CRAYON OUTSIDE THE LINES
Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women's Language-Oriented Writing
State University of New York Press, 2000
ISBN 0 7914 4446 5
Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews
Elisabeth A. Frost and Cynthia Hogue (Eds.)
University of Iowa Press, 2006
ISBN-10: 1 58729 507 5
ISBN-13: 978 1 58729 507 2
In Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women's Language-Oriented Writing, Simpson discusses the work of twelve American female writers, four from earlier in the 20th century --H.D., Riding, Stein and Loy --about whom she says:
Rather than attempting to reassert logocentric control over a reality
fragmented by the social and political upheavals of the early
part of the century as well as contemporary developments in
the disciplines of science, psychology and philosophy...these
women modernists tested the limits of language, form, and
genre in order to investigate the role that language plays in
knowing, and in the cultural construction and validation of
certain forms of knowledge. Writing was for each of them an
open process, an active engagement with language, in which
the reader is invited to participate fully (Simpson, p. 23).
An excerpt from a poem by Loy:
As your indisputable male voice roared
Through my brain and my body
Arguing dynamic decomposition
Of which I was understanding nothing
about which Simpson comments:
Loy suggests that that what is normally valued as
knowledge--abstract thought and the contentious assertion
of the theories such thought produces--is also normally
thought of as the special domain of men (Simpson p. 55).
Simpson notes (quoting Susan Stanford Friedman) that modernist women writers were distrustful of political activism (in the usual sense of the word), yet explored the sociopolitical relations of the self in relation to others, "the power structures underlying the personal" (see Simpson, p. 77).
The eight contemporary female poets whose work is discussed by Simpson are Lyn Hejinian, Beverly Dahlen, Lori Lubeski, Laura Moriarty, Susan Howe, Leslie Scalapino, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Carla Harryman.
Dahlen has written:
There will never be time to write all the sentences one may have
been capable of writing, even about one subject. take a subject,
anything, it is so simple, but the sentence is notched, can view
the relationship from any one of a number (the number is infinite)
of stances. where would you like to stand to view this one. any
sentence is merely an example. it shows what might be done. a
sentence is a model, in no way permanent, of thought.
(quoted in Simpson, p. 89)
Undefined as we
Only a word easily used
To mean both
What it means and what
It could mean much
More than it does
Undefined as it is
(quoted in Simpson, p. 112)
Howe is quoted, from an interview:
I think there is a truth, even it's not fashionable to say so anymore.
. . . I believe with Walter Benjamin that the story is in danger of
being lost the minute someone opens one's mouth to speak; but
you've got to open your mouth to speak, and there is a story, and
it's probably going to be lost anyway, but whatever that story is,
whether you call it fact or fiction, or an original version, it's some-
thing real (in Simpson, p. 165).
It seems that Susan Howe rides the rift between empiricism and textu-
ality, sharing the empiricist's interest in material details, but remaining
suspicious of empirical methods of obtaining these details . . . (p. 165).
She also states:
Howe believes that it is possible to recover the marginalized voices
of the past, but only when we give up any claims of objectivity (p. 166)
Although Howe's project cannot be characterized as entirely anti-
narrative, relying as it does on a kind of philosophical-political-
poetic quest narrative in the traditon of the twentieth-century long
poem, she resists the kind of conventional, closed narrative
that has been the preferred form of historical representations of
"total history" since the Enlightenment (p. 173).
Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews
contains 14 interviews with American female poets, preceded by brief introductory remarks and with sample poems/poem excerpts appearing after the interview transcripts.
Howe, Scalapino and Berssenbrugge appear in this book also. The other poets are Gloria Evangelina Anzaldua, Jayne Cortez, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kathleen Fraser, Alice Fulton, Barbara Guest, Harryette Mullen, Alice Notley, Alicia Ostriker, Sonia Sanchez and C.D. Wright.
Some excerpts from the interview with American poet Alice Notley, now living in Paris, follow:
. . . poet is the world's most underpaid job, but it was years before I
caught on that no one respected it anymore either and that hardly
anyone really cared if there was poetry in the world or not and that was
why it was underpaid. Still, I didn't want to work except for writing and
a bit of teaching. I write every day. I read every day.
Living with Doug Oliver [her second husband, who died of cancer]
I began to think more about how being poor one doesn't use, or take what
the truly poor -- people in sub-Saharan Africa, say--ought to have. I don't
feel entitled to more than anyone else's share of the world's money or
goods. Although of course I automatically have that even not having
much by our society's standards. . . . I don't feel part of the infernal
and illusory machine which churns out jobs, objects, and the walls
of the visible world.
. . .
My mother always talked about going into the closet to pray except she
quoted Paul. I always liked the idea because it meant I didn't have to
bow my head in public with everyone else: I detested public prayer,
saluting the flag, and singing the school song . . . .
I am not a Christian because I don't believe in god and I detest the idea
of the male religious leader and/or model. . .
(in Frost & Hogue, p. 222)
I find out everything I believe through writing. Most of my significant
experiences, and most of the things I "realize" and found out through
the practice of poetry, specifically during the performance, the literal
writing of it. . . .
My viewpoint is made more complicated by my being here [in Paris],
and my response to poetic language is shiftier. Language seems
more substantial and less precise, more about texture and presence
and less about meaning in terms of individual words. The experience
of speaking and hearing French has made all language mysterious
to me again.
. . . I haven't had to read the literary theoreticians/philosophers
because I don't teach except for workshops; I escaped having
to read them in college, by virtue of my generational placement.
I think they're mostly a factor in the university environment. I know
what the conversation is like . . . I haven't the slightest interest in what
the theory people have to say. I tend to think of them as more men telling me
what to think . . . . I do an enormous amount of
reading of long poems, a lot of reading about Australian aborigines,
and ancient Sumer, reading of Sumerian literature, plus books about
owls, snakes, etc. . . .
My brother was in a bad war, because men have believed in war
for a long time . . . . He got a very bad war, because the military-
industrial complex and twentieth century male politics were happening
in their particular, very bad ways. So the big question is, how does
one change what is happening? There are, I suppose, specific answers
at specific points.
. . .
No one wants you to be a poet; in being a poet one is disobeying
. . . among indigenous peoples, when someone died, when
something bad happens, the only thing to do is to sing the world
back into creation: start over again at the very beginning. My books
always seem to be about trying to find that beginning in order to
start over . . . .
An excerpt from Notley's poem Desamere begins:
Overhead at night, above the planet
Identity gone to sleep . . . Look what I've done
End of century, world so human
It may become a desert
Doesn't it feel like one anyway?
Approach a desert then, in a prophecy
An America now and later
Flat and cut with washes
What nondescript hardy little bushes!
In the distance treeless mountains
Then a campfire, someone's here
Small orange-haloed, a flame
People sit around it
Two, man and woman, well-lit
A third standing, distanced from the two,
Tending towards them nervously,
`I dropped the shell` he says,
`But I'm not responsible for the misaim
Someone else set the sights--`
. . .
(in Frost & Hogue, p. 236)
In her interview, poet Anzaldua states:
So the only viable choice for me was lesbianism. In lesbianism
there would be some power things--if my lover happened to
be white, she would have some privilege; if I was older, I'd have
some power--but I had more of a chance to have a meaningful
relationship with a woman than I would with a man. This is
common sense . . . . the women who've become equal to
men in terms of power, it's been at a great cost to them, and
they negate a lot of stuff. . . .
(in Frost & Hogue, p. 19)
It's almost like the differences in me from other women started
at a very early age. When I was three months old, I started
menstruating. The effect wasn't just psychological, it was
also biological and physical . . . . I was marked very early,
and it was very painful for me to be so different because I
already felt very different because of my race and being a
farmworker. In the valley if you worked the fields, you're a much
lower Chicana than if you worked in a department store or an
office . . . .
Anzaldua's poem "Del otro lado" begins:
She looks at the Border Park fence
posts are stuck into her throat, her navel,
barbwire is shoved up her cunt.
Her body torn in two, half a woman on the other side
half a woman on this side, the right side
And she went to the North American university,
excelled in the Gringo's tongue
learned to file in folders.
But she remembered the other half
strangled in Aztec villages, in Mayan villages, in Incan villages
(in Frost & Hogue, p. 30).
Alicia Ostriker in her interview remarks:
Life consisted of what my family wanted or needed me
for and what I was getting paid for. Who cared if I
wrote that next poem? . . . It took decades for me to arrive
at the confidence to make time for poetry and to identify
myself primarily as a poet.
When I started writing about women's poetry, I bifurcated
into scholar mode and critic mode. Scholar mode meant
lengthy research, footnotes -- the stance of authority. . . .
But you are so constricted in your expression when you're
writing a scholarly article. You can be witty but you can't
be playful, you can't be passionate, you can't be joyful
or sorrowful or angry; you have to crayon inside the lines.
Simpson's book is a remarkable accomplishment in that it brings together a diverse group of female innovative poets and poetries, and, in fairly accessible language, lucidly and convincingly ties these writers and their works to feminist philosophical strands.
Frost and Hogue's amazing achievement is also in bringing together a variety of innovative female poets-thinkers, whose words in interviews and poem excerpts let them speak for themselves rather than be spoken for, perhaps a relative rarity in the world of literary scholarship.
Both of these books were read with great enthusiasm by this reader and will be returned to repeatedly.
About the reviewer
Poet, teacher and activist Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is Associate Professor at Aichi University of Education in central Japan where she teaches courses in American poetry, gender and other subjects. Jane has authored two books of poetry and has published well over 100 poems and essays on the themes of literature, feminism, and pedagogy.