Linda RussoWherefore Gender

by Linda Russo





One of the major difficulties of the social history of philosophy, art or literature is that it has to reconstruct these spaces of original possibles which, because they were part of the self-evident givens of the situation, remain unmarked.

--Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production

The greatest difficulty is to state the difficulty, to state the problem in terms which can be investigated.

-- William Carlos Williams, The Embodiment of Knowledge

I apologize in advance for what may seem at times the obliquity of my argument.

-- Esther Finity


Of Modernist Margins and Subversions

When we turn our feminist attention to Modernist poetic communities both here and abroad, a gender politics devastating to women poets emerges. When it comes to poetic production, we see women at once marginalized imaginatively, set in a metaphorized relation vis a vis male poets (the feminine as a locus of male fantasies and fears, etc.), and also materially, at a certain distance to the processes and products of these movements of "the new." In the production of poetry and poetic manifestoes and other such directives, men reign (though Mina Loy obviously took exception to the rule). And when we look to the publication (reproduction) of these texts, we might remember the various pots Ezra Pound had a hand in, editorially intervening upon Dora Marsden’s The Egoist (1914-19), née The New Freewoman (1913), Harriet Monroe’s Poetry (1912-1936) and Margaret Anderson’s The Little Review (1914-1929). Marianne Moore edited The Dial from 1925-1929, and while many histories of Moore’s editorship cast her in the margins of her own presumed lack of self-confidence (thus was construed her consultations with her "senior" editors Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson), she might be viewed rather as a central operative figure maintaining correspondence out of a sense of (institutional and personal) respect. Certainly documentary evidence, and the initiative she took in reinstating The Dial’s relationship with then-estranged foreign correspondent Pound and in encouraging, in reviews and through publication, the work of Gertrude Stein, suggests that rather than being in some aspect marginal to modernist poetic production, or forced to the margins of editorial initiative at The Dial, she chose rather to be absorbed in what Jayne Marek has called the collective "Editorial We" -- a somewhat uncategorizable, because non-centric yet non-marginal, position. Vexatious to literary historians. Women editors pushed into the poetic margins of their own print productions. And in poetic productions, even Pound’s heralded few -- H.D. and Mina Loy, e.g. -- subsequently were marginalized/excized in acts of scholarly concision.

Feminist scholarship, in recovering the works of these and other women writers, has tended toward "subversion" as an axis, as a point of location, a "gynesis" whereby women could be seen at work in and on the field of traditionally masculine poetic production. Subverting lyric gender ideologies, subverting/scattering unified subjectivity, subverting "other" into the "New Woman" subject (i.e. Mina Loy, 1917); subverting poetic production so that it might both contain her and destroy the container. Though modernist writers were highly suspicious of metaphor, women continued to write under the symbol "Woman." The path was, from the margins, symbolic subversion; the rest is herstory.

Of the Field of Poetic Production

In the recently published anthology Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, editor Mary Margaret Sloan’s organizing principle locates the field of production as an important context to our understanding of contemporary innovative poetry. Rather than ordering contributors by birthdate, she signifies "entry into the public domain of a literary or arts community"(7), by relying on publishing chronology -- paying heed to the role the small press has played in the dissemination of innovative writing. A theory of such a context is developed in Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production: "The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces." I’m not so much concerned with "the specific profits (such as literary prestige) which are at stake in the field"(30), i.e. not so concerned with the fact that by taking a position in the field one puts oneself in proximity with said profits. For Bourdieu the field of production is a site of hierarchical struggle between the "heteronomous principal" (the bourgeois state) and the "autonomous principal" (the anti-bourgeois avant-garde), and thus the bottom line is economic, a "struggle in the field of cultural production over the imposition of the legitimate modes of cultural production" which is inseparably a "struggle within the dominant class"(41). This is simply, in small press production at this moment, not the issue. Also of little immediate interest are the effects innovators taking positions in the field of production enact on genre, though there has been, and continues to be, much to be said. This latter is the project of feminist scholarship -- endeavoring to position one or another marginalized woman poet into her justified position in the field. I’m concerned with what I might perhaps call sub-genre, with the poetic practices that are introduced into the field, and which consequently signify a certain sort of poetic production (i.e. "formal," "innovative," "experimental," etc.), and that are taken up as a sign of entry into the field. And I’m especially concerned with this as a particularly gendered position-taking, evident in the women-edited small press phenomena that has, since the 1950s, changed the field of innovative poetic production.

Since 1953 (when Daisy Aldan began co-editing Folder, a major outlet for New York avant-garde poets and artists, with Richard Miller, and continuing through the sixties as Diane di Prima, Margaret Randall, Rosmarie Waldrop, Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer co-edited little magazines and small presses (usually with a husband or lover) -- women poet-editors have started over 70 such ventures devoted to innovative poetry, almost half of these since 1990 alone. In endeavoring to edit and publish a little magazine, one enacts a position-taking that is qualitatively different than the sort of positioning one makes in writing poetry or being published. Since literary historians look largely to (and selectively through) written documentation, recognition amongst one’s contemporaries without representation in contemporary print production is tantamount to erasure. Devoted to furthering innovative explorations, a woman poet-editor enacts a feminist poetic by inserting her editorial agenda and making editorial decisions that affect the poetic community. Representation is not a byproduct of the politics of poetic practice, but a co-production. Her activity recasts the field of poetic production to include a wider variety of practices (and practitioners).

Post-Marginal Animadversions

Though there are undoubtedly fewer women than men involved in innovative poetry and poetics, I hesitate to maintain "marginal" as a position-marker. The recent conference at Barnard ("Where Lyric and Language Meet: Innovation in Contemporary Poetry by Women") and symposium at Bard’s Institute of Thinking and Writing attest to the centrality of women poets and poet-critics in the imagining of the field of innovative poetic production. In numbers, young contemporary women poet-editors nearly match the bulk of their male cohorts. It’s not merely coincident that these same are also post-Language and thus partaking of those theories of poetic invention and intervention that took shape in the establishment of a now vital small press community.

Against a backdrop of prohibitive literary history, asserting one’s editorial position, as well as writing and agreeing to have one’s work read and published -- insomuch as these amount to an exercise of agency -- is a feminist undertaking. The appearance of women writers and editors upset the prevalence of a set of top-heavy relations (subject/object, speaker/listener, viewer/viewed) and served to fully deconstruct the hegemonic order of feminist realism and masculinist innovation that preceded it. But where previously the struggle was unmistakably gendered, now it is unclear how gender functions in the production of innovative poetry and poetics. Bourdieu: "the field of cultural production is the site of struggles in which what is at stake is the power to impose the dominant definition of the writer and therefore to delimit the population of those entitled to take part in the struggle to define the writer"(42). Since the birth of feminist literary scholarship, but especially since the 1980s, the struggle has been to "consecrate," to unearth, modernist women writers and to legitimate their writing practices as poetic practices -- to deem their various modes of writing as poetry -- and as engaged also in the "more important" issues at hand in the public sphere, to say for example that Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, and Gertrude Stein are not "merely" domestic writers. The struggle also has been to legitimize contemporary poetic practices as poetry (cf. How(ever)) and to turn critical response to those practices: to shape (and gender) reception, to shape (and gender) those practices, to shape and gender the field of poetic production. To wit: Much work reproduced in the "Poetics and Exposition" segment of Moving Borders was produced in the 1980s, such as Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ "Otherhow," Lyn Hejinian’s "Rejection of Closure," Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Leslie Scalapino’s "Note on My Writing, 1985." The value of women’s writing to the field of poetic production is positively defined.

Bourdieu: "Position taking changes, even when the position remains identical, whenever there is a change in the universe of options that are simultaneously offered for producers and consumers to choose from. The meaning of a work... changes automatically with each change in the field within which it is situated for spectator or reader"(30). What does "innovative" feminist work by a contemporary mean? A younger poet taking up the available poetic practices enacts a radical derealization of their once-politic effects, for the newly constructed poem fails to realize (make real) the political potential with which the strategy was introduced. "Ignorance of everything which goes to make up the ‘mood of the age’ produces a derealization of the works: stripped of everything which attached them to the most concrete debates of their time . . . they are impoverished and transformed in the direction of intellectualism or empty humanism" or what appears to be the new unified subject; the anti-subject subject who from the fractures emerges whole.

How to talk about this new (feminist?) subject? At a point when innovative women poets are no longer marginal, does it make sense to speak of subversion as a poetic tactic? Or a poetic trinket? Is gender still a relevant for locating subversive (or not) poetic practices by women? It remains, indeed, a crucial question for existence on a material, daily level. To be clear: the frame or the context, that which hinges the ever pervasive metonymies and abstractions, the babes of the New Sentence, is the new metaphor that we might, like moderinsts, be suspicious of. For despite heterogeneous (and anti-hegemonic) poetic practices, a new subject, recognizeable as a unified subject, has re-emerged. Margin and subversion, once-useful points of critique that did frame the problematic, have now become subsumed in the frame, have become part of its materials and methods. Once politicized, now aestheticized. Thus having announced one’s affiliation to a certain aesthetic or tradition by taking up a particular set of strategies, announcing, as it were, one’s position in the field of production, the question becomes whether this alignment further politicizes or merely aestheticizes those strategies as "givens."

Bourdieu’s Marxist roots -- as in the lexicon of production and consumption -- will prove, momently, its continued relevance to the situation at hand despite the fact that, as I’ve said, the issue is not "specific profits" (i.e. cultural capital) but, strictly speaking, poetics, as a prescriptive and proscriptive indicator. For what emerges is a new, linguistically coded poetic subject, a sort of hip billboard which is an advertisement for the acquiescence of the subject to hegemony, for which one needs only the decoder technology to read.

So while the "difficult modernist text" has given way to the possibility of a "difficult but decodable text," discerning the context of production emerges as the new difficulty; discerning it, to figure out where it has gone awry in relation to specific points of feminist and poetic interest. "When a new literary or artistic group makes its presence felt in the field of literary or artistic production, the whole problem is transformed, since its coming into being, i.e. into difference, modifies and displaces the universe of possible options; the previously dominant productions may, for example, be pushed into the status either of outmoded [déclassé] or of classic works"(32). How are these "new" groups (are they?) making their presences felt (are they?). The little magazines used to be the organ of the movement; now the movement, the "new" as an aesthetic, is an organ of the little magazine, and the presence of the multitude produced is felt in proliferation, the whelm of dispersion.

In Bourdieu’s field, conflict rather than consensus is the prized outcome. Let it not be assumed that I’m demanding that innovative women’s poetry today enact in practice an effect it presumes in theory. An effect -- feminist or post-feminist -- assumes a historical, political and/or aesthetic relation to a cause, most recently those questions of gender, of representation, of textuality, of subjectivity, of translation, of authorship, that is if we take Moving Borders as an indication of particular, and particularly valued ("innovative") causes. But rather I’m asking that innovative (women’s) poetry today articulate for itself particular critical points of coherence, conflict, or departure from the rubric constructed by previous poetic endeavors -- to claim a position in the field; and that women critics and poet-critics continue to articulate those points of what might be called feminist intervention in innovative poetic production.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production: essays on art and literature. Edited and introduced by Randal Johnson. NY: Columbia UP, 1993.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Praxis. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Marek, Jayne E. Women Editing Modernism: "Little" Magazines & Literary History. U of Kentucky Press, 1995.

Sloan, Mary Margaret, ed. Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women. Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1998.

BIO: Linda Russo lives in Buffalo, New York. Her chapbook o going out was published by Potes & Poets last year.


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