Sunday, September 30, 2007

Reading Practices: Do Poets Think?

Virginia Jackson's essay, "Thinking Dickinson, Thinking Poetry," raises fascinating questions about readership and form. Jackson's argument builds along two trajectories, in one she argues that Dickinson wrote - and thought - in poetry but that poetry had a different meaning for Dickinson and for her contemporary readers than it does for readers of today. In another, she argues that scholarship about Dickinson provides a template for how we think "through lyric poetry in the last century and a half." To explain the first element of the argument Jackson mounts a close reading of Dickinson's poem which begins, '"Lethe" in my flower.' Jackson's close read of the poem in consultation with historical material demonstrates different reading experiences that Dickinson's contemporaries - and the recipients of her poem, in this case Susan, would have had, especially contrasting them with current reading traditions and assumptions.
I was intrigued because the construct of a "speaker" or "narrator" in a poem has been the subject of much conversation in an internet community that I participate in. Generally, all support the notion that there is a performed narrator that is not the poet with Sharon Olds being an extreme contemporary example of this. (Olds is known to respond to audience members who query her about her daughter by saying, I don't have a daughter, why do you assume that I do? As background, Olds' work includes many poems about her - or the speaker's/poet's children.) Jackson writes, "Once we decided (as just about everyone has decided, at least since late in the nineteenth century) to read poems as the dramatic monologues of fictional "speakers," then the drama of poetic forms struts and frets across the state of reading, which is to say that the relation between the poet and the poem is the relationship between an audience and an actor--or that would be the relation, if the actor were actually in front of us. . . . That is to say that for modern lyric reading, poetic thinking is an act of vicarious identification."
I wonder, what if we were to reject that vicarious identification and instead of seeking vicarious identification to seek through poetry an empathic understanding in which we identified the poet as not an actor but as a person making visible to others the real and understood emotions, not in a scripted drama, but in a factual and imaginative rendering?
Part of my wondering about this is the reading through of Swenson, though to be fair it isn't just Swenson for me but other poets, but I'll use Swenson as a common example. I feel like the emotional kernel of her work is too often not authentic or well-examined. I don't mean to suggest that this is intentional, always, on her part, but that without an authentic and well-examined emotional basis, her work becomes more of the work of language - as she suggests it is in her writing. This is fine, but as a reader I have greater expectations for poetry. I want not the vicarious identification, but the imaginative renderings of an authentic emotional life. I don't feel like Swenson can deliver on that. She had a secret and that secret over time turned into a lie.
I think that Mary Oliver has the same challenge in her work.* While she writes beautifully rendered poetry about nature that appears to build a metaphoric resonance for human emotional life, it too is flawed in not being honest. Over time, the function of the natural world for Oliver obscures the authentic exploration of her emotional life. We cannot vicariously identify with her work because we cannot on some basic level identify ourselves with a lie, with a half-truth, with obfuscation. I realize that the lie, half-truth, and obfuscation are three very different things, and that it is at best lazy to conflate them and at worst an intellectual sin, but for the moment, I leave it there to be explicated more fully later.
This sense of an authentic rendering, of course, is resonant with the arguments that Hart and Chung make in their article, "Hearing the Visual Lines." The work to understand the world in which Dickinson was writing and what she was doing with her manuscripts is about excavating an understanding of what Dickinson's emotional life was like. Hart and Chung and Jackson also intersect in their writing about print and manuscript-and-print culture. Now, we are in this transition where print and manuscript culture continue to exist but we add in an online-web, Internet, virtual?-culture and try to understand what the norms and expectations are there. The Dickinson Electronic Archive becomes a boundary object among these different cultures existing simultaneously in all three while also refusing in some ways each.
This question, Does literature think?, or alternately, Does poetry think?, for me begs the question, Do poets think? Reading the narratives of poets writing about their own work, I often think the answer is no. Swenson addresses this in her essay "A Poem Happens To Me." She writes, "It sometimes happens that I am unwilling to write the poem but that it forces itself from me without permission. A poem that happens in this way will often be inexplicable to myself, as to source, content, or significance." Rukeyser in A Life of Poetry describes a parallel process. In this case, each poet contends that the poet doesn't think. Yet, we know, by we, I suppose I mean we readers, we people who analyze and appreciate the art object, we know that poets must think, must have that self-reflexive process of apprehension. I would argue it is the thinking, of the poem, of the poet, separately and together, that makes the art great.

*Bishop may as well. I'm reserving comment on that, but it is keenly on my mind.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dickinson Electronic Archives

I’ve just started reading the Dickinson Electronic Archives in a systematic way for my class next week. I’m holding back from reading more, though, at this moment because I am astounded by how personal and intimate reading the materials seems to me. I’m stepping back almost because I feel it to be an invasion of Emily and Susan’s privacy. That’s not rational, of course. They are both long dead and I think that privacy ends when one is in the ground. Still, I feel uncomfortable reading about them so intimately. Perhaps it is because I am doing it on my personal computer and I have the spectral notion of someone reading my life electronically. There are things I don’t want them to know. Emails I’d like to have erased. Letters that seemed right and honest at the time, that I’d like to redact. Like this letter from Susan sent “Pony Express” to Emily. Susan writes,
I am not suited
dear Emily with the second
verse - It is remarkable as the
chain lightening that blinds us
hot nights in the Southern sky
but it does not go with the
ghostly shimmer of the first verse

I wonder how I would feel if my email correspondences were put up on the web. I have hundreds of back and forth emails with my dear writing friend. Some written too late at night. Some that suggest another direction for a poem when I was missing her point. Would my moments of myopia come through? What about my tiredness? My temper? What I read in the Dickinson Electronic Archive is not exposing that, but the degree of intimacy is strong, even overwhelming, and I want for now to avert my eyes.
I think that it is that I am feeling too sensitive. I’ve somehow lost the scholarly veneer that I am supposed to have to read, to study, to think critically. I’m filled with this overwhelming sorrow about May Swenson and anger. I cannot seem to let it go. Last night, I sat down with all of Adrienne Rich’s prose and wanted to see what Adrienne had to tell me about Swenson. I found nothing, so far, but when I picked up my hardcover of What Is Found There and opened to the title page, I found this written in script: For Julie Enszer From Adrienne Rich. I wept. Which is too Christian really for me to write, but I did. I cried. I tried to stop it, to hold back those tears, but they just flowed and flowed down my face while I searched for Rich to tell me something about Swenson. There was nothing. So far. But the confirmation that the veneer has been lost somewhere.
So here I am, vexed by Swenson, emotional compromised by Emily and Susan and their intimacy, and wanting just to read Sarton. Her correspondences with Juliette Huxley, with whom Rachel Carson was also an avid correspondence, and from reading them she, like Sarton, was passionately in love with Huxley. What did Julian’s wife do to deserve such amorous attentions? Reading it in a book seems different, I suppose. More distance. That careful typeset. A place where my words have never been.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Blue Studies by Rachel Blau DuPlessis

I’m reading Blue Studios by Rachel Blau DuPlessis and barely can contain my excitement about this book. It thrills me on so many levels. First this is the sort of book that I want to write in twenty-five years. The prose is gorgeous and multi-layered. The analysis is deep in the world of modern and contemporary poetry and she also leaps across knowledges in ways that I envy. Lately, I realize that I have been reading books of criticism by poets that is the first book of criticism and there is a tremendous transformation between a first book and books written at the height of one’s career, which I think this book is. The breadth of knowledge combined with a longer-term, historical perspective is amazing. I’m dazzled by this book - and I’ve only completed the three essays, in part because I keep returning to reread each essay and underline new ideas and make new associations. This book speaks to me and I am trilled to be reading it.

The first section, “Attitudes and Practices,” contains three essays, “Reader, I married me: Becoming a Feminist Critic,” “f-words, An Essay on the Essay,” and “Blue Studio: Gender Arcades.” In “Reader, I married me,” DuPlessis recounts her evolution with feminism. The early years of feminism, when she was a graduate student at Columbia, have chilling stories for DuPlessis with extraordinary sexism at Columbia. How she found her voice, however, as a poet, as an essayist, and as a literary critic, is just riveting.

DuPlessis’s exploration of essays as a form and how that form relates to her political orientations are fascinating. Her earlier essay, “For the Etruscans,” has been used as an example of feminist innovations in the form. I have it and am pulling the book to sit and reread it. I remember being riveted by it when I was nineteen. I wonder how I will feel about it now.

Finally, “Blue Studio” is an essay about what it means to be a feminist poet. It is written in response to a letter that appeared in a Canadian journal, Open Letter, by Barbara Cole titled “Feminism from and to.“ As I think a central part of this essay and the apparent dialogue between the two is generational, I’m trying to get my hands on the letter by Barbara Cole. So far, no luck, but I’m hopeful and dogged in pursuing the original.

Here are a few links about Rachel Blau DuPlessis:

Rachel Blau DuPlessis CV

Review of Blue Studios by Andrew Mossin

Finally, a brief note that I had to write this blog entry just to expel some of my exuberance for the book so that I can write something more thoughtful and analytical for my class. I suppose it is somewhat gauche to just rave about a book, but I must do it somewhere and so this becomes that space.

Friday, September 21, 2007

May Swenson's Iconographs and Rachel Blau DuPlessis' meditations on feminist poetry

Absence is as powerful as presence. What is silent is as powerful as what is spoken. The white space in a poem, what printers call the negative space, is as important as the text.

In some ways I recoil from those aphorisms. There is something viscerally negative for me about absence, silence, negative space being important. I don’t want to reify that which is not included, that which is omitted, that which is written over. I don’t absence, silence, or negative space to speak for me. Perhaps because for too long it has.

I was thinking about this while reading Swenson’s poems in Iconographs because it is exactly that white space that she is using to speak for the poems. It is the white space that Swenson wants the eye to apprehend and “have material and mold evolve together and become a symbiotic whole.” One one hand, I am very sympathetic to this project. I feel like it unites the notions of form and feeling in poetry. In Iconographs, in some places Swenson’s vision works effectively and proves the truth of the aphorisms above. In particular, I find “The DNA Molecule,” “The Power House,” and “A Subject of The Waves“ to all be effective project. Yet, that doesn’t stop me from asking what are the feminist implications of that. If a poem accomplishes its meaning through what is left out - through an open space that is created, isn’t that in some ways antithetical to the sort of feminism that I believe in? The feminism that speaks (that being a significant word) truth to power? The feminism that works to make visible women’s lives and stories? The feminism that advocates equity? Is writing poems that rely on the eye noting the absence, the visual silence, and then taking meaning from that silence an effective feminist message?

I think that it is, or more accurately, I think that it was at the time that Swenson published the Iconographs. In some ways, these poems make visible the absence, which metaphorically works throughout this text as a symbol for women, and in the absence (read women) comes the meaning. Swenson is textually showing us how to apprehend her poems with a political message in the exact form and meaning.

Yet, I’m reticent to endorse this reading carte blanche because of the unresolved questions that Swenson presents us with about feminism in some of the poems. I’m cognizant in writing this that Iconographs was published in 1970 and presumably most of the poems were written during the early and mid-1960s. This timeline, read against DuPlessis’ narrative of her home feminist consciousness development in ”Reader, I Married Me“ or against any other second wave feminist narrative, means that Swenson in raising the issue of gender as a lens through which to see the world was synchronous with much of what was happening in the world around her. In spite of this, her observations, even her epiphanies, are not particularly profound from a feminist perspective - I would argue either in that historical moment or at the present.

Consider her poem, ”Women.“ This iconograph begins, ”Women should be pedestals moving pedestals moving to the motion of men.“ This poem is heavily reliant upon an ironic reading of Swenson’s assertions about women, which I think we can assume that her readers at the time understood. The physical set up of the poem on the page combined with the metaphor of women as rocking horses brings a profound physical understanding of the impact of sexism on Swenson and on her readers. Yet, despite this ironized reading of the poem and the painful reading that it requires, I wonder if it isn’t almost too precious and avoiding the real and palpable anger of women at the time. I wonder if Swenson’s treatment of women in the poem, which is directly in the text of the poem combined with the visual capturing of the rocking horse actually works to undercut the beliefs that Swenson is stating in the poem. I’m not sure. I’m not sure that I read this poem as a feminist poem. Again, the use of irony makes what is unspoken the powerful. That continues to sit in an uneasy way for me.

Another poem that I find troubling is ”Orbiter 5 shows how earth looks from the moon.“ In this poem, Swenson begins, ”There’s a woman in the earth, sitting on her heels.“ Swenson goes on to describe the earth as seen from the moon. She concludes with these to lines: ”A woman in the earth. A man in the moon.“ The woman in this line is the physical representation of a woman on the planet earth as seen from the moon. The man is an actual man visiting the moon. I think that Swenson does a brilliant critique here of the association of women with the natural world and that those final two lines just drip with irony. I also think that the arrangement of this poem as an iconograph is interesting. The seven lines face to the north east quadrant of the page as if pointing up to the sky. The seventh line separates and the eighth through twelfth lines while angled are approaching more of what we might perceive as the ”earth“ of the page. Those final two lines sit on the page as regular text as though they are grounded by some truthfulness about the earth while the others swirl in an outer orbit along with Orbiter 5. Yet something discomforts me about this poem. I guess I just don’t find the irony of the conclusion strong enough. And I think I am concerned that Swenson relies on irony to reach feminist conclusions.

This makes me in many ways more interested in Swenson. DuPlessis writes about not only the ”feminism of production“ (p. 65), but also the ”feminism of reception.“ How was Swenson received when working? How do I receive her now?

In spite of my dis-ease about some of Swenson’s work with a feminist lens, I also don’t want to paint an analysis in which Swenson is outside. I don’t want to label at this time the process of Swenson’s poetic practice as suspect - or not feminist. I don’t want to do that because I clearly thing that Swenson is an ally in all of this. A poet who is a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, in her own way. I don’t want to suggest that her work is outside of that. I am, however, strugling with it.

I return again and again to the philosophical question of what does it mean to create meaning from absence? Silence? Negative space? Can I resurrect that as a feminist possibility? I’m not sure that I can but I can understand that it is a practice emanating from patriarchy. That when presence and words and text is controlled by men, women must look to control the opposite and use that as the means to assert themselves. That perhaps is the liberatory reading of Swenson’s iconographs.

How can DuPlessis help with this? She writes,

It seemed that one needed, as a feminist, to invent an endless number of forms, structures, and linguistic ruptures that would cut way beyond lang-business-as-usual and narrative-business-as-usual, which always seemed to end up with “the same” kind of binary, “patriarchal” normalcy. Experimental writing of all sorts had always been crucial to the feminine project of cultural change: of revolution, not revision. . . . Writing cannot make these changes alone; but writing exerts a continuous destabilizing pressure and, in both analytic and formal ways, creates an arousal of desire for difference, for hope. If consciousness must change, if social forms must be reimagined, then language and textual structures must help cause and support, propel and discover these changes. So the essay aims at the decolonization of mind by the analysis of the deepest of embedded structures: gender. (Blue Studies, p. 28.)

I think that DuPlessis would read Swenson’s iconographs as a new structure and therefore feminist in its process and it’s practice. As I’ve said. I’m struggling with that.

There are a number of other elements of Duplessis that I respond to thoughtfully, but there are only two others I’ll bring up in this now long response. The first with regard to Swenson is, how do I, or perhaps do I, read Swenson as a lesbian poet? I think that much of what DuPlessis writes in “Blue Studios” could be transmogrified into a reading of a lesbian poetics. Does Swenson, who Maxine Kumin writes in the introduction to The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson, “even after the social acceptance of homosexuality, Swenson, like her friend Elizabeth Bishop, maintained her distance from woman-identified poetry,” count as a lesbian poet? Clearly from both the biographical facts of her life - and from her work (see especially Trellis for R in Iconographs) Swenson was a lesbian, but how does that relate to a lesbian poetic? This is a question I’m keenly interested in about Swenson - and Bishop for that matter.

I was also fascinated by DuPlessis’ notion of “social philology” (p. 33) and by her reference to her own intertextual relationship wtih H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and the way she presents intertextuality on page 27, “Rhetorically ”For the Etruscans“ mingles manifesto, analysis, intercuts of material from that workshop, letters to friends, the fluid form of talking and a sense of audience--the enormously excited and participatory group of women for whom, to whom, from whom I was speaking.” This fascinates me because I think it characterizes much feminist poetry from the 19790s through the mid 1980s and while it is intertextual, I also think that it is more than that - perhaps interlocutional? I think that this characterization is important in considering both the production and reception of feminist poetry.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Me on Woman-Stirred Radio

My good buddy, Merry Gangemi, hosts Woman-Stirred radio every Thursday from 4-6 p.m. EST on WGDR. I’ll be joining her for special commentaries on the following days:

Thursday, 20 September 2007 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, 4 October 2007, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, 25 October 2007, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, 8 November 2007, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, 15 November 2007, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, 6 December 2007, 4:30 p.m.
Thursday, 20 December 2007, 4:30 p.m.

Join me - it streams live online - and do call in and talk back!

Happy Birthday Donald Hall!

I think that I have now read everything that he has written.

Poem: "The judge was decent, but..." by Donald Hall, from The Old Life. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The judge was decent, but...

     The judge was decent, but

judge's chambers were judge's chambers,

     yellow and municipal

in downtown Ann Arbor. My kids

     were dear and anxious.

Jane's brother and sister-in-law, mother,

     and father stood up

with us for the rapid legality

     we followed with lobster

and champagne at the Gandy Dancer.

     Depressed the next

morning, I knew it was a mistake. I was

     wrong. We remarried

five years later in New Hampshire, joyful

     in a wooden church,

     a Saturday afternoon in April,

     only Jack Jensen our

     friend and minister with us, saying

the prayer book's words

among lilies and wine in holy shadow.


     It didn't matter that

I had toasted the Queen at Oxford

     while Jane crayoned

into her Coronation Coloring Book.

     Married in the spring,

we flew to London in September, ate

     pub lunches, visited

friends in Cambridge, and found a Maltese

     restaurant in Kensington.

We learned how to love each other

     by loving together

good things wholly outside each other.

     We took the advice of my

dear depressed and heartsick Aunt Liz,

     who wrote us at our flat

in Bloomsbury: "Have fun while you can."

Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Donald Hall, (books by this author) born in New Haven, Connecticut (1928) who spent summers on his grandfather's farm in New Hampshire, listening to his grandfather recite poems like "Casey at the Bat" as he milked his Holsteins. Hall moved back to that farm in 1975 with his wife, Jane Kenyon, and they lived there for 20 years until her death from leukemia. His book Without (1998) is about taking care of his wife, and the second part about living without her.
His collection White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006 came out last year.
Donald Hall said, "I try every day to write great poetry — as I tried when I was 14. ... What else is there to do?"

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave

An occasional blog entry in response to classes that I am taking this fall.

The World in Us, edited by Michael Lassell and Elena Georgiou, was published in April 2000. I’m fascinated by lesbian and gay poetry anthologies because I consider them artifacts of how gay and lesbian identity was constructed at the time that the anthologies were published. I’ve looked closely at two lesbian anthologies previously, Amazon Poetry and Lesbian Poetry, which were publish in 1975 and 1981, respectively. As far as I know the first lesbian and gay poetry anthology was published in September 1988 and was titled, Gay and Lesbian Poetry In Our Time. Like The World in Us, it was published by St. Martin’s Press. Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time was edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin.

The World in Us contains work by 46 poets with between one and eight poems by each poet. There is an even breakdown between men and women included in the anthology and it is organized alphabetically. In the introduction, the editors note that they selected poems that are in some cases longer than poems usually included in anthologies, and indeed the length of the poems and the number of poems included by each author makes reading this anthology an interesting introduction to the work of each of the poets.

More than reflecting on the choices of the editors, however, the introduction provides some interesting insights into identity construction of gay and lesbian poets at the time the book was compiled. First, the editors posit that all of the poets are “mid-career,” which they define as poets who will write “their best work in the twenty-first century,“ or poets whose best work is in front of them. This is an interesting assertion, but I imagine most poets would feel that each poem immediately in the future is the best poem that they will write. That individual perception aside, however, one of the things about the construction of this anthology and the notion of “mid-career” is the way that it presents all of the poets as within similar generations. The editors write in the introduction, “The range of age is roughly midtwenties to mid-fifties. In other words, generally speaking, it’s a post-World War II crowd--in some cases, post-Vietnam (if generations are to be marked by violent global conflicts).” While this broad analysis may suit general readers, I see there to be a stark delineation among generations even within the anthology. I look here at the lesbian poets as their work I know the best. Of the twenty-three lesbian poets included in this anthology, I would consider there to be a generational break with these women being part of the second wave of feminism:

Olga Broumas+
Cheryl Clarke+
Marilyn Hacker+
Eloise Klein Healy
Joan Larkin*
Honor Moore+
Eileen Myles
Minnie Bruce Pratt+
Terry Wolverton

(* indicates inclusion in Amazon Poetry and + indicates inclusion in Lesbian Poetry)

Of those poets, there are some clear similarities in how their work is informed by feminist activism during the 1970s, both in terms of the creation of their poetry and the reception. With the possible exception of Eileen Myles, whose work I think was not received within feminist circles to the degree of the others, all of these poets could be considered poets of the lesbian-feminist movement.

Now consider the poets who are younger - that is not old enough to have been involved in lesbian-feminism, but more identified with the queer nation, for lack of a better word. I consider these poets in a different generation:

Beatrix Gates
Elena Georgiou
Melinda Goodman
Melanie Hope
Letta Neely
Achy Obejas
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg
Mariana Romo-Carmona
Ruth Schwartz
Robyn Selman
Linda Smukler
Cheryl Boyce Taylor

So why does this matter? Well, part of what I think all queer poet anthologies do is construct further the notions of the categories of “lesbian” and “gay.” The editors in their introduction note that there are differences between the anthology produced in 1988. They write, “Many of the writers included in Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time were literary lions, both living and dead. Remarkably, the world of queer poetry has changed dramatically since 1988. Its personnel has changed radically, and the mood is palpably different.” I think that the selection of writers to include for Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time in 1988 was driven in part by a desire to create, resurrect, affirm, and preserve a literary history for the lesbian and gay community. This was especially urgent in light of the AIDS crisis, which during the two years that the anthology was probably assembled was particularly acute in San Francisco and New York. By the time Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time was published the community - and by extension - the identities of gay and lesbian were immersed in grief in many ways while the political agenda remained to define and articulate a stabilized identity that could be read back through history, or at the very least through the post-industrialization history.

When The World in Us is published in 2000, there are very different identity concerns to be addressed in the assemblage of the anthology. Evident concerns include the need to articulate a queer of color perspective. The editors write, “Since 1988, the broadening, more inclusive community has become one of the most diverse groups on earth, and the poetry being written by its members is staggering in its variety as well as its energy. This new queer poetry (or perhaps ”postqueer“ describes it more accurately) is democratic in the best sense. . . . These young women and men are maturing in a world in which the unambiguous statement of equality has already been made. Their writing lives have had that context from the beginning.”

It is here that I see the generational issues most starkly. Consider one of the poems by Olga Broumas from “Caritas.” She writes,

With the clear
plastic speculum, transparent
and, when inserted, pink like the convex
carapace of a prawn, flashlight in hand, I
guide you
inside the small
cathedral of my cunt. The unexpected
light dazzles you. This flesh, my darling, always
invisible like the wet
side of stones, the hidden
hemisphere of the moon, startles you
with its brilliance

Broumas’ work in general and this poem in particular, although published in her book Rave from 1999, demonstrates values about women’s bodies and difference that are emblematic of a particular type of feminism during the second wave.

Also, consider Cheryl Clarke’s “Passing” which begins

i’ll pass as a man today and take up public space with my urges in the casual way he does in three-piece suit and gucci pumps big pants and large sneakers tight jeans and steel-tipped boots read my newspapers spread-eagled across a whole row of seats make my briefcase-boombox-backpack into an ottoman on the seat across from me on the l.i.r.r.

In this poem, from Experimental Love published in 1993, Clarke is working with gender roles to transgress them or to perform them with an ease to which she is entitled from her particular feminist analysis. I would argue that for her “passing” as a man means something very different than to a younger poet for whom the term “transgender” will come into play in different ways. Interestingly, this anthology makes no mention of bisexual or transgender although those two identities are very much contested spaces at the time that the book is published.

For the older generation of poets included in this anthology, I read gender, not only in their included works but in their broader oeuvre, as a site of action for their poetry, where as for the younger poets, gender is not acted upon as a site of their poetry in the same ways. By gender as a site of action, what I mean is that one of the projects of the poetry of these poets is to construct lesbian identity through their poetics either implicitly or explicitly. I also mean that these poets consider an analysis of the inequality between genders as a source of comment or transformative action for their work.

For the younger poets, the sites of action are different because the need to assert a lesbian identity, in opposition to hegemonic heterosexuality, is less strong, that is, a lesbian identity can be adopted more easily. Consider these lines from Melanie Hope’s “Only Days,”

Of course only days after I meet you i am imagining ways we will make love
Of course we will sit opposite each other in staff meetings so no one will suspect anything resembling sexual tension has wedged between us
Of course you are married to some degree and have no intention of messing around
Of course for a while work will not matter we will come and go easily in our crushed-out bliss
Of course we will have days when we are sure everyone in the office knows what’s going on
Of course I will try to like the things you tell me of your lover in an attempt to be open
Of course one day we will both call in sick and meet in a hotel near the airport to make love

This poem, about an affair between two women, both of whom have stable lesbian identities, drives the dailiness of a lesbian identity for the poetic persona home with the dramatic anaphora of “of course” which continues through the full thirty-six lines of the poem. Gender is not a site of action in this poem, sexual desire is.

Finally, consider Letta Neely’s poem, “8 Ways of Looking at Pussy.” In the second part, she writes,

swollen pussy
all laid out and relaxed
says to everyone in the room
“I have been to mecca and back
and it ain’t nuthin compared to what you
done did”

Especially in light of Broumas’ poem quoted above, Neely writes about desire in a different way. Less discovery, less unmasking of an unknown territory, and more external assertion of sexual prowess.

These generational tensions within The World in Us actually make it more interesting to read and consider. While the editors were explicit in wanting to include newer poets and not just people who were or were on the precipice of becoming “literary lions,” I think that the selection of lesbian poets in the anthology demonstrates the different ways that lesbian poetics are unfolding for different generations of poets.

Finally, though, like all texts that explicit gather gay and lesbian writers, one of the ways to read the text is by its exclusions. The editors note, “it is also true that many poets who share our sexuality refuse the appellation and will not consent to appear in the context of our poetry. Disappointingly, some high-profile poets declined to appear in this book, and their refusal shows there is still a sense of stigma attached to identifying oneself as a member of a sexual minority.” This then becomes my other area of interest in looking at the work of lesbian poets. How do we read a contemporary lesbian identity for a poet who did not identify as a lesbian, either by omission or by rejection? Can we consider there to have been a lesbian identity that was just mitigated by the closet and read a lesbian poetics in their work? I think about May Sarton whose lesbian identity seems to me very different than say Adrienne Rich. What about Elizabeth Bishop? Does she have a lesbian poetic? What about Mary Oliver? Rachel Blau DuPlessis addresses some of this in her meditation on feminist poetics and I hope to write more about that latter.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Grace Paley is Still Making Connections

Lately, everything I’ve been writing about is about spectral connections - the connections we living people experience with the people we love who have passed. It started when I was swimming at the pool at Maryland. I saw my sister. I wrote a poem. The Master Poet told me, “Whenever,” that is an important word for the beginning of the poem as though she might reappear. Each time you might focus on some different aspect of her - her eyes, a scar. So it began. The poems about seeing my dead sister.

And it has expanded. I have a poem in mind about the man who built and lived in our house. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and he is sitting on the couch smoking a cigar and drinking brandy or cognac. He never speaks to me, but I walk naked from my bed and I smell the sweet cigar and the bitterness of the alcohol and I look at him, sometimes naked too, sometimes in an old white terry robe - the kind that I want to have but don’t. We don’t speak. I try to quietly return to my bed in his bedroom. I want him to enjoy that smoke, that drink. Sometimes, he pets my cat.

Now today, all of the connections made by Grace Paley. She died shortly after I left Vermont, yet it is like she is still bringing us together. Us - those who have work to do to make the world better. It began with an obituary for the special issue of off our backs that I am editing. An artist in Vermont. A writer in Oregon. Some photographs. Some photographs from Tillie Olsen’s family. It extends out, further and further. Like she is reminding us to engage in the world, to find one another as though we might continue her work.

I need to call Merry. I need to tell her that Grace says we are to put together a special issue of oob on Women’s Friendships. I’m tired tonight and trying to gather my strength to celebrate a new year. To make my amends for the past year and enter the new one with a fresh slate. Grace calls, though. I will answer.

Mary Oliver "The Summer Day"

I think that this poem is a sign.

I don’t believe that I should be working today. I should be outside in the gorgeous rain, in the humidity that is permeating the place where I live. I should be looking for grasshoppers. Or just reading. Just letting the rain soak my shirt, then sleep in its warmth.

Poem: "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver, from House of Light. © Beacon Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life? 

Monday, September 10, 2007

Happy Birthday to H.D.

It's the birthday of the poet who wrote under the initials H.D., Hilda Doolittle, (books by this author) born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1886). She met Ezra Pound when she was a teenager and they fell in love, but her father forced her to break off the relationship. They stayed friends, and Pound brought her armfuls of books to read every day. She followed him to Europe and when she showed him some of her poems he loved them and sent them to Poetry magazine, signing them for her, "H.D. Imagist." He invented a new school of poetry based on her work that he called Imagism, which broke from formal metered verse and used clear, simple language to describe the world. She went on to publish many collections of poetry, including Sea Garden (1916) and Red Roses for Bronze (1929).
She wrote, "To sing love, / love must first shatter us."

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Stanley Plumly: Swoon

Robert Pinsky writes in this week’s Poet’s Choice in the Washington Post about Stanley Plumly’s new book, Old Heart. It’s a divine book. Here is Pinsky’s column in its entirety.

Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, September 9, 2007; BW12

A rookie poet might fear to write poems that included the names of other poets, as though the life of art were not quite part of life. The veteran master may feel more confident about that. Stanley Plumly's rich, assured new book includes poems about poets of his own generation, living and dead, and of the past. Plumly's "Keatsian," a sonnet of subtly muffled rhymes, disarms by beginning with a sentence fragment that describes a scene seemingly far from Keats's "Ode to A Nightingale." But the word "English" is a smiling allusion, and the child's counting bicycle turns, then poetic forms, reminds us that an old term for verse was "numbers":

My brand-new Schwinn, its narrow English wheel.

I'd turn and circle figure eights until

I couldn't see or fell, the deep sun lost

behind the trees. I was as tall as Keats.

The game was numbers or the alphabet.

Later sorts of sonnets, quatrains, couplets.

Nobody died, as someone's mother or

mother-in-law would say about divorce.

At the end, sailing to south Italy,

grown-up Keats writes Brown that while "Land and Sea,

weakness and decline are . . . seperators . . .

death is the great divorcer forever."

In his marriage of the poem to matter,

written in stone if written in water.

"Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water" is the phrase Keats asked to be inscribed on his headstone. Those words written in stone are a brilliant paradox, reflecting the young poet's awareness that he might -- or might not -- be the kind of artist we call "immortal." Plumly's tribute has a similar quality of quiet depths, something like a sublime wryness.

Paradox and the relation between enduring stone and fluid life also characterize Plumly's meditation on the great Italian modernist Eugenio Montale:


The tiering up the hillside, the tearing up, too,

from so much sunlight, so much man-made beauty.

Marianna, Montale's sister, describes the family villa

as a sequence of gardens, multiples of trees,

and staircase after staircase climbing -- masses of sage,

broom, and white and yellow flax, and palms mixed in

with poplars, holly oaks, (lemons), and candle-lit magnolias,

while higher up, placed between the olives and the pears,

valerian and cyclamen -- then views of "little villages

grouped among the cliffs, hanging over the sea,"

the blue-eyed Mediterranean: all of it, to Montale,

imprisonment, a "counter-eloquence" of the mind at noon,

the sealed heart almost too deep for the sun. Summer's

language like sunlight on stone, light itself the stone.

The interplay between words and reality, mortal imagination and the lasting world, shimmers in these poems.

(Stanley Plumly's poems "Hermeticism" and "Keatsian" can be found in his new book "Old Heart: Poems." Norton.

Copyright 2007 by Stanley Plumly.)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Poetry & Media

I’m taking a class called “Poetry and Media.” One of our first assignments is to come to class with 5-10 minutes of reflections on “what the big terms in the course’s title mean to you: poetry and media. What do you think about when you consider either? What are your primary interests in each separately and in both together? can the two be contemplated as separate and distinct from one another? How does one inhere in the other . . . or not? What questions are the ones that pique your interests when you hear the terms, when you saw the course’s title and description? What are you ambitions for this course of study, both in individual terms and as far as our work as a group goes?”

So this is my working through of those questions.

Poetry to me means the compression of words and ideas into a package that we call a poem that is meant to delight or surprise or interrupt or inspire or disturb. I think a central element of poetry is that compression. It is in many ways a compression that resists and even explodes suppression. This may mean that poetry, for me, is always working against suppression and repression. That would, of course, be a very political meaning to poetry, which I would agree, but would also be contested by many. Still, I think that the compression of poetry is where it gets its power and that compression also implies either a dropping away of unessential elements or a beating out of bloat. Suppression and repression, I think, cannot flourish in an environment where there is a rejection of the unessential elements or a constant beating out of excess. Poetry is more than compression, however. It is words and ideas that are packaged together with an intention to create power for a reader. That power generally results in a experience of emotion - the entire array of emotions. I think my favorite poems are the ones that elicit these emotions: delight, surprise, interruption or interrogation, inspiration, or disturbance. There are, however, hundreds of others. Poetry has to be connected with a feeling, though, for me. If there isn’t an emotive response, if the response is purely intellectual, then I find I am less interested. I’ll concede that saying this may indicate my limitation as a reader, but that makes it no less true for me.

Media is the system through which information is shared. It’s interesting for me to think about this term because a part of my job until recently has been to garner media for the person for whom I worked. So I think a lot about media as the systems of public information and entertainment in the United States and around the world. Thinking of media only in that sense has always been stifling to me. The conventional systems of media in the US today - radio, television, and newspapers - I find quite limiting in their views of the world. They rarely hold a vision of a world that includes me or in which I want to be. That’s of course why the Internet and the new media which has been emerging over the past fifteen years has fascinated me - there is both a space for me and for many of the ideas and issues that move me. New media, the digital media, has brought a place to enter and a reason to enter the conversation. I think of media as both the way that information is shared, literally, the medium through which data, information, ideas, words are transmitted, but also as the system that generates and informs the ideas. There is a co-generative relationship between the thing, perhaps in this case poetry, and the platform, or media.

My primary interests in each of these are hard to synthesize into a small statement. I feel especially over the past two years that poetry is this thing that has just infused my life at every level. I can no longer say this is my primary interest in poetry. I suppose I could say as Donald Hall urges me to, that my primary interest is to write great poems. That is true, but it feels so bold face to say that, that I necessarily recoil. My primary interest in poetry is to be an informed reader, to find poems that I can fall in love with, to feel wonder at beauty in the world. My primary interest in media is in that co-generative relationship. It is also in how media stimulates creativity. How does the method of transmission effect the creation? I’m very interested in that question.

The biggest motivation that I have behind this class is my interest in looking at how texts were created and received during the women’s movement and the lesbian movement in the 1970s. There was a huge publishing movement by lesbians at that time. Not only were lots of women writing poetry, but they were publishing it for themselves. I’m interested in how those texts, created by women in the movement and published by women in the movement, worked to shape women’s and lesbian’s senses of identity, self, and politics during that time period. I’m interested in learning the tools of analysis that Professor Martha Nell Smith has as an intellectual to learn how to use them to apply them to lesbian poetry during the 1970s.

I also want to read great poetry and think about it and talk about it. This class already has a great reading list evolving so I know that it will be incredibly stimulating.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Responsibility by Grace Paley


It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric
It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy
to hang out and prophesy
It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes
It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory
towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C
and buckwheat fields and army camps
It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet's responsibility to speak truth to power as the
Quakers say
It is the poet's responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice
It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original
and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it
on in the way storytellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no
freedom unless
earth and air and water continue and children
also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.

by Grace Paley

Poem: Keys by Nancy Henry

Poem: "Keys" by Nancy Henry, from Our Lady of Let's All Sing. © Sheltering Pines Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.


When things got hard
I used to drive and keep on driving—
once to North Carolina
once to Arizona—
I'm through with all that now, I hope.
The last time was years ago.

But oh, how I would drive
and keep on driving!
The universe around me
all well in my control;
anything I wanted on the radio,
the air blasting hot or cold;
sobbing as loudly as I cared to sob,
screaming as loudly as I needed to scream.
I would live on apples and black coffee,
shower at truck stops,
sleep curled up
in the cozy back seat I loved.

The last time, I left at 3 a.m.
By New York state,
I stopped screaming;
by Tulsa
I stopped sobbing;
by the time I pulled into Flagstaff
I was thinking
about the Canyon,
I was so empty.
Thinking about the canyon
I was.

I sat on the rim at dawn,
let all the colors fill me.
It was cold. I saw my breath
like steam from a soup pot.
I saw small fossils in the gravel.
I saw how much world there was

how much darkness
could be swept out
by the sun. 

Monday, September 03, 2007

One of the things that inspires all of us at Woman-Stirred is women who pursue their dream of writing. Morgan Hunt is one of those women. Morgan is an active member of the Yahoo discussion group, Lesbian-Writers, which is how we in Woman-Stirred met her. In 2001, she was treated for breast cancer and one of her resolutions after that was to feed her passion for mysteries and writing. This year her first book, Sticky Fingers, was released and it is the first installment in a projected three part series known as Tess Camillo Mysteries. None of us have yet dipped into our copies of Sticky Fingers, but we’re all looking forward to this luscious lesbian mystery series and we salute Morgan Hunt for her achievements as an author and as a woman who stirs our collective imaginations!

You can read more about Morgan Hunt at her website,, and at these two websites which feature great interviews with Morgan:
We encourage you to go buy the book and let us know here what you think about it!

**This post is cross-posted with the Woman-Stirred blog.