February 7, 2008

Dim Sum: Rachel Levitsky[1]


“The many futile letters. (Humans proliferate so glibly.)” [2]

a.      Stupid, Lazy, Fearful, Sensitive, Weary, Proliferating, Childless (childbearing, childrearing), Petty, Predictably Feminine Females

No, I do not think these things about women nor do I think we are in fact women at all, though in many ways we practice as women (or not) and are practiced upon as women (or not). It would be more interesting for us to talk about ‘no gender’ to quote kari edwards, or ‘infinite gender’ to quote myself (two very different ideas but emerging from a similar concern). I do think that most of the responses that ask the question, “Why don’t women submit?” are subject to qualifying women in one of the ways listed above, which makes me feel sensitive, weary, fearful, lazy, childless and yes, a little bit stupid, as in ‘made to feel dull’. Yet, there is a continuous stream of energy generated by this issue (what is the issue?). I suspect this is because it (Is it representation?) is an easily recognizable catch-all (I could say metonym, but I mean receptacle) for a host of anxieties. One big one is this experience of practicing gender and having gender practiced upon us, which very much shapes the conditions in which we are poets and writers in the various communities in which we are poets and writers. I myself recently found my work included in a magazine that had only three women representing among twenty or so writers, and thought ‘ick’ before being able to read it, and learned or relearned from the experience, that it matters to me in what context my work is published, more than that it is published, that I fear less not being published than being published out of context and therefore, this is personal. I am more concerned that I not be the only-woman than that I am amongst women-only since it is more likely amongst women-only that I am in a conversation, since writing as writing is not doing, it is its relationship to the conversation, which is its doing and which is to me more relevant and energetic than any pure product--which might be judged ‘contingent’ or ‘essential’ or worse still ‘a mistake.’ I am ahead of myself.

b.      Our Bodies, Writing

As I understand it, this forum comes out of a volley of essays. I would like to say how I read these essays. In her essay, Our Bodies Our Poems, Jennifer Ashton makes the point that there can be legitimate intervention either on behalf of women or on behalf of language but that asserting the double intervention: editing poetry as both innovative/avant-garde (as well as) by women implies a feminist essentialism proven regressive by gender theorists since the 1980s. She states most explicitly that this double intervention is contingent and therefore ‘a mistake.’ The Chicago Review published an article by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young which in part responds to Ashton’s points and which is called “Numbers Trouble.” For that same issue, Ashton wrote a second piece, “The Numbers Trouble With “Numbers Trouble,” in which, feeling misunderstood by Spahr and Young, she reiterates her thesis for clarification, “the most visible purveyors of women’s “innovative” writing end up with an “innovation that is itself gendered.” (Though it’s clear to me that Spahr and Young understood her thesis the first time.)

I don’t know if Ashton’s argument is motivated by irritation over the banality of anthologies, or a keen eye for academic and poetry world ado over nothing, or a real resentment toward feminist gathering and organizing. It certainly is intellectually and culturally nonproductive (we are not going to stop gathering and organizing, and there is no intellectual work that will come out of what she imagines her argument ‘proves’), a negative argument in apparent (to me) bad faith, which were it not for the power of these journals to shape trends, to be seen as ‘knowledge’ to pass onto young college student poets, would not be worthy of a response. Its reading of ‘innovation’ or ‘avant-garde’ is de-historicized, so that ‘woman’ reads as a genetic or social function, and ‘innovation’ an aesthetic practice. The bodies in Ashton’s argument seem to no longer be actual places, only sites of inscription. Her argument reminds me of one that a friend of mine who’d become ba’al Tshuva[3] used to ‘prove’ to me the existence of god. I remained unconvinced, though it is true that this proof was meaningful to this friend who’d been seeking out a reason to become more religious, and she cited it often. Likewise, Ashton’s proof of an error in our work, in our conversation, in our desires to group ourselves, won’t stop us from erring (I doubt as well that we would have been convinced of the orthodox god) but may be useful to the uninformed anti-feminism we are often faced with in our classrooms, on editorial boards, in poetry organizations, committees...

Spahr and Young write that their motivation for responding to Ashton is their concern that “her dismissal of female community parallels a larger cultural dismissal of feminism that shows up in peculiar and intense ways in contemporary writing communities” and that women (of many genders) feel desire to form and define these communities for all sorts of reasons, some of which may (goddess forbid!) be essentialist, and which no matter what, are desires difficult to explain and justify clearly and aesthetically without saying something that will in the next moment cause one to contradict oneself, or at least, to blush. They then show, by reviewing the ‘numbers’, that Ashton’s assertion of some divine disappearance of patriarchal structures in poetry, has little bearing. If god exists, ready to neutralize the gender bar, he hasn’t shown himself, nor shown himself equal to the task just yet. Then in a wonderfully problematizing though problematic turn,[4] Spahr/Young conclude their work on numbers by negating its relevance, stating that by itself, numbers are a slight fact, asserting that the more important work that we, as benefactors of exploiter/polluter nations, must do, is to commit ourselves to the various causes of global justice.

c.      Aesthetic Community, Avant-garde Action

Before continuing, I would like to name the aesthetic community that I consider myself a part of, in general and in my work with Belladonna*, as avant-garde and feminist, both, but not in any particular order. Avant-garde and feminist, in this context, are not identities, they are correspondences, and as correspondences they are not contingent, they are over-lapping. Furthermore, and what seems to be missing from the Ashton framework, is the fact of politically radical intent in both demarcations. As such, on one hand, we group together not as women as outer limit, but as feminists, for all the ambiguity that ism connotes.[5] On the other, by naming ourselves ‘avant-garde’ we mean to indicate toward a practice of making, in revolt against aestheticist disassociation from everyday life and toward the building of new practices in our everyday with and by our makings.[6]

It occurred to me on the third day thinking about this response that I finally understood what theater people like Fiona Templeton mean to do when they produce large works for an “audience of one.” Of course they are resisting commodification, proliferation, alienation. They are being inefficient, slow, considered. It is inherently anti-puritanical and anti-capitalist. It doesn’t make good sense. It resists temptation to show off how brilliant, talented, beautiful. It is difficult to find, silly to sell, unlikely to institutionalize and probably near-impossible to fund. The only response one can have to it is a personal one, having been just a one and therefore face-to-face.

Groupings are not incidental, and not merely social, they are how we build the world we would like to live in. On the night of the first Belladonna* reading I believe I said something like “without justifying a women’s series, I’ll just say that it feels good.” I’ve since justified it many times for in fact, I was partly, directly and intentionally, responding to the situation for women poets under overwhelmingly male curatorial power in the 1990’s NYC downtown/avant-garde poetry scene. But more importantly, and more sustaining for me and for Erica Kaufman, my co-curator/editor since 2002, has been the gathering of some sort of tribe, the conversations en-gendered, the awkward stutters we soldiered through to get to a new thought, the pleasure we’ve had in supporting an avant-garde and feminist community which is perhaps most unjustifiable and so deeply personally political. I am sure that Jennifer Ashton, should she come by, would find that indeed our gathering is no “mistake”--an illogical possibility perhaps, but not a mistake.

These days I am reading Lorine Niedecker. It’s possible Niedecker would have enjoyed herself very much at an event curated as a feminist avant-garde reading, despite possible initial hesitations. How, if such a community existed then, would she have been cared for in ways which she was not. Many if not most of the women that have read in Belladonna* have expressed relief. Of these expressions, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s comment that “it’s not paranoid” is one of my favorites. Such responses suggest we want more feminist inventions, not less. We cannot imagine how stilted and tense we feel in ‘essentially’ designed-by-men institutions until we find ourselves in something else.

Yes, in this banter we are tense. Like those television talk shows where the players scream and repeat themselves. Where nothing ever changes.

Which is how I’ve read the responses to Spahr and Young by the various parties that blog etc., pit-bull like, defensive, gazing towards no new horizon but rather into their own navel. Missing their point. Yes, Spahr and Young, establish that garden variety sexism (numbers inequality) lives on, that gendered behavior in poetry community looks pretty much the same as it has always looked in that (quoting S&Y’s altered quoting of K. Silem Mohammad’s response) “men and women get threatened and aggressive when men and women speak up about these things.” Again, it is at that moment in their piece that (Juliana) Spahr and (Stephanie) Young finish their piece by asking how folks in “poetry or poetry communities...might do more to engage the living and working conditions of women in a national/international arena.”

I have several thoughts on this—and since Elizabeth Treadwell asked for this in time for AWP (apologies for being so late) I will list them in honor of the 7,500 of us who (obediently?) registered for the AWP. I think as poets we should proliferate less and demand less production from each other, and that we should organize more with others, and we should be thinking about the new activism that will be necessary to rebuild a polis that has a political nature, and write and read poems that are heard and talked about, and talk about each other’s work when we hear it. I think we here in NYC should have less readings and more meetings, reading groups, meals together, public and radical self-education. I think we spend too much time only with poets. I think we should be organizing for better working conditions for ourselves, and others (we should participate in the union or organize our workplace). We must aggressively challenge being swallowed into academia, and question ourselves when we professionalize and promote ourselves as poets. I want us to begin to collectively name some registers we might consider requisite for resistance and opposition to full-on consumer, capitalist culture. I think we should write letters on paper and keep our worst thoughts in our private journals, not on blogs. I think we should heckle at readings as a form of loud love. I’d like us to reinvest and rethink the scope, shape and import of the local as a political arena--as a place where it is possible somehow to do meaningful work. (Here some poetry examples come to mind, Debunker Mentality, Poetry is News organized by Anne Waldman, Ammiel Alcalay, and Tonya Foster, work with youth done at Bowery Poetry Club and Bushwick School for Social Justice--much more.) As for me, I’d like to get to these things, and I might if I were running around less with poets. I’d like to ask Bloomberg why his very rich city can’t return the Brooklyn Central Library to it’s pre-cut hours, so the kids hanging out waiting for it to open (at 1p.m on a Sunday) could enter. I’d like to be part of campaigns of demand and outrage over the easy sale of our neighborhoods.

And I would like us to have the time and the conditions to continue and expand our interrogations on Language, Feminism, the reinvention of the Left, what shape the next revolution, or how we can possibly live in the world without one.

In other words, to be present.


Ashton, Jennifer. “Our Bodies, Our Poems.” American Literary History 19: 1 (2007) 211-231.

Ashton, Jennifer. “The Numbers Trouble with “Numbers Trouble”.” Chicago Review 53:2/3 (Autumn 2007). 112-120.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw; foreword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Stephens, Nathalie. The Sorrow and the Fast of It. Cold Spring, NY: Nightboat Books, 2007.

Spahr, Juliana and Stephanie Young. “Numbers Trouble.” Chicago Review 53:2/3 (Autumn 2007). 88-111.

Templeton, Fiona. YOU-the City. New York: Roof Books, 1990.

Von Flotow, Luise. "Legacies of Quebec's 'écriture au féminin': Bilingual Transformances, Translation Politicized, Subaltern Versions of the Text." Journal for Canadian Studies. 30:4 (Winter 1996). 88-109.


[1] I refer to Belladonna* a bit in this piece. By way of quick explanation: I started up Belladonna*--a feminist avant-garde poetry matrix, as reading series August 1999, at the Bluestockings Women’s Bookstore, which was, the same summer, opened by the street activist Kathryn Welsh. In 2003 the store became Bluestockings Radical Books. Both bookstores were and are managed and peopled by unpaid collectives. There is a good account of the demise of the bookstore’s radical women’s collective and the birth of the bookstore’s radical collective here.

Belladonna* is now many more than me and Erica Kaufman is my co-worker in everything, our events are at Dixon Place and we make all kinds of publications. For more information about Belladonna*, its mission, activities and history, see here. My reasons for responding: Interested in continuance and expansion of activities of political resistance in poetry community.

[2] Nathalie Stephens. 19.

[3] Mainly referring to a generation of young Jews who’d grown up more or less secular turning to Orthodox Judaism or Chasidism. The term itself more or less means ‘repentance’ and connotes ‘returning’ to an observation of Jewish law.

[4] I realize in re-reading this that what is ‘problematic’(to me) may not be clear and, rather than expanding the piece which is already late and to which this is only tangentially relevant, I’ll quickly address it here, in this footnote. I begin to get at the ‘problem’ later when I stress the work we must do locally, beginning with making the space we’re in a better space, the conversation we’re in a better one. There is another conversation that we might want to take up that is a critique of the notion that to do a thing, one must go to a different place, which requires a great deal of fuel.(I’m thinking a lot about how frustrated I am that it seems that one must go to New Orleans to fight for New Orleans.)

[5] In the middle of the paragraph where I am presumably defining myself, I use the word ‘we’ because I can’t group by myself. I am confident, because I am in an ongoing conversation with several, that there is a we that I may claim, though no doubt each has her own variation of interpretation on terms. The variations of intent on the word Feminism make for some difficult positioning. For myself Feminism is an analysis of patriarchal power, in which patriarchy is hierarchy and hierarchy is power over, which is domination, which requires submission.

[6] Avant-garde is probably used as variously as Feminism. Rightfully so. For my purposes here, polemically and historically, I’ll rely on Peter Bürger’s notion that that avant-garde differs from mere aestheticism in its “attempt to organize a new life praxis from a basis in art.” (49) I also find support for my interpretation in the work of experimental feminists writers in Quebec, aka ‘l’ecriture au feminin’ which was committed, in addition to a radical “writing in the feminine”, to the generation of multilingual “texts of the street” and translation of work by invisible or less visible communities, as activism. (Von Flotow)

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