February 7, 2008

Dim Sum: Tonya Foster & Evie Shockley

Braiding: ConVERSations: To, Against, For

(w/Juliana Spahr, Stephanie Young, Jennifer Ashton, Nathaniel Mackey,
Kamau Brathwaite, Gloria Steinem, Ishmael Reed, Edouard Glissant,
Erica Hunt, Tisa Bryant, M. Nourbese Philip, Julie Patton,
Joan Retallack, Audre Lorde, Bhanu Kapil, James Scully,
Paolo Friere, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Barbara Foster)

It would be one thing if poetry were made of words alone,
but it is not--no more than words themselves are.

--Paolo Friere via James Scully (Linebreak 133)

Introduction by Tonya Foster

This “response” began one evening over food and several drinks at Times Square’s Ruby Foo’s. [Location seems somewhat relevant here (consider Times Square’s evolution from open bordello to disneylandesque ad-ride; consider Ruby Foo’s pan asian label).] Evie and I discussed Elizabeth’s call for responses, our responses to Juliana and Stephanie's and Jennifer’s pieces, poetics and politics--specifically Gloria Steinem’s NYTimes piece in support of Hillary Clinton and Ishmael Reed’s BlackTimes response to Steinem’s arguments. We decided, in the context of these things, to write a collaborative piece.

It seemed important that we set ground rules and limits for how we might collaborate, as I was packing for a short-term move to New Orleans and Evie was at work on her book. The methodology involved the selection, by each of us, of ten passages [set here in gray boxes] from Juliana and Stephanie’s piece (and/or Jennifer’s piece). Evie and I traded off responding to each passage. We tried to limit our response time to ten minutes each. Set up as a kind of dialectical notebook, we hoped that the form might create a text in which the layered/layering nature of conversations might be visible, that one essay might enact multiple intonations and rhythms. Our responses are to the generating articles and issues as well as to the contexts in which we were/are operating. We’ve begun to map a community of conversations.

Both Evie and I expressed a certain gratitude for Elizabeth’s invitation to the conversation, for Jennifer’s and Juliana and Stephanie’s engagment.

The title references Kamau Brathwaite and Nathaniel Mackey’s
ConVERSations and a conversation I had with Erica Hunt about braiding as a formal structure.

Tonya’s # 1
We started talking about her article by admitting that we had trouble saying anything coherent about gender and writing, especially contemporary writing by women, especially contemporary experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing by women (however one defines those pesky terms). We talked first about representational practices. Then we talked about economics, about publication, about lauding of works with prizes. Every time we started talking about who gets published, who wins prizes, and who gets academic jobs, we ended up lost in a tailspin of contradictions. And then we began to wonder, did the numbers support Ashton’s claims? Is it true that “on the numerical level the problem of under-representation has been corrected”?

Juliana Spahr & Stephanie Young, "Numbers Trouble," 89-90.

Evie Shockley: For me, it is just as clear that numbers matter as it is that reliance on numbers to determine definitively that something like “equality” has been achieved always risks an inaccurate assessment. We can look (outside poetry) to the Bush Administration’s cabinet for an example of what I mean by the unreliability of numbers for this purpose. With both Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice in highly visible, highly influential positions during the first term of this administration, the numbers alone would suggest that George Bush is the most anti-racist president in our nation’s history. But what those specific numbers mean in the context of the policies pursued by this administration—and supported and carried out by these powerful African American appointees—is something far less encouraging for African Americans and other people of color (in the U.S. and abroad). With that said, I think that there is little evidence that the under-representation of women is a thing of the past (as the number-crunching performed by Spahr and Young tends to demonstrate) and, even if it was, it wouldn’t change the fact that gender still operates in the world of innovative poetry in significant ways—ways that can benefit men whose writing exhibits the characteristics of (masculine) norms and can limit, render invisible, or simply discourage women whose writing treats subjects or performs formally in a manner that the avant-garde doesn’t recognize as “innovative.” And although these quantitative and qualitative measures can move independently, I don’t mean to suggest that they are unrelated. That is, we shouldn’t be surprised that, in a world (the world of innovative poetry, as a subset of the world in which we all live) where women may be denigrated, exoticized, or ignored for gendered reasons, we find fewer women than men being published, lauded, or canonized.

Tonya Foster: The appropriate “Amen” to that, Evie. Perhaps, we have to set our gazes on other measures, not to pretend that the world (matter that it is) isn’t what it is but in order to be alive in the myriad... (Although I’m increasingly concerned about the increasing numbers of incarcerated bodies.) What you say leads me to think about relations and affect; about the way that one view of (the) numbers allows the appearance of change without engendering systemic change. The not so far falling apple. I’m glad that you point to the Bush Administration because your point draws the social, cultural, and political into clearing proximity. Representational practices are aesthetic/political/social choices. That said, a change in appearance isn’t necessarily a change in practice or policy. Perhaps substitution should sub for repres., particularly in the case of Powell and Rice. What Powell and Rice represent in terms of political practices and policies is quite old. That their racialized bodies might be put to the service of those policies, also quite old. What seems to have changed (increased) is the number of visible brown/othered bodies that express agency in supporting and carrying out those old policies and practices. The modes of their participation behind the scenes and before various audiences/scenes point not so much to changes in practices as to changes in how the same ole same ole is represented. (And the peanut gallery sings: What SAMO SAMO? And the colored girl keeps writing...)

To what extent do some anthologies of “innovative” poetry/writing by women operate similarly? Taking up territory already marked YOURS (also marked uncharted/other/silenced). Does a change in the how of representation mean a change in the what? Though I understand (and am convinced) that style means, it seems that it always means in a context of relations/meanings, in a concatenation of rhythms (which is about time), and bodies.

Evie’s #1
But before we get to that, we should probably confess some things. Ashton seems mainly to want to say something about essentialism and we do not. We are fairly sure we define essentialism differently than she does. And to us, essentialism is not as damning as her article assumes it to be. But we are not jumping into that big, endless debate right now. Nor are we going to argue with her about how one might edit an anthology of women’s writing for reasons other than correcting an imbalance, although we do want to quickly point out that anthologies can be edited to begin dialogues or to argue for new communities or to document certain moments or for a million other reasons.


TMF: Yet Thought is a bodily function. Is that essentialist? (Silly question.) Of course, essentialism is wrestling the hoary universalism beast, globalism threatens to gobble the essential, and universalism and globalism are doing some delicate dance to wrap/warp the world(s). What does any of that mean? Except for some conceptual real snaking over bodies. David Harvey, in Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, argues for the necessity of a kind of foundational ideation(s) that will move bodies and, perhaps, thereby mountains (or the mountains by t/here). Here I think of the local, the particular peculiar aspect. How does it enter into conversation with that which is larger than it without being defined by the “larger”? (And definition is about delineation, demarcation, control, restriction, as much as it’s about clarity and articulation.) How might the global enter into conversation without consuming? How does the local show agency? (Yes, the theys may act on and toward us as if we are who they think we are, but the we’s aren’t required to believe we are who they say we are (or even that they are who they think they are, or in what they call saying).) Certainly not by creating “communities” that structurally mimic (in their identity-articulations) or mirror the very organizational processes that have excluded the members who form those innovative communities. (And yet there’s something comforting about home, about homies. (And there are many ways to identify ’em.) Something comforting about not having to explain one’s presence or one’s being or one’s abrupt turn away from the stranger who won’t control her/his impulse to stroke one’s kinky strands.)

Personal Anecdote about the power/generosity of a horizontal space/process which occasioned “meetings of…pioneers thinkers artists worker/activists of metaphor” (siphoning Kamau Brathwaite) cooks eaters believers compadres neighbors known and not: As a sophomore in college, I decided to work to spend my junior year abroad in Germany. Why Germany? My family wanted to know why I had to go so far away. They wanted an explanation for this yearning for foreign words and ground. My maternal grandmother called regularly to keep me abreast of all of the attacks against Americans and against African peoples on European soils. My mother complained that if something went wrong there wasn’t enough ready cash to get me home or to get her to me. When it was clear that I wouldn’t be dissuaded, my family decided to hold a supper to raise money for me, and for this trip. For those who don’t know--a supper involves preparing plates of food for sale. Donations of food and money came in to my grandmothers, mother, me. People ordered plates for lunch and dinner in advance; some called the morning of the suppers. My grandmother and I cleaned pounds of fish. My mother and her sisters cooked fish and chicken suppers for two days. My family, friends, neighbors, parents’ colleagues bought and sold hundreds of suppers. Interactions between and among multiple networks...

Is it networks of communities and networks of relationships that we’re after? I think Edouard Glissant’s ideas around a poetics of relation are particularly useful here in thinking about and in forming relational poetic communities that step outside of the expected, communities and practices that chart relational communities, which are flexible and changing, mapped by geographical encounters and transit, less by lineage (or tradition). I think of it as part refusal to be mapped as marginal.

Yes, in “argu[ing] for new communities,” anthologies, as well as reading series, book series, bibliographies, coffee clatches, sewing bees, show-downs, throw-downs and on can be drafted into service.

EES: If essentialism means being able to name the rubrics within which we (women of color, African Americans, women, etc., etc.) may simultaneously be constrained, limited, subjugated by more powerful others and be nurtured, engaged, empowered by ourselves and our allies, then essentialism still has useful work to do in the struggle for social justice. I recognize the dangers it poses. I’ll stop identifying as an African American woman when most people in this society have stopped understanding me in terms of my proximity to those categories (and all the others that may be relevant to my subjectivity)--you first. Meanwhile, “networks of communities and...relationships” seems to be a productive model for describing my own activities in the world (of poetry). The focus on multiplicity potentially opens our eyes to connections that are predictable and unpredictable.

Tonya’s # 2
But one reason that it interests us so much is that we feel her dismissal of female community parallels a larger cultural dismissal of feminism that shows up in peculiar and intense ways in contemporary writing communities, often in the name of progressive politics…a feeling that feminism is irrelevant or outdated or just plain over or boring or pathetic or whiny. And yes, we should also admit to feeling this way while writing this paper.

JS & SY (90)

EES: What is the understanding of “feminism” that leads to the responses Spahr and Young describe in their essay--responses from people who do not identify as feminists as well as from some who do? It appears to hold that “feminism” is the movement that struggles to gain for “women” the right to do and be whatever “men” can do and be. I can’t for the life of me see how even that limited understanding of feminism can be said to have been fulfilled. For one thing, it is a position that assumes and suggests that white, middle-class women constitute the norm for the category. If “feminism” is “irrelevant or outdated or just plain over” for those women, based upon whatever levels of “equality” or opportunity they have been able to access, can we say the same for African American women? Latinas? Filipinas? Rwandan women? Chinese women?

TMF: I don’t think we can. What the definitions, accepted “as is,” seem to suggest is the embrace of the category “man” as delineated out of late 17th century humanism, an age when who would be included under the “man” rubric was limited at best. Those definitions informed and were informed by European university and literary cultures, which were reflective, with marginal exceptions, of the same kinds of “numbers trouble” that Juliana and Stephanie articulate. (Vague claim.) That and more. There were no Latinas, Filipinas, African Americans, certainly not so-named.

To what extent is the work of feminism about redefining, remapping even, the cultural, social, and political territories that our thoughts and writing and lives hope to lay claim to?

Evie’s #2
The numbers game felt a little irrelevant to us. We do not, for instance, think that having an equal number of men and women in an anthology or giving a prize to an equal number of men and women necessarily means that these things are feminist or progressive. Plus we had a constant feeling that we had better and more exciting, i.e. non-gender specific, work that we wished we could be doing.

JS & SY (90)

TMF: So integration does not mean equality? Equality doesn’t mean justice? I can get with that. Particularly when it acknowledges that integration into an inequitable institution does little to mitigate (beyond the appearance of things) the inequality on which the change (integration, increase in numbers, of life) is built.

It strikes me that there is an obsession with escaping the body (rather than the body escaping) that is a characteristic of the colonizing imagination. Look beyond the life of this body for salvation, says the missionary, and you can more easily bear this body’s suffering. Bear, rather than change. What is this obsession with escaping the body (transcendence) about? Is it about escaping the marks of the body? How one’s body is viewed, and thereby escaping how we view others as bodies? And then how we act on those views, and how those views act of us. It strikes me as suggestive of “transcendence,” which is where, it seems to me, Ashton’s argument crumbles. (Perhaps J & S are jesting here--what work is there that they might do that is non-gender specific? Even with the internet, there are bodies beyond the screens and at the keyboards.) There’s no getting out of this alive. Maybe that’s too simplistic.

EES: I agree that numbers alone cannot measure a qualitative (and intangible) substance like equality or justice. (See my response to Tonya’s # 1, above.) But another way of pointing to the significance of numbers is to ask ourselves why, for example, the anthologies discussed by Spahr and Young and Ashton seem to fall only into two categories: containing almost exclusively or predominantly men poets or containing exclusively women poets. The anthologies in the former category do not describe themselves as collections of men’s work, of course. Where is the anthology in which women’s poetry is predominant, but not because inclusion is delimited by gender? It doesn’t exist, at least as far as these essays would suggest. That fact--that women’s innovative poetry is never the unmarked norm--speaks reams about the significance of numbers. As for the seeming equation made between “better and more exciting” work and “non-gender specific” work, I’m glad, Tonya, that you suggest this was tongue-in-cheek. I’ll gladly take that suggestion over the idea that Spahr and Young indeed believe in the possibility of “transcending” the material conditions in which they operate, from the very intimate conditions of the body to the almost ungraspable conditions of the global economy, even (especially) in the language that constructs our experience of those conditions.

Tonya’s # 3
Our history starts with Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, published in 1960. It is widely accepted as the seminal anthology, the one that establishes the current view that US experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry is a series of located and specific scenes, each with their own concerns, rather than one unified scene. It argues, thus and importantly, not for us poetry but for us poetries. Like many anthologies of its time, it is notable for its lack of attention to writing by women: it features forty men and four women (9% women). And it was not alone. Paris Leary and Robert Kelly’s 1965 A Controversy of Poets has fifty-one men and eight women (14%). Ron Padgett and David Shapiro’s 1970 Anthology of New York Poets has twenty-six men and one woman (4% women). In his introduction to The San Francisco Poets (1971), with six men and no women at all, David Meltzer casually claims “The six poets in this book represent the history of poetry in San Francisco, in America, in the world.”

JS & SY (92)

EES: Having begun this paragraph with the insightful and incredibly important point that the “US experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry is a series of located and specific scenes, each with their own concerns, rather than one unified scene” (92), Spahr and Young fail to maintain attention to the multiplicity of sites where their concerns might be exemplified--or, conversely, addressed. For example, the authors do not consider anthologies of work by people of color whose projects involve a focus on or sustained attention to innovative aesthetics, such as Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans, Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal’s Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Clarence Major’s The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African American Poetry, or Keith Tuma’s Rainbow Darkness: An Anthology of African American Poetry, to take some examples from the tradition I know best. While the latter two do not announce their interest in innovative aesthetics (nor do they include only poets whose work might be considered “experimental” or “avant-garde”), they are edited by poets whose own aesthetic commitments and interests ensure that innovative poets are represented (and represented by their innovative works). Attention to such other sites might underscore their argument and/or might complicate it in ways that would be instructive and generative.

TMF: Can innovation be represented? And if it can be, what’s the point? Why not just start with the representation instead of the divergent little poems? Perhaps because then things get too big to package. To what extent does the work of anthologizing involve summarizing? (And of course I realize the usefulness of anthologies, but are there ways to prevent the anthology from standing in for the whole? How to signify that it does/can not?)

And who’s this our? Can I bring my mother?

Tonya’s # 4
...despite the increased participation of women within the traditionally male-dominated ‘avant-garde,’ and the various advances of feminism, gender politics continues to be a contested site within aesthetic practice and its articulation/translation/ reception in a still largely phallocentric system.

JS & SY (93-94)

EES: Though I’m willing to consider this open to debate, my general feeling is that, indeed, aesthetics still tends to operate in phallocentric terms, especially those aesthetics that have been described as “innovative” or “avant-garde.” Part of what happens when innovative poetics defines itself against “traditional” or “mainstream” poetics is that the latter categories are “feminized,” even in the face of significant or predominant numbers of men practicing such poetics (I’m thinking of Romantic and confessional poetries here). An important related problem is that often African American innovative poetics—in particular, the poetics of the Black Arts Movement—is similarly “feminized” (despite the phallocentrism attributable to BAM itself) as opposed to the (real) (white) avant-garde. This move turns on the significance to BAM “black aesthetics” of asserting a (“black”) “self” in the face of the oppressive and dismissive aesthetic standards that have been imposed upon the writing of African Americans since the era of Phillis Wheatley. An important point related to the foregoing is how critical it is for us to recognize that sexism is racism, at times, without losing the specificity of either category in our analyses.

TMF: This “dismissal” you write of seems related to dismissals of the term ideological as it operates in the world(s) of poetry—too much socially and historically constituted subjectivity is rather passé. I don’t know Evie...I can’t think of phallocentrism without the racialized, nationalized and naturalized. What you point out is important to me in thinking about both the power and the limits of definitions built mainly in opposition. It means that the phallocentric “center” still determines the terms of engagement.

How to create another space?

Evie’s #3
In the years that followed, several fairly intense feminist interventions occurred. One was by Silliman himself, who noted in 2002: “I’ve never written anything of substance about a female poet here, at least until my piece on Ange Mlinko, without receiving at least one email attack—the ratio when I write about male poets is about one such blast per ten items.” The other was the particularly venomous response by several commentators to Silliman’s positive review of Barbara Jane Reyes in March 2006, which prompted a lot of interventionist ire (directed at participants in his comment box, not at Silliman) and which resulted in a fairly intense discussion about gender and race.

JS & SY (95)

TMF: Somehow that doesn’t surprise me...

How in/effective feminism has been in contending with issues of diversity? (Here, I think of Gloria Steinem’s article about the importance of supporting Hillary Clinton, whose election would hold precious little promise for me. I also think of the present struggles against affirmative action, and the place/participation of women (white) in those battles.) Perhaps feminism’s failure is a failure of the too-particular. I mean, one woman, one black person, one poor person, one sun-burned bloke sipping water on the sand cannot unproblematically stand in for another (or for all the others). (Despite Maya Angelou’s claim that with a Clinton election (Hillary rising) I too will rise, I’m not convinced of being so tightly yoked.) Perhaps it’s a failure to articulate how one might indeed stand in for and with another, an inability to imagine correspondences in the midst of difference... So, how do we bring the local and the global into the kind of relational conversations that are not oppressive? If Obama were a woman, if Hillary were black, if both were “illegal” immigrants, or had worked as NYC taxi cab drivers, what other kinds of conversations might we be having?

How much are the conversations we have about poetry and in poetry dictated...

EES: This passage points to one of the things that interests and concerns me about Spahr and Young’s essay. Given that their essay concludes with an invitation which asks readers to consider the issues “beyond gender” with which feminism is or should be engaged, this reference to the racist and sexist vitriol that erupted on the occasion of Ron Silliman’s review of Barbara Jane Reyes’s book Poeta en San Francisco seems to be a missed opportunity for the authors to model for their readers what such considerations might look like and what work they could do. Thinking especially of the emphasis Spahr and Young place on the international aspects of the oppression of women, I was disappointed that they didn’t point out the incisive critique Reyes’s book makes of U.S. foreign policy especially as it impacts Filipinas (economically and otherwise). The way Reyes herself was constructed in the comments-box exchanges illustrates that those economic and social conditions don’t stop operating in the discourse when poetry is the ostensible subject. By the way, I like, Tonya, that you’ve responded to the passage from the essay with an apt reference to the intersection of gender and race in the discourse around the current presidential election--and that Angelou’s poem has participated in and engendered discussions of differences between the candidates, reasons and motivations for voting, and relationships between art and politics.

Tonya’s # 5
On the one hand, anthologies and publication and prizes do matter. They lead to more jobs and money, and women need these things. Anthologies in particular, partly because they are so frequently used in the classroom, suggest a sort of snapshot of a scene that often gets institutionalized. They can shape the critical reception around a scene for many years by naturalizing certain definitions. 
But at the same time, how poetry matters is much larger than this.

JS & SY (98)

EES: These are vital points. For many people of color and working class people, the opportunity to make a career of writing poetry (which is not necessarily the same thing as being able to devote a significant amount of time to that work over a sustained period of years--but it can mean precisely this) is available almost entirely to the extent that teaching jobs and other poetry-related funding possibilities are available. So exclusion from those possibilities directly shapes not only what writing is disseminated, but also what writing is produced in the first place. But focusing specifically on careers doesn’t get at other ways that the poetry itself matters. Whether one believes that poetry can affect or change what readers believe, can articulate ways of seeing the world that could circulate in and shape popular culture, can mobilize people for political action, etc., or not, poetry represents an economy of ideas (political, social, aesthetic, cultural) in which the currency is more valuable than it is often given credit for being.

TMF: I agree that Juliana and Stephanie are on to some important points here.

How might we subvert the use of the anthology as “snapshot”? Is it enough to have lots of anthologies? J and S are right asserting that anthologies may shape “the critical reception around a scene for many years by naturalizing certain definitions.” The importance of critical reception to gainful employment is increasing.

Evie, focusing on career is certainly one of the ways that poetry gets done, or at least one of the ways that people without trust funds make space for poetry. Yet the hazards of such a focus seem to be that the kind of poetry that gets awarded and lauded is like the poetry that’s long been awarded and lauded because many of the awarded and lauded become judges. (Perhaps that’s too cynical and reductive.)

It just seems that who gets the job (academic and otherwise) depends often on who’s interviewing and hiring and on how they define their needs and on how they define/assess ability. So much depends on the relations between the two parties, and on the networks of relations of which each “self” is comprised.

The opportunity to make a “career of writing poetry” also may be related to a sense of the relevance of poetic practice to the lives that people lead. The habit of mind and hand that poetry demands demands much. I very much like how you describe the economy of ideas. Certainly, the kind of poetry produced in the midst of struggling for food, shelter, safety, momentary peace of mind may be transitory at best. How, as poet-citizens, do we include in the landscape of anthologies, publications, job opportunities spaces for those who may be making work in ways that are not market-ready? To put it plainly, poverty sucks. So what we do in poetry “communities” may offer/suggest other modes for other communities...

Tonya’s # 6
Or as K. Silem Mohammad wrote to us in reply to our questions, "I have become a lot more aware over the past year or two how often gender dynamics operate in really screwed-up ways within a community I had complacently assumed was a lot more progressive and enlightened than it sometimes reveals itself to be. Just at the level, for example, of how much men outnumber women on tables of contents, or how women’s comments are ignored in blog conversations, or how men get threatened and aggressive when women speak up about these things." We agree and yet we want to mess with Mohammad’s comments so they read “how men and women get threatened and aggressive when men and women speak up about these things.

JS & SY (99)

EES: I’m pleased to see both Mohammad’s point and Spahr and Young’s “mess”-y revision of it. Its validity (as amended) is illustrated, I find, in the responses to this essay posted on October 31 and November 3, 2007 by Ange Mlinko (“What Would the Community Think?”), A. E. Stallings (“Numbers Trouble”), and Emily Warn (“Essentialism? Say What?”) on the Poetry Foundation blog, Harriet, and the many comments upon those entries. Those responses contained both dismissive and aggressive elements that undermined some of the more generative points the bloggers were making. For example: it was suggested that the real problem lies with women and their unwillingness or inability to submit their work to journal and anthology editors (being either too passive or purist or necessarily consumed with child-rearing responsibilities). On a related point, this example: raising issues of race and the near-total invisibility of Latina/o poets in publications of “innovative”/”experimental” work (as Francisco Aragón and others did in the comments on Warn’s entry) was deemed a distraction from the gender issues at hand, thus illuminating the workings of power that white men and white women share on racial grounds. I should mention that one of the most interesting and lively panels I attended at this year’s AWP conference was on “Avant-Garde Latino/a Poetry,” which featured readings by such poets as Aragón, Mónica de la Torre, Roberto Tejada, and Valerie Martinez, and a discussion of this very issue of invisibility.

TMF: I also like the revision because it points to the kind of ongoing revisions that engagement requires. I’d like to do a slightly “mess”-y revision of Juliana’s and Stephanie’s revision so it reads “how Asian, Latina/o, black, wealthy, working class men and women get threatened and aggressive and dismissive when Asian, Latina/o, black, wealthy, working class men and women speak up about these things."

Evie’s #4
The majority of writing about gender and/or feminism in the experimental/postmodern/ avant-garde/innovative scene has not been about essentialism or women’s bodies; it has been first-person accounts of dealing with sexist dismissals. The comments we got back reminded us of how endemic these dismissals continue to be. They ranged from Jennifer Scappettone writing about how the critical study of experimental/postmodern/ avant-garde/innovative scene in the academy has managed to remain strangely untainted by the canonical shifts of the last twenty years: “I’ve been subjected to hours-long conversations or seminars about literature and poetry in which not a single woman was mentioned as agent or matrix of influence. I am continually congratulated or appreciated for pointing this out when it happens, which is laughable.” To Eileen Myles confirming the uneasy (and unprofitable) outsider status that an identity as a feminist (and a queer) can confer: "I found out a few years back that for many years the recommendation from John Ashbery that I had been using opened with the language: 'Eileen Myles is a militant lesbian.' I sent it for jobs where I definitely knew people on the committee. Finally a total stranger at one of those institutions that maintain recommendations told me on the qt that I shouldn’t use it. I managed to get my hands on it and I was stunned. That’s when I felt totally outside the poetry community, ’cause I realized that no one protected me. Nobody thought it was politically offensive or destructive. They probably thought it was funny."

JS & SY (100)

TMF: “[T]he critical study of experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative scene in the academy has managed to remain strangely untainted by the canonical shifts of the last twenty years”--I certainly agree with Scappetone’s contention. I can’t think about this without considering race/class/speech patterns. The thinking (or at least the saying) around who or what the agents or matrixes of influence has been remarkably static. Despite the claims of a few poets to have been influenced by jazz, the “conversations” around influence and access seem directionally limited, uphill one-way streets.

“[T]he poetry community”--which one is that? To what extent do poets-citizens recreate the very community structures that exclude based on gender/race/age/geography/class/sexual orientation?
I’m repeatedly surprised by how homogeneous many of writing/poetry scenes remain. That has consequences for how we describe ourselves and each other.

How do we “protect” those who are outside of our communities? Perhaps by becoming more flexible/permutating we’s. Inside and outside are not static categories. Neither are us and them.

EES: I found this passage of Spahr and Young’s essay to be vital on so many levels that I selected it for this collaboration in part simply to reiterate it. I’ll just add that the variety of forms that sexism takes is part of what gives it such reverberating impact: outright dismissals of women and women’s poetry; silence regarding the influence of women poets upon poetic traditions; lip service to the importance of poetry by women that doesn’t lead to structural change in the systems that construct and reflect what we value in poetry (the canon)--these are just a few of the forms in which sexism operates in the context of poetry. And, Tonya, of course, I deeply appreciate your extension of Spahr and Young’s observation about sexism to encompass racism and other structures of exclusion.

Tonya’s # 7
No one in the experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry scene writes in a women-only space. And often the poetry collected in these anthologies is not saying that much about feminism or gender. And finally, we are not sure the women-only anthologies are doing that much to fix the numbers trouble. They certainly do not seem to be changing the gender spreads in anthologies.

JS & SY (100)

EES: There are several assumptions underlying these ideas that I would take issue with. Perhaps most important to me are the assumptions that support the claim that the women-only anthologies may not be “doing that much to fix the numbers trouble.” One assumption seems to be that sexism, a system of oppression and containment of women and the feminine that has operated in a variety of ways in numerous cultures and for centuries, if not millennia, can be finally “fixed,” with regard to the publication and recognition of women poets, by gender exclusive anthologies or anything else done under the banner of U.S. feminism within three decades. The struggle against ideologies as entrenched as sexism and patriarchy will necessarily be an ongoing one through our lifetimes, at least. Another problematic assumption is an extension of the previous one: that is, because the anthologies don’t “fix” the problem, they don’t constitute necessary and important contributions to the feminist struggle and/or the tradition of “innovative” poetry, just for starters.

TMF: Perhaps part of the difficulty is about measuring change or effect. What are the indicators that the outcomes hoped for are being aided by the processes in play?

I like your contention with the term “fixed” in part because it rejects the broken metaphor. There is no whole cloth to which we can return. To fix is to repair or mend. That doesn’t get at what’s necessary. Perhaps, by looking at various feminisms, we can begin something...

Evie’s #5
And finally, we are not sure the women-only anthologies are doing that much to fix the numbers trouble. They certainly do not seem to be changing the gender spreads in anthologies.

JS & SY (100)

TMF: Possibly because they are operating as reactive adjustment, doing little to create a vision of what equitable representation looks and sounds like. Or equitable engagement. There is a particular market niche which they fill, and it’s the very marketing niche the anthologies created. How to break out?

EES: It’s telling, I think, that both of us included this passage among those we wanted to discuss. What I like about your response to it is the attention you call to what I would describe as the difference between reform and revolution, as loaded as those terms may be. Revolution is often (and perjoratively) associated with utopianism, but I’d like to suggest that utopianism need not be constructed (and dismissed) simply as naïveté. If Audre Lorde is correct in saying that “poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought” (in her indispensable essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”), then it can be argued that envisioning and articulating what is desired but does not yet exist is one of the primary tasks--or, less prescriptively, primary opportunities--of the poet’s work. What does--what could--equitable representation or engagement look like? What would the world (of poetry) need to be like for gender to exist without serving an oppressive function? What other names might we give to the range of ways of being that have been most often reductively divided into two or, at best, three categories of gender? Poets like kari edwards have posed and embodied this challenge.

Tonya’s # 8
Rather, it is because the experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/ innovative poetry scene needs a more radical feminism: a feminism that begins with an editorial commitment to equitable representation of different genders, races, and classes but that doesn’t end there--an editorial practice that uses equitable representation to think about how feminism is related to something other than itself, and to make writing that thinks about these things visible.

JS & SY (100)

EES: The very instance of thinking through the systemic reasons that result in or contribute to the inequitable representation of poets who are not white and/or not male will necessitate the consideration of factors that cannot be reduced to aesthetics, but have everything to do with aesthetics. One challenge is for common understandings of what constitutes “experimental” or “innovative” poetics to be exploded in ways that will comprehend (and foreground) work already done and being done by poets of a wide range of identities. Part of what this will entail is the erasure of the shifting but seemingly ever-present bright line drawn between “political” poetry and “innovative” poetry. Erica Hunt has pointed the way in her must-read essay “Notes Toward an Oppositional Poetics” (published in one of those “pesky” women-only anthologies, Mary Margaret Sloan’s Moving Borders).

TMF: Erica’s essay also appears in The Politics of Poetic Form, edited by Charles Bernstein. More radical feminism requires that people lead more radical lives, create more radical communities. Edward Hirsch said at an event that “Poetry doesn’t happen without friendship.” I’d like to revise his statement to argue that “Poetry doesn’t happen without communities.”

Evie’s #6
But at the same time, if we allow that the women-only anthology is unnecessary, it is not because gender equity has been reached. Rather, it is because the experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/ innovative poetry scene needs a more radical feminism: a feminism that begins with an editorial commitment to equitable representation of different genders, races, and classes but that doesn’t end there--an editorial practice that uses equitable representation to think about how feminism is related to something other than itself, and to make writing that thinks about these things visible.

JS & SY (100)

TMF: Yes. And I’d place committed curatorial practices beside the editorial. And emphasize the significance of creating spaces in which there’s also a commitment to “make writing that thinks about these things visible” to myriad audiences. To perform an imaginative commons in which various ilk of writers and audiences mix it up, in which they are drawn into contact and conversation. To put into conversation, in reading series, book series, talk series, dance contests, bake-offs, wherever we can, poets of varied aesthetic positions and proclivities, means creating common spaces, not spaces in which “we all get along,” but spaces in which we can be (dis)comforted without eating each other.

EES: Yes, indeed. And while we’re here, let’s imagine the ways that such practices could simultaneously address a different (but related) concern many poets have, across aesthetics: the question of how to make poetry (be seen as) relevant to a broader set of audiences than it has typically garnered in the last several decades. Deep breaths, folks: I’m not suggesting that avant-garde poetics need to be made “accessible” formally, across the board. I am arguing that avant-garde poetics need not be defined in opposition to either a discernable engagement with politics in the work or an interest in audience(s). Where did this avant-garde poetry/political poetry divide come from anyway? What motivated the surrealists? What motivated Dada? The high modernists? The Beats? The Language poets? Or should I be asking what distinguishes these politically motivated aesthetic movements from the New Negro Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican arts movement? And how does the most obvious answer to this last question relate to the notion of “a more radical feminism” and the intervention it could make in the world (of poetry)?

Tonya’s # 9
...but when we turn our vision out of our little experimental/ postmodern/avant-garde/innovative poetry puddle, we have to admit that we are deeply complicit in a larger system of fucked-up-ness that makes us in no way oppressed or marginal. We are citizens of a nation that uses a lot of resources, that bombs a lot of countries.

JS & SY (100)

EES: One thought I have in response to this passage is that the “we” of its statements already excludes people who might be considered part of that “puddle” and in numerous ways both oppressed and marginal. Will Alexander is only one example I might posit of poets who are neither highly educated (in the traditional sense) nor working in professional jobs, and yet writing poetry that is as innovative and interesting as anything the U.S. avant-garde has produced in the last fifty years. How many others are there? How many years did Alexander write before more than a handful of people were aware of his existence? Should we ask if this is his fault? Or is that, to borrow a phrase from theorist Hortense Spillers, an “impertinent question”?

TMF: We can also point to Julie Patton and Russell Atkins. I suspect there are many more. Issues of health-care and sustenance. And yes, we are complicit. And it’s shifting archipelagos of we’s.

Evie’s #7
And our fear is that when we lean too heavily on the numbers, we end up arguing for our share of the American privilege pie and doing little else. We end up with first-world myopia. And what is the use of a feminism that does that?...When it comes down to it, feminism really only matters if it engages with issues in an international arena, if it extends its concerns with equality beyond gender, if it suggests that an ethical world is one with many genders, if it addresses resource usage internationally, if it has an environmental component, if it works toward access to education for all, if it...

JS & SY (100-101)

TMF: So why don’t we put our cash cards on the tables? Begin to chart the intimate relations between our privilege and the suffering of myriad others (and vice versa). Not as an opportunity for collective cleansing by guilt but as opportunities for actions. So what can poets do? What can anybody do?

EES: To take up your question for a moment, Tonya, as some of those who responded to Spahr and Young’s informal survey suggested, not everything that poets can do can be done in and through poetry (although a good bit can be done in and through the platforms and forums we have access to as poets). Poets can do everything anyone else can do: give time to movements and organizations working toward the kind of world in which we want to live; give money; teach their children; set an example for the people around them; refuse to be silent/silenced; do the research; help others gain access to audiences for their words/critiques; recycle; listen; think; act. I hope this riff on Tonya’s question makes clear that the more expansive version of feminism identified by the last sentence of the Spahr and Young passage above is the kind in which I’m invested. But Tonya and I have been pushing throughout this “conVERSation” for a recognition of the fact that those international, equitable, ethical, and environmental concerns relate not-so-indirectly to the numbers of “innovative” women poets publishing. Keeping our eyes on those numbers is a good, local way to remind ourselves about the significance of other more global numbers. Some of the comments Spahr and Young quote from the poets they interviewed speak to this. We need conversations (“conVERSations”) that begin like this: “Why are there so few women, and in particular women of color, represented in anthologies of “innovative” poetry in the U.S.? What structures in place globally hinder, discourage, or prevent women from having as much time, access to technology, and financial resources as the men whose work appears disproportionately in those anthologies?” Once these questions can be asked together without the second being perceived as a nonsequitur, we will be in a space in which everyone at the table is also thinking of the unasked question that bridges the two that were articulated: Whose lives, intellects, experiences, analyses, contributions, and needs are valued in the world (of poetry)--and why?

Tonya’s # 10
I’m interested in the idea of pragmatically hybrid poetry communities: formed to address urgent socio-political matters impacting women.

--Joan Retallack

But my question goes back to power—who has the power to imagine these transforming things, the things that will transform the circumstances or conditions of others? I think it takes a visionary character. But then, there is the question of confidence. And my thoughts go back to the question of race.

--Bhanu Kapil

As quoted by JS & SY

EES: I love Retallack’s concept of “pragmatically hybrid poetry communities” both because it seems grounded in immediate action and because it suggests the importance of seeking and forming alliances that don’t rely upon a mandated (false) unity around every possible issue of politics and aesthetics that might be raised. It reminds me of the model for feminist struggle advocated by Bernice Johnson Reagon in her essay “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” published in the landmark collection Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. And this shows that, like Kapil, “my thoughts go back to the question of race.” Most of us have some degree of power—some (much) more than others. Can each of us use that power for social transformation? Can we accept and act on the idea that “transform[ing] the circumstances or conditions of others” may deeply involve transforming who we are and how we occupy the world (of poetry)?

TMF: I also love these quotes, Evie.

It seems that so much depends upon a willingness to contend with dis(comfort), a willingness to share a physical space with those with whom we are not friends or at home. I’m interested in this hybridity that Joan writes about. In terms of spaces for poetry, it seems that we might architect spaces in which myriad encounters might occur. Again to the reading series or anthology and on.

Is it too passé to say that writing poetry can be an extra market activity? So how do we construct spaces that are not market defined?

Evie’s #8
We did not chart out race and class as we did this. But we can assure you without a doubt that racial and class representation is dramatically skewed toward white middle-class writers in all the contemporary writing scenes we examined, way more than gender. And that this also has a lot to say about the failures of feminism.

JS & SY (109)

TMF: In deed. It’s also about the refusals of feminism, and many other ‘isms.

EES: Yes. And because I found this essay so rich and incisive in many ways, I was quite sorry that Spahr and Young didn’t take this opportunity to make an intervention that would not replicate the failures they point to as much as it did. This is not to say that the essay is a failure; it invited, called for, a conversation, and this forum is only one manifestation of exactly that. Kudos to the authors!

Evie’s #9
...it’s easy to see what they think my definition is. Or, at least, it’s easy to see what they think I’m attacking in their performance piece and in the discourse of “innovative” women’s poetry more generally. To be more precise, I would say that the essentialism they describe involves the (usually unacknowledged) assumption that the contingencies of a poet’s situation, including her sex, necessitate certain choices—including choices about the forms her poems take. This is an essentialism that makes it seem as if one could read off the sex of a poet from the forms she uses, an essentialism that gives us the very possibility of a “women’s innovative poetry” whose innovations are distinctive by virtue of having been produced by women. (113)

Jennifer Ashton, "The Numbers Trouble with 'Numbers Trouble'"(113)

TMF: “[T]he discourse.” All bodies have social and historical contexts. Even dead ones. Even private ones. I mean, I often wonder why there are so many tall buildings, and why Superman gets to leap them in a single bound while Wonder Woman only gets the invisible plane? What do the superhero’s powers have to do with the social and the personal or with poetry? The creator of Superman was a man. The creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston (also a man), was also the inventor, with the assistance of his wife Elizabeth, of the lie detector test. He and Elizabeth “Sadie” Halloway Marston had a polyamorous relationship with Olive Byrne, who lived with the couple. The biographies of these three are scripted in the social and historical contexts of man and woman, husband and wife, not wife. Various social events within which being occurs impact on the how of being. I am a woman in the company of others who are and are not women.

Of course, we might read the creations of Wonder Woman and the lie detector as being necessitated by the gender roles that William and Elizabeth and Olive were born into and living in or against. To read gender as the only force directing writing and reading choices is to misread. I mean, we are each a complex of relations.

EES: The basic problem with Ashton’s definition of essentialism (which I don’t think is the one she describes above--nor, importantly, do I think that Spahr and Young thought so) is that it leaves no room for recognizing and interrogating and considering the value, contours, and operation of poetry created by women which involves innovation based in socially constructed experiences of “womanhood.” In speaking of experiences of “womanhood,” I mean emphatically to include one’s actual or (internally or externally) perceived distance from the center of that category as related to other socially constructed categories (race, sexuality, class, religion, etc.). The fact that a category is socially constructed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and produce significant differences that might even (do) affect aesthetics.

Evie’s #10
It’s not quite enough for the “innovative” movement to care about the community because it’s made up of women—what if they’re not all writing “innovative” poetry? And what if they’re not really a community? What makes them a community, of course, is their shared interest in certain formal “innovations.” But why do they need to be women to have that interest? The “female community” I dismiss would only be worth hanging onto if you thought there were some necessary connection between the forms that count as “innovative” and the bodies that count as female. But there isn’t. If you’re interested in poetic communities, communities of “innovative” poets make sense. Communities of women (or men) don’t.

JA (118)

TMF: I hope that any community is comprised of several communities. A shared interest in “certain formal ‘innovations’” may be only one of myriad things that draw together members of a community. Location, sexual orientation, class, environmental or political concerns. There are many things that might make “them” a community. The danger of thinking of a community’s formation as dependent any one characteristic is that it may limit movement and redefinition. (Get innovative with the innovative?)

EES: If you’re an “innovative” poet interested in women’s experiences of gender that the “innovative” poetry community as a whole does not seem invested in, it makes perfect sense to form (or simply find oneself a part of) a community of poets who are both women and poetic innovators. Such a community, in that case, would have value in and of itself and as a collective space that might enable engagement with the larger community from a position of greater strength. The same would hold true for communities that coalesce around other interests and subject positions, from race/ethnicity to geographical region, though there might be varying levels of political urgency or analytical purchase involved in thinking about poetics in relation to other commonalities (or differences).

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