Monday, March 31, 2008
I'm not so sure David Buuck is that far away from what Mullen (or you for that matter) has to say. To be honest I'm not sure where to begin with this. The word "essentialist" has been tossed around in so many different ways since the Ashton and "Numbers Trouble" debates began that it's hard to figure out where to step with it. And you yourself said in your own Dim Sum essay that you weren't interested in debating over the word. (Ironically my own essay for Dim Sum was partially censored, ironic on many levels that is, but this is not the time or place for me to bring up how/why.)
One of the things I liked most about your Dim Sum essay was how you brought your thoughts to your ending, "As Woolf said in A Room of One's Own--certain material differences between men and women are still constructed and perpetuated in our society, and it is the job of feminism to resist these, to try to dismantle these, and, as well, to understand their impact, which can be considerable in the case of artists."
But by now I have experienced some funny moments, even among friends. I still remember being carefully, artfully, and insistently excluded from the Ironwood issue (#26, Fall 1985) devoted to the work of George Oppen, despite being the editor of his Selected Letters (in process at that time), a longtime friend of the poet, and someone who had written about him—this exclusion engineered by editor Michael Cuddihy (de mortuis nihil…as they say). What was that about? I remember once having my critical work cited by a very dear male friend, whose citation (originally) read something like "well, of course everyone knows this now; it's obvious…."—some point about gender and the modernists. I said to him—"we" all know this because I first said it along with some other women poet-critics; how come now it gets taken for granted and ploughed under? I asked him to acknowledge what I had said with the same professional courtesy he would give to any position from which he had learned. He did, but it was an instructive exchange about the bounce-back absorptive quality of hegemonic culture. Even one's best friends….and so on. Alice Notley's metamorphic, gelatinous, powerful, cozy, pleasant-looking, sweet-faced Tyrant is a brilliant encapsulation of this kind of situation. Female cultural power being somehow frightening, it is often approached with an unconscious "let's cut it off at the knees" attitude. I have also recently heard how "we really want a woman [for a certain university position] —but with no loss of quality." At the other end of the line, did the person (one anyway clearly oblivious to legalities) hear any of my irony as I said "Of course, one would never want a loss of quality…."?
Notley also lets us know that this Tyrant is, in effect, in all of us (in The Descent of Alette). We are all saturated with some version of hegemonic ideology about gender and sexuality; it is a permanent struggle—in Alice's narrative she makes this a long journey-- to understand one's implication and to leverage change. Pick one's battles, is my feeling, and get your work done.
It's also generally acknowledged—out of the HOW(ever) cohort and its enormous paradigm-changing work spearheaded by Kathleen Fraser, that poetry by women has indeed manifested a long experimental modernist tradition. Indeed, a tendentious argument would hold that women writers invented modernist strategies: Moore invents collage; Loy invents the serial poem; Stein invents radical writing; Richardson invents stream of consciousness—before the Men of 1914 get there. That argument from origins is certainly a neat polemic; I wouldn't hold this position except as "rah, rah, yeah, girls!" kind of move. Any argument from origins is, finally, counterproductive and monotheistic. Nothing has only one findable origin. But nonetheless—those reasonably attestable facts show the presence of formally imaginative and convention-shattering women active in the 20th century and from the beginning. It was not that they were not present (living, working, contributing, innovating); it's that (before feminist intellectual intervention, feminist knowledge production) they were not present to our literary history and to our sense of what, for instance, modernism was. They were not read, not thought about, not studied, not "in the anthologies." Further it isn't simply that WOMEN (the females of the species) were there; it's that gender/sexuality materials, debates, thinking, positions from the serious to the totally lurid were on the table, for men and for women—right through modernism from the very beginning. A lot of my literary criticism discusses these (women writers; gender ideas of all writers) from a number of faceted angles.
Could you go a little further back in time here?
I have written some of a personal story at various times in The Pink Guitar and in Blue Studios, so this is in part a footnote. This is a life narrative, with generalizations. When I made any pretense at joining a poetry community, my first experience was in the late 1950s and early 1960s in college. There was a sense that women were all very talented, but that they wouldn't and couldn't amount to much, because they got tangled up and got snared by whole narratives of sexual thralldom to men who found young women and their ambitions enchanting, or useful. You might say that in this allegorical story, women then became (or continued to be) charming, diffuse, unfocused, and conflicted. The male teachers of creative writing whom I knew in that atmosphere were, to a man, preening narcissists. Of course, women dropped like flies out of this atmosphere, which ranged from the titillating to the toxic. There really was a patronizing, temporizing, discouraging attitude to us, generally speaking. We participated in that attitude to the degree that it got us off the hook. Adrienne Rich nails this in one of the sections of her brilliant "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law."
Second: Slide over to poetry group post-college: the Eventorium group in NYC. Very talented, serious folks, not mainly household names now, but very capable and with intellectual frames (i.e. not just drugs and letting it all hang out), and mostly better than college was for the few women in the group. But women were not full co-equals. They were present, but all sorts of conflicts about ambition and around discouragement had already been internalized in women, and the women whom I knew (and me) spent so much time thinking about working, trying to work, complaining about not being able to work (interiorized and exterior ideology slammed us with a double-whammy) that by the time anyone could wake up, our twenties were well nigh gone. I think this is not only "my story," although as usual, there were exceptions to the difficulty of doing anything, or organizing one's inchoate ambitions. Of course men loved women and women loved men, and while I like this fine and dandy, or any other desire-filled erotic combination, something about the muse function women served was all too vital (and very tempting for women—ancilla functions, service functions, support functions). Was this damaging? Yes, often. I regard it with both fondness (a tiny bit; there were sweet elements), fascination, for the erotic is a generative power, and suspicion (a good deal).
Furthermore, the available models for female achievement (without particular knowledge of female modernists and others) were very spotty. Women writers of the past were automatically defined as lacking, not worth reading, not worth studying, as a kind of weird, marginal interest. NOT a career-making move to read them! Further, as soon as you found a women, it appeared she would kill herself, or be discovered to be "crazy," or "bitchy" or "unattractive" [i.e. to men!], or "lesbian" (damn!). O, we/ some of us were simple in those days. So every generation of "girls" had to reinvent the wheel, and some did OK, but many didn't, or their wheel really wobbled (to continue the metaphor unforgivably). You know this narrative. It's not as if individual men, or individual women did not try and sort through female writing careers in helpful ways. But some issues discouraging female achievement were systemic and thus not solvable by personal good will and individual striving. The key words here are systemic and internalized. Thus this teleological narrative ends by declaring the feminist cultural moment a Very Good Thing in terms of changing the terms and conditions for female ambition and achievement. I define change as the potential to consider men and women co-equal, coeval artistic producers, both genders having good, steady access to capacity for artistic production (including education in their art), to dissemination (publication, invitations to read), and to reception. I define change as when women can get listened to and taken seriously, but not bracketed as sacred icons, their opinions as discussable and as potentially important (or not) as male opinions. I define change as people understanding about gender issues and willing to entertain questions of difference (from this and other social locations) without any difference turning automatically into inequality and unequal access to power.
Actually, a good answer to this question would be a 90 foot scroll with collaged citations from a variety of female writers—Barbara Guest, Carla Harryman, Susan Howe, Joan Retallack, Kathleen Fraser, Anne Waldman, Harryette Mullen, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Rosmarie Waldrop, Juliana Spahr, Erin Moure, Lisa Robertson, Laura Elrick, Jena Osman, Liz Willis, Brenda Ijima, Evelyn Reilly, Jennifer Moxley, Erica Hunt, (and so on—this is a random list of many more). Here's what I would bet. On that scroll, you would see, from the exact same person, citations that sometimes spoke about the "I felt so bad and weird at all this resistance" and other citations from the same people that said "women are incredibly creative and strong and we don't care about resistance, in fact we never noticed it, and we overcame it."
Here are a few examples. Alice Notley points out the cultural resistance to acknowledging "a woman poet taking up as much literary space as any male poet" (Coming After: Essays on Poetry, 2005, vi). This changes, falls back, changes, falls back. I wouldn't talk about this like some kind of martyrdom! We are in a major cultural debate and shift—really trying to get a fully integrated culture that acknowledges variegated differences in interesting, not damaging and demeaning, ways. I could cite Lyn Hejinian, "Being a woman isn't a condition, so much as it's a motivation, with momentum, occurring at various velocities and with diverse trajectories" (My Life in the Nineties, 2003, 12). Or, to say one part of this in Laura Morarity's words: "She flies into a whirlwind// Sings// I don't seem silent but am" (Laura Moriarty, The Case, 1998, 51). One's subjectivity is never single or singular: it is she and I, for instance in that citation, singing and silent. Rosmarie Waldrop tries to negotiate these vectors: "I, A WOMAN: This fact clearly shapes my writing: thematically, in attitude, in awareness of social conditioning, marginality--but does not determine it exclusively. Lacan is preposterous in imposing his phallic cult on the signfier--and in bad faith when he claims gender neutrality." (Rosmarie Waldrop, in Moving Borders, Sloan, ed., 611) What Waldrop hates more than some "shaping" of her writing by gender is a "preposterous" shaping of her language contexts by an influential theory about gender and language. Note how material and ideological conditions--especially psychoanalytic theory as an ideological condition--saturate a female person's consciousness of her ambitions.
For some women, the early second wave feminism of that bolt of lightning "Woman" seemed reductive, complicit with the very prejudices it sought to eradicate. If one calls attention to material and psychological issues, if one complains and provokes, instead of transcending and looking to humanity in general, one may be seen as perpetuating or even exacerbating the division and differential powers of Male and Female from which one suffers. And, further, not every woman wants to feel that she has suffered from gender woes, nor wants to talk under a female rubric, nor wants to make sisterhood with fellow women. Nor do writers like to feel "determined" by any factor; writers know their agency even when they talk about its compromises.
Many avant-gardes I know about in the modern period have not self-consciously proposed gender questions, although they are rife with gendered materials. Avant-gardes have worked "overwhelmingly" (as Susan Rubin Suleiman says about surrealism; Suleiman, Subversive Intent, 1990, 26) from "male subject position(s)," yet rarely examine or question the issues and materials of masculinity and manhood, but rather affirm them as part of the palette, as usable as color squeezed straight from the tube. Whenever any avant-gardes have proposed gender issues as part of their arsenal, a good deal of evidence shows that these considerations of gender and power replicate to perfection, or even exaggerate melodramatically, the gender relations of the bourgeois society that the avant-garde is, in its other presumptive claims, contesting. So we are at a crucial period now, being amid a period of tremendous creativity about gender among experimental poets (just the way it was approximately in the teens and twenties of the twentieth century): SO are our Mina Loy's going to be forgotten? are our Marianne Moore's going to be disparaged; are our H.D.'s going to seem weird and marginal? Etc.
It's true for me that the HOW(ever) formation was defining. Basically, in her initiative to begin this newsletter-sized journal, poet and critic Kathleen Fraser was synthesizing two things—the experimental effervescence of the Language poets of the West Coast (whom she acknowledged as important, but felt resistance to and from) AND the impulse from the feminism in the university to study and rediscover modern and under-known contemporary women writers. HOW(ever)'s and Fraser's editorial position repeatedly made the point that these issues in dissemination and reception of women's work were part of one recurring problem in the twentieth century. Fraser made this point not punitively or dourly, but by creating a charm and excitement about the recovery and new presentation of work by innovative women. In part because of its brevity, each issue had zip. It had—if this is not too wild a thought—a feminist Poundean flair-- "ideas into action."
Thus the move made by HOW(ever) is one that I have characterized as making all twentieth-century women writers be "the contemporaries of the present." That is, in their own former times, their influence on the future of literature had been uneven, sometimes even occluded and denied because of the issues of dissemination and reception that manifested prejudice against female producers, and from a lack of appreciation of the "career of that struggle." (That last is another phrase I made up for the agency of women, acknowledging their need to push and open out culture). But now "we" would claim these writers, read and appreciate them. Thus their formal innovations and gender-oriented motifs could be made newly available and newly visible to this generation. It was an important, influential and intelligent premise—one that still continues its impulse in HOW2, an on-line journal.
If one were to make other remarks, it would involve the importance of women connecting with other women as coequals, supporting each other; perhaps in correspondence and public forums, perhaps with overtly-situated publication (that is, claiming the means of dissemination). One cannot overstate the importance of curiosity about and loyalty to the potential of women for cultural power and forceful intervention. These terms are not utopian—there is a good deal of potential for irritation, principled disagreements, manipulation among women as individuals. But the feminist cultural revolution produced a lot of good, and it needs to be maintained and added to with care and with a sense of its necessity.