Friday, November 24, 2006

More on Annie Liebovitz

Not that I am obsessed, but here is another article on Annie Liebovitz from

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Poetry Book Gift List ~ Give the Gift of Poetry this Holiday Season

Poetry Book Gift List ~ Give the Gift of Poetry this Holiday Season

This list is from Wom-po, the list-serv for people interested in discussing women’s poetry. It has books by members of the list with a pitch as to who on your gift list would appreciate them. It’s a fantastic list. Buying poetry as a gift is always a great idea. I’ve put a star next to the ones that I haven’t read and would like to read ;-) or you can check out my Amazon wish list. (double ;-))

Poetry Book Gift List ~ Give the Gift of Poetry this Holiday Season
For All of You Who Fell in Love with Horses, or Dreamed of Doing So; and for the Lover of Rights-Both Animal and Human:
Horses and the Human Soul by Judith Barrington (Story Line Press,, 2004) $15
Available from,, or direct via
*For Anyone Who's Visited Alaska or Wants To:
Blaze, sensual Alaskan poems by Peggy Shumaker and paintings by Kesler E. Woodward (Red Hen Press, 2005)  Hardcover $39.95, paperback $29.95 
Available at  More titles available at
For your favorite Art Lover:
Femme au chapeau, Rachel Dacus, David Robert Books, 2005 - $17.00
Available David Roberts Books or Amazon
*For your favorite Bad Girl--
Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey (Steel Toe Books, 2006)  $12
Available through Steel Toe Books, Amazon, or the author's website
For your favorite Bird Lover--
White Summer  by Joelle Biele (Southern Illinois Univ. Press 2002) $15
Available at Southern Illinois Univ Press  or Amazon
For your favorite Chameleon
Shapeshifting by Celia Lisset Alvarez (Spire Press, 2006) $10
Available at
For Creative Writing Teachers with an Experimental Bent, Collectors of Old Mimeos, or Lovers of Prose Poetry:
To Delite and Instruct (blue lion books, 2006), $19.26 
Available only through cafe press.  Be sure to search online for a cafe press coupon code before buying!
*For your favorite Divorcee (or Sonneteer):
The Paragon by Kathrine Varnes (WordTech Editions 2005), $17
available through WordTech, Barnes & Noble or Amazon
*For your favorite Domestic Goddess:
Famous by Kathleen Flenniken
Available through Univ of Nebraska Press,  Amazon or your local bookstore
For your favorite DJ or any Midwesterner:
Diane Kendig's Greatest Hits_ by Diane Kendig (Pudding House 2001). Chapbook, $8.95.
Available through the publisher at  or phone 614 986-1881.
For a signed copy at no extra cost, contact the poet at
For your favorite 8-12 year old or K-8 teacher, or lover of poetry for children:
Spinning Through the Universe, by Helen Frost (FSG, 2004)
Available through your local bookstore or Amazon (If you would like a signed bookplate, email me.)
For more information:
*For your favorite Feminist and Pop Culture Critic:
Unbound & Bounded by Christine Stewart-Nunez (chapbook based on a series of artists responding to icon Kate Moss). Published by Finishing Line Press, 2006. Available at
For your Favorite Female Who Has Been Challenged by Loss, Love, or Illness (specifically breast cancer):
Small Knots by Kelli Russell Agodon (Cherry Grove, 2004) $17
Available through Cherry Grove Press, BooksenseAmazon or signed/ inscribed copies available at the author's website
For your favorite Food Lover or Regular Lover:
What Feeds Us, by Diane Lockward (Wind Publications, October 2006) $15.00
Available at or
For your favorite Friend Obsessed with Hardness and Vulnerability
Armor and Flesh, by Mendi Lewis Obadike (Lotus Press, 2004) $12.00
Available at and
For your Friend Who Maybe Likes a Sestina Now and Then:
Passing, by Eloise Klein Healy (Red Hen Books, 2002) $11.95 
Available at  or Amazon
For your favorite Friend with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder):
Radiance by Barbara Crooker (Word Press, August, 2005) $17.00,
available at or Amazon or Barnes&
For your Favorite Funny Foodie--
Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Tupelo Press, 2003) $14
Available at Tupelo Press, your local bookseller and Amazon
*For your favorite Global Traveler, or for your Favorite Armchair Traveler,
Cures Include Travel by Susan Rich (White Pine Press, 2006) $14
Available from Susan will inscribe the book as you would like and also sign it.
Also available from or or by calling Susan (206) 930-1276.
For your favorite Grown-Up
Five Terraces by Ann Fisher-Wirth (Wind Publications, 2005), $14.
Available at Wind Publications and Amazon
For your favorite Healer, or Older Woman, or Anyone Grieving and For all Who Need Consolations in the Face of the Terror: 
Duties of the Spirit,  Patricia Fargnoli (Tupelo Press, 2005) $16.95 
Available through Tupelo Press, your local independent bookseller, or Amazon.
For your favorite Homebody with a Checkered Past: Laura Cherry's chapbook,
What We Planted (Providence Athenaeum), $5.
Available through the Providence Athenaeum 
For Anyone Who's Interested in How Poems Come into Being: 
Encore: More of Parallel Press Poets (Parallel Press, 2006). $15 (Each of the 40 poets contributed a poem and a statement commenting on their experience writing the poem.)
Available through Parallel Press, $15 includes shipping and handling.
For your favorite Latina in Crisis
The Stones by Celia Lisset Alvarez (Finishing Line Press, 2006) $14
Available at Finishing Line Press
For your favorite Literate Healthcare Provider:
A Form of Optimism by Roy Jacobstein (University Press of New England, October 2006) $15.95, available at 1-800-421-1561 or, or Amazon
*For your favorite Lovelorn friend or relative:
Love is a Weed by Lana Hechtman Ayers (Finishing Line Press, October 2006, 29 pages) $12,
Available from Finishing Line Press or for a signed, personally inscribed copy with free shipping via PayPal, email author at
For Anyone who Loves Language and Sees Life's Lessons as a Journey Toward Wholeness : 
Light Made from Nothing, Susan Elbe (Parallel Press, 2003).  $10
Available through Parallel Press, $10 includes shipping and handling.
For Magpies in Love with Shiny Gold Items and Love Poetry:
Locket, (Tupelo Press, 2005), $16.95 
Available through Tupelo Press, your local independent bookseller, or Amazon.
For your favorite Mathematicians and Pattern-seekers:
Rare Momentum by Athena Kildegaard (Red Dragonfly Press, 2006) $15.
Available through, your favorite independent
bookstore, or Amazon.
For your favorite Neophyte Cosmic Gazer Obsessed with the Rhythm of Death, Sex, & Recklessness
South of Here by Lydia Melvin (New Issues Press, 2005), $14.
For your favorite New Mom--
Blue Positive by Martha Silano (Steel Toe Books, 2006) $12
Available at Steel Toe Books, your local bookstore or at Amazon.
For your favorite New Mother, Old Southerner, or Feminist Biblical Revisionist (and lover of heavy rains):

Garnet Lanterns, a chapbook by Sally Rosen Kindred (Anabiosis Press, 2006) $6.50 
Available at:
For your favorite (Overworked) Woman with Mate and Children
Kitchen Heat by Ava Leavell Haymon (LSU Press, Aug, 2006) $17.95
Available through LSU Press and Amazon
*For your favorite Peace Activist:
Homefront, Patricia Monaghan (WordTech Communications, 2005)  $17.00
Available From WordTech Communications or Amazon.
For your favorite Person Who Cares About Others and the Life of Our  Planet --
Sight Lines, poems by Charlotte Mandel (Midmarch Arts Press, 1998)  $12.50.
With photographs by artist Judy Siegel.
Available from Midmarch Arts Press, 300 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10025.
For Your favorite Person Obsessed with Death but Looking for Comfort Anyway,
Mortal by Ivy Alvarez (Red Morning Press, 2006) £12
Available at Red Morning Press:
For your favorite Philhellene: 
On the Altar of Greece, winner of the 2005 Gival Press Poetry Award, Donna J. Gelagotis Lee (Gival Press, 2006) $15.00 
Available through Gival Press (1.866.203.8926 + 7444; or (On the Altar of Greece)
For your favorite Poetry Lover: childhood/mother/marriage poems--
Keep and Give Away (Winner of the SC Poetry Book Prize) by Susan Meyers (University of South Carolina Press, 2006), $14.95
Available through the University South Carolina Press, your local independent bookseller, or Amazon.
Press info for Susan Meyers: 800-768-2500
For your favorite Sister, Teenager, High School English teacher, Genealogist, Scots-Canadian, lover of historical (1850's) novels-in-poems:
The Braid, by Helen Frost (FSG, 2006)
Available through your local bookstore or Amazon (If you would like a signed bookplate, email me.)
For more information:
For your favorite Teenager, High school English teacher, or Lover of novels-in-poems (sestinas and sonnets):
Keesha's House, by Helen Frost (FSG, 2003)
Available through your local bookstore or Amazon (If you would like a signed bookplate, email me.)
For more information:
For your favorite Urban Contemplative:
Here from Away by Kate Bernadette Benedict (CustomWords, 2003) $16,
available from the publisher or  Amazon.
For People You Don't Want To Give a Book of Poetry, But Do:
Whimsy Daybook, 2007 Maryrose Larkin (flash + card press, 2006)
[it is an actual day book, spiro bound, heavy stock, full color painting repros, calendar] with "poetic" (they were published as poetry) entries for everyday (ex., "Diffuse Radiance Week"), illustrated with paintings by Nita Hill 
$12 directly from Maryrose Larkin, maryrose at gmail dot com.
For your favorite Person Grieving the Loss of a Parent
Night In The Shape Of A Mirror, Lynne Knight (David Robert Books, 2006) - $17.00
Available at David Robert Books or Amazon

For your favorite Visual Artist or Ekphrasis Enthusiast: 
Nude in Winter by Francine Sterle (Tupelo Press, 2006) $16.95 
Available through Tupelo Press, your local independent bookseller, or
For Those Who Dare To Hope
NorthSight by Lois Roma-Deeley (Singularity Press, 2006, cloth) $25.00
Available at or
For a Poetry Reader Who Knows Motherhood Is Way More Complex Than Greeting Cards Ever Suggest:
What if your mother by Judith Arcana (Chicory Blue Press, 2005) $15.00
Order from your local independent bookseller,, or direct from
 For your favorite Wilderness Backpacker/Adventurous Woman/ or Buddhist:
The Strict Economy of Fire by Ava Leavell Haymon (LSU Press, Aug, 2004)  $16
Available through LSU Press and Amazon
For your favorite Women’s History Buff, Medievalist, or Lover of Saints:
The Love of Unreal Things by Christine Stewart-Nunez (chapbook based on the life of Catherine of Siena). Published by Finishing Line Press, 2005. Available on

Tuesday, November 21, 2006



I'll be interviewed on the radio on Wednesday, 22 November 2006 on KPFA at 3 p.m. EST/12 noon PST on Against the Grain with C.S. Soong.

You can stream from here:

I'll be talking about "Gay Marriage" and the article that Alternet picked up last week. This is part of my on-going play to be a political commentator, which is really just part of my overall lifetime goal of infiltrating, upsetting, and ultimately overturning the oppressive, patriarchal powers that be in the world, what we might call, if we were not sensitive to the oppressive paradigms of language, world domination.

Tune in if you are able.

Saturday, November 18, 2006



by Adrienne Rich

Originally published:
Saturday November 18, 2006
The Guardian

In "The Defence of Poetry" 1821, Shelley claimed that "poets are the
unacknowledged legislators of the world". This has been taken to suggest
that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral
power - in a vague unthreatening way. In fact, in his earlier political
essay, "A Philosophic View of Reform," Shelley had written that "Poets and
philosophers are the unacknowledged" etc. The philosophers he was talking
about were revolutionary-minded: Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire,
Mary Wollstonecraft.

And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For
him there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and
active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an
integral relationship to the "struggle between Revolution and Oppression".
His "West Wind" was the "trumpet of a prophecy", driving "dead thoughts ...
like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth".
I'm both a poet and one of the "everybodies" of my country. I live with
manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism
huddling together on the faultline of an empire. I hope never to idealise
poetry - it has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion,
an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a
blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no
universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming,
intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed
necessity, for both Neruda and César Valléjo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and
Alfonsina Storni, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more
pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. And there are
colonised poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not
easily traced.

Walt Whitman never separated his poetry from his vision of American
democracy. Late in life he called "poetic lore ... a conversation overheard
in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken
murmurs" - the obscurity, we might think now, of democracy itself. But also
of those "dark times" in and about which Bertolt Brecht assured us there
would be songs.

Poetry has been charged with "aestheticizing," thus being complicit in, the
violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment,
torture, rape and genocide. This accusation was famously invoked in
Adorno's "after the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible" - which he later
retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice

But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be
no poetry left in the world. If to "aestheticize" is to glide across
brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as dramatic occasions for the
artist rather than structures of power to be described and dismantled -
much hangs on that word "merely". Opportunism isn't the same as committed
attention. But we can also define the "aesthetic", not as a privileged and
sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a
resistance, which totalising systems want to quell: art reaching into us
for what's still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.

Poetry has been written-off on other counts: it's not a mass-market
"product", it doesn't get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket
aisles; it's too "difficult" for the average mind; it's too elite, but the
wealthy don't bid for it at Sotheby's; it is, in short, redundant. This
might be called the free-market critique of poetry.

There's actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either
inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it's
unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our
heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of
poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together -
and more.

Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions
of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of
the feelings, of involuntary human responses - how we glimpse a blur of
smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of
men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio
upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That
pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great
many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and
poetics, are written as if such pressures didn't exist. But this only
reveals their existence.

But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical
degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving
the lie to that brute dictum, "There is no alternative".

Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be
deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already
lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the
images - is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism,
professionalism - a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of
metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the
capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten
future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on
ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe,
but on the continuous redefining of freedom - that word now held under
house arrest by the rhetoric of the "free" market. This on-going future,
written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its
paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.

There is always that in poetry which will not be grasped, which cannot be
described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our
late-night arguments. There is always (I am quoting the poet/translator
Américo Ferrari) "an unspeakable where, perhaps, the nucleus of the living
relation between the poem and the world resides".

Adrienne Rich was awarded the US National Book Foundation 2006 Medal for
Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on Wednesday. Her School
Among the Ruins
published by WW Norton is available at independent
bookstores or

Friday, November 17, 2006



One day last week between classes, I trudged into Vertigo Books and was delighted to find the S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. I admit, somewhat bitter about graduate school, perhaps more as a function of just being a graduate student rather than anything in particular, I thought to myself, no one around here is going to buy these other copies of the book. The students that go here don’t know Andrea Dworkin and they think when I write poems about my wife that I am writing persona poems from a male perspective. Poor Valerie, she will be on this shelf forever. I nearly bought them all myself thinking that I, like Valerie could give them away on the street corner to women needing to be radicalized while scowling and snarling at men passing by. I didn’t do that; I’m a poor graduate student, though wanting to rescue Solanas had its appeal. in retrospect, however, I’m glad I didn’t.

The next day, after working up enough nerve to hang out, socialize, pretend that I fit in, I was in the graduate student lounge in the English Department when a fellow student from Queers and Theory came in. “Guess what I just bought?” He held it up proudly: The S.C.U.M. Manifesto. I was so thrilled! A kindred spirit, a fellow traveler.

When I am out on the corner of Baltimore Avenue and Lehigh Rd, handing out my own mimeographed P.R.I.C. Manifesto (Proclaiming Radical Interpellations to my Cunt), perhaps someone will gently take me to Coldstone Creamery, call my wife, and make sure that I get home safely.


On Wednesday night, while drinking bourbon, I sent an ecstatic email to all of my friends about being on Alternet. It seemed like a fine thing to do and I’ll confess, I wanted some sugar. (This has been one of my mantras of the semester: give me some sugar. Alas, we seem to be on a diet, there is little sugar shared in graduate school at least to the first year graduate students.) I got lots of sugar from my friends, but one dear friend who I respect enormously was more critical.

Madame X, as she wishes to be called, wrote this:

I love you truly, I am very proud of you, but you gotta know I we are not seeing eye to eye.
        •        The most powerful institution in America is whiteness, and it has always been extremely exclusive.  I guess now quadroons are in vogue (daughters/granddaughters of Eartha Kitt, Persia White, that Thandie chick, what's her name from the Young and the Restless, etc) but still...
        •        I'm down with gay marriage but I'm not down with other families of choice (see Utah and mail orders for child brides).  I hope people include AND CONTINUE to exclude some folks and I won't take it back.
        •        Not being down doesn't make me an enemy to Dr. King, who by the way was a front man but that's another article.
        •        You're still the most famous one in the bunch!  Go Rudy!

I love my people for the sugar and for the smacks.

People before positions; principles before politics


I fancy myself a radical and at different times through different lenses others have seen me that way. I realized, however, yesterday in class that pressing my radicalism too much makes it retreat. The reason is quite simple. While I consider myself intellectually a radical, in practice in my life I have two fundamental values that I won’t alter. I believe in people before positions, and I believe in principles before politics. This isn’t to say that some radicals don’t believe exactly the same thing. I don’t mean to sound pious or self-righteous about it because in fact I found the realization of all of this quite disturbing. It didn’t make me feel better about myself or morally superior. There was no hierarchical positioning associated with it; it just seems to be the fact of how I want to choose to live my life. Look at that verbal construction: want choose live. That is the other part of this; it isn’t a default automatically chosen position; it is something that requires foresight, action, and persistence.

All of this came up in a discussion of comparing the political projects of Social Text: What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now and Black Queer Studies. Social Text is the cutting edge queer studies cohort. In many ways, I feel more politically and intellectually aligned with the writings in social text. They all are radically positioned and designed to resist and confront “mainstream” queer thought. In particular, for my professional project I’ve been working with the one about the law post-Lawrence. Yet, there is a tenor in the book that makes me bristle. I am constantly thinking about the people not represented. The people missing or maligned. I would almost describe them as ghosts whispering to me. They want to speak. While I am completely in agreement with Ruskola’s view of expanding the law’s understanding of sex so that it is not imitative of heterosexuals, I think of all of the folks for whom Lawrence reflected their view of sexuality. While I agree with the political project of Hiram Perez to attack the Gay Shame conference, I want to know what the people at the Gay Shame conference were thinking. I want them to have a voice. This makes me intellectually a “hopeless liberal,” which in many ways feels like how we used to talk about people who were bourgeois when I was a socialist. That made me uncomfortable, too. I don’t consider myself a “liberal” intellectual. In fact, I would position myself oppositionally to liberal intellectuals; I consider myself a radical, but for these truths that emerge when I am pressed to the wall. When pressed, I will always put people before positions. I won’t exclude people based on some sense of intellectual purity. I couldn’t really be a member of the Womyn’s Musical Festival collective - I would let people in; I would crumble under the pressure. I will always chose the more open and inclusive option. I will always draw the circle larger to bring in more people. Terribly liberal. I will also chose the principle over the politics. This was my challenge at HRC. I didn’t care that there was more power for incumbents. It mattered not to me that people were good on some issues and bad on others--that was politics. I wanted principles--the ability for people to stand with us, regardless on the principles of equality. I despise people who will not stand on their principles and let the politics dictate their lives.

The thought of being an intellectual liberal makes me shudder. I want to be an intellectual radical engaged in a life practice of liberalism. For liberalism in the life practice I want to ascribe the values and actions of kindness and generosity, openness and expansiveness. I want to do work that builds up others and doesn’t attack people or their work. I want to write alternatives not rebukes. I want to create new spaces not poison old. The more I read it, it sounds like liberal blather which makes me uncomfortable. Again, I shudder. Though perhaps it will not matter at all, I fear that I’ll do this two year MFA program and never find a place for myself to get a PhD and I’ll be expelled from the academy again (and there lovely library - which will be what I miss the most - those books! those resources! those articles!) and I’ll wander until I have to make money and am once again fundraising being a radical in the liberal environment. I should not write that - I should resist and write what I want not what I fear, but there it is and now I work.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


I heard about Judith Arcana’s book, What If Your Mother, prior to it’s publication through the women’s poetry listserv, WOM-PO. I knew that I wanted to read it; it’s a book of poems about Arcana’s experience as a “Jane” - the organization in Chicago that provided abortion services. I loved the book and reviewed it for Moondance. (I encourage you to buy the book ( link) and in particular to order through Chicory Blue Press - they are a fabulous small press and if you order it through them the old-fashioned way by printing out the order form and sending a check you’ll be directly supporting their operations and the future fabulous books that they are bound to publish.)

Judith continues to share with me and the world things that I/we need to know. This piece about the history of the Catholic church in relation to abortion is one of those particular gems because it is information that I need to know but prior to receiving it didn’t even know that I needed to know it. I hope you enjoy reading it.

A Short Essay About A Long History
by Judith Arcana, November 2006

Recently I learned that my work was being discussed on some anti-abortion websites because I’d been invited to do three events in early October at Loyola University of Chicago.

There was one guy who wrote that he was moved to reach for his baseball bat and shotgun when he thought about my being a guest at Loyola. There was one woman who argued for the value of diverse opinions. Everybody else expressed anger and sadness. The general outrage was focused on the fact that I, a writer and activist for reproductive justice, had been invited to visit a Catholic school, a Jesuit university (of which, by the way, I am a graduate).

The anti-abortion people’s responses reminded me how ignorant almost everybody is about the history of the Church in relation to abortion, how crucial that history is for Catholic women and girls, and how damaging that ignorance can be in the lives of millions, both Catholic and not. Fact is, Church thinking and policy on abortion have been various, to say the least, over many hundreds of years.

I learned this while studying at the Rockefeller Archives in New York in 1999. I was reading texts about abortion, contraception and related issues, including the founding of Planned Parenthood, an enterprise of importance to some members of the Rockefeller family. I read a pamphlet prepared in the nineteen-seventies by Catholics for a Free Choice; I read hundreds of pages of minutes from meetings, a variety of reports, and lots of correspondence. My goal was simply to take in as much as I could and maybe riff on what I’d found, writing poems for a book manuscript (What if your mother*). I was flat-out amazed at what I learned, and I want to tell everybody all about it.

You might ask: Why? What’s the big deal? And if you did, I’d answer: The Catholic Church is a source of huge amounts of money and influence in the international politics of reproductive justice, and fights fiercely to prevent access to authentic sex education and effective family planning services all over the world.

So. First of all, I see it’s useful to include Aristotle, that ever-present precursor to, and influence upon, Christianity: he theorized that a fetus becomes human (is “ensouled”) 40 days after conception if male, 80 if female. Since there was no way for him or anybody else in those days to know the sex of a fetus at any time during pregnancy, his theory is intriguing, to say the least. Aristotle was born in 384 BCE and died in 322 BCE; clever as he was, he did a certain amount of damage in his 62 years.

Now, on to the Church he influenced, for a selection of useful, interesting bits:
St. Jerome (b.347, d.420), was beatified in 1747 and canonized in 1767. He wrote to a woman named Algasis (probably his student) that “seeds are gradually formed in the uterus, and it [abortion] is not reputed homicide until the scattered elements receive their appearances and members.” Why he embraced that idea we cannot say, but we can say that such thinking scarcely supports an absolute anti-abortion position.

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) held that abortion was “not irregular” if the fetus was not yet “vivified” or “animated.” This distinction evokes the concept of “quickening,” which was until recently a notable marker in fetal development but now is often displaced by “viability” as a result of new medical technology and legal considerations.

Innocent’s principles were adopted into the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX, who was pope in his very old age (1227-1241). Gregory was a complicated guy, by no means a champ on every front. His record is a fine reminder of how important it is for us to recognize complexity. Born in 1145, he lived almost a hundred years and is sometimes said to have been a hero to St. Francis (who died the year before Gregory became pope), but he preached in favor of the Crusades and burned heretics.

Thomas Aquinas (b.1225, d.1274), of all people, turns out to have been one of those who thought that abortion of only an “animated” fetus should be considered murder, a thoughtful position even now, despite the complications of “viability.”

One of my personal favorites is Tomás Sanchez (b.1550, d.1610), a Jesuit scholar. He said that abortion was lawful when the fetus was not yet “ensouled” and also when the mother would die from carrying it to term. I thought of him instantly when the anti-abortion people complained about my being invited to a Jesuit university. (I have to tell you that my copy of the Fall issue of Loyola’s magazine arrived this week, and its cover says: “Welcome home to Loyola.”)

It’s useful to know that the catechism of the Council of Trent in 1566 held that “in the natural order, no body can be informed by a human soul except after the prescribed space of time.” Though the “prescribed space of time” is unclear, council discussion was about the business of ensuring that Jesus was understood to be different from everyone else in human form because his soul was joined to his body at the time of conception, unlike all (other) human beings. This seems a useful note to sound when discussing abortion.

Sixtus V outlawed all abortion in 1588. That was the year the Protestant Virgin Queen, Elizabeth Tudor, thoroughly trounced the power of the Church through her navy’s defeat of the Spanish Armada, a fleet blessed by the Pope and considered invincible in much the same way the Titanic was later considered unsinkable. As I recall, the Armada suffered from rough weather in the English Channel almost as much as from the smaller, faster ships that harried them, but I can’t help thinking Sixtus may have been in an especially misogynist frame of mind. Mind you, I don’t even know which came first, the edict or the defeat; but he certainly was in a near-constant rage about Elizabeth in those years.

Only three years later, another victory for the girls’ team: Pope Gregory XIV changed the law in 1591. He allowed abortions to be done up to the 40th day of gestation (some scholars dispute this, putting Gregory’s deadline at the even longer sixteen and a half weeks). Pinpointing the moment of conception then was surely no less dicey than it is now, so this ruling was a gift to women.

Saint Alphonsus Ligouri (b. 1696, d.1787) said that the fetus is “certainly not animated before it is formed.” It’s fair to assume he was referring to the “form” of a human being (as opposed, for example, to a five or six week fetus, which still has a discernible tail). He also said abortion should be allowed when needed to save the life of the mother.

In 1869, less than a hundred years after Saint Alphonsus’ death, Pope Pius IX forbade all abortion. Like Sixtus V, he was a hardliner, and that hard line, a ruling made less than 150 years ago, is church law in our time.

Pius XII announced in 1958 that the pill, that miracle of mid-20th century chemistry, was immoral because it prevents ovulation. Pius was a big opponent of overt sexuality as well as birth control. (What with the current connections so often made among stem cell research, conception, contraception, and abortion, I’ll note here that in that same year a Nobel prize for physiology and medicine was shared by Joshua Lederberg and the team of George W. Beadle/Edward Tatum, all of whom were working on genetics.)

Pius died the same year he banned the pill, and John XXIII became pope, bringing joy to millions of people all over the world, many of whom were not even members of his church. But he died in less than five years, so we will never know if his intelligence and compassion could have led him to the kind of radical shift implemented by those other popes in the past. We do know that his bishops affirmed “the value and necessity of wisely planned education of children in human sexuality.” Whatever they actually meant by this, their statement certainly could, even now, be interpreted as good news.

In the middle of 1964, Pope Paul announced that the Church position on birth control was “being studied.” Though this is a time-honored method of delaying action (often forever), John D. Rockefeller III considered it an opportunity to further the cause of family planning. He was cautioned, in the correspondence I read at the Archives, that there would be no overturning of papal proclamations, only the possibility of reinterpretation. There was an exchange in which he was urged to understand that the Church would not accept contraception that “destroys the natural structure of the marital act,” but he still thought there might be some acceptance of methods that intervene in the physiology of an individual person. That is, devices would be forbidden while chemicals would be allowed. But the pill remained condemned, and no part of JDR3’s hopeful interpretation has yet been realized.

Benedict now occupies the papal throne. His presence there may seem a grim emblem in the face of the desperately difficult struggle for women’s reproductive health. But Benedict now has to consider the use of condoms in relation to AIDS. I bet he’s thinking about this history of differing opinions, edicts, principles, and the willingness of all those men to contradict each other, to overturn each other’s rules.

Knowing that Vatican law has not been constant may make us angry: uncounted millions of women’s motherhood decisions have been dictated by all that back-and-forth. Or, knowing that Vatican law has not been constant may make us joyous: the generosity and grace of some men of the Church brought relief and release to many women and girls. Either way, knowing this history is provocative, energizing, liberating. Let’s tell everybody all about it.

*You can order copies of What if your mother from your local independent bookstore, from, or directly from the publisher at

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

WOW! I’m on Alternet!

And I went around all day not even knowing it.

Check it out here.

(Please note, my name is spelled E-N-S-Z-E-R, not as it is indicated on the site. We’re working to get that corrected.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


The new issue of Beltway is on the theme of Profiles. There is an article about Reetika Vazirani and her poetry by Jane Alberdeston Coralin that is well worth reading.

Cloaked Silences 

In 1968, Reetika and the Vaziranis, her four brothers and sisters and her parents, migrated from Punjab to Silver Spring, MD. At the age of twelve, her father, a Professor of Dentistry at Howard University, committed suicide (Shea, 40).
“…it was a disappearance…because I was never told that he died. I read two obituaries sitting at the kitchen table, and at that time, I didn’t know what suicide was – I thought it was a disease. We never saw the body, there was never a funeral” (40).
Though the strain of his passing ate at the family's hopes, they did not speak about his death, the mother's silence a contagion amongst the children. In the 2003 Poets and Writers interview, Vazirani continues to explain that until she was 26, she was emotionally numb, having “…no sense that there was a place for me in the world except in books" (40). Though her father’s suicide was, in Reetika’s terms, a “complete rejection,” his act begins Vazirani's journey toward definition, not a place for her in the world, but a way to live in the world that doesn’t want you. Watching her mother bleach her skin, Vazirani encountered the migrant’s hunger for acceptance via an attempt at self-erasure. She named this “…proof that we [people of color] needed to get rid of our surface in order to be presentable” (40). In contrast, were Vazirani’s poems attempts to reassemble herself?
Read more here.


The Montserrat Review, Grace Cavalieri has a great piece about “little magazines” - the backbone of poetry. It is well worth the read for both the history and her reflection of the present in light of history.

The Little Magazine Movement in AMERICA
From print to electronics to print
An essay by Grace Cavalieri
Americans generally consider POETRY Magazine (1912) the first poetry periodical of note. It may be the one we know the most about but that it was first is not true on several counts. Washington DC's POET LORE preceded by several years. In fact Walt Whitman took out an ad for his work in its pages, near the close of the 19th century. Reed Whittemore's pamphlet Little Magazines, c1963, published by University of Minnesota's series on American writers, is the definitive work on the movement of the literary journal in the first half of the 20th century. Reed himself was editor of FURIOS0, along with John Pauker, from their college years at Yale (1939.) Reed went on to create others in his career, notably the Carleton Miscelleny from Carlton College where he later taught in Minnesota. From magazines of the 1930's, Whittemore cites that The Partisan Review, was originally begun (but not ended) as a communist organ, along with other southern magazines with political leanings: the Fugitive, the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, the Sewanee Review. In all, there were forty prominent Little Magazines started before 1950.
Read the rest here.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I heard Ariel Dorfman speak as a part of the NextBook series at the WDCJCC in the spring. He talked about his relationship with language and giving up speaking Spanish for ten years as a child. It made me think about transitions and moving from one part of life to another always seems to require giving up something in order to make space for the new thing, the next thing. So I'm thinking about what I'm giving up for the next ten years to do something new.

This is what I'm giving up:

1. Quitting fundraising
2. Quitting sitting on committees for non-profit organizations
3. Working less and creating more time for my creative work
4. Going on my partner’s health insurance
5. The notion that I have to completely support myself and not receive things from others

This is what I am doing anew:

1. Taking myself seriously as a writer which means giving myself time to write
2. Feeling unapologetic about making this change
3. Committing to writing and approaching it as a the central passion of my life
4. Telling people I am a writer
5. Yet not explaining myself to others to seek their approval

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Without them, I am just another dour lesbian. Without gay men, I am myopic in my own thinking about politics and what is important. Without them, I could spend entire days with no laughter or levity. Without them, I could begin to believe my own rhetoric, but with them, I have joy and humor and levity. With them, I can laugh - at myself and the world.

My buddy, the Gayest Editor Ever at AOL, mentioned my column in the Washington Blade yesterday in his blog. The last two words say it all. Where would we be without our brothers?
Ellen Willis, 64, Journalist and Feminist, Dies
Published: November 10, 2006
Ellen Willis, the noted journalist, feminist and cultural critic, whose work ranged seamlessly through politics and religion, sex, film and rock ’n’ roll, died yesterday at her home in Queens. She was 64.
Skip to next paragraph

Ellen Willis in an undated photo.
The cause was lung cancer, said her husband, Stanley Aronowitz, the well-known sociologist and progressive activist.
At her death, Ms. Willis was a professor of journalism at New York University. She also directed the journalism department’s cultural reporting and criticism program, which she founded in 1995.
As a writer, she was best known for her political essays, which appeared in The Nation, Dissent and elsewhere. She was also widely recognized for her rock criticism: she was the first pop-music critic of The New Yorker, and wrote regularly about music for Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other publications.
In addition, Ms. Willis was a vital figure in the women’s movement of the late 1960s and afterward. She was a founder of Redstockings, a short-lived but highly influential radical feminist group begun in 1969. In the 1980s, she helped found No More Nice Girls, a street theater and protest group that focused on abortion rights.
At its core, Ms. Willis’s work was rooted in the three R’s, which for her were radicalism, religion and rock. But little escaped her scrutiny, and over the years, her writings embraced subjects as diverse as psychoanalysis, the O. J. Simpson trial, Monica Lewinsky and “The Sopranos.” To Ms. Willis, each of these was a strand in the contemporary social fabric, and her responsibility as critic was to map out the complex ways in which they interlaced.
In an essay in The New York Times in 1999, Ms. Willis wrote:
“The Lewinsky scandal has prompted an impassioned national conversation on the relationship of the political to the personal, public authority to private behavior; on sexual privacy versus ‘family values’; on female sexual autonomy and victimization. Granted, the affair has also produced an outpouring of schlock with no redeeming social value. But far from vindicating the eat-your-vegetables school of journalism, the schlock suggests what’s wrong with it. Arguably, just as Victorian repression produced a thriving pornography industry, the exclusion of sex from ‘serious’ news media produced tabloidism. As this taboo passes into history, there should be more room for a public conversation on sex that is neither coy nor prurient, but simply frank.”
Though Ms. Willis liked to describe herself as an anti-authoritarian democratic socialist, she was leery of extremism of either stripe. An outspoken advocate of women’s sexual empowerment, she also publicly condemned feminists who wanted to ban pornography. (She was disturbed by what she viewed as their Puritanism, and by the threat to free expression.) She also took some members of the American left to task for what she saw as anti-Semitism thinly veiled as political animus toward Israel.
“My education was dominated by modernist thinkers and artists who taught me that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, to scorn the soft-minded optimism of religious and secular romantics as well as the corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers, and mechanistic or manipulative revolutionaries,” Ms. Willis wrote in an essay collected in “Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade” (Knopf, 1981). She continued:
“Yet the modernists’ once-subversive refusal to be gulled or lulled has long since degenerated into a ritual despair at least as corrupt, soft-minded, and cowardly — not to say smug — as the false cheer it replaced. The terms of the dialectic have reversed: now the subversive task is to affirm an authentic post-modernist optimism that gives full weight to existent horror and possible (or probable) apocalyptic disaster, yet insists — credibly — that we can, well, overcome. The catch is that you have to be an optimist (an American?) in the first place not to dismiss such a project as insane.”
Ellen Jane Willis was born in Manhattan on Dec. 14, 1941; her father was a lieutenant in the New York Police Department. Reared in the Bronx and Queens, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard in 1962 and afterward did graduate work in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
Ms. Willis was divorced after an early marriage. She wed Mr. Aronowitz, her longtime companion, in 1998. She is survived by Mr. Aronowitz, a distinguished professor of sociology at the City University of New York and the Green Party candidate for governor of New York in 2002; their daughter, Nona Willis-Aronowitz, of Manhattan; two siblings, Michael Willis of Johannesburg, South Africa, and Penny Willis of Queens; four stepchildren, Michael O’Connell of Basking Ridge, N.J.; Kim O’Connell of Montclair, N.J.; Alice Finer and Hampton Finer, both of Brooklyn; and two step-grandchildren.
Ms. Willis’s other books include “No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays” (University Press of New England, 1992); and “Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial” (Beacon Press, 1999).
Despite her anti-authoritarian positions — or perhaps because of them — she confessed to being constitutionally hopeful, however unfashionable that might seem. In the essay from “Beginning to See the Light” she described the condition this way:
“My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.”
Liza Featherstone’s Blog over at the Nation also has a lovely tribute.

The end of marriage? (Gay)Excluding gay couples ultimately works to ensure that marriage as an institution declines.
By JULIE ENSZERFriday, November 10, 2006

THE MILESTONE COURT decision from New Jersey paves the way for another state to recognize gay and lesbian relationships. The decision hinges on the effect of naming — do we call it marriage or not? — but still requires that the state extend all the rights and benefits to gay and lesbian couples.
I spent the better part of the next day telling my beloved that this doesn’t clear the way for us to move to Jersey. She laughed. We feel certain that the moment is coming for Maryland so we won’t have to move. I wonder, though, if what we are seeing right now is not the entry of gay and lesbian couples into the system of marriage, but the end of marriage as an institution completely?

Read More in the Washington Blade

Friday, November 10, 2006


Yesterday a professor recounted the story of another professor who was an associate professor and recently retired as an associate professor. The last two sabbaticals of her career were spent caring for friends with AIDS who were dying. She said, “That was part of her spiritual practice: service.” It made me cried. I covered my tears, but even to think about it again, this morning alone with only my coffee, I cry.

Although I never think that I shall go before a tenure committee (I’m not in a PhD program and even though I’m now in a graduate program I have the distinction of being able to say I have been rejected from more than a handful of graduate programs and I’ve never been accepted to one; I’ve only enrolled in one), my wife fancies it for me. She wants me to get a PhD, teach, and write and be a famous academic. She has more ambition for me than I do. Still, I think, if I were ever to be before a tenure committee, I would say, the first book of my career was written on the streets of Detroit. I spilled so much ink there in other people’s lives. Words and pages written that were never saved, could never be saved, in the hope that instead of having some object for libraries for posterity we might have, instead, our own lives with dignity and respect. The first book was written in Detroit, sitting around circles of people. It was written in words and images, but they were pressed not on paper, not as text on a keyboard, not written to RAM, they were spoken, they were touched, they disappeared into the ether. I can’t even remember all of their names. I can’t even keep all of the promises I made. That was my first book.

Now, I would feel behind, reading the first books of others, some just my age, some younger, except I never fully expected to be this age and still be doing something. I knew, rationally, that I wasn’t going to die. I did, but it was muddled by the fact that people were dying around me and some of them died, irrationally, which is to say against not only their age but their health. I didn’t expect to be approaching 40 (which I will tell you in a rational moment that I am not that there are still many years between now and that milestone except that I am aware of it because of a promise I made that when I was 40 I would be writing these stories, not my stories, I promised that I would have by then told all of my stories, but that I would write the stories of black gay men in Detroit in case they were all dead and unable to write and tell their own stories, and of course they are all not dead they are still in Detroit and I, I have left and not written my own stories and not written theirs and so I am consumed, waking up in the middle of the night wondering how on earth will I keep this promise that I made when I was too young to make any promises?), I didn’t expect to be approaching 40 ever so saying things, making promises at twenty-two and twenty-three about what would come to pass in seventeen or eighteen years seemed like a foolish endeavor of youth and it was and I would forgive myself for not keeping those promises if the ones that I made the promises were here today with me to laugh about them and reminisce and mock the foolishness of our youth but they aren’t and so I feel that I must keep these promises which is to say that even though the first book of my life has been written and while I know it and can see it and can read it so clearly I know that others cannot and so I have to write another which others will call my first book, but I will know better. I will know that it is the second or the third and I will know that it will never be as good as the first, it will never be as honest, as holy as what was written there in my past in Detroit. There are others who will know that too but they won’t be able to tell you unless you listen, carefully, to the cold, dark wind.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


A great blogger, Mahnaz Badihian, has written a haunting story that she published over at

When everyone is Lonely No One is Lonely

I was one of those people who was never lonely, even in I can be lonely when I don’t know the most accessible person that I know. Life did not leave me a moment to be alone with her to know her.

This is the reason I have a date with “myself.” I wanted to see “myself”, talk to her, look at her eyes, hold her hands, caress her, and get to know her.

Myself” is the one that has been with me and I have not seen her. I don’t know her. I am excited for this meeting. I was tired of loneliness. It was time to start a relation with someone. I need someone to read my poems to.

Read more.

I recently read Mahnaz’s book, From Zayandeh Rud to the Mississippi, A Voice from a Road Between East and West. You can read information about the book on her blog here:

I heartily recommend the book. The work is an intimate and personal portrait and a fascinating read.


Last night, late for me - at 10 p.m. - I was having a telephone conversation with a lesbian writer I idolize. Being in school gives me the opportunity to define projects that put me in contact with cool people like the writer I was speaking with. In addition to a valuable oral interview for a seminar paper that I am writing, it was an opportunity to remember how important lesbian writing and lesbian poetry was during the 1970s and 1980s. One of the things that I like about history is it gives me an opportunity to feel a part of times that I missed. Last night, on the telephone, I felt like I was a lesbian poet in 1979. I imagined myself swapping poems with these women I admire. I imagined the validation of having a poem published in Sinister Wisdom. It was magical. Working to preserve history makes me a part of that time even though I was nine years old then and trapped in Saginaw.

The other thing that the telephone call reminded me of is the importance of not dismissing essentialism. I see too many easy dismissals of things that women believed and worked on in the 1970s and early 1980s as “essentialist” as though it wasn’t sophisticated and didn’t have a full understanding of the world that we have now-as though people were consciously naive and not just living in the midst of the life that they had. While feminism and queer theory have had many fascinating and important developments since 1985, there are important ideas and theories to remember and retain from earlier times, even if they have now been labeled “essentialist” or a product of “cultural feminism.”

The woman I was talking to last night is going to do work to remember that and write that work in a way that can be heard and understood by the contemporary academic constructs. I’m excited about that because I feel so strongly about the importance of doing that work and not forgetting or dismissing “essentialism” or “cultural feminism.” It’s interesting because I am always excited to hear about others doing work on projects that interest me. My secret hope is that someone will write the book that I want to read and let me off the hook. I tell this to Helen each time she asks me about my work on the feminist history of the nuclear age. I keep reading and reading and reading hoping that someone will write this so that I don’t have to, so that I can get off the hook for writing it. No one has. I hope if I delay and delay and delay someone will when in fact the delays just give me more stress about the responsibility of telling this history. I am constantly trying to find a feminist analysis that will release me from this obligation, but everything about my feminism tells me that this is an important aspect of feminism: taking responsibility for making things visible that have been forgotten or overlooked. I try to convince myself that it is co-dependent; I tell myself that I don’t have to take responsibility for anything other than myself, my actions, my body. I don’t believe it. I feel this obligation to all of those women scientists, to the women who protested and organized to end the nuclear age. I feel an obligation to the lesbian poets who wrote and organized and work to envision a future in which I could sit and write poems about pussy and bring them to a graduate course and not be labeled, dismissed, or ridiculed (although their work did a lot, there is still more to do from what I have seen). I feel this responsibility. I dream about it. I stresses me out. Still, I cannot rationalize or intellectualize my way out of it. So I try to let go of that and put that energy into gathering the information, reading the books, finding the data, interviewing the people, understanding the ideas.

All of that to say, even though I know that it isn't trendy to think about essentialism and even though I know that thinking there are important messages in cultural feminism for us today, I believe in them. I can’t give up on them.

One of the reasons that I can't give up on essentialism because I cannot imagine living in a world where women aren't doing work like Metaformia. Metaformia is a journal of menstruation and culture. It is online. It is a new venture, a contemporary translation of cultural feminism into a cyberfeminist age. On my list of books to review, Mary Daly’s new book and a reprint of Monica Sjoo. These things matter to us today, more than history, too, I feel like they have some secret within them, some message that helps us understand how to move forward.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I’ve been thinking about what Katie King writes at her blog about Cvetkovich’s book An Archive of Feelings. The bulk of the post is about citations, and truth be told, I’m a bit too daft to respond to that in a substantive way. For me citations remain the thing at the bottom of the page (formatted via the footnoting function in Word, now, thank goodness) that reference quotations and ideas borrowed from other scholars. There is something more that intrigues me in King’s blog. It intrigues me, but it’s not the substance of what I want to write. I want to take up her this part of her blog.

But it has made me wonder about the aspects of academic life configured by and around trauma, and allegations of trauma. Not least, of course, are such legal reconfigurations over the last twenty years around sexual harassment and around procedures surrounding tenure and other professional performances. In a bit of a different register, some of our Ph.D. students have used terms like trauma to describe their experiences around professional hurdles such as their general exams -- those mandated elements in their professional initiations -- and urged that if these are traumatic they are somehow not feminist. I wonder what differences reading Cvetkovich would make to them even while I consider how we might reconfigure our exams.

Freespeechlover responded in the comments section with this insightful paragraph:

When I read this paragraph, my first reaction is huh? to the use of "trauma" by grad students in Women's Studies at U. of Md. in relationship to exams. I don't mean to trivialize this use, but when I think of trauma in academia, I think of my colleagues in the West Bank, who are writing about the denial of academic freedom for Palestinian faculty and students and the struggle to keep an entire system of higher education going under conditions of foreign and quite brutal military occupation.

I want to say, “Right on.” I keep returning to it in my mind, however. I think what interests me is how in US feminist circles and progressive political circles trauma has been adopted as a part of our regular discourse, as a way of understanding the world and our experience in the world. To understand it more fully because I feel quite entrenched in it, I have to first think about there being an alternative. I like reading the political writings of socialists and Zionists from the 1930s and 1940s for that reason. There was a different way of understanding what was happening to people in the world and there is a hopefulness about what collective action can do for change. That is strong influenced of course by Marxism. Today, however, we experience the world through a lens of therapy and the language of trauma. Cvetkovich’s first chapter in which she explores how Judith Herman naturalizes trauma and defines a history of understanding trauma as a cultural artifice through careful readings of the Holocaust and the history of slavery and the African Diaspora. I think Cvetkovich’s book explains why we as graduate students frame our experience as “traumatic” in regard to “professional hurdles” as King writes and she provides some basis for thinking about this in a new way.

On a political level, I am aligned with Freespeechlover and don’t want to frame my experience as a graduate student as “trauma.” In the traumatic framework understood in therapeutic cultures, it is not. I understand the popularization and the extension of trauma to include some aspects of what we experience in graduate school, but ultimately it makes me bristle. What I experience in graduate school is intellectual work that I am still learning to quantify in the way that I’ve quantified professional work and that frankly I find less invasive or overwhelming than other professional work that I have done, although that may be a consequence of being in only my first semester of my program. I do experience profound loneliness in graduate school, which is, I think, a consequence of doing work that is solitary, and I do experience intellectual angst that manifests itself as insecurity and anxiety, but I don’t feel that any of that results in a collection of experiences that could be called trauma.

Part of the refusal to call it trauma may also be my sense that I can leave at any time. To me, trauma is inescapable either explicitly or implicitly. The trauma of the public cultures that Cvetkovich analyzes are cultures in which people are bound and from which they cannot just walk away. To me that’s an essential part of what creates trauma, being trapped, being unable to leave. I don’t feel that and I think I don’t in large part because of my age and the point at which I am returning to this Master’s degree program. I joke in my professional life that the most liberating thing to do is quit a job. I think that is true. The second most liberating thing to do is to know that you can quit. That you are not bound to a set of circumstances which describe life at one particular moment. I am not sure that all of my graduate student colleagues have that sense yet; I am not sure that they all think, well, I could just walk away.

So while I am politically resisting an notion of aligning the graduate student experience with trauma, I think that Cvetkovich provides a way to explore that notion which is actually contrary to my belief. In An Archive of Feelings, Cvetkovich actually moves the trauma dialogue from a discourse that is focused on events like the Holocaust and US slavery to a dialogue in which trauma is a way of understanding a collective affective experience. She provides view of trauma with greater gradiations. She also explores how trauma is not just an experience that is inflicted on people, but an experience that is constructed and in which people participate, in particular in her oral histories of lesbians from ACT UP.

While the “academy” in the United States is a system of educational capitalism and there are ostensible power relations between graduate students and professors, it seems to me that the experience of graduate education has at it’s center the objective of developing professionals who will engage in and carry on the system of educational capitalism as opposed to an objective of subjugating and/or traumatizing its participants. (I think the latter function is a part of the system of academic capitalism, but I don’t think that graduate students are its target.) That is not to say that some graduate students don’t feel subjugated and/or traumatized by the process; they do. That experience, however, is where Cvetkovich’s intervention is critical. Cvetkovich destabilizes the traditional discourse about trauma and up-ends the formulation that Katie writes about in which a traumatic experience is not feminist, quite to the contrary, Cvetkovich looks at how a traumatic experience in a lesbian public culture can be traumatic and how that can be part of the experience of the public culture. Through Cvetkovich’s lens trauma becomes not something that is inflicted upon us and that should be either avoided or “recovered from,” but rather is an experience of engagement in our public cultures.

While part of me still argues in my head as I am entrenched in the pre-Cvetkovich paradigm, I am starting to feel how useful this book is. The questions that it raises for me, however, are: What trauma is useful? How do we/I determine where to engage in the trauma of the public culture? Where do we/I draw the line? How do we know where that line is?

I think these are the questions that I grapple with as a graduate student. My buddy who has finished her PhD and is teaching over in London emails me in response to my panicked and overwrought emails, “Remember you can always quit.” I tell her that I can’t; not in the first semester, that is too much humiliation; I would have to feign insanity or some health issue. I tell her I hear voices in my head. She tells me they all sound like me. She’s right. I choose to carry on in this program, in part, because I’m exhausted from the activist work. I’ll take this trauma, unknown, uncertain, over the trauma I have known. For now. For this time.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


In An Archive of Feelings, Ann Cvetkovich has written a thoughtful, insightful, and intellectually and theoretically rigorous book. To help our discussion on Thursday, I am going to do three things. First, I will create a brief outline of the book and highlight some points that I felt were significant in each chapter and raise some questions. Second, I’m interested in exploring a few ideas in depth for our discussion on Thursday. Finally, there are some overarching questions that I’ll pose for our discussion based on this text and the other two in this section (as well as some of the other books we’ve read to date.)

First, an outline of the book. My intention here is not to provide a crib for those who are pressed for time, but rather to look at how the book was assembled because it feels like an astonishing piece of scholarship to me.

In An Archive of Feelings, Cvetkovich is inserting her analysis into a variety of conversations that are happening. First, she is intervening in the study of trauma to change the clinical definitions, in which trauma is “an overwhelming event that produces certain kinds of symptoms in the patient,” (p. 19) and poststructuralist theory, in which trauma is “an event that is unrepresentable,” to a new notion of trauma “as part of the affective lanugage that describes life under capitalism.” (p. 19.) Second, Cvetkovich is intervening in the notion off an archive to posit not something that is contained in a library of whatever construction, to an “affective experience” that “can form the basis for public culture.” (p. 17.)

Cvetkovich builds the books with these chapters:


1. The Everyday Life of Queer Trauma

It is in this opening chapter that Cvetkovich reviews the world of trauma studies and provides her theoretical foundations for the book - feminism, critical race theory, Marxism, and queer theory. There are a few things that I admire about Cvetkovich’s writing that I want to emulate and many are grounded here in the first chapter. First, Cvetkovich is explicit about her theoretical underpinnings; not only is she explicit, she gives us a nice explication of what each of her theoretical allegiances mean to her. She is not reliant on short-hand terms or assumptions about the reader’s knowledge; rather she calmly and carefully explains what she believes, where she grounds her beliefs textually, and how she is trying to move the theoretical work forward through her work. It is elegant. i harbor such similar aspirations for care and elegance. Second, Cvetkovich grounds her work in texts that are based in the lesbian work and that speak to lesbians but also reach out from the lesbian community to a broader community. She does this in the first chapter with the film 2.5 Minute Ride and it’s connection with Little Women. It is a deft analysis. Third, Cvetkovich is extraordinary in her generous capacity to explain differences and respect those that she disagrees with while still holding to her own beliefs. She does this on page 31 in her explication of where she agrees with Judith Herman and where she departs. Fourth, she is unafraid of taking up things that are, or seem to be to me, “sacred cows” and engaging with them thoughtfully and transformatively. For example, in this first chapter, her discussions of trauma in Holocaust studies and in the history of slavery, both made me think “uh-oh” I wonder if she is going to make me uncomfortable? Will she tread on the things that I believe? Will she challenge my core beliefs and assumptions? She did - and I was comfortable with that - even thankful because I appreciated the thinking at the other side. Here’s the key though: she didn’t make me feel uncomfortable or weary throughout the process. So one of the learnings that I take from this text is how Cvetkovich thinks and writes because I find it generous and elegant as well as rigorous. These are all attributes to which I aspire and I’m appreciative of Cvetkovich for helping me to understand how to put them into practice.

This first chapter concludes with Cvetkovich’s statement, “Trauma, then, serves as a site for exploring the convergence of affect and sexuality as categories of analysis for queer theory.” (p. 48.) This foregrounds the second chapter and demonstrates how Cvetkovich is changing the nature of trauma studies through this book.

2. Trauma and Touch: Butch-Femme Sexualities

This chapter is a sensitive reading of sexuality as experienced in both a physical way and in an emotional way. Drawing on both the foundations of writing about butch-femme and trauma, Cvetkovich examines both carefully and with a new eye. I’m interested in looking at how Cvetkovich writes about sexuality in this chapter in addition to how she builds her arguments about reading trauma theory alongside butch-femme identities.

3. Sexual Trauma/Queer Memory: Incest, Lesbianism, and Therapeutic Culture

In this chapter, Cvetkovich problematizes traditional configurations of trauma and therapy cultures by reading them in conjunction with lesbian music. The elements that Cvetkovich introduces in this chapter are diverse and an important mix of sources. We may want to look at this chapter in particular as it feels like one of the most critical chapters in the book.

For folks unfamiliar with the music, here are two links.
LeTigre site:

Tribe 8 site:
I believe that Katie will bring in some of the music mentioned in the chapter.

4. Transnational Trauma and Queer Diasporic Publics

Initially, I thought that this was the weakest chapter of Cvetkovich’s book. That was a result of reading Gopinath last week, I think. Gopinath’s analysis of the queer female diasporic subjectivity is so sharp and clearly delineated that to come to this chapter a week later, it feels like it is missing something, which in retrospect it is: Gopinath’s work. In a second reading of it, however, I find this chapter a critical part of Cvetkovich’s project first because it ties to her central thesis about understanding trauma as a part of living with capitalism and second because it demonstrates further her willingness as an intellectual to write thoughtfully and respectfully across differences. Cvetkovich knows how significant the work of Gopinath and other academics is to her project; she writes about it quite compellingly on pages 120-121. Rather thank thinking of this chapter as lacking something, I’ve come to think of it as foregrounding something.

The substance of this chapter is Cvetkovich’s analysis of Frances Negron-Muntaner’s Brincando el Charco, Prathiba Parmar’s Khush, and Shani Moo-too’s Cereus Blooms at Night. Katie wrote a long blog entry about how citation practices serve to highlight and efface work. She raises the issue of how are we to know what we don’t know and how are we to know what is not mentioned. It is in this chapter that I thought about what is not said and what is said and the power of that in Cvetkovich’s book. Prathiba Parmar’s film, Warrior Marks, with Alice Walker has been the site of a great deal of contestation in Women’s Studies. Cvetkovich alludes to this when she writes, “One might even say that the controversies provoked by Warrior Marks’s criticism of female genital mutilation could be clarified by paying attention to this unusual collaboration between two lesbians ”of color“ whose common ground is as unpredictable as the difference between Walker’s ”womanism“ and Parmar’s theoretically informed cultural studies background.” (p. 134). Again, Cvetkovich demonstrates the care with which she writes and thinks using language that is not inflammatory or blaming but works to suss out clear-thinking meaning. I raise the point, however, to also note that by including Parmar’s work in this chapter, Cvetkovich is making a statement. I read the inclusion of Parmar’s Khush as a way to validate the work of Parmar despite the many criticisms she has faced.

5. AIDS Activism and Public Feelings: Documenting ACT UP’s Lesbians

This chapter begins Cvetkovich’s project of oral histories with lesbians from ACT UP. I found this chapter and the next one incredibly profound. I heard my own voice in the voices of the women Cvetkovich interviewed. Ultimately, in this chapter Cvetkovich problematizes the traditional formula in which from trauma activism emerges and posits that in addition to this from activism trauma emerges. She writes about a collective trauma that people can experience working together.

6. Legacies of Trauma, Legacies of Activism: Mourning and Militancy Revisited

This chapter includes more of the data from the oral histories and also takes up three memoirs of caretaking. Cvetkovich writes, “I was drawn to the idea that activism is not only a response to trauma but can itself be traumatic because of its emotional intensities and disappointments.” (p. 230.) Later, she writes, “I’d like to open up space in which exploring the emotional ambiguities and complexities of activism doesn’t compromise or undermine its significance.” (p. 231). This project and its conclusion feels so urgent to me, I have difficulty writing about it other than to say, yes.

7. In the Archive of Lesbian Feelings

In the final chapter, Cvetkovich explores archives and their constructs. Drawing on the two independent queer archives and contrasting them with the library-based archives, Cvetkovich explores what is included and what is excluded in archival construction while arguing for an archive that is more than “bibs and bobs” and includes that affective experiences of people. The entire notion of an archive is something that we may want to discuss; both the practicality of it and the meta-analysis of archives that Cvetkovich deploys by example in the text. This chapter also opens with a brief discussion of The Watermelon Woman; we may wish to consider that in light of the treatment of The Watermelon Woman in Black Queer Studies.


Cvetkovich chimes in on Boys Don’t Cry, consciously responding to other queer and cultural critics who have written about it. This is another locus for discussion as we have Halberstam’s analysis of the film in our common bank of knowledge now.

Reflections on Cvetkovich

I might describe this book as “all that and a bag of chips.” In addition to the many admirable things that I think that Cvetkovich does as a writer and an intellectual, what I like about this book is that way that Cvetkovich works through so many communities that I care about. Perhaps it is because she deals with communities that I have a vested interested in - lesbians, queers, survivors, readers of good books, lesbian films. I’d like to think though that my interest extends beyond my own personal feelings.

The other thing I admire about this book is the methodology that Cvetkovich employs in this book. Cvetkovich utilizes methodologies from a variety of communities of practice. She examines literature with tools of English; she examines film with tools from film; she examines oral histories with tools of history. Throughout it all she weaves tools and theories of feminism, Women’s Studies, and queer studies. Cvetkovich is expansive in the book and she is intensive. She uses a variety of tools to speak about issues that are important to her personally and to us politically and intellectually.

I think that Cvetkovich provides in An Archive of Feeling is a new paradigm for handling the personal content. Personal content, either as testimony or experience has been significant always to Women’s Studies and to LGBT Studies. (The entire notion of the closet and leaving the closet creates a central metaphoric experience related to personal experience that is central to queer constructions.) While Cvetkovich gathers and privileges personal experience in ways that we might expect it to in a Women’s Studies context, she isn’t stymied by personal experience. Rather she interrogates it with the same intellectual rigor as she interrogates other sources of knowledge in the text. Cvetkovich’s interrogation is done, of course, with the same deft hand that she handles other material. Cvetkovich writes with respect and positive regard for all of her subjects. As I have said before, It’s a paradigm I admire.

Some questions to think about for our class

How do the three books in this cycle work together? All are engaged in a dialogue about public cultures although their engagement with that term differs. Cvetkovich is engaged in a notion of public cultures that are material and grounded in many ways in a lesbian community; Gopinath is engaged in understanding the diaspora of southeast Asians and how to create a subjectivity for queer women; the Mobile Cultures collection is engaged in how gay-ness is being understood in southeast Asia through technology. While the easy connection for me is the content of looking at questions about southeast Asian queers, there is a deeper connection that these books share in writing about queer subjectivity.

How is Cvetkovich engaging in discussions of “queer” and “lesbian”? I think that she is drawing some lines here, but I haven’t mapped it out thoroughly and would love to talk about it in class.

How is Cvetkovich working with notions of public and private? How does that relate to the other texts in this section and in the course? Again, I think that there are some important insights here, but I haven’t wrapped my head around them all.

How does Cvetkovich chose the texts that she does to build this book? Is it different from some of the other authors that we have read? I think in particular about Cvetkovich’s work with lesbian music and Halberstam’s work with lesbian music. Are they doing similar things? Are there differences? What does that tell us for selection texts and content for our own work?

Article about Anne Cvetkovich

Finally, it seems that Cvetkovich’s parter is Gretchen Phillips, an awesome singer-songerwriter of 2 Nice Girls fame, among other lesbian music constellations. Phillips’ website is here: