Honoring diverse voices: gender and the literary avant-garde
by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

GALE Newsletter: Spring 2007

Honoring diverse voices: gender and the literary avant-garde

 by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa


(From Spring 2007 issue of the GALE Newsletter)


Jane is a former coordinator and publicity chair of GALE, a frequent contributor/contributing editor to the GALE newsletter, and the coordinator of the GALE-supported EFL textbook Gender Issues Today.  She is also a widely published poet whose first poetry collection was published by Avant Books (Tokyo) in 2006, and an associate professor at Aichi University of Education. A second poetry collection will be available in summer, 2007. Email is welcome at <janenakagawa@yahoo.com>.



Honoring diverse voices: gender and the literary avant-garde


Numerous female-led and female-only writing forums exist in Japan and abroad.


Literary journals edited by women include Japan's English language journal Yomimono edited by Suzanne Kamata (http://yomimonomagazine.blogspot.com/); Tinfish, edited by Susan Schultz of the University of Hawaii (www.tinfishpress.com); Factorial, edited by Sawako Nakayasu  (http://www.factorial.org/journal.htm);  Aufgabe  (http://www.litmuspress.org/pages/aufgabe.htm) and  many others.


Journals which exclusively publish female-authored literary works include the online journals How2  (http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/)    and Her Circle (http://www.hercircleezine.com/) .  Print literary journals which publish female authored works or feminist works exclusively include So to Speak (http://www.gmu.edu/org/sts/), Calyx (http://www.proaxis.com/~calyx/) and Kalliope (http://opencampus.fccj.org/kalliope/index.html), among others.


Reading series organized by females include Four Stories  (www.fourstories.org), held both in Japan and the USA.  In October 2007 will be the first annual Japan Writers Conference, the current staff of which is comprised of four women including myself (visit http://www.viversimples.ezhoster.com/writerconference.html). As of late December, 2007 however conference proposals submitted by males well-outnumbered those submitted by women, although I was able to rectify the imbalance by inviting women whose proposals had been accepted to do a second session and to refer highly qualified women writers who had not submitted proposals to the organizers for review.


Is there a need for women only and/or female led writing spaces and forums?  In the past few days I have been looking for textbooks to use for a course I will teach from April this year which will comprise an introduction to American poetry for 3rd year undergraduates (most of whom will be female).  One of the first and better ones I found under the title “America shi nyumon” (introduction to American poetry) includes only 6 female poets (24 males).  Another book I looked at, the title of which in English would be “Famous American poems” has a much tinier proportion of female to male American poets.   Not long ago I ordered some poetry audio CD from Small Press Distribution (spd.com).  One CD titled American Text Sound Pieces has performances from the mid 1960s til the early 70s.  Only one of the 13 pieces is a work created/performed by a female poet.  Another CD which arrived, titled Snake Hiss: A Transcendental Friend Audio Project, from 1999, shows some progress as nearly half of the poets/performers are female.  Yet when putting together of list of journal editors names’ to acknowledge in my poetry book (Nakagawa, 2006) -- for selecting the book’s poems for their literary journals -- I noticed that the ratio of female to male journal editors was 3 females to 9 males. A recently received book I ordered from amazon.com called Poetry Speaks that I planned to use in the aforementioned course includes only12 female poets among 42 poets total.


Although I read widely, a chief literary interest of mine is stylistically innovative poetry written by women, the kind of poetry usually referred to in literary circles as either post-modern, experimental, avant-garde and/or language-based (not that these terms are synonymous; they are not).  Wright (2006) explained that post -modern literature “... breaks traditional frames of genre, structure and stylistic unity and other forms of artificially imposed order” (p. 18). 


Recent books devoted to stylistically innovative women’s poetry include Rankine and Spahr (2002), Mark and Rees-Jones (2000), Frost and Hogue (2006), Frost (2003), Simpson (2000) and Kinnahan (2004). Major female poet Lyn Hejinian, quoted in Rankine and Spahr (2002, p. 284) describes innovative poetry as that which:


          ...invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer

          over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority

          implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies....

          often emphasizes or foregrounds process...and thus

          resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and

          fix material, turn it into a product.


Innovative poetry by women though abundant has not been without its critics.  As noted in Kinnahan (2004) for example, in the early 1960s poet James Dickey dismissed (the now widely acclaimed late) poet Barbara Guest’s work as “incoherent, irresponsible, and capricious” (p. 49) and complained about poets who


          ....expect the reader to work devotedly for them to solve

          conundrums, to supply transitions, to make, out of a

          haphazard assortment of building materials, a habitable

          dwelling....They will be satisfied with fragments of thoughts,

          melanges of images...(Dickey, in Kinnahan, p. 49)


As Kinnahan notes, the above describes rather well characteristics of language-oriented poetry which has risen to prominence in more recent literary history, currently a major genre of poetry somewhat dominated by female poets such as Rosmarie Waldrop and Susan Howe (among many others). Yet according to Megan Simpson (2000),


          …language oriented poetry by women has been doubly

          marginalized, avoided by most university and large

          publishers as well as women’s presses and magazines (p. x).


The female led and authored print journal HOW(ever) was launched in the early 1980s as an attempt to create and foster dialogue among a female, feminist avant garde literary community. In the 1990s it morphed into the web journal known as HOW2, which has been described as “an archival space” that can ‘disturb, disperse, and distribute” the power of knowledge production and control” (Kinnahan, 2004, p. 39).  Although in the 1990s writing by women had, by then, gained wider attention, Meredith Stricker asserted that a women-only space was still needed: “What happens if increasingly diverse work by women is available, but no one can find it? (in Kinnahan, 2004. p. 39).


Many of the poets published by journals such as HOW2 are stylistically associated with language poetry, a trend which arose on the west coast in the 1970s and is associated mostly with male poets such as Charles Bernstein.  (Although a majority of the L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E poets were male, not all were.) Yet many have pointed out that language-oriented poetry has stylistic roots in works that well preceded the 1970s; Gertrude Stein’s 1914 work, Tender Buttons, is one frequently mentioned in this regard.


Hoover (1994) notes:


          Implicit in the language poets’ break with traditional modes

          such as narrative, with its emphasis on linearity and closure,

          is a challenge to the male-dominant hierarchy (p. xxxiv).



Yet one of the criticisms of language poetry is that it is inaccessible, overly academic and/or that it places too many demands on the reader, ala James Dickey’s comment above.


Interviewer Lynn Keller posed the following question to Susan Howe:


          People objecting to experimental writing sometimes

          complain that whatever claims are made for its social

          engagement or Marxist perspective or its changing

          “hegemonic structures of consciousness,” that, in

          fact, the audience it reaches is a very narrow, highly

          educated one, that the reader has to have tremendous

          intellectual confidence to even grapple with these texts.

          What do you think? Does that concern you?


Howe replied:


          No.  The objection offends me.  I think it is part of a really

          frightening anti-intellectualism in our culture.  Why should

          things please a large audience?  And isn’t claiming that

          the work is too intellectually demanding also saying a

          majority of people are stupid?


              (in Frost and Hogue, 2006 p. 166)


The 4th edition of A handbook to literature, by C. Hugh Holman, defined a “lyric” as


          A brief subjective poem strongly marked by imagination,

          melody, and emotion, and creating for the reader a single,

          unified impression.


Although lyric poetry is defined variously, many works blur distinctions between accepted (or contested!) categories and many poets attempt to work in or blend together a number of styles and genres over a career or even in a single work- critics refer to subverted lyric, a late lyric, etc. --one way of understanding experimental poetry is that the latter may not tend to aim at a single, unified impression (of anything) but rather invite a multiplicity of readings. 


Harryette Mullen describes her work “Muse and Drudge” as:


              ...not really a complete thought about anything.  It is

               very much a book of echoes.  Some of the fragments

              rhyme and some don’t, and that is basically the

              principle of the book--the recycling of fragments

              of language.


                   (in Frost and Hogue, 2006, p. 194)


An excerpt from this work:


                   double dutch darky

                   take kisses back to Africa

                   they dipped you in a vat

                   at the wacky chocolate factory


                   color we’ve got in spades

                   melanin gives perpetual shade

                   though rhythm’s no answer to cancer

                   pancakes pale and butter can get rancid




                   go on sister sing your song

                   lady redbone senora rubia

                   took all day long

                   shampooing her nubia


                   she gets to the getting place

                   without or with him

                   must I holler when

                   you’re giving me rhythm


                   members don’t get weary

                   add some practice to your theory

                   she wants to know is it a men thing

1                  or a him thing


                   wishing him luck

                   she gave him lemons to suck

                   told him please dear

                   improve your embouchure


                        (excerpt from Mullen’s “Muse and Drudge”

                        in Frost and Hogue, 2006, p. 213)


Mullen’s work has been described variously and appears to contain elements both of lyric poetry and language-based work.

Mullen’s poem “Sleeping with the Dictionary” may provide an additional example (excerpted below):


     I beg to dicker with my silver-tongued companion, whose lips

     are ready to read my shining gloss.  A versatile partner, conver-

     sant and well-versed in the verbal art, the dictionary is not

     averse to the solitary habits of the curiously wide-awake reader.

     In the dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative,

     awakening my tired imagination to the hypnagogic trance of


     ……………………………To go through all these motions and proce-

     dures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s

     nocturnal mission………..


     Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of

     migratory words.  In the rapid eye movement of the poet’s night

     vision, this dictum can be decoded, like the secret acrostic of a

     lover’s name.

                   (Mullen, 2002; reprinted in Poetry Kanto 21, 2005)



Hoover (1994) comments:


          Language poets see lyricism in poetry not as a means

          of expressing emotion but rather in its original context

          as the musical use of words.  Rather than employ

          language as a transparent window onto experience,

          the language poet pays attention to the material nature

          of words.  Because it is fragmentary and discontinuous,

          language poetry may appear at first to be automatic writing;

          however, it is often heavily reworked to achieve the proper

          relation of materials (pp. xxxv-xxxvi).


Poet / critic / teacher Susan Schultz writes:


          .....................................................................................I want

          To propose that avant-garde writing, with its focus

          On the reader as coproducer of meaning, uses a method

          One might call “readers block,” whereby the reader’s desire

          To be “absorbed” into a text is deflected (artificially,

          According to [major language poet] Charles Bernstein in his “Artifice                                 of Absorption”)

          By means of writing that is “anti-absorptive.” It’s as if the expected

          Sponge were really a ball bearing, except it’s a ball bearing

          That lends itself to analysis, to critique, to addition rather than

          The subtractions that “reading” often presumes in the classroom,

          Where “deep meaning” is shorthand for “and the answer is!”

          Poetry reduced to the status of game show, with teacher

          As host, students at their buttons, and everyone pretending

          To have good fun.  Thus is “meaning” assumed to involve

          “Winning,” either good grades or vacations in tropical places....

          (Read “tropic” not in its “trop(e)-ical” sense but literally), where

          The avant-garde poet asks the reader to eschew this economic

          Model of reading for what Juliana Spahr terms an “anarchic”

          Process or which [poet]  Ron Silliman describes as “torque,” where

          Meaning becomes an activity, free but controlled play if you will,

          Inscribed into the political realm, where communities of readers

          Are assumed to share leftist politics (when Charles Bernstein

          Came to Hawai’i in 1993, the flyer emphasized his status

          As a left, Marxist thinker, and Silliman’s

          Work in Socialist journalism is well known).....


              (from Schulz, 2005, p. 2)


However, as Spahr writes:


          Lyric is not and never has been a simplistic genre,

          despite its seeming innocence.  It is only recently,

          after modernism, that it has gotten its bad name

          for being traditional, for being romantic in the derisive

          sense (Rankine and Spahr, p.1).


Yet Spahr also quotes Maria Rosa Menocal, who wrote:


          When the world all around is calling for clear

          distinctions, loyalties to Self and hatred of others,

          and, most of all, belief in the public and legal discourses

          of single languages and single states--smooth

          narratives -- what greater threat exists than that

          voice which rejects such easy orthodoxies with

          their readily understood rhetoric and urges,

          instead, the most difficult readings, those that

          embrace the painfully impossible in the human

          heart? (ibid p. 1)


Poet Lyn Hejinian describes her interest in creating within her poems “….a genuinely ‘open’ or ‘generative’ poetic text, a text that ‘relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive’” (in Perloff, 1996, p. 212).


Poet Kathleen Fraser described Barbara Guest’s work as presenting “very exact and abstract relations, without telling one what to think”  (in Frost and Hogue, 2006, p. 359). 


When Elisabeth Frost commented that “a lot of people associate with traditional poetry the pleasure of closure” poet Leslie Scalapino commented:


          Writing a form that implies closure in conventional works

          that I’ve heard or read—I find that completely stifling.

          You feel that you’re trapped and dead.  I have a reaction

          of real claustrophobia.

                        (in Frost and Hogue, p. 309)

Luce Irigaray, in Je, tu, nous: toward a culture of difference (translated by Alison Martin, published in English in 1993) stated:


          Women’s entry into the public world, the social relations

          they have among themselves and with men, have

          made cultural transformations, and especially linguistic

          ones, a necessity (Irigaray, 1993, p. 67).


Kinnahan insists that experimental poetry by women


     encourages attention to cultural contexts of nation,

     gender, and race [and] as importantly shifting the

     terms by which the experimental is produced, understood, and

     defined....(Kinnahan, 2004, p. xiv)


and  [cf the criticism of women’s experimental poetry being overly esoteric] states:


     . . . women’s experimental poetry has often been

     overlooked as too untheoretically aware or

     sophisticated.... women’s theorizing about poetry – women’s

     insertions into conversations about poetics -- have

     been dismissed as insufficiently rigorous (Kinnahan, 2004, p. xv).


 Luce Irigaray has said:


            Being denied the right to speak can have

            several meanings and take several forms.  It

            can be a conscious effort to ban someone

            from institutions, or to banish him or her from

            the polis.  Such an action can mean, if only in

            part: I don’t understand what you’re doing so I

            reject it, we reject it (Irigaray, 1993, p. 52).


Simpson (2000) has commented:


            Poetry is neither a luxurious entertainment or

            pastime, nor a wholly subjective self-expression

            valuable only to the writer; poetry is a mode of

            knowing and of exploring cultural and ideological

            processes of knowing (p. x)


While writers such as Simpson (2000) link philosophy and feminism to avant garde poetry by women, and Frost (2003) discusses a “linguistically based feminism” found in avant-garde poetry written by women, Irigaray has said:


            There is not a great amount of fluidity

            between disciplines and styles of writing

            these days.  The many fields of knowledge

            and techniques have made the boundaries

            between forms of knowledge more watertight

            now than they were in the past.  In previous

            centuries, there was a dialogue between

            philosophers and scientists.  Nowadays,

            they are often complete strangers to each

            other because their languages don’t enable

            them to communicate with one another

            (Irigaray, 1993, p. 55).




            For centuries, whatever has been valorized has been

            masculine in gender, whatever devalorized, feminine

            (Irigaray, 1993, p. 68).


The rather flip “Poems We Can Understand” written by my former teacher, Paul Hoover (quoted above), ends as follows:


          We want poetry we can understand,


          the fingerprints on mother’s dress,

          pain of martyrs, scientists.

          Please, no rabbit taking a rabbit

          out of a yellow hat, no tatooed back


          facing miles of desert, no wind.

          We don't understand it.


              (Hoover, 1982, p. 54)


Hoover explained that this poem “....marks a period when I was trying to move from a poetry consisting exclusively of imagery—I’d been raised to think that ‘essaying’ in poetry is unacceptable -- to a poetry of thought and music”  (in Lehman, 1996 p. 102).


Maxine Chernoff (see her poem “Breasts” reprinted in GALE Newsletter, Winter, 1993: http://www.tokyoprogressive.org.uk/gale/newsletters.html; also of interest may be Chernoff’s comments in an issue of the literary journal Chain on the topic of gender and editing, available online at: http://www.temple.edu/chain/1_chernoff.htm), major US poet known especially for her work in what is called prose poetry and co-editor with Paul Hoover of New American Writing (www.newamericanwriting.com), explains that poetry “....can aspire to enlarge experience -- both the author’s and the reader’s -- rather than to merely mirror it” (Lehman, 1996, p. 27).


The poet Reginald Shepherd has written that for him:


     ....Poetry is a way of saying, a mode of attendance to words: in that sense, poetry is a verb, not a noun.....I would like each of my poems to be an experience for the reader, rather than simply a description of or a commentary on experience.  ‘Meaning’ is often secondary.  I have had many experiences of whose meaning I’ve been uncertain, though I know what happened and that it made an impact on me.  Many of my favorite poems...are poems I cannot claim to ‘understand’ but they have happened to me and I am different because of the encounter....I think of the poem as a world one can explore, within and by which one can be changed, if only momentarily” (found online in March, 2005, at http://www.saltonstall.org/echap2/shepherd.html).


In War and Peace 2, an anthology of experimental poetry and prose edited by Leslie Scalapino and Judith Goldman, Joanne Kyger asks us to:


          . . . look briefly at what poets can do to break the obsessive

          rhetorical hold on certain words the current Bush                                         administration is now using.


          Most of these words were in evidence during the so-called                                  press conference and speech Mr. Bush gave on April 13, 2004: “Freedom,           Democracy, Liberation, Security, Safety, Terror, Terrorists, War, Thugs, etc.




     What poets can do, whether or not they believe “a poem” has its

     own truth and direction, is to write words back into a liberating

     context, with a refreshed sense of their meaning


              (Kyger in Scalapino and Goldman, 2005, p. 55)


Poet Susan Schultz quotes a post 9/11 email received from poet Charles Bernstein:



     Because my work originates, at least in part, out of a desire to both confront and acknowledge catastrophe (bad turns, impasses), in the wake of September 11, I felt a continued commitment to poetry, to poetics, and indeed to teaching.  If anything, 9/11 made me feel an intensified sense of the relevance     of the office of poetry.  Not the demeaning sense of poetry as ‘comforting’ in a time of crisis, put forward by such places as The New York Times.  Rather, by this ‘office of poetry’ I mean poetry and poetics as a way of thinking in, around, and through ‘the real’, and in particular, a way of going beyond the deafeningly deceptive representations of ‘reality’ provided by the massed media  

                        (in Schultz, 2005, p. 211)


When I heard my own first book length collection of poems (Nakagawa, 2006) had been reviewed in the Tokyo magazine (not a literary journal) Metropolis, I waited with some dread for the review’s appearance.  Would the work be denigrated as incoherent? inaccessible? irrelevant? Fortunately reviewer Wright (2006) found what he called “a logic, a structure, a moral message” within the pages of the book.  Maybe an appreciation for and/or understanding of a diversity of voices, styles, and perspectives is, in the post 9-11 era, no longer too much to ask for. 


In this brief essay about poetry, rather few poem excerpts appear.  I’ve quoted liberally from some writers whose work I admire and whose words I believe should speak for themselves; as I do so, replaying in my head are admonishments from former teachers who told me an essay should not merely be a collection of author quotes.  However, as poet Rosmarie Waldrop has written:  “Since I make the rules, I also feel free to break them” (in Lehman, 1996, p. 221).

Although we may be taught when writing essays not to over-quote, erasing the original words of the writer may be a way of erasing them and superimposing ourselves.  I’m thinking of something too I read about the sculptor Richard Nonas, who reportedly gave up anthropology in favor of sculpture because he felt, at a point when his book was halfway finished, that he would not want to be written about by a third party the way he was writing about others in his own book.  Thus he abandoned the book and became a sculptor instead.   Presumably he decided he was an artist when he noticed that he could place objects such as blocks of wood in various arrangements making “communication” occur between them.  I think of language poetry in a similar way, that the arrangement of words may often create a kind of dialogue.  In this dialogue, conundrums are often left intact for the reader to ponder.  A complex dialogue may occur (versus the simplistic language of political propaganda or advertising).


As a poet one of the techniques I sometimes employ, as other poets do, is the collage technique where a small to large portion of a poem is found words, phrases, images, or sentences I’ve excerpted/distorted/rearranged. One of the reasons I began using collage was to include more voices, perspectives and ideas in the context and texture of a poem, and more recently in the context/texture of essays as well.   I’d like to conclude this somewhat collage-like essay with an excerpt from Rosmarie Waldrop's poem “Conversation 1: On the Horizontal”, pp. 9-10, which is preceded by a prologue (Prologue: Two Voices, pp. 3-5):


              The difference of our sex, says one voice, saves us from

              humiliation.  It makes me shiver, says the other.  Your

              voice drops stones into feelings to sound their depth.

              Then warmth is truncated to war.  But I’d like to fall

              back into simplicity as into a featherbed.


                        (excerpt from Waldrop, 1999 p. 3)



              I *am* here, she says, I’ve learned that life consists in fit-

              ting my body to the earth’s slow rotation.  So that the

              way I lean on the parapet betrays dried blood and

              invisible burns.  My shadow lies in the same direction as

              all the others, and I can’t jump over it.  My mother’s

              waves ran high.  She rode them down on me as on a

              valley, hoping to flush out the minerals.  But I hid my

              bones under sentences expanding life the flesh in my




              Language, he says, spells those who love it, sliding side-

              long from word to whole cloth.  The way fingers

              extend the body into adventure, print, lakes, and Dead-

              man’s-hand.  Wherever the pen pushes, in the teeth of

              fear and malediction, even to your signature absorbing

              you into sign.  A discomfort with the feel of home

              before it grows into inflamed tissue and real illness.

              With symptoms of grammar, punctuation, subtraction

              of soul. And only death to get you out.

                   (from Waldrop, 1999, p. 10)



Frost, E. A.  2003.  The feminist avant-garde in American poetry.  Iowa City: The University of Iowa Press.


Frost, E. A. and Hogue, C. 2006.  Innovative women poets: an anthology of contemporary poetry and interviews. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press.


Holman, C. H. 1980.  A handbook to literature, 4th ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing.


Hoover, P.  1982.   Poems we can understand (poem).  In Somebody talks a lot.  Chicago: Yellow Press.


Hoover, P.   (Ed.) 1994.   Post modern American poetry.  New York: W. W. Norton.


Irigaray, L.  1993.  Je, tu, nous: toward a culture of difference  (trans. A. Martin).  New York: Routledge.


Kinnahan, L. 2004.  Lyric interventions: feminism, experimental poetry, and contemporary discourse.  Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.


Kyger, J.  2005.  Poetry in time of crisis.  In Goldman, J. and Scalapino, L.  War and peace 2.  Oakland: O Books.


Lehman, D.  (ed.) 1996.  Ecstatic occasions, expedient forms: 85 leading contemporary poets select and comment on their poems.  Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.


Mark, A. and Rees-Jones, D.  2000.  Contemporary women's poetry: reading/writing/practice.  New York: Palgrave.


Mullen, H.  2005.  (Original publication date 2002).  Sleeping with the dictionary.  Poetry Kanto #21, p. 45.


Nakagawa, Jane J.  2006.  Skin museum.  Tokyo: Avant Books.


Perloff, M.  1996.  Wittgenstein’s ladder: poetic language and the strangeness of the ordinary.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Rankine, C. and Spahr, J.  2002.  American women poets in the 21st century.  Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.


Schultz, S.  2005.  A poetics of impasse in modern and contemporary American poetry.  Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.


Simpson, M.  2000.  Poetic epistemologies: gender and knowing in women’s language-oriented writing.  Albany: State University of New York Press.


Waldrop, R.  1999.  Reluctant gravities.  New York: New Directions.


Wright, H.  2006.  Books: review of skin museum, by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa.  Metropolis, December 15, 2006 (#664), pp. 18-19.  Also available online at:   http://metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/664/books.asp (retrieved January 2, 2007).



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