Monday, June 30, 2008

A Room of One's Own

The Guardian has photos of writer’s rooms.

Virginia Woolf’s work room is my favorite.

Though Claire Tomalin’s room - and her statement - is probably most like me.

I covet the room of Geoff Dyer. And Colm Toibin.

In spite of all this, I’m still pretty fond of my very own writing room. Cluttered, facing a window to our back yard. It suits me quite well and it is indeed a room of my own.

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

The Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

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

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

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

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

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

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

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

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

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

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

"The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver, from The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays. © Beacon Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

From The Writer’s Almanac

Sunday, June 29, 2008

New Poem in journal, MiPOesias

Download the July 2008 issue of MiPOesias here and read my poem, “My Father’s Mimeograph.” As a bonus, there is a lovely full-page photo of yours truly in an environment you may not have seen - or imagined - me in.

MFA Reflections #2

The year I was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Maryland, I had as one of my goals to bring more houseplants into our home. Let me be honest: I have a brown thumb. I’ve killed lots of plants. More than I like to think about. That was probably one of the reasons I decided on that goal about houseplants for the year. Like all goals, though, it was discarded by life events. Working and going to school full time made it necessary for me to prune my goals for the year and focus on the things that were most important at this time, in my case, work and school. So with some sadness, I decided, no houseplants. Space for growing, living, green things would have to wait. Now, having just finished the MFA I find myself with a summer job at a flower shop. It’s tiring work for me to drive to Alexandria, stand up all day, and be cheerful, but I get to bring home fresh cut flowers nearing the end of their useful life at the flower shop, and last Friday, I brought home a palm tree, that while still alive needs some care in order to be full and lush. It didn’t meet the exacting standards of our proprietor, so I chucked it in the back seat of my car. Now it’s in our dining room. I still need to repot it, but I am hopeful that in a few months I’ll have a gorgeous living green thing in our home.

When I was accepted into the MFA, my good friend, Sally, and her family sent me a hydrangea plant. I feared it would go the way of other plants in my life, but my beloved planted it in our back yard. Today it is large and heavy with flowers. She’s happy that it is a thing of beauty as I enter the next degree program.

One of the most important class on poetry that I took as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland was a one credit course on Elizabeth Bishop. We read her complete poems and prose. I return to Bishop regularly. She is an inspiration and a challenging mistress. When my mentor suggested I continue to return to Bishop to think about my own writing, I resisted. In many ways, I don’t want to be like Bishop: small, closeted, drunk, but her poems are so gorgeous and so filled with important messages for me and solutions about my own writing, I continue to return to her, in spite of my own resistances.

In these stories are my second round of reflections about the MFA. Things that are important for me to do always return. House plants. Elizabeth Bishop’s dirty hermit. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of finding the time to do something, only a matter of finding the right time.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

New Project from Stacy Bias: The Fat Experience

Sweet friends and talented associates -

Thanks for taking the time to read this. :) If you're receiving this
email, it is because you have stayed on this list as a means of being
notified about new/upcoming projects in the afterlife of

I wanted to let you know that I've recently launched a new project
that I'm very excited about!

The new project is called "The Fat Experience Project." and you can
view it here:

The Fat Experience

The goal of the Fat Experience Project is to map the global
experience of fat in a way that is human, has a face, a heart, a mind,
a body and a voice.
The Fat Experience Project is an oral, visual and written history
project which seeks to be a humanizing force in body image activism.
By collecting and sharing the many and varied stories of individuals
of size, the Fat Experience Project® seeks to engage with, educate,
empower and enrich the lives of people of size, our allies and the
world at large.

As the project grows, it will be filled with first-person,
non-fiction narratives (in text, video or mp3 format) that speak to
the many and varied aspects of the life lived large.
Some of the content will come from interviews already gathered on my
extensive 2-month road trip (with the lovely Val Garrison) in both
audio and video format. Some content will come from trips on the
horizon. Most content will be submitted via the website by readers
such as yourself.

It is my hope that the project will be a community tool to combat
prejudice/stereotype/discrimination as well as to help externalize
shame so it can discussed and dissipated. The things we keep silent
about are the things that do us the most harm. Shared burden is
lighter. I am hoping, as well, that the project may be used as a
humanizing resource for fat studies and social anthropology courses.

I am writing to ask for your help in both the promotion of and the
participation in this project. I realize not everyone receiving this
email identifies as fat. I have included everyone on this mailing
because it is my fondest hope that, ultimately, with time and
resources, this project will grow past a specific fat focus and move
toward addressing the many intersections of shame.

In the meantime, I would love your help in the form of submissions to
the project, spreading the word to friends and family, passing this
along to contacts in publication and/or fundraising help.

I also welcome comments, constructive criticism and volunteers.
Specifically, I would love to have a small crew of editors who can
help with the text submissions, or folks with a little free time who
wouldn't mind transcribing the shorter audio interviews. Anyone with
video editing experience would be a blessing as well!

Thanks for your time and energy!
Big BIG love,

Stacy Bias

Sarah Schulman in Publisher's Weekly

Our literature is disappearing at the same time we are being told that we are winning our rights.
Equal but Separate
Lesbian and gay literature is for everyone
By Sarah Schulman
If you are a lesbian and you want to get married in California, you’re in luck. But if you are a human being who would like to read novels with lesbian protagonists by openly lesbian authors, you’d better move to England. In the U.K., openly lesbian novelists with lesbian content like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters are treated like people, and their books are treated like books. They are published by the most mainstream publishers, represented by high-rolling agents, reviewed in regular newspapers by real critics, contextualized with other British intellectuals, given mainstream awards, broadcast on television as movies... and as a result of all this respect and consideration, they are read by a broad constituency in England and the rest of the world. For those of us writing here in the United States, England seems like the Promised Land.
In America, lesbian literature has gone the way of cheap rents, good public schools, nonmonogamy, integrated neighborhoods and free will. At this year’s Lambda Literary Awards (the awards the LGBT community gives to our best books ignored by the straight book awards), not a single lesbian book nominated for best novel was published by a mainstream press. Our literature is disappearing at the same time we are being told that we are winning our rights. How can we be equal citizens if our stories are not allowed to be part of our nation’s story?
In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis forced America to admit that gay people exist, and for a brief period the vibrant but underground literature of authentic gay and lesbian experience was able to surface through corporate presses and hover on the margins of American letters. By the early 1990s the country’s most powerful presses started presenting lesbian literature as an integrated part of U.S. intellectual life. But that’s when cultural containment kicked in, in the form of niche marketing. Corporations began the process of transforming a political movement into a consumer group, by selecting particular products to be sold to queers alone. Chain bookstores literally took lesbian literature off of the Fiction shelves and tucked it away in newly formed Gay Book sections, which are usually found on the fourth floor in the back behind the potted plants. At the same time, lesbian writers who avoided protagonists as lesbian as they are were allowed to stay in Fiction. The industry created incentives for authors to avoid the specificity of their own experience, absurdly creating the only literature in the world in which the authors’ actual lives are never recorded. The best known example of many would be Susan Sontag, who maintained her stature as a Major American Intellectual while never applying her prodigious intellectual gifts to a public analysis of her own condition. She even wrote a book analyzing AIDS stigma while staying in the closet.
Ironically, in our conservative cultural moment, familiarity is confused with quality. It is actually harder to write a lesbian novel than one with a dominant culture protagonist, because there isn’t the recycling of agreed upon narrative conventions that mainstream writers depend on. As a result, writing that actually brings new information about how people live and expands American literature is coded as “wrong” and irrelevant, while the U.S. continues its obsession with the coming-of-age of the white male as the central story of the nation.
Now that we face the possibility of an Obama presidency, LGBT people hope for a more equitable society, in which we can enjoy a country that reflects our needs as much as those of heterosexuals. In a media culture, not being represented accurately and with variety is a serious disability. If they can do it in England, they can do it in New York. Let all the writers, agents, editors, publishers, marketers, publicists, critics, book buyers and booksellers act as if lesbian and gay literature is for everyone. If we expect this from each other and behave accordingly, it will come to be.
Sarah Schulman is the author of 12 books, most recently The Child (Carroll & Graf, 2007).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Statement of Refusals and Commitments

This came across the Women’s Studies List-serv and I find it quite compelling.

Statement written by Ann Russo, Women's and Gender Studies, DePaul University,; Melissa Spatz, Women and Girls CAN;


We refuse a feminism that assumes that “women” are a homogeneous group.  We recognize that women identify along a spectrum of identities, and that gender is not always the most prominent one.  Gender is a significant structure, to be sure, but it is not the only structure shaping women’s lives.  Multiple systems of oppression and privilege, including racism, white supremacy, class hierarchy, religious intolerance, xenophobia, anti-immigrant policies, heterosexism, ableism and ageism shape women’s lives, identities, and experiences.  We need movements that recognize these multiplicities.

We refuse a feminism that pits sexism against racism, that claims that sexism is more entrenched than racism, and that the existence of sexism means that racism no longer exists.  We do not accept the logic that criticizing sexism must be tied to a denial or minimization of racism.  Sexism and racism, as well as other forms of oppression, are interconnected.  The misogynist spectacle against Hillary Clinton is directly tied to her white, middle-class heterosexuality, which is different from attacks on women who are not white, middle-class and heterosexual.  We are dismayed that when media pundits frame Michelle Obama as an angry black woman, or as unpatriotic, or suggest that she should be the target of a “lynching party”, there has been no similar feminist outcry by white women.

We refuse a feminism that claims to speak for all women, while denying and minimizing the ongoing legacy of white supremacy and racism in this country.  This legacy includes the ways that women’s movements and organizations are embedded in white supremacist structures, ideas, and practices.  We refuse to participate in women’s organizations that demand allegiance to women with no accountability for privilege and complicity in racism, class exploitation, homophobia, transphobia, imperialism, ableism, ageism, etc.

We refuse a feminism that marginalizes and undermines young women’s voices and perspectives.  We reject the adultism of older women activists who dismiss the views of young women as na├»ve, unrealistic, sexist, and based in sexual fantasy.  We reject the presumption that if younger women do not agree with older women, it is because they are less radical.  We need to create intergenerational dialogues around our different political ideas and commitments.  

We refuse a feminism that mobilizes white folks by cultivating solidarity on the basis of whiteness. We reject any attempt to play divide and conquer by cultivating the racism of white middle class professional women and white working class women and men against women and men of color.  We do not accept the reframing of this racism as “racial resentment.” We reject the way that the media and some feminists divide people into homogeneous categories that do not reflect the complexities of any of our lives.  Everyone has a race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality.  

We refuse a feminism that blames people of color for focusing attention on racism as if that focus was the cause of sexism and misogyny.  We refuse this zero sum game politics, and we refuse to undermine efforts to dismantle white supremacy as a way to bolster attention to sexism.  We reject attempts by some white feminists to silence people of color and to cultivate white racist bonding with claims of “reverse racism.”

We refuse a feminism that confuses a campaign with a movement.  We reject the idea that as feminists, we must all agree on a particular candidate. As Barbara Ransby pointed out in a lecture at DePaul University (Chicago, April 2008), campaigns are not movements, and we need to actively engage all candidates around their positions on issues and use the campaigns as opportunities to push candidates to address our issues and visions for social change and justice.

We commit to consistently challenge ourselves to be self-reflective.  We recognize that we are in process in our work to dismantle white supremacy and other systems of oppression, and we do not claim to have all of the answers.  However, we are firmly committed to continuing to build our awareness of, and accountability for, our own participation in systems and processes of power and privilege.

We commit to critically engaging our communities about this historic moment in U.S. feminism and progressive politics.  We commit to taking an active role in creating community dialogues and town hall forums that re-center feminist and women’s activism based in coalitional politics.  

We commit to holding any and all politicians accountable for their politics, rather than their identities.  We believe that identity does matter in terms of who is represented in the government, and yet, we believe that all candidates must be evaluated based on their commitments and actions.  As movements, we need to hold allpoliticians accountable to our issues and goals.  

We commit to challenging misogyny and racism and other forms of oppression in media coverage.  We will challenge all discourses that make women of color invisible, by assuming that gender = white women, and race = men of color.  We will disrupt the media’s promotion of divisions between gender-based agendas and race-based agendas, between different racial and ethnic groups, and between different political movements.  We will call out the media’s racism and sexism, as well as other forms of oppression.

We commit to speaking publicly against white supremacy as it operates in our movement and in the upcoming election.  We believe it is the responsibility of progressive white women and feminists to consistently challenge white supremacy as part of our work for social change.  We will insist that white people in feminist organizations dialogue, challenge, disrupt, and transform white supremacist thinking, ideas, and practices, particularly as they play out in creating divides between race and gender politics.

We commit to challenging feminist media activists and organizations to use an anti-oppression approach. We commit to consistently look not solely at gender, but at interconnected forms of oppression in media coverage, and we challenge other activists and organizations to do the same.  Along these lines, we call on the National Organization for Women’s campaign against media sexism, the “Media Hall of Shame,” to include all the forms of oppression that shape the representation of women, including racism and white supremacy, as well as heterosexism, ableism, classism, adultism, xenophobia.  

We commit to creating intergenerational dialogues between women of all ages.  Older women need to check adultism when working with and/or responding to young women. It is important to learn from young women, particularly young women of color and those facing multiple oppressions, who do not enter the social justice movement with a race versus gender versus sexuality divide.  All of us, old and young, need to find ways to create intergenerational dialogues that honor our different knowledge, experiences, and frames of reference.  

We commit to building a broad-based movement for social justice by working in solidarity across differences.  We must build connections, not divisions.  In order to build coalitions, we must commit to being accountable for our own privilege and complicity in systems of oppression.  We believe that accountability is a necessary starting point to creating collaborations, coalitions, and alliances across identities and issues.

Ann Russo, Women's and Gender Studies, DePaul University,

Some Good News and a Hidden Desire

It’s been a week of good writing news!

I’m a finalist in the Robin Becker Chapbook Competition.

Two poems of mine were accepted for the Women’s Review of Books.

Meanwhile, I’m having lust for Miko’s shoes from Nike that upload his running times and distances to his blog.

Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex"

Butler’s third book, Bodies That Matter, seeks in many ways to clarify and expand the arguments that she made in Gender Trouble. I started reading the book last week and on Friday night at dinner with my beloved after the Mystics basketball game I was telling her how profound it is to encounter Butler’s mind and the degree of complexity in her thinking in the book. I’ve read many references to Butler and I have heard many people talk about Butler’s work, but reading it directly for myself is an engagement in complexity and her own resistance to simplification or facile understandings.

The opening question of the introduction (after quotations from Haraway, Spivak, and Derrida - just so you know the background of the mind at work) is this: Is there a way to link the question of the materiality of the body to the performativity of gender? (N.B. one of the things that has struck me about the introduction in this book and about how she sets up each chapter is the way she uses questions - primarily as a series - to frame what she is going to write about. This is something that I could use more of and would change how I think about my scholarly writing as well. I think that I too often start with answers and then back into what the questions may be. Beginning more with lists of questions and then seeking to answer them through the process of writing would be quite fruitful, I think.) The text organizes itself into two parts, each of four chapters.

This morning I am going to start with a few comments on the first chapter of Part Two, titled, “Dangerous Crossing”: Willa Cather’s Masculine Names. Perhaps this chapter was more accessible to me because Butler is writing about literature and not philosophy where I still feel I struggle to keep up and lack the background to engage with her. This chapter also appealed to me because it relates directly to my thinking about lesbian poets. Butler begins by saying that “Cather has appeared not to place herself in a legible relation to women or to lesbianism” (BTM, p. 143.) This I find fascinating because I have always read Cather in relationship to women and lesbianism. I suppose though that could be seen more as my reader’s practice than Cather’s presentation. Butler then does a nice reading of Sharon O’Brien’s biography of Cather and compare O’Brien’s readings with those of Hermione Lee. This brief paragraph fascinated me because it highlights some of the decisions made in writing biography. Butler concludes her introductory framework of Cather with this,

Within Cather’s text, this sexuality never qualifies as a truth, distinct from heterosexuality. It is almost nowhere figured mimetically, but it is to be read as an exchange in which sacrifice and appropriation converge, and where the name becomes the ambivalent site of this prohibited taking, this anguished giving away.

What interests me in this is the way sexuality is constructed as an exchange, which is what I wrote about in relationship to Sappho and the Victorians, and what I have been thinking about in regard to how sexuality is constructed communally.

Butler then reads the names of My Antonia, notably, of course, Jim Burden, and the short story by Cather “Tommy the Unsentimental.” Ultimately, Butler is exploring the ways of writing as a man while being a woman and being a lesbian and what that says about gender performativity. That is of course exactly the distillation that Butler resists throughout her work. Another aspect of the chapter is how the body - the materiality of a body and the body within a text - is written and constructed, by both Cather and also I would argue by Butler.

Butler’s next chapter is on passing and the internecine relationship between homosexuality and miscegenation - a topic that always interests me. I’ll return to talking about that - and about the earlier part of the book, including “The Lesbian Phallus,” shortly. I’ve also started to read her fourth book, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. I need time both to read the books and to think about how to write about them in an intelligent and responsible fashion.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Gay People - We're Just Like You

Yesterday morning was beautiful in Washington, DC. We read the newspaper out on the back porch with the dogs lying in the grass. It would have been perfect if I had not become enraged at the cover story about gay and lesbian people and marriage in the New York Times.

Gay Couples Find Marriage Is a Mixed Bag

Published: June 15, 2008

BOSTON — Four years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay couples to marry, there have been blissful unions, painful divorces and everything in between. “There are no role models for gay marriage,” said Jacob Venter of Boston, right, with his husband of four years, Billy Boney.

Some same-sex couples say being married has made a big difference, and some say it has made no difference at all. There are devoted couples who have decided marriage is not for them, couples whose lawyers or accountants advised them against marrying, and couples in which one partner wants to marry but the other does not.

Read the rest of the article here.

I find it depressing that less than forty years after gay liberation with it’s vision for a different sort of sexual freedom and a new restructuring of family and community that we’re reduced to heterosexual mimicry in some of the worst ways. The article includes stories of couples who hesitate about marriage until one has “a profession,” people who speaking to a New York Times reporter use incorrect grammar (as bad as hearing President Bush in the UK talking about the ravishes (sic) of Afghanistan when presumable he meant the ravages of Afghanistan), and gay people saying that marriage makes them feel legitimate in the world. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

The one thing about the article that I did delight in is the couple talking about just living together and not marrying using Brad and Angelina as the justification for that. For those watching such things, the reproducing mimicry there is delightful because, of course, Brad and Angelina are not marrying until all people can marry including gay and lesbian couples. It was a moment of confirmation that Judith Butler has much insight into the world when you really sit down and think about it.

At any rate at 5:01 p.m. PST today, the state of California will be issuing marriage licenses. I am an old crabby dyke with a profound dislike for the institution of marriage, but I do have the good manners to say to all who will marry today or in the next days and months, Mazel Tov!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Josephine Jacobsen

Last summer I read Josephine Jacobsen’s poetry and her prose. It was delightful. There was a particular reserve and organization of her thinking in her prose writing in particular that I responded to. It was reassuring to me in a way that I hunger for order when my own mind is disorderly and feels, at times, about to fall apart. There is a new chapbook of poetry coming out by Jacobsen, edited by Elizabeth Spires. You can read about the chapbook, Jacobsen, and the relationship between Spires and Jacobsen in this interview in the Baltimore Sun.

Poem by Liam Rector from The Writer's Almanac

First Marriage
by Liam Rector

I made it cross country

In a little under three days. 

The engine blew out 

About a hundred miles north

Of San Francisco, where I'd

Hoped to start living again

With a woman I'd abandoned

Only a few months before. 

The reasons I'd left her were

Wincingly obvious

Soon as I got back

To her, and it didn't take long

Before I again left her.

In a few weeks I'd meet 

The woman who became

My first wife, the one

With whom I spent 

Almost the entirety

Of my twenties. It took

About twenty years 

Getting over her, after

We divorced at thirty.

Broke then, I took

A bus cross-country

And was back in the East

By Christmas, thinking it

Would take three years maybe

To put this one behind me.

But getting over her

Happened as we were

Both in our third marriages,

Both then with children,

Heading for our fifties.

She came cross-country

To tend to me when I had

Cancer, with a 20% chance

Of recovery. The recovery

From all she had been to me,

Me abiding with her as long

As I did, took place finally

When we, her sitting on my bed

And me lying in it, held hands

And watched ourselves watching

TV, something we'd never quite 

Been able to do comfortably

All those years ago. So many

Things turn this way over time,

So much tenderness and memory,

Problems not to be solved

But lived, and I resolved

Right then to start living

Only in this kind of time.

Cancer gave this to me: being

Able to sit, comfortably, to get

Over her finally, and to 

Get on with the fight to live while

Staying ready to die daily.

"First Marriage" by Liam Rector, from The Executive Director of The Fallen World. © The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Queer Literature Linkage

Just a collection of links as I decompress after some travel this week and going to see the LPGA tournament in Havre de Grace, MD. (I’m really crabby about how poorly the LPGA is merchandised and marketed. It’s an incredible group of athletes and a great opportunity for promoting women in sports that is completely bland and underpromoted. Sad. It was hot though in Havre de Grace today - nearly 100. We left after two hours.)

The Lambda Literary Awards covered by The Advocate. Here is a report of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s move to Los Angeles.

Controversy about The Lambda Literary Awards over at the Gay Recluse. Gay Recluse reviewed the book in question here. Christopher Hennessey at Outside the Lines weighed in on his blog here. I’m torn about these questions. Part of me wants to be separatist in the inclination of preserving the Lambda Literary Awards for queer writers, but perhaps due to the influence of Judith Butler, I also take the perspective that excellent books that deal with gay and lesbian people and issues should be recognized regardless of the sexual orientation of the author in question. I see all sides and don’t have easy answers.

Meanwhile, the GLBT encyclopedia to which I contributed is scheduled to come out.

Also, I’ve just learned that a paper of mine was accepted for Lifting Belly High: Women Poets Since 1900. I promised myself I would travel less next semester and not do any conferences, but this one was just too good to pass up. It looks excellent!

Congratulations to Kate Evans who just announced that her first novel has been accepted for publication! I’m thrilled for you Kate.

Friday, June 06, 2008

My Changing Contexts

I mentioned a while back that I was reconsidering my contexts. I’ve done that - after a few days away on a work retreat. My old contexts were these:

LGBT Activism

In each of my contexts, I have one year, three year, five year, and ten year goals. I review them each year and I build all of my daily activities around these different contexts. Now, as I am looking at the next four years as a graduate student, with the ultimate goal of changing my professional life, I’ve realized that I need to update and change my contexts. So here are my new eight contexts:

Creative Work
Scholarly Work
Work for Hire

As you can see, I’ve left the first three the same. The experience context is where I put activities that I like to do (travel, visiting museums, seeing plays) that fuel both my growth as a human being but also my enjoyment of life. This is also a generative space for my writing - poetry, creative, and scholarly. I split my professional/writing contexts into four contexts that I can consider and monitor separately. Poetry is one in and of itself because I am a poet and it is an area that needs devoted time and attention. I have some concrete short and long-term goals in that area and so a focused way to think about them is important. I also want to keep a context of creative work. This is both creative non-fiction work, reviewing work, and also things like embroidery, sewing, and other creative endeavors. Scholarly work will be things associated with my PhD program. I combined Relationships and Spirituality. This may just be for the next few years while in graduate school. We shall see. I actually really like having them separate, but didn’t want to exceed eight contexts. The final one is the work that I do for money.

Next I’ll be updating these in my calendar and on my master planning documents. We’ll see how they work. The goal of the contexts is to have a way to build great attention, mindfulness, and productivity in the various areas of my life. I’ll check in later on how it is going.

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

I’m not quite done with Gender Trouble, (N.B. The image shown on the link is a reissue of the book for its tenth anniversary - I have the original edition) Judith Butler’s second book, published in 1990. (Here’s the dirty secret: I’ve not purchased and am not planning to read her first book, which was her dissertation, titled, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections on Twentieth-Century France. I feel like it has less to help me with on my project of being literate on feminist theory. I’m open to quibbles from readers - or would love a report from someone who has read the book.) In spite of not being done, I’m going to write a bit about it. My intention in writing blog entries on Butler’s work is initially to simply understand it. To in some ways recount her arguments so that I may understand them better for myself. I imagine as time progresses I may share some of my reflections and thinking beyond her work, but for tonight at least, I know that this will primarily be a reporting out on the book.

Gender Trouble, subtitled Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, is divided into three chapters with a preface and conclusion. The book is an intervention into the basic assumption of feminist theory in which women are a category of people who exist and can be the subject of theoretical consideration. One of the interesting things for me about reading this book is recalling my own first encounter with it when it was published in 1990. I was twenty years old and in my final year of my undergraduate education. I remember being riveted by the book, but also frightened by it. What Butler suggests, then and now, is a complete new direction in thinking about feminism. Let me start with the preface, however. Butler outlines the general arguments of the book quite succinctly in the preface. She writes,

Precisely because “female” no longer appears to be a stable notion, its meaning is as troubled and unfixed as “woman,” and because both terms gain their troubled significations only as relational terms, this inquiry takes as its focus gender and the relational analysis it suggests. Further, it is no longer clear that feminist theory ought to try to settle the questions of primary identity in order to get on with the tasks of politics. Instead, we ought to ask, what political possibilities are the consequence of a radical critique of the categories of identity? What new shape of politics emerges when identity as a common ground no longer constrains the discourse of feminist politics? And to what extend does the effort to locate a common identity as the foundation for a feminist politics preclude a radical inquiry into the political construction and regulation of identity itself? (Gender Trouble, p. ix.)

The first chapter is Butler’s analysis of “women” as the subject of feminism. By the conclusion of this chapter, she writes, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being.” (p. 33.) Butler reaches this assertion through an analysis of the construction of gender as a binary category and the placement of gender within a binary system.

The second chapter is Butler’s analysis of psychoanalysis and the construction of heterosexuality and homosexuality. The opening of this chapter interested me in particular because she positions the analysis as a critique of strands of feminist theory that imagine an “origin, a time before what some would call “patriarch” that would provide an imaginary perspective from which to establish the contingency of the history of women’s oppression.” This interests me especially because I have been reading Judy Grahn’s The Highest Apple, which makes that move about Sappho’s place in history. Butler’s critique of that “utopic origin” strand of feminist theory is important. She writes, “As feminism has sought to become integrally related to struggles against racial and colonialist oppression, it has become increasingly important to resist the colonizing epistemological strategy that would subordinate different configurations of domination under the rubric of a transcultural notion of patriarchy.” (p. 35.)

Butler begins this second chapter with a recapitulation of the structuralist’s work, particularly Levi-Strauss, and then moves through a conversation with Lacan, Riviere, and Freud. This chapter looks at how psychoanalytic theory informs thinking about gender and sexual orientation. Butler draws on Gayle Rubin’s work in mobilizing her critique of Levi-Strauss and in formulating the conclusion of this chapter which comes to an understanding of prohibition as power.

The third chapter, titled, “Subversive Bodily Acts,” is about Kristeva, Foucault, and Wittig. Her work on Kristeva, which is a pretty powerful critique of Kristeva’s work, makes me think that Kristeva should be my next reading project, especially as much of what she wrote was about poetry in particular. Butler has a particularly cheeky and interesting conversation about Foucault and the case of Hermuline. It’s fascinating and worth many chuckles. I’m still reading the part about Wittig.

Butler’s conclusion is basically within this sentence: “My argument is that there need not be a “doer behind the deed,” but that the “doer” is variably constructed in and through the deed.” (p. 142.) She then in the conclusion explores how parody functions as a way to construct the doer and to suggest ways that her work relates to feminist politics.

Reading this after eighteen years (with my original marginalia - I was reading it for university work then, too), reminds me of how profoundly exciting and frightening I found this text then. It is less frightening now because I can begin to understand the implications that it had both for theory but also for how our lives have been lived in the intervening years, something I couldn’t understand or anticipate then. This was frightening to me those years ago because of the instability that it suggested. It truly was troubling about things I needed to believe as foundational. I think this is an area that I’ll write more about as I work through Butler’s other books this summer.

MFA Reflections #1

Beyond basking the the blush of graduation, I’ve been reflecting on learnings from the MFA and will do a few blog entries on that this summer. I’m not going to talk about the obvious learnings, but what I hope are some more nuanced reflections of the degree and how it shapes poets and writers. I started thinking about this when madly searching for Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (which I have come to believe was eaten alive by my house as it is frankly no where and my book group is now nearly done reading it. Sigh. I proposed it and was looking forward to the reading and discussion with a group.) I came across Lisa Lewis’ book of poetry, Silent Treatment. I purchased this book of poetry shortly after it came out and treasured it. A few years later, Stan Plumly told me to read it. To study it. To make it a model for my work. I reread and reencountered the book. Stan also told me to study C. K. Williams. Both of them were about understanding line length and line break as well as how narrative structures works in poetry. Both of them, also, were in many ways foreign to what I was reading - to the poets that I love and return to time and time again (Rich, Hacker, Rukeyser, Bishop). C. K. Williams, in particular, is not a poet whose books I would have picked up and studied without the exhortations from Stan. This to me seems to be an important part of an MFA: the informed recommendations from a mentor of what to read and the immersion in reading all of the work of a poet. The benefits of this are multiple. First, there is the craft and technique perspective for which I was directed to encounter Lewis and Williams. This was significant, but less significant than I thought at the time. When I encountered these poets, I was looking first for a simple and easy application of their work to my own. I never found it. (Earlier Stan had directed me to Merwin to study his punctuation. In a nutshell, in his mature work, Merwin doesn’t use any punctuation. This was incredibly frustrating to me, at first; then, over time, it was profoundly illuminating.) What I found in the work of Lewis and Williams instead of a craft seminar is a process of encountering a contemporary poets work and immersing myself in it as a writer. A consequence of that is learning to think of one’s own work over a lifetime of writing. I started to think about my work in different ways. Studying Lewis’ first book and the progression of Williams’ poems over many books was incredible. Partly because I began to think of my own work in relation to theirs. Not in content, partially in form, but mostly as one poet to another. This may be one of the most significant learnings of the MFA: being told that this poet is a guide for you and then discovering over time, how that poet will guide you. The path was never as I expected, but it was always a worthwhile path. In retrospect, I find my immersion in Lewis and Williams satisfying and meaningful. I’m not sure that over my lifetime I will say that they were profoundly influential on my work. I don’t think that Stan has some particular key to my soul and can provide the perfect match for my intellectual and emotional writing needs. I do think that he has a profound intuitive insight that brings information to bear that I would not find without him. I’ve learned to appreciate that in ways that I didn’t anticipate. Mostly, I appreciate him directing me on a path that helped me to think about myself as a poet and to find a mirror for that poet self in unlikely places.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Thorn Birds

I’m going to reread the book, The Thorn Birds, this summer in anticipation of the trip to Australia. I think I last read it when I was thirteen or fourteen. I can’t wait to see what I think of it now.

Today is Colleen McCullough’s birthday - Happy Birthday!

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It's the birthday of novelist Colleen McCullough, (books by this author) born in Wellington, Australia (1937). She came from a rural, working-class family that wandered around Australia until finally settling in Sydney when Colleen was 12 years old. She wanted to be a doctor, but she wasn't allowed to go to medical school because of a skin condition, and so she went into neurophysiology, the study of the nervous system.
She got a job at a hospital in London, and while she was there she met an American professor who was so impressed with her ability that he invited her to manage his laboratories back at Yale. She did all kinds of work in the laboratories, but because she was a woman, she was paid about half as much as her co-workers. So, to try to make a little extra money, she decided to write a novel.
Her first novel, Tim, was published in 1974. That book sold well, but her first great success was The Thorn Birds (1977), an epic novel that tells the story of an Australian family across three generations. It became an international best seller and enabled McCullough to quit her job and devote all of her time to writing.