Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Post-Millenial Feminist Poetry

I read with enjoyment and interest the forum on feminist poets (curated by Danielle Pafunda) that went up in segments over at Delirious Hem last week, including work from the following writers:

Mary Biddinger
Anne Boyer
Brandi Homan
Megan Kaminski
Becca Klaver
Majena Mafe
Gina Myers
Martha Silano
Leah Souffrant
K. Lorraine Graham
Elizabeth Treadwell
Sarah Vap
Teresa Carmody
Kim Rosenfield
Vanessa Place
Christine Wertheim

While the writers featured are at different stages in their careers, there was certainly emphasis in the forum on a new generation of feminist poets, especially if one means by generation not age as such but sharing a time period in which one is beginning to publish and have one’s work become more known, a period in which some level of shared problems is inevitable. The poems and essays and poem-essays raised many interesting questions for me, of which I’m mentioning here only the most obvious:

1) The problem of theory and practice. Theory, while at its best always related to the rest of the world, also develops as its own semi-autonomous discourse and often requires (even demands) that the world catch up. Feminist theory, like other theoretical discourses, builds and changes based on contemporary responses to its own past.

Practice, on the other hand, can move only in relation to the world’s pace. While some things about the social condition of women (which?) have changed since earlier generations of feminist discourse, other things have changed more slowly if it all (which?). I was intrigued by the different ways these writers highlighted tensions between theory and practice and how those affect both attempts to move forward as well as respond to the present.

2) The arriving at (feminist) consciousness narrative. A fact of being human: nobody’s born knowing anything. So learning to be a feminist requires those moments of experience and recognition when one discovers why it matters, and every writer who becomes invested in feminism has to have such moments.

And yet, of course, the fact that everyone has to have them means that there’s now quite a history of narratives regarding the arrival at feminist consciousness. Intriguing to see these writers consider their own individual stories and what those stories do or don’t add to the history of such stories. My story is never just mine, of course, since it’s always about an encounter between me and the world I’m living in at that time, and the world I’m living in at that time is always different (but also similar) to other worlds at other places and times.

3) The role of articulating a poetics as such. Feminism is of course fundamentally a cultural practice. It’s possible to be a feminist without being a poet or an artist at all, obviously. So is there a specific relation between feminism and the actual practice of writing lines of poetry (or other kinds of writing) in this or that way? If feminism can be not simply a cultural theory but also a poetics, how does that poetics look as an actual practice of how to write? And how are the questions of how to write and what to write about connected?

4) Feminism as interconnectivity, as a focal point for multiple commitments, convictions, and explorations. Artistic ones: poetry, fiction, visual art, dance, music. Social and activist ones: environmental concerns and animal rights; lesbian, gay, and transgender politics; local activism and global perspectives. Even, as Gina Myers asserts, humanism: not the outdated white guy universalist rationalist humanism that helped get us into this mess but an attempt to re-imagine and re-work our involvements with others of all sorts.

Finally, though, and with no criticism of the forum intended (one can only do so much at once, obviously), what the discussion made me think also of was all the women writers informed by feminism whose work I’ve come to know in recent years and who might have been part of a larger gathering. Although generational lines are always worth blurring, I’m thinking mainly here of writers who were first significantly publishing poetry in this current decade and who are adding new elements to the history of feminism. Some of these writers have published several books in recent years, or just one, or should have published one by now but haven’t, for whatever reason. Some of them haven’t been publishing long at all. Some are more aesthetically challenging than others—obviously, since my bias runs in those directions, those are the writers I’m more likely to know about.

The list, of course, is also marked by the limits of my own experience and knowledge. Some of these writers you might know well, and some you might not know at all. And obviously you can mention some that I don’t know about (and ones that I did but am just forgetting to mention, an inevitable problem of list-making), so please help me add to the list.

Andrea Actis
Jen Benka
Lindsey Boldt
Leslie Bumstead
Allison Cobb
Jen Coleman
Katie Degentesh
Michelle Detorie
Latasha Nevada Diggs
Jennifer K. Dick
Sandra Doller
Jean Donnelly
Laura Elrick
Jeanine Hall Gailey
Elisa Gabbert
Susana Gardner
Lara Glenum
Judith Goldman
Arielle Greenberg
Kate Greenstreet
Sue Landers
Maryrose Larkin
Reb Livingston
Joyelle McSweeney
Chelsey Minnis
Carol Mirakove
Hoa Nguyen
Mel Nichols
Michelle Noteboom
Sina Queryas
Ariana Reines
Barbara Jane Reyes
Kathleen Rooney
Stephanie Rioux
Linda Russo
Carly Sachs
Kaia Sand
Sandra Simonds
Erika Staiti
Laura Sims
Jessica Smith
Maureen Thorson
Catherine Wagner
Rebecca Wolff
Stephanie Young
Rachel Zolf

Does a list like this really have much value? Who knows. Nonetheless, it has been fascinating for me to think again about how alive and well feminist poetry still is as it brings new concerns into relationship with many of its ongoing ones. A conference featuring many of these writers, or an anthology that published pieces by them, might very well give a large-scale picture of how feminist poetry has been changing in the first decade of this century, what problems it has been taking up and what new directions it has been exploring.


dbuuck said...

Hi Mark.
Wondering why your list only consists of female poets? I guess the question would be can't there be male feminists? (& I don't just mean men 'influenced by feminist theory' but self-identified). I know there is a long history of SWM poaching/colonizing theoretical domains/movements, so I want to be VERY careful in how these kinds of questions are framed - i.e. what is at stake is not so much whether or not certain male poets/citizens can justifiably claim 'feminist' as a self-branding for the sake of academic/cultural capital/cache, but whether the work of feminism(s) might be work that can be (need be?) engaged from a variety of positions & situated practices. The flip side or risk for me is that if feminist=women (just as often gender=female or race=non-white) that feminist practice becomes one more branch of 'women's work', a concern/question/frame that we pose to women's poets but not men.
Anyways, this is not to suggest you're essentializing or anything like that - just thinking out loud here...
David Buuck

mark wallace said...

It's an important issue you raise here, David, to which I don't entirely have adequate answers. It's also a question that could be asked of the Delirium Hem gathering that I'm referencing here.

But let's get the irony (which we're both aware of, I know) out of the way first: here we are, two men, discussing whether men can be feminist poets. Okay, that's said.

I suppose I wouldn't ultimately debate whether men can be feminist poets, since that's mainly a question of how the term is defined, obviously. I might just be essentialist enough that I'd feel better if it was women discussing what men might be considered feminist poets and then you and I could chime in. As you suggest, the history of men claiming to be feminists is pretty vexed. So if I was aware of women writers who were making claims about male writers as "feminist poets," I might be more comfortable adding those male names to this admittedly provisional list. Are there women claiming that, do you know, and what male writers would they include?

Speaking for myself, I'd be likely to call myself pro-feminist without ever claiming to be a "feminist poet." Not sure what the distinction is, except that while I know a few things about feminist discourse and the history of women, I'm hardly an expert. Maybe more importantly (at least to me personally), I think it's important to acknowledge how much I really don't know about what it is to (feel like) (be treated like) (be) a woman. I feel like I encounter men all the time, some of them very pro-feminist in their claims, who presume a little more than they ought to about this and are often quite wrong. There are a lot of men who feel like they have this gender thing down pat, but I'm not one of them. For me it's important to acknowledge, or try to, the limits of what I do and don't understand. That doesn't mean that I don't think I understand a lot about how gender works, because I guess I do. But it does mean that I think it's important to proceed with caution in claiming what we do or don't know about others.

Still, I think the best response here is to take both me and you out of the center of the picture (to some extent) and ask, okay, does anybody actually have some examples of male poets who they would claim to be "feminist poets"? I suppose by looking at specific examples we could see what works or not about such claims in a way that would also help us define the various uses of the term, if we even need to. I'd appreciate any suggestions.

In fact I'd love to see a blog post publish a list called "male feminist poets" and see whether anybody thought the list was working. That might prompt a really interesting conversation. Anybody want to try it out?

Lastly, I think that for me, feeling comfortable thinking of myself as pro-feminist (in most instances I can imagine, anyway) rather than feminist doesn't automatically mean that I'm calling feminism "women's work." I think any number of men and women are working together to improve gender conditions. Does that make us all feminists? I hope you'll excuse if I feel a little reticent about making that claim myself, although I wouldn't hugely object, I suppose, if somebody else did.

majena mafe said...

Hi…thank you for raising such thoughtful questions re feminism and feminist practice especially in its relation to theory. And thank you for your delicious list of feminist informed writers, I look forward to reading though it. Re your mention of articulating a feminist poetics…I’d like to add to the discussion the work being done into the ‘said’ gap between practice and theory that is as we speak being filled up with a new type of theory, practice led theory and practice as theory. In this framework the insights and particularities, and the voice of a practice, are considered important and valid material to build and shape new theories and ideas across a wide range of disciplines, indeed it is making disciplines into tranies… (trandisciplinarity frameworks). It’s true some feminist theory is written for the world but some is written for a particular audience in that world. Those who can hear it. Innovative, aware, informed practice is always built for our ‘informed peers’, it always strives to move ahead and often way ahead of the dominant cultural and social frames. This isn’t snobbery or elitism but the way new things come into being through the giving and then receivership in some form. New thoughts, perspectives and means are always coming into being in this way. I am engaged in such a practice informed and creating a theory of sounded-language. I submitted the piece ‘what does a feminist poet sound like’ to the discussion on delirious hem and this is one of my key areas of interest and the core of my experimental work in theory/ literature and art.

Your right, in the past the gap between the poets practice and contemporary theory was considered a non issue, particularly and especially in academic circles. Indeed the connection was a non-event, an invisible gap in knowledge recognition. But artists/writers have always both made and made about ideas, issues, and shaped there works as knowledge claims regardless of their reception. But did we hear them? One of the complication was that the arguments/claims/ insights that privilege some notions over others, occurred within disciplines and institutions. Think the halls of the museum and the annals of art history and the halls of English literature departments etc. As the frame of cultural theory and literary and aesthetic theory has expanded, evolved and deliciously complicated each argument and firmly held belief, the artist/writer now ventriloquizes in words/paint not just the subject but their own inherent voice in a range of open experimental in a wide number of ways, transdisciplinary frameworks. The net being one of them

Before, in the not so distant past, ‘the muse’ was recognized as each one of us, practice be it art, writing, ‘the creative response’, lets call it had long been considered delivered muse-made via some sort of vacuum sealed package, though a magic blend of blessing, appeasement and struggle. The artists intensions to ‘the work’ were to be kept at an odd angle separate from the work itself and appreciation of the work that would follow by the expert, which was primarily considered in terms of its aesthetic value…, think of O’Keefe’s painted petals being ‘appreciated’ as examples of pure form…minimalism, precisionist, flattened picture plane etc, or Gertrude Stein’s work as having been built solely to confound and every now and then flirt the titillating secrets of her sexual life. But the artist’s voice and its strong voice at that, is now necessarily been heard as part of the conversation noting what is of value in culture and important to consider re knowledge frames. This voice is gaining ground now, fighting the good fight at the front, principally in academic circles and in Britain and Australia it has spilt over into shaping/ opening or closing down the funding of departments and institutions. This voice and its recognition is now speaking over the smothering voice of traditional notions within aesthetics that has been engaged too long measuring value in terms of a works evocation, calling up sensations etc. There is now a strong history of focus noting that how to write writing from ‘other’ standpoints is key, the individual voice as the principle factors. Result = new writing and ways or writing saying different things. These works are necessarily fragmented and pull at the notion of authorial voice, common sense and nonsense as they make new senses. Within these liminal works bordering theory/practice there are explorations occurring that are parallel to those explored in the most recent literary and cultural theory indeed some are leading them. New forms are being invented to allow for these innovations and the web is one of the most useful of those tools. This fact that this project is occurring in pockets makes the flow of the web even more appropriate for connection.

Feminist practice and theory has long been interested in overthrowing restrictive/ knowledge claims and in creating the voice to do it. And practice led theory and theory led practice is coming up with new ways of thinking and making that voice and its content. This is just one frame being established within a growing range of innovative theory informed practice by artists/writers who are working away in this area, rubbing out the ‘old boy’ standard. Ficto-critical frameworks and feminine ecriture in relation to practice-led theory are my two favorites…. This ongoing project for voice has and continues to be a long and hard fought for battle, not just for women, but those interested in inclusion of us all, indeed it might well be thought never over, as new voices enter the discussion and are at first always refused by the established order. But it is also one of mischief, and playfulness or gathering and disseminating ideas, or pulling threads together and of stepping back. Within connected communities of thinking, new approaches are critiqued and strengthened. I was glad to be part of the delirious hem forum as yet another example of this.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for this detailed and thoughtful response, Majena. There's a lot worth considering in what you say, and I particularly like the issue of playfulness and mischief that you conclude with. Play is often serious business--but, one hopes, not always simply serious, while at the same time calling a lot of certainties into question.

Jeannine said...

Thanks, Mark, for this post!

Anonymous said...

Mark said:
>Feminism is of course fundamentally a cultural practice.

If so, I'm surprised that no one has yet noted what could be taken as a fairly obvious "cultural" assumption lurking in Mark's post: that framing "feminist poetics" along strictly English-language lines is a perfectly natural and positive thing to do (the linguistic/national boundaries of the list not even apparently deserving of the slightest mention of qualification).

Not that I consider myself qualified to speak with any authority on the topic... But it seems an interesting question to me--questions, I guess: What are the cultural forces that would make such a monolingual "feminist" list seem so natural and unproblematic? Are such language-centric role calls really appropriate to a movement (at least the internationalist and working-class tendencies of the movement) that has long challenged distinctions and divisions imposed by language and nationality? It's not as if there aren't translations (and quite well-known ones) of important recent poetry by women from elsewhere. Why not include them as naturally as one would include, for example, a Flarf poet from California?

Well, anyway, one more U.S. figure: Susan Briante is a terrific poet and translator. Oh, and Dodie Bellamy, how no one has mentioned her is beyond me...


mark wallace said...

Thanks for this comment, Kent.

It's true that I don't know enough about feminist poets who have published first books since the year 2000 in languages other than English or have seen much of their work in translation. There were some whose work I read in the anthology of New German poetry in Dichten No. 10 like Ute Elsinger and Uljana Wolf, and they definitely should be mentioned. And Jen Hofer's anthology of Mexican Women poets is well worth bringing up. Aase Berg and Kim Hyesoon, who are wonderful writers published in translation on Action Books, published books before 2000, I believe, so don't quite belong on this list (Dodie also, for the same reason). And your comment made me realize that I even left out Sawako Nakayasu, an amazing poet who used to live not far from me here in San Diego and who has recently been living in both China and Japan. I hope you'll suggest for me and others any poets writing in other languages who you think might fit the broad framework here. There have to be hundreds that I've never even heard of.

That said, I'm not trying to assume that listing English-language only (which not all of the mare) poets is somehow "natural"--so I appreciate you raising the issue. Instead, the list has more to do just with writers whose work I know.

Anonymous said...

>There have to be hundreds that I've never even heard of.

Same here, Mark!

As I said, this is hardly my area. It is interesting, though, that Latin American women poets, generally speaking, have been in many ways ahead of U.S. women writers in bringing frank sexual politics into poetry. In Uruguay, where I grew up, for example (and where most of the major poets are, in fact, women), Juana de Ibarbourou, Delmira Agustini, Idea Vilarino, Ida Vitale were writing pretty edgy stuff a long time ago (Agustini was murdered in 1914, and the others did much of their major work before WWII).

Anyway, yes, someone like Jen Hofer would know lots more. Forrest Gander, also, probably knows as much as anyone in U.S. about women poets in Mexico. I mentioned Susan Briante-- she's translating, for an anthology of poetry from Uruguay I'm editing (slowly, slowly, I am), the incredible Marosa di Giorgio-- one of the strangest writers ever when it comes to sex, identity, and transgression. She's got major cult status in Uruguay and Argentina now, and Almodovar, according to di Giorgio's sister, plans to make a film based on her prose poems!


claire said...

Hi Mark,

Joan Retallack's essay :RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM: may be of interest to you in light of some questions you pose in your entry. JR takes a unique stance on feminist consciousness, and her perspectives on how this consciousness might influence physical lines of (and sometimes gaps in) poetry is worth thinking about. Here is a link (the whole essay is on Google Books):

Hope this finds you well!
Claire Donato

Danielle said...

Hey, all,

Lovely thoughtful post, and some very gorgeous branching out! Yes, the Delirious Hem forum isn't meant to be remotely exhaustive--just to get some lines of flight opened up. Gender is HUGE, so I'm all for micro-climates in feminist poetics as there are in feminist studies.

Are there men writing (pro)feminist poetry? Yes. I think so. Why didn't I include them in the Delirious Hem forum? Two reasons: 1. Initially, I wanted to know where the experience of being cultured a woman, writing poetry, and engaging with feminism came to nexus for the contributors. I'd been women (and I mean that in its broadest, most multifaceted sense) often assume we're on the same feminista page, and then turns out we've got radically different frames. 2. I, and some of the others associated with Delirious Hem, are interested in women taking up more public space. The mens (at least those whose categories are more unmarked than marked) are rather good at it without my help, but maybe they need a nudge to do a forum on feminist/pro-feminist men poets? Want to help, Mark?

And I don't think it's at all essentialist to acknowledge that no matter how constructed these genders are, we experience them as real. Tricky territory, indeed.

Oh, and it's Pafunda, though Profunda might be more potent a poet name!


Danielle said...

Oops, that shld read "Women (and I mean that in its broadest, most multifaceted sense) often assume we're on the same feminista page, and then turns out we've got radically different frames." But I've also been women.

heh heh,

Joanne Merriam said...

Thank you for this. I will certainly be coming back to it to familiarize myself with the poets whose work I don't know.

mark wallace said...

Thanks to all of you for these further comments.

Claire, I appreciate you bringing up Joan Retallack's work. I think her work raises issues connecting gender issues and poetic structures that are well worth considering here, especially in relation to Danielle's project, which, if I'm understanding it, has less to do with poetic structure as such than with performative selves and the history of gendered images and themes.

Danielle, thanks for prompting this blog post in the first place with the fascinating Delirious Hem forum. Sorry about the misspelling--I did know the right one, so it was bad proofreading on my part rather than bad information.

Not including men in the original forum certainly isn't an issue of significant concern for me, although I can understand how others might feel it was.

Still, a forum on male poets who think of themselves as pro-feminist (or whatever word they might use) could certainly be a fascinating, not to mention vexed and twisty and scary, conversation. I'd be glad to be a significant part of prompting such a discussion, if you'd find it worthwhile, but I can also understand why you're highlighting women poets--it's true what you say about men taking up plenty of space. I don't have your e-mail address, although I imagine I could get it, or you could contact me:

Whether any of that goes forward or not, I really appreciate your willingness, and that of the other women (as well as men), to respond here. I'm pleased to note that it hasn't turned out to be only men who have considered it worthwhile to take the time to comment on my post.

Lemon Hound said...

Great list and post, Mark. I haven't time to comment thoughtfully, but I appreciate it. We've been a golden moment of women's writing though you wouldn't know that by record of publication and discussion so it's nice to see.

What would be nicer still is a non-gendered insertion and well as the listing, which is also yes, very important.