By Jane Joritz-Nakagawa


Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women's Language-Oriented Writing

Megan Simpson

State University of New York Press, 2000

222 pp.

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

424 pp.

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)


By Moriarty:


                      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).


Simpson comments:


       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. . . .


(p. 224)


       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.


(p. 225)


       . . . 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. . . .


(pp. 227-228)


       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

       society's wishes.


(p. 231)



       . . . 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 . . . .



(p. 235)   


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 . . . .


(p. 22).


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.


(p. 251)




              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.


(p. 252)


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.