Monday, September 29, 2008

Poetry Bailout Will Restore Confidence of Readers by Charles Bernstein

From a statement read at an event marking the release of Best American Poetry 2008, held last night at The New School, in New York City. David Lehman is the series editor of Best American Poetry, and Robert Polito is the director of the writing program at The New School.

Chairman Lehman, Secretary Polito, distinguished poets and readers—I regret having to interrupt the celebrations tonight with an important announcement. As you know, the glut of illiquid, insolvent, and troubled poems is clogging the literary arteries of the West. These debt-ridden poems threaten to infect other areas of the literary sector and ultimately to topple our culture industry.

Charles Bernstein’s most recent collection of poetry is Girly Man. His poem “Pompeii” appeared in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine; his essay “Wet verse at The New Yorker” appeared in the November 1989 issue.

Cultural leaders have come together to announce a massive poetry buyout: leveraged and unsecured poems, poetry derivatives, delinquent poems, and subprime poems will be removed from circulation in the biggest poetry bailout since the Victorian era. We believe the plan is a comprehensive approach to relieving the stresses on our literary institutions and markets.

Let there be no mistake: the fundamentals of our poetry are sound. The problem is not poetry but poems. The crisis has been precipitated by the escalation of poetry debt—poems that circulate in the market at an economic loss due to their difficulty, incompetence, or irrelevance.

Illiquid poetry assets are choking off the flow of imagination that is so vital to our literature. When the literary system works as it should, poetry and poetry assets flow to and from readers and writers to create a productive part of the cultural field. As toxic poetry assets block the system, the poisoning of literary markets has the potential to damage our cultural institutions irreparably.

As we know, lax composition practices since the advent of modernism led to irresponsible poets and irresponsible readers. Simply put, too many poets composed works they could not justify. We are seeing the impact on poetry, with a massive loss of confidence on the part of readers. What began as a subprime poetry problem on essentially unregulated poetry websites has spread to other, more stable, literary magazines and presses and contributed to excess poetry inventories that have pushed down the value of responsible poems.

The risks poets have taken have been too great; the aesthetic negligence has been profound. The age of decadence must come to an end with the imposition of oversight and regulation on poetry composition and publishing practices.

We are convinced that once we have removed these troubled and distressed poems from circulation, our cultural sector will stabilize and readers will regain confidence in American literature. We estimate that for the buyout to be successful, we will need to remove from circulation all poems written after 1904.

This will be a fresh start, a new dawn of a new day. Without these illiquid poems threatening to overwhelm readers, we will be able to create a literary culture with a solid aesthetic foundation.

I’m Charles Bernstein, and I approved this message.

Credit: Harper’s Magazine

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ten Tips for Engaging with Judith Butler's Books and Work

I’ve noticed a number of blog readers coming to my blog on the entries that are about Judith Butler’s work. (The most frequent key word that leads people to the blog is Molly Malone Cook, but I don’t have anything to say about that.) While my heart goes out to my fellow students, particularly undergraduates who are reading Judith Butler for the first time, (I note that most of the people reading these pages are accessing the internet through university or college internet hosts) I am hopeful that my blog entries about Butler are not substituting for a thoughtful, sustained engagement with her work. To that end, I’d like to offer ten hints for reading and engaging with Judith Butler’s work as an aid to fellow students and budding scholars everywhere.

1. Don’t read the books in order.

This seems like a simple thing, but it continues to hit me regularly as I sit down to do my weekly reading. I’m accustomed to and have been trained to start a book on page one and read through until the end. Foolishness! Most chapters can be read out of order with a review at the end to understand the organization and sequencing that led to Butler’s creation of the book.

2. Read what interests you and is usable to you first.

Again, this seems obvious, but often I fear we as readers are caught by the tyranny of how to read a book (from beginning to end) and don’t dive into what really interests us. I recommend that you do that first. Think of it as a gate way drug that will hook you into the other parts of the book that at first glance seem less engaging.

3. Remember that Judith Butler trained as a philosopher.

All of her work is engaged in the disciplinary tradition of philosophy. This is an old and long-standing academic configuration. She is responding within that. If you, like me, have not trained as a philosopher and are in fact functionally illiterate on philosophy, this creates challenges with engaging with her work. Remember, however, her disciplinary location and recognize that you may not have mastery there. It helps and gives you permission to slow down and engage as a novice.

4. Think about how Judith Butler’s work travels to other disciplines.

The corollary of Butler’s training as a philosopher is to look at how Butler’s work is used in different disciplines. As knowledge travels, it changes and is used in disciplinary contexts in different ways from the original. This should embolden you to engage with her for your own disciplinary uses.

5. Watch for “In other words.”

In other words is a typical Butler rhetorical trait and it means, I’M GOING TO SUMMARIZE AND RESTATE. This is a joyous moment for a student. If you haven’t followed her argument to this point, she is going to regurgitate it for you in a more digestible form. Eat little birds and enjoy the beneficence of the author!

6. Use a pencil and speak back to the text.

My copies of Butler are covered with pencil, pen, and highlighting marks from various readings. I now prefer pencil because I can write quickly and easily in the margins. I summarize, talk back, question, and squack at Butler throughout her books. I encourage you to do the same! (It also helps when the time comes to write a paper or other sorts of formal responses to the text.)

7. Create summaries in your own words.

My summaries help me. They may help you, too, but your own summaries are going to help you more.

8. Listen to others, but engage with Butler on your own terms.

Lots of people have lots of things to say about Judith Butler. You don’t have to agree with them all or believe them all. In fact, if you have actually read her work, you won’t. It’s always good to listen to what other people say, but form your own opinions and when necessary, disagree or augment or expand other’s thinking.

9. Think critically about how others speak about and use Butler’s work.

This is of course related to listening to others. While you are listening, think critically about what they are saying. Seek to understand their perspective and conclusions about Butler’s work. Other people have as much to teach you as books, but ultimately it is your own mind that must take you to your conclusions.

10. Don’t be intimidated.

At the end of the day, Butler (or any other author whose book you are reading) is another person just like you and I. She puts on her pants one leg at a time. She reads books and is sometimes confused or uncertain about author’s work. She makes mistakes and missteps just like we will. Don’t be intimidated. Read, think, write, work to understand. It makes a difference, no matter what you do with your life.

Friday, September 26, 2008

PhD Reflections #1

I wondered how long it would be before the PhD reflections started coming to me. I’m now in my third week of coursework in my PhD program. I have two reflections.

First, yesterday I was talking with my mentor about the myth of comprehensivity. This is the sense that I have as a graduate student of needing to know and read everything. My mentor says that it is a myth. I can never know and read everything. The skill of graduate school is not mastery, not comprehensivity, but it is to have the skills and tools to evaluate and analyze. Certainly, there is an element of mastery of a particular area of knowledge and knowledge production, but mastery is different than comprehensive in my use of the terms. Mastery is awareness of and familiarity with an area of knowledge; comprehensive is knowing it all. Mastery is possible, but will require continued reading and attention throughout one’s lifetime; comprehensivity is a myth.

I’m still trying to absorb that concept, but I’m living with it and trying to understand it and more importantly life within it.

My second reflection is about ways to talk about scholarly work and involves a few points. First, I never want to hear anyone ever use the word derivative again. I don’t want my work to be called derivative and I can’t imagine that anyone else who has written a book wants her work called derivative. I’m sympathetic to this and grateful to one of my first teachers in graduate school for strongly and unequivocally drawing this line. It stung when she first said it to me, but now I pass it on. Don’t call other’s work derivative. I’ll extend it by saying, don’t call scholarly work overdetermined. Of course it is overdetermined! This is work someone has spent three, five, seven, ten, twelve years working on! You’ve read the book in three to five hours. It is way more determined than your thinking will ever be about it! Overdetermined just doesn’t reflect a thoughtful engagement with the work. How is the work put together? What information does this draw on? What information was available to the person that is not considered? (The available portion is really key in that question.) What is the work doing? How effectively is it doing that work? Those are the questions that critically engage a text. Derivative and overdetermined don’t. The second part of this is, embrace reductive. Most material I am encountering is new and my thinking about it is by definition reductive. I am trying to reduce it to something that I can understand so I can build to the complexity of other people’s thinking and writing. It’s going to take me a while.

So those are the first reflections on the PhD program. Overall, the reading is fabulous and the level of critical engagements with ideas is fantastic. I’m only overwhelmed by all of the work in front of me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On Male Domination

I felt male domination most acutely when I was fourteen years old. Geraldine Ferraro was running for Vice-President. I could be cagey and suggest that I don't recall who was running for President, though of course I do. It was Geraldine Ferraro on whom I was most focused at fourteen. It was my first foray into campaigning, particularly the grueling work of knocking on doors and talking to people in support of a candidate. You're too young to even vote, whyare you bothering me? Don't listen to all of those things those fem-in-ist-s say, sweetie. Men aren't that bad. President Reagan is a movie star, you know. These are things I heard on my own campaign trail working for Gerry, as I liked to call her, though I had never met her.

Perhaps it was that failed Vice-Presidential campaign that made me feel male domination most acutely. Perhaps it was my age in life. Perhaps it was the historical moment. Today, while I can recognize male dominance in the world, in the material conditions of my life, it is often invisible. For instance, I think that I can go whole weeks, perhaps even months, without having a sustained conversation with man. It is definitely months if we exclude pro-feminist men; they are the only ones with whom I have sustained converations. Men who are interested in promoting patriarchy and male domination seem to be doing fine without my attention, so I don't bother to give it to them.

This alters my view of the world, however. Sharply. I was struck in the readings from last week and this week by palpability of male domination in the lives of some of these writers. Of course, Beauvoir stuck me this way, but also Millet, Chodorow, Ortner, and Rubin. I wonder if it is a weakness of my life right now and how it is structured to not have contact more often with male domination in more serious - and generative? - ways. It facilitates a particular anger and analytic clarity that I like and admire.

This contact with male domination and response to it also positions writers in a broader public sphere. This is something else that I found striking about the readings: the relationship of the author to her reading public. In her introduction, Gubar writes, "Although this section begins with such writers as Beauvoir and Millett, who considered themselves public intellectuals, it quickly turns to the work of an unprecedented number of women who began entering the professoriate during the 1970s." This is one of the revolutions of feminism that Professor Smith outlined in some of her comments to the class. It's a revolution for which I'm grateful, but in reading these essays in conversations with the essays of last week, in particular, Woolf, Rich, Lorde, and others, I'm struck by the move from public intellectual to the professoriate and in some ways that move to me is to a smaller audience. An elite and important audience, certainly, but I do hunger for the moves of Beauvoir, as essentializing and problematic as they may be, "History has shown us that men have always kept in their hands all concrete powers" (p. 300). Beauvoir speaks with authority to us, a broad public implication, and in doing so, constructs a broad public for her work. Where are today's public intellectuals who are women - and speaking to women? Is the conversation of feminism today in a smaller room? Are fewer people listening? Is that a problem?

These are some of the things that I have been thinking about while encountering these readings. I've also been thinking about a comment made at a poetry conference I attended last weekend called Lifting Belly High: Women's Poetry since 1900. (N.B. I summarized the public plenaries and some workshops on my blog, One speaker, Susan Stanford Friedman talked about the astonishing rapidity in which women's cultural work is erased and forgotten. This is another reality that has been rolling around my mind while encountering these readings. The reclamation work of Gilbert, Gubar, Showalter, and others was conceptualized as particular work for a particular historical moment that would eventually pass when the canon had been reformulated and women's writing returned to its rightful place in it, but the forces of erasure continue and accelerate. How can they be stopped? While canon formation will continue to evolve and be contested, what intervention could happen to bring basic parity for women and people of color? Why do we fall into obscurity so quickly? Can that be changed?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lifting Belly High Plenary: New Directions II

This was the final panel of the conference and I was mighty tuckered out by the time I reached it (and I should add am tuckered out now as I finish this final report, but I must do it now before I lose too much in other readings and activities.)

Arielle Greenberg began this plenary with her comments on the “Theory of the Gurlesque” which addresses young women writing about femininity in poetry in a new way that is playful, humorous, unstable, and filled with contradictions. She reflected on how she coined the term, but then it became an internet phenom and took off without her further participation or writing about it. This raised interesting issues about authorship and authority in the internet age with which she is still grappling.

Susan Stanford Friedman spoke. (Again, as I felt about Dee Morris: Wow. Wow! To be in the presence of intellectual greatness.) Friedman outlined four “sea changes” that have happened in women’s writing and scholarship:

1. move from national to transnational
2. move to biocultural studies
3. move beyond identity to queer and hybrid
4. move from print culture to digital culture

She described all of these as “reinvigorating the gynocritical terrain.” (Note to self: I want to use gynocritical at least three more times this semester.) Friedman addressed some of the exact same issues that were raised in my readings earlier today (see blog on Gender, Power, and Difference) including that the category of woman is an uncertain and contested are for the field right now, a move from writing about being a woman to writing by women, and the shifts in feminism. In spite of this, she noted the extraordinary speed by which women writers are “disappeared.” She said the “assertion of women’s action as social and cultural producers” is a feminist act. It is a feminist position to insist that women are producers.

Finally, Friedman articulated five areas that she sees as critical to the field:

1. Women’s poetry is a planetary phenomenon and so scholars must engage in transnational comparative work.
2. Women’s poetry is a multilingual phenomenon.
3. All poetry/poetries need to be embraced with respect.
4. Studies of women’s poetry need renewed vigilance to questions of diversity (with the corollary that women’s poetry is not a white phenomenon.)
5. Feminist literary theory needs to be revitalized.

OK, so I am just going to make that my check list for the balance of my graduate education.

We’re not done yet, though! (Dear reader, feel free to take a break. Friedman was extraordinary and so get a diet coke, relax for a minute because the next speaker rivals Friedman’s brilliance.)

Christianne Miller spoke next with two clear directions for feminist poetics. First, she talked about the importance of “locating poetry as it is conceived, published, and circulated in women’s lives” and looking at “how locations shape the work of writers for any literary movement.” Second, she talked about the importance of editing and recovering the work that has fallen out of print. She described this as “painstaking, but crucial labor.” Editing addresses a variety of important questions and new media creates new opportunities. Questions Miller raised include, When is a poem finished? Who gets to determine when it is finished? What does chronological mean? What is the appropriate critical apparatus for editing? What is a mistake? Who gets to “correct” mistakes?

I’m going to append this to my earlier check list.

Deborah Mix talked about the importance of thinking about influence as not a struggle, but a give and take and a dialogue that can be generative. She also talked about influence as something that works across generations, not only from one generation to the next.

Finally, Melissa Girard, an alumna of Dusquesne talked about her work in poetics and in a demonstration of how younger scholars are engaging work between white canonical writers and writers of color explored her work on Edna St. Vincent Millay in dialogue with Angelina Weld-Grimke, Georgia Douglas Johnson and Anne Spencer, three African-American poets.

It was an extraordinary conclusion to an incredible conference. Kudos to all of the organizers of Lifting Belly High.

Workshop: Feminist Presses are alive and well

OK, so the workshop was just titled Feminist Presses, but they are alive and well from the showing at the conference. This workshop was organized by the four fabulous women who have created Switchback Books, a new publisher of poetry by women. Also speaking at the panel were Jan Freeman of Paris Press, Erica Kaufman and Rachel Levitsky of Belladonna Books (a wonderful collaborative of performance of poetry and books), Rebecca Wolff of Fence Books, Diane Gilliam on behalf of Perugia Press, and the incomparable Judy Johnson of 13th Moon Press. Judy Johnson has an incredible new idea and strategy for integrating online content and book sales and she brings to it her extraordinary savvy about working within institutions to achieve good outcomes for radical feminists. She is just brilliant. This was an inspiring group of women to see together reflecting on the political impact and significance of publishing, the challenges for publishers of poetry in the current moment, and the need for and commitment to doing it.

For my purposes, I was especially interested in the ways that new feminist presses are being founded and older ones are adapting to the current environment. It makes me think about my larger intellectual project for the dissertation and how important it is to contextual the current work with research on activities in the past. I’ll return to this again, I’m sure.

Workshop: Making (con)Texts

This workshop explored collaboration. It began with a collaboration between Kim Bridgford and Jo Yarrington. Bridgford is a poet and Yarrington is a photographer. Together they are traveling or have traveled to Iceland, Venezuela, and Bhutan. Through those travels they are creating a book that combines ten poems and ten photos. It’s fascinating to hear artists of different media work together and talk about their different and generative creative processes.

The other presenter at this workshop was Heather Milne, who is putting together, with a collaborator, a new book titled Innovative Canadian Women Poets. I went to this panel intentionally to hear about Heather’s project because I think that Canadian women poets are doing fascinating things. This is going to be a great book when it comes out in a year or so from Coach House Press and I think that Heather as a young critic and scholar is going to do great work on feminist Canadian poetics - and lesbian Canadian poetics. So stay tuned to this project for something that will be exciting soon. (Meanwhile, you can catch up on reading Canadian feminist poets: Sina Queyras, Rachel Zolf, Nathalie Stevens, and Lisa Robertson will get you started.)

Lifting Belly High Plenary: Feminism, Formalism, & Innovation

Saturday morning brought another incredible plenary at Lifting Belly High. Rachel Blau DuPlessis began this one. DuPlessis talked about the importance of feminisms and her configuration of feminism of reception, a concept I am keenly interested in. She asserted feminisms as a critical and resistant relationship to hegemonic culture likening it to a helix, imbrication, dialectic, and swirl and said that in her work she works to “change the language and conventions of representation.” She said she writes not feminist poetry, that is poetry that reflects the opinions and traditions of the feminist movement, but she writes as a poet enriched by feminism and its critique. With regard to writing political poetry, DuPlessis noted that she “writes politically by trying to represent political lives.” She said her work is concerned with three elements, 1. it, 2. she, and 3. of and is the ethical acknowledgement of intersubjectivity and betweenness.

Lisa Samuels talked about “membrane feminism” as a way of thinking about “wet and sticky language acts.” Of interest to her is the corpus collosum, the membrane between the left and right brain (I’m not entirely sure that it is a membrane, but don’t have time to investigate that at the moment) as well as the hymen, another membrane of great discussion.

Annie Finch began her talk by acknowledging the lack of racial-ethnic diversity among the presenters and topics at the conference, but acknowledged the extraordinary aesthetic range at the conference. (An observation that I found spot on.) She then provided a personal testimony about how important form structures have been to her since she was a young child and how important the avant guard is to her as a poet as well. The perceived opposition of these two allowed her the opportunity to “reclaim the traditions of my mothers.” Interestingly, she asserted that she doesn’t think that there is such a thing as innovative form. She believes that there are innovative procedures and composition methods, but that form is not a site of innovation rather the innovation comes in content. She concluded with her vision of a community of poets and scholars that are free from the battles of the past and have all of the possibilities available to everyone.

Stacy Carson Hubbard examined the three words of the plenary session and found innovation as the site where there is action. She noted that form is a way that poets immediately engage history on its own ground and that form can be a way to critique, imitate, develop, demonstrate obedience, contestation, and subversion. Often for early modern poets it was a way of doing all of those things simultaneously.

Lynn Emanuel noted that the long-standing binary between formalists and innovative or experimental poets was no longer acceptable based on the configuration of this panel. She talked about a forthcoming anthology, American Hybrid, by Cole Swenson and David St. John as another location where the binary is being broken. Finally, she offered a sense of the need to reevaluate realism and see a more dialectic relationship between realism and modernism.

Science and History with Race and Gender

There are two essays from this week’s Feminist History class that I’ll engage. Both are chapters from books. First is Londa Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. The fifth chapter of this book, “Theories of Gender and Race,” examines how science was mobilized post-Enlightenment to explain why women and people of color should be excluded from democratic society. Schiebinger mobilizes a wide array of material to look at ways that gender and race were constructed during the 18th century. Schiebinger looks at scientific work studying the size of skulls and how that was informed by race and gender. She also talks about the case of the Venus Hottentot. She concludes, “naturalists did not draw their research priorities and conclusions from a quiet contemplation of nature, but from political currents of their times.”
This chapter made an excellent pairing with a chapter from Thomas Laqueur’s Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur, who would definitely be a pip to talk to at a cocktail party, reviews how sex was created during the eighteenth century by scientists. He reviews a wide variety of medical texts to look at how increasing information about male and female bodies become sexed into a binary sexual system after thinking of male and female as two parts of a single whole prior to the Enlightenment. His work is highly detailed in accounts of both the anatomy of men and women and how it evolves to become gendered and away from being analogues for one another as well as insight into sexuality. Laqueur explores the perceived relationships between pregnancy and orgasm as well as the advent of removing the ovaries as a way to solve women’s problems with hysteria. This chapter like the Schiebinger is quite detailed in its examination of historical documents and synthesizing and mobilizing them to understand the evolution of sex and gender differences.
These two pieces of scholarship taken together - and in dialogue with Martin’s work on metaphors and the immune system from last week - really provide insight into what Women’s Studies is and what it can do. By examining the historical archive, both Schiebinger and Laqueur are able to provide a new set of knowledge and information about how science is and became gendered and offer new possibilities for how we think about bodies and sex and gender today.

Gender, Power, and Difference

This week’s readings for my Women’s Studies core course were taken together the source of provocative questions for the field of Women’s Studies. The readings fall into three groups. First, I read a portion of West and Fenstermaker’s book Doing Difference, Doing Gender. This book is a collection of essays by West and Fenstermaker with a series of co-authors. West and Fenstermaker are sociologists and their work is grounded in that discipline. The first essay by the two of them titled, “Doing Gender,” was originally written in 1977 and published in 1987 in Gender & Society (the journal that featured Andersen’s work from my post for my history class last week.) In this first article, the authors articulate the differences among sex, sex category, and gender. The sex category distinction was a new and interesting one to me. They describe the sex category as the public attribution of male or female that occurs for children even prior to gender “achievement.” The second essay, written later, is titled “Doing Difference.” In this essay they explore how using a gender lens other differences (particularly race) can be considered within sociology. Finally, we read responses to the work of West and Fenstermaker from Patricia Hill Collins, Lionel A. Maldonado, Dana Y. Takagi, Barrie Thorne, Lynn Weber, and Howard Winant. Each had a strong critique of West and Fenstermaker’s work. In our class discussion of these materials a central question was what is the impact of this on thinking about gender as a category for women’s studies. This is an interesting question, though for me, it is a bit like having a conversation with a native French speaker. I don’t speak French in the ways that I don’t speak sociology, so my interest in the article is not in how I can critique it, but how I can use it in my work. My answer to that is still uncertain.
The reading constellation was Mary Hawkesworth’s essay, “Counfounding Gender,” and the responses to that, including Oyeronke Oyewumi’s “De-confounding Gender: Feminist Theorizing and Western Culture, a Comment on Hawkesworth’s ‘Confounding Gender.’” Hawkesworth in her essay does what I consider central women’s studies theory work. She examines four books closely and then generates new theoretical perspectives for women’s studies. The four books are Steven Smith’s Gender Thinking, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, R. W. Connell’s Gender and Power, and Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna’s Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. I’ve only read one of these book (Butler, of course) so that makes entering the dialogue interesting. One of the things that Hawkesworth does that I admire is provide a good discursive overview of each of the books (although I am sure that some of the authors would quibble with her descriptions). Hawkesworth begins with the work of Joan Scott and Sandra Harding in their writing about gender in regard to history and science, respectively. Hawkesworth writes, “Despite the diversity and richness of these accounts, each also constructs a tale of gender that is markedly unsettling” (p. 654.) While I understand some of her concerns, I also wonder about the efficacy of using scholarship that is grounded in a particular discipline and therefore engaged in a particular dialogue within that discipline. This is an interesting question for me as someone who wants to do interdisciplinary work – how to use it on the terms that it is created and also use it and expand it for other purposes. At any rate, Hawkesworth builds a critique of these feminist works as striving for a “universal explanans” and as such they work “against a feminist politics that tries to build solidarities across the divisions of race, class, and ethnicity” and ultimately she asserts they structure “a politics that is insufficiently inclusive” (p. 681.) Her article is paired with responses from many of the authors. Most interesting is Oyewumi’s response which is a critique of a “Westocentric” frame in all of the work. I found that article quite iconoclastic.
The third area of reading was an article by Judith Butler from 1987 “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” This article forms a basis for what would become in 1990 Butler’s Gender Trouble. Butler through a Foucauldian deconstructive analysis questions the ways in which current feminist theory actually works to enforce a binary gender system. It’s quite an elegant argument that reaches fruition in the book.
Taken as a whole these three reading areas call into question the fundamental base of study of Women’s Studies. If not gender, what? If not women, what? What is the basis of Women’s Studies? What is the discipline about? Ultimately, I think the discipline is about study of a variety of subjects that are informed by gender and the experiences of people in relation to sex and gender in our society. For now, that will have to do.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Adrienne Rich on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Rereading Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken,” I was struck by what she wrote about Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Here is the paragraph in its entirety:

In rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) for the first time in some years, I was astonished at the sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone of that essay. And I recognized that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman almost in touch with her anger, who is determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached, and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity. Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience of women, but she is acutely conscious--as she always was--of being overheard by men: by Morgan and Lytton and Maynard Keynes and for that matter by her father, Leslie Stephen. She drew the language out into an exacerbated thread in her determination to have her own sensibility yet protect it from those masculine presences. Only at rare moments in that essay do you hear the passion in her voice; she was trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way the men of the culture thought a writer should sound.

I wonder, is Virginia Woolf “almost in touch with her anger” or is she in fact in touch with her anger and angry, but working to not “appear angry.” I think that there is a crucial difference there. When I reread the book, I was moved by how profoundly angry and hopeful Woolf was. I think that the remove that is in the essay, that is in the tone, as Rich describes it, is necessary for Woolf to write the hopeful vision that she is able to muster for the book. I’d argue that she is in touch with her anger, but yes, she keeps it in a location where it is productive. Yes, by the standards of anger for women while Rich was writing this, Woolf’s anger was “in check” even muted, but I think she was in touch with it. By the standards of today for women’s anger, I think that Woolf is more angry, more vitriolic, more biting than many women are today who call themselves feminists. I’d like to see more anger, but I think that Rich saw and experienced that anger and wanted more from Woolf. So my rereading of Virginia Woolf is astonishment at the tone of anger and I am struck by how thirty-five years has changed the landscape to the point that this reader finds Woolf angry and Rich slightly off in her assessment of Woolf. I think it has to do with the women who surround each of us as we read and write.

Thinking about Christa Wolf's Cassandra

Christa Wolf’s Cassandra is a spectacular book. First, I relate to the way she has obsessively written the narrative in the voice of Cassandra. The book is incantatory and that appeals to me. I want the book I have in my mind and my heart about women scientists and activists in the nuclear age to be similarly incantatory. For their lives and voices to obsess me in the way Cassandra obsessed Wolf. This is a rare commodity. Wolf was able to enter the Cassandra narrative and create and recreate the character of Cassandra in her own words (who is the referent of her? Cassandra? Wolf? I am not sure.) It is a brief and powerful narrative that tells and retells the story of Cassandra informed by the contemporary issues of feminism and war.

One of the things that I find fascinating about the English volume I have of it, is the combination of the novel (or really novella, perhaps) with an essay and letters. Wolf talks about the process of channeling Cassandra, in particular her research and travels. One of the incidents is when Wolf and her husband met two women from the United States while in Greece. They are, to me, clearly lesbians in search of the ancient Minoan culture and the matriarchy. Wolf must have known they were lesbians, though that isn’t explicit in the text. She too is intrigued by the Minoans and the women of the Minoan culture, so there is a connection there. I’m fascinated by Wolf, but also by these traveling women. I want to read their journey, what they found. I want to take my own trip to Greece, my own mental travels to know the Minoans, and I want to know what Wolf made of these lesbian traveling companions.

MFA Reflections #4

It shocks me when people ask me, now four months from my graduation with a MFA, Are you still writing poems? The first time the question was posed, I was shocked. Then it returned, again and again. I want to look at my questioners an ask them, Am I still alive? Does the world still beg everyday to be understood by language? Do my eyes still work? My body? Are there still blank pages to be filled? Could I live without thinking about lines and images? Am I still writing poems? I’d like to say it with a particular disbelief and perhaps even mockery. Am I still writing? Still facing down the blank page every day? Still worrying about time to edit, to generate, to revise? Time to be? To think? To learn? To lounge? The best poems are written not in a designated hour or squeezed between appointments, but found in those long, unstructured hours (may there be many of them). Am I still writing? Can I do anything else? Expect any less or any more of myself?

The program may end. No more workshops for which I must generate poems. The thesis milestone passed. I work differently today than two years ago, certainly, but fundamentally, each day is the same. This pen. The blank page. The wild space of my mind. A trifecta with only one shared action: writing. Yes, I say, when I’m asked. Yes, I’m writing.

Lifting Belly High Plenary: Poetry & the Visual

The second large plenary of the day after a workshop and lunchtime readings by Mei Mei Brussenbruge, Rachel Blau DuPlessis (is it possible that I could be her when I grow up?), and Annie Finch.

Elizabeth Frost showed images of women writers and artists working with photography and other visual elements and combining them with text. She had incredible images from Jo Spence, Leslie Scalapino, and Lorna Simpson. As a result of this presentation, I have a new Vulvalution plan that I hope to work on in the next few weeks. So stay tuned for that.

Adalaide (Dee) Morris is brilliant. Let’s just start there. Her lecture was called “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess: web3 and 3rd wave feminism.” She spoke in the most cogent fashion synthesizing theory and practice and making the world seem understandable and complex simultaneously. (She’s another one that I would be happy to be when/if I grow up.) Morris talked about the need to theorize the category of women’s poetry in particular to look at ways that digital media is restructuring print contexts and fusing images and texts. She showed examples from the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1 and read part of it using feminist frameworks. Then she referenced the conclusion of H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and showed how H.D.’s imagery can best be understood through diagrams of net connectivity. It was brilliant. Finally, she outlined this way for thinking about the internet:

web 1.0 - connectivity
web 2.0 - building relationships and connections/collective intelligence

the next wave
web 3.0 - intelligible web; intelligent people with intelligent computers

She framed her work using Donna Haraway’s work and noted that with Haraway, while we lose the goddess, we don’t lose the politics. I’m happy to increasingly be a cyborg with Haraway and Morris leading the way.

Lynn Keller did one of the bravest things in her comments: she reflected on work that she had done and questioned if it was done “right.” Keller talked about writing about “page poems” and efforts to make sense critically of what poets are doing with the visual on the page. She said that while she has written about this recently, she is not sure that are methods are reliable and responsible. I thought that this was incredibly insightful and thoughtful for her to contribute. She discussed different ways visual elements could be read and called for greater attention and theorizing and dialogue about this in order to build new tools.

Alan Golding talked about avant garde poetics and pedagogy and brought a sample from Kathleen Fraser’s work. He talked about how the theme of the work was order and what was at stake was authority. Golding raised a series of interesting questions: What challenges do we face in teaching visual poetics? How do we read the illegible? How are these questions imbricated with sex & gender? How do we read the blank page? Full? empty? Female? Male? Written? Unwritten? Erased?

Finally Kathleen Fraser spoke with the clear assertion that she is “a poet, not a scholar.” Fraser talked about how her work began with pleasure & the touch of the pencil and the pen to the page. She said that she learned to love the revision of poems as much as the transmission. (I just loved this line.) She said that throughout her work she’s privileged touch and celebration as a result of these early beginnings of pleasure and touch. Fraser then looked at five samples of new visual/experimental poetry.

Workshop: Reading Poetry at a Slant

I attended this workshop and will only report briefly on it for selfish reasons. I found the first presentation so compelling that I want to save some of my writing for further research and thinking on my own. Still, I feel compelled to share a bit.

Kathryn Flannery, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, presented on Lynn Lonidier, a lesbian poet who published in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. (Now if you know me, or are coming to know me, this is my passion, my reason for being, my hopeful dissertation!!! So you can only imagine my glee.) Lonidier was called by Ron Silliman “the first true avant garde lesbian poet since Gertrude Stein.” In a review of one of her books, Jill Johnston said that she was the “reincarnation of Emily Dickinson. Wow, wow, wow! Flannery did a compelling analysis of one of her chapbooks that was exciting and will lead me to the archives and library to research more about her.

Also in this session, Julie Marie Wade presented. Julie is a great poet and delivered a lovely and lyrical paper.

Stacey Waite also presented on the topic of queer pedagogy as it relates to writing pedagogy. Her work was compelling and important, too. My co-conspirator in the conference, Sally, found it inspiring about how to teach writing. I pressed Stacey on using androgyny as the tool to break the gender binary, but I’m a curmudgeon and am thinking obsessively about race, so that was on my mind more than gender. In addition to clearly being a great teacher and an important scholar in queer studies, Stacey is a phenomenal poet. She has two chapbooks out and won the Tupelo Press Snowbound Prize for her newest chapbook which will be out in 2010. Meanwhile, we’re all just waiting breathlessly for her to win a first book prize so that we can hold her first book in our hot hands.

Lifting Belly High Plenary: New Directions

I’m going to try to blog on the sessions I attended at Lifting Belly High. It would be great to have links within all of these blog entires, but I have to be realistic about my time, so for now, I am going to write up what I can and will as I am able come back to the blog entries and enhance them. For now though, I am completely charged by the conference - for both by scholarly projects and also for my poetry. I want to capture some of that energy on my blog.

Plenary: New Directions

Stephen Fredman, the author of Poets’ Prose, spoke and talked about his work in writing about the prose poem. He said that in the past twenty years, the focus of poets prose has shifted and women writers are in the center of it. A central concern is how prose can move between poetry and narrative. He also talked about the growth in people writing flash fiction and the short short story as examples of or related to prose poems. He looked at interrogating issues of race and investigations of the erotic in prose poetry. He raised teh following questions:

Why has there been such an explosion of women in the genre?

What do women poets bring to prose poetry?

What are gender-bending works in genre-bending mode?

What attracts Black and Asian poets to work in prose poetry?

Jeanne Heuving talked about her current project which is fascinating. She is exploring what she calls “libidinized poetics.” In her address, she called for three new directions in poetry criticism. First, she said that we need to go beyond textualism and see language as a medium not simply as material. Second, she called for addressing the challenges that cultural studies presents as an area of inquiry that takes people away from examining poetry. She said that critics should engage cultural contexts that poetry engages and look at why poetry, as poetry, is important to the culture. Finally, she called on critics to write studies that are diverse, in particular, for women poets and men poets to be considered together.

Cynthia Hogue discussed the importance of bringing the lyric back into analytic discussions. She asked, How does the lyric respond to current exigencies? And, What happens to love poetry in the current study of sexuality? (This question I obviously find very provocative.)

Lesley Wheeler talked about the project that she just completed about examining the sound in poetry. Her new book is out and on my list of books to buy. She mentioned in particular two poets that I haven’t read or come across: Frances Harper, a 19th century African-American woman poet, and Pauline Johnson, a Mohawk poet, also, I believe, from the 19th century. Her book also examines the oral delivery of the poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Amy Lowell. More recently, Lesley has been looking at voice as a trope and exploring collaborative poetry, including the chapbook Olive Oyl by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton.

Elizabeth Willis addressed how the terms of feminist discourse are different now than they were twenty years ago. She referenced the brillliant work of Marilyn Waring, an economist from New Zealand, on assigning value to make labor within households visible. She called for a rewriting of systems of value through what we write and what we teach. She asked three questions of the audience:

1. Are you registered to vote?
2. How do we expand boundaries of what a poem or essay can take in?
3. How can we let the world enter our work and still do our work?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lifting Belly Conference

This evening I drive to Pittsburgh for the very exciting Lifting Belly High Conference. I’m excited about the conference schedule and my presentation tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.

You can see the paper I’ll be presenting here and get a copy of the handout here.

The conference organizers have also enabled ThoughtMesh, an interesting online application for collaborative work and conference documentation. You can see my paper - and others from the conference - here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Assistant Producer for Woman-Stirred Radio

Woman-Stirred Radio is a queer cultural journal that celebrates and preserves the lives and work of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered artists, musicians, writers, academics and policy makers.

We broadcast live on WGDR every Thursday afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. (eastern), with interviews and music; plus weekly commentaries from British writer Nicki Hastie and guest commentaries from Julie R. Enszer, and Jan Steckel. Our intern is Mikhael Yowe, an IBA student at Goddard College.

We are looking for an assistant producer to work with on-air radio personality and producer Merry Gangemi. We are looking for someone who is mature and responsible as well as creative, positive in outlook, even-tempered, hard-working and committed to promoting and developing queer culture. Responsibilities will include:

1. Scheduling guests for the radio show.
2. Advance work with guests to ensure information, advance materials, etc. are in the hands of the producer.
3. Writing a weekly blog entry on the radio show and the featured guests.
4. Promoting the radio show through the Woman-Stirred blog, facebook, myspace and other online tools.
5. Other tasks as assigned and interested.

We expect this to be a 3-4 hour a week volunteer job.

Work will be done remotely from any location. We are looking for someone who is email-responsive (particularly people who respond to email within 24 hours on a regular basis) and web-savvy. Some telephone work will be involved as well.

Woman-Stirred Radio is funded in part by the Samara Foundation of Vermont, a non-profit, Burlington-based foundation that seeks to improve the quality of life for Vermont's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered citizens.

To apply, please email a statement of interest and resume or appropriate online links to Merry Gangemi,, and Julie R. Enszer,

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Maybe Very Happy by Jack Gilbert

Note to Self: I need to read Jack Gilbert. Every poem I have come across, like this one, from today’s The Writer’s Almanac, I have found immensely pleasurable.

Maybe Very Happy
by Jack Gilbert
After she died he was seized

by a great curiosity about what

it was like for her. Not that he

doubted how much she loved him.

But he knew there must have been

some things she had not liked.

So he went to her closest friend

and asked what she complained of.

"It's all right," he had to keep

saying, "I really won't mind."

Until the friend finally gave in.

"She said sometimes you made a noise

drinking your tea if it was very hot."

"Maybe Very Happy" by Jack Gilbert from Refusing Heaven. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Thinking About Women & Thinking About Women Some More by Margaret L. Andersen

“Thinking About Women” comes from a scholarly lecture for The Sociologists for Women in Society Feminist Lecturer Award. The lecture then appeared in print in Gender & Society. The lecture and the subsequent publication of it caused quite an uproar among the profession. As a result, the journal decided to conduct a symposium and have six people respond to Andersen’s article. Jessie Daniels acted as the moderator for these responses and Andersen responded in her own article, Thinking about Women Some More. Of the six respondents, three are by the judgment of the journal editor “junior” scholars and three are “senior scholars. The respondents are: Arlene Stein, Kristen Schilt, Joan Acker, France Winddance Twine, Adia Harvey Wingfield, and Kris Paap.

Some Questions for Consideration:

How is “Thinking About Women” disciplinary to sociology and how is it interdisciplinary?

Regarding Andersen’s first “Persistent Theme/New Questions,” the relationship between structure and agency, and between structure and culture, how do these questions impact other essays we have read this week? I think in particular of the Higginbotham and Martin essays as related.

Andersen writes in relationship to intersectionality, “Feminist scholars have struggled with finding an appropriate metaphor for describing and understanding how different forms of oppression relate, connect, overlap, and constitute each other (p. 444).” How does Andersen’s observation dialogue with the work that Emily Martin is doing with metaphors, the body and science? How might this observation be informed by Scott’s writing on “Experience?”

Andersen writes, “One of the major differences between sexuality and relations of race, class, and gender is that sexuality has not been used as an explicit category to organize the division of labor, as have race, class, and gender” (p. 450.) Is that true? What existing research might prove or disprove that statement? What methodologies could be used to interrogate that statement?

What function does this type of scholarship have for Andersen and for current practitioners in sociology?

What do these articles tell us in terms of thinking about feminist history?

What generational and institutional power dynamics are at work in these two articles? And in the broader dialogue?

Unequal Freedom by Evelyn Nakano Glenn

David R. Roediger of the University of Illinois says this about Unequal Freedom on the back cover of my hardcover edition, “Unequal Freedom delivers the goods on scholars’ longstanding promises to study race, class, and gender as they were actually experienced in the U.S. past, in all of their dynamic interplay and regional particularity. It is a work of breathtaking synthesis and deep originality.”

Breathtaking synthesis is how I would describe this book. Evelyn Nakano Glenn has organized the book into seven chapters. The first three chapters outline the terms of engagement for her study. The first chapter, titled “Integrating Race and Gender,” serves as the theoretical basis for the book. In the chapter she outlines her integrated framework for thinking about race and gender as “mutually constituted systems of relationships--including norms, symbols, and practices--organized around perceived differences.” She argues that these processes take place at multiple levels including, 1. representation, 2. micro-interaction, and 3. social structure.

The second chapter takes up one of the central points of examination for her, citizenship. Glenn defines citizenship through a review of the existing scholarship on it and explores ways that it has been conceptualized as universal and where it has been exclusive. This chapter, like the next one, really falls into relief when reviewed again after reading and understanding her three chapter case studies.

The third chapter, “Labor Freedom and Coercion,” similar to the second chapter provides the reader with the groundwork and terms of engagement in thinking about labor systems to engage with Glenn fully in the subsequent three chapters. It is a thorough review of how Glenn wants us to think about and understanding existing historical, political science, and sociological research on labor issues to apprehend her analysis of the South, the Southwest, and Hawaii.

The three chapters that are the core of this book, in that Glenn demonstrates her integrative analysis of race and gender, each focus on a different region. In each of the chapters, Glenn is not conducting original archival research, rather she is synthesizing and analyzing research from others and applying her theoretical framework to existing work in order to produce a text that fully excavates and explores race and gender in three regions with regard to labor and citizenship. Chapter four covers Blacks and whites in the South; chapter five, Mexicans and Anglos in the Southwest; chapter six, Japanese and Haoles (a racial category of English and Anglo Americans from the Hawaiian word meaning “stranger,” “someone without family and therefore without ties to the land” (p. 207).) The final chapter of the book is an integration to understand race and gender in American inequality.

As I began, this is a work of breathtaking synthesis, so it is difficult for me to pull out specific items to think about. A part of my brain after completing it is simply reeling from the power of the book. Things that interested me in it included the ways that Glenn excavates the relationships between and among people of different “races” in each of the areas. I am interested in how people living in the various locations personally negotiated the emerging and changing restrictions on citizenship and labor participation, especially at points where white/Anglo/Haole people were responsible for enforcing the divisions.

I was also enchanted by Glenn’s review of the resistance structures that were developed in each community: community groups, newspapers, schools. It seems to me that there is a system of thinking and doing comparative work there that could be very useful for GLBT studies. There are similarities and differences that are interesting to explore. I’m sure that I will have more, but for now, these are my notes and thoughts prior to class discussion.

The "Family" Show - A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies Art Exhibit


The “Family” Show
A Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies Art Exhibit

CONTACT: Jacqueline Lindo

The First Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender
(LGBT) and Allies Art Exhibit
Who, what or where is your “family” in the LGBT Community?
Lesbian Alliance Education Fund
315 West Court Street
Milwaukee, WI 53212
Exhibit and online auction will run November 15, 2008 through
December 22, 2008.
Opening reception will be held November 22, 2008 from 5 to 8.

In 2008 FORGE (For Ourselves: Reworking Gender Expression), Connexus, Diverse and Resilient, SAGE/Milwaukee (Senior Action in a Gay Environment/ Milwaukee) Lesbian Alliance, The Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival, and The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center will cosponsor an art exhibition for people of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally community/ies.

The show is focused on answering the question: “Who, what, or where is your “family” as a member of the LGBT Community/ies?”  In American culture we are taught that LGBT people are isolated and do not want or seek to have families. We hope to challenge this stereotype through exhibiting a diversity of artistic interpretations of “family.”

Any person identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Pansexual, Transgender, or GenderQueer, or who is a self-identified ally in this community/ies, is welcome to submit artwork.

All work must be finished and made of quality materials. Two-dimensional art must be framed or stretched canvas with a hanging wire. Stands, hangers, or a means of displaying three-dimensional pieces must be provided by the artist. Performance art is also welcome. Artwork depicting graphic violence or sex cannot be accepted.

Please submit digital images of artwork or explanation of planned performance art via email to Performance art can be preformed at the opening of the exhibit in Milwaukee. Include your name, address, phone number, media type, work dimensions, minimum bid (including 40% percent commission) and artist’s statement with your submission. Forty percent (40%) of the proceeds of all artwork sold at an online auction will be retained by the exhibit sponsors to cover the cost of the exhibit and associated publicity.  Items will not be sold for less than the minimum bid specified by the artist. If you do not wish to sell your piece, but wish to exhibit it, you may submit it as not for sale.

Deadline for submissions is Saturday, October 4, 2008. Artists whose work is accepted by the jury of members from sponsoring organizations will be notified via email by Saturday, October 18, 2008. Pieces must be received no later than Wednesday, November 12, 2008; late arrivals will be returned without hanging at the owner’s expense. If your work does not sell and you would like to have it returned to you please send a check, made out to the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center for the amount it will cost to send the piece back.  Items submitted without payment for return shipment will become property of the exhibit sponsors.

The art exhibit’s website, which includes a submission form, is at Additionally, The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center is open from 10am to 8pm. Unless the room is reserved the art exhibit is free and open to the public.

The opening reception will be on Saturday, November 22, 2008 from 5 to 8pm at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, 315 West Court Street, Milwaukee, WI. Refreshments will be served. The reception is free and open to the public.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Re-reading A Room of One’s Own may be one of the most triumphant ways for me to begin my first semester as a PhD student. When I was an undergraduate in the last millennium (EEK!), my most beloved professor was Helen Maxson with whom I studied Virginia Woolf. In one semester we read nearly every Woolf book available. All I wanted to do at the age of twenty was to study Virginia Woolf and write a dissertation on her work. It took me eighteen years, and now I probably won’t write a dissertation exclusively on Woolf, but re-reading A Room of One’s Own is a powerful way to begin this new chapter of my life.

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction--what has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain.” Thus, Woolf begins her treatise on women writers and what is necessary for women writers to achieve additional literary success and contributions. A Room of One’s Own is divided into six chapters. In the first, Woolf meditates on Oxbridge, a fictional women’s college, and ponders why women have no money to endow their colleges. Her primary answers are their obligations for raising children and keeping homes and their lack of time to earn money necessary to endow colleges. She writes, “At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, an as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex” (p. 21.)

In the second chapter, Woolf moves from Oxbridge to the British Museum. Here she looks at all of the books men have written about women. This chapter includes some of Woolf’s most powerful meditations on anger. She also reflects on the significance of women inheriting money - the time and space it buys them for their own creativity and self-determination. She writes, “Anything might happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.

The third chapter is Woolf’s exploration of the history of western civilization and literature as a way to determine why women have been left out. Woolf thoughtfully explores the reasons why women haven’t written and the ways that female creativity has been stimatized and ridiculed. The fourth chapter is Woolf’s meditation on women and writing. In particular, she writes about Aphra Behn, both of the Brontes, and Jane Austen. She also postulates a different sort of sentence to be written by women writers. Woolf also celebrates the advent of women being able to earn money “by their own wits. The fifth chapter is Woolf’s reflection on contemporary women writers, especially Mary Carmichael. This chapter is both interesting and vexing to me. Woolf seems to set up a hierarchy of literary achievement from spiritual writing to plays to fiction to poetry. While she is in some ways reflecting prevailing views of the time (and earlier in the first chapter disparaging what she calls “modern poetry”), she both reifies that hierarchy and in her wry way, questions it. The fifth chapter, however, ends with Woolf’s visions that “in another hundred years’ time, she [the mythic woman writer] will be a poet.”

The final chapter, which may be the most beautifully rendered, is Woolf’s call for women to transcend gender and work in the spirit of Shakespeare’s sister. She concludes, “But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while” (p. 118.) Is there anyone who reads this book all the way to the end who is not in tears by the time Woolf writes this final sentence? Even on my third or fourth read of the book, I was in tears sitting outside in the heat reading the book.

What is extraordinary about A Room of One’s Own? Many things. First, Woolf’s power as a prose stylist cannot be underestimated. There is both a refinement and an urgency to her words throughout the book. She constructs arguments beautifully and renders her prose with delicacy, power, and exactitude. Second, much of what Woolf writes in this books becomes foundational to feminist theory. Gilbert and Gubar in their new Norton reader on feminist theory include the fifth chapter and reading that in isolation, most elements of feminist literary theory over the past thirty years have the kernel of their ideas in Woolf’s treatise. Third, Woolf is funny; sometimes wickedly so. Finally, for me, this is also just a powerful essay about writing and feminism. It is both reassuring to read one writer affirm the significance of writing and at the same time to read her searing and at times bitter, but realistic analysis. These are some of the many reasons why this book is a classic.

Reflections on Feminists for Life

Each week there is a “play pen” for posting in my class on Feminist Literary Theory. I’ll be posting there on the class bulletin board and replicating my entries here on this blog. This week’s topic is Feminists for Life.

My first reaction to Feminists for Life is that of a “beltway insider.” By that I mean as someone who has worked for inside the beltway organizations that work to produce and promote grassroots interests in Washington, DC, I recognize Feminists for Life as a non-profit organization with a particular advocacy agenda which is to promote pro-life or anti-abortion interests as a grassroots passion. Feminists for Life, unlike some of the other anti-abortion organizations, seeks to align anti-abortion interests with feminists. In doing so, the attempt is to denature (I choose the verb carefully; it’s definition is “to deprive something of its natural characteristics or properties,” to wit denatured alcohol, in which the properties of alcohol which make it drinkable are removed rending it as a solvent for cleaning) feminism. Feminists for Life want to decouple feminism, the belief that women are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities in our society as men, from “choice,” the right of women to determine when, if, and how they will bear children. I’m inclined to consider such a proposition “denatured feminism” and dismiss it categorically.

There are a few challenges to my thinking about this, however. First, let me separate Feminists for Life, as an organization inside the beltway working to perform grassroots support for anti-choice positions, from the lowercase feminists for life, which I consider women who are feminists but who also have conflicted feelings about abortion or who oppose it outright. I find the former worthy of dismissal, primarily because I see it as performative in service to a broader agenda of the anti-choice movement, while I find the later in need of careful consideration. Let me explain.

For eight years, I lived and worked in Detroit. Detroit is a movement town. This is partly because of it’s history in labor struggles and in the civil rights movement. Many people in Detroit consider activism, protest, and civic engagement a regular and important part of their lives. In addition, there is a strong Catholic, social justice community. It is in Detroit that I first met and worked with nuns. The nuns that I knew had dedicated their lives to social justice through a variety of means: educating children, providing food, housing, shelter, and other basic needs to the poor and disenfranchised, and organizing in communities to help people achieve the basic rights guaranteed to them by their government. I worked with nuns who were feminists and working to secure equality for women and girls; I worked with nuns who were advocates for gay and lesbian equality; I worked with nuns who were white and fierce allies and advocates of people of color; I worked with nuns who dedicated their life to anti-racist work, anti-imperialist work, anti-patriarchal work, and anti-oppression work. Some of these nuns were also committed to ending abortion. Few of them were identified with current organizations or configurations of pro-life organizations, but many of them believed deeply that life began at conception and action should be taken to respect and preserve that life. This was difficult for me to understand. I was young; accidental and unplanned pregnancies populated the lives of my friends and the people I worked with. We regarded abortion as a right in our country and access to it as central to our personhood. I still do. At the same time, I am mindful and respectful of the deep thought and moral position that these nuns have.

There was a time in my life that I could not engage the notion of respect or mindfulness for anti-choice positions. I still support abortion on demand until crowning (a position that I know many recognize as radical.) At one time to waiver on choice issues was to cede ground to right wing extremism. A few thoughtful nuns taught me otherwise. One of the most compelling aspects of their positions to me was the complete commitment to life. They were not only opposed to abortion, but also opposed to capital punishment. Many of them worked exclusively on capital punishment opposition and focused their activism on working to eliminate capital punishment in the United States and around the world. This was how they managed a challenging nexus of political opinions and constituencies. I appreciated such action. Moreover, many of the nuns also saw their commitment to life as the basis of their work to end poverty and secure racial justice. There was an underlying and overarching moral position that informed their work and being opposed to abortion was only one position informed by their beliefs. It was often the only position with which I disagreed.

I still disagree with it, but I respect the position. As a result I understand more about opposition to abortion. I don’t share it, but I can sit quietly and contemplate it. In a similar way, I can contemplate Feminists for Life, though I am skeptical of its performance both online and in the current public discourse. Ultimately, I think that it is an organization which seeks to divide feminists by suggesting to “the powers that be” that there is not a consensus among feminists about the “culture of life.” By asserting that there are Feminists for Life, the suggestion is that choice is not an issue around which feminists coalesce and agree. The truth could not be farther from that. The vast majority of feminists place choice as a central and important element of feminism. Yet, I recognize it is only a vast majority. There are the feminists who do not support abortion; there are the feminists who are nuns. As usual listening to the voices that are perceived or positioned to be on the fringes have much to teach. My own positions on choice, capital punishment, medical interventions at end of life do not have the moral or ethical uniformity that I observed from nuns. I’m comfortable with that for now, for myself, but I admire--even envy?--the clarity that others have.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Susan Faludi on the current election

I’m on a bit of a media diet - limited internet, limited television. I’m passionately interested in the current election, but I am staring at about 1,000 pages a week to read to keep up with my coursework - and I have to write some poems, so I’m limiting my attention to the election, including not reading much of the newspaper. So while I fear that I will become a cultural outcast and even more unhip and uncool than I currently am when I am further cut off from popular culture, that’s what I’m doing.

I’ll still be reading some blogs and get updates on the election from my beloved, so I will know what is happening; I’ll just know less.

All to say, Susan Faludi had an interesting analytical piece in the NY Times on the 26th of August. I feel like Faludi’s thinking was a broader arc and she had some other conclusions that didn’t quite make it into this piece (who knows maybe she is writing a fabulous new book on this election - I can hope!), but it’s still interesting history. I include it in its entirety below.

August 26, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
Second-Place Citizens

San Francisco

MUCH has been made of the timing of Hillary Clinton’s speech before the Democratic National Convention tonight, coming as it does on the 88th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Convention organizers are taking advantage of this coincidence of the calendar — the 19th Amendment was certified on Aug. 26, 1920 — to pay homage to the women’s vote in particular and women’s progress in general. By such tributes, they are slathering some sweet icing on a bitter cake. But many of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are unlikely to be partaking. They regard their candidate’s cameo as a consolation prize. And they are not consoled.

“I see this nation differently than I did 10 months ago,” reads a typical posting on a Web site devoted to Clintonista discontent. “That this travesty was committed by the Democratic Party has forever changed my approach to politics.” In scores of Internet forums and the conclaves of protest groups, those sentiments are echoed, as Clinton supporters speak over and over of feeling heartbroken and disillusioned, of being cheated and betrayed.

In one poll, 40 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s constituency expressed dissatisfaction; in another, more than a quarter favored the clear insanity of voicing their feminist protest by voting for John McCain. “This is not the usual reaction to an election loss,” said Diane Mantouvalos, the founder of, a clearinghouse for the pro-Clinton organizations. “I know that is the way it is being spun, but it’s not prototypical. Anyone who doesn’t take time to analyze it will do so at their own peril.”

The despondency of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters — or their “vitriolic” and “rabid” wrath, as the punditry prefers to put it — has been the subject of perplexed and often irritable news media speculation. Why don’t these dead-enders get over it already and exit stage right?

Shouldn’t they be celebrating, not protesting? After all, Hillary Clinton’s campaign made unprecedented strides. She garnered 18 million-plus votes, and proved by her solid showing that a woman could indeed be a viable candidate for the nation’s highest office. She didn’t get the gold, but in this case isn’t a silver a significant triumph?

Many Clinton supporters say no, and to understand their gloom, one has to take into account the legacy of American women’s political struggle, in which long yearned for transformational change always gives way before a chorus of “not now” and “wait your turn,” and in which every victory turns out to be partial or pyrrhic. Indeed, the greatest example of this is the victory being celebrated tonight: the passage of women’s suffrage. The 1920 benchmark commemorated as women’s hour of glory was experienced in its era as something more complex, and darker.

Suffrage was, like Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, not merely a cause in itself, but a symbolic rallying point, a color guard for a regiment of other ideas. But while the color guard was ushered into the palace of American law, its retinue was turned away.

In the years after the ratification of suffrage, the anticipated women’s voting bloc failed to emerge, progressive legislation championed by the women’s movement was largely thwarted, female politicians made only minor inroads into elected office, and women’s advocacy groups found themselves at loggerheads. “It was clear,” said the 1920s sociologist and reformer Sophonisba Breckinridge, “that the winter of discontent in politics had come for women.”

That discontent was apparent in a multitude of letters, speeches and articles. “The American woman’s movement, and her interest in great moral and social questions, is splintered into a hundred fragments under as many warring leaders,” despaired Frances Kellor, a women’s advocate.

“The feminist movement is dying of partial victory and inanition,” lamented Lillian Symes, a feminist journalist.

“Where for years there had been purpose consecrated to an immortal principle,” observed the suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, her compatriots felt now only “a vacancy.”

Even Florence Kelley, the tenacious progressive reformer, concluded, “Keeping the light on is probably the best contribution that we can make where there is now Stygian darkness.”

The grail of female franchise yielded little meaningful progress in the years to follow. Two-thirds of the few women who served in Congress in the 1920s were filling the shoes of their dead husbands, and most of them failed to win re-election. The one woman to ascend to the United States Senate had a notably brief career: in 1922, Rebecca Felton, 87, was appointed to warm the seat for a newly elected male senator until he could be sworn in. Her term lasted a day.

Within the political establishment, women could exact little change, and the parties gave scant support to female politicians. In 1920, Emily Newell Blair, the Democratic vice chairwoman, noted that the roster of women serving on national party committees looked like a “Who’s Who” of American women; by 1929, they’d been shown the door and replaced with the compliant. The suffragist Anne Martin bitterly remarked that women in politics were “exactly where men political leaders wanted them: bound, gagged, divided and delivered to the Republican and Democratic Parties.”

Male politicians offered a few sops to feminists: a “maternity and infancy” bill to educate expectant mothers, a law permitting women who married foreigners to remain American citizens, and financing for the first federal prison for women. But by the mid ’20s, Congress had quit feigning interest, and women’s concerns received a cold shoulder. In 1929, the maternity education bill was killed.

Meanwhile, male cultural guardians were giving vent to what Symes termed “the new masculinism” — diatribes against the “effeminization” that had supposedly been unleashed on the American arts. The news media proclaimed feminism a dead letter and showcased young women who preferred gin parties to political caucuses.

During the presidential race of 1924, newspapers ran headlines like “Woman Suffrage Declared a Failure.” “Ex-feminists” proclaimed their boredom with “feminist pother” and their enthusiasm for cosmetics, shopping and matrimony. The daughters of the suffrage generation were so beyond the “zealotry” of their elders, Harper’s declared in its 1927 article “Feminist — New Style,” that they could only pity those ranting women who were “still throwing hand grenades” and making an issue of “little things.”

Those “little things” included employment equity, as a steady increase in the proportion of women in the labor force ground to a halt and stagnated throughout the ’20s. Women barely improved their representation in male professions; the number of female doctors actually declined.

“The feminist crash of the ’20s came as a painful shock, so painful that it took history several decades to face up to it,” the literary critic Elaine Showalter wrote in 1978. Facing it now is like peering into a painful mirror. For all the talk of Hillary Clinton’s “breakthrough” candidacy and other recent successes for women, progress on important fronts has stalled.

Today, the United States ranks 22nd among the 30 developed nations in its proportion of female federal lawmakers. The proportion of female state legislators has been stuck in the low 20 percent range for 15 years; women’s share of state elective executive offices has fallen consistently since 2000, and is now under 25 percent. The American political pipeline is 86 percent male.

Women’s real annual earnings have fallen for the last four years. Progress in narrowing the wage gap between men and women has slowed considerably since 1990, yet last year the Supreme Court established onerous restrictions on women’s ability to sue for pay discrimination. The salaries of women in managerial positions are on average lower today than in 1983.

Women’s numbers are stalled or falling in fields ranging from executive management to journalism, from computer science to the directing of major motion pictures. The 20 top occupations of women last year were the same as half a century ago: secretary, nurse, grade school teacher, sales clerk, maid, hairdresser, cook and so on. And just as Congress cut funds in 1929 for maternity education, it recently slashed child support enforcement by 20 percent, a decision expected to leave billions of dollars owed to mothers and their children uncollected.

Again, male politicians and pundits indulge in outbursts of “new masculinist” misogyny (witness Mrs. Clinton’s campaign coverage). Again, the news media showcase young women’s “feminist — new style” pseudo-liberation — the flapper is now a girl-gone-wild. Again, many daughters of a feminist generation seem pleased to proclaim themselves so “beyond gender” that they don’t need a female president.

As it turns out, they won’t have one. But they will still have all the abiding inequalities that Hillary Clinton, especially in defeat, symbolized. Without a coalescing cause to focus their forces, how will women fight a foe that remains insidious, amorphous, relentless and pervasive?

“I am sorry for you young women who have to carry on the work in the next 10 years, for suffrage was a symbol, and you have lost your symbol,” the suffragist Anna Howard Shaw said in 1920. “There is nothing for women to rally around.” As they rally around their candidate tonight, Mrs. Clinton’s supporters will have to decide if they are mollified — or even more aggrieved — by the history she evokes.

Susan Faludi is the author, most recently, of “The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America.”

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Watermelon Woman - 2 and a poem and Sarah Orne Jewett

I was thinking about The Watermelon Woman again this morning on my run. As an aside, running is, I think one of the greatest things for the mind. I will complain about it because it is at times incredibly tedious and boring, but at other times, like this morning when it was 68 degrees nearing 70 when I arrived home after 45 minutes, it is incredible. Running gives the body something to do so that the mind can wander. So I was thinking about The Watermelon Woman and how Dunye framed her project and ways to think about the film in a broader Women’s Studies context. Here’s my thought: If I were coming to The Watermelon Woman from the perspective of a historian in which all history comes to me as buttoned-down, well-researched, carefully footnoted and fastidious cited, The Watermelon Woman would be an exciting break from that. A sort of popularized and creatively inspired history. I don’t come from that perspective of a historian, but I can see and appreciate it. From the perspective of someone who studies women’s literature, I see Dunye’s work in an important context in which personal experience and the creative impulse are combined to create new artifacts that are unlike the disciplinary objects of the past. Dunye’s work is I think like Audre Lorde’s work - including the film by Sonali Fernando, The Body of a Poet. Dunye’s work also fits in a context filmicly of many filmmakers from Women Make Movies and other associations. Moreover as a creative or literary venture she fits in with many foremothers. So I appreciate that. I still feel peevish. Tell me the facts about Black women in Hollywood, about lesbians in Hollywood. Give me more information. That’s not necessarily for Dunye, perhaps, but for a larger community.

Meanwhile, a lovely poem by C.K. Williams from The Writer’s Almanac and the note of Sarah Orne Jewett’s Birthday today.

The Clause
by C. K. Williams
This entity I call my mind, this hive of restlessness,

this wedge of want my mind calls self,

this self which doubts so much and which keeps reaching,

keeps referring, keeps aspiring, longing, towards some state

from which ambiguity would be banished, uncertainty expunged;

this implement my mind and self imagine they might make together,

which would have everything accessible to it,

all our doings and undoings all at once before it,

so it would have at last the right to bless, or blame,

for without everything before you, all at once, how bless, how blame?

this capacity imagination, self and mind conceive might be the "soul,"

which would be able to regard such matters as creation and

origin and extinction, of species, peoples, even families, even mine,

of equal consequence, and might finally solve the quandary

of this thing of being, and this other thing of not;

these layers, these divisions, these meanings or the lack thereof,

these fissures and abysses beside which I stumble, over which I reel:

is the place, the space, they constitute,

which I never satisfactorily experience but from which the fear

I might be torn away appalls me, me, or what might most be me?

Even mine, I say, as if I might ever believe such a thing;
bless and blame, I say, as though I could ever not.

This ramshackle, this unwieldy, this jerry-built assemblage,

this unfelt always felt disarray: is this the sum of me,

is this where I'm meant to end, exactly where I started out?

"The Clause" by C.K. Williams from The Singing. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Sarah Orne Jewett, (books by this author) born in 1849 in South Berwick, Maine, and renowned for her stories about the ships, fishermen, and coastal villages of 19th-century Maine. In her teens she started writing stories about the traditions of Maine village life. Of her twenty books, the best known is the short novel The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), which takes place in the fictitious town of Dunnet.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Watermelon Woman, a film by Cheryl Dunye

Today in the first day of WMST 601, one of the core courses in my PhD program at the University of Maryland, we watched the film Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye. Let me first be plain. I love this film. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1997 and being completely enamoured by it. It reflected a particular moment in my life and I identified profoundly with the entire film. In addition to the personal resonance, this is an extraordinary film in the world of lesbian film. It’s Dunye’s first full-length film and includes amazing homages to earlier lesbian films as well as lesbian cultural icons of the moment of its production. For instance, Sarah Schulman plays the volunteer at CLIT, the lesbian archive where everything is uncatalogued and just in boxes. Likewise, Cheryl Clark, the incredible lesbian poet, plays June Walker, the long time lover of the fictitious Fay Richards, the ostensible subject of this docu-mocu-Dunyementary.

At the core of this film is Dunye’s desire to find Fay Richards, a black actress who plays small parts in films from the 1930s. In the process of her research, she finds out that Richards was a lesbian having an interracial relationship with Martha Page, the director of many of the films that Richards was acting in. This narrative is counterpointed with Cheryl’s own story of dating Diana, played by Genvieve Turner, a white woman.

I was cranky in class about it because as I did the first time I saw the film, I feel disappointed that it is basically a satirical farce. There is no Fay Richards, or Faith Richardson. She is an imagined character. The bottom line is I want real history. Real lesbian history. Real Black lesbian history. I don’t want to have to make things up and I don’t want Cheryl Dunye to have to make things up. This is not rational. I’m not suggesting that it is rational. It’s just the state of how I feel about this. I wrote about this a bit in the last blog post. I feel worried, and sometimes even panicky, that queer history is being documented or written about enough. In that vein, for me to see someone as talented as Dunye making up history, just sits wrong. I want her to find the real film stars who were lesbians and make a film about them! Enough of that, however, I completely acknowledge that it is just something that sits in my craw.

The things that I observed about this film besides my peevish issue is, again, the function of interracial couples. I counterpoint it with Butler’s interracial couples. First, the interracial couple seems to be a way for writers and artists to begin to approach the issues of cross cultural relationships and communication. I’m fascinated that it is relationships, that is sexual relationship between people, and not simply friendship. In regard to Dunye, in particular, I wonder if that is because at the particular moment we are in right now the focus is exclusively on sexual relationships and there is little in popular culture or circulating theoretically about different ways we build families and emotional intimacy. I continue to be interested in ways that that can be countered, ways to counter what I see as a hegemony of intimate dyadic relationships (I’m consciously not using the word monogamous.) At any rate, the interracial couple stands in for a way for power relationships to be understood and for issues of communication to be explored. In The Watermelon Woman, unlike Kindred, by the conclusion of the film, there are no interracial relationships that are sustained. Cheryl has broken up with Diana and has invented Fay to be in a long term relationship with another Black woman. The interracial relationships are a tool which are used for narrative purposes and for the explorations of the film, but they are not something that is sustained or able to last beyond the space of the film. Personally, something chafes me about that, but in the film, I think that it works. I’m interested in the trope of the interracial couple and how it is used in these texts.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

I spent the weekend embroiled in Kindred. This spectacular book by the late Octavia Butler was first published in 1977. It tells the story of Dana, an African-American woman married to a white man, Kevin, in 1976 who is transported back across space and time to first 1815 in rural Maryland. She is called by her ancestor, Rufus, a white man whose father is a slaveowner and lives on the family plantation. Each time Rufus needs help, literally assistance to keep his life, he “calls” to Dana and rips her from her world in 1976 to his world. This happens over only a brief period of time in her life, but the entire course of Rufus’ life from his childhood until his death. At one point, Dana’s husband, Kevin, comes with her back into the early part of the 19th century. She returns to 1976, but without him, leaving him for what is five years in early 19th century time, though only a few days in 1976 time. By the conclusion of the book, Dana returns to Rufus and the plantation and ensures that her ancestors, a child by Rufus and a slave, Alice, is born. I won’t give away the conclusion, but it is incredibly powerful.

There are a few things that struck me about this book. First, the pure imaginativeness of the book in terms of how Butler weaves the narrative to imagine life during slavery and make connections between the world today (or in 1976) and the antebellum south. It is really stunning to witness her imagination at work in the book. Second, I was very interested in how interracial relationships work in the book. The “relationship” between Rufus, the white male slave owner, and Alice, one of the slaves on the plantation is counterpointed with Dana and Kevin’s relationship which allows an examination of the different ways cross-racial relationships are produced and sustained by the historical moment. (I will write about this more in thinking about Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, which also uses interracial relationships to stand in for a variety of reflections, observations, and indictments.) The third thing that struck me about the book is related to the second and that is the nature of relationships in the book more broadly. History (and I am simultaneously reading Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s book Unequal Freedom) flattens out human lives with facts and statistics as a way to construct its narratives. Butler brings to life those relationships and explores them in incredibly compelling and disturbing ways. There is intellectual power in the history. I have spent a good part of the weekend frightened about Barack Obama’s chances at the Presidency in light of the United States history of racism, especially the plotting of its continued resurgency. In fiction, however, there is emotional power. Butler looks at these emotions directly, exploring both the hatred and pain between and among black people and white people in the antebellum south and also the moments of kindness, caring, and affection, even if they are not mutual affection. This, to me, is Kindred’s real achievement. It brings an imagined human understanding to a historical moment and an economic and social system that are in many ways incomprehensible.

I wonder though at what point the introduction of the fictive artifact, in this case Butler’s fictive artifact about slavery, becomes most meaningful. For instance, if there were not thorough accounts of history from the perspective of the slaves, not just from the perspective of white people, would the book serve the same function? Does fiction, that is in this case historical science fiction, have to have the support of history and perhaps sociology and political science behind it? I think about Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (which I’ve not read in twenty years) as well. Would that book have the same power without the feminist movement? Without feminist history? Or do we need fictive artifacts to act first, to imagine themselves from a time when there is nothing to empower historians to do their work? What are the interdisciplinary relationships here?

These are compelling questions for me and my own work. I want both to create those creative artifacts, but also to ensure that there is a thorough and rigorous history about where we have been. I feel peevish at the moment because I can’t find good ways of thinking about how lesbians thought about themselves in the 1910s and 1920s and even 1930s. There were lesbians. How did they understand their lesbianism? Imagining it creatively seems unsatisfying to me, but perhaps that is what I should be doing. Though, intellectually, what I think I should be doing is figuring out the archive where it exists and researching it there. Tumultuous times, certainly. And it is only the first day of classes.