Monday, December 29, 2008


I’ve never been a fan of the random music function on my ipod. Call me a control freak, but I like to know the order of the songs as they play. Lately though I’ve discovered the joy of random music. It started with the 200 CD disk changer that we put on random and listened to each evening for the past month. It’s fascinating to sit and listen to the mix. We have lots of music of women with guitars and a fair bit of classical music, some blues and some jazz. Frankly, it’s great to have a musical treat each evening. It’s also like reviewing so much of the music of my late teens and twenties. Who knew I would be nostalgic for early Melissa Etheridge? Then, in the random music world, I received a new ipod shuffle for our anniversary. I waited a long time to load it up for exactly the reason that it only plays music randomly, but my old ipod only could hold a charge for about eighteen minutes, less when it was cold. As my runs have gotten longer, that last twenty to thirty minutes of no music was painful. So I fired up the new shuffle and that, too, has made me a fan of random music. I love it, in fact. Best of all, I learned the forward button so if a song comes up that I don’t particularly want to hear and isn’t part of my running groove, I just click that and we are on to the next song. Don’t get me wrong, I still fantasize about creating perfect playlists for every occasion, but without the time to pursue such activities, for now, I’m a fan of random.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lest We Forget

Amid the excitement of Harvey Milk’s life story on the big screen (which is wonderful), we must not forget that the first elected gay or lesbian official in the United States was not Milk, but Elaine Noble. She was elected as a state representative in Massachusetts in 1975. You can read a great interview about her here.

Marilynne Robinson's Home

Last weekend I read Marilynne Robinson’s newest book, Home. I’m a Robinson fan having first encountered Housekeeping in college and then her brilliant book, Mother Courage, while researching anti-nuclear writings. Mother Courage is really an under recognized book. When Robinson’s book Gilead was published, to the acclaim of critics and readers all around (it was eventually awarded the Pulitzer Prize), I was eager to read it and while I enjoyed it and marveled at what an incredible prose stylist and storyteller Robinson is, I wasn’t profoundly in love with Gilead. I am, however, profoundly in love with Home. This book is the finely-crafted storytelling that I remember from Housekeeping. It is filled with characters that are interesting and sympathetic. Robinson’s pacing and control of plot is astounding. I was riveted by the book from the minute I started and so in love with her writing that I took breaks from reading just to make it last. Robinson grounds this book in a very particular year and historical moment without directly telling the reader what that time is but still letting it be exposed by the thinking and words of the characters while simultaneously spinning a tale that seems transcendent - even timeless. This is part of her power as a writer. Perhaps my affection for and joy about this book is a consequence of truly enjoying one of the central characters, Glory, who at thirty-eight finds herself returned to the home where she grew up to care for her ill father. I found Glory an incredible character and her struggles and questions profoundly resonant. If you haven’t read Robinson, start with Home and then explore her other works. If you already know Housekeeping and Mother Courage, but haven’t read the two most recent books, skip Gilead and embrace Home.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Days with Miss Gertrude Stein

In this squib from The New Yorker in 1934, there is a delightful portrait of Miss Gertrude Stein and Miss Alice Toklas. I would like to have a bathtub especially made for me, but I could do without the cows, preferring sheep instead.

Read it in The New Yorker.

The Talk of the Town
Tender Buttons
by Janet Flanner, James Thurber, and Harold Ross October 13, 1934

Gertrude Stein is "pleasantly pleased," she wrote to a literary friend a week or so ago, that she is coming over here to lecture. So we guess she's really coming. In fact, she's already written her lectures, she said in her letter, on the following subjects: Plays, Pictures, What Is English Literature, The Gradual Making of Making of Americans, Portraits and Repetitions, and Grammar and Poetry. They are all, she says, about herself. In case you're interested, we have learned a few things about her that she may not tell in her lectures.

Miss Stein gets up every morning about ten and drinks some coffee, against her will. She's always been nervous about becoming nervous and she thought coffee would make her nervous, but her doctor prescribed it. Miss Toklas, her companion, gets up at six and starts dusting and fussing around. Once she broke a fine piece of Venetian glass and cried. Miss Stein laughed and said "Hell, oh hell, hell, objects are made to be consumed like cakes, books, people." Every morning Miss Toklas bathes and combs their French poodle, Basket, and brushes its teeth. It has its own toothbrush.

Miss Stein has an outsize bathtub that was especially made for her. A staircase had to be taken out to install it. After her bath she puts on a huge wool bathrobe and writes for a while, but she prefers to write outdoors, after she gets dressed. Especially in the Ain country, because there are rocks and cows there. Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn't seem to fit in with Miss Stein's mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.

Miss Stein always drives, and Miss Toklas rides in the back seat, squealing and jumping, for they say that Miss Stein is the worst driver in the history of automotive engineering. She takes corners fast, doesn't put out her hand, drives on the wrong side of the street, pays no more attention to traffic signals or intersections than she does to punctuation marks, and never honks. Now and then Alice will lean over from the back seat and honk. They haven't had any accidents. One writer who visited her had a fake wire sent to him from Paris calling him back, because he was afraid he'd be killed in the Ford.

Miss Stein spends much of her time quarrelling with friends—always about literature or painting. The quarrels are passionate ones, involving everybody, taking hours to get under way, lasting for years (like the one with Hemingway). Nobody remembers after a couple of months exactly what the quarrels are about. The maid at the Stein house in Paris has to be told every day who will be persona grata at tea—it all depends on the quarrel of the night before. Gertrude sits up late, talking, arguing, and laughing; she has a rich, deep, and warming laugh. Afterward she wakes up Alice, who goes to bed early, and they go over the talk of the whole day. Miss Stein has a photographic memory for conversation.

The lady wears astonishing clothes: sandals, woollen stockings fit for a football-player, a man's plush fedora hat perched high on her head, rough tweed suits over odd embroidered waistcoats and peasant tunics. She also wears extraordinary blue-and-white striped knickers for underdrawers. This came out when she lost them once at a concert given by Virgil Thomson at the Hotel Majestic. She just stepped out of them somehow and left them lying there on the floor. She thought it was very funny and laughed loudly. ♦

Roy Blount Jr. on buy books - orgiastically

I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves.  Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
Authors Guild

The Guild's staff informs me that many of you are writing to ask whether you can forward and post my holiday message encouraging orgiastic book-buying. Yes! Forward! Yes! Post! Sound the clarion call to every corner of the Internet: Hang in there, bookstores! We're coming! And we're coming to buy! To buy what? To buy books! Gimme a B! B! Gimme an O! O! Gimme another O! Another O! Gimme a K! K! Gimme an S! F! No, not an F, an S. We're spelling BOOKS!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Happy Birthday Muriel Rukeyser

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It's the birthday of poet Muriel Rukeyser, (books by this author) born in New York City (1913). In 1931, when she was still a teenager, she drove from New York to Scottsboro, Alabama, to cover a controversial trial of nine young black men accused of raping two white girls. She devoted the rest of her life to activism and writing. Over five decades, she wrote more than 15 collections of poetry.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Journal Review: GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies

GLQ is a quarterly journal published by Duke University Press. Ann Cvetkovich, a professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and Annamarie Jagose, a professor of English at the University of Auckland (New Zealand), are the current editors. The editorial board includes a wide range of scholars in gay and lesbian/queer studies including Sara Ahmed, Lisa Duggan, David Eng, Rod Ferguson, Judith Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz. In addition, there are editors for Book Reviews, currently Noreen Giffney for books in the Humanities and Martin F. Manalansan IV for books in the Social Sciences. There are two “Moving Image” Review editors, currently Alex Juhasz and Ming-Yeun S. Ma. Current issues of the journal contain three to six scholarly articles, a few full-length book or film reviews, and about a dozen brief book reviews.
GLQ was founded in 1993 with Carolyn Dinshaw, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and David M. Halperin, a classicist at the University of Michigan, as the original editors. When the journal was founded it had an explicit mission to advance “queer theory.” The types of scholarly articles featured in the journal are eclectic in their methodology and intention. Articles include theoretical pieces, histories of queer identity, and historiography. Many books, which have become central to queer theory and scholarship, were published as articles in earlier forms in GLQ. The journal came to Duke University Press beginning with volume four in 1998.
In addition to the collection of scholarly articles, GLQ includes “The GLQ Archive” which is “a special section featuring previously unpublished or unavailable primary materials that may serve as sources for future work in lesbian and gay studies.” These materials are often transcripts of conference discussions or original documents and when featured are generally a large portion of the journal.
The journal positions itself as an interdisciplinary journal and authors are from a wide variety of disciplines with an emphasis on disciplines in the humanities particularly history, English, and cultural studies. The journal is consciously international in its approach, and in recent years focusing more on transnational queer scholarship. Although there is more focus on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, GLQ takes a wide historical perspective. A recent archive entry was a debate about applying the term lesbian to Greek, Roman and Medieval practices from a history conference while another article was a statement from contemporary lesbian activists in Mexico.
There have been a number of special issues of the journal included “The Transgender Issue” edited by Susan Stryker which features early articles from Joanne Meyerowitz’s book How Sex Changed and Judith Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, “Thinking Sexuality Transnationally” in 1999, “Men and Lesbianism” in 2001, “Queer Tourism: Geographies of Globalization” edited by Jasbir Kaur Puar in 2002, “Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies” edited by Robert McRuer and Abby L. Wilkerson in 2003, and “The Work of Friendship: In Memoriam Alan Bray.” These special issues reflect the evolution of queer theory to new areas of engagement, particularly examining transgender issues and other areas of scholarship that expand the name of the journal and the disciplinary space as well. Special issues also function as ways to bring a greater diversity of scholarship—and scholars—to the pages of the journal.

PhD Reflections #6

In many ways, it has been a semester of theory, and I realize as it comes to a close how much I both enjoy theory and have a vexed relationship with it. For me, theory in its most basic form challenges what I already know. With its capacity to step up a level and out to a larger perspective and interrogate both the why and the how of things in the world, theory is invigorating and exciting to me intellectually. At the same time, given my work in the queer movement and the non-profit sector, I’m always asking myself, how does this theory affect people’s material conditions? The answers are not always clear and that generates the dissonance of theory for me. In my reading this semester, I’ve come to admire profoundly scholars who are able to make strong theoretical connections to daily life. I think in particular of Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions, Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed, and Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas.
A few full days at the library this past week confirmed for me that I want to spend more time doing archival research. At one point, I thought that I might be ill-suited for that type of scholarly work, but increasingly I find that sort of work to be what really excites me and motivates me. The joys of discovery really light my fire intellectually. Archival work also reminds me of the necessity of putting in the time for the work. It’s similar to being a poet; poetry requires time and the discipline of sitting down and writing even if it’s bad, inelegant, and mundane. Each day, that work is important. Similarly, the archival work is reviewing folio after folio, mining for the gems and taking notes and remembering various tidbits with the hope that together they might glimmer as a whole. So one of the things I hope to do during the break and next semester is build some archive and research time into my weekly schedule.
New directions for my thinking are harder this week. I’m aware of the necessity of focusing in on the projects at hand to drive to the successful completion of the semester. Things that I may have explored more fully earlier in the semester are now shunted to a future task list in service to fulfilling the work that is immediately ahead. The one area I’m mulling and struck me especially during my review of GLQ was the importance of transnational frameworks for queer scholarly work. This was affirmed as well by Kathy Davis’ book, The Making of Our Bodies Ourselves. I want to think more about that as I move forward.
My biggest dilemma continues to be balancing that need for broad, expansive, and ambitious thinking with the realities of producing things, whether they are papers or book reviews or bibliographic annotations. I think that keeping that dynamic tension foremost in my mind and my intellectual practice is important and doing it effectively is a recurrent dilemma.
Though I should have known better, there was the image of coming into graduate school as a giant vessel waiting to be filled. That, of course, isn’t the case. Yes, my mind is a giant vessel, but the process of filling it is different than that of a carafe beneath the faucet. Filling the vessel of the mind is an active process; there is the persistent desire to think that someone, some great and prescient person, will take responsibility for pouring in everything that is needed, but in fact, there are many people engaged in that process, and I am an important one in it as well. Ultimately, nearing the completion of this first semester, I feel many of my expectations – and hopes and dreams – about graduate school have been fulfilled and at the same time, I feel very in media res. As though I am in the first act of a Greek play – hoping the elements of comedy and tragedy are all present – before we reach the final scene.

PhD Reflections #5

The collaborative paper for WMST 601 is now complete with the particular sense of relief, though it’s effects, perhaps unanticipated, linger in my mind. When I enrolled in graduate school for the MFA, the thing that I wanted most of all was time alone. This resulted from a disjunction for me in the year prior to graduate school. My work life had always involved being extroverted and gregarious and working not only with a team of people, but also with a large community of people. I excelled at this and external reports were that I thrived in such circumstances. In fact, all I hungered for was quiet time alone. The solitude of a room of my own and ample time to putter around, sort things out, clean when necessary, and write. The MFA program offered an opportunity to reorganize my life to focus more on this solitary act and less on the social of work. I consciously didn’t join any groups and had little interest in building a social life at school, particularly in the first year. Yes, I found new friends and invested in new relationships, but my focus was almost unifocal on my time for solitude, especially during the period where I worried that my two or three years in the MFA would be my only time in school, my only time to really have the solitude to write.
Moving into the PhD program has lessened some of my generalized anxiety of time limitations. I worry less that if I don’t have my required 5-6 hours of solitary time per day I will never get them back – or have them in the future. Though, still, even with four or five years stretching in front of me, I am protective of my solitude. This is why the dissonance of the desire for collaboration has been filling my mind.
As undergraduates, we all yearned for collaboration, though we didn’t label it that; it was, more accurately, the desire for a long-term intellectual, sexual, emotional, and lifetime partnership. We wanted to have sustaining primary relationships. It was the confirmation that there is something significant about social activity for human beings. As I and my friends from undergraduate school have gone out to the world, we’ve either built such partnerships or built and lost and rebuilt or found other, less traditional methods of securing such partnerships. In short, we’ve learned to satisfy our social and human needs in a variety of ways. I thought coming into graduate school, that those desires of human connection had been attended and would not be present. In some ways, I was right; I just didn’t realize how they would resonate on a different register.
I think that the desire for collaboration is related to this undergraduate experience, though it is different: less urgent, more focused on intellect and less on the social or carnal desires of post-adolescence. Still, it is present. I read the poems of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, all written collaboratively, and I imagine what would it be like to work with someone in such an intensive way to create poems? I think about the work that Martha Nell Smith has done with Ellen Hart on the Dickinson correspondence. How does one build such collaborations that now span decades? I think of Stan Plumly lifetime of study of Keats. Is that in some ways a collaboration even though Keats is a collaborator limited by what he can say to what has already been written? These things are on my mind about collaboration. On one hand, there is the persistent desire to simply be alone in a room, reading books, writing, thinking, and in that reflective solitude have the opportunity to create. On the other hand, there is that desire for social connection, for working in a meaningful way with someone to produce more than what one might imagine alone.
New directions for my thinking come this week from post-colonial theory which I find myself drawn to again as a useful location for dialogue with contemporary queer theory. The level of complexity that post-colonial theory offers for thinking about identity development in relationship to subjects is far greater than much of what I read in contemporary queer theory. I find myself returning to it and continuing to mull over the ways in which these two theoretical locations speak to one another. I’m particularly thinking about how each speak to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Bishop, who eschewed any association with the lesbian community and who lived a large part of her adult life abroad, not in a colony, but in a location alienated from her own nation, seems to me to present some interesting opportunities for reading these theoretical positions in dialogue with one another. I’m also knee-deep in reading Derrida’s Archive Fever and contemplating what that means for my own project of building a Lesbian Poetry Archive. It’s a beautiful, provocative book that I find much more accessible than other Derrida work that I’ve encountered.
I’m still mulling through the dilemma of ensuring that I develop my mind to think critically from multiple locations and not simply rest where I am comfortable. It comes with the recurrent fear that I become an intellectual like Daphne Patai or Camille Paglia or Charles Murray, but I continue to circle around this intellectual discipline.

PhD Reflections #4

For seventeen years my professional life was predicated on assessing and analyzing situations quickly and determining next actions and executing those actions with a particular smoothness and efficiency. In addition, I was almost always in the role of an advocate. It was my job to help to define what was good for “us” (usually queers) and to promote those ideas to the exclusion of the ideas of those who were against “us.” The truth is, in many ways, I like being an advocate. There is a sense of righteousness and justice in the position. Being an advocate, however, generally is predicated on a partial view and on constructing and advancing that particular partial view for others to adopt and accept. Given my experience as an advocate, I feel like the intellectual skills of advocacy are a strength that I bring to scholarly work. While these intellectual skills have important strengths in the world, they have particular limitations and weaknesses in the academic world.
Initially the weaknesses of advocacy were most evident in the rhetoric of my writing. As in, this is a little “too strident,” or to quote Keats as a beloved mentor did many times, “this poem has designs on me.” I realized through a painful struggle that the rhetoric of the advocate, while always a language I could be comfortable with and use in the right contexts, would have to become secondary to another rhetoric. Now, I am having parallel thoughts, not only about my writing but about the very nature of my thinking. I reassure myself that I’ll always be able to think as an advocate, if I choose to, and to appreciate that particular mode of thinking and being, but I want to be able to apprehend things differently as a scholar. I want to think more broadly and have a world less circumscribed by sharply drawn positions of what is right and how meaning should be ascribed at this particular moment. This has many consequences for me. First, this mode of thinking takes longer. In my previous professional life, I was paid to assess a situation quickly, articulate a position immediately and succinctly, and then work to make that position understood by a wide variety of constituents. In scholarly work, while there continues to be pressures of time, the time spreads not from minutes and hours, but to days and months. In scholarly work, the mode of thinking is about rattling around different ideas in a variety of locations and listening to different people and reading different people. This mode of thinking is about asking more questions and having fewer answers and fewer predetermined positions. In one way, I come to most of my reading in this program with an agenda, to determine what this reading can mean to me and my work, but in another way, I come with no agenda because I’ve given up the agenda of the advocate. I’m less interested in finding work that confirms what I believe or supports my position. I’m more interested in understanding what these other spaces and positions are about.
While ultimately I believe that this method of thinking is a productive one for me to pursue, it is getting me into lots of hot water this term. The other week in my feminist history class, we read The Politics of the Womb by Lynn Thomas. In this book, Thomas tells a history of Kenya related to genital incision and abortion. She does not take the position that genital incision or cutting are bad, what I would characterize as an advocacy position, rather she writes the history of how it happened and what it meant for people in the Meru districts. The book is almost denuded of any advocacy position. The material is difficult both because she is a trenchant historian and it covers an area and history with which I have no familiarity; it’s also difficult because of the content and Thomas’ refusal to label the practice as female genital mutilation, a move which would make the content more familiar. One of my classmates struggled with the book for Thomas’ refusal to reflect on the act of genital cutting; I’m sympathetic to her reading and her frustration, and I certainly understand this classmate’s position as an advocate. I know that advocacy position, however, so what I wanted to explore in my mind and through discussion is what does it mean to not take that position? What does it mean to not take an advocacy role or have a particular feminist conclusion about what is right and what is wrong?
        Well, part of what it means is that a lot of new information and ways of thinking come to the fore. This I like. Another part of what it means is that people make as a result of your/my discussion contributions particular sets of assumptions about your/my politics, and often your/my analysis of power. This I like less. I like most fancy myself as a person with a particular political analysis that will resonant with like-minded people. I find myself, however, less engaged in wanting to assert that resonance and more engaged with wanting to explore new ways of thinking outside the advocacy mindset. In the long term, I know that my political loyalties need to be explicit and identifiable by allies, but in the short term, I’m most invested in learning to think in new ways and outside the confines, for the time being, of the advocate.

PhD Reflections #3

Sometimes to be a student is to be like a fish, unaware of the water in which you are swimming. Sometimes, however, there is awareness. In the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about the “water” of graduate schools: classrooms and teaching. I foreground this consideration with a reflection about the coursework from my MFA. I found the most exciting courses ones that were challenging throughout the semester and offered by the final two or three weeks of the course some sort of intellectual transformation. This “Aha” moment as I have come to call it was incredibly gratifying and made the struggle and uncertainty of the earlier weeks worthwhile. I know from teaching on course to undergraduates that, while it seemed to me effortless and magic when my professors did it, in fact to construct a course that way is challenging. I wonder if even the best professors are able to do it every semester and in every class. There is some sort of alchemy that happens among the syllabus, the professor, and the students; sometimes the outcome is magic and sometimes it isn’t. When the magic happens for me as a student, it is incredibly fulfilling. When the magic falters, frustration ensues. The path to that alchemy, that “Aha” moment, however, is not an immediate one; it is impossible to know how it will turn out in the end so all along the way there are interventions, reassessments, and new directions.
I’ve been thinking about how my professors this term are currently engaging in their job of teaching and about what I might do when faced in the future with similar challenges. Martha Nell Smith has responded in our Feminist Literary Theory Seminar to a group of students with both vastly different experiences and histories in feminist literary theory as well as in feminism in general and to different levels of engagement developmentally where people are in their degree programs, by doing “mini-lectures” during each class meeting. At first I was surprised by this didactic approach as she approached the seminar on the long poem that I took with her a year ago very differently. As the class has moved forward, however, the quality of discussion is reflecting her intervention of providing background information and thoughtful overviews of both the things that we are reading as well as broader issues in the field of feminist literary theory. On the other hand, WMST 601 suffers in discussion. I’ve not found a useful way to participate to build a more rich and nuanced engagement. I’m mindful that the interventions of the professors reflect their experience and their desire to contribute to that transformative alchemy. I am hopeful that the moment from which I write this is simply one of those challenging ones that will have an end of semester reward.
New directions for my thinking fall into two categories: thoughtful and mundane. In the thoughtful category, I read Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line and have been reading her scholarly articles as well. She is doing the blend of history and literary work that I want to do, and so both reading her work and thinking about how she puts together her arguments is gratifying. In the mundane category, I’ve been thrilled with Zotero, the free online bibliographic tool. It is giving me greater confidence in organizing information in ways that are useful and retrievable for future projects. The consequence of having a tool that I can trust for this is I feel more bold in my explorations of things and don’t have a perceived need to limit my casting of the net as I know I’ll be able to process things that I find.
The greatest dilemma of these few weeks is about collaboration in academia. We are currently working on our collaborative paper for WMST 601. Let me begin by saying, being collaborative is central to my identity as a person engaged in the world. While in the working world, I was always striving for decision-making and work processes that were collaborative. I think of myself as a good collaborator and perhaps more importantly as someone committed to this sort of process and work. Thus, it has been challenging to me to have a collaboration not go well, when I co-lead a class with another student in WMST 601, and to face the collaborative writing project with trepidation. This should be the thing that I am good at! Nevertheless, I have trepidation about this, which almost becomes anxiety because of the way in which the project was framed as challenging and difficult with little attention to rewards.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New CIVILesbianIZATION COLUMN: Love Deepens

Regardless of the legal status of our relationships- or the distressing lack of legal status for most of us- queer people continue to find and keep love. Julie R. Enszer explores what happens after twelves years in a relationship- and ... Style Feed -

Friday, November 21, 2008

Looking Backward on the Feminist Literary Theory Class - in the mind of Virginia Woolf


Such a simple proposition as a course discussion should hardly need a preamble, but I’ve recently drunk deeply of Derrida’s Archive Fever and, enamoured of his structure, I find myself wanting to emulate, or copy, though that sounds so banal. Nevertheless, this response is simply a copy so banality may be appropriate. Let me begin with a story—one I was telling someone recently, perhaps you?—for many years, I took a holiday on Virginia Woolf’s birthday, January 25th and often the day she took her final swim in the Thames, March 28th, I found describing it as a final swim gathered me fewer looks askance than to say, baldly, the day she died. The point of this story is simply this: for many years, two days of my life were dedicated to Virginia, reading her, thinking of her, pretending to be in her mind. And while I beg you to tell this to no one, sometimes, I still do it. As I did here, creating a copy, not a reflection for that is too accurate and of an artfulness greater than I could muster, perhaps an emulation, the desire to create a copy with the awareness of the inability to achieve such perfection, of not what Virginia would have said, but rather how she might have said it. So it is here where we begin.


Polemical. Shrill. Strident. Unsubtle. Screed.

Are these words of praise or condemnation? I will return to that question, but let me begin by defining feminism and feminist literary theory with a detour through a definition of feminist theory along the way. It is cold outside today, and the sun sinks now too early in the day. Without leaves on the trees outside my window, it shines in my eyes between three thirty and four thirty in the afternoon. I’m hungry for the sun, though, so I let it shine in my eyes, probably to the future detriment of my cornea. Why does this matter? It seems to me that one of the most fundamental ways that we come to understand the world and more importantly to think critically about the world is through our eyes, through what we see and observe, yes, but also through what we read. This is why in defining feminism I think about my eyes and the sun and where it shines brightly and where it doesn’t, for where it doesn’t shine brightly is where we need to hold up a torch, a lamp, some other source of light and then direct the gaze of the world. What is feminism in this allegory? Feminism is not the torch, the lamp or the source of light, feminism is the hand that holds it and the “still small voice” that asks the world to direct its gaze.

I imbricate feminism here and the voice of G-d that Elijah hears; the story of Elijah in I Kings is also part of the story of Jezebel if you read the prophets not for the stories of the fathers, but also for the stories of the mothers and sisters, which it seems to me that that is part of what feminist literary theory is: a system of both reading and excavating stories of the mothers and the sisters. As Virginia Woolf writes, “a woman writing thinks back through her mothers” and since then, we have all be trouncing around the gardens with Alice in search of our mothers. You will see the way I imbricate here, not feminism and G-d, but Virginia and Alice, and in doing so suggest a matriarchal lineage and an extension perhaps of that definition, which becomes so elusive the further I consider it, of feminist literary theory because you see if we have defined the feminist as the hand to hold the light and the voice to direct the gaze, and the literary as the stories of the mothers and the sisters, I’d like to suggest by the implication above that the literary is both the reading and the writing and re-reading and re-writing of these stories of the mothers and the sisters by the daughters and the sisters and the granddaughters and the sisters. As we’ve seen, the division between the writing and the theory, between the theory and the practice, between the writing and the practice, is as faulty as the division between Elijah and Jezebel, though one’s story is told and repeated in greater detail, but on that I do not want to dwell, so let me return to the garden, the garden where the women are reading the stories of the mothers and the sisters. We find them in the gardens, with their heirloom tomatoes and their large sunflowers and the many roses and daisies and poppies, the time is sometime before now, long ago, perhaps, though not too long ago. These women are joyful; it is the joy of feminist literary theory and feminist literary practice as women sat among the flowers seeing them as if for the first time with the splendor of their new-founded fragrance and the glory of their brilliant colors; although the garden, like the sun outside my window, fades. It is cyclical, in the seasonal way, though, not a repetitive way, and so the garden changed through fall and winter, and the stories of the mothers and the sisters and their readers, which we thought might be unusual or unique, are still tied to the other stories, the old stories of the fathers and the brothers and they raise the palimpsest of Elijah’s despair, “I am no better than my fathers,” and some wonder, are the daughters, the mothers, no better than the fathers and the brothers? And they are unsettled, and it is, as some would say, good.

Lest I be too caught in bombast and aware of your time, I shall return to the original question, which was, as you will recall, not about feminism, nor feminist literary theory, nor feminist theory, which I realize I’ve hardly attended to at all, though feeling obliged I shall remind you of Miss [sic] Rich, “Theory—the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees—theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the raincloud and returns to earth, over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.” Which unwittingly takes me to my original words that occasioned this meditation for I began, you will recall, with these words: polemical, shrill, strident, unsubtle, screed, and I asked you if they are words of praise or condemnation and now perhaps you will see that in fact they are neither though nor are they simply descriptors for they have been tainted too much through improper gendered usage. If I were bold, I might ask, how many have you been called, as though name-calling might be measure of something. . . of what? This I do not know, so I refrain from the question as I wish others would show similar restraint though that is not quite accurate because restraint is exactly what we need less of, though to say it is to risk the assignation of the very words with which I began something that I am neither trying to avoid nor am I seeking to invite. So let me make this plain and hasten to my conclusion. Those five words are simply that: words, yes words. They are with their champions, as we’ve seen, and I’ve recently read a quite compelling analysis of feminist polemics by Miss [sic] Flannery (1) speaking of documents from the feminists in the 1970s, but champion these words they may they remain to me simply words; four adjectives and a verb with aspirations to return.

(1) Feminist Literacies, 1968-1975. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005.


I’m aware of the perils of positing oneself as other than what is and remain as always at the disposal of the gentle-lady who drives this “mystery ride” and happy to comply with an alternate response which might be, in the end, more directly responsive to the challenge posed and less fussy though inevitably, invariably, less fun.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Reflections on the Feminist Blogosphere

My first thought about feminism and the blogosphere is the way the blogosphere operates as a contemporary archive of women’s lives. As someone interested in the everyday lives of women, seeing a documentation of women’s lives for future researchers is an exciting proposition. I hope that the systems of digital archiving will allow some of these at least to persist for future analysis.

There are a variety of blogging communities that each have different personalities and engagements of women and of feminists. The largest blogging communities are, I think, Blogger and LiveJournal. It’s interesting to tool around each. LiveJournal is in my wanderings much more personal writing directed at groups of friends whereas Blogger is more of a public space where the blogs are more widely available and often have a particular topical focus, even if that topic is the attentions of one person. Blogging software and distribution has developed a lot in the past few years and the ease of access and, particularly with Google’s acquisition of Blogger, the ease of searching has increased. On my own blog, which is simply an archive of my attentions (and, probably more accurately, obsessions), most of the visitors come from Google searches, often on particular authors or books (Judith Butler is the lead on this front, though Mary Oliver is a close second). The technology of WordPress has always interested me because it offers more functionality, but that functionality requires more time to master and so I stick with Blogger. In many ways, the technology platform informs what is available and how information is presented on the blog and thinking about the implications of that are interesting.

Two other pieces of technology are important to me in the blogging world. First, MacJournal which is the program that I use to blog. It’s easy and keeps on my computer an archive of the blog which is entirely searchable. I love that because there are times I’m looking for something that I wrote or referenced and the software is a wonderful tool for recalling things. The other piece of technology that I love is the Google Reader, which aggregates blog feeds for me. No more remembering a blog to visit it. Whenever I want to read blogs, I just go to Google Reader and there are all of the blog entries that I’ve not read. I can selectively read or I can review everything from my communities of interest or if I feel overwhelmed by the 500 entries, I can quickly mark them all as read.

Newer technologies are affecting the blogging communities in interesting ways, and perhaps undoing the communities. Facebook is in many ways more interactive than blogging communities. The other day, I asked on my status update, “What journals/magazines/periodicals are you reading and why?” So far seven people have responded from my network of friends. It’s interesting to see who responds and what they are reading. I’ve used the status updates to get tips on jogging and other things. In that way social networking offers an interesting intervention into personal relationships and intellectual projects. Twitter has a similar function and I integrate my Facebook status updates with Twitter which links two networks for me. The limitation of these interfaces is the length of space for updates. One of the critiques of blogging is the amount of recycled data and information. This is valid. Writing thoughtful, serious blog entries is time consuming and there are moments I wonder, to what end? Similarly, with the limited time and attention that Facebook and Twitter allow, I wonder, how are we working to develop sustained modes of inquiry and conversations that are longer than 140 characters? Finally, what do all of these communication tools say about public/private dichotomies, for instance, or personal-internal/public-external dichotomies? I think about this everytime someone says after I think I have disclosed something, “Yeah, I read about that on your blog and/or Facebook.”
Paling around with Bill Ayers

A few people have asked me about the lecture of Bill Ayers on Monday night at All Souls Unitarian Church in northwest Washington, DC. So I’ll take a few moments for a blog post on this topic. First, I couldn’t resist titling this blog using a Palinism with her name embedded in it. Ayers was speaking today with Michel Martin on Tell Me More on WAMU. He articulated quite well in the radio interview why the moniker terrorist is inapt. It’s worth listening to the interview if you’re interested in that. The reason I went to the lecture is that The New Press, one of Ayers publishers, asked me to go along and help out with the event which was booked eight months ago when the expectation was a small group of a couple of dozen people would gather to here him talk about progressive education. The New Press has published a few of his books including City Schools, City Teachers. Ayers became a larger player in this election not through his own actions but through the actions and words of Palin and McCain. In fact, most of his work of late focuses on teacher education and by and large, while he spoke about the election on Monday night, the bulk of the lecture was about education. Ayers is inspiring on this topic speaking beyond the usual rhetoric of education in today’s public forum to talk about education as a transformative process in which people can learn to think about the condition of their lives and what creates those conditions. His educational model and theoretical orientation comes from the civil rights movement, where his work began. The event on Monday night was sponsored by DC Voice and Teaching for Change, two organizations invested in progressive public education. While there were less than a handful of protesters at the event on Monday, the room was brimming with people eager for Ayers messages about education. What struck me is his passion for education and his belief in the power of education to transform people’s lives and their capacity to understand and transform their own lives. Ayers understands both the facility of the contemporary discourse, which seeks to distill complex problems into sound bite solutions, and even implications himself with a knee-jerk reaction to such reductionism and then takes the audience through his own process of needing to reframe such solutions to a broader lens and a thickened complexity. He doesn’t offer easy answers but invites everyone to join in a journey of thinking about and working to solve through multi-faceted and complex interventions the problems that face us in education and more broadly in our own democratic society. In this way Ayers is inspirational and a visionary.
A few other things struck me about Ayers lecture. First, he celebrated the election of Barack Obama but with the spirit of a long time organizer, he was clear to articulate that the election of one person in no way limited the work ahead of us. I appreciate that. He also talked about the devastating losses for the GLBT communities in California, Florida and Arkansas and I appreciated that as well. Finally, I find it inspiring to hear someone like Ayers speak because of his history of activism. In particular, to see someone in person reflecting on his lifetime of activism is a good reminder that life is continuous and one’s concerns are persistent. Moments of fame or infamy are temporary, but one’s life of activism is persistent and continuous. So that was my evening with Bill Ayers. I’m glad I went.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Part 2 Article on Lesbian Poetry at

The second installment of the article on Lesbian Poetry is up at Many of my favorites are mentioned. I encourage you to read it.

Exploring Women's Studies: Looking Forward, Looking Back

The book is a collection of essays by women who were Woodrow Wilson fellows in Women’s Studies, which means they received a grant in support of their dissertation work which had a particular relevance to Women’s Studies. It’s a useful collection of essays, both for the way that it provides a history and background of important questions to women’s studies and the way it demonstrates the trajectory of careers for the scholars contained in the book. I was one of the discussion leaders on this text in my Feminist Literary Theory class and these are the questions that I posed from the book.

  1. 1.Sabrina Barton’s essay, “Feminist Film Theory and the Problem of Liking Characters,” raises interesting questions for both film and for other creative, critical, and theoretical texts. Barton concludes, “I have suggested that creating a context for discussing why we like or dislike characters (heroes, villains, and everything in between) can help to establish a more flexible and accessible approach to feminist film analysis and can do so without sacrificing critical or theoretical sophistication. I would also suggest that differing critical approaches (images of women, Woman as image, cultural studies, and so on) be taught as differing approaches rather than as a one-way line of development in which better models outsmart and make superfluous what has come before” (p. 345.) What do we think about this notion of “liking characters” in relationship to literary texts of all sorts—critical, creative, and theoretical? What does Barton sketch out as the feminist stakes in this question? What do we make of her investment in pushing feminist film theory to engage outside of the academy? Is that important to literary theory as well?

  1. 2.Reading through the anthology, Exploring Women’s Studies: Looking Forward, Looking Back, I was interested in the articles that demonstrate the possibilities of interdisciplinarity in both research and theoretical thinking and, particularly, how those possibilities open up new modes of inquiry. For instance, I was struck by Leila Rupp's article about Drag Queens and how her work as a women's historian turned to include ethnography. I also found Kornbluh's turn in Women's History with the Politics Left IN of talking about maternalist reformers' sexuality. These moves seem to demonstrate one way that Women's Studies can open up disciplines and bring new types of inquiries to scholarship. What opportunities for interdisciplinary work do we see in this text and where to we see barriers to interdisciplinary work demonstrated in the articles? As a related question to this and given the two articles I mention, we may want to return to Professor Smith’s assertion, Queer the Turtle: This couldn’t have happened without feminist theory. The articles of Exploring Women’s Studies begin to provide some intellectual history to the roots of queer theory in feminist theory.

  1. 3.The second task that the anthologists, Berkin, Pinch, and Appel, put to the scholars anthologized in Exploring Women’s Studies: Looking Forward, Looking Back was "to reflect on their own careers, for we believe that the history of the field of women's studies might be glimpsed in such autobiographical reflections." What did you learn from these reflections throughout the book? Did you make any particular observations about these reflections or draw any specific conclusions from them? What do these reflections say and not say about the disciplinary location of Women’s Studies?

Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression by Jacques Derrida

This book reflects part of the reason why I wanted to go to graduate school. Archive Fever is a long meditation on archives using Freud, Freud’s “archive” and a book about Freud as the source for its meanderings. It was originally given as a lecture in London on June 5, 1994. One of my mentors suggested that I read this in conjunction with my project of putting together an Electronic Lesbian Poetry Archive. I’m glad I did.
Archive Fever isn’t the sort of book that you pick up at Borders and say, “Gee this sounds like an interesting afternoon read.” (For that I have Toni Morrison’s new book Mercy and Marilynne Robinson’s new book Home, both of which are waiting for me for the end of the semester.) Rather Archive Fever is the sort of book that you read because you are thinking about archives, what they mean, what they contain, how they are constructed.
Derrida organizes this lecture into six parts: Note, Exergue, Preamble, Foreword, Theses, and Postscript.
In the Note, Derrida begins not “even at the archive,” but with the word. he traces it’s meaning from the Greek Arkhe which names “at once the commencement and the commandment.” Through this Note, he explores the authority of archives from the Greek superior magistrates, the archons, and the domiciliation of the archives as physical locations and most importantly outlines the way that archives appear to have authority, physical location and consignation but ultimately “shelter itself and, sheltered, to conceal itself.” This is what he wants us to realize before we even begin to contemplate the archive: the nature of an archive is to be both authoritarianly transparent and authoritatively concealed.
Exergue means literally the place on a coin beneath the design where the date and location of it’s making occurred. For Derrida, this section of the letter “plays with citation.” He begins by explaining how archives are both “traditional and revolutionary; at once institutive and conservative.” The crux of this for him is “archival violence.” He then explains how the inscription of the archives occur, through printing and circumcision. Derrida argues that in order for an archive to exist it must be constructed to live in an external space, “there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression,” and then he associates this with the Freudian death drive. For as Derrida writes, “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.” Derrida connects the printing of documents or inscription with circumcision, “it leaves a trace of an incision right on the skin: more than one skin, at more than one age.”
In the Preamble, Derrida writes about the three meanings of the impression. First, as scriptural or typographic, literally the inscription of signs. Second, impression as “a notion. . .associated with a word and for which, together with Freud, we do not have a concept.” Finally, the third impression is that left “by Sigmund Freud, beginning with the impression left in him, inscribed in him, from his birth and his covenant, from his circumcision, through all the manifest or secret history of psychoanalysis,” etc.
The Foreword is actually Derrida’s analysis of a book by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi called Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. I’m not going to trace Derrida’s discussion about this book, though it’s fascinating, but rather simply note that it is here that Derrida explains that while the archive seems to point to the past, it “should call into question the coming of the future.” I found this very provocative and even inspiring. He writes, “It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come” (p. 36.)
The Theses is the heart of the book. It is what all of the previous discussions have been preparing us to understand. Here Derrida explains that both the future is spectral and the structure of the archive is spectral. Here Derrida explain how the concept of the archive is troubled from archive fever. “It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (p. 91.) The three theses Derrida posits are, “Freud made possible the idea of an archive properly speaking, of a hypomnesic or technical archive, of the substrate or the subjectile (material or virtual) which, in what is already a psychic spacing, cannot be reduced to memory.” Second, “the archive is made possible by the death, aggression, and destruction drive,” and third, the archive is shaped by the “archontc, that is paternal and patriarchic, principle only posited itself to repeat itself and returned to re-posit itself only in parricide” (p. 95.)
Finally, the Postscript notes that while archives only contain trace of what happened there, not the thing itself, we will always yearn to know what was lost, what burned and disappeared with the ashes.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Wedding Vow by Sharon Olds

This morning I was reminded that one of the things that makes me happiest in the world is poems by Sharon Olds. Taken from The Writer’s Almanac.

The Wedding Vow

by Sharon Olds

I did not stand at the altar, I stood

at the foot of the chancel steps, with my beloved,

and the minister stood on the top step

holding the open Bible. The church

was wood, painted ivory inside, no people—God's

stable perfectly cleaned. It was night,

spring—outside, a moat of mud,

and inside, from the rafters, flies

fell onto the open Bible, and the minister

tilted it and brushed them off. We stood

beside each other, crying slightly

with fear and awe. In truth, we had married

that first night, in bed, we had been

married by our bodies, but now we stood

in history—what our bodies had said,

mouth to mouth, we now said publicly,
gathered together, death. We stood

holding each other by the hand, yet I also

stood as if alone, for a moment,

just before the vow, though taken

years before, took. It was a vow

of the present and the future, and yet I felt it

to have some touch on the distant past

or the distant past on it, I felt

the silent, dry, crying ghost of my

parents' marriage there, somewhere

in the bright space—perhaps one of the

plummeting flies, bouncing slightly

as it hit forsaking all others, then was brushed

away. I felt as if I had come

to claim a promise—the sweetness I'd inferred

from their sourness; and at the same time that I had

come, congenitally unworthy, to beg.

And yet, I had been working toward this hour

all my life. And then it was time

to speak—he was offering me, no matter

what, his life. That is all I had to

do, that evening, to accept the gift

I had longed for—to say I had accepted it,

as if being asked if I breathe. Do I take?

I do. I take as he takes—we have been

practicing this. Do you bear this pleasure? I do.

"The Wedding Vow" by Sharon Olds from The Unswept Room. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

How to be a Poet by Wendell Berry

How To Be a Poet

by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill—more of each

than you have—inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your work,

doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.

"How to be a Poet" by Wendell Berry from Given. © Shoemaker Hoard, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

An Open Letter from Katherine V. Forrest on the Election Results

Yesterday was just a very difficult day.  Such gladness over Obama and all he symbolizes, watching the national euphoria.  And yet the sharp slap in the face that none of it includes us.  Yet again the line is drawn through us, we're left to peer in the window.  This time it seems a much worse feeling, at least for me, because I'd let down my guard and stopped steeling myself, for the first time I'd let myself hope. 
We will win this of course.  We actually won it in 2003 with the most important civil rights decision of my lifetime, the Supreme Court's 6-3 Lawrence vs Texas decision that struck down sodomy laws under the equal protection clause.  I've always known that the continuing hodge podge of discriminatory state laws and the opposition by the single most legitimizing agent for the prejudice against us -- the churches -- would eventually land us back at the Court.  Where we will then be accorded--under the same clause--the final and definitive decision that will end the practice of putting our lives on a ballot for a majority to decide.
I'm getting over the personal stuff, I feel a little better today and have more perspective.  In order to get this thing passed in California, they had to argue that we already had rights as Domestic Partners.  How big a concession is THAT, given where we were a decade ago?  The fact is, except for our losses, the right wing got their heads handed to them on Tuesday.  Gay people were voted into office all across the country.  All the abortion crap got voted down, it's no longer a viable political issue, it's dead dead dead, folks.  Assisted suicide was passed in Washington State, stem cell research will happen, the Supreme Court appointments are ours for hopefully the next eight years. Their right wing VP candidate became a figure of national scorn, the religious right as a political power has been left where it belongs, on the margins.. 
So good things are happening.  We are the great unfinished business of this nation, and it will indeed get finished.  I trust it will hurry along because I ain't gettin' any younger.  Now that I've lived to see a black president, I want to see it all.  As a friend of ours in Australia emailed yesterday, "Whilst a black President is certainly a good thing, let me know when the President is a black lesbian...."
Here's to the bright future.

Distributed by the Lambda Literary Foundation

Tuesday, November 04, 2008



Monday, November 03, 2008

Noel Sturgeon: "Theorizing Movements: Direct Action and Direct Theory"

Brief intro by Julie
Noel Sturgeon
Professor of Women’s Studies, Washington State University
PhD, History of Consciousness, UC-Santa Cruz

Book: Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory, and Political Action, Routledge, 1997.

“Theorizing Movements: Direct Action and Direct Theory”

“nonviolent direct action movement”
identifying characteristics:

  • •affinity groups

  • •consensus process

  • •nonviolent direct action

  • •multifaceted radical democratic politics

“Read movement’s practices and structures as a form of theorizing through practice” she calls it “direct theory,” a lived analysis of contemporary domination and resistance

To make the “direct theory” visible, “thick description”: an interpretive layering of practices, symbols, actions, and social structures
Alternated called “critical hermeneutics” an interpretation that seeks a ‘deeper’ meaning but considers that meaning as partially constructed by my interpretation and thus always open to further interrogation.

Interested in promoting “a wider understanding of the processes of social and political change than generally founding social movement theory”

Description of affinity groups, how they come together, how they do their work, how the effect a broader dialogue about democracy.

Theorizing the Direct Action Movement
Sturgeon examines oppositional discourse of the movement as a way of changing discursive frameworks
Method to rework consent and authority

Uses her “direct theory” approach to retheorize social movement approaches

  • •Analyze social movements not only as oppositional, but provide new historical dimensions and critiques of what activists are doing

  • •Integrate in gender relations to broad structural changes

  • •Use feminist theories to understand social movements

PhD Reflections #2

With four weeks into the semester, I think I should easily be able to list the things that challenge what I know and confirm what I know, but I struggle with generating such a list. I think part of the struggle is the inculcation into graduate school over the previous two years which has taught me a great deal to set aside my knowledge and explore new knowledge, not from the perspective of how does it confirm or challenge me, but how does it transform me through the engagement with it. With this framework, I can easily point to a variety of readings that have transformed me through this semester. One of the areas I am trying to read closely and consciously within is related to race and how race and the social structures around race are constructed, sustained, and transformed. I’ve found Peggy Pascoe’s work on miscegenation law incredibly meaningful in this exploration as well as the different ways of writing about race from West and Fenstermaker and Omi and Winant. These works, each coming from different disciplinary locations, provide me vital fodder for my thinking about race, though I find myself still very much in the muck and with few conclusions of my own. What I do know and have confirmed through my work this semester is that thinking about race and using lenses that ask how does this work engage telling histories and stories of people of color is important and I want to be a central part of my scholarly work. Though in this confirmation remains the challenge for myself of how that will actually happen.
I find the more creative expressions about race so far from this semester most interesting and provocative. From Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman to Octavia Butler’s Kindred to Compensation and Jennifer González’s thoughtful explication of Renée Green’s body of work, I find new and provocative ways to think about race and how it works in creative and artistic projects. The works challenge because they demand engagement to explore and really think through critically how race is being used in the works and what the work is saying about larger circulations of race in our society. The existence of this work also confirms for me the importance and possibilities of engaging such questions in a body of creative and artistic work.
With regard to new directions for my own thinking, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the creation of knowledges and the theories that underpin the production, distribution, and disseminations of knowledges. I have a penchant for theory, but am suspect of “the linguistic turn” in theory in the past two decades and particularly the sorts of work that it has produced. While on one hand, I find the work of Butler, for instance, as one who is deeply engaged in linguistic and philosophic theoretical configurations, compelling. As I read her work I am again impressed by how she grounds it in useful frameworks for making it applicable and meaningful to political conversations. At the same time, I see Butler’s work being used by many scholars to generate work that is not as responsive to constructing and acting on a political agenda. Reading Alaimo and Hekman’s Material Feminisms, I’ve been challenged to examine how theoretical apparati are shaping work and to think about my own work in more material ways. While I find these theoretical works interesting, I ask myself regularly, how do I use this in my own work and to what degree do I want to engage in theory? Lately, I’ve been trying to think about my work as “theoretically informed, but not theoretically engaged.” This formulation came about in part from hearing Dr. Dill speak in response to a question about positioning her work in relationship to Jasbir Puar. She responded that that was “not a theoretical dialogue I engage in.” I found this refreshing and opening a new way of thinking about work, one where choices are made regularly and strategically about what work to do and how to position the work.
Increasingly in my reading during the semester, I am noting how significant the terms of engagement that scholars set for their work are. The framework of projects, including what material to consider, what material not to consider, what is the audience, how are personal experiences used or excluded, what stake the author has in the work, what political significance the work could have, interest me intensely. It seems to me that as much as the research that scholars do and the thinking and writing that they do in relationship to the research is important, a large part of that importance is shaped not in the research, thinking, and writing itself, but in the framework of the project. For instance, Joann Meyerowitz in her book, How Sex Changed, mounts an important history of transsexuality in the 20th century United States. What she doesn’t include in the book is a sustained consideration of the medical communities and their impact on constructions of transsexuality. Anne Fausto-Sterling, on the other hand, grounds her work in the body, biology, and medicine. While Fausto-Sterling doesn’t produce a history, she does produce a wonderful interdisciplinary study of sexuality and the body. Both of these books explore similar issues, but each take the work in different directions. Initially, I thought that the differences were disciplinary, but in thinking further about the books, I see the disciplinary difference, but I also see a different theoretical and intellectual framework at play in each of the books and wonder if that is as significant – or more – than the disciplinary differences.
        There are two dilemmas, or dissonances, that are uppermost in my mind as I write this. First, the issue of time, and second, the myth of comprehensivity. On time, I am increasing thinking about both the significance of time to the production of work, both scholarly and creative, and about how time should be thought about and “managed” in this world. As a worker in a variety of organizations, time management was my mantra. There were days of scheduled meetings, task lists, and projects. In some ways, this work is similar, but there is a greater need for ruminative time – the time to read, reflect, and have space for generative work. Creating that ruminative time and using that time is a new skill to learn. There is another aspect of time that I’ve been thinking about and coming to understand as well. I’m thinking about it as perspectival time. Perspectival time is the arc of distance from thinking and writing for perspective, which ultimately should yield new insight and/or confirmation of previous thoughts and work. Finding a balance between these two types of time, ruminative time and perspectival time, which each have different valences while balancing them with skills of time management that can continue to drive work forward through the creation of milestones is something that feels like a dilemma for me at this time, or at least an observation that comes out of a feeling of discomfort and change.
        Martha Nell Smith reminded me to banish the myth of comprehensivity and to focus on building the archive of my own knowledge and work to make it as deep and wide as I need and want it to be. Comprehensivity is hard to give up, though. It is the allure of graduate school; the notion that an intense and in-depth period of time and study will result in mastery of some particular area. Martha says, this is a myth. She says, she has studied Dickinson for over thirty years and has more questions now than when she began. This desire to gain extensive knowledge, even comprehensive knowledge is alluring and with Martha’s admonishment, it becomes a tension to be managed. The outcome I’m desiring now is the capacity to pursue intensive study with the zeal for being comprehensive but with the self-awareness that such comprehensiveness will never be achieved.

PhD Reflections #1

One of the requirements of my program is to write bi-weekly reflections. I’m going to post my first two at this time.

Wrapping up the first two weeks of classes has a particular sense of satisfaction. The routine begins to emerge for each week. How to marshal the materials necessary for each class, how to read and prepare, what my thinking processes and energy level will be like throughout the week. I like the routine and the sense of having some mastery of the administrative details of my life. This is one of my confirmations of the first few weeks: my belief that much of life is administrative is confirmed. There are new administrative tasks, certainly, in this graduate program, but the labor of administrative work continues, and mastering it, or at least attending to it in a diligent way, has rewards, if not today at some point in the future.
For me the greatest challenge to what I know is what I’ve come to regard as an on-going process through graduate school: more reading, more work leads to more questions and more awareness of what is not known by me. On one hand, the gratifying thing about the mix of classes that I have this term is the overlap and tangential relations between and among the many things that I am reading. For instance, Joanne Meyerowitz provides a brief description of the work of the sociologists Kessler and McKenna who were referenced in readings last week for WMST 601. On the other hand, there is the persistent sense that there is so much material to be read, considered, digested, and integrated that even reading in a focused and ostensibly comprehensive way for four years will not bring mastery. It will bring simply a larger list for future reading and consideration. This is a challenge in the sense that it is humbling and presses on the need for continued humility. It is also a challenge because it focuses anxiety on production. How will I ever have something to say in the scholarly conversation? How will I ever write with even confidence let alone authority? Managing the dialogue between the humility, which feeds the reading and thinking, and the anxiety, which would like to suppress them, is one of my challenges.
There are a variety of new directions in my thinking. Some of them came from a conference that I attended this week, Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900. Susan Stanford Friedman in her seven-minute address at a plenary outlined new directions for feminist scholarship in poetry that I have been regarding as my own personal roadmap. There is an essay taking form in my mind that looks at three lesbian-feminist poetry collections and considers the forms of production that brought them into existence and reads the texts as emblematic of particular concerns of the communities at the time of publication. It’s an exciting synthesis for me. I’ve also been thinking and reading and looking for examples of interracial couples in lesbian cultural productions and what they mean. This started in watching The Watermelon Woman in WMST 601 and I think will shape my final project for that class. It will give me a way to think and write about race in new ways that I hope will be quite fruitful.
Also I’m reading wantonly. I circle footnotes and references and find the underlying texts and articles. I don’t read them all, but I find them and peruse them. Some I read thoroughly and obsessively. I have stacks of books in different projects or areas of interest. I take one from each stack and read a chapter of each. I don’t finish them all. I return books that don’t interest me at this time. Some I love so much, I order them used online so that I can reread and write in them. I’m committed to taking time, particularly this first year, to simply explore the world where my mind takes me and to explore the recesses of my own mind with little regard for what I would have in the past thought was right and proper or a “good investment of time.” I’m just reading and exploring and accountable to no one but myself.
Learnings that have created dilemmas or dissonances for me tend to fall in the material world. Barbara Boswell’s presentation on the retention of junior faculty of color at the University of Maryland was disturbing to me, especially one of her reactions to the research project – thinking twice about entering the academy and knowing that she would have to work three times as hard to achieve tenure. For me, the tension is between knowing a problem and not having the role to solve the problem, but also it is knowing that the problem will persist. As time goes on I will be in various roles and doing various things, which will require me to balance my own ethics about addressing institutional racism while simultaneously fulfilling institutional demands. I know from previous work in a variety of settings how difficult that is.
The other dissonance that is most palpable for me at this point is in classes. I’m amazed at how relatively conservative I find many of my classmates to be. I experienced this in the MFA program as well. Although I shouldn’t be, I continue to be surprised by the conservative moment that we are in and how that shapes people. In my feminist literary theory class, I’ve been surprised at the basic lack of information that many of the students have about feminism. I continue to be surprised by the persistent appeal of being a housewife and the legitimizing of that “option” that continues. While I hardly want intellectual uniformity, I am amazed at how the ground has shifted in seeing the world since I was an undergraduate. I find myself torn between wanting to hold up a mirror about the conservatism, but also not wanting to make waves or be too confrontational. Finally, there is the classroom balance, too, of being incredibly excited about the readings and wanting to engage in them immediately and deeply but not wanting to alienate other students. This is for me a delicate balancing act. I think I’ve improved greatly though the MFA, but it persists for me. I try to hold back in discussion, not speak first, not reference other materials, but sometimes it happens and I worry that it creates a difficult or unpleasant environment for others. As the semester goes on, I’ll get behind in the reading as well, and that will help!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

From The Writer's Almanac, Friday, 24 October 2008

I just love this poem!

Welcome Home, Children

by David Shumate

In the early spring I get together with all the people I've been

in my past lives. We sit around the table at my grandfather's

farmhouse—mashed potatoes, creamed peas, cornbread. There's

the Confederate colonel with his mustache and battlefield odor.

The medieval peasant from Portugal with insects in her hair. The

Irish boy who died from the fever at nine. There's the patient wife

of the fishmonger. The petty thief from Cathay who's already

stuffed his pockets with my grandmother's paperweights. My

favorite is the Hindu monk. His orange robes. The sacred paint

across his forehead. He's never reconciled his lust for women and

steals glances at the dancer from Babylon—my first life. Her long

dark hair. The thin veils draped over her shoulders. She loves

to lean across the table for the marmalade, exposing her breasts

for him to see. After dinner she excuses herself and walks into

the garden. He follows. I'm not sure if it's just a natural kind of

thing… One incarnation of mine seducing another…Or an act

so vile even Narcissus would have gagged.

"Welcome Home, Children" by David Shumate from The Floating Bridge. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Queering the Color Line by Siobhan B. Somerville - Class Presentation

Queering the Color Line
Siobhan B. Somerville

Central argument of the book: “It was not merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively constructing and policing the boundary between “black” and “white” bodies.

In the introduction, Somerville indicates that her methodology comes from queer studies and that her theoretical apparatus is rooted in African-American studies and lesbian/gay studies. Through a brief discussion of the arguments that she builds in the book, I want to examine her methodology and consider the theoretical apparati at work in her book.

  1. 1.Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body

In this first chapter, Somervile review “expert” literature about sexuality, broadly defined to include the writings of physicians, sexologists, and psychiatrists (p. 15). She does this through close reading and contextual analysis in order to examine how “discourses of race and gender buttressed one another” and “shaped emerging models of homosexuality.” (p. 17.) Somerville reviews Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis as sexologists; she then discusses scientific racism in the nineteenth century, comparative anatomy, and eugenics. She concludes this chapter with an examination of how sexual orientation and race were intertwined as the mulatto and invert and reads an analysis from a 1913 medical journal by Margaret Otis about “love-making between white and colored girls.” (p. 34.)

  1. 2.The Queer Career of Jim Crow

In her second chapter, Somerville takes A Florida Enchantment as an emblem of the imbrication of race and gender during it’s twenty-three year life from a novel to a stage production to a film. She traces the changes in the various adaptation to contemporary anxieties and beliefs about race and sexuality. Her primary methods in this section are both close reading of the performative texts and analysis of viewer/reader reception.

  1. 3.Inverting the Tragic Mulatta Tradition

In the third chapter, Somerville takes up the two novels by Pauline Hopkins which “reshape cultural constructions of race, gender, and sexuality.” (p. 75.) Somerville does close readings of Contending Forces, particularly Dora and Sappho’s eroticized friendship, and Winona. Somerville contends “Hopkins’s ambivalent engagement with emerging discourses of homosexuality become visible through figures who disrupt conventions associated with the mulatta heroine.” (p. 110.)

  1. 4.Doubles Lives on the Color Line

In this chapter, Somerville focuses on the book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, and it’s initial publication as by an anonymous author to the unveiling of it as authored by James Weldon Johnson. She then moves to analysis the second publication in the context not only of Johnson but also Carl Van Vechten, a white “patron” of the Harlem Renaissance. She concludes that the “text mapped culturally taboo sexual desires onto the color line.” (p. 130.)

  1. 5.“Queer to Myself as I am to You”

In the final chapter, Somerville examines both the work of Jean Toomer and its reception by literary critics as well as Toomer’s biography to look at the ways Toomer’s transgression of race and his insistence on being seen as an American functions also as a transgression of gender and sexuality.

  1. 6.Conclusion

In the conclusion, Somerville writes about the 2000 census and Stone Butch Blues as a way to examine current anxieties and cultural contestation over identity categories.

Some overall things we can think about in this text:

  1. 1.Selection of materials for analysis and particularly how she puts different material into dialogue with each other.

  2. 2.Organizational schema which is broadly temporal and progressive, but less nuanced in relationship to time than say Wolcott.

  3. 3.How Somerville is using the words sexuality, sexual orientation, race, invert, mulatto in different places of the text.

  4. 4.Is the overall argument well-done and convincing? What has she left out or elided to produce her analysis?

Queering the Color Line

Siobhan B. Somerville

  1. 1.What are the strengths and weaknesses of the selections of materials and methods of analysis that Somerville uses? How does she integrate literary texts as a site for historical analysis? Is this “literary historiography” compelling?

  1. 2.In some ways Somerville's project is similar to Wolcott's project in that both are writing an intersectional analysis that positions marginalized people in relationship to dominant discourses. Wolcott is writing about black women in regard to respectability in interwar Detroit and Somerville is writing about the interrelated construction of sexuality and race at the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, the books are quite different. How does comparing the two books further illuminate each?

  1. 3.Is the analysis that Somerville mobilizes an “intersectional analysis” as articulated by Dill, Collins, Nash, and McCall? In what ways does it fulfill that vision and in what ways does it confound it?

  1. 4.Somerville and Halberstam are both literary scholars and both Queering the Color Line and Female Masculinity include close readings as key parts of their overall arguments. In what ways do the analysis of each resonate together? In what ways do they differ? Are Somerville and Halberstam constructing sexuality in consonant ways?

  1. 5.Somerville makes an interesting move at the end of the book in her reading of Stone Butch Blues that works to point to contemporary applications of her analysis. What do we make of that? Is it compelling?

  1. 6.Robyn Wiegman in the chapter “Sexing the Difference” takes many of the same sources as Somerville yet she mobilizes a different analysis which centers the emergence of “blacks and women” and the feminist response of centering “black women” as a response to this cultural/discursive conundrum. What do we make of Wiegman’s analysis in light of Somerville and vice versa?

  1. 7.Queering the Color Line seems to have received only consistent laudatory reviews. The only thing reviewers mentioned is that at times the analysis didn't go far enough with fond hopes that Somerville and others would continue this work. What new possibilities for historical writing and research does Queering the Color Line open? What sorts of projects would be in sympathy with the arguments that Somerville makes?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Don't Be My Valentine - Call for Contributors

OCHO February 2009 edition
In response to the 2008 Vice Presidential Debates when the question of gay marriage resulted in a moment of national insecurity. In response to the uncomfortable shifting in the room. The squirm on Palin's face when she insinuates that she has gay friends and family. The awful burst of laughter from the audience and the candidates to be relieved of talking about us, the gays. And that cold, sure, resonant NO, when Biden firmly responded that he does not believe in gay marriage.

In response to hearing the pat "well at least you both agree on something"--so that the ONE point that both parties can agree on is the ridiculous idea that gays should be able to be together, to make promises, to make a kind of monument as ceremony, and to have the same economic rights recognized by the state as our neighbors, family, co-workers and employees,

This is a call for queer poetry, essays on poetics, and reviews of works by queer poets for the February 2009 OCHO edition: DEAR AMERICA, DON’T BE MY VALENTINE.
Your work does not have to address the politics of this post.
The purpose of this issue is to highlight and bring together a strong sampling of diverse work by queer authors in the contemporary American poetry scene.

Friends and Stangers: Fags, Dikes, Trannies, Transvestites, He-she's, She-males, Tomboys and Mamas-boys, Lesbos, Fudge-packers, Muff-divers, Bears, Twinks and Closet Freaks, Butch and Lipstick, Hairdresser or Harley-rider, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green--Dear family, dear people of color and other,
Please submit your work as a single word doc. attachment, pasting your cover letter and bio in the message itself, to:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

S as in Sam, Z as in Zebra

Dear Friends,

It's been a long time since I've done an email update. Things have been busy. I completed my MFA in May of this year and commenced the PhD in Women's Studies in August. It's a delightful course of study, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity, though like most first-year PhD students daunted by the work that remains ahead. I'll focus on poetry by lesbians, particularly during the lesbian-feminist movement from 1969-1989, but with lots of stops before and after. Lately, I'm reading Angelina Weld Grimke and Genevieve Taggard from the early twentieth century and enjoying both of their work.

Three poems at Babel Fruit

Babel Fruit, a wonderful international journal, just published three new poems of mine, "Durio Zibethinus," "Altun Ha," and "Meeting the Dictator." You can read them online here:

"My Father's Mimeograph" in MiPoesias

One poem of mine is included in MiPoesias from July 2008. You can download it here:

As a bonus, there's a photo in the journal from my first trip to Australia.

Poems Forthcoming

I'm thrilled to have two poems each forthcoming in Feminist Studies and the Women's Review of Books. Keep your eyes peeled for them!

Columns in Edge

The Edge network has run a few of my columns. You can read them at these links:

Other than that, I'm reading and writing papers. For fun, you might want to check out the photographs of our summer trip to Australia, which are online here:
It was an incredible trip and one that I heartily recommend.

I'm always blogging at though it's quite dry and academic these days and I have updated my website so it's now advertising-free!

I hope this finds you well and settling in to a beautiful new season, whatever that may be where you are.

All best,


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Article on Lesbian Poetry at After Ellen

This is a great article on Lesbian Poetry from Go and check it out here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Three New Poems at Babel Fruit

Babel Fruit, a fabulous magazine edited by Ren Powell, has three poems of mine in the new issue.

Durio Zibethinus
Altun Ha
Meeting the Dictator

Read them here and let me know what you think.

Monday, October 06, 2008

This week we read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home for my intro to Women’s Studies class. One of our assignments was to create a cartoon or graphic image about our own lives.

Here is mine.

MFA Reflections #5

One of the most powerful mini-lectures from Stan Plumly in a poetry workshop was about time in poems. I cannot now recall the poems he used as samples, certainly one was a Bishop poem, but the impact was to look at how time is used in poems and controlled by poets to create the experience of the poem. I remember being astounded by it and having it open my eyes to how tension and resolution were created using time in poems. I think about it with every poem that I write. While one strategy I use regularly is to place the poems in the present tense, Stan’s reading and explication of how time works (and his sardonic comments on when it doesn’t work - I’m sure my poems were the subject of those comments) was much more complex than that. He talked about the way particular words signify the progression or regression of time in the poem as well as the importance of making time explicit to the reader. It’s a framework that I find myself returning to in my current writing practice.

Another element of time, however, has also become important to me since completing the MFA. That is the time of distance from a poem and aging of a poem. I could never be a dedicated wine collector. If I find a wine I like, I want to drink it right away. But the joy of a wine that has been laid on its side for a number of years. The aging process for wine brings greater complexity. The aging process for poems brings greater perspective. This is true not only of the experience within poems - experiences that happened longer ago have another layer of perspective, but also of the craft of a poem. I’ve added time as a new part of my process of writing. One of the things I learned in putting together my thesis was that there is an incredible perspective and clarity on poems when they have been set aside for six months to two years. (As I write this I realize that this is critical advice from Donald Hall as well.) When I put together my thesis, I was able to easily select the strongest poems and set aside the poems that didn’t work as well. If I engage in that activity with poems that I have just “completed” I am too in love with the poems to have that perspective. The most recent ones all seem like the best poems and perfect in the moment. After six months have passed, however, it’s easier to see where they trip in particular spots and where they don’t work as all. I can set aside the ones that don’t work and work on the trips in the ones that do.

So time is one of the things I’m thinking about these days; time both within my poems and how it is working and not working and time in a linear perspective in my life. I’m finally able to put poems in a folder and let them be quite for a number of months before returning to them to see what works and how they might or might not work in a manuscript.