of social conviction, as if certainty, conviction and affirmation alone and not the formal and sensuous embodiment of insight were all that was necessary to make a poem.

Carla Harryman might be said to comment on one outcome of the feminism of production when she remarks: "she then would have devoted her efforts to supporting by her songs the exploits of women" (Harryman, Vice, 1986, 35). Did every person want to do this? Is this said ironically? straight? or presented—I doubt this--as adequate? It gives you a sense of the dilemma, that's for sure. Suppose you did not want only to support the "exploits" of women, even if such exploits seemed to offer a renaissance of cultural possibility? Suppose either uplift alone or victimhood alone offered a dubious cultural binary? Suppose—as always was true for me—one was to find the analytic frame provided by women as "silenced" an inadequate, or inadequately nuanced perception of the agency of writing and the strivings of cultural agency in general? Suppose I could not always praise the mono-ocular vision of a confessing "I." There are many ways of stating my resistance, and yet, here, at the same time I want to say the best and most excited word I can for the feminist cultural "revolution" in general. Yet I was always aslant of the mainstream poetry that some of my sisters wanted to offer to me and to other feminists.

Writerly alertness to gender materials in culture could not possibly be focused by one only kind of feminist urgency. What did develop after the feminist movement, beginning around 1967 and 1968 was an extreme cultural self-consciousness about gender. This is the result of the bifurcation between a vision of cultural critique and a religious orientation that I spoke of above. There were issues regarding accessibility of language and the presentation of easy to understand findings; there seemed to be a desire for a very consumable art product. Actually, this was not just feminism; it was (for me) a somewhat astonishing mix of MFA hegemonic poetry style with this touch of or dollop of feminist practitioners that created a somewhat robotic poetic culture. It was as if the worst impulses of the MFA sensibility--highly colored imagery, stolid rhythms, limited sense of the line, obvious epiphanies, I-based narrative explorations, a valorizing of personal experience as if there were no mediation from language when one wrote, and finally an ultimate innocence about all this AS a convention--crossed with the worst impulses of feminist thought--lurid claims, easily limned imagery, stark binaries, melodramatic narratives, expression of motifs with fixed outlines, a new and quite interesting frankness that also had certain conventionalized outcomes or closures, a loss of analytic suspicion. I am giving a very tight-lipped picture, I suppose. I think this is similar to what you have cited from Alexandra about gays and lesbians, in your question. But this was not only—or hardly!--the "fault" of the liberation movements; it was really their uses of mainstream period style. Hence between an MFA mode that is persistent to this day, and a broad-brush pro-woman line, I felt painted into a corner.

By feminism I mean gender analysis, and a passionate motivation to work for the change of some abuses and oppressions in the sex-gender system. By gender analysis I mean asking what roles gender (including constructions of masculinity and sexuality issues in general) play in any cultural product or political institution or social practice. Gender analysis is a secular tool of critical understanding, not a religious or quasi-religious structure of feeling. As I have said, now, a couple of ways, early feminism seemed to split between people who wanted the mode of the essay or on-going investigation, and people who wanted the sermon, or the church. What feminism did was open the investigative, critical project of cultural analysis for me; I was less interested in positive affirmative thought. The thing is—people who experience a fervent upsurge of political feeling often DO feel this as a belief system—they are not insincere! and probably wonder at the cooler sometimes skeptical tone of the non-converts. Anyway, sometimes this split occurred in the same person, and sometimes was the same person at different stages.

So I had a very hard time in the 1970s—I was working within an experimental, not an expressionist ethos, and hence I summed this up as too objectivist for the feminists (i.e. too inflected by the avant-garde and by modernism) and too feminist for the objectivists (i.e. too interested in gender and with much analytic suspicion about gender materials). I had this sense of being culturally marginal even to my own self-chosen politics (too objectivist for the feminists) until my essay "For the Etruscans" became a calling card to new friends 3000 miles away—the just-formed, or incipient HOW(ever) group in San Francisco with Kathleen Fraser, Beverly Dahlen, Frances Jaffer, along with a person I had known for a while before that—Mary Oppen. That occurred by 1978 and those relationships were very sustaining. And carried out mainly by letters and phone calls (remember—there was no email!).

Simultaneously, I was lucky enough to find Montemora, a journal edited by Eliot Weinberger, who had a rather unerring sense of poetry and an uncanny ear and openness but also the most elegant standards. When I began having work accepted by Montemora (in the later 1970's—like 1977 and 1978), it was very gratifying. Poems like "Undertow," "Painting," "Pomegranate," "Flower" all appeared there, so his was a journal open to the kind of representation of female material in which these poems were engaged. So by 1978, I had two poetic communities. Neither was where I lived. The poetic community here in and around Philly was unevenly supportive but there were four people working anywhere close to a mode I was in: Alexandra Grilikhes (we were serious friends —and friendship with Alexandra was quite a serious enterprise), Gil Ott (we had several bonds of various kinds and much mutual respect; he was very connected to early Language poetries with Paper Air), Toby Olson (his main poetic influence was Paul Blackburn; we were colleagues in the university), and at some distance, John Taggart.

It's now generally acknowledged, if sort of shame-facedly and foot-draggingly at times, that the avant-garde had and still has female troubles—trouble with gender, sexuality, and even the specificity of social locations—finds it hard to pluralize its vision. As Harryette Mullen says, with a pleasant air of critique, in her
recent (2006) introduction to Recyclopedia: "I have written all of these works from my perspective as a black woman, which I believe is no less representative of humanity than any other point of view." (Greywolf Press xi). Yes, indeed—now everyone needs to figure out how to apply this point to their thinking! And —look at the "Numbers Trouble" debate right now. David Buuck, in the precise Dim Sum webpages about "Numbers Trouble" says: "To raise the question of how class, race, gender, sexuality, etc., might challenge or refract conventional notions of the innovative is not to make essentialist claims, that there is a 'female' innovation or a 'black' innovation, but rather to interrogate the category of the innovative itself – to suggest new formal approaches to poetics that are informed by different socio-historical positionalities and contingencies." Subjectivity has been pluralized; there is no center. To finger-wag "nyaah nyaah, essentialist" as an accusation mounted against any and all interests in social location and the body is really too easy.

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