May 8, 2009

Monday May 4: Mary Biddinger, Anne Boyer, & Brandi Homan
Tuesday May 5: Megan Kaminski, Becca Klaver, & Majena Mafe
Wednesday May 6: Gina Myers, Martha Silano, & Leah Souffrant
Thursday May 7: K. Lorraine Graham, Elizabeth Treadwell
     & Sarah Vap
Friday May 8: Teresa Carmody, Kim Rosenfield, Vanessa Place,
     & Christine Wertheim

Click on the above links to view the pieces, or scroll down to skip this intro!

There are likely as many strains and modes of feminist poetics as there are of feminism, but in reviews, discussions, and even our own manifestos, we often fall into shorthand that fails to explore this valuable friction, our own variations. I've lately longed for unpacking, and so issued this open-ended call:
This is What a Feminist [Poet] Looks Like: what branch of feminism, model of feminist poetics, feminist icon, or etc. informs your poetry? Or, from which of these does your poetry diverge? Are there particular feminist tactics you employ? Do you consider yourself a feminist in many ways, but don't particularly involve it in the poetry? Feel free to take liberties with the questions! Short, long, essay, manifesto, whatever appeals to you!

Curated by Danielle Pafunda

MY GENIUS IS NO MORE THAN A GIRL* by Teresa Carmody, Kim Rosenfield, Vanessa Place, & Christine Wertheim

*Note: Title is taken from libretto written by Vanessa Place, in
collaborative project with Stephanie Taylor, "Murder Square Dance at the Spiral Jetty"

Christine Wertheim is a former painter with a PhD in literature and
semiotics from Middlesex University, (UK). She teaches at the California
Institute for the Arts for whom she co-organizes an annual conference:
Séance (2004), Noulipo (2005), Impunities (2006), Feminaissance (2007),
Untitled (2008). With Matias Viegener she has co-edited two anthologies of
contemporary experimental writing: Séance, Make Now Press, 2006, and The
noulipian Analects, Les Figues Press, 2007. A third, Feminaissance is
forthcoming in Fall 2009. The book of her own poetics +|'me'S-pace is
published by Les Figues Press, 2007. Christine also co-directs The Institute
For Figuring, which organizes presentations and exhibitions on the
intersections of art and science.

Vanessa Place is a writer and lawyer, and co-director of Les Figues Press.
She is the author of Dies: A Sentence (Les Figues Press), a 50,000-word,
one-sentence prose poem; the post-conceptual novel La Medusa (Fiction
Collective 2), and, in collaboration with appropriation poet Robert
Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009). Place is
also a regular contributor to X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, and is
collaborating with Los Angeles conceptual artist Stephanie Taylor on the
film, Murder Squaredance at the Spiral Jetty. Her nonfiction book, The Guilt
Project: Rape and Morality will be published by Other Press in 2010. Place
is co-founder of Les Figues Press, described by critic Terry Castle as "an
elegant vessel for experimental American writing of an extraordinarily
assured and ingenious sort."

Kim Rosenfield is a poet and psychotherapist. She is the author of Good
Morning--Midnight-- (Roof Books 2001), which was named Small Press Traffic¹s
Book of the Year in 2002, Tràma (Krupskaya 2004), and re: evolution (Les
Figues Press 2009). Rosenfield has published and performed extensively in
the U.S. and in Europe. She has collaborated with visual artists Jean Foos,
Cheryl Donegan, Yedda Morrison, and with choreographer Sally Silvers.
Rosenfield lives and works in New York City.

In response to the call “this is what a feminist [poet] looks like,” I asked three Les Figues authors—Christine Wertheim, Kim Rosenfield and Vanessa Place—to respond to the following prompts:

1. Locate an aspect of feminism within your work.
2. Locate an aspect of feminism within the work of (Christine Wertheim / Kim Rosenfield / Vanessa Place).

I wanted to hear how each these poets would articulate her feminist aesthetic: a question becomes an answer becomes a question becomes a series of post-modifying noun phrases becomes a tool, says Rosenfield, “with a ponytail and moustache.” But of course, each one of us is also made from many others, a point eloquently made over and again in different ways in the poetry of all three of these women. In demonstration, then, I wanted to hear each of them writing about the work of another. The resulting text is poly-lingual and absolute in its, as Place says, “rejection of absolute truth.” Or as Wertheim says, “perhaps it can also be read another way.” Yes, indeed, so says a feminist.


[On Vanessa Place: To Die, to Sleep. To Sleep, perchance to dream.]

[This text refers to three works by Vanessa Place, noted as follows: Notes on Conceptualisms (NoC), LA Medusa (LM), Dies: A Sentence (D).]

Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them. [s]He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as an interpreter. And in [her] hands the image becomes something other (allos = other + agoreuei = to speak), Craig Owen, "The Allegorical Impulse"

In Notes on Conceptualisms, co-authored with Rob Fitterman, Vanessa Place argues that "Conceptual writing is allegorical writing, (NoC, p. 13). This might seem a surprising assertion, given that most work which has so far claimed inclusion in this category has been produced by using appropriated materials or exhaustive generative procedures. But as Place and Fitterman argue after Craig Owen, such procedures lie at the heart of allegory, for allegory is an other way of telling, a way of using one set of materials to allude to something completely other. What could thus be more allegorical than something purloined from one environment, and inserted into another to make it say something wholly different than the original context allowed? What also could be more feminist?

As a manner of speaking or writing allegory uses two tongues, two lips. Or to use an earlier terminology, it is a way of using language in which two contents are contained within the same form. For many modern (i.e., romantic and post-romantic) aestheticians, this doubleness is anathema, because it destroys the old aesthetic idea that what makes art Art is the indissoluble unity between a form and a content, the absolute appropriateness and, even necessity, for this content to be expressed in that very particular form. This is, of course, a version of the old Master's Truth. To be sure, it is an aesthetic Truth that we are discussing, but nevertheless it is an aesthetics of mastery and domination and uniqueness. According to much classical modern aesthetics, allegory undermines this artistic Truth for, by saying two things with the one form, the absolute identification of one form with one specific content is denied. If in allegory two contents are expressed with one form, this implies that there are many ways of saying the same thing, or rather, that the same figure of speech can say many things at once. Allegory is thus not only innately polyvocal, it is excessive, and parodic, and it engenders supplementarity.

Allegory in other words approaches the condition of La Medusa; "referring to the scales encrusting my heels and the creeping slits of where my fingers and toes are prone to split, though never to a set of hooves, never something so sharp or useful, my condition never ends, just as it never began, (LM, p. 165). It is a condition in which mimesis is not just an aesthetic activity, but a way of dealing with the constitution of a self. Like Cahoir's insects whose imitations of twigs and leaves do not fool their predators, but only their siblings. Allegory as mimetic possession. I dream I am La Medusa, and a whole city springs from her head, round which balls ripen into men and women who come screaming bare-liked into being…(LM, p. 165)

But there is also death. It is a sentence, execute in slow motion, violent and soft at the same time: Pierre Guyotat meets Virginia Wolfe. War literature at its finest, its most literal, for what is war but the making of a death sentence. And it is made, made-up, from bits and pieces, fragments or crumbs dropped from the vast table of modern literature, put into a new Place, to make a new sense; the sense of a contemporary allegory about new possibilities, even in the face of the death of the face that does not see, but freezes one to stone.



Recently in Berlin, Kim Rosenfield the conceptual poet presented a paper on “poetics in the invitational mood.” ☼ This invitational mood as described by Kim Rosenfield the occasional essayist involves multiple subjectivities, multiple objectivities, multiple temporalities, and many Kim Rosenfields—including “Kim Rosenfield the arena” and “Kim Rosenfield the perfect hostess.” The invitational mood as enacted by Kim Rosenfield the clinical psychotherapist is the understanding that Kim Rosenfield the conscious subject is, like all sentient subjects, an objective set, and the set of Kim Rosenfield is an incomplete set insofar as it does not include not Kim Rosenfield, and the set of Kim Rosenfield is an unsettled set insofar as it alludes to Kim Rosenfield the audition. ♫

For, according to Kim Rosenfield the oral history, the invitational mood invokes “try-on” language. “Try-on” language is language that “unthinks” its otherwise static associations and syntax. “Try-on language is like the best adolescent, or Jackie O., the fashion icon, able to occupy multiple mes in a life that is au courant and à la mode. According to Kim Rosenfield the building inspector and Kim Rosenfield the fun-at-parties, every now includes a then, and every then is replete with the to-become. If Kim Rosenfield the as-if knows anything, it’s that I = me + them sure as this way = that way = this way + that way.♫ And thus, Kim Rosenfield the prime number makes poetry that is an ode to telemachus, to the transmigration of souls, not in the dubiously optimistic here-to-come but in the more cobbled here&now, for Kim Rosenfield the imparfait is present-tensed and stuffed with plums of sadness and great glee, scientific disambiguation and corporate pep-talks, common sense from common people and shoes that shine gold and silver and never say Stop!♣

True to her absolute rejection of absolute truth, Kim Rosenfield the definite article allows for a field of definite articles: “the” is always many: there are only local truths. Kim Rosenfield the store locator also knows, just as Kim Rosenfield the tear-stained-face suspects, that each definite article is in this way an article of real faith, to be had, even temporarily, at the price of some other mark of oneself, equally personal, equally precious, equally degraded, denuded and netted in the same thin web. Giorgio Agamben writes about “life’s subjection to a power over death and life’s power over death and life’s irreparable exposure in the relation of abandonment.” The terribly tensile “thes” of Kim Rosenfield the vice principal constitute the awful ongoingness of us, that part where abandonment meets resistance meets a well-turned ankle and a hole in the Wall. Alain Badiou observes that the state is founded, not as a social tie, but as an untying that binds: the ability to exclude from the state is what constitutes the state. Kim Rosenfield the tool box praises the pathos of the personal liaison and the historical enchaînement, poetic practices that are feminist politics to the felt beat of the tambourine, O yeah.♫ Because Kim Rosenfield the you-can-jive has abandoned the divide between inside and outside, that false comfort which is so comfortable for poetics of the ironic gestural and personal polemic varieties.{∞}

Meanwhile, Kim Rosenfield the true story is to Vanessa Place the jurisdiction as Kim Rosenfield the loss is to not Vanessa Place the sentence whereas Kim Rosenfield the whatever is Vanessa Place is the Kim Rosenfield. And we are all of us the better for it.☺


[My Feminism is Near (Yay!)
(Based on the Transition Revolution Franchise Model)]

Feminism in my work is about building resiliency. Feminism, I say, depends on working together, not building bunkers. Feminism is about reducing the impact of what comes out of the tailpipe of society, putting new systems in place to help it withstand the shocks that come so we can plot a path of elation rather than of guilt, anger, and horror. My feminism is a kind of coming-out party meant to engage the public in my work. It’s like any other civic organization. My feminism can harness the “power of human energy,” and address the world’s gloomiest challenges without shoving them into denial or depression. My feminism is located in the Panida Theater, a classy old movie house in Sandpoint, Idaho. “Sandpoint, are you ready?” My feminism is deeper—more radical—than mere greenness or sustainability. My feminism gains heat from my neighbors and they from it. It isn’t a very romantic notion and maybe achieving status so easily is a sign that its not really talking the level of paradigm-busting work needed to be awakened in us. Maybe it will turn out to be regrettable, but maybe it could be unusually constructive. My feminism already lives a scaled-down life. It is quite tall, with a ponytail and moustache. It’s already bartered, shared, and canned together. Tradesmen, workshops, cultural institutions, and farmland surround my feminism. I make my feminism as self-sufficient as possible. For a generation, feminists have told us to change our lifestyles to avoid catastrophic consequences. My feminism tells us those consequences are now. My feminism can be a bridge to carry us over the terrible time ahead and into a world we long for. It is a force somehow outside us. My feminism emphasizes hopefulness over fear & focus over messiness. I like having a dishwasher. My feminism might topple governments, alter national boundaries, incite wars, and challenge the continuation of civilized life. Feminism is inevitable. But this is a feminism that could be fantastic. My feminism came to me in a dream in which there’s no problems, there’s only solutions. My feminism is starting to career down the other side of the hill, which hill, specifically, is up to you. But it’s the shadowy side, and none of us can see the bottom. My feminism is the mottled product of a century of migration. My feminism is going to journey into 2030 and see what’s there for us. My feminism is trying to look on the bright side of an America with less. My feminism is a good tool for the job. I can pick it up by whatever handle I grasp. I can swing it as earnestly as I can.


[The Infrared Figuring of Chr|st|ne Werthe|m]

Chr|st|ne Werthe|m is working to bring into focus details and patterns that exist outside of immediate perception. Her infrared poetics sees every piece of a dynamical system, a fractal feminine that paves the way to infinity. Seeing infinity is infinitely feminine in that it expands and opens to endless possibility. Possibility is inherently feminine by means of measuring qualities that otherwise have no clear definition. Her authorship provides for a society, “a me, a mother, a rhythm of time.” It is infinitely relational. Her first book from Les Figues Press, +|’me’S-pace doc. 001b, is a psycholinguistic Koch snowflake-- a plane fractal with a finite area and an infinite perimeter. She is a feminist who runs with the Mandelbrot set. A Leibnitzian drop of water contains a teaming universe; a werthe|m|an litteral poetics contains an infinite # of linguistic strands in one organ, the litteral tongue:

But perhaps we should clarify something.

there are no singular or correct ways to understand
the arrangements of a tongue.

All readings make (some) sense to some|.

(Perhaps this is the definition of a reading?)

A tongue is thus less a uni-verse, than a multi-verse.

(from +|’me’S-pace)

The permutations of these formulations are engineered to key us in to the workings of psychic structure. Her feminism implies incursion; patterns inside of patterns. Hers is the infinitely vast work of Mother Nature inherent in phase-space language streams connecting our basic humanness. Chr|st|ne and her twin sister, Margaret Wertheim, have orchestrated a Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef, (see Institute for Figuring which is the tactile fractalization of interconnectedness, both amongst the global handicrafters they collaborate with, and also amongst our sense of nature as collaborator with us.

According to their website, The Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef is “a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.” In the Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef, as in Werthe|m’s poetical lexicons, ideas are sculpted material whose variables change continuously making a flexible system of expansion and abstracted essential information. A smooth flow can break up into whorls and eddies. Wild patterns disrupt boundaries between fluid and solid. Language transmutes to a flexible organ, supple and elastic, creating it’s own intuition from scratch.

What is beautiful and most relational to me about Chr|st|ne’s work is that every piece of this dynamical system can move independently and can become another variable, and thus gain another degree of freedom. Individuation through connectedness. Her complex pattern formations of language and thought are the ultimate expression of free will, freedom, and, I think, what conceptual women want: “Dynamics freed at last from the shackles of order and predictability…Systems liberated to randomly explore their every dynamical possibility…Exciting variety, richness of choice, a cornucopia of opportunity.” (Joseph Ford) This is what we’ve fought and fight for, this is the +|’me’S-pace, and this is our psycholinguistic life science sisterhood with chr|st|ne werthe|m.


["Read My Desire
by Joan Copjec"]

Q: Why is my work feminist?
A: Because I want to make love with language.
I do not mean I want to use language to make love to some other, but to make love with (a) language itself. To let it come, so that we can hear what it has to say for itself.
By (a) language of course I mean the English tongue…my mother's tongue. I do not, like Joyce, want to use this tongue as a device for making myself come. I know what I sound like. I want to know how some other appears. Specifically I want to know how the English tongue appears when it has been voided of human presence and will, when it has been avoided by my presence and will.

Perhaps this sounds like the apparently typical contemporary teenager, wantonly, willingly handing out blowjobs, asking for nothing, in return for herself. Perhaps, like this teen dis-ease, my poetic desire is just another sign of the perversions of the "sexual revolution." Not to say that it hasn't had its benefits, but it has its perversions as well. And perhaps this is one of them. It can be read that way.

But perhaps it can also be read another way. Perhaps it is more like becoming a mother myself, a mother to language, voiding my desire so that the little (t)on(g)e can be tickled pink without feeling itself being invaded. And mothering is a feminist process, in spite of its selflessness. Even just because of its selflessness. But my desire, and its a-voidance for others, is not the only subject around which a feminist work can revolve. There is also the question of work and words?

Q: What kind of work and words are mine? What kind of work and words are feminist?
A or Q?: Words that stay in process avoiding being solidified, reified, turned into stable objects? Words that allow themselves to express their rage as being's-mothered, s-mOUthered, vO|ded, avO|ded, vO|ced? Words that don't what to come. Words that don't want to be put into a mOUther. Words that want to be left alone. What about them? Are they feminist?

Q: And what about the Tongue itself…my mother's tongue? Is it (a) feminist?
A: Not as used commonly. But what if we were to look and listen carefully; trying to catch the nuances where the loneliness and arrogance of the|'Sone's solo vO|dse ceases to be so rigidly distinguished from the togetherness and shame of the-m-Other's flowering h|men? What if we were to attune ourselves to the places in words where this distinction breaks down and the | becomes just a part of the-m-any-Other |s?

Q: Is this a feminist word/k?
A: Oui. Ooooooouuuuuuuuuiiiiiiiiii! Ooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

May 7, 2009

The Mind is a Muscle by K. Lorraine Graham

K. Lorraine Graham is a writer and visual artist. She is the author of Terminal Humming (Edge Books, May 2009) and several chapbooks, including Large Waves to Large Obstacles, forthcoming from Take Home Project. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Traffic, Area Sneaks, Foursquare and elsewhere. She currently lives in southern California with her partner, Mark Wallace, and Lester Young, a pacific parrotlet. You can find her online at

There should be something in this piece about the fact that there are many Feminisms and so many kinds of Feminist poetry. Culture and language are neither universal nor static. There should also be sections in this little piece about camp and performance. I'd also like to talk about hippies and the circus, as well as the construction of animal subjectivities and how animals and women are often symbolically connected (Michelle Detoire is doing really interesting work along those lines). Probably I should also talk about aliens. In fact, I won't talk about any of these things directly, but maybe you can just try to imagine them as you read this. I will say probably say "power" and "structure" a lot.

A Feminist reader looks at a text and asks what it suggests, implicitly or explicitly, about women and gender. As a Feminist poet, I consider how my poems invite readers to think about gender and the ways gender can reaffirm and challenge cultural norms. My poetic practice is informed by both French Feminist theory then U.S. Feminist theory. Broadly speaking, though, I find the terms of French Feminism more helpful for thinking about my poetry. I'm less concerned with how to get women into institutions and positions of power than how to change the way institutions and power are constructured. Those two goals are connected, of course. Sometimes having women with economic and cultural power can change power structures, but often women with power may identify with those structures just as much as the people who created them: Margaret Thatcher. I'm interested in a Feminist poetics that critiques power structures and is alert to the roles that gender plays in creating, supporting and undermining such structures.

I am skeptical of an ecriture feminine, but Helen Cixous' description of binary oppositions and the typically subordinate place of the feminine within most symbolic orders remains very helpful. Cixous gave me a way to understand the relationship between language, culture and gender. I remember learning the word "bitch" in first grade and eventually realizing that the only way to insult a boy using this word was to call them a "son of a bitch." By now, this anecdote is a cliche--every Feminist has one like it; I'm still suprised by the ways everyday language reinforces cultural norms. I teach English as a foreign language, and I'm constantly having to explain the gendered and cultural connotation of words, how "groupie," for example, can refer to either a woman or a man but typically means a woman, how many insults are based on attacking or questioning someone's gender. My point is obvious. Still, the way we represent things matters. The words we choose and the way we put them together matters.

When I started working on my first book, Terminal Humming, (which will be out within weeks from Edge Books), I had four very general ideas in mind:

1) I wanted to write about how much employment and bureaucracy suck and
2) I wanted to write about how women and men interact.
3) I also wanted to really question my own emotional investment in these two cultural institutions--employment and romance--and I wanted to do it in a way that was as honest as possible. Finally,
4) I felt that none of the social and professional discourses I knew were sufficient enough to do this. I knew I'd need to play with everything, with words, sound, images, space, source, syntax, etc.

For me, writing is always an investigative process--an idea I initially got from Tina Darragh. I never begin a project knowing how it will end--that's also part of what I consider a Feminist poetics: even though everything I write is going to be inevitably caught up in cultural norms and expectations, I want my poems to push against such expectations, even as they acknowledge that they are caught up in them. So, I don't start with conclusions. Or, if I do have conclusions, I start by questioning them. These questions are based on a series of concerns that I want to address--usually some combination of something formal and thematic. Making the poem is a process of finding the boundaries of those concerns and edging them in different ways to see what happens. In order to be a Feminist writer I need to be a Feminist reader: Why don't I like this job? How do other people describe my job? How do I feel when I read the handbook of acronymns for the Department of Defense? How come I never got hooked on Sex and the City? Why do I love Star Trek so much? Why do my boyfriend's domestic fantasies freak me out so much?

The more I wrote about and researched employment, bureaucracy, and heterosexual love, the more worrisome and intertwined the connections between all three became. When I started writing lyric love poems that parodied bureaucratic and contractual language, I knew that I was ready to finish the project.

At its most basic, Feminism is a critique of power structures and the role that gender plays in those structures. A consideration of gender quickly, in my mind, extends to a concern with bodies and materiality--and not just women's bodies, either. If I'm really interested in a poetic investigation of power structures and my own relationship to them, then I don't see how I can avoid bodies. Poetry and Feminism aside, I don't really see how I can avoid bodies. Besides, meaning is social--it happens through contact with others. In my creative work, I like to play with an intense and exaggerated exploration of life as a female body but also an exploration of a withdrawal from the physical, even though that's impossible. In my recent readings, I’ve been looking to women like Lee Ann Brown and Julie Patton (who both recently performed at Cal State San Marcos), as well as recent work by Laura Elrick and Rodrigo Toscano while drawing on my own background in modern dance to incorporate movement and polyvocality into my performances. I have no idea if it's working--it feels nerdy and campy. But when my own work freaks me out, I feel like I'm on to something interesting.

All of that sounds very heady. Oh well. I agree with Yvonne Rainer that "the mind is a muscle." Here's a list of some of my feminist icons: Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Colette, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles, Yvonne Rainer, Sophie Calle, Yoko Ono, Kathy Acker...

Suchwomen: d’hem fem & 5 pim: or / I am not strident no I am, all / the little faulty referent by Elizabeth Treadwell

Elizabeth Treadwell's books include Wardolly (Chax, 2008) and Birds & Fancies (Shearsman, 2007). She is slowly working on some long poems and a picture book. All the poetry here is part of her manuscript “fleece pimsy,” formerly known as “Virginia or the mud-flap girl” and/or “Ancient Celebrity Tune-rot”; the first bit also appears in Try, edited by David Brazil and Sara Larsen, with thanks to them.

Suchwomen: d’hem fem & 5 pim: or
I am not strident no I am, all
the little faulty referent


[fleece pimsy] (holly-hoo)

mine is no proper callback
cop-cop-coppering the girlish stone
heavy townslot circumstance hour
waterbeastly punk middling
the townslot her breasts her weener
her punk flimsy lowly box
its toxic mumble, set-debut
getting pounded by the local clerics
as thing 1 & thing 2 scritch across the scrunchy weave
yes doctor fur, pale citizens
of the league, yes pity lean-to
crabby narrow her breasts her fleas
reclamation’s privy set-list
in the townslot holly-hoo
under the shade of some annoying shade-tree, eh?
posit some confab!
en shva asp!



dang! that boyish certainty
duh! the dusty cock-eyed
darn! such o’er-directed art values!
omg! wtf!

a sharp credulity has gotten me this far,
in a mostly readable, parasitic state

plain-chant our (mercy hollow) mini-theory
inscribe our uniform career apparel
at the atrocity ball, downsizing the ruin
in gutterside signage
or even less viz.


rest in suchwomen

rest in suchwomen
my fleecy abs
such human nature
she’ll be willing to quote you back into the fields


“There are ideas without women in them.” –Sarah Anne Cox, Parcel (O Books, 2006)

“The deadening problem for artists is the poisonous myths that our society perpetrates about their social role. We are expected to ‘create’ instead of participate. The importance of art is nullified while art is placed on a silly pedestal. This is historically a recent and minority view about the purpose of art.”
–Jimmie Durham, “Creativity and the Social Process” (in A Certain Lack of Coherence, Kala Press, 1993)

“Greg Fuchs: Talk about feminism. Where do you situate yourself in the history of feminist discourse?
Eileen Myles: I don’t know what that means. I’m biologically female, but I’ve often felt like a man. But when you think about the place of rape in the history of the world, of the kind of mundane enslavement of women that’s part of the history of the world…. I have no idea what feminism means. It feels too small for responding to that large an offense.”
–from The Poetry Project Newsletter # 219, April-June 2009

“Women’s rights are the answer to so many global problems. But people will try everything else first.”
–Michelle Goldberg, interviewed by Christine Smallwood in The Nation, 4/13/09

“How devoid contemporary life is of spirituality; so devoid, that people seek it in the wrong ways in the wrong places, invariably going unfulfilled and mystified as to why. And yet, few, if any, suspect that this great void in their lives is a major portion of the price they are paying for the racism that taints everything American—every aspiration, dream, and religious credo.”
–Wanda Coleman, to Truong Tran, in Letters to Poets (Saturnalia, 2008)

“Food, dolls, stories, baskets, beadwork, silverwork, weavings, hand drums, flutes, songs and dances tell us who we are and teach us how to care for ourselves and our relations. Farmers, artists, wise men and women, weavers, dancers and singers invest their time and money living tradition, making a place for us in the here and now. They invest their resources in us and our future, creating and forging relationships that support us as individuals and as people. When we support them we support ourselves. When we purchase objects or services based in hate and exploitation we are funding hate and exploitation.”
–Reid Gómez, For Future Reference (


Elizabeth Treadwell is a radical feminist platform, little shorebird, little shore.

I am not a theory-based artist.

Take for example the recent McCain/Palin framing of the “pro-life” issue, especially McCain’s jaw-dropping scoffing at “the health of the mother.”

I am a mother.

I speak as a U.S. citizen, born and resident in the area currently known as Oakland, California, U.S.A., an existence borne of my ancestors bodies & motions through the Irish, English, and Cherokee diasporas, and other disputed mysteries, sharecroppers, secretaries, and the occasional drunken tennis ace.

Existence a cozy hand-me-down.

I am not a theory-based artist.

Obviously life begins, begins again, or rather continues, at conception. Also at birth. These are lively events.

Generally those called women exist as bodies usually capable of conceiving, gestating, birthing, and nursing children. It strikes me as self-evident that the final word on any decisions regarding such activities should rest within suchwomen.

[As a point of clarification, I am using “suchwomen” to mean biologically predisposed women and “allwomen” to refer to all self-identified women, the womanish, lovers of women, children of women, and those “in touch with their feminine side.” Seriously. And with love.]

Take for example the media’s recent usage of Nadya Suleman, the “Octo-mom.” I found it just another appalling instance of our society’s tendency to nosy contempt for all women. Even Rachel Maddow, whom I might expect to be a little more thoughtful, joined in the immediate and gleeful condemnation. (I guess she has to find ways to fit in with her frat-boy colleagues where she can. Great.)

Yes, Suleman’s situation is extreme, and brings up questions of ethics and common sense, but so do many decisions most of us get to make without media scrutiny (including the godforsaken former administration, forgodssake). Yes, I am unaware of the latest spinning punditry. Yes, I am in total sympathy with some of her remarks:

“I wanted to be a mom…. I love my children. I’m providing myself to my children. I’m loving them unconditionally, accepting them unconditionally. Everything I do, I’ll stop my life for them and be present with them. And hold them. And be with them…. That was always a dream of mine…. I just longed for certain connections and attachments.”

Once born, children here in the U.S.A. are routinely denied their full human rights and dignity, and instead taught painful lessons in tyranny, destruction, stupid and wrong-headed authority and conformity, fake intellectual standards, weird ways of (de)valuing their own and others existence, racism, sexism, classism, consumerism, institutionalized boredom and restriction. It is a sickening treachery.

Take for example all our corporate storytelling and our profit-driven notions of beauty. What if the energy and resources currently spent on these consumerist abstractions were instead reserved for the localized articulation and idiosyncratic ornamentation of our stories and selves? Imagine how this might blend naturally as a girl grows up into a practical and compassionate society that provides all suchwomen full respect, care, and information throughout their years of reproductive potential.

It’s hard to call a system that fails to fully attend to the most basic facts of our lives – birthing, nurturing the young, caring for the sick and the old, dying – a society.

Obviously life begins, begins again, or rather continues, at conception, and again at birth, as mentioned. Any arguments around defining these occurrences merely serve as a distraction when it comes to the implementation of governmental/societal/medicinal/religious control of women. A full articulation of allwomen’s existence might help lead to states of health, justice, and beauty that in my experience of this time, place, and culture we can only begin to hope to tend. Such tending is one of the main purposes I humbly feel in my writing.

Existence a cozy hand-me-down.

Such tending.


[fleece pimsy] (treatisy)

all the little fevers of the gods
all gods little forebears
all gods little bounty joysticks
the stinky little bastard stars
which hold the skies in tune
bedevilled groves of dreams & sorrows
through which we tote our childhoods & our luck
all the naggy sunshine &
the mean & stupid fucks
moonbeam the clanging dairy farms of yore
score my father’s wooden teeth
all the cans of hatespray & the tinny manicures
I’m stinky in this garden of shit & sin decay
strike all the little fevers of the gods


[fleece pimsy] (eco echo)

echo what bug-eyed
what bug-eyed homily is this
such freak imposter of the league
not to play in the gardens of some imaginary colisseum
but to breathe in this milky eco

Putang Syntax by Sarah Vap

Sarah Vap is the author of Dummy Fire, which won the 2006 Saturnalia Poetry Prize, and American Spikenard, which won the 2006 Iowa Poetry Prize. She is co-editor of poetry for the online journal 42 Opus, and lives with her husband and their two sons on the Olympic Peninsula. Her next book, Faulkner’s Rosary, is forthcoming from Saturnalia Books in 2010.


Infanticide, said the nun, and I spelled it.

Love yourself,

she said, I was afraid.
Putang, whispered a child,

but I refused. Trust yourself, Lugnuts, I agree.

I agree, I agree, I hurt people.     Brother,
I’ve hurt providence,

I agree. Two secrets compete
for my attention— flush, Sister, you could know.

You could know, said Mother,
that it hurts

in the small, very

fevered circle
that I have flushed out of life.


During graduation week, my six roommates and I made an ouija board by magic-markering the alphabet, the numerals 0-9, and the words Yes and No onto a piece of cardboard. We used a shot glass for the planchette.

We were calling up Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, our dear one, we invite you here with us. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, angel, please come here and talk with us?

We were, all seven of us, English and American Literature concentrators. During our senior year we’d been living together in half of an absolutely enormous house in the old neighborhood next to Brown University. We lived on the hill that overlooks the city of Providence. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, we knew, had lived in Providence when she was our age—she had, we heard, lived in our own neighborhood. Her providence, we imagined, was linked with our own.

My friends and I had just spent years together— feeling capable and incapable together, feeling loved and unloved together. We had been, during this time, our most generous and our most hurtful selves. We had felt our most desirous and most rebuked selves. During these past years, we had seen the glimpses of our most magical and our most tender selves. We needed a message before we could go. Before we could leave each other, and leave that place.

If anyone could tell us anything, it would be her.

Cathleen and Kristin placed their fingers on either side of the shot glass. I thought of the yellow wallpaper, and what it would reveal, surrounding us at that moment.

The shot glass moved in a small circle.

Is this you, Charlotte? The glass moved to Yes. Do you have a message for us? The shot glass circled the cardboard, and then returned to Yes.

The last message I’d received from an ouija spirit was in eighth grade. A friend I rode horses with was given a board as a Christmas gift from her parents— it told me I would be raped and killed when I was seventeen.

Charlotte spelled out only two words for us: “Love yourself”. And then she left.


My brother Andy and I were playing upstairs. I must have been about two years old. For my whole life up until that point, David and Andy had chased me, bossed me, and chosen all the games. But for no reason that I could tell, on that particular morning, Andy turned tail and started to run away. He was letting me chase him. I knew he was only pretending to be scared—Oh no! Sarah’s going to get me! — and I knew he was running slowly so I could chase him. But holy crap, I was excited.

I screeched, and ran after him. He looked over his shoulder with a terrified expression and ran down the hall. I squawked and kept running after. Oh no, she’s close! He turned the corner and started down the wood stairs, fast now, as if the game were over. I was too little to run down the stairs, and he was getting away. I didn’t want the game to end. I bent down to pick up the toy on the top stair. It was a wooden clock, with a wind-up dial in the center. It played different songs, depending on how far you twisted it.

The clock was big and it was heavy, and I threw it, as hard as I could, at Andy’s head. It knocked him down, and sliced his head open.

I waited on Andy’s bed until he came home from the hospital with dad. My mom waited with me, cuddling and rubbing my back. He was getting stitches, we knew, because dad had telephoned. She told me what stitches were. She said to me, You were playing with Andy, weren’t you?


I wasn’t sure what had happened. I knew there was blood, I knew that Andy was hurt, and I knew that I was involved.

My mom wasn’t angry. She still understood, after only two years of my life, exactly what I did know, and what I didn’t yet know. She made the connection for me: Sarah, when you throw something at someone’s head, it hurts. She pushed the hair out of my eyes and turned my face to face hers. She said, You hurt Andy.

I remember very clearly how it felt, before she said those three words, and how it felt after.

What I mean is this: I remember how it felt to be alive, and never in my whole life to have hurt anyone in this world.


I attended Catholic schools until I graduated from high school. St. Margaret Mary’s, then St. Joseph’s, then Loyola Sacred Heart. I went to mass every Friday and every Sunday of my life until I left for college. I received the three school-age sacraments in groups with other children— confession, communion, confirmation. I performed in the Christmas play year after year, always, joyfully, as an animal. I voted each month for Christian of the Month by secret ballot, and felt badly that I never once was selected. My uncles were priests, and my father had been in the seminary before he dropped out to marry my mom, his high school darling. I was born into, and raised each step of my childhood, with Catholicism. I deeply knew, and I loved, its stories and babies and holy days. My upbringing in this faith was very dark, very rich, very loving.

In eighth grade, at St. Joseph’s School, I won my all-school spelling bee. In the last few rounds, it was just me and a startlingly good fifth grader. He missed saxophone. I spelled it. I had to spell the next word correctly, I knew, and then I’d not lose to a ten-year-old. Mrs. Walden, my favorite teacher, was the announcer of the words. She’d been teaching us theology and history for the past three years. She was strict, pretty, and kind. She had the most beautiful clothing of any of the teachers. She turned the page for the next round in the spelling-bee book she was following—and hesitated. Mrs. Walden adjusted the fur-like collar on her cardigan, and clicked her brown high heels on the stool. She checked the word with Mr. Klein, the science and gym teacher, sitting next to her. He shrugged, jerked his head sideways, as if to say, “Let ‘er rip.”

Infanticide, she said.

Definition? I asked. The act of killing an infant. Repeat, I said. Infanticide. Definition again? The act of killing an infant. Part of speech? Noun. Repeat? Infanticide. Could you use it in a sentence?

No one should commit infanticide.

Infanticide, I said. Infanticide, I said again, on the stage where I’d been a donkey, a lamb, and a barn owl. I-n-f-a-n-t-i-c-i-d-e, infanticide.


I was enormously pregnant the spring that I taught poetry to a group of seventh-graders in central Phoenix, just a few blocks from our home. It was only March, but already well over a hundred degrees every day. I walked to the school in the morning, when the temperature was in the nineties, to spend an hour or two with the kids. Then I walked home at lunchtime, starving, burning up, waddling, and exhausted— hopefully to fall asleep until evening.

The kids were, in a word, heaven.

They were seventh-graders, most of them eleven or twelve years old. They were still little kids, and yet, at least compared with me at that age, very sophisticated. And they had complicated feelings about my pregnancy. On the one hand, most of their moms or aunts had recently been or were currently pregnant. They had baby cousins or brothers and sisters—and they knew and loved these little ones. On the other hand, most of them came from Mexican Catholic families… and they knew that I wasn’t married.

My big belly was a complicated tension, unavoidable, unignorable—built into my presence each day in their lives. It was sexual, but not. I was an adult, but not. Teacher, but not. Poet, but not. Is this official? One student asked after a couple of visits. Are you an official school person, or are you just here? he clarified. I was official, but not.

One morning, a couple of weeks into the residency, I simply wanted to know what one of their favorite words was. It could be their favorite word, I told them, because it is so terrible, or a favorite because it is a pleasure to pronounce, or a favorite because it reminds them of something important, or…for any private reason at all.

I started to fill the whiteboard as they called out their words. Bruise. Chandelier. Strawberry. Jaundice. Some of the kids knew their words right away, and their hands flew up. Some didn’t want to be limited to just one word. Qualify. Hiccup. Pajama. Ping-pong. Some of them needed to think really, really think hard…. and they needed more time. Can you come back to me? Galapagos. Gemini. Tinker. Asteroid.

I went from kid to kid, and the list on the board gained momentum. Pepper. Chlamydia. Recipe. Chrysanthemum. Honky-tonk. Adorable. Pink-eye. Jelly-jar. Balloon. Popinjay. Incisor. I got to Jeremy. He was the littlest guy in the class. He was very quiet, very tiny, and very serious. He was trying to figure out his word. Can you come back? Chantilly lace. Armpit. Goose bump. Straddle. Guadalupe. Nevaeh— it’s heaven backwards. Masticate. (Gasps from the other students.) That word from an almost-bearded seventh grader. And, then it came, from his counterpart… the word that would be the centerpiece of my weeks in their classroom, the word that would appear in at least a quarter of the poems that they each wrote... Lugnuts. The class falls silent—will she write it on the board? Of course I do. It’s a fantastic word.

Lugnuts, needless to say, got a lot of attention. A lot of twittering, and a lot of admiration from the other kids. I went back to Jeremy….. he was still thinking, still thinking. Dumptruck. Renovate. Itsy. Salamander. Grapevine. Go back to Jeremy…. he was still thinking. Now the kids were giving me their second or third favorite words. Gigolo. Crank. Peony. Roughhouse. Delight. Twinkle-toes. Slippers. Uranus. Mortuary. Everyone was feeling a bit freed-up by lugnuts and masticate, so the words were flying. Back to Jeremy…still thinking.

I knelt down beside him, and whispered, Any word, Jeremy. Any word you like… it doesn’t have to be your favorite word forever… just any word you like. So he said what he’d been wondering if he should say all along, whispering it into my ear without making eye contact… and with a definite question mark at the end: Putang?

I made a quick, no-win judgment. I imagined my boss, a dear friend and poet, laughing understandingly when I told him the story. I tried to picture Jeremy’s teacher, or his principal, after I wrote “putang” up on the board, or published putang poems in their end-of-residency class anthologies that the students would take home for their parents. But in front of me at that moment was Jeremy, earnest and tender, having just taken such a brave risk.

Aaah, I whisper back, I love that word, Jeremy. Pu-tang is an absolute gem of a word. But I can’t actually write it on the board. And that’s what he’d been wondering… if it was that kind of a word. He was immediately ready with the next one.

Miraculous, I swear to God, he said out loud.


Your cousins are coming today, my mom whispered, and lifted me out of the crib. Cousins are coming! Dad stuck his head into my room as my mom was dressing me. My two older brothers were thrilled, and repeated, holding my hands and dancing, Our cousins are coming, Sarah! Aren’t you excited?

I didn’t know what a cousin was.

In my entire life, we’d never had anything for breakfast like the plastic jug of passion fruit juice, or the tin tray of cinnamon rolls wrapped in cellophane from the grocery store, which were sitting on our little kitchen table waiting for cousins. In my entire life, my dad had never gone out to buy flowers in the morning, and my mom had never worn lipstick and perfume to breakfast. But that morning, everything was different. Everyone was different. We weren’t us. And cousins were coming. I was nervous. I was very nervous.

When the doorbell rang, I peed my pants.

But when my dad opened the door, the only thing that happened was wonderful—Becca and new Baby John were there, and so were my aunt and uncle. I didn’t see any cousins, so I asked my brother David, backing into the corner of the hallway, Where are the cousins? I was still a little worried, and now also ashamed.

Becca is a cousin, David said. Baby John is a cousin.

Now I wasn’t worried. I was only ashamed.

I locked myself in the bathroom by the kitchen. I was new to toilets, but I had been using them for a little while and knew a thing or two. I took off my pants and underwear, tossed them in, and flushed. I watched my little orange corduroy pants, with the bright yellow duck embroidered on the back pocket, spin around in the toilet. Then they disappeared.

And then the toilet began to fill, and fill. Water overflowed the rim, and spilled onto the floor.

Now, I had been taking swimming lessons, and I was pretty good. But as I watched the water cover the floor, I knew how I was going to die. The toilet water was going to completely fill the bathroom and rise up to the ceiling. I was going to float up as the water rose (because I had learned how to float on my back at swimming lessons), but when the water reached the ceiling, that was when I was going to drown. That would be the end of me, and I was starting to get sad for myself.

My dad knocked on the door. Sarah?

He was going to be sad, too. I began to feel very, very sad for my dad and my mom.

Sarah, he said through the door. Did you potty in your pants, and then flush them down the toilet?

Well, Holy Christ! How the hell could he know that! Was he magic? I was stupefied, I was beyond astonished.


His voice was low outside the door, as if he were squatting down with his forehead resting on the doorknob. As if he were kneeling down next to me. You probably don’t want anyone to know about this?


If you unlock the door, I’ll fix the toilet, change your clothes, and clean everything up. We won’t tell anyone. Then you can go play with Becca and Baby John and your brothers.

Well, that seemed so much better than dying. It was an option I’d never even imagined possible.

This magic, the magic of being completely understood, completely taken care of, and with my dignity and life restored… this is a magic that both of my parents have repeated for me many times over the course of my life.


On David’s seventh birthday, we went out to dinner. I don’t remember going out, but I do know that he ate crab, and then grape ice cream for dessert. I know this, because I remember him waking me in the middle of the night.

I remember my two brothers dragging me by the armpits over the side of the crib, and all three of us walking down the stairs to the bathroom. It’s incredible, he whispered, just wait. For quite some time, in the middle of the night, we admired the globs of grape ice cream and the little bits of crab, brown and pink here and there in the purple swirls. We were wowed! We were mesmerized. We’d never looked this closely at puke. And this puke was beautiful.

David had always been a generous older brother, and we were getting to the whole reason he woke us up: Let’s flush.

Can I? asked Andy.


Okay, you flush. It’s your birthday.

No, David said. Let Sarah. She’s the littlest.

Both of my brothers have always been nice to the littlest. So I flushed. It wasn’t disappointing. It was, truly, a pinwheel of crab-and-grape-ice-cream glory.


All this time I have spent with you, telling you some of my personal stories—this has felt like a risk. I feel, almost, as if I should apologize to you.

It has been… indulgent, self-centered even, to have asked you— strangers, who don’t owe me anything— to spend this time with me unpacking, just slightly, story by story, a few of the words from the poem at the beginning of the essay.

I do this because my poetry has sometimes been called difficult, and because many of the poems that I love most in this world I’ve heard called, again and again, “inaccessible.” This is, I suppose, an effort on my part to dissolve the question of “difficulty,” to dissolve the question of “accessibility.” And to share with you, from a non-poem angle, something of my personal syntax. To share a bit of my private etymology— the ways a few of the words of a poem resonate for me only, or have a history with me only.

This was, in other words, an effort to share with you some of the private references within the poem— things you couldn’t have known unless I told you.

Though you probably already know this: I still haven’t told you any of my most-private references. I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t tell you, outright, these stories. It is for this inability that I write poems.

What I am trying to reassure you of is that this time with you, though perhaps selfish, has been an effort at sincerity.

In contemporary American poetry culture, we are accustomed to, and we are warm to, cultural and historical and literary references within our poems. Yet we’re usually warned against using private references in our poems. We are warned that a poem full of private references is a waste of time for an audience who will have no chance of ever understanding the poem. We’re told that it can feel like a trick to the reader, who will earnestly attempt to parse the poem, having falsely assumed an intention on the author’s part to allow them access. We are told that including too many private references is a teenager’s impulse, is an illusion of mystery and wisdom— but which is, in actuality, simply a boring and incomprehensible exercise for the reader. A poem filled entirely with mysterious personal reference is, someone said to me once (shaming me, and breaking my heart), a breach of faith between the poet and the reader.

I find myself agreeing with much of this. All of it, in principle.

But I also understand that a poem must be written, on the deepest and first level, for the solitary desperate attempts of the poet. “I write for myself,” many beginning poets say, and many mature poets are too trained to say. But if we don’t…. I’m simply not sure I agree to the poet-reader contract that won’t let me pull my own heart out of the swirl of sweet and hellish memory without regard or product for my future reader.

Art has numerous purposes, many of which are deeply personal.

So I understand that I’m going against good advice when I suggest that you shouldn’t even bother to use a word in a poem unless it has a great deal of private reference for you. In fact, if you have little intimate relationship with a word beyond the context of the poem, I suppose I’d suspect its presence there. I’d wonder if it would fall flat. I wonder if I can smell out those words and parts of poems that don’t haunt the author with layer upon layer of personal reference, of personal history.

This isn’t something I can know. It’s only something I can suspect.

When I wonder why a poem has just, as Dickinson says, taken off the top of my head—if I try to analyze what about the poem has done this to me, I am almost never able to answer that question for myself. These times make me wonder if I am responding to years of, if not a secret, then a very private syntax for the poet.

Again, this isn’t something I can know. I can only suspect.

What I’m suggesting is this: The most powerful poetic vocabulary might be the one made up of words which, by the very uttering of them, clench something in the body of the poet. They clench (wonderfully or terribly, strongly or mildly) wherever he or she happens to test the trueness of words before they write them down… the gut, sternum, throat, groin…. The word should grab, and then unearth for the poet— whatever it unearths for the poet.

What I’m also suggesting is this: The most powerful poetic syntax might be the one in which the logics, patterns, arrangements, shapes, and relationships between the words in this vocabulary are measured against our childhoods. Because it’s children who approach the world ready to believe their experiences, their feelings, and the hidden and impossible things. It’s children who understand language by the essence and the echoes and the shadow behind what is actually said. It’s children whose language is most personal, most approximate, and most honest. And because it is children who gather their words, one by one, only after having had intimate experience with each. Mama, Dada, hurt, cousin, flush, love.

Perhaps I’m also suggesting a rigorous nuancing of the personal syntax guidelines of our poetry culture. Give us your poem, I say. Give it to us any way we can access it— by narrative, image, sound, tone, texture, literary reference…. then haunt the poem, and haunt the reader, in ways we could never parse, with your most personal, most private, most resonant, most secret syntax.

I could speak with you for many hours about the word infanticide… about its resonances for my life. I could tell you the stories and memories and sounds and colors that I associate with this word. Flavors, feelings, shades, images I associate with this word. I could speak with you even longer about the word “flush,” and longer than that about the word “pinwheel.” You could probably spend as much time telling me the ways in which the words “brother” or “providence” or “pregnant” resonate for you. Those kids in Phoenix could have spent time telling me why chandelier, why lugnuts, why chlamydia, why jelly jar, why slippers, and why pu-tang?

But in this essay, I have shared only a few stories with you, about a few of the words. You now have a tiny window into my private syntax, and my private vocabulary. The rest of the stories and references will simply remain echoing and embedded within the poem, or within your heart, if you accept them. And if I’ve done my part— if the poem has walked its halfway to you.

During a workshop in graduate school, a fellow student once told me that he couldn’t connect with my poem. It remained inaccessible to him, he said, because he didn’t have brothers or sisters. He was an only child, and my poem entitled “Brothers, sisters” was, indeed, about my experiences as a sibling. He tossed my poem with one hand onto the table in front of him, in sadness and sincere frustration.

I was, and I remain, baffled by this.

To be fair, I had been told many, many times up until that point, by other workshop members, by instructors, that some poem or other of mine remained out of their reach, remained too personal, too inside my own head or heart. I understood what they meant. I could see what they were pointing out to me every time, and it seemed true. I needed to crawl up out of my private syntax and into the syntax of the world around me.

I struggled for years, and I struggle today, to find the exact spot on the language continuum for each poem (for each word), where I feel true to my personal sense of and history with language, and yet where I also maintain a connection to the more common language with which I can share something with others. I aspire for the exact point that these two experiences of language— personal and common—will meet and maintain their integrities.

Because I do want to share, and I want to be received.

So this advice that I had so often been given, to nudge my poem toward a more public language, to forfeit some of the personal syntax in favor of a warm and commonly shared language-bridge, had stopped surprising me— until that moment.

It was when my dear and brilliant friend threw my poem to the desk that I knew it was not my failure to stretch my personal syntax toward the common syntax where people can feel, if they wish, more assured of sharing something with someone, or of receiving something from someone. This was a failure of his syntax. He didn’t have a brother or a sister, but he should have had (and did have), nonetheless, an endless number of stories, feelings, images, longings, wishes, vacancies, colors, murmurings, examples from his life, and from the world around him, with which he could have approached and read my poem. With which the words sister and brother could have held deep emotional resonance for him.

It is the syntax of the reader which is perhaps the most crucial and variable element in the life of poems. In my life, I will read far more poems than I will ever write, thank God. I will grow, become a better person, become a comforted person, a haunted person… much more by what I will read than by what I will write. I will be given the gift of an endless number of poems in which I can approach, embrace, guess, feel, and experience some of the endlessly private syntax of the person who wrote that poem.

If everything goes well in the reading of a poem— that is, if I have arrived at the poem with an opening in my heart and my mind to my own historical language, and if the author has written the poem with an opening in his or her heart and mind to their historical language— and if bridges have been crossed by both of us so that we intersect somewhere on the big continuum of language— then, I believe, the author and I will meet in the space of the poem. And in this meeting, our private histories with language will change forever. And so, because of this, we will also have to change.

I recognize when I have read a poem, and this meeting has happened. I also recognize when I have read a poem, and this meeting has not happened. I don’t believe in fault—I think it’s simply a failure. Of mine as a reader, or of the author’s, or of the moment— our lives are simply not lining up right then. And I think this is fine.

But perhaps the sole reason that I do read and write poems is for those times when this meeting, this dynamic meeting, does occur. This has been, to me, magic. This has been, to me, love.

There are many words I’ve used freely in this essay that I don’t entirely believe in. Words that are quite complicated to me, or that when I say them, I mean also to include several contradictory ideas within them. Words like “private”, and “history”, and “overflow” and “common” and “sad” and “change” and “create”. Words like child. Words like God and mother and father.

But when I used these words today, it was with the belief that the world is created and changed by these interactions of private histories with words (me reading your poem, you, listening to my stories). It is with the belief that when private languages bump up against, trash, uphold, invert, destroy, and create each other— that these small explosions change all of language proper. And it is with the belief that, materially and spiritually, the world changes each time language changes. It is with the belief that the world might change each time a poem is read.


Writing this essay, I have held close certain other memories. When I was a child, I was told that God was blowing kisses to the miscarriage babies whose graves were marked with pinwheels in my family’s corner of the graveyard, just behind my grandparents’ house.

When I was a child, I was told that I had no privacy from God.

When I was a child, I was told that baby Jesus knew all of my thoughts, and all of my feelings, and that I could make this baby laugh or cry without doing a thing, without saying a word.

When I was a child, I was told that God created the world with a word.

You should know that when I use the word “God,” I believe anything for the world is possible.

And you should know when I use the word “child” that I will believe anything that a child says. I’ll hold in the arms of my history of language anything that a child remembers.

May 6, 2009

This is what a [post]feminist [poet] looks like. by Gina Myers

Gina Myers lives in Saginaw, MI, where she edits Lame House Press and works as the Reviews Editor for H_NGM_N. Her first full length collection, A Model Year, will be released by Coconut Books in July 2009. She contributes reviews and articles regularly to BookSlut and
Review Magazine, among other places.

Links: twitter: @ginamyers

When Danielle sent out the call for women poets to write about their relationship to feminism, I had just finished co-directing The Vagina Monologues at a conservative community college in a small midwestern town. I had left the safe-haven of New York City and The New School to return to the place of my childhood, a place where people manufacture cars and vote democrat because the union tells them to, but a place where most people seem to have very traditional and conservative family values. I found myself fighting a fight I foolishly didn't think still existed. So when I read Danielle's message, it seemed like the perfect time to ask myself, what is my relationship with feminism? Here is my response:

My body is something I take with me everywhere I go. I have been called post-feminist, post-avant, post-punk, and post-modern. My heroes include Joe Strummer, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin. I identify as being human before I identify as being a woman, and that shapes everything I do.

I learned about inequalities and injustices early in life. My parents, both social workers, would come home with stories of abused children, and I became aware of how different (and privileged) my life was from others. The city I grew up in suffers from horrible poverty, and you can see inequalities in wealth distribution by looking at the public schools and seeing who has funding and who does not. Furthermore, my city is segregated and rife with violence--domestic, sexual, gang, random, and otherwise.

Even though I always had a strong sense of how I felt about things, it was not until I was an undergraduate at Central Michigan University that I became an activist. There I organized the Take Back the Night march and was a member of Empowering Women Everywhere. I was also a member of Advocate's for Labor Equality, and I took part in many demonstrations and marches against the war and read at our local Poets Against the War event. I was vegetarian and enjoyed the free vegan meal lunch program at the Wesleyan Foundation on campus where there was also a free community garden. Our group of activists organized around GreenTree, the food co-op, University Cup, a coffee shop, and The Bird, a bar. We had resistance training, learning what to do when you're being arrested, and we hosted teach-ins and attended lectures on revolutions and struggles in faraway places. The Michigan Green Party was active on campus and student members started their own alternative paper. The topics in the paper ranged from violence against women, Michigan water rights, the need for a living wage, and international struggles. I did not see one cause as being more important than others, nor did I necessarily see them as being separate causes. The larger issue is social justice, and I have continued to live my life committed to this one cause.

Although I see these various struggles as being one cause, it does not mean I can address them all at once. Perhaps it is a commitment issue, but I devote my attention to whatever cause seems most urgent at the time. Recently, I have witnessed misogyny, sexism, and violence against women and the LGBT community of students at the school I teach at and in the surrounding communities. When working on a week worth of activities--teach-ins, films, panel discussions, and performances of The Vagina Monologues--benefiting three local shelters, I was shocked time and time again by the reactions of people and the various forms of resistance we met from administrators, faculty members, and students. I had never felt so baffled. It became clear that this fight is urgent here.

I started to make a short list of women poets who have been important to me, but in no time at all that short list became a long one: Fanny Howe, Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, Adrienne Rich, Bernadette Mayer, Barbara Guest, and Alice Notley are just a few. I just finished reading A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society by Rich, and throughout the collection she hits time and time again on what it means to be a humanist. The collection, overwhelmingly, is reaffirming and inspiring as Rich takes a global worldview and reiterates the importance for social justice. Other names on my list: Lorraine Niedecker, Muriel Rukeyser, Nelly Sachs, Anne Carson, Kate Greenstreet, and Anne Boyer. Male poets have also been very important to me: Paul Celan, George Oppen, Robert Creeley, James Schuyler, Ted Berrigan, David Shapiro, Joseph Lease, Peter Gizzi. This is the first time I have ever thought about my favorite poets and divided them along gender lines. A poet is a poet is a poet.

So how does this all relate to my own writing? Aside from my most recent chapbook, Behind the R, social justice and politics are largely in the background of my poems. I like to think most of my work is about the human experience, though I would never claim that experience to be universal. My poems are often about failure, though I am much more optimistic in real life. If
I did not believe in people, in the human spirit, in the possibility of a better world, I would not be able to go on. So I go on.

Not So Mystique-y Peek into My Creative Process: Patriarchal This & Subjugated That by Martha Silano

Martha Silano is the author of two collections of poetry, Blue Positive and What the Truth Tastes Like. New work is forthcoming in AGNI, Crab Orchard Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Poetry 2009. She lives in Seattle, WA, where she teaches at Bellevue College, and blogs at Blue Positive.

I haven’t studied feminism in an academic setting since I was eighteen, so please don’t make me back up what I’m about to say with scholarly footnotes, or anything close to footnotes. That said, my branch of feminism is the So, are you a Women’s Lib-ber? branch, also known as the You-Said-You-Hired-A-Girl-For-the-Job-Is-She-Old-Enough-to-Type? model of feminist thinking. This is because my childhood and adolescence were one big Women’s Struggling to be Called Women Movement, one big Fighting to Enter the Job Force in Areas such as Medicine and Law Brigade. This is also better known as the 2nd Wave of Feminism, spurred on by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the publication (also that year) of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the birth of NOW (in 1966), and the Inexorable March Toward Equality for All (1964-present). At that time, along with watching my mother (1) demand the right for girls to wear pants at my elementary school and (2) finish her degree and get her first job, I was reading, along with Friedan, De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Rich’s Of Woman Born, and The Dream of a Common Language, Goldman’s Living My Life, and Gilbert and Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic, to name a few. It was all patriarchal this and subjugation that. I was steeped in the deep, dark tea of feminist literary thought. What’s more, it was cool to be coating myself with radical feminist tannins, to refer to myself, proudly, as a feminist.

Fast forward thirty-five years or so, and no one under thirty (forty!?) wants to go near that label; it’s like walking around wearing a shirt that says “I am a huge and serious bore.” But that’s probably mostly because women (okay, predominantly white and privileged American women) have gained so much ground since the 1970s that the rights of these women—especially in contrast to the struggle for equality despite differences in class, race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity—has essentially become a non-issue. Not totally a non-issue, but over the last several decades the word white in front of the word woman presents a whole new set of possibilities in terms of achieving (or not achieving) economic success, respect, and a sense of belonging and of feeling included. [Actually, this would be a great place for a footnote: Despite increasing opportunities to climb all order of ladders and break through glass ceilings, white women still only make 78 cents on a man’s dollar. For single moms of color, that number plummets below the 1970s level of 69 cents. Over a lifetime we’re talking $700,000 -$2,000,000,000 LESS in each of our rocket-less pockets.]

So where does that leave us in terms of equality? Many of today’s young women know (as I definitely did not), that women should not have ever struggled to be physically or emotionally equal to men, that that was just one of the many mistakes of proto-feminist thinkers. As a teen, for instance, I avoided all things pink because I wanted to be taken seriously. I also did my best not to cry in public. Nobody back then “got” that traditionally feminine traits could actually be powerful. Why not? Because shoulder pads and lots of beige and black, i.e., looking and acting like a man, was how a woman commanded authority. Shoulder pads, thankfully, went out of style, but okay, caveat time: I’m not saying misogyny is dead, or that Hillary Clinton’s been solely judged by the content of her character. Also, I don’t believe the fight for economic equality is anywhere near over, and this belief is confirmed in the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is, as I type this, sitting on every U.S. Senator’s desk, waiting to be signed into law.

But I have always been a cup-half-full kind of gal, and by this I mean that despite knowing that we’re still working big time on equality—that are millions of men and women that for reasons of color, ethnicity, economic standing, etc., will never have the luxury of eating three nutritious meals a day, let alone making art—and also knowing full-well that many of us have yet to confront our own inner-misogynist, myself included; still, if I’d been born a hundred years ago it would have been considered (1) not just unladylike to write but impossibly un-peasant-esque and (2) I’d’ve had thirteen children by the time I was thirty (as my Polish great grandmother did) and been (3) too busy washboarding or bluing dirty diapers to consider my Artistic Side. I’m also most grateful for not being labeled HYST-erical for wanting to hold (gasp!) a pen.

Selfishly, effervescently, it comes down to this: By some grace of good fortune my great grandparents boarded a boat in the early 1900s. For them it was a choice: should we eat this chair, boil down this leather and make it into soup, or should we take our chances on this country called America? Their choice to come here and make a new life is the one I wake up dancing to each morning. Sometimes I sit down to write and I am very Human, very Person On This Planet, very Homo Sapiens Regardless of Gender, very much Equality and Justice For All, Including Men. But sometimes I arrive at my desk and I Am Woman Hear Me Roar; when I do, these are the poems I write:

I Can’t Write

about her birth—about the way, when finally, after an eternity
of curling in and screaming, they plopped her on my chest

like a hot, wet seal, like something straight out of a warm
long-ago ocean, something slippery and covered with fur—

but I can write about the clock and its second hand,
how I gauged my progress by its slow and gentle circling

while I bounced on a blue ball, brought my cervix inch by inch
to ten. But I can’t write, exactly, about dilation—how I stayed at three

till long past twelve, how progression didn’t really begin
till after the almost-full moon had risen high enough to view it,

if we’d wanted, from that 5th floor brimming, overbrimming, with moaning
or pacing, passing again and again that giant yellow and red mangle

of a Deborah Butterfield horse, where instead we occupied ourselves
with ice water, heat packs, string cheese, spray from a Jacuzzi’s jets—

or the number of times I pushed, but I can tell you that later that morning,
from three mini-blinded windows, I could hear the voices of children,

of mothers telling them to settle down, how I wished my womb, like theirs
(I presumed) had returned to the size of a fist. And I can tell you about

my bed, how I could lower it, how I could make it rise like a chair,
a ready-made chair for nursing, how in that bed I wished my daughter

were older than half a day, where both of us smelled not only of yeast
but of the acrid, earthiness of colostrum, of colostrum and vernix

and blood. I can’t write about the lighting or give you anything close
to a time frame, but two of the nurses were named Sharon

and each of them told me, as I begged for an epidural,
you don’t need one, this is your birth and this is your labor, feel that (the long

wait begun in late July nearly up). I wanted to keep detailed notes
about hazardous waste dispensers, my first try at aspirating

my baby’s nose, about the breakfast of Cheerios and tea and French toast,
but instead these loosely woven undies one of the Sharons dubbed

“Madonna lingerie”—wear and toss—instead, the doula and my husband
walking me to the bathroom to get those panties on and off.

And I can tell you about the luxury, on a Friday night, of popping
two Ibuprofens, taking my first unfettered, unfetused shower in months,

but I can’t remember much about that art on the third floor
where they made me walk and walk. All I can see is a cow

in the middle of a stream, on either side of her that blurry green of spring,
are two blue doors, one marked THE TRUTH, the other, EVERYTHING BUT.

What Little Girls Are Made Of

Tapir, pure tapir—all wide,
delicious ass. Herbivorous

to the core, union of fly rod
and shad roe. After hiking all the way up,

then all the way back down Mount Kinabalu.
In the month of pastels, fluorescent pink grass.

As American as a forest fire enveloping
your god-given home on the range.

With wheat berry eyebrows, resides
in the batter of Proust’s madeline.

Also of the sorrowful women of Durer.
Of cantaloupe rind, of gargantuan zucchini.

Of Athena—all brains from the get-go, over-
brimming, teeming, full of knowing

hare-bell from bluebell, every genus
and every species, all brushed up

on conifer know-how, reminding us
spruces have papery cones.

Of granite, with meteor shower
skin, her nose, when it sniffs,

pre- and just- rainfall, her voice
a synthesis of Ginsberg and Plath—

“A Supermarket in London,” amalgam
of nasty boy love and honey,

Lorca chasing her down the aisles hissing
Bees! You must devote yourself to bees!

“Babies in the tomatoes,” yes,
but also of baby tomatoes. Of those believing

the world held up by a turtle. She’s
the Thinker, Ye Olde Tick Tock.

She’s the patch of geraniums
in full throttle, all wrists and sucking fists.

She’s what glows and glows.

(Both of these poems appear in Blue Positive, published by Steel Toe Books in 2006, and are included with permission from the author).

On Flats by Leah Souffrant

Leah Souffrant lives in Brooklyn.

Since I did not make the rules, I must interrogate. Experiment with flats. Wear legs bare. Say blood say body maybe quietly or not. I’m not a spectacle. Smirk in the not-sonnet.

Poetry is a form, language dancing in space and time. Dance is a movement in form, sweep of the arm outstretched, steady. Bodies moving in form. Form participates in rules, but art is something else.

I don’t ask what a poem is.
This means, my day, my timing, my rhythm, my life.
This means, don’t let language be torn away from the body, a violation, separation of mind and body when it is rather mindbody. Thought is brain exercising, and I blush.

The body is awash in sentimentality. Sometimes.
Let me write that. Or not.

I don’t want to play sometimes but rules are the dance of poetry’s work, language at play with itself, not twisting its ankle, or doing so leaping.
And then there is meaning: mine and yours, moving, menstruating, lactating meaning, exploding meaning maybe, making feeling crying yes weeping meaning, maybe cooking meaning maybe kissing meaning, yes loving meaning, making it building it creating it, destroying it meaning,

But o let it reside there, living, because I’ve only just started to speak.

The [feminist] writer in me knows this: there’s a lot more to say, ways to say it, and many hearty good reasons not to rhyme and
to sing it weeping rhyming.

30 April 2009

May 5, 2009

This is What a Feminist [Poet] Looks Like

To skip this intro and go directly to the forum, please scroll down to the next post!

Welcome to our first forum, where each day this week you will find new responses.

Monday May 4: Mary Biddinger, Anne Boyer, & Brandi Homan
Tuesday May 5: Megan Kaminski, Becca Klaver, & Majena Mafe
Wednesday May 6: Gina Myers, Martha Silano, & Leah Souffrant
Thursday May 7: K. Lorraine Graham, Mytili Jagannathan,   Elizabeth Treadwell, & Sarah Vap
Friday May 8: Teresa Carmody & co.

There are likely as many strains and modes of feminist poetics as there are of feminism, but in reviews, discussions, and even our own manifestos, we often fall into shorthand that fails to explore this valuable friction, our own variations. I've lately longed for unpacking, and so issued this open-ended call:
This is What a Feminist [Poet] Looks Like: what branch of feminism, model of feminist poetics, feminist icon, or etc. informs your poetry? Or, from which of these does your poetry diverge? Are there particular feminist tactics you employ? Do you consider yourself a feminist in many ways, but don't particularly involve it in the poetry? Feel free to take liberties with the questions! Short, long, essay, manifesto, whatever appeals to you!

Curated by Danielle Pafunda