Tuesday, August 22, 2006


The University of Alabama is offering, via Charles Bernstein’s blog (& just until the end of this month) a 30 percent discount on two of the most recent publications from the Modern & Contemporary Poetry Series: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work and her newly republished The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. Any new publication by DuPlessis is a big deal, deservedly so, and while I haven’t gotten my own copies of this perfectly matched pair of critical books yet, just thinking about them sent me back to the title work in Blue Studios, an essay that has been up at the Electronic Poetry Center for some time. It’s one of those essays that makes you thrilled just to be living in the same time as such great work, that you can read it & absorb it & let it feed into your own processes as a poet. That’s something that only the very best poetry & critical writing can do – and both genres can achieve this -- & once you’ve connected with a text like this, you know it’s something you’ll return to again & again as a touchstone of what is possible. I feel this way about very few critical texts – Spring & All, Proprioception, Writing Degree Zero – so any addition to this list is a major event. Blue Studio: Gender Arcades – I feel a need to italicize this, even tho I’m referring here to the title essay rather than the whole book (which I have yet to read) – is the only text on my personal list of such critical works written in this century.

The poet Barbara Cole has asked DuPlessis a question whose exact wording we never quite get to see, but must have been something like What about all this feminism? or, perhaps worded at greater length along the lines of You’re a poet long aligned & publicly associated with feminism in the U.S. & yet your own writing is a far cry from the sort of poetry that is characteristically identified as “feminist,” such as that of Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, Judy Grahn or Pat Parker. What is that about for you? How does it work? Or does it? However it was originally posed, it’s a compelling question. I recall Kathleen Fraser, who founded HOW(ever), now the e-journal How2, with the assistance of DuPlessis, Bev Dahlen & the late Frances Jaffer, once telling me that the reception the newsletter got was exactly the opposite of what she had anticipated, that she had thought it ought to be greeted enthusiastically by the likes of Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, only to be surprised at their silence, especially when compared with the extremely positive reaction the newsletter got from male post-avants, presumably the very poets who would be most threatened at this intervention into their traditionally male enclave (think, say, of the sexual politics of Charles Olson, or of the New American Poetry in general). And I recall how deeply suspicious of the word “feminism” so many of the women writers associated with language poetry have always been, perhaps precisely because of that term’s association with instrumentalist versions of the School of Quietude & its clarion call for conformity at all cost.¹ So to find DuPlessis tackling this issue directly is heady stuff.

DuPlessis’ response is multiple, organized as the subtitle suggests into movements or arcades, a term I suspect she chose less for the Walter Benjamin allusions (tho never so terribly far from the surface) as for the non-hierarchic experience of walking, literally, through a space with many alternatives.² There is, tho DuPlessis doesn’t say this at first, but rather arrives at it quite late in the essay’s progress, a distinction to be made between a feminism of production (think Susan Griffin) & one of reception (think Carla Harryman), plus, along the way, many, many different definitions within these two broad arcs of possible ways to constitute a feminist poet:

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 women

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 its paradigms.

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, 1980, 40)

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…multi-gendered, …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 gender normativities

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 overtly

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 gender ideas

Note that not all of these definitions require the poet to be female. What is actually oddest, this morning, about excerpting this little list is that it really doesn’t do any just either to the breadth of feminist possibilities that DuPlessis entertains over the course of the entire work – this is, after all, from a single arcade in a work that contains 25 such arcades. It’s not so much that there are other lists to added to this one as it is that entering the question over & over from all of these different angles – each arcade is a very distinct intervention – many of the categories above split & divide & all but explode into many further possible configurations.

From my perspective, what is so fascinating about all this is just how deeply DuPlessis’ critique resonates with my own sense of a literary/political/critical project, which is not one I would necessarily call feminist, perhaps save as an adjunct to (or dimension of) a more broadly social perspective. And this, at least in part, is why I think this essay is especially important for male poets to read & think through seriously. Particularly if you think there is a political dimension to what you are doing, I think guys will find it almost spooky just how completely on target DuPlessis’ own takes are, repeatedly throughout this piece, not just simply on or about gender, but across the board. Case in point (from the 22nd page of the 23-page PDF version also available on EPC):

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.

Gender is not the only reason one might want to encircle, rupture, torque, destabilize lyric poetry as such, but it certainly is one – class almost as obviously is another. There are a wide range of subject positions that might equally share DuPlessis’ principled resistance to “beauty.” A large portion – tho not all – of the spectrum that is the post-avant is aware of inhabiting these positions & it directly impacts the verse that rises from this juxtaposition. A sliver – tho not all – of the spectrum that is the School of Quietude does likewise. A writer who is committed to conformism as the hallmark of verse, but who is also an out-front feminist, is invariably someone living large in their personal contradictions. That might make their work more interesting, but also it might not. A lot depends on who & how well & in what ways, etc.

So there is no question that Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Blue Studios is a major act of feminist literary theory, but it is more than that also. It has insights & lessons that go beyond gender, even beyond class. My hope is that it gets read by more than the already convinced.


¹ Indeed, I have sometimes wondered if DuPlessis herself might have become a language poet had she been, say, in San Francisco during the early-to-mid 1970s rather than France. Her own poetics, with its strong critical dimension, surely has elements in common with my own poetry, as well as with the likes of Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Steve McCaffery, Bob Perelman & Charles Bernstein. Yet when I think of DuPlessis’ associates, particularly on the masthead at HOW(ever), such as Fraser & Dahlen, they were in San Francisco & very successfully kept langpo at arm’s distance – if anything they, Leslie Scalapino & some male poets like Jerry Estrin & Aaron Shurin – all proved to be language writing’s strongest – and thereby most useful – critics. When I see these same people today sometimes referred to language poets – Estrin was the first to have that phrase show up in his obituary – it makes me realize not just the degree to which that moment of the 1970s is past, but also it’s true, absolutely, that opposition is the truest friendship.

² One might compare the experience to walking through a mall, but without a “master tenant,” which is precisely the point.


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