May 5, 2009

The Costumes Change and Become Your Clothes: My Feminist Poetics by Becca Klaver

Becca Klaver is the author of the chapbook Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape (greying ghost press) and the Assistant Programs Director of Literature & Poetry at Columbia College Chicago. With Hanna Andrews and Brandi Homan, she founded the feminist poetry press Switchback Books; with Arielle Greenberg, she's editing an anthology of poems for teenage girls. She'll begin her PhD in Literatures in English at Rutgers University in Fall 2009.

<< History

Faux fur skirt, polyester blouse, burgundy hair à la My So-Called Life-era Claire Danes

Milwaukee, 1997. In the high school library, the one with the huge south-facing windows, reading a used copy of Adrienne Rich’s The Fact of a Doorframe that my best friend gave me for my birthday. In American Literature class junior year, we’d spent one day on Rich, Sexton, and Plath. My friend knew I’d written my essay on “Diving into the Wreck,” and she had access to things outside the suburbs—art house movies, occult shops, used bookstores near the college.

Later I’d learn that poet-girls like me were usually more enamored of the other two. Later I’d learn to love Sexton’s snaking similes and Plath’s frenetic sing-song, but first I loved that Rich could reflect myself back to myself, could say something about my life in words more precise and unflinching than I could. That, I decided, was poetry. I wanted poets like best friends. I felt so grateful for what Rich taught me about women’s lives; later I’d learn that didactic was a dirty poetry word. Still, someone had taught me that.

Black hair with blue streaks, reading on the balcony, looking up now and then at the palm trees and the absurd color of sky

Los Angeles, 2000. At first the 1970s sounded like a very long time ago, but then I considered that I’d been born in 1981, that actually I’d just missed it, that no one had ever told me until now exactly how things were different then, and how lucky I was. This ignorance had been useful for a while—it made room for a brand of confidence. But now I wanted to find out. At the university there was a magazine editor who taught part-time and showed us videos of women’s bloody, naked, and invisible bodies; there was a woman who said jouissance with a munificent smile; a woman with thick glasses who showed slideshows of female shamans in Lapland; a male graduate student, substituting all semester for the famous woman film scholar, who said things like abject, cyborg, final girl. And most importantly, there were three women who taught poetry workshops (Bendall, Seyburn, Muske-Dukes) and brought in packets each week filled with names like Duhamel, Gerstler, Marvin, Kalytiak Davis, Shaughnessy. These books had publication dates like 1997, 1998, 1999. The 70s were not so very far away and this was even closer. It turned out there were lots of ways to say girl-on-the-verge, and lots of ways left to be written.

Green-and-white striped dress, platform flip-flops, blonde bob

Chicago, 2006. During my second semester as an MFA student, I realized that I no longer cared for precision in poetry. I don’t mean I didn’t want language to be accurate to my experience; on the contrary, I felt that to be accurate, it was going to have to be much messier—rambling, noncompliant, roving with dissatisfaction. I developed a distaste for the line, and wrote in prose blocks with hanging indents. I wrote to inhabit my strangeness, and brought the weirdest poems to workshop.

I have an urge to connect this shift to my emotional life, so I’ll follow it. I remember this as a time when I was becoming less afraid of my anger. I always thought I was someone who didn’t experience a lot of anger, and maybe I had been once. Love changed that. For a while I’d let myself escalate into tantrums: surges of jealousy, desolation, “hysteria.” And then I decided I wouldn’t do that anymore—no suppression, no eruption, just sitting. I became interested in it. For most of my life I had been well-behaved—I’d been most of the things I’d later read that women were culturally conditioned to be—and as I watched my anger with curiosity, I saw that carrying a sense of propriety into my creative work was a death force. I knew then that I had to use all of the material of my life—not just what I’d previously considered the “poetic” material—in order to move forward. I wrote this poem around that time:

Citation Toward Fight & Defense

Came across feminine, marvelous, and tough
again but couldn’t remember the first time
whether it was Berrigan or out-of-context
or you        it was definitely you
and I wanted to go to the next room to ask
but if you were so sad or mad or something
you hate psychobabble but if you were so
____________ that you wouldn’t help me open
the jar of tomato sauce (I banged it against the counter
loudly which I’m sure you enjoyed but might’ve
felt unsettled by me newly bold    cursing
loudly trying to model dads-about-the-house
where usually I’d cry) if you were so BLANK that you
wouldn’t help top my ravioli then why on earth would you
help me place three adjective and an and     me who
I who’ve loved you days and years     long enough to start
forgetting these details and I can hear you chiding now
deriding now you always forget. I do not; you do too.

For bringing their sometimes overgrown gardens into the light, I get to thank poets such as Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, and Diane Wald (and Arielle Greenberg and David Trinidad—two teachers responsible for growing plenty of feminist poets and editors—for bringing them to me).

Navy-blue cotton hoodie, pink knit skirt, flats, ponytail au naturel

Stormy in Chicago, 2009. Last night I started Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ The Pink Guitar, which I should have read a long time ago. I feel a little embarrassed about that, and a little annoyed that no one ever put it in my hands. (Make small vow to increase lending, to kill trees to save women at the Xerox machine.)

All the while I’m thinking about form and content, content and form. Wanting to believe that innovations in both matter. Admitting I’m partial to innovations in content. And in language, which is somewhere in between, or which is everywhere. Impatient with forms asking too much of the reader. Because if I’m not willing to go there, then who is?

“Avant-garde” or experimental poets cannot simply discount this past; they must consciously address the social and formal imbeddings of gender. Nothing changes by changing the structures or sequences only. Narrative “realist” poets, including feminists, cannot simply discount this past; they must consciously address the formal and social imbeddings of gender. Nothing changes by changing the content only.
—DuPlessis, “Otherhow”

There was no such thing as a feminine aesthetic, we had to admit, so we took it upon ourselves to create many feminist aesthetics. This is happening now, and it’s a thrill to witness.

I don’t want to write in abstractions, but so much of what I want to say still exists as a vagueness: a cobweb in the corner, a gust over my shoulder. Sounds like a haunting and maybe it is. In conversation at home, I’ll hear myself saying triumphantly, And that’s what it’s like to be a woman! but as soon as I point to it, it ducks and shifts. I want to pin it down. I’m always chasing the red laser point to the spot where it was one second ago. I’m just like the cat. We are supposed to be grateful now, because out on the plaza the populace agrees with us: of course women can do anything they like. We are supposed to not want a surveillance state, hidden cameras in locker rooms, but sometimes that is what I want. Not to condemn. Perhaps to accuse. Certainly to be able to say, That’s it. That’s the work we still haven’t done. The things that are said and done inside homes, the things that are said and done inside skulls. That’s where poetry comes from, and that’s where it goes.

Praxis >>

Here are some feminist compositional strategies and mindsets I’ve employed:

1. Polyvocality within specific poems, or polyaesthetics across the body of work. Women and all oppressed peoples know we’ve learned to speak in many registers just to get along. The languages my sisters and I created as girls, academic and theoretical terminology, the riffing and wandering intimacies of friends, the professional veneer (friendly but not too friendly), the tearing down of artifice that a partner demands (which can also be the understanding of the uses of artifice)—all of these languages and registers, and many others, enter my poems. For me, writing as a feminist doesn’t mean resuscitating the lost feminine voices of myths, or discovering my essentially feminine voice: it means recognizing how women code-switch, and enacting the powers of those switches, or bucking their constraints. I feel various, and I want my poems to know motley pleasures, too.

2. Foregrounding the quotidian, the domestic, the interior, and the relational—then stranging, estranging, sometimes strangling them. Works of imagination and performance are important to my reading and my feminism, but in my own work, I find autobiography is plenty ripe (pliable, bursting, sticky). Subjectivity and the details of my “real life”—including found or overheard text, songs stuck in my head, and dreams (“poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know,” Rich said)—feel so complex and mysterious that I’m sure I could farm them forever, even if the activities of my life stopped right now and I were henceforth boarded up in a bedroom in Amherst, Mass. (My feminist aesthetic loves Whitman, too—see #1.) Beyond our American poetic grandparents, I also have to thank poets like Joanne Kyger, Lyn Hejinian, Eileen Myles, and Hoa Nguyen for leading the way into the quotidian bizarro.

3. Stream-of-consciousness: as unedited as possible, which allows me to inhabit the turns of my mind—and to reify, and maybe even fetishize them—in order to inscribe a psychological document. Peeks into the minds of women of the past (Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, Emily Brontë) have introduced me to new corners of my own mind (or carved them out), and I want to read and write poems that hold this type of surprise and self-revelation.


(X. Is this enough? What of the “overtly” feminist? —No, I didn’t say “dirty” feminist. Am I afraid that if I don’t sugarcoat my strategies, no one will swallow them? I’m bored with being afraid of being afraid. . . . And what’s up with preaching to the choir? The poets swaying in robes, bellowing their lyrics, don’t they already see all of this—the problems not yet laserpointed, the consciousnesses not yet articulated—in their peripheral vision, too? Is anyone listening, does anyone care? There’s a woman in my neighborhood who’s always waiting around on corners at night. Her rendition of Des’ree’s “Dreams Can Come True,” high-pitched and up-tempo outside the food mart one night, will always be stuck in my head. I can’t do anything for her; I’m too scared to even take my wallet out on the street. Those are separate goals, you’ll say consolingly, but I know they’re not. I find myself half-embarrassed but still believing what I say when I say, It exists in the cultural imagination now; these words and documents and energies called poetry have made their way into the world—they are, at least, available. Or I take the long view, the helicopter view, closing my eyes and zooming out: It’s a museum piece, an artifact of a mind and a life—a young woman poet in a hoodie and a skirt, Chicago, April 25, 2009.)


gina said...

Becca, this is a really wonderful piece. Recently I saw a young female poet read, and all I could think was there *must* be another introduction to poetry for women than Plath. I have been thinking about addressing this in an essay but haven't gotten to it yet.

shanna said...

Awesome piece, Becca. Have you read Jennnifer Moxley's memoir Middle Room (Subpress, 2007). I think you might love it. :)

becca said...

Gina--Arielle Greenberg and I have an "essay" (a conversation from when I was doing an indie study with her as a grad student) coming out soon in College Literature which is all about Plath and teenage girls. I'll email you a copy if you like!

Shanna--I haven't read it, but I just looked it up and can already tell that yes, I'll probably love it. Thanks for the rec!

et said...

Moxley's The Line is also great.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

I keep thinking about Plath, too (I'd be interested in your essay as well, Becca) because she wasn't my introduction to poetry at all--never encountered Plath in high school, never had the class on Rich, Sexton, and Plath, in college, never had someone give me those books. I went from TS Eliot to Language Poetry to New York School and Alice Notley (not exactly that neatly, but still) and have had to back track to Plath--and have trouble connecting with it. I'm nostalgic for it, though...