Round table participants:
American Book Award winning poet, novelist and editor of:
Wise Women's Web
Some of Ms. Gioseffi's Poetry
Poet and Illustrator for Zero City
Some of Ms. Bernichon's Poetry
Pushcart Prize Nominated Poet
Some of Ms. Carlisle's Poetry
Professor of Art History at
Purchase College, SUNY
Some of Ms. Drucker's Poetry
and Visual Texts
NY State Poetry Fellow, Editorial Consultant, Director Eggplant Submissions
Some of Ms Water's Poetry
Perihelion's round table discussions
were developed to stimulate
an ongoing discussion
about Internet poetry publishing.
The Untamed Nature of the 'Feminine Wilds'
An e-mail assisted round table discussion
hosted by Jennifer Ley
At one point in Barbara Kingsolver's new novel The Poisonwood Bible, her character Rachel, who is in the habit of constantly mixing up cliches, decides that her ultimate survival may necessitate using what she calls her 'feminine wilds.'
Queried, I'd have to say it was the moment I learned I could use a pen to express my own particular 'feminine wilds' that made me aware of just how much being a woman would affect my writing. I don't mean wiles, where learning traits that ensure winning, and if not keeping - divorcing well - a wealthy male partner, but wilds, [ME wilde, fr. OE; akin to OHG wildi] 1. a: living in a state of nature and not ordinarily tame or domesticated. *
Growing up in the 50's and 60's in a midwestern Catholic household, too many of my experiences were restrained and tame. I didn't even know I had any hidden 'feminine wilds' until I finished college, when I found out that in the mid 70's recession, even a magna cum laude arts degree wasn't going to earn me much more than the opportunity to take a typing test and become some advertising art director's devoted secretary.
"Why do all Royal typists
Answer: to pay off their college loans while they live for the weekends, the poetry readings and performance arts events in NYC's SoHo and Greenwich Village. Yes, in some ways I felt as though I'd been done.
sit magically entranced
fingers glued to the quickest
clickety clack of the keys --
to earn that quick flick of the wrist
as the carriage carries homeward?" **
Today, manual typewriters with their thick black rubberized carriages are a thing of the past and I don't always have to drag out feminist irony and sexual innuendo to express myself. But much of my work is still affected by that proto-feminist/Catholic crucible in which I was formed, my 'wilds' bubbling below the surface, as of yet incompletely alloyed. Over the years I've rewritten Catholic dogma, parodied male behavior, reinvented a father who died too soon to see who he might become. At the same time, I've made my peace with *men* and with some of the more traditional aspects of being a woman, learned when to cede a skirmish to win a larger war, learned to enjoy the way words can seduce, entertain, move many different kinds of readers, as well as incite and enflame.
But every time I think to myself, 'surely, I've done enough of THAT,' my feminist subconscious proves it still has its own agenda. Like Rachel, I needed, and still sometimes need, my 'feminine wilds' to survive. Writing has been and continues to be a large part of that survival.
Perihelion's fourth round table features six women whose writing, art and 'feminine wilds' represent many aspects of the 'writers who are women/women who write' spectrum: Daniela Gioseffi, Janet Bernichon, Wendy Carlisle, Johanna Drucker and Chocolate Waters. I think you'll enjoy what they have to say.
1. How much does being a woman impact on your writing? Has this changed
over the years?
When I began publishing, the women's movement of the 70's was just
beginning and some of my earliest work was published in MS. magazine
feminist publications and anthologies such as, WE BECOME NEW:
Century American Women Poets. Women's writing was just beginning to
the foreground and this made a huge difference. Not only was I
at the dawn of the feminist movement and women's awakening, we were
reviving women writers who inspired us from the past; we were becoming
sexually honest and more open; and I was the first Italian-American
name to make it into mainstream publishing, particularly in poetry, to
degree. There was Diane DiPrima on the West coast and Daniela Gioseffi
the East coast, and that was just about it for we Italian female names
Recently the majority of my poems deal with women's issues,
the focus changing with the events of my life. I have been
face to face with desperation in my work as a nurse working with
women in a chemical dependency unit and as a breast cancer
survivor. I know the survivors, I know the victims and I want
to tell their stories. Cancer empowered me as a woman and gave
credibility to my voice.
In the sixties, I wrote as a creative outlet of things that
mattered. It was that awful teenager-in-love stuff. As I matured, my
work turned edgy. I began publishing in the mid-eighties. Dark,
depressed, angry at everything poems. They were fueled with random rage
at all the wrongs of the world.
I own this rage now. It has a face and it is mine.
"The unseemly has been the enemy of women's progress," said Alice Fulton
I believe her.
I was raised at a time that had ideas about what was proper for women.
Pregnant at 17, a mother twice by the time I was 20, I was locked into
'place' as a woman/mother where my self-expression was less important
protecting the status quo. My writing was sad and sentimental---and
Later, during graduate school in the 70's and early 80's, another me,
liberated, edgy, and self-destructive (if you can't 'behave' you might
well kill yourself) came forward. Fighting against the good-girl, the
of that role still leaned into my work.
It is only recently that I have understood how to stop being role
Being a woman is in everything that I do. Being a 'good girl' no longer
Using Kafka "A book is an ax for the frozen sea within us." and
" I do not care to converse with the [wo]man who has written more than
[she's] read." as guides, I have found women poets who inspire, delight
free my work and through their voices have discovered how to speak in my
The quote that Wendy cites from Alice Fulton seems absolutely appropriate
to the various dilemmas I have faced as a woman writer: the internalization
of limits on modes of behavior that extend to writing practice as well as
social interactions in every sphere of being. But the process of becoming
self-conscious about one's work and one's gender go hand in hand for me so
that the themes and issues I address in my writing are aligned with the
task of trying to understand how the process of "gendering" actually works.
I think that every aspect of my writing is affected by my being a woman.
The subject matter of many of my books is directly engaged in feminist
concerns. The sources I draw on are explicitly associated with gender as it
is historically and culturally constructed. And the circumstances of
writing, publishing, and being subject to criticism -- and also ignored by
certain critics -- is also all related to gender. I've watched so many
"scene" dynamics in which career opportunities are engineered according to
gender politics that it is hard not to notice this as a feature of all
professional activity. It's shocking to see how unconscious many of the
participants in these processes remain -- women as well as men.
I've always been a poet and wrote my first poem around age 8. My early
work was either about horses or, about what Janet terms "that awful
teenager-in-love" stuff. I even sent a lot of it out...(yikes!). Like
Daniela, I didn't start publishing prolifically until the resurgence of the
Women's Movement in the 70's (unlike Daniela, however, Ms. never published
me :-) ). In the 70's, I became a self-styled "radical lesbian feminist
stomping bull dyke" and this point of view colored almost all of my - often
polemical and didactic writing - during that period. I was not only
"self-conscious" about gender as Johanna phrases it, (and about sexual
orientation), I was also totally defined and encompassed by it. Since I was
a founding mother and editor of Big Mama Rag in Denver, one of the first
"radical feminist" newspapers of second-wave times, I was able to use that
vehicle to gain a considerable following as a "dyke poet." Subsequently,
I've spent many years trying to mitigate that reputation - or at least not
be stereotyped and pigeonholed by it. Reaching a wider audience - reaching
anyone who will listen! - has always been a goal and in recent years I
hardly think about being a woman at all
(oh goddess I never thought I'd say such a blasphemous thing)! Perhaps a
better way to
phrase that is that I like to think I have been able to transcend
my identity as a former woman-identified-woman to become a
poet-identified-poet who is, of course, a woman.
2. When you think about the poets that influenced you, how much do you
think gender, or gender specific subject matter and imagery, had to do
with the influence?
So many poets have influenced me, both men and women. I think the
conscience like Anna Akhmatova, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks,
Neale Hurston or Grace Paley gave me license to be who I am, a writer
conscience and social concern, active in Civil Rights and the
and environmental movements. I edited WOMEN ON WAR:INTERNATIONAL
the NUCLEAR AGE in 1988 to learn from and gain inspiration from all
great poets and writers of peace activism whose voices I collected.
point is not that I did it or that I'm tooting my horn, but that there
never been a book collecting women's voices on issues of war until
something for us women writers to think about. We need to pay more
attention to issues that have traditionally, seemingly belonged to
When I researched such issues, I found plenty of brilliant women who
plenty to say about nuclear war, war economics, the horrors of
slavery and cruel colonialism. WOMEN ON WAR was the first
compendium of women's voices on these important issues of survival.
machine economics impact greatly upon women and children as most of
poverty in the world, 95 per cent of it, is among women raising
often alone. Great women's voices and lesser known women's voices on
world peace issues inspired me greatly, so that I went on to edit ON
PREJUDICE: A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE, the world's first multicultural text
xenophobia, racism and sexism. This time I included some men, but
were well represented.
Male writers like Chekhov and Yeats, Whitman and
Ginsberg, have also influenced me with their humanity and perception.
Shakespeare was a great early influence, along with Edna St. Vincent
Millay, a marvelous pioneer among American women poets. Any good,
writer with something to say and an original way of saying it, and all
I've edited or read have become an influence for my own writing, but
women writers give me an extra special impetus to feel that if they
it, so can I. That's why my generation of women, the feminist pioneers
the early 70's were and are so important to the blossoming of the
generations of women writers who came later, just as the pioneers
inspired us, to. We all pass on the torch, generation after
feel. Or should try to!
I enjoy a variety of poets, both men and women. I also enjoy
the various genres of poetry. I agree with Daniela that more women
should be heard in the arenas that belonged primarily to men. I
love poetry that shows conflict and struggle in life, be it taking
out the garbage or receiving the death penalty. I want to read about
people not things. I read more poetry where women are the subject.
Sharon Olds influenced me the most. The first time I read "The
Girl" I though, damn, I wish I could write like that. Survival.
Everything returns back to normal. But does it really?
River Houston's poetry about living and dying with AIDS is
Although I am a nature lover, I am not a nature writer. Or
reader. No poetry about pastoral meadows and puppies. It just doesn't
move or inspire me (unless it's Michael McNeilley's "Say Goodbye").
I think "gender" a great deal. I admire many male poets and would not want
to say that Hopkins and Eliot and later Dunn, Merwin, Hall, Dacey and
others, were not an inspiration. However, it is the women, Olds, Laux, Hull,
Rich, McCarriston, Sexton, Plath and Clifton and many more who gave me a
guide to the poetry of telling. Their poems are lyrical, their subjects
often (gender) unspeakable. I owe them much.
Women writers, not only poets, serve as an important influence for their
courage to be and write as well as for their ways of writing and their
works. I am far more indebted to the prose writing of women, Jane Austen,
the Brontes, early Doris Lessing, H.D., Mina Loy, Virginia Woolf, and so
on, than to the work of women poets, since my work has a prose orientation.
But my writing simply wouldn't exist without their writing as precedent.
Their commitment to the social sphere, to imaginative life, to reflection
upon their lot and lives as women, as well as their various uses of
narrative and language are all examples to me of ways of writing through
and about a gendered experience.
When I think about the very first poets who influenced me I have to say that
I never gave any thought to their gender because there was no thought to be
given to it - they were all men. I started reading poetry circa 1956 and
memorized the very first poem I ever read: Longfellow's the "Wreck of the
Hesperus." (I can still repeat it if you'd like to hear it :-) ). As a child
I went on to devour other poet storytellers, moralists and balladeers like
Alfred Noyes, Eugene Fields, Kipling, Henley and later my teenage favorite,
the wonderfully gloomily melodic Poe. I was attracted not only by the
narrative and the morals of the stories, but more importantly by the
entrancing rhythm of the words. I loved to hear the words as they were
spoken out loud, still my primary criterion for favorite poems.
As a young college student the only woman who was taught in my
writing/poetry classes was Sylvia oh-let-me-stick-my-head-in-the-oven-and-my-finger-down-my-throat Plath - and perhaps a bit of Diane
Wakoski, who I always had much more admiration and respect for. I'm sure
Emily was also taught but I swear all I remember is "I'm nobody - are you
nobody too?" (and not getting what she was really talking about) and being a
rather egotistical type, I was not impressed by that nobody stuff. It wasn't
until years later that I came to appreciate Dickinson
as the mover and shaker of modern poetry that she really was.
I did discover the Beats in college and loved Ginsberg but not many of the
rest of that school. I wasn't interested in sucking Gary Snyder's "horny
cock of poetry" because I wasn't interested in sucking any cock at all! It
wasn't until I became involved in the Women's Movement that I began
discovering women poets, both current writers like Judy Grahn and Alta and Marge Piercy and Nikki Giovanni as well as many of the resurrected women
already mentioned here.
3. Who are your favorite poets, and why? (Please name at least one
contemporary and one historical writer.)
Some of my favorites are mentioned in the question above, but
simply list them here: Shakespeare, Rabelais, Lady Murasaki,
first poet known to civilization-- Sumerian priestess 24,000 B.C.;
Whitman, Dickinson--a pioneer innovator of American poetry; and more
recently Grace Paley, a mench of a woman, a marvelous story writer,
Chekhov of New York! A decent and talented person, a fine writer of
conscience! Grazia Deledda, the first woman novelist to win the Noble
for Literature in 1928, so forgotten in America, is an Italian woman
inspires me as a pioneer among Italian women. Also, Vittoria Colonna,
first European poet to publish a book of poetry, is an inspiration to
all, a Renaissance woman who paved the way for all of us in the
world, as Lady Murasaki paved the way in the Asian world of the
first novelist of all time. Lady Murasaki invented the novel. These
sort of women we feminists began discovering during the 70's movement
resurrected "Herstory" and women's literature of the past. In those
would go on WBAI-Pacifica Radio in New York and read an entire novel
Kate Chopin, like THE AWAKENING, as part of their emerging feminist
programming--or stories by Zora Neale Hurston, or poems by Gwendolyn
Brooks, first Afro-American woman to win the Pulitzer for poetry, or Edna
Vincent Millay, pioneer poet of the 40's, the greatest sonneteer in
American poetry. She rivals Shakespeare in the form of the sonnet.
women have craft and brains and guts.
Favorite contemporary poets-- Sharon Olds, for the afore
mentioned reasons. I also like that she doesn't self disclose.
It leaves us to wonder what is based on experience and what
Michael McNeilley can write from any point of view and in a
variety of styles. Insightful, edgy, disturbing stuff at times
but always worth reading. He can turn mundane everyday occurrences
into unforgettable events. He can write about anything.
Historical-- Poe. His demons sound so good when read aloud. I
vacationed in Maine for several summers. We had no TV or radio.
I found an old book of Poe at an antique shop. Read the Raven
to my son on every night.
Then: Dickinson, Whitman, G.M. Hopkins, T. S. Eliot because he was the
poet past Shakespeare that I noticed. Shakespeare. Wallace Stevens.
Rumi. That old red wheelbarrow guy, WCW. (see above) more, more.
Now: (see above) and Tomas Transtromer, W. Szymborska, Anna Swir, Naomi
Shihab Nye, C.D. Wright (wonderful!!!!), Billy Collins, C. Milosz and
Mitchell who writes words you can rub your body against and and how can
My favorite poets comprise one list, my favorite writers another. Starting
with poets I would say that the flexibility and agility with language as
material has always attracted me to Ovid, in particular The Metamorphoses,
which more than any other classical text, seems to address certain
philosophical concerns about the way the task of trying to capture
experience in poetic language is always frustrated by the mutating capacity
of language itself. I love Catullus for his succinct ironies and
observations. William Carlos Williams for the human breadth, Walt Whitman
for his scope and line, Zukofsky for his intellectual rigor, Baudelaire for
his darkness, Apollinaire for loving the vernacular, Rimbaud for his dreams
and Coleridge for his, Shelley and Byron and Keats -- but this is getting
too broad. Closer to the present, it's the poets I know and read -- Jean
Day, whose The Literal World took my breath away, Rosmarie Waldrop, Susan
Howe, Maureen Owen, and then Charles Bernstein, whose capacity to shift
registers and incorporate what he sees, hears, and lives into his work is
always inspiring to me. I'll skip the prose writer list for now, but Mina
Loy's Insel provided rare pleasure when I was given a copy a few years ago.
Just one of each?! How about one hundred?! OK, OK I'll name a few of both -
in addition to those I've already mentioned and not necessarily in any order
and by no means comprehensive (but always ever-changing): Mary Oliver, W. H.
Auden, Ogden Nash, Mark Strand, David Ignatow, Charles Bukowski, Edna
Millay, Carolyn Forche, Tess Gallagher, Pat Parker, Chrystos, Jan Hardy,
Charles Webb, Yeats and Osip Mandelshtam.
4. Have you ever written something that you didn't particularly think of
as feminist and been surprised to see colleagues refer to it as such?
I'm not sure I have. Nothing in particular comes to mind as
feminist thinking is always a part of me and my output. So I was never
surprised to find anyone discovering it in my work, even when it
major intent or theme of a given piece.
I am not sure. I write feminist and nonfeminist themes. I
can't think of any particular poem or story.
Not that I can think of.
I think much of my work was positioned as a "woman's" work even if it
wasn't perceived as "feminist," which is a different thing, but which had
the effect of making it unacceptable within a community of poets for whom
the issues I was raising -- narrative, in particular -- were considered
beyond the limits of their (male) interests.
There was a time when I could have written "how now brown cow" and someone
would have said, "See that proves how much she hates men." !!!
5. Have you ever tried to write from the point of view of a man? If so,
how did this change your writing?
I have many stories from the point of view of a man, but more
the point of view of a woman. And, many poems where I don't think
gender at all, as we all face similar universal truths regardless of
and men and women are more alike than different, really. I feel that
good writer has to be able to enter the skin of all peoples of any sex
background in order to create believable characters and empathetic
characterization. The great writers have always been able to do this.
of the great feminist novels of all time is ANNA KARENINA and its by
Tolstoy, Then look at A MAN, the biography of a Greek Resistance
Oriana Fallaci, one of the world's first great female journalists. I
a good writer can write from any point of view and be convincing, as
writing, good characterization, requires empathy with all peoples of
kind--and with all the characters in one's poem or story. I think its
important developmental exercise to write from differing persona.
I have written from the point of view of a man a few times. I
had to feel what a man felt and think like him. Since this man was
abusive towards women, it left me in an unsafe place mentally.
I needed to end the poems and get out of the character. Easier
said than done. Did it change my writing? Yes. The poems were
Yes. It's that old Jungian anima/animus...he's in there and I
have to access him. Since I believe it's all part-and-parcel I don't
changed the work.
I don't write from the point of view of a man, but I have been interested
in exploring various erotic subject matters from a range of perspectives
that are not fixed in my own experience, but in my fantasy life. I'm also
interested in thinking of gender as a spectrum, or gradient, rather than an
either/or situation, so that I think much of my writing is undertaken with
a gender ambiguous, gender ambivalent, and gender-pseudo-neutral attitude
-- that is, one in which whatever is gendered about it comes through
incidentally rather than intentionally.
NO. Though I can identify with Johanna's gender as spectrum or gradient and
Daniela's thought that men and women are more alike than different - but in
whose dream?! Tee He. A good writer can include all points of views and
perspectives, if she is so inclined. I do think we live in an era
where everything is open to re-interpretation and possibility. :-)
6. How has the Internet changed the way you communicate with
your audience, other poets, members of the editorial community? Do you
think the Internet is helping women to break what is left of the 'glass
ceiling' in the literary world? If so, how?
The Internet has made a great deal *more* work for me and made it even
harder to keep up with hardcopy work, submissions, reading, writing
reviews, and freelance deadlines, as I'm living in two worlds, the
electronic and the paper, snail-mail world. My study is in chaos, though I
was always orderly and organized before the Internet. Now I'm in front of
my computer even longer and hardly have time to surf by the time I finish
answering e-mail and coding, updating and building my e-zine and webpages.
Zapping work around, etc.
The plus is I am meeting new young writers through the Internet, the
generation younger than mine, and many women who are taking advantage of
the Internet to build their own e-zines and websites. It is also very
empowering and, of course, it's easier in many cases to zap work via e-mail
than via snail-mail. There's an immediate satisfaction in seeing one's
work out there on line. It's an exciting new medium in many ways, but there
is less of a chance to earn money from one's writing on the web than in
hardcopy. We put all this wonderful stuff out there to share, yes, but
there's no remuneration. How do the younger women see this changing for
writers in future? How do e-zine editors feel about the prospect of
subscriptions and payments for writers in future? Is advertising the only
way? Those are my questions to the younger generation.
Of course, literary magazine publishing was never very remunerative. I've
always made more of my living from giving readings, and advances from books
never went very far when one considers the years of work that go into a
book. Even my books from big publishers with what poets would think of as
large advances, were never enough to live on without supplemental teaching,
but isn't the Internet cutting into our chances to make any part of our
living from books? There are so many pros and cons. I don't see how the
issue of the glass ceiling is relevant to putting *free* literary work on
the Internet. But, certainly no one is stopping we women from doing that.
The issue is how to put bread on the table with our work, but that's always
been an issue for poets and fiction writers, it's maybe just more of an
issue with the Internet. At the same time the web is power to the people,
including women, in so many ways, as long as we can fight censorship and
keep free speech alive on the web.
We can publish our own zines and communicate with each other and set our
own tastes and it's all wonderful, but...are the big guys who control
things reading and logging on, and are we getting the prizes that count?
"Best of the Web" is a good step toward our Pushcart Prizes, but we don't
have those "Pulitzers" and "National Book Awards" yet for web publishing.
And if we found them, will the women be more in charge of taste and who
gets them? I think I need a younger generation to tell me their views on
these things. I'm ready to listen.
With the Internet I feel I am directly connected to my audience, because the
response is immediate and personal. I have made many friendships on the Net.
Heard many stories, read many poems. It is such a large medium that someone
will find and relate to what I write. But because I know I can be exposed to
such a large population, I take care to communicate my ideas about women's
issues because I care so much about them.
I have had positive feedback from the editorial community, print media
editors solicit my work after reading my web work.
I like developing the whole package of a web site (I promise, the update is
Will we break the glass ceiling? Yes! Our work is on display for all to see
and if it is good enough, the audience will find us.
The Internet has made a profound change in my writing life. Although I live
at the end of the world, I no longer work alone. There is a cyberspace of
other poets for me to access. I belong to several on-line workshops and
have used the open forum in WDS to post poems I have questions about.
I have timely responses to on line submissions which allow me to see a poem
published while it is still 'hot' for me....not after as long as a year,
often after I had forgotten what issues it raised. I have had interested
(and interesting) responses to my poems as they appear on line and all of
this real time input has allowed me to move forward--making changes in
outlook or attack where necessary.
E-mail has facilitated communication with editors for better or worse and let
me know immediately their level of interest in my sort of work. The web
humanizes correspondence between writer/editor. I have even been able to
begin a friendship with a print editor via e-mail correspondence.
I have not been aware of a glass ceiling on-line. There is the
cyberpoets/printpoets dichotomy, but that is breaking down fast. I simply
don't see success as gender-based here. The 'old white guys' who rule the
world, don't rule the web. For which I am duly grateful.
My academic work has certainly been facilitated by the Internet. I do much
of my correspondence, editing, and business online. But like everyone else
here, I am feeling that horrible sense of overwhelmedness -- and the pros
and cons of being able to access much more and having less time to reflect
upon and absorb the work and writing I find in the electronic environment.
The Internet has not only widened my audience but also added the
elements of immediacy, instant gratification and more extensive
communication. I've always received letters from readers but, perhaps
because of the immediacy of the Net, I receive comparatively more E-mail
than letters these days. That is probably because itıs more expedient to
write an E-mail than a letter, but it could also be because the Internet is
making my work available to more readers. That operates both ways because
additionally, I get the opportunity to become aware of even more poets and
can more readily communicate on a personal basis.
Regarding the editorial community, I love being able to submit my work
electronically. It saves both time and postage and I don't feel obligated to
print out the rejections and paste them on my bathroom wall. Delete is a
I don't know if the Internet is helping break the glass ceiling because
we all bring our own individual dilemmas and complaints to whatever medium
we are using, and the Net could be just one more area to promulgate
complaints. I do feel more positively inclined though because the Internet
is a forum for everyone and if we don't like how we are being treated here
we can just publish our own web page or create our own E-mail lists etc. Of
course, as the medium becomes increasingly commercial, we may run into the
same kinds of problems with exposure, advertising, stardom and money that we
have always had. We'll see ... The element of inclusion, however, is a powerful
one for women.
7. Please add any additional thoughts here:
These days, with Mother Earth in big trouble, the ozone
disappearing, the land and water being polluted beyond repair, many species
going extinct, humankind on the brink of omnicide, I feel that the
"language school" of poetry is "fiddling while Rome burns." I feel that a
great deal of decadent poetry, ie. from the John Ashbery, Jorie Graham
school of solipsistic, uninvolvement, is uselessly decadent. Yet, it often
seems to receive the majority of prizes and attention, as it drives the
everyday readers away from poetry in droves. I dislike the nonsense school
of poetry, that so called "experimental" stuff that offers no soul or
heart, no inspiration or communication. I want to side with accessible
poets who have something human or intelligent to say, something of
conscience to offer. I'm not talking about a lack of experiment with
language either, and I'm not talking about squelching originality or
experiment. Neither am I implying the use of only social-psychological as
under Stalinism or Hitlerism.
I simply prefer a Stephen Dunn or Galway Kinnell to a Richard
Howard or John
Ashbery and a Carolyn Forche, June Jordan or Grace Paley to a Jorie Graham.
Mainly, the work of many language school poets seems bloodless and
boring--uninspiring to life or writing or reading. I don't have any trouble
at all understanding the concepts of the "language school of poetry." There
is really nothing so subtle or esoteric or marvelously new to be had there.
It's a great deal of intellectual machination over nothing new. Though John
Ashbery, its most venerable proponent, is an exquisite craftsman and a
pleasant, cultured gentleman, he really has nothing at all to say, except
that life is meaningless, an action painting that flows by us leaving
nothing in its wake but the moment of experience. How sad that his
exquisite talent with words is so wasted on a lack of vision beyond
Nihilism is always too easy. There are greater realities. We have
a gorgeous planet, full of teeming, feeling, procreating life and the
children of the future to concern ourselves about. There is plenty of
suffering to shed light upon and plenty of beautiful human character to
celebrate. Lots of heroism to inspire and observe in the everyday. Plenty
of epic concern to ponder. I believe, as does Wislawa Zymborska that there
is no such thing as being apolitical. "Even apolitical poems are political
and the moon is no longer moonlike." One can't wash one's hands of what is
happening in the world, as many language poets seem to, and write only for
some esoteric band of brothers who think they are more civilized and
learned than the rest. It's overdone, this idea that" poetry survives in
the valley of its own saying," and "a poem should not mean but be," and
that "lovers do not heed our sullen craft and art!" It need not be gospel!
A poem should mean *and* be and be good enough for the workers in the field
to want to sing it, too! Maybe to want to sing it to save their lives,
even! Or simply to live more fully! I loathe artistic snobbery most of all!
Snobbery to me is a very carnal sin. "I'm nobody. Who are you? Are you
nobody, too? Don't tell they'll banish us, you know!" [Emily Dickinson]
An intellectual snob repulses me, yet that seems to be what Richard
Howard was calling upon us to become when he made his speech about poetry
at the PEN Awards Ceremony a couple of years ago, saying how poetry should
be our little secret, us poets! Don't have a poetry month, or try to put it
on subways, or the radio, the Internet or television, because no one but us
poets should ever, or has ever really cared about it, or will, he seemed to say. I don't think one
can achieve any really good writing with such an attitude. Good writing
comes from an avid desire to share experience and communicate with others,
not just other poets, or it's folly! "That love is all their is, is all we
know of love," wrote Dickinson. We write to save our lives, to laugh and to
sing to others. To say we are not alone in this mysterious adventure of
tears and laughter, pain and love, despair and hope--not just to "fiddle
while Rome burns." I'd rather be a street sweeper and feel useful, than
write solipsistic language poetry which leaves everyone cold or puzzled
"The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance," as Prospero says
at the end THE TEMPEST, and we need to be kind to life, to forgive it for
hurting and cheating us of some of our desires, instead of trying to
annihilate all meaning--as the "language school of poetry" too often does.
Even if LIFE IS A DREAM, as Calderon said, "we are such things as dreams
are made on," as Shakespeare said, and we ought to inspire a dream of a
future for those to come, so that the beauty of life on this planet can
come from the tradition of the Shamans, priests and healers of the tribe. I
want to carry on the work of the Shaman. I've dance and sung poetry and I
want my poetry to be accessible, entertaining and thought-provoking. I want
desperately to communicate the importance of caring for living things, of
commitment to life, of the glory of nature, the beauty of creation and of
music, and the need for its preservation. I want to help with words to
alleviate pain, share experience, stir feeling and share empathy. That
doesn't mean every poem has to be heavy with concern, but it ought to be
attempting to communicate something to someone, even if only laughter or
satire, and not just be a nonsense exercise in solipsistic
self-involvement or nihilistic ennui.
Recently, I had to review a group of
National Poetry Award winners, and there was one poet's book, in
particular, which I felt very sad about: Lost Was, poems by Heather
Ramsdell, was selected by Jame Tate and published by The University of
Illinois Press. I felt how badly Heather Ramsdell had been led astray by
the "language school" of poetry. She had none of John Ashbery's crafty
imagery and none of James Tate's wit or humor to save her work. Her book
was dull as dishwater and had nothing much to communicate, and she was
being congratulated for it. There were some worthy new books among the
winners, as for example Gray Jacobik's The Double Task or Silent Treatment
by Lisa Lewis. These books were trying to say something important, though
one was vibrant with life and nature and the other sad and morose, both
communicated with delicately nuanced craft. I think of Tony Hoagland's The
Donkey Gospel. That was one of the books I enjoyed reviewing most from the
1998 crop. There is still plenty of good writing going on, but the
"language school" of poetry, for the most part, is not producing poetry
that will last the test of time or bring new readers to the art. I'm sure
I feel strongly about this and I find the prizes and attentions
that go to meaningless, decadent, overly conceptual, artsy-fartsy art for
art's sake counterproductive! I'll uphold the work of a poet of conscience
like say Allen Ginsberg, over the work of a James Tate any day! Better yet,
I celebrate the work of a Grace Paley, Gish Jen
or Toni Morrison! These are writers with craft, art and soul. Also, humor.
They have it all. And, Grazia Deledda ought to be translated and read more
in America. You can find a sampling of her on my Wise Women's Web E-zine where I am thrilled to publish
many fine women writers whose work I believe in--many of conscience, too.
Please, forgive me for having plenty to say under "additional
thoughts" but these remarks are essential to my philosophy of writing. I
need to stand for what I feel poetry should be and do in this world. To
join with others who agree on such points and work with them for decent,
good, meaningful poetry--whether formalist or free verse, oral or written,
the content is as important as the craft. Indeed, they're inseparable and
organic to one another. As a literary critic who publishes reviews in
various publications, I look for content and craft, craft and content, not
one above the other. What the poet has to say is as important as how she/he
says it, and a wonderful painting deserves an appropriate frame. Try to
drink a hot cup of coffee without a cup! If you can't actually see a
gorgeous sunset, you can at least dream of seeing one! Yes to life and yes
to its visceral poetry! Yes to babies and brooks babbling to learn about
sound and song, but no to grown-ups babbling to merely themselves and
calling it "language poetry!" And then getting all the big prizes and money
for saying nothing--except that certain fascist forces want very much to
have *nothing* important said. About, for example, military profiteering
and its chemical pollution, and S & L thievery, so they scurry forth to
praise babbling idiots with no human vision in their poetry!
Beware The Walrus! Oysters should not go walking with him!
I used to get upset when people would mistake me with my art but
now I realize that I am the people I write about even if it is
only for 30 lines or under. If someone is convinced that I am writing
from my experiences as a battered, hooker, victim, adulterer,
divorcee, addict....then the poem has done what it is supposed to do.
Daniela's comment that "Good writing
comes from an avid desire to share experience and communicate with others,
not just other poets, or it's folly!" and "We write to save our lives, to laugh and to sing to
others." both strike me as just right.
As for me, I write because the lid is off Pandora's Box and I cannot do
otherwise. I love the discipline required to do this work. I love the
itself. I love language that fits the page. I love to tell the truth
the uncomfortable and find words for the unmentionable and say the
unspeakable. I love most the fact that each reader writes his own poem
I feel quite lucky to have come of age as a writer in the 1970's at a moment
in which feminist issues had already forged a certain space for women as
professional creative artists. Though I encountered real difficulties in
the circle of male poets I first knew, I also encountered significant
stimulation, support, encouragement, and exposure to new ideas about
writing. I'm always interested when people have a strong reaction to
"language" poetry, since I came to language poetry at the time it was
coming into being in California. I was writing very abstract,
linguistically dense work. And I was very gratified to find there was a
context for this work since the personal, confessional, and lyrical voices
of other modes of writing (though I respect them when they are strong,
well-crafted, and interesting in content and form) didn't work for me. In
the end, one has to write according to the aesthetics one believes in, and
if that involves a level of density or difficulty that certain audiences
resist, so be it. The language poets (and they are a heterogeneous group
with many attitudes, modes of writing, and points of view) served as one of
my first audiences and remain so. Their commitment, and mine, has often
been to a project dear to much of the 20th century avant-garde: to
defamiliarize habitual modes of thought. For me this isn't possible within
the traditions of lyric verse or writing that seems, first and foremost, to
proclaim its populist accessibility. I write to come to terms with my
experience. I think I would echo Wendy's sentiment, if I understand it
correctly, that what's amazing is the extent to which we can all use the
same language and to such different effects and ends.
I participated in a conference in St.Louis a couple years ago that
was organized around a conference titled The Dual Muse. Among the other
conference speakers were Derek Wolcott, William Gass, Breytan Breytanbach,
and others. A serious split developed that threated contentiousness along
the lines of formal and aesthetic concerns as they linked to political
concerns. The argument suggested that embattled political positions cannot
"afford" experimental language in poetic expression. I was struck by two
things. How far this attitude was from that of the early 20th century
avant-garde, particularly in the Russian/Soviet context, where poets
committed to radical politics made the strongest investment in radical
poetics as a means of making a social transformation through aesthetic
form. And then, secondly, by the vitriol with which poets attacked each
other -- as if one aesthetic position were necessarily bought at the price
of another. This just isn't true. Aesthetic territory exists if you invent
it. It isn't finite real estate, it is the infinitely expandable domain of
One final note, however, with respect to Daniela's comments. I am disturbed by
her description of language poetry as having nothing to say. There may be
bad language poets, or bad poets using the rubric of language poetry to
write badly, but the committed language poets of my acquaintance are
writing in a spirit of serious philosophical and aesthetic inquiry against
the grain of easy consumability because they feel, as I do, that only by
making such alternatives to mainstream culture can they keep alive a place
of original thought and language and writing. The struggle that poetry
faces is to compete with commercial language and the formulaic languages of
entertainment -- not to resist experimentation and originality from within
its own communities.
Although I started out this round table discussion by proclaiming that I've
been a poet since I was a child, I have never been completely comfortable
with the distinction poet. To paraphrase something Marianne Moore once said,
"I only call what I write poetry because I don't know what else to call it."
For me "poetry' has always been about communication - I want to tell you
something I know or have experienced - and I don't really care what that
process is called. What communicates to one person, however, may not
translate to another - therefore all schools of poetry and communication are
valid. Inclusion is the philosophy I prefer, not one way is right and
another is wrong.
I have always taken what I write out into the world and presented it to many
different kinds of audiences -sexually diverse, ethnically diverse,
academic, non-academic etc. When I was first performing my stuff, I didn't
even say I was a poet - I just said come and hear what I have to say and see
if you can relate to it. Poetry is for people - not for other poets, or at
least only peripherally for other poets. The best poets have always been
philosophers and activists and thinkers (and weird-s and wacko-s) - people
who can touch and spark and inspire other PEOPLE.
* Webster's Collegiate Dictionary copyright 1996
** Jennifer Ley, 1977, first performed at Chumley's in the Village
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