Who Are We That Read: A Collection of Essays from "Modernist and Contemporary Women Poets,"
a seminar held at the New Modernisms Conference

Part I

Introduction by Linda A. Kinnahan

In October, 1999, the new Modernist Studies Association held its inaugural conference, The New Modernisms, at the Penn State campus. During the conference, I led one of two sections of a seminar entitled "Modernist and Contemporary Women Poets," a topic I had suggested to the conference organizers as a way of foregrounding the production and reception of women poets in relationship to modernism and its legacies. Originally scheduled as one seminar, the topic drew so many participants that the conference organizers divided it into two sessions, and Lynn Keller was gracious enough to lead the second seminar devoted to this topic. The popularity of the seminars attests to the critical vitality and energy generated by the study of womenís poetry, the richness and diversity of twentieth-century poetry by women, and the necessity to continue our efforts to re-read the intersections of gender, reception, and production in twentieth-century poetries.

The seminar format proved to be wonderfully fruitful. Each participant, represented here with the exception of one (Jeanne Heuving, whose excellent paper will appear elsewhere), wrote a short paper that was shared with all other participants before the conference. Thus, when we met for a two-hour discussion, we had all seen each otherís work and were relieved of the pressure of actually "presenting" a paper. This format opened space for discussion characterized by unexpected turns, multiple voices, thinking on the spot, and generally high energy. It was exhausting and fascinating at once, and I am grateful to each and every participant for her generosity of spirit and intellect as we navigated the issues brought up in discussion and the essays. Contributing immensely to the seminarís liveliness and stimulating content was a group of invited "guest" participants, poets and scholars who had graciously and enthusiastically agreed to take part in our discussion. My thanks to Rachel Blau Du Plessis, Linda Wagner-Martin, Lynn Keller, and Kathleen Fraser for joining the group and providing invaluable perspectives developed from their incredible pioneering, bridging, unending work on modernist and contemporary poetry by women.

When I came up with the topic, I was selfishly interested in discussing interests of my own, which have focused on the resonance of reading modernist writers against, beside, in relation to contemporary poets. This, for me, has not been a question of lineage but of reading practices. What do we learn from reading a contemporary woman working innovatively with language and form that helps us to (re)read Stein or Moore, for example? How do the recuperation and negotiation of innovative practices within strains of modernism enable / limit / inflect the works of contemporary women exploring language, form, and gender? How is "experimentation" to be received, contextualized, politicized? Although I had no clear map of directions that the seminar might take, these and other amorphous concerns certainly shaped my expectations.

However, the papers I read surprised and delighted me by exceeding my expectations, especially in asking us all to think in difficult ways about critical practices. As a way of introducing these splendid essays -- which represent works-in-progress and are often purposefully tentative, partial, exploratory, and risky -- Iíd like to sum up some of my reactions to the papers as a group and then pose some of the questions that came out of the discussion.

Critical anxieties leapt out at me from these essays. In some, a sense of belatedness in reading innovative texts emerged, a questioning of whether categories and practices engaged as "feminist" had ossified, of whether the project of re-reading womenís "experimental" texts had itself become exhausted. Is what was new, obscure, and exciting ten years ago now an overworked field, or seeming so? Or is there a community of readers trying to figure out just what the community is? While not explicit, this set of impressions lingered for me within the group of essays as a whole, and I wondered if this anxiety was a product of a critical apparatus that encourages the "new" and the "original" to the extent that this drive supersedes the critical tasks of (re)claiming, identifying, and historicizing. I wondered if there was a feeling of "post" (as in "post-feminist," "post-subversive," "post-experimental") before lots of necessary work had been done, a feeling Iíve had recently at conferences where it seems implicitly passé to address issues like gender (an "oh, havenít we already been there" feeling). This is not to say that the seminar essays took up this position but that they seemed somehow and subtly aware of it. Linda Russo, for example, questions the status of "subversive" in feminist literary discourse, while Elizabeth Savage turns the lens of critical practice upon her own efforts to "read" Riding and Retallack. Elisabeth Frostís essay usefully models a critical direction that strives to keep the resistant potential of feminist readings vital, in arguing for a "greater understanding of submerged traditions of resistance, both textual and political." Susan Rosenbaumís essay insists upon cultural contexts and feminist reception as part of a necessary gendered critique. Debbie Mixís essay asks whether in our critical practice we have moved from "recognition" to "codification," wondering how we continue the work of recognizing/claiming "trails" of feminist poetics rather than codifying them?

Three main areas of concern emerged within this nexus of what Iím calling critical anxiety, although even as I write this, Iím conscious of oversimplifying the richness of the essays and the afternoonís interchange. One area had to do with critical authority and institutional forces. Given the nature of the academy and its attendant pressures upon scholarly production, how does one practice scholarship and in what form? What critical and poetic boundaries remain in force, shaping how we write, who we write about, and where we choose to try to publish or speak? How does the dissemination of materials and access to them affect production, particularly for the scholars who possess little authority, money, or institutional support? Secondly, and not without relationship to academic structures, questions of HOW TO READ became pressing. In asking what happens to the process of reading modernism through contemporary womenís writing, numerous essays voiced the need to recognize the apparatus by which we identify structures we have for reading. Elizabeth Savage and Kathleen Crown wonder about ways of reading the "unsaid," while Jeanne Heuving and Kathleen explore methods of "lifting" in both critical and poetic practice, of recontextualizing prior sayings in radically refigured texts. Lesley Wheeler brings the revision of feminine associations into view through an unexpected pairing of "traditional" and "experimental" poetics that asks us to think of what we mean by those categories. Finally, the essays, perhaps rather than/as part of expressing critical anxiety, seemed finely attuned to questions of critical self-consciousness: how do we read ourselves and the ethics of our critical acts? how do critical needs determine readings? how do we act responsibly to recognize the role we play as critics, particularly in writing about living poets? how do the ethical dimensions and roles of the critic enter into our teaching of womenís poetry, of feminist reception, and as Rachel Blau Du Plessis insisted during the afternoon discussion, in articulating not only gender but social location, in locating gender in institutional and social contexts? in what ways will new forms of technology shape or press upon our activities as readers, writers, critics? and what might gender have to do with all of this?

This brings me back to the question of community. As the seminar participants enacted community on that afternoon in State College, PA. I was struck with the ripple effect of reading communities, imagining each woman returning to a classroom, a pen, a computer, where her reading and questioning and critical reflexivity would contribute to ever-new narratives emerging -- not as grist for the tenure mill -- but as enabling frameworks of concepts and histories that must constantly be revisited. Honestly, as the seminar discussion ended, it marked the first utopic moment Iíd had in a long time, and I like to hold tight to it and all of its attendant polemical, ethical, and intellectual energy. My thanks to you all.

Part II of "Modernist and Contemporary Women Poets" will appear in the next issue, drawing upon essays discussed in the seminar led by Lynn Keller.


BIO: Linda A. Kinnahan is an associate professor at Duquesne University, where she teaches twentieth-century American and British literature and womenís studies. Her book, Poetics of the Feminine: Literary Tradition and Authority in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser, examines modernist and contemporary poetry in relation to gender and language. She has also published on contemporary American and British women poets such as Denise Riley, Carol Ann Duffy, and Barbara Guest. She is completing a book-length study of feminist reading practices and contemporary poetry and is actively pursuing a second book project on modernist women poets and economics.


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