Monday, March 31, 2008

When you read recently at Kelly Writers House you read from a piece which you said appropriated texts from different poets, and you listed their names. One of those names was William Wordsworth. And as soon as you said his name I thought to myself "Well, you might just as well say you're also appropriating Dorothy Wordsworth!" The evidence that William appropriated text (I prefer to say STOLE!) from his sister Dorothy's own writings is pretty clear at this point. At least it seems clear to me. There are those who love to argue about it in this way I find kind of funny, the arguments themselves very postmodern.

But one time, maybe a year ago now, we were talking, and I expressed my anger for William's theft of Dorothy's writing, and you said that when you were making your oral argument for your PhD that you spoke of this, but said that you had channeled the information. The word channeled doesn't get used enough these days by poets, I feel, so I was happy to hear it being used by you. Could you tell us about this experience? It's fascinating!

Dorothy Wordsworth has now had a whole scholarship around her. My sense then (Lord, when did I take my "prelims"?—it was in 1966 or something) was suddenly I felt, with the full force of my mind and body (a channeling) what I had never heard anyone talk about before: the cultural importance of the female muse as a structure of feeling in literature, an institution of poetic practice. I felt the intensity of Wordsworth's need for her pure innocent visionary ethos, and his work based on her force as a muse figure. I know that she was an additional set of eyes and ears for him; her journals are wonderful. The relationship was sustaining for him; was it not somewhat problematic for her? I hesitate to say more because I don't know the current scholarship, and haven't followed through on this with a fully flexed investigation of how people are thinking about it in 2008. I will say that that revelation was one paradigm shift for me, but I didn't have any place to "put" it until the beginning of feminism, a couple of years later. Now I'd say that I don't think Wordsworth did these Dorothy-centered acts of appropriation through his whole career as a poet, so I actually don't think I was using Dorothy Wordsworth when I cited from The Prelude. The thing that must be remembered—and it is a depressing point from a pure feminist perspective—is that some women (Frances Boldereff is another example) give all to the man whom they have "chosen" (a complex word) to invest in with their visceral force and creative urges. Dorothy Wordsworth was not "for herself" in de Beauvoir's terms; she was "for him."

She wrote material in her journals, he used things (descriptions, feelings) for his poetry. It would probably be fair to say that some poems might be described as "co-authored." Or perhaps more like "film by William, adapted from the original novel by Dorothy." What is at stake for me is the complex winding between them, and whether this winding loop was a rip-off of her (as an automatic finding), was always bad, was a cultural trap for her. Could she have been an autonomous poet or writer? There is strong evidence of her talent, that is absolutely true. That talent for description, the freshness is also more in tune with our taste, the taste of our time, so we tend to valorize her (that is, she is more "like us"). Is she limited by the gender ideology of her time (undoubtedly) and therefore used by William (who is himself also impacted by the gender ideology of his time, but also benefitting from that more than being limited)? Did she go on record as regretting or critically identifying the gender ideologies of her time? I don't know. Does she feel good about contributing her labor to his career? I'd love to know more. It strikes me as equally unanswerable, equally suspicious and poignant as the Marcia Nardi/William Carlos Williams situation in Paterson. However, Dorothy's contributions were, so far as I know, textually unmarked by her brother, while Nardi's come out loud and clear, though placed under the pseudonym "Cress." Whatever one's (imperfectly) final thoughts on this, the structure of appropriation is clear. That is--someone less culturally powerful and only sporadically acknowledged, if at all, contributes a significant "something" to the career of someone more culturally powerful. It is the structural inequality, not the act of appropriation, that is particularly problematic for me.

Nonetheless I happen to feel that appropriation is not a crime; it is a cultural situation and a cultural tactic. The issue is not intertextuality (citation, appropriation, reuse, torquing, influence, adaptation, borrowing, refashioning, transmission, imitation); it is the cultural inequality of that tactic that is problematic. The issue isn't that borrowing occurs; the issue is that the work of women (and others) is not acknowledged by the borrowers, and the less hegemonic may not have the power to answer back. I spoke about that in a striking realization—in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, there is a whole section in the pub scene that was taken from the work of a maid of the Eliots at that time, Ellen Kellond. So one has gender and class appropriations. Buried WAY back in the very recent edition of "Pound's" Waste Land, that is the WL manuscript, is that notation. Kellond did not make it into Eliot's original notes; she is kind of a "oh, yeah, this too" memory way late in life by the Eliots. I speak about this in The Pink Guitar. Note her lack of cultural power, although she contributes more to Eliot's poem (in quantitative terms) than, say, Baudelaire.

I can't imagine seeing how Dorothy was "for him" -- as you say -- when she was writing in HER journal. It would be a stretch for me to ever accept that SHE wrote in HER journal for her brother to take lines from for his own poems.

But when you say it is the "structural" or "cultural" inequality of the appropriation that is problematic for you I have to admit that it makes me reevaluate how or why I feel the way I do. If William Wordsworth had instead "appropriated" text from a male sibling's journal without making acknowledgment of having done so instead of his sister's, it still would anger me, but yes, something no doubt is especially stirred because of the sexism, whether that sexism was informed by the fashion of the time of the culture or not.

I'm of course NOT saying you're doing this Rachel, but I deplore the apologies for the past, like, "Oh well, EVERYONE owned slaves back THEN!" Or any number of examples of treating women like property, or worse. Just recently I had a conversation with a man who was trying to be thoughtful, but it still rubbed me the wrong way when he said about gay bashing, "Yes of course, but you must understand that this is a shortcoming of our time and we will be looked back on with contempt in the future." It's the tone I can't get across with his words, it's like he was projecting himself into the future to apologize with the same tone people use to apologize for Jefferson and our other slave owning Fathers. Anyway, I feel sometimes such things are said about the past in order to feel good about the present, like, OH, WE'RE OK because we're BETTER than they were. The idea of believing in a slower, gradual enlightenment for our culture smells like an excuse, especially while people suffer in their lives everyday, making it difficult for me to sympathize with those in the culture who get that GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card because "these are the times for homophobia, but don't worry, the People of the Future will be more open" or however we want to put it. Living with lawmakers like Sally Kern, and our own president making very public, openly homophobic comments is a bit much to stomach, especially with the frequency with which they occur.

But back to William Wordsworth, I must admit that I just don't like him as a person, PERIOD! Besides the fact that (in my opinion) he robbed his sister's genius to feather his own hat (making her, in my opinion, THE REAL genius!), he was also a government informant. His actions in snitching on activists, in particular printers who were printing anti-government pamphlets, led to the torture of some, and who knows how much misery such actions kept the rest of the world in as a result! We like to talk about Pound as being a fascist, but not too many like to talk about the horrible scoundrel William Wordsworth! In our own American time of The Patriot Act it's Wordsworth I think about more than Pound. Anyway this is off the topic, but I felt it was important that I divulge some more of my feelings about Wordsworth as a person to better make clear my revulsion whenever hearing his name mentioned.

I'd just like take a look into current scholarship, feminist scholarship on Wordsworth before commenting further; this is not a cop-out--I mean it. The thing about Wordsworth is that all of our work would not be possible without the "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" since it was that poetics breakthrough that encouraged serious use of the vernacular and the popular/populist as adequate to poetry and not as patronized, cute, minoritized. Wordsworth led to Williams, Hughes, McDiarmid, even Moore, with her "plain American that cats and dogs can read"

And I wanted to add that everything you say about Ellen Kellond should be viewed as essential information, I think, for students. All students. And it would be marvelous too if they took the time to consider the reasons why she was left out. Class and gender should always be spoken of simultaneously, as should class and race, I think.

I agree totally. The trick is to speak about social location, the layered nuance of the formal detail of the poem, and cultural meaning all at once.

In the issue of Jacket 35 your poem "Draft 89: Interrogation" appears. The poem is a conversation, an amazing conversation let me add. Hope you don't hate exegesis, but I'm filled with all kinds of ideas for myself about what these two lines might be, but want to know more from you about what you mean:

"Do you claim you are the author of these terms?
No, this was something beyond authorship."

What is that "beyond authorship" to mean to you?

The answer depends on understanding something about "Draft 88: X-Posting," as well as about the poem from which you've cited, since the "interrogation" of Draft 89 occurs in relationship to the poem just before it. The two poems are entwined with Ingeborg Bachmann, a contemporary Austrian poet, now dead, and died much too young (a mix of a tragic fire and her apparent addictions), in 1973. Through a somewhat long route (seeing an Anselm Kiefer show in Paris; Kiefer draws on both Bachmann's and Celan's poetry; other reasons involved with my somewhat Europeanized—or mongrel European-American--sensibility), I sought and found the poem of hers that was announced as
her last poem, or one of her last poems. She seems to have given up writing poetry, but she continued to write works in prose. The thought of that renunciation of poetry was very haunting and perplexing. It was hard to get a copy of the poem (as I was abroad, with no ready library) and I had no translation of it, so with the web, a dinky paperback German dictionary and a little help, I did a complicated translation and extension of this poem. After considering what I had done (and checking my work against an existing translation, and finally asking a few speakers of German), I found the most crucial thing that I wanted was simply to rewrite her poem. "Simply," indeed! See your question above about appropriation! So "Draft 88: X-Posting" is a work based totally on Bachmann's "Keine Delikatessen"—but very few of the words in my poem actually come directly from her. Instead, I did a free variation on the themes and materials that she had announced and accomplished, as if I were a pianist/composer sitting down and improvising on her work, following its "narrative" and its emotional valence.

This, however, was a very shocking act. While I cite a good deal in Drafts, and in my most recent book, I "torque" works by Rilke, Pound, Wordsworth through citation and allusion, I had, before this, never simply tracked another person's poem, as if I were singing her work, covering it. Yet at the same time, this poem—her poem--expresses a dilemma that we all face—the questions of the meaning of the act of poetry, whether it's worth doing, what its social functions or rationales are, if any, and how to negotiate its fairly impotent acts of witness. So I wasn't willing to "give up" this poem.

Therefore I felt that the voice of a judiciary, or some defender of Bachmann's integrity needed to ask me some questions about what the hell I thought I was doing. This is the poem you've asked about, "Draft 89: Interrogation." I wrote "Draft 89: Interrogation" with the querying voice being a bit stark and judgmental, and another voice trying to explain the claim I had made by writing this poem over and through Bachmann's. By writing her poem, you could say. Virtually every stanza of "Draft 89: Interrogation" alludes to this situation—why did her poem affect me, why did I take it or appropriate it. I felt I had a right to do this (appropriation is, as we see, a time-honored, if complicated, act in culture), but my poem was hardly motivated by simple homage nor by any (implausible) proprietary claim nor by immodesty. Rather my writing was motivated by some voracious unfixable desire that had propelled me. I really felt that something had been speaking through her when she wrote her poem of apparent renunciation, and that the same approximate thing was speaking through me. The lines you cite:

Do you claim you are the author of these terms?
No, this was something beyond authorship.

are precise. I felt I had been taken over by Bachmann and taken over by the force that had in its turn propelled Bachmann. Thus I don't claim individual authorship in any way, as in author/authority/property owner. It was "beyond" that concept of "authorship"—it emerged instead from a space of being spoken through. So possession in two senses was at stake; I hardly "possessed" her poem; I was instead possessed by it. This sense of being spoken through happens a good deal in Drafts, but it hadn't ever before occurred so literally as to have motivated my writing a poem tracking another person's poem. This was kind of shocking to me. Here is some more of the interrogation that helps to outline the force of the possession. Notice that the voice changes the subject to avoid answering the charge "this is shocking…."

But this is not yours.
It is now.

That is a shocking statement.
Though I was not ever like that, the early style.

What do you mean?
I was neither metaphoric, nor fluent, nor rewarded.

Then why make this claim, why use it?
It comes from a place in me that is a place in us.

When you ventriloquize her, doesn't this raise an ethical question?
Yes, in that the thinking comes from between us, an ethical zone.

While I admit that I like these poems very much (88 and 89), if appropriated texts are admitted to then it's of course different than my earlier complaints. It's the thieving, the lying, the OOPS, we forgot to mention these were Dorothy Wordsworth's lines from HER JOURNAL that SHE wrote in, or Ellen Kellond's lines referring to HER story from HER invisible life.

Anyway, also in issue 35 of Jacket appears that poem "Draft 88: X-Posting" you say is what "Interrogation" answers to. These lines bring some questions:

So should I consider

that the Words I was called to write

help others? Was I going to be a Helper?

This thought seemed as bad as all the others.

Was this some Rhetorical Bureaucracy of

Social Worker tasks?


Maybe you won't mind filling in some blanks here? There is a frankness, a ruthless flash of truth in your lines, directing your readers to a fresh understanding, but in the end leaves us with a ghost of a thread. Could you please tell us something more, anything more beyond this point?

Let me respond, rather than answer. I don't write to express myself. I write to examine "it." There is a lot of "it" out there. This is what my poetry does. That I have standpoints emerging from my social locations (class, religious culture, gender, national origin) is a true statement; that I make intricate weaves of these elements is true; that I can learn more about any social location and respond to it if sufficiently moved is also true. I begin by setting out from myself, as you say—precisely, because by beginning I get beyond the boundedness of "self" into something more. As for "me," –forget "me" or "I." It's as if we are yearning toward a new pronoun to understand something else than what subject positions emerge from the pronouns we already know and use.

I want the world to change; I do not seek directly to bring this change about in my art. "Poetry is not, nor should it be, a mode of propaganda, but it is part of ideological and discursive practices, and it offers information, conviction, knowledge." (Blue Studios, 5) This it accomplishes particularly in form and texture constructing a helixed looping between aesthetic and social conviction. We do not know what kind of combination of words, what charm, what aesthetic research, what sequence or structure, what knowledge presented in an art product will transform any reader or spark changes of consciousness or motivate analysis or model transformation. Representation, play with the symbolic order, ideology critique, the construction of forms in which resistance gets embodied and manifested—all are powerful aspects of art. That's why making honest art, art from deep sincerity and conviction, art that is cunning and resonant in its understanding of tradition—all this is crucial. I would like my art to be a practice in which awe and hope are mixed with critique and intelligence in the construction of amazing and individuated structures in language and segmentivity.

I could cite from Blue Studios: "The problem of writing for me is how to
get an ethical literature without any didacticism or political forcing. How to address human issues without being trapped by the ego-, ethno-, phallo-, logocentrisms of humanism. How to honor choice in a serious way, even an existential way, while somehow allowing for mystery and transcendence (a word I use with some suspicion). And how to write poetry in brackets—meaning barred from whatever merely accomplished poetry we have in our tradition. That is, how to write: not poetry as decoration, not poetry as a recurrent symptom of problematic gender narratives and iconizations, not poetry as only expressive or simply personal, but some austere, deliberative, materialist, awestruck art in segmented language" (Blue Studios 2006, 194).

For many years you have been writing Drafts. The title Drafts has always been interesting to me, and makes me think of something Gil Ott said once, that he didn't finish poems but abandon them. Which I always took to mean that all poems are unfinished drafts in some way. What was the original impetus for naming the work this? And has that original idea for naming the work Drafts grown with the work? Or maybe I'm asking if you have created a larger world view around the original idea?

Drafts was a really motivated title. It came to me beyond the allusion to Pound (his Draft of XX X Cantos, his Drafts and Fragments), but was part of a dialogue with Pound. Drafts, as separate, but related works, are intended to contribute to the Anglophone long poem tradition. To name the whole work and its individual cantos "Drafts" is to make a statement about genre: I start from the metaphoric presumption of provisionality--these poems are (pretended, only pretended) as "unfinished." By using this title, I signal that these poems are open to transformation, part of an ongoing process of construction, self- commentary, and reconstruction, similar to the genre called "midrash" in Hebrew textuality. That means that none of the poems is perfect, iconic, static--something that has gender meaning for me as a critique of the uses of the female/feminine in a good deal of poetic tradition. This title also signals that the poems respond thematically and structurally to the problem of memory by undertaking to replicate the open-ended displacements and waywardness of memory in poetic form, playing with the textures of memory, including its unexpectedness, its flashes, its fragmentations, and its erasures. There are other central themes of historical mourning and struggle for transformation.

But I am not using the word "Drafts" to indicate the "unfinished" but the "provisional." Actually, I consider each poem as "finished"—that is, not abandoned, as Gil uses the word in the citation above, but completed, done to the place I want it and can make it (as best I can). So the word "Drafts" was not meant to say that the individual sections are unfinished. It's a larger feeling that I am getting at. Perhaps existential within poetics. The whole work (that is, the work in its many sections) was structured to be made for a long time, to be added to, with me producing section after section, to illustrate and to enact the fact that every poem is "not quite it." That is, any poem lacks being the perfect poem. (Of course!) This is closer to the sentence in your question "all poems are unfinished drafts" but I would modify it to say all Drafts are drafts of something that can never be written. All texts close (whether finished, abandoned, or completed), but all texts are really always open—open to interpretation, rereading, extension, new uses. And these texts are open to self-gloss and self-extension. And if I finish the work as a whole—Drafts up to whatever number-- (rather than having it finish with my death, or finish with its being abandoned), I can't see the (potential) final poem being any more perfect than any other! In many ways, and final or last poem is doomed to be even less perfect than the less perfect other ones. In some ways, the metaphoric idea of Drafts was to write a poem in which every section was as if an incomplete attempt at the same poem. This mysterious, non-existent and "ideal" poem is nonetheless always impossible, always implausible, and therefore necessarily always deferred.

Because what does the "same" poem mean but some total ultimate poem— a ridiculous, compromised, touching idea of totality. A false ideal, I would say, crudely. So far from the Mallarmean idea that the whole of the universe would end up in a book (or in a poem that is book-length), it is exactly that Mallarmean idea—and it is precisely impossible. I mean that all the poems are self-different although patterned, and so it is an illusion that they are "one" poem; on the other hand, it appears as if I am writing avatars of a Figure (the ultimate Poem), a Figure which, a Figure who will never appear but is everywhere, but partially IN the avatars, a.k.a. the individual poems. I point to this choice at the end of Torques in the poem on the "line of 19," which, in the grid structure of Drafts, is always a poem concerning work. This is a prose section. "So that the whole, someone might say, is one poem articulated a hundred-odd ways, yet, at the same time, the whole is so many different works that it cannot be unified or accounted for. This could be called a failure. I mean a pleasure. (Precisely to have failure—on that scale and with that level of stubbornness—was one of the few things I foresaw.)" (Torques, 135; section 18 of "Draft 76; Work Table with Scale Models")

As for the poetry, I have said at various times (including just above) that my decision to write long poems comes from my desire to encircle the lyric, to transform the female cultural position in Poetry as a whole. The containment of lyric, its attractive smallness, its iconic status seem to help constitute the subordinate cultural position of females. That this is somewhat tendentious and polemical as a position did not make it any less powerful for me. Recently, I have also felt that the structure of epiphany and revelation in lyric poetry has relation to a Christian structure of feeling that has transferred itself to claims about poetic form. I find that, as an alternative, I am invested in a Jewish tradition of textuality that involves continuous commentary and gloss. I say this, by the way, as unredeemedly, proudly secular in my spiritual allegiances.

These situated cultural preferences and ideas do not necessarily control any individual poetic acts and choices, although, in the largest sense, these preferences may motivate my aesthetic/formal acts. Poetry resides in the complex of word meaning, sound, syntax and word order, diction, tone, connotation and nuance. These choices are made deep inside the work as it is being created in order to make rich arcs of feeling, knowledge, and understanding in the poetic text. I want to create a density and resonance of cultural texture in my work. Thus I have a horror of narrowly politically motivated poetry—for myself. Or to say this differently—I do not write poetry wrapping up in a tidy package those opinions that I think it would be good for people to have, nor do I write poetry presenting those useful, correct, or pertinent positions to the reader. I might be describing this in a limited fashion, as a narrow version of what a political poem is, but I want to make a particular point. People have written these kinds of poems. But I tend to suspect this desire for myself.

However, I feel that politics and the private life of persons; politics and emotional understanding; the historical world and the private sphere are not binaries. I feel, as Adorno said, "migrated into" by our current realities, infused in every cell by an on-going world crisis of global plunder and nationalist malfeasance. The political world, in another way, infuses everything we are. I express it continuously; I do not have to "decide" to write a "political" poem—I write politically simply by trying to represent all the dimensions of my and our lives. The social world, the economic world, the political world are here, now. The questions is how to face them, how not to "exclude" their force by means of the purificatory, aestheticizing rituals of art. As my answers above have also indicated, I would also say that I do not write "feminist poetry" as that term has been understood, as coming directly out of the opinions or positions of the women's movement. I am a feminist and a poet, not a feminist poet. I write enriched by and motivated from feminism and its cultural critique. I do not "write" feminism within my poetry in any straightforward, easily identifiable way. It's not opinions, simply, it is a cultural relationship. For me feminism is a critical and resistant relationship to much of hegemonic culture, to its products and to its ideologies. This critical resistance and suspicion is seen in a good deal of my work. But when I write poetry, all of myself is at play (and at work) and/or none of myself is; I pass beyond "self" into "language" and "poesis" and "the world." My poetry is, in general, not affirmative (in the sense of declarative, inspirational, rousing,
manifesto-like) but, in the strictest sense, I work from a poetics of negativity. I make the analytic, the speculative, the oppositional, the intricate, the thing that refuses to be consoled.

With these poems, I want people to feel moved in themselves, to feel themselves connected to grief, rage, awe and hope. I want to give them the sense that, having read one of my long works, they have "been through" something—experienced a whole arc of evocative feeling. I want them to feel called forth.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis is a poet-critic, whose long poem project, begun in 1986, is collected in Torques: Drafts 58-76 (Salt Publishing, 2007) as well as in Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan U.P., 2001) and Drafts 39-57, Pledge, with Draft unnnumbered: Précis (Salt Publishing, 2004). In 2006, two books of her innovative essays were published: Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (2006), and the ground-breaking The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice ([1990] 2006) both from University of Alabama Press. Other critical writing includes Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Earlier work includes Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985) and H.D.: The Career of that Struggle (1986), as well as an edition of The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990). She has co-edited three anthologies including The Objectivist Nexus and The Feminist Memoir Project.

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