February 7, 2008

Dim Sum


Being several & a few responses
to the trio of "Numbers Trouble" articles
in last fall's Chicago Review


Organized by Elizabeth Treadwell


Introduction
Esther Belin
Susan Briante
David Buuck (NEW!)
CAConrad
Michelle Detorie
Rachel Blau DuPlessis (NEW!)
Tonya Foster & Evie Shockley (NEW!)
Rachel Levitsky (NEW!)
Joyelle McSweeney
Sina Queyras
Linda Russo
Sandra Simonds
Carmen Giménez Smith
Elizabeth Treadwell
Catherine Wagner
Christine Wertheim (NEW!)
Biographies

Dim Sum: Introduction

I read with some excitement the “Numbers Trouble” articles [links to PDFs provided] in last fall's Chicago Review, and in the arc of possibility their publication seemed to open up, I initiated this forum, and I thank those who joined in for their responses.

Thanks also to the Pussipo listserv (after Acker; for experimental women writers), of which this Delirious Hem is a gorgeous external organ.

I’m also grateful to Delirious Hem’s web personage, Shanna Compton, for agreeing to loosely moderate any comments these pieces garner.

--Elizabeth Treadwell

Dim Sum: Esther Belin

I did get a chance to read both articles in the Chicago Review but was not able to read the original Ashton article that spurred the conversation. Interestingly, as I read both articles I agreed with sections of each. At times, I felt the response was more of an inquiry about each author’s intent. In that sense, the conversation has furthered the dialogue around the disparity between men and women writers and teachers of writing. I agree with Ashton when she expresses regret in not making her “point more baldly” ("The Numbers Trouble with 'Numbers Trouble'”). Spahr and Young’s “Numbers Trouble” was obviously a misreading from Ashton’s point of view. And it very well may have been misread and easily disregarded but as pointed out by Spahr and Young it is Ashton’s tone for “dismissal of female community [that] parallels a larger cultural dismissal of feminism” that draws further investigation.

A misreading such as this has the potential to be quite damning and I am thankful Spahr and Young chose to address it. Ashton’s overall tone in her response burbles in curtness. Never once did I sense camaraderie with Spahr and Young as colleagues seeking fresh knowledge. Yet Spahr and Young’s inquiry splashed in the puddle of playfulness. I did appreciate their accessible language. As a working poet (I work primarily with tribal communities struggling with the English and/or written language) I am very conscious of who is actually invited to join in the conversation based on accessible style and tone of the author. Ashton was not readily accessible and a bit confusing which may account for her feelings of being misread. Then I begin to question her intended audience and motive. Is she a comrade in arms or does she play to follow her own definition of innovation?

Both articles and outside conversations I read on blogs have led me to believe there is an innate trouble when tallying numbers and applying it to humanity. I often wonder if that is an essential complication with using the amalgamated English language. It reminds me of the No Child Left Behind movement. In the end, it is all a numbers game. Yet all the students that are deemed equally proficient are definitely not equal. Does are our movement subvert us to a social Darwinism? And are we prepared for the results?

Dim Sum: Susan Briante

Trouble, Trouble

About midway through her stunning sequence The Book of the Dead, in the poem “The Dam,” Muriel Rukeyser inserts a small string of numbers that provides a key to much of what comes before and after:

111      611/4      (3.20)      671/4      691/2       671/4      691/2      +3      691/2      691/2      3,4000


This ticker tape shows a series of high/low and opening/closing stock prices for Union Carbide, the company whose exploitative mining practices in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, resulted in the death of an estimated 475 to 2,000 miners, the majority of whom were African-American migrant workers. Without Rukeyser’s research and lyric imagination, those numbers might tell a story of shrewd profit. Instead they come to represent the brute greed that took the lives of these miners.

It might seem odd to place these numbers at the start of a response to Julian Spahr and Stephanie Young’s “Numbers Trouble” essay and the debates that followed it. The numbers simply don’t compare. But Rukeyser confirms (as do much of the best writers of documentary poetry) that it takes an act of the imagination to read life into numbers, an act of poetics. What disturbs me far more than the numbers in Spahr and Young’s essay is the lack of imagination and sympathy reflected in the many narratives that have come to be wrapped around them.

For all of the numbers printed in “Number Trouble,” the most salient figure comes here: “female professors earned on average just 81% of what men earned.” These numbers suggest the economics that lurk behind the other numbers included in Spahr and Young’s essay, as well as those compiled by the editors of the Chicago Review. A report published in 2003 by the US General Accounting Office showed that for “full-time wage and salary workers, women’s weekly earnings were about three-fourths of men’s.”[1] The authors of the report then tried to calculate earning discrepancies taking into account the differing levels of education between men and women, hours worked, etc. and still found a 20 percent difference in the salaries of men and women that could not be explained mathematically.

In order to imagine the reality beyond those numbers, one must imagine a difference in the material conditions of many men and women, which may or may not affect the form of our poems but which certainly could affect how those poems are produced, the amount of time we might be able to bring to the writing desk, etc. What range of reality might exist beyond that simple 20 percent difference in salaries? One could easily imagine (if they chose to do so) that wage differences between men and women would be exacerbated by other factors such as race or ethnicity, age, even marital status or sexual orientation. (I’m suspicious of using any one single marker to gauge privilege or disadvantage.)

What troubles me about the numbers that Jennifer Ashton initially gets wrong in the essay that began this whole debate (“on the numerical level the problem of under-representation has been corrected”)--before deciding they don’t matter--is that they speak to a different kind of essentialism. The essentialism they reveal is not created by women poets (innovative or otherwise), but is imposed upon them by a market that values their work less than that of men. Any woman who does not come from the middle- to upper-classes, or is not white, or does not benefit from the privilege of a trust fund or a joint checking account might not be able to dismiss those numbers as quickly as Ashton. And Ashton is not alone.

Emily Warn, writing on the Poetry Foundation’s website, summarized her whole reaction to the conversation as: “I feel bored and a twinge of guilt.”[2] She lumped the numbers debate together with Francisco Aragon’s arguing for the inclusion of more reviews of work by Latino/a poets on the Poetry Foundation website. Warn called them both examples of “advocating on behalf” of a “poetry clan.” Warn suffers from a lack of imagination, an ability to speculate that differences in gender and race do more than simply place us in different “clans,” but may reflect vastly different historical and material realities. In the spirit of no longer reinforcing traditional inequalities, an editor--like Warn--might decide to be an activist who looks beyond the slush pile for work, who realizes (as many editors responding to the Chicago Review numbers did) that women and other traditionally under-represented groups often constitute a significantly smaller number of submissions in the first place. One might also imagine how the over-representation of a particular group would allow certain topics or styles of writing to seem universally appealing, instead of merely being the replication of a comforting and relatively homogenous worldview: one that tends to be white and male and well-heeled. But didn’t we already go over this decades ago?

Numbers are troubling. I am troubled by the number of US soldiers killed today in Iraq, the number of Iraqis killed since the start of the war, the dollar’s continued decline on international markets, the rising murder rates in Juarez, Mexico, and Newark, NJ, the scant amount of money we spend per child on public school education.... In light of these numbers, the numbers of women poets published in anthologies shrink in significance. But the lack of imagination these numbers have inspired do not. It takes both sympathy and imagination to spin a web of connections around the incident at Gauley Bridge as Muriel Rukeyser did--and as practitioners of documentary poetics continue to do.[3] At the end of Brenda Coultas’s lyric investigation “The Bowery Project,” after documenting sidewalk trash piles and makeshift shelters created by the homeless, after chronicling her own attempts at dumpster diving and becoming a public character, Coultas writes: “My own tale is of walking and observing, of imagining.”

Choose to be an activist poet or editor, but don’t choose to simply dismiss evidence of realities that do not correspond to your own. I was born in Newark, NJ, in the winter after the riots. I witnessed the 1994 peso collapse in Mexico City. It has taken very little effort to realize that I have been protected much more than others by privilege and made more vulnerable than some by the facts of class and gender, chance and choice. What I’m calling for here is both an act of ethics and poetics. If we can’t imagine the complexities of our world, how can we begin to change it? The new economy is here; the empire is over. Walk. Look around. Bite down. Hang on. Calculate. Investigate. Imagine. Get to work.

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NOTES

[1] United States, General Accounting Office Report to Congressional Requesters, Women’s Earnings: Work Patterns Partially Explain Difference between Men’s and Women’s Earnings (Washington, DC: GPO, 2003) 2.

[2] Emily Warn, “Essentialism? Say What?” Harriet: A Blog from the Poetry Foundation, 3 November 2007

[3] In the documentary, Zizek!, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek reminds us that 40 years ago we were still engaged in a fierce debate over whether socialism, communism and capitalism would prevail. Today, noting the prevalence of apocalyptic disaster movies (from Independence Day to Armageddon), Zizek concludes: “The paradox is that it is much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”

Dim Sum: David Buuck

I’d like to begin with a personal, and socio-historical, fact: I am a sexist. By this I mean simply that as an American male raised in a patriarchal society, bombarded daily by media that continue to represent gender through a misogynistic lens, educated in an system that does little to challenge this, and having undoubtedly benefited from the privileges that come from being a male in a patriarchal system, I can only ever work towards undoing this, unlearning this, fighting this. I begin with this not as any mea culpa, or excuse for bad behavior, but because one of the things I’ve noticed in all of the online chatter and backlash in response to Spahr & Young’s CR essay is how many people take it so personally, are seemingly so worried of being labeled a sexist (or any kind of –ist) that instead of looking at the broader social contexts that undergird these issues, lash out in bizarre (if symptomatic) ways. Instead of dealing with the facts and arguments presented in these essays, respondents have questioned the authors’ motives, blamed women writers (one editor even outed female poets by name, for having ‘refused’ to submit to his magazine), resorted to name calling, written long self-absorbed apologias about how hard it is to get women to send them work (uh, maybe it’s not them, but your aesthetics?), or just washed their hands of the whole thing by throwing out words like “bean-counting” and “essentialism.” I do think that part of this reaction comes out of the generational backlash (mostly from middle-class whites, mind you) against so-called (and often misunderstood) identity politics, especially the more vulgarized versions afoot on American campuses in the 90s, but the general conflation of a structural analysis with a personal one still seems misguided. It is as if I were to say, “well, I’ve never done anything overtly sexist, so this has nothing to do with me,” when the issue at hand is much deeper than that.

As far as the essays at hand go, it seems to me fairly clear to summarize (if you’ll excuse the over-simplification of the arguments for purposes of this forum).

1. Ashton’s original argument is that all women-only anthologies must be essentialist, and that since we’re all equally represented now, such essentialism is no longer needed.
2. SY & JS’s response is that a) it’s not clear that all women-only anthologies are essentialist, and b) it’s not the case that there is equal representation, in either publications or the workplace.

This to me seems pretty unassailable — if not terribly revealing — stuff. It’s still not clear to me what buttons SY & JS pushed on people, but what reactions! It’s as if they lanced a boil, and tapped into one of the taboos of the so-called experimental writing scenes: don’t talk about class, don’t talk about gender, and don’t talk about race. If you do that, you will be branded a PC bureaucrat or an essentialist.

In Ashton’s reply to SY & JS in CR, she now claims that numbers were never the point: the problem is the category of “women’s innovative poetry” itself — that to speak of a post-structuralist and anti-essentialist formal practice as anything other than gender-neutral is essentialist. But this is historically suspect, for there simply is no neutral definition of “innovative” to begin with – the categories of avant-garde, modernist, experimental, innovative, etc., all the ways in which certain poetics get privileged in certain fields, are always up for grabs, and must always be historically contextualized. To raise the question of how class, race, gender, sexuality, etc., might challenge or refract conventional notions of the innovative is not to make essentialist claims, that there is a “female” innovation or a “black” innovation, but rather to interrogate the category of the innovative itself – to suggest new formal approaches to poetics that are informed by different socio-historical positionalities and contingencies. To privilege a purely formalist definition of innovation, as Ashton does, is to police & restrict the terms by which certain formal moves are privileged (and by whom? by what measures?). To be unable to imagine how, say, a collection of experimental writing by ten different women could be produced precisely in order to demonstrate there is no essential relation between gender and form (i.e., as an anti-essentialist argument), is not only a sign of the limits of such formalism but a failure of imagination.

As far as small-press publishing goes, I don’t personally get over-excited about counting numbers in smaller independent journals and publications. I can understand, and support, the importance of zines and mags focused on representing smaller local scenes, communities, and coteries, and I have also seen the results of mainstream liberal multiculturalisms that do a good job at pluralism without ever questioning the mainstream aesthetics or politics. However, if one does not eventually aspire to transcend the local, or the coterie, or to engage in a broader discussion with the diverse cultural politics of an increasingly globalized field, I tend to lose interest pretty quick. If your mag or journal or zine continues to publish the same people, the same poetics, the same same, I find the lack of risk, the lack of self-questioning, the lack of debate, boring. Mono-cultures lead nowhere. Don’t try to publish more women, or more X, just because you think you’re “supposed to,” or because certain women make a stink about it. You should be interested enough in the world, with all its manifold strangeness and contradictions, oddities and possibilities, that your editorial/curatorial vision would organically support such an ecology of poly-verses.

Dim Sum: CAConrad

DEAR IDENTITY, DON'T TAKE ANY SHIT!

          "Time to hone the fucking consciousness!"
               --Maryse Holder

America's New Deal safety nets have been dismantled, our unions are mostly dissolved or muted, and our testosterone-driven ambassadors of privatization and military have cost over a million REAL human lives after invading Iraq, a country whose undeserved bloodshed and suffering at our hands still has absolutely no relief in sight. Could it be possible that the arts also want to be on the Right side of American history? Are the statistics that women are on the low end of being represented in experimental poetry that Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young present in their essay "Numbers Trouble" correct? The tools to measure their accuracy are not at my disposal, but the essay's importance cannot be denied from witnessing the strong responses it has generated.

The term "post identity politics" is in the news these days in reference to our 2008 presidential election year. In fact it's used rather casually by reporters. But should poetry BE news, or be led by and mimic the news? We all agree (at least I think we all agree?) that many fearless, dissenting individuals fought and suffered to make much needed room for everyone. Isn't it clear how much we owe it to ourselves to owe it to them to remain vigilant over the ground they battled for and won for us?

When I say vigilant I DO MEAN vigilant for everyone, meaning every gender, every race, every every. And while I despise the term "identity politics" because I feel strongly that it insults the room we all share, and insults those who fought for that room, I will still use it in what I have to say here, mostly because, unfortunately, it is appropriate at times. But let me say first that I feel "identity politics" to be a misnomer, meaning it has no sense of the various caste systems inherent in the kind of consumer-dependent system like America's, and how such a system's interior pulls and persuades outside bodies, including the arts, into its unconscious (and often unconscionable) orbit. Identity politics is a term as deprived of truth as saying, "Americans are living longer," something also casually mentioned in the news these days. But seriously, are ALL Americans living longer, or just the Americans who count, meaning the ones with money to spend? Are homeless Americans living longer? Are American soldiers in Iraq living longer? Are the MILLIONS of impoverished, uninsured Americans living longer? You get the drift. And furthermore, "identity politics" assumes one's identity is their choice and is being directed in such a way for gain. I agree there are those who choose a "political correctness" in order to wield power, and that is wrong, which is exactly why I said I will use the term here, but let's be honest that it is not always the case that identity is directed or wielded for power and gain.

When I say we need to be vigilant for everyone, every one of us, it is because I have observed identity politics in its worst forms, the kind of behavior that begs to be confronted. One of the most recent, bizarre incidents was on New Year's Day in New York City during the giant fundraiser marathon reading for St. Mark's Poetry Project. This incident became one of identity politics inverted. Poet Eileen Myles was making her way through the enormous crowds, handing out copies of what she was about to read, talking to us the whole time, explaining how this was only a fragment of a much larger work. About halfway to the microphone a man in the audience yelled at her, claiming that when she was director of the Poetry Project (which, by the way, was over 20 years ago!) that he had asked her for a reading, and that instead of giving him a reading she had ranted at him about how much she hated men. It caused a reflexive "SHUT THE FUCK UP ASSHOLE" from some of us, but he continued to yell at her. She marched the rest of her way to the microphone and yelled back at him, "THAT'S AN OUTRIGHT LIE AND YOU KNOW IT!" And of course anyone who knows Eileen Myles knows damn well that she is one of the last people we can accuse of being politically correct, and furthermore that she has many male friends. If you read her work those men are celebrated all over her pages. But here we were, faced with a disgruntled, anonymous man USING identity politics to accuse someone of using identity politics who hadn't used identity politics in the first place! Never mind the fact that maybe his poems sucked, NO NO, it HAD to be BECAUSE SHE WAS A MAN-HATING LESBIAN that he didn't get that reading 20 fucking years ago! It's outrageous, this kind of invented slander! This cowardly, vicious attack is a perfect example of how vulnerable women can be as we march into "post identity politics," making way for a tremendous backlash. And the term "post identity politics" is the biggest insult of all, claiming that it was just a phase we were all going through, this sissy idea of being inclusive!

Identity politics! I despise the term! The resulting complacency of its dismissive assumptions are similar to what my grandfather dealt with years ago when he warned that the union at the factory where he worked was too lazy, too eager to make concessions, and would falter. He was right, and it did, and many lives disintegrated into poverty as a result. Just because space was made for writers to be more inclusive for gender, race, etc., does NOT mean we can afford to ignore the possibility that we won't slip back into a time of inequality. In fact Spahr, Young, and others feel we have already arrived at this backslide. And ALSO, and maybe MOST IMPORTANTLY, is that we be vigilant with one another so that ALL are to be included, including those of privilege who have come from power. It's the intelligent decision, I believe, to have TOTAL inclusion! This also means (in my opinion) helping and/or inviting those who have been abusive with their power and privilege in the past to be reformed in the larger sense of equality.

In other words, what is our goal? Do we want everyone to feel that their class and gender and race are not obstacles to fitting into the arts? Or are we more interested in damning others their entire lives for fucking up, taking some asshole statement they made and throwing in their face decade after decade? Because if we do, who at that point is abusing their power?

We must be brave and speak up, or nothing will change, except maybe that things will get worse. A few years ago Kyle Conner published some of my poems in his magazine POETRY BROADSIDE. It was nice to be published, as we all know it's exciting to see our poems in print, and that someone cared enough about our poems to take the time it takes to publish them. But when he handed me the freshly printed magazine it only took me a few seconds to realize that there were no women included. Not one. It was impossible to not notice, or at least I had thought so, and I said so to him right away. And he seemed quite honestly puzzled, as though it hadn't occurred to him. What is my point with this? Ever since reading Spahr and Young's essay "Numbers Trouble" I have been calculating my own personal set of numbers. In doing so I was only interested in listing poets whose work I am blown away by, poets whose work changes me, stays with me, poetry to live with, live by, poetry I cannot live without. More than half my list of poets turned out to be women, no surprise to me. Many of the strongest minds and voices, many of the most courageous poets alive today, as far as I'm concerned, are women.

Am I saying there MUST be women in all magazines? I'm saying I don't see HOW THERE CANNOT BE, that's what I'm saying! How is it possible to overlook the women? We would have to be deaf and blind to not notice them, and it's not just their poems, but their ideas about the work! For instance, I LOVE what Kaia Sand said in a talk she and Carol Mirakove had a few years ago, information that opens the way to essential, real power (posted here):
"I chose the term 'avant-garde' over 'experimental' because 'avant-garde' implies the social side of the work. There are a lot of ways to pitch in with an avant-garde movement--this is an inclusive frame. So many artists have shown us that if you want to extend what's possible, you need to build the ground to walk on--and that's collective action."

When Tim Peterson invited me to coedit EOAGH: Queering Language with kari edwards, Paul Foster Johnson, Erica Kaufman, Jack Kimball and Stacy Szymaszek, you better believe I said YES! A chance to work with some of my favorite living poets to bring together the queer avant-garde was an amazing opportunity! During our time of editing together I attended a party, and I was talking about the project with some friends. A rather drunk grad student (I have no idea who he was and frankly I don't care to know him) overheard the conversation and interrupted by using the term "identity politics" several times, "DON'T YOU THINK THIS WORLD HAS HAD ENOUGH OF IDENTITY POLITICS!" Alcohol is not an excuse, in fact in my opinion it's merely the grease that loosens the truth from people. But it was the very kind of conversation where I did NOT want to come off as politically correct and shut him up and shut him down, but at the same time wanted to make it clear that the value of the anthology was not to separate these poets to say we were better, or deserved more, but to say WE ARE HERE, this avant-garde. Much in the same way EVERYTHING I HAVE IS BLUE was an anthology of working class queer writers to say to the greater queer writing community WE ARE HERE, this avant-garde. At the Philadelphia launch of EOAGH: Queering Language we were fortunate to have Kevin Killian in town for the event. At the microphone he thanked Tim Peterson by saying to him, "You have made the dreams of a middle age man come true because when I was young, we who were gay and lesbian, we were frightened and suspicious of the avant-garde because some members of the avant-garde despised and held in contempt those of us who were gay. And I always hoped there would be a place where we could all come together, and maybe this is it now."

We must work hard with one another to take seriously, and to live up to the equality and fairness we know we all deserve. But sometimes there is a recklessness, a hidden hostility ready to spring on anyone who bears their identity.

Making room for the unheard voices is essential, IT'S VITAL as a matter of fact, for poetry, for going for a loaf of bread down the street, for going for a job, for LIVING! It's not to be taken lightly, and it's not to be wielded for power except the power to make room. Once it's used to humiliate or slander, the generosity it once instilled is negated.

None of us can afford the generous spaces that have been created for us to be done away with. I IMPLORE some of the other writers who have been responding to Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young's essay to take a breath and please consider some of what I've said. After reading the opponents to Spahr and Young it's clear to me that some people want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Can we really afford that?

Many thanks to Elizabeth Treadwell for making this additional forum available, and for inviting me to participate.

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Delirious Hem wishes to acknowledge that this is the second version of CAConrad's piece to appear in this space. Thank you for your understanding.

Dim Sum: Michelle Detorie

Responding to “Numbers Trouble” by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young
as published in the CHICAGO REVIEW (53:2/3)


When I’ve tried to sum up the premise of “Numbers Trouble” for friends who have not read the article, I usually say that Spahr and Young begin by considering whether gender parity in poetry publishing has been achieved. They wonder if “women’s only” poetry anthologies are, as Jennifer Ashton suggests, unnecessary. Then I say that Spahr and Young focus their investigation on what they call the “experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing community.” Next I say that they found the representation of women in poetry anthologies to be closer to 30% women than 50%. I say that Spahr and Young try to show how, a number of years ago, under the influence of “feminist-interventions,” editors began to include more women in their anthologies and that the numbers improved and then plateaued. I mention that--throughout the article--Spahr and Young question the value of the numbers, that Spahr and Young point out that gender parity alone does nothing to indicate the climate of gender relations in any particular community. But their counting does lead them to conclude that gender parity in poetry publishing has not been achieved, and that this is curious since there is a widespread perception that it has. Lastly, I note that Spahr and Young end by expressing their anxiety that a discussion that relies too heavily on numbers is bound to be hindered by “first-world myopia.” And so they invite people to join the conversation.

I am glad Spahr and Young wrote this article. Almost everyone I know who is familiar with the article is glad that it exists, even if they are troubled by some of its parameters. Like K. Lorraine Graham, “I am glad someone counted.” Of course numbers alone do not tell a complete story, and thus it is important that Spahr and Young also consider a whole spectrum of misogyny in the world of poetry, including things like e-stalking, underhanded sexism, and homophobia in letters of reference. I believe that Spahr and Young intend to say: “hey--our poetry community is in trouble.” And as a social experiment, I think the essay has been incredibly successful in its revelation that many people are resistant and pedantic and hostile in response to an article which talks about gender and poetry.

But there are two places where I get stuck in the essay. The first sticking point is Spahr and Young’s decision to focus on the “experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative writing community.” It troubles me that Spahr and Young’s attempt “to construct a history of the experimental/post-modern/avant-garde/innovative scene” reifies this scene as a historical movement and closes off that community’s present and future. It suggests that the people in this movement already know that they are in it. It suggests one movement, as opposed to multiple movements. It suggests a movement that is not only historically (heroically?) male, but also very white.

As a feminist, I am compelled to decline the labels "experimental" and "avant garde." I have been at times attracted to these labels--not just because of a desire to connect with artists I admire, but also because of vanity, because it feels good. I feel increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed about this. The more I think through the hurt that comes from being excluded from (or being accepted into) communities founded upon hierarchy, taste distinctions, and the possession of cultural capital, the less I want to have anything to do with them. (It bears emphasizing that one can disaffiliate from these terms without any slackening attention to experimentation in language.)

The second sticking point is Spahr and Young’s anxiety about “first-world myopia” and their conclusion that “we are deeply complicit in a larger system of fucked-up-ness that makes us in no way oppressed or marginal.” This suggests that one can’t be marginal or oppressed while simultaneously being complicit in systems of domination. It also suggests (as Barbara Jane Reyes astutely and eloquently points out in one of a series of posts on her [former] blog) that third world conditions do not exist in many parts of the United States. They do.

I wish that this is where my difficulty relating to this article ends, but it does not. To be honest, I have been most troubled by the negative responses to the article. But before I talk about that, I do want to note the number of very thoughtful, critical, and constructive responses to Spahr and Young’s intervention (including Joshua Kotin and Robert P. Baird’s “Poetry Magazines & Women Poets,” which appears in the same issue of the Chicago Review as “Numbers Trouble”). I am incredibly grateful to people like Barbara Jane Reyes, Linda Russo, Mairead Byrne, Julia Drescher, Kate Pringle, C.S. Perez, CAConrad, Rigoberto González, and many others who have started different types of conversations. I am also very grateful to Angela Veronica Wong, whose essay "Inbetweeness" appeared in EOAGH shortly after the publication of "Numbers Trouble." That said, I’ve been incredibly disheartened to read many comments where people argued that Spahr and Young's attention to gender representation in poetry publishing was equivalent to essentialism. I saw comments that derided the counting of “dicks and pussies” (language that thoughtlessly risks traumatizing and re-traumatizing readers). I saw comments where men told women to go read Derrida. I read claims by male editors who insisted, repeatedly, that they have done more for gender in poetry than anybody. Interestingly, many of these comments were made by people who did not seem concerned about the numbers themselves. Of all the conceivable responses to Spahr and Young, only a small number predominated: those most hostile to any discussion of gender and inequality. Many reverted to pedantic arguments in an empiricist or positivist vein about statistics. Others asserted that women simply submit their poems in fewer numbers then men. Even a cursory analysis of these discussions reveals that they are seldom really about the numbers. Instead, they are all about people seeking to assert power and control and domination.

As an editor of both a journal and press that are committed to publishing work by writers who "self-identify" as women, I see "woman" as a political category. By choosing to publish work by women, I am not making an argument that there is a metaphysical difference between women and men. I do not think that there are only two sexes (male and female), two genders (women and men), or two ways to write (masculine and feminine). I do not think that there are essential differences between men and women or the writing they produce. But if systemic sexism and racism persist, then it is important to recognize gender and race as political categories (“strategic essentialism”). Which is to say that it remains politically necessary for women to identify as women in order to combat systems from which they are excluded or oppressed as women.

Ultimately, the discussions around this article and the article itself affirm the importance of building new communities that are less sexist, less racist, and less elitist. And ultimately, we don't need the numbers to tell us that. But if, in an ideal world, we would want the numbers to be different--not because of the numbers themselves but because of what the numbers could represent (a community where gender/racial/class equity exists)--these discussions are opportunities to consider the ways in which poetry communities can be more engaged with emancipatory social projects. And I am grateful for that.

Dim Sum: Rachel Blau DuPlessis

It was very strange to read Ashton’s essay last summer and to find myself face to face with a “me”--an RBD--whose opinions and positions were mainly Ashton’s invention. I don’t really want to engage in polemic with her essay nor discuss what “essentialism” is/was or how I pretty much have never talked about “the body” or “women’s writing” in the ways that are somehow attributed to me, or, rather, to this RBD simulacrum. And in many ways, the Spahr and Young essay have made a turn away from Ashton to a much more vibrant set of questions and interests. There are many cultural necessary debates about feminism, post-avant work, gender and the social institutions of literary practice that are occurring to great effect in that essay and in Dim Sum. Yet it seems to me it might be useful for people to have five or six paragraphs of echt DuPlessis, as written by her, to test Ashton’s similacrum if people desire to. All writing needs to be interpreted. And Ashton has as much right to her interpretation as anyone, but all interpreters need to check the relevant texts thoroughly. These paragraphs are from “Reader, I Married Me: Becoming a Feminist Critic.” Originally written in 1990 and 1991, first published in 1993, and with additional material from 2004, these paragraphs now appear in Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (University of Alabama Press, 2006). It is an autobiographical essay that, at the beginning (uncited here), offers a little deconstructive riff on autobiography.


I had been trying to write about Pound and Williams, to “rewrite” my dissertation: a dead task. Dead and commanding. Dead and authoritative. Dead and obligatory. Having read Robert Duncan’s illuminating essays on H.D. contextualized in a feminized and heterodox modernism (published in Caterpillar in 1969), I had never accepted the mandated ignorance of H.D.’s work, but did not bother to examine her power, for I had internalized the priorities and hierarchies of study and excellence: Cantos, worthy; Helen in Egypt, unread (Duncan 1969). But in 1975, after reading Susan Stanford Friedman’s “H.D.: Who Was She?” in the context of my developing work on women poets, I was finally propelled to begin serious study of H.D.[1] I needed a woman, a poet, and a modernist, and I needed her badly.

Despite the fact that one of my first ideas of feminist criticism was the re-reading of every cultural artifact (and, indeed, have maintained, through the years, a feminist fascination with Humanities courses and with male authors), I tilted with my whole generation toward to the startling discoveries of women writers, female “voices,” precisely because they had been culturally buried. This project was revendicatory: we were recovering something; we were claiming it. This began as “equal rights” criticism—female writers could be shown to “compete on an equal basis”; yet “women” did not necessarily live in social and cultural equality, and the position quickly modulated into the discovery of particularities in women’s writing precisely based on various readings of female social and psychological specificities and differences (from males, and sometimes, later, from other women). Of course there was an immediate investment in unifying or totalizing the idea of “woman.” As a real intellectual and cultural idea, it had just been won from a morass of prejudice, contempt, and misogyny, and needed self-solidarity, which slid (often too easily) into the notion of affirmation and unity.

What else did the early feminist criticism of women writers feel like? If we found textual marks of wholeness, it was because we sought personal and social wholeness, in a spiritual sense, yes, but also as legal redress--to be made whole. If we sought heroes in both the women writers and in their personae and characters, it was because we had few with whom to identify. The affective imperative to “identify” with the objects of study I would later resist, but then it was crucial. This first hermeneutic circle was driven by deep necessity; one must now read it contextually, with empathetic understanding. However, I always distrusted victim-to-apotheosis narratives or even pure victimhood narratives in early feminist criticism.[2] Writing itself was a complex claim to agency, and, reflecting upon the transformative energies of women writers, I called their processes of biographical and literary selection and transposition “the career of that struggle.” I suspected the notion of authenticity--finding “the” woman’s voice, as if it had--or could have been!--preserved in Atlantis-like perfection through the ages. This yearning for originary or organic moments of wholeness could be an enabling myth towards writing, but it was not useful for the critical analysis of writing. So I was constantly and skeptically skirting what has been called “cultural feminism.” For me the significant moments of feminist criticism were psycho-social, culturalist analyses of literary production; “gynocriticism” was always a subset of that approach, in my view. Writing was a complex species of ideological negotiation, the constructive and formal transposition of cultural materials in a social matrix: that idea persists in all my critical work. [This appears on pp 25-26 of Blue Studios; a page or two later, I talk about the essay “For the Etruscans” in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (1990). University of Alabama Press, 2006.]

“For the Etruscans” wasn’t prewritten--it was a negotiation with materials arrayed. After I had given a seminar at a Barnard College Conference on Women and Society on the question (not the certainty) of “a” female aesthetic--a burning issue in 1979--I was asked to write it up. So I did. Although I was committed to collaging other people’s voices with my own as only one among many, in actuality it did not quite work out that way. Authorship is not dissolved by fiat. But that is why the “author” of that essay is myself and “Workshop 9”--the presence of interlocutors was crucial. The presence of a feminist movement was even more crucial.

Rhetorically “For the Etruscans” mingles manifesto, analysis, inter-cuts of material from that Workshop, letters to friends, the fluid form of talking, and a sense of audience--the enormously excited and participatory group of women for whom, to whom, from whom I was speaking. The essay, with its commitment to multiple citation and to recording participants in that seminar--was writing into that fervent and palpable and aroused and debating female space (cf. Carla Kaplan 1996). Thinking was a real situation and had real stakes. A rhetoric and an analysis have a social matrix; its ethics is created in responsibility to that matrix. Utopic love roused art for rethinking, re-seeing.

I did not want hierarchy or claims of controlling authority over a set of materials; thus I chose “collage” and “the field” as modes or methods of thought, quite aware of using modernist “devices” for feminist purposes. The two tactics were invested in the creation of a site in which things happen and are juxtaposed. Ludic things: Rhythms of apprehension. Stress shifting. Change-ups. Carnivalizing yet analytic discourses. Mongrel, hybrid sounds. Placing the reader, as well as the writer, in a variety of subject places. Faceting. Dissolving the author into the sounds of the text. Making chaos, diversity, melange. Constructing a porous openness of thought. In this essay, a particular female person makes analysis, has dreams, outcries, offers doubled-voiced montages, mats of citation, experiences longing, grief, and curiosity in/out of the situation of acute feminist attention. Its (apparent) inclusiveness and its fragmentation, its heteroglossic glissades are consciously oppositional and critical.

“For the Etruscans” has had a career of its own. It has been taken as an example of what it set out to study—of “the” female aesthetic. However, what it actually says is that women, like other members of “(ambiguously) non-hegemonic” social groups, are driven to use structural, rhetorical, and epistemological tactics that run counter to normative ones (DuPlessis 1990, 14). I did not try to falsify or distort what I thought: that “feminine” writing tactics were the tactics that can be chosen by any non-dominant group. The rhetorics and strategies are situational, not essentialist. This was not a popular finding then, when we were, in general, in the full bloom of a dynamic, rather absolute and resolute sense of female difference. Yet insofar as I was acting oppositionally—refusing patriarchal culture as a choice, I also chose to use the very rhetorics I discuss. The essay makes no special claim for a or the female aesthetic (or even solely female aesthetic), but its rhetoric can arouse to hope for change of consciousness and ideology, can move the reader (at least temporarily) into a utopian space of gender hope. Doing that kind of work offered an artistic extasis that also proposed some serious principles about the polyvocal, the multi-generic, the interested, the non-objective.

It seemed that one needed, as a feminist, to invent an endless number of forms, structures and linguistic ruptures that would cut way beyond language-business-as-usual and narrative-business-as-usual, which always seemed to end up with “the same” kind of binary, “patriarchal” normalcy. Experimental writing of all sorts had always been crucial to the feminist project of cultural change: of revolution, not revision. It seems to me that feminism (with other socially based cultural movements) is a necessary completion of modernism. (Of modernisms, both “high” and “post-.”) Writing cannot make these changes alone; but writing exerts a continuous destabilizing pressure, and, in both analytic and formal ways, creates an arousal of desire for difference, for hope. If consciousness must change, if social forms must be re-imagined, then language and textual structures must help cause and support, propel and discover these changes. So the essay aims at the decolonization of mind by the analysis of the deepest of imbedded structures: gender. [This appears on pp. 27-28; the conclusion of the essay occurs on 31-33--the following three paragraphs:]

My whole career has been challenging the politically quietist sheer-formalist and challenging the formally-stolid narrowly-construed political. Working the between.

This “poethics”--a wonderful coinage of Joan Retallack--involves investigation, examination, critique, resistance. To see, at least, where I’d been, as my feminist “poethics” debated modernist experiment, I collected ten years of my essays (mainly published by small press journals from 1979 on) in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (DuPlessis 1990). Since a number of the essays concerned Pound, Williams, and Eliot, as well as Duchamp, at least I managed finally to “rewrite” my dissertation. This critical position went along with a mobile investigative strategy in writing poetry highly indebted to objectivist practice: investigation of “the real world, the real, real world,” as Carl Rakosi once remarked in conversation. For some of the poetics and some of the intransigence, I was indebted to the work of the objectivist poet George Oppen, many of whose writings in poetics occurred in his self-chosen form: personal letters. With a perspective on archival work about neglected or marginal figures that I had developed from work on H.D., I engaged from 1980 to 1990 on a large-scale editorial and textual project: The Selected Letters of George Oppen, which presents materials important (in my view) to contemporary poetry and poetics (Oppen 1990). My interest in the critique and dissolution of the canon (note the working contradiction) is not focused solely on women writers.

Following the logic of feminist critique, I saw that reading gender needs to be further elaborated by analytic interplays among studies of race, class, sexualities, religious culture and other psycho-social forces and locations, and by studies of the manifestations of these markers in culture and text. Feminist cultural studies would be based on establishing a plural, dynamic relationship among social markers as constructed in and as text. None of these markers is static and already understood, but each is created in political, cultural, social, and historical interactions whose activities, contradictions, and textual manifestations need critical scrutiny.[3] I wanted to discuss all this for the poetic text. In doing this work, I argued that modern poetry drew upon, helped to create, and responded to several new entitlements for social subjects in modernity: New Woman, New Negro, New Jew. These subject positions brought other issues and subjectivities in their wake, including the discourses of maleness/ manhood/ masculinity, of whiteness, of mongrelization, and of hegemonic Christianity. But it was not simply the statements and themes of poetic texts that interested me; I rejected extractive readings for a study of the helix of poetic form and ideological positions. My book about modern poetry brings together my interest in the intense aesthetic substance of the poem and in socio-cultural readings. Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 offers a post-formalist reading strategy that looks at the deep mechanisms of literary texts with a kind of “New Critical” care, yet, at the same time, links formal material to the issues that purist New Criticism rejected: social substance, biographical traces, constructions of subjectivity, historical debates, ideological strata (DuPlessis 2001). Thus the book foregrounds a practice of “social philology”: the interdependent mesh of a text’s social and aesthetic aspects, mediating between what is said in poetry and what is said as poetry.

I have never thought there was one way women did or should or could write: style, form, structure, language, rhetoric are all tools consciously and unconsciously used in the deep agency of writing. As Woolf said in A Room of One’s Own--certain material differences between men and women are still constructed and perpetuated in our society, and it is the job of feminism to resist these, to try to dismantle these, and, as well, to understand their impact, which can be considerable in the case of artists. This is the importance of feminist reception and writing inspired in the general matrix of ongoing feminist critique. [This is the last paragraph of the essay.]

--------------------
NOTES

[1] I had the pleasure of working in H.D.'s manuscripts and archives, always, I would argue, a vital move for an enriched understanding of figures whom one is trying to recontextualize and put on the critical agenda. My work on H.D. issued in DuPlessis 1986, Friedman and DuPlessis 1990 and essays in DuPlessis 1990.

[2] The introduction to The Feminist Memoir Project analyzes this phenomenon. “Earlier on [in second wave feminism] women could bear to name themselves as victims because the end of victimization was in sight—through feminist politics. In contrast, the word ‘victim’ today is like a heavy stone; no one expects victimhood to budge soon, so once again, few want to acknowledge a ‘sisterhood’ of timeless pain and sorrow. And those who enshrine victim status run the risk of seeming to claim that such status is in itself a source of power” (DuPlessis and Snitow 1998, 20).

[3] Thus, I feel situated in what Susan Stanford Friedman called Post/post-structuralist feminist criticism, a criticism that (like Nancy Miller's) does not scant intention, agency, thematics, and the impact of material conditions, while it makes nuanced readings of language and linguistic play, the partial and interested claims of any reality, and the careers of master narratives (Friedman 1991). This is what it now (1990) meant to me to be a "feminist reader."

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.

JS & SY


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).