Saturday, June 24, 2006

some questions


What does it mean to be experimental? Innovative?

Why would this be important in poetry, especially contemporary poetry?

What makes experimental poetry feminist? Is experimental poetry feminist by nature?


What kind of communities do experimental poetics envision? What kind of poetry do they call for in return?

How do these poets challenge the way we read and what’s the larger purpose, if any?

Why even read or write poetry and does the why even matter?

Intimacy (should probably be defined) (seems to have particular relevance for women poets):

Many of these poets address issues of intimacy – between individuals, groups, and an individual and a group. Thinking mostly of Hejinian (My Life), Berssenbrugge (Empathy), and Mayer (Sonnets).

- My Life questions the idea of a unified, autonomous self and autobiography in general. Collective memory. Gives the reader some authority.

- Berssenbrugge questions the ability of language to convey intimacy. Empathy as a title is important. What’s required in empathy? (how does form fit into her project – she stands out from the other poets with huge sentences)

-Mayer’s sonnets – 1.) no one gendered speaking self, 2.) setting is often in public or moves between public and private, really erasing the difference between them


These poets write so much about collectivity and fluidity between the individual and the group – stands in contrast to the current political climate – us versus them, good/evil, heightened sense of nationalism and rigid individual and groups definitions required by it. So, what’s the political importance of experimental poetry, if any?

-Cariaga: multiplicity of voice, incorporates colonizer’s voice, actually co-opts colonizer’s voice in her poetry, uses different languages, media clips, text from history books

-Kim: uses Korean and English, white space, fragments, images from politics, media, and daily life, looks at the way public life and private life collide, especially in war

-Mullen: incorporates song lyrics, blues rhythms, dialect, slang into her poetry, advertisements, investigates the way race is defined and maintained in America

-importance of language in nationalism, in formation of national identity – can connect this to excerpts from Stein’s The Making of Americans


All of these poets question the way we know and how we know. Many of them are resistant to enlightenment ideas of self and logic. They brilliantly investigate knowledge and the way we know, and acquire it, through their form and use of language (can we “know” and take meaning from a list of words, or individual characters?) This kind of poetry is simply the most fun. For someone like Waldrop, what we know and how we know it is intrinsically tied to the political (actually, for all the other poets I’ve mentioned, too, but I’m really thinking about Key into the Language of America). Notley suggests that there are other ways of knowing (she thinks better ways of knowing) than the model provided to us by Plato – her heroine goes into the dark to find knowledge on a reverse Odyssean quest. Berssenbrugge tells us, there’s no light, there’s no dark, it’s all just a fog, so good luck figuring anything out for sure. I don’t think Stein could be left out of this discussion because she was the real mother of all of these poets – they all recognize her and the impact of her work in one form or another. Actually, I’m thinking now about the connection between experiment and knowledge, experimenting with different ways of knowing, through language, different subjects of knowledge (Loy’s investigation of sexuality and feminism through language, etc.)

This leads to a trace question:

Is there a link between these poets? Stein’s play with language opened a space for Loy to look at the way language constructs even human relations, opened a space for H.D. to think about narrative form in general and how fixed narrative locked women into false myths which she then rewrote, connect this to Notley years later, and would Mayer have written her sonnets without Loy, etc. I don’t really like thinking about it like a tree with Stein as the root though. It’s not as determined as that. I like looking at the connections between these poets and how they’ve influenced each other, but it just doesn’t seem right to connect them linearly when they don’t think that time is really linear.

Other observations:

Many of the poets I’ve read write a lot about cities and urban spaces. First noticed it in Loy and I’ve traced it through Fraser, Mullen, Mayer, (others, but can’t remember now). I’m wondering if there’s something important there. What does the city represent? Seems like there’s a long tradition of men wandering the city, observing, and writing poetry about it. Is it important that the observer is female and the city is often ancient? (what I’m thinking about here is 1.) a reversal of Benjamin’s Flaneur and 2.) female observer in movement, in public, instead of static in the domestic space.)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Notes on Juliana Spahr's Everybody's Autonomy

Main focus:

"What we read and how we read it matters. A heavily plotted and symbolic novel...encourages a different sort of reading practice than mixed-genre writing. While either work might affect readers in many different ways, the formal aspect of each must play a role in any consideration or reading" (4).

She values works that encourage connection - works that encourage communal readings and communities, esp. the kind of communities.

I started to take issue with the idea of community right away. As I've been investigating all sorts of interesting poetry these past months, I've felt increasingly ignorant and alienated, like I'm missing the right language or tools to even read this stuff, let alone make any sense of of it. If so much of it is so hard to read (I'm really thinking Stein here, since Spahr begins her discussion with an analysis of her work), then it seems like two kinds of communities would be created: an alienated and resistant one (high schoolers, reluctant college students, etc.) and an elitist one. It seems that the only kind of connection encouraged by many of these poets is a frustrated and disconnected group united in their absolute hatred of Stein. At least it's a group.

How can anything actually be changed in the world (many of these poets think their writing is doing something political in the very act of putting the words on the page) if like 4 people actually "get it" even if the "it" is that there's nothing to get?

Spahr was way ahead of me:

communal readings include "moments that are non-identificatory: moments when one realizes the limits of one's knowledge; moments of partial or qualified identification; moments when one realizes and respects unlikeness; moments when one connects with other reader (instead of characters)...Works that recognize reading's dangers, its potential exclusions, and work to make this relationship more productive...have as their ultimate goal considerations of what sorts of humans the experience of reading encourages us to be" (5).

I buy this in theory, but I'm not sure yet about in practice. I'm still not convinced that Stein cared about any of this - although Spahr isn't claiming that she did.

Next quote:

"The works of these writers, rather than guiding readers through developmental structures to a neat box of conclusion, encourage dynamic participation. Rather than rewarding readers for well-deciphered meaning and allusion, they reward readers for response involvement and for awareness of their limitations" (6).

Okay, but how is participation encouraged? Sparh's work is concerned with the audience, so who is the audience? College educated? White? Students in a classroom? Does it matter if the poetry is read or heard? And since I can't be help read everything through a feminist lens, I'm wondering if there's something innately feminist about these kinds of challenging works and why would this kind of approach be important for feminist work?

On the one hand, this approach to reading challenges the idea of a master narrative controlled by an author and a one-meaning reading of texts. When Stein forces us to throw convention out the door, she's really forcing us to give up a patriarchal approach to language. If the way we think follows the way language is structured, maybe we're actually opened up to another way of being by reading Tender Buttons. Many contemporary postcolonial poets, Catalina Cariaga for example, play with language in their poetry to demonstrate how language and power are related - language was a colonizing tool.

On the other hand, it's interesting that the author is no where to be found when a non-white or male narrative begins to emerge. Maybe it's too soon to throw subjectivity out the window.

Spahr writes: "If, as Foucault so famously claimed, the author is dead, then language writing adds: long live readers" (52). Well, who are the readers?

"Reading is a learned and regulated act. Reading is usually taught in school so as to walk hand in hand with assimilation. And it is at its most oppressive when taught through principles of absolute meaning. Beginning reading exercises tend to emphasize meaning as unambiguous and singular; the word "duck" in the primer means the bird, not the verb. Further, as a learned and regulated act, reading socializes reader not only into the process of translating symbol into word with one to one directness, but also into specific social relationships. Dick and Jane teach how to live the normalized lives of the nuclear family as much as they teach how to read" (11).

This simple poem by Wang Ping ties these ideas together:


She walks to a table

She walk to table

She is walking to a table

She walk to table now

What difference does it make

What difference it make

In Nature, no completeness

No sentence really complete thought

Language, like woman,

Look best when free, undressed.

I think she should have left the punctuation out of the poem - but regardless, I think she's echoing Stein's elevation of non-standard English as more normal than standard English. She ties language back to the body in the end when she equates language restraints with restraints on women's bodies. The community formed by this poem wouldn't have to be as engaged as Stein's community, but for native English speakers, I think Spahr's non-identificatory moment occurs. It obviously doesn't have the "making strange" quality of Stein's writing, but she's clearly making a political and theoretical statement by playing with language and it's capacity to produce meaning.

More later -

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Notes on My Life

I'm really self-conscious writing in a public space like this. I hope I only have one reader. I'm reading a book or more a day in preparation for THE GREAT EXAM, so these writings feel superficial and rushed. This is the last excuse I'll write, I promise.

I've been reading My Life for several days, and here are some preliminary notes:

1. Is the “I” absent in memory? What I mean by this – when I remember something from childhood, or even yesterday or this morning, is the memory embodied? I am in the present, not the past. The memory is an echo, or just the form, not the thing. “I” becomes “other” in my memory. Is this how My Life can work as a kind of communal autobiography? Without the details, the memories could be anybody’s memories.

2. Apparently the volume was originally published with 37 sections of 37 sentences. Eight years later, Hejinian added eight sections and eight sentences to each section. This is one of my favorite aspects of the poem (book, volume, I don’t really know what to call it, so I’ll just consider it a poem for now). There are so many gaps in the memories, so many places where it seems like important information or pieces of memory are left out. It has a kind of unfinished quality, which is similar to memory anyway, because we can’t possibly remember everything simultaneously – instead maybe various specificities rise to the surface every now and then. The act of remembering is mirrored in Hejinian’s use of language. The breaks in standard or expected syntax and traditional narrative flow (although Hejinian's non-standard syntax is nowhere near as whacky as some of these other poets I've been reading). So, Hejinian’s addition to the text later on emphasizes that with every second the present is experienced, the past is archived. The text, like identity, is unstable, in flux, continuously, and is only artificially closed (she defines "closed" and "open" texts in one of her essays - I'll come back to that later). What text is really ever finished? Even if the author has long since past and the actual words don’t change, the way it’s read will always change. Also, she didn’t just tag on eight sentences to the end of each section – rather, they’re threaded into the existing memories. Isn’t that also how memory works? I’ll tell you a story today, and then when I repeat it to someone later, I’ll add some things and take out some things, depending on how I remember it at that moment.

3. This text reads like a translation. I think it’s a translation of memory. For example, look how the first section begins –

A moment yellow, just as four years later, when my father returned home from the war, the moment of greeting him, as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, younger, thinner than when he had left, was purple – though moments are no longer so colored. Somewhere in the background, rooms share a pattern of small roses.

We don’t really remember in words, do we? We remember the senses of the moment. We might remember how something is said longer or in more detail than we’ll remember what was said. Henjinian captures this so brilliantly by describing the visual aspects of memory from the beginning. Throughout all 45 sections, moments are colored. And the moments where she seems to be describing instead of defining (“A sense of definition (different from that of description, which is a kind of storytelling or recounting, numerical, a list of colors) develops as one’s sense of possibility, of the range of what one might do or experience, closes with the years. So I gave it away.” 128) are pieced together in a stream-of-consciousness mimicry of memory or thought patterns in general. Although, I’m not sure if I should use that expression in regards to My Life because I think it implies an unstructured randomness, which is the opposite of Hejinian’s project. Thought and memory might happen in fragments (“only fragments are accurate” 75), but Hejinian was mirroring the process, I think, not necessarily recreating it in her process. In other words, everything in My Life is deliberate. It might be better to say that there’s a filmlike quality about the visuals of the poem. Also, I think that there are two melodies (?) interweaving through the text: the visual and the theoretical. After a few sections, I thought her theoretical or verbal attentions were just interjections into the predominant or main thread visual listings of memories. I quickly left that idea. Again, this is a complicated text that might seem simple at first reading because of the accessibility of the language. The prodigious vocabulary of her essays is replaced by an everyman’s diction.

The more I think about that last part, the less I like it, actually. She calls into question the meaning of conjunctions and pronouns, so she really doesn't use an everyman's vocabulary. It's deceptive. She defamiliarizes the familiar maybe.

Going back to the translation idea – as long as memory is sensory, it is personal, but when it is translated into language (written or spoken language), or translated from the mind to the page, it becomes public. The reader brings her own experiences to it. The gaps are filled with my meaning now. So, it’s a conversation. Hejinian has said that language is social.

4. I’m not sure what to do yet with the repetition. The little phrases in italics that introduce each section are threaded throughout the work, and some phrases in particular are repetitive. Colors and images, the rose wallpaper, for example, emerge every so often. I seem to remember reading something about repetition in poetry in The Language of Inquiry. I think in “The Rejection of Closure.” I need to go back and look.

5. Other things to think about:

-Autobiography – is that what this poem really is? What does it mean? Most autobiographies follow a chronological, or at least narrative, structure of events. My Life is structured by section and length, not chronology or even linear narrative (well, I think it’s loosely chronological). Does this suggest something about how texts are categorized in the first place? Or does it suggest something about the construction of identity, or a life? I guess it could even open up more philosophical questions about time or consciousness. I think Hejinian has written about that a bit – I have to look it up.

-Gender - Hejinian has written in her essays, and I know somewhere in My Life, that language isn’t gendered. The body is especially absent in My Life. I’m not sure I agree with her on that. First, I have to figure out if I’m remembering correctly. If I am, I think I can argue her. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it without being accused of essentialism, though. I’m running into the same dilemma while reading for my other areas. I’ve got to think about this more before I put it into public writing…

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Back from break

I don't have anything especially interesting to post, mostly because I've slacked off and read history books instead of poetry the past few weeks, but I figured that I should give an update on my progress.

Now that classes have begun and I've met my insolent English 101 class, there's nothing I'd rather read than poetry.

So far, I've worked my way through Simpson's Poetic Epistemologies, Lyn Hejinian's The Language of Inquiry, and I'm still taking my time with Kathleen Fraser's il cuore: the heart. I'm waiting for more books from amazon and the library (I'll update my list soon), but, in the meantime, I've got plenty to keep me busy.

Reading Hejinian's essays is mentally exhausting. Her writing is superficially simple - it's easy to read but difficult (often) to really grasp. I think it will prove to be useful later on, after I have sifted through more of the primary material - the poetry. For now, I'm really drawn to her discussions about the public/private dichotomy and the role of community in regards to the poet. I'm thinking especially of "Who is Speaking." She asks wonderful questions in her foreword:

"Is it important to speak? Is it necessary to do so? Can one be a participant without speaking? Should silence be construed as protest? As complicity? Who or what is the authroity that "permits" one to speak, and on what grounds is that authority established and/or asserted? What authority do I gain by speaking, first, in an particular act (moment) of doing so and second, as one who is often one of the speakers? What is the relationship between private creativity and participation in public discourse? Is a public context a necessary component of private work? What is the relationship of public speech to published writing?"


"What does it mean when one feels one "doesn't have anyting to say"? What is the nature of a community of discourse? Is there a style of discourse that is effective and valuable without being oppressive?" (32)

I'd like to keep these questions in mind as I'm reading the next few months. For my project, I think I'll want to specify Hejinian's questions to inquire specifically into how gender plays a role in the poet's community and public/private spaces.

There are twenty essays in Hejinian's collection, so there's a lot to respond to. But I'd rather write about Kathleen Fraser tonight, so more on Hejinian later.

Fraser is becoming one of my favorite poets. It's frustrating that I'm writing this right now and not reading her. Her poetry is addicting. I'm lacking Hejinian's brilliant poetics vocabulary (and I feel rather dumb in her shadow), so I don't even know how to describe why I love it. I think I feel a physical presence in her poetry more so than in any of the other poets I've read, except maybe Loy. She requires the reader's acute participation - I cannot read her passively, and that's enticing.

I've got several poems bookmarked - I'll be back to write about them later. Right now, I've want to get back to reading. First, here's one of my favorites.

To Start

At a tremendous speed my throat makes its door slide.
Open. Pure guesswork...I have lost the other

side of me. You'll see. In teeth dreams there are only three
wrong guesses. A surprise doesn't exist.

Just a guess against the door.
To think is simultaneous. I'll take another network

of teeth (by pairs) as my answer. Stars. Anymore.

Monday, October 31, 2005

On my bookshelf

Fraser, Kathleen. Il cuore: the heart: Selected Poems 1970-1995. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1997.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Cell. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1992.
-----. The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: U of CA P, 2000.

Loy, Mina. The Lost Lunar Baedeker. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

Mullen, Harryette. Muse & Drudge. Philadelphia, PA: Singing Horse, 1995.
-----. Sleeping with the Dictionary. Berkeley, U of CA P, 2002.

Notley, Alice. Disobedience. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Osman, Jena. The Character. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Scalapino, Leslie. Considering how exaggerated music is. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1982.
-----. That they were at the beach. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1985.

Simpson, Megan. Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women’s Language Oriented Writing. Albany: SUNY Press, 2000.

Spahr, Juliana. Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity. Tuscaloosa, AL: U of AL P, 2001.

And names without works:

Renee Gladman
Summi Kaipa
Catalina Cariaga
Myung Ni Kim
Carla Harryman
Barbara Guest
Laura Moriarty
Ann Lauterbach
Susan Howe
Rachel Blau Duplessis
Helen Adams
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Rosmarie Waldrop
Beverly Dahlen
Laura (Riding) Jackson
Lori Lubeski

Realism is an unimaginable ballad: direct speech
across the trajectory of nature in its trees
Which word is an object of imitation?
And in returning differs
(The Cold of Poetry - Hejinian)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Why I don't like Blogs

I really need soft pages (the cheap lined paper of those little bound notebooks imported from Germany with cover stock of psuedo Florentine design, as if a business man from Lubeck half in love with the expensive papers of Firenze but more than half in love with profit, had finally decided on the less expensive, recycled pastel blue) to get started, for I find that a certain writing implement, a particular receptiveness of cheap paper to soft lead or fine-pointed roller ball pen, can pull one into the page's watery expanse, not exactly sinking there, but not floating above it either, inadvertantly losing the sense of confine - or following the feel of something ahead of you, in the paper itself...boundary and sticking point, unstuck into motion, entering the zone between zones. (From Soft Pages - Kathleen Fraser)