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 <email@example.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?
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,
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
(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
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
(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:
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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