Friday, October 21, 2011
Photo by Melody Holmes
My thanks to CA Conrad to reprint this from the PhillySound blog where it originally appeared.
Over the years Rachel Blau DuPlessis has written and said things which have struck flint in me, so I was of course happy when she agreed to take time out of her busy schedule for this conversation. There are few people alive today (there's no doubt in my mind that this is more than safe to say) who know as much about poetry as she does, and I don't just mean as someone who catalogs information, but someone who has a true sense of historic, political, social and economic aspects of where poetry emerges in these various contexts of our world. She overwhelms with what she knows, and inspires us TO GET KNOWING MORE and to sharpen our skills. In particular her role as an activist for women's rights and how this rubbed against her poems from the different sides of her earlier years is what I mostly ask her to talk about here, as you will see. Rereading the text today in preparation for publication, it's clear to me that she is talking about many things which have been ignored, BUT ARE VITAL TO our better understanding with a wider lens those various political and literary movements we think we have already figured out for ourselves. This is my way of saying this is important! And I'm happy to say too that it's a very enjoyable read!
Spring Equinox, 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?"
RACHEL BLAU DUPLESSIS:
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.
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.
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 ( 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.