is embarrassing to have a style in public, because it means you
are vulnerable, vulnerable to being "read." People do
all kinds of things to avoid this, including pretending to be stylish
in some new but store-bought way (following a "model"),
which is a more fashionable version of the older habit of writing
in an impersonal voice of Latinate neutrality and (thus) authority.
Having a style means you are situated, if only in your sign-making
self, and not divinely scientific. This is especially scary for
people who dont yet have some kind of institutional authority
such as tenure or fame.
world is largely bleak and life is short. Why be bleak ourselves?
Why not create pleasures? If I think of the audience when I write,
it is an audience of people who just wanna have fun. Though I do
very much include learning about things besides me and my style
in the notion of fun! (I once had a difficult midwifery with a graduate
student, a poet, who was a marvelous stylist. Every sentence of
her dissertation was beautiful, surprising, voiced. Every sentence
said "pay no attention to that Modernist woman poet on my title
page! Watch me Write!" )
your style is tantamount to discovering your mind, even your intellectual
mission. It is hard, takes years, etc., like learning to play a
musical instrument. Much that is in it isnt ours in particular,
but our various situations. No need to fake that, it will out itself
if we take writing seriously, if we consider critical writing to
be writing and not just self-advertisement or a strategy
to the practical side of this matter. My particular critical writing
has, from grad school on, attracted admiration but signaled some
askew relation to The Profession (the relation of a poet to it,
as it happens). I did get a job at a university, and am now a full
professor, and have published some books, so it didn't get seriously
in my way as I wended it up the Ladder. On the other hand, I long
ago gave up sending articles to journals unless Im invited
to. It may well be that times have changed or are at least changing,
but there was a period in which ones writing had to be instantly
recognizable as signifying membership in a particular critical or
theoretical school to be recognized as a contribution to scholarship,
and there were stylistic methods of indicating that (especially
the long footnote naming every important person in that posse who
has ever written on the matter under discussion in your own sentence
or paragraph. See Bourdieu.) I didnt understand the outline
of my mission in the written world yet, and wasnt about to
signal affiliations that werent real. I think, I hope, the
new world of online journals will reduce the homogeneity of expectations.
great remarks from a critic and theorist of inimitable and thrilling
style, Allen Grossman: 1) "Dont worry, no ones
listening!" and 2) (addressed to a brilliant student whose
dissertation chapter was oppressed by stylistic and expressive timidity)
"Who are the Police?" In order not to be incarcerated,
we have to stop being incarcerated, now. Open the door. If you find
yourself driven out of academia because you have too much verve,
emotional complexity and fire, than perhaps academia doesnt
exist at all.
Mary Baine Campbell is a professor at Brandeis University, in the
Department of English and American Literature, where she teaches
medieval and Renaissance literatures, poetry, and women's studies.
Her books include The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European
Travel Writing, 400-1600 (1988), The World, the Flesh, and
Angels (poetry, 1989), "'Are Sin, Disease and Death Real?'"
(chapbook, 1993) and Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in
Early Modern Europe (1999), as well as a new collection of poetry,
Trouble, which has not yet found a publisher. During the
summer of 2000, Campbell made a libretto for a new opera by Martin
Brody, based on Marie de France's lai about a werewolf and
his philandering wife, the Bisclavret.
the Beauty in Breaking (Down) the Law of Meaning
Erika Renée Williams
her essay "Così Fan Tutti" analyst, linguist, and feminist
Luce Irigaray takes up (and takes on) the western, psychoanalytic
tradition by which woman is said to speak, to mean, only with palpable
difficulty. If, as psychoanalysis instructs us, gender difference
is born "in" language, and if, as common sense allows us, the law
of language has been "for centuries" "prescribed" (87) by men, then
the truly signifying female subject would seem an improbability.
Notes Irigaray (in the words of Jacques Lacan): "There is no woman
who is not excluded by the nature of things, which is the nature
of words..." (ibid.)
requires no great leap to turn from the laws of language to the
language of law, from the logos that is the symbol of meaning
to the logic that is its repository. Man's word bespeaks
and begetsthe law that keeps woman outside the scheme
of things. Subjected to the circular ratiocination through which
meaning is standardized by a compulsory logic that has already determined
it as such, woman presumably rests beneath and beyond "the real,"
inscribed within it only as the lack that guarantees its adequacy.
Irigaray, the answer to the conundrum of the woman who seeks to
mean lies in creatively seizing and appropriating her place of lawlessness.
Woman's lack, marked by her tenuous relationship to the process
of signification, is reimagined as excess; absence becomes omnipresence,
quiescence--chaos: "Is it already getting around [...] that
women diffuse themselves according to modalities scarcely compatible
with the framework of the ruling symbolics [?] Which doesn't happen
without causing some turbulence, we might even say some whirlwinds,..."
I reflect upon my own experiences as a woman who speaks to mean
and means to write, I recall having effected a few whirlwinds of
my own. When a teenager, I was cautioned to modify my prose style,whose program could best be characterized by a profusion of
adjectives (often grouped in threes), an obsession with the semicolon,
and an insistence upon never using a short word when a longer one
would do. Today, as I aspire to signify within the parameters of
the academy, my stabs at meaning are still deemed provocations by
those I ask to interpret them. My textual analyses, for example,
are sometimes called "dense" and insufficiently "logical." The legitimacy
and specificity of such critiques notwithstanding, I do wonder if
my style, as well as the stuff of which it is made, might be attributed
to something other than carelessness or idiosyncrasy. Am I, by dint
of my sex, a renegade apt to disrupt thestylistic and scholastic
conventions (the laws) of critical discourse? Do I, as woman,
resist the mandate to be understood?
at the close of a class I taught on the possibility of forging modern
identity through artistic practice, I received a most uncharitable
evaluation from a student, who complained of "learning nothing"
and suffering as I "prattled on and on." Although I cannot verify
its author, I suspect it is the same young man who was, throughout
the tenure of my class, sullen, indifferent, and enamored of Goethe's
hero, Faust. If resistance precedes dominance, then perhaps to prattle--"to
talk (or write) much or idly," producing "the babble of a child"--is
as I begin a dissertation about the relationship between beauty
and ethics in the poetics of the Harlem Renaissance, I am compelled
to acknowledge the difficulty, not simply of woman speaking, but
of woman speaking beauty. In her apologia for beauty, On
Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarrylaments its banishment
from critical discourse. No longer in style within the halls
of contemporary academe, beauty is still spoken but only illicitly--"in
whispers." (57) A primary argument against beauty holds special
significance for the woman who would expound upon it: political
in nature, it asserts the burden of beauty for the woman wholly
reduced to it and sometimes, endangered when urged to fulfill the
desires it incites. (79) The gorgeous movie star is driven by unending
and demanding scrutiny to drown her pain in booze and pills. The
winsome school girl--robbed of her childhood by premature marriage...or
worse. With this in mind, I might be justifiably persuaded to discard
the discourse of beauty. Yet a less material, more formal narrative
of beauty allows me to complicate the notion that its mere articulation
the eighteenth century, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant subdivided
"beauty" into two categories: the beautiful and the sublime. While
the sublime, thought "eternal," "principled," and "righteous," was
characterized as male, the beautiful, thought "small," "gay," and
"charming," was characterized as female and became, as Scarry relates,
"dismissible." (83-5) A counter to the political argument against
beauty here emerges; in contrast to a conventional feminist claim
that beauty is too grave for woman to bear, a conventional philosophical
line on beauty, epitomizedin woman, attributes to
it, an embarrassment of levity. If one adapts the Irigarayan innovation
of turning less into more, one can strain the qualities of beauty:
insignificance, gaiety, and charm to the celebration of "womanist"
superfluity and sorcery. Philosophically (and historically) speaking,
then, succumbing to an academic conventionwhether feminist
or misogynistby which beauty is to be abandoned, may be abandoning
both woman and the peculiar expressivity she makes possible.
we women come to the pleasure of withstanding and reshaping given
formats of meaning (no matter from whom they derive). But
can we not come to the pleasure of form? For in decrying
the phallogocentrism of mainstream signification, Irigaray likewise
decries "form," which she counts among an entire set of "values
promulgated by patriarchal society and culture, values inscribed
in the philosophical corpus..." (86) Irigaray's misrepresentation
of "form" derives from her narrow interpretation of the "law" to
which it bears resemblancea move strengthened by her conflation
of patriarchy with philosophy. Because she focuses solely on philosophy's
seemingly masculinistpredilection for transcendent objectivity,
she ignores what it gives rise to in the way of improvisation and
particularism. By turning again to the controversial discourse of
beauty, I can revise Irigaray's narrative of form, which likens
it to a normalizing "judgement" dictating the course of "nature"
(107) and, in the process, challenge both her traditional characterization
and her implicit gendering of law.
philosophy, judgement, what Kant calls the "middle term between
understanding and reason," posits no special law with regard to
the nature of things but only, a "principle peculiar to itself upon
which law [is] sought." (15) The offspring of judgement,
aesthetic judgement, whose specific job it is to divine beauty,
has an even more nuanced relationship to the real, for it does not
even seek "knowledge" of a thing but simply yields to the formthat marks its crystallization "withina subject"
(71). If form is the desirous by-product of aesthetic judgement,
then the desired object of judgement, law, is arguably a
relative of form. Philosophically contextualized, law/form can be
grasped, not as delimitation but as aspiration. Impartial until
uniquely activated, law/form sculpts reality without itself containing
(nor inducing) any essential mold, enacting a logic that is, in
and of itself, only analogical.
closeand to approach more nearly the issue of critical style
and genderI return to and rephrase the question I posed earlier:
how can we women writers resist particular stylistic conventions
without too hastilyrebuffing the very notion of conventionality?
Reframing the stylistic conventions-- the laws--of critical
discourse as special kinds of forms enables us to perceive
not simply their sovereigntybut as well, their relationality,
and thus, to honor them as the earth beneath our feet that isineluctablytilled
when we make tracks upon it.
Luce. This Sex Which is not One. Trans. Catherine Porter.
York: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Translated, James Creed
Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, New Jersey:
Erika Renée Williams is a doctoral candidate in Comparative
Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent public
scholarly effort was a paper on the function of the room in Jean
Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight, presented at the Poetics
of Space Conference at SUNY-Binghamton. This is her first publication.
from email to Kathleen Fraser 1/18/00
wonder, in academic settings, whether the people judging their younger
colleagues for tenure know how to evaluate an electronic journal
as a venue for publication. Much is made of submitting work and
getting it accepted to REFEREED journals, the oldest and most respected
ones especially. So many people who don't know much about one's
area of expertise must judge your intellectual worth, and they don't
often do it by actually reading what you've written. You have to
justify justify justify all the time.
learned to be very good at writing narratives, explaining why what
I'm doing is important, why I must publish it in this particular
place, why it is PRESTIGIOUS to have it published there, why it
is of immense importance (not to mention so encouraging) to have
someone like a poet & editor of an important print journal,
now on-line, value your critical writing and know who you are!!!
and freedom" "the book/poems that interest them"you probably
know how enticing that sounds and how dangerous. I do think that
I took a big risk in doing my pre-tenure work on Barbara Guestmy
first article about her is painful for me to read because it was
so so so fraught with anxiety in the writingall in her work
that was enticing in its experimentalism and peculiarity I felt
like I had to shove through a grid.
(my goodness, HOW FORTUNATE!), I gave a paper about Guest at a University
of Maine conference, and met three highly-regarded scholars of contemporary
poetry--all of whom wrote generously and knowledgeably for my tenure
case, in ways that no one here was in a position to gainsay.
Sara Lundquist is an associate professor of English at the University
of Toledo, in Ohio, where she teaches modern and contemporary poetry.
She has published on Barbara Guest, John Ashbery, James Schuyler,
and William Carlos Williams. She is currently writing a book on
landscaping or abridging one's journey"
Mytili and Elisabeth,
suppose the reward is remaining true to oneself, not landscaping
or abridging one's journey toward meaning and audience to suit a
received form, a status quo, the Suits as it were (one's own demons).
(The reward is remaining interested!)
riskwell, we know the risks. Not being understood; being
dismissed, ignored, teased, insulted, quickly forgotten, suppressed
even (here I think of historical figures not myself); and perhapsbut
not definitelymost importantly, staying poorno decent
(-paying) job to put your love of reading to --
negotiating it right now. I sent off a job application today;
I am (at least on bad days) a desperate adjunct (and fearful of
having to leave the place where I grew up in order to get a "good
job") as are many folks I know. Some of my students work entry
level in Silicon Valley and make more money than I do. Some of
my students got through high school without reading a novel. Some
of my students are promising poets. One said recently, "I LOVE
are lots of different models. And I suppose the innovators (or
for that matter people working in traditions or cultures made
marginalto put it politely) have usually if not always had
to wait (to be heard/valued, etc). Unless they lucked into some
sudden fashionability somehow.
I feel pressure to conform to certain styles in order to survive
in this profession? Yes, but then I wonder, what is my profession?
Poet? Genre-slammer? Freak? I mean I teach and I think I do it
rather welland I write critical work published in "innovative"
forumsthe penning of which holds mecan consume mewriting
toward whatever it is I'm focused on, and toward audienceperhaps
the audience I imagine and want is not the same as that of academics.
Do academics just write toward search committees? How does anyone
have any fun? Or style, for that matter.
is important actually. I left the English Department at Reed College
for the Native American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. This
had partly to do with style. How writers structure the world;
how the culture feels falling on one's intellect and embodiment.
If it works (i.e., makes sense to one). (Not to mention, who "makes"
the culture.) (I want to add quotation marks around who, the,
and culture.) (One of my passions as an English teacher is getting
people to quit using quotation marks when they're unnecessary
though I tend to expect to see them on stop signs soon.)
do feel pressure and the pressure does something to the work I
write, as does the pressure of my own momentum and interest. I
was going to say I ignore the pressure, but that would be a touch
utopian of me.
love my (envisioneddo I have one?) audience and treat them
as I would like to be treated.
inclusion of the personal a taboo, an innovation, or has it been
worn out by overuse? All of the above.
has the proliferation of online publications changed assumptions
about public intellectual exchange, and transformed the parameters
for critical dialogue? It's made things a little easier, a touch
less hierarchical, a bit more anarchic. (And I want to say that
I see pretty much everything as public intellectual discourseeven
some ad with chicks in bikinisthis has an effect on the
intellect. I know this is not an original thought.)
told Cydney Chadwick the other day that I thought I might just
give up trying at these critical forumsit can be so stressfulbut
here I am answering this callI enjoy reviewing books, I
can't help but try to sort through poetics issues, difficult as
it may really be, alternately dulling and excitingand just
be a writer. Which is all I ever wanted to be in the first place.
Elizabeth Treadwell's recent books include Populace (Avec,
1999), Eve Doe: Prior to Landscape (a+bend, 1999) and The
Milk Bees (Lucille, 2000). She edits Outlet magazine
and is the Director of Small Press Traffic. Poems will appear soon
in Aufgabe, The Germ, 6ix, and The World,
along with a chapbook, Stolen Images of Dymphna, from Meow.
the Way She Writes: Critical In(ter)ventions
byDeborah M. Mix
her 1935 lecture tour in the United States, a reporter asked Gertrude
Stein, "Miss Stein, why dont you write the way you speak?"
Stein replied, "Young man, why dont you read the way
I write?" (Berry 1). Steins question to the reporter
has stayed with me. It comes back to me, again and again, as I write
literary criticism, as I prepare to teach, as I read or reread.
Over the years, Ive become increasingly concerned with critical
voices, both my own and those of others, on the connections (or
lack thereof) between the ways in which an author writes and the
ways in which a critic reads and speaks about that work. Traditional
critical practices, Ive come to believe, are predicated upon
a sense of the critic as a sort of housekeeper: polishing up gleaming
surfaces to present to the world, offering neat and tidy explications,
and sweeping any leftover textual "debris" under the rug.
Such an approach is fairly widespread among literary critics, but
the practice seems particularly evident and particularly odious
when it is applied to the work of authors, like Gertrude Stein and
Lyn Hejinian (and many others), who are working toward the deconstruction
of fixity, certainty, authorityprecisely the attributes valued
in the traditional critical voice. Again and again in my own research,
Ive found the work of innovative writers like Stein and Hejinian
being twisted, selectively discussed, even ignored so that it can
be fitted into familiar categories, categories where womens
writing and experiment are "allowed." Certainly these
strategies are used to contain the radical potential of many voices,
particularly when the voice comes from a disempowered location and
threatens to unsettle power structures (think, for instance, of
past years representations of Emily Dickinson as a "madwoman
in the attic"). But there is only a relatively small body of
work available on experimental women writers. And, as Marianne DeKoven
has noted, while the association of a woman writer with experimentalism
provides her with a small place in a tiny literary constellation,
it also consigns her to a place where it is even easier to miss
(or dismiss) her.
of the ways in which I read the consequences of these more traditional
critical approaches, I know that I cannot participate in them. But
figuring out how to sidestep the "bad" elements of such
a practice without writing "bad" criticism (sloppy, confusing,
pointless, or, worst of all for the academic, unpublishable) has
been a difficult and ongoing process. For me, one of the first steps
toward writing in a critical voice that seems appropriate to discussions
of experimental writing was to relinquish my sense of critical certainty,
to admit to and work with the partiality and limitations of any
particular way of reading, and to approach the authors and their
texts from this "new" position. This process is easier,
I think, when the authors themselves are openly uncertain, welcoming
the reader who might approach from a different direction, who might
be willing to open up a genuine dialogue, rather than to close down
possibilities. In Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein writes,
"A white hunter is nearly crazy" (475). Her statement
might be read as resonating with Ahabs quest for Moby Dick,
a quest to find a particular quarry in wide open seas, a quest that
makes him mad and dooms his voyage. If I approach Steins (or
Hejinians, or ) work as Ahab hunted the white whale,
I will become "nearly crazy," and my critical voyage will
be doomed as well. The experimental text actively resists that desire
for dominance, for colonization by the critic, sometimes forcefully,
sometimes playfully. Meanings slip and travel, always moving; concentrating
on a single "fish" in a wide open "sea" is to
miss the complexity and variety of the text.
writers themselves often offer direct invitations and challenges
to respond to their writing in ways that are speculative, open ended,
and unique. Requiring innovative reading, a tolerance for ambiguity,
a willingness to frolic, the works can frustrate as well as give
pleasure to readers. And these approaches and experiencesuncertainty,
ludic play, self-reflectionneed to have a place in my criticism.
When I look to the works of these authors, I see them offering some
suggestions for moving toward an alternative critical practice through
their own admissions of tentativeness, enjoyment, and introspection.
In The Making of Americans, Stein writes:
it in your mind my reader . . . what I have said always
before to you, that this I write down a little each day
here on my scraps of paper for you is not just an ordinary
kind of novel . . . and so my reader arm yourself in every
kind of way to be patient and eager . . . . And so listen
while I tell you about us, and wait while I hasten slowly
forwards, and love, please, this history of this decent
familys progress. (37)
her direct address to her reader, Stein creates an intimacy wherein
she can confess her desires, as though she is asking a dear friend
or lover (rather than, say, a monomaniacal hunter) for a special
kindness, a special way of reading. She warns her reader that she
is not writing "an ordinary kind of novel" but one that
will require patience and eagerness, a kind of commitment that seems
qualitatively different from the dispassionate stance favored in
most literary criticism. Rather than the formal detachment required
of the hunter-critic, Stein imagines a reader who will be very much
involved in the work, bringing her own hopes, desires, and personal
investments to the act of reading. And Stein approaches that reader
with her own combination of hope, desire, and investment, asking
her to "love please" the work she has done.
Lyn Hejinians Writing Is an Aid to Memory, one of her
earliest works, she muses on the power of authorial and readerly
expectations, tracing some of the same pathways as Stein. "that
sweet little block / the taste of a larger pattern" emerges
from time to time, appearing only to disappear back into "tired
mixed trace of chat back" (n.p.). "the readymade is deceptively
passing /its consent to time," she writes, "mass perhaps
in a form against it / a cheap reading of what surrounds."
Here Hejinian asks her reader to reflect on her practices of reading,
her desires for the "taste of a larger pattern." And while
she seems respectful of that desire (in fact she admits to having
it herself), she is also wary of it. Our "readymade" expectations
are "deceptive." If we enter a text carelessly, without
an awareness of our potential prejudices or proclivities, were
likely to seize on those elements we seek, those that are already
familiar to us, those that fit neatly into our own critical patterns,
resulting in a "cheap reading of what surrounds." She
offers a similar reminder to her reader in My Life, writing,
"But as Ive said before, I am nearsighted, and there
are many figures in this scene which might form different scenes"
(97). As herself both reader and writer of her life, Hejinian occupies
a unique position that both coincides with and differs from that
of other readers. In a break from the kind of distance one might
expect from the autobiographer looking back on her life to present
it as exemplary or edifying in some way, Hejinian questions her
own authority as reader, her own "nearsightedness."
I want to say here is that the texts themselves can teach us how
to read them. In the passages above, the authors speak directly
to readers, encouraging them to break the rules of critical discourse.
Stein asks for eagerness, tenderness, love. Hejinian cautions her
readers to approach the very act of reading suspiciously, flexibly,
imaginatively. Its not so much a matter of being able to "get
inside" a particular authors mind, to suss out her intentions.
And its also not a matter of writing "sloppy" criticism
that piles up possibilities without purpose. Instead, at least for
me as a reader and critic and teacher, its a matter of letting
my prose wander and wonder. I have never been sure how to interpret
a marginal comment on one of my grad school papers that said I wrote
"like a prosecutor." While I think that professor found
that particular essays language infelicitous, I also suspect
she admired the single-mindedness with which I argued my interpretation
of the work at hand. But I am sure that a "prosecutors
voice" isnt the one I want to hear from myself as a critic.
Rather, I want to hear a bit of the playfulness of Stein, the speculation
of Hejinian, and my own sense of my critical practices as being,
well, practices, in process.
remains at the center of my own work as a critic is to consider
the ways in which acts of "doing" help to create the "doers."
There is an important relationship that I imagine between myself
and the authors I read, write about, and teach. Just as my critical
work could not exist without their work, they point to ways in which
their works are brought into being by readings. Their writing helps
me to interrogate the ways that I construct my own identities as
teacher, writer, reader, and I return that attention to their works
as wellwhat are they teaching me, writing about, reading into
their texts? As I use my critical training to look for the gaps
in the texts, I must always be aware of my own. As I think of the
ways they unsettle constructions of identity, writing, language,
I must always look for ways to unsettle my own ways of seeing, reading,
and writing such that I dont "refix" what is meant
to be open ended. The ways in which my own identity is predicated
on teaching, writing, and reading have probably occluded my abilities
to see the complexities of these dynamics, but I will continue to
work toward clarifying my own ways of seeing, my own approaches
toward "reading the way she writes."
Ellen E. Curved Thought and Textual Wandering: Gertrude Steins
Postmodernism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.
Lyn. My Life. Rev. and Expanded Ed. Los Angeles: Sun
and Moon P, 1987.
Writing Is an Aid to Memory. 1978. Los Angeles: Sun and
Moon P, 1996.
Gertrude. Everybodys Autobiography. 1936. New York:
The Making of Americans. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and
Tender Buttons. 1914. Selected Writings of Gertrude
Stein. Ed. Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintage, 1945. 459-509.
Deborah M. Mix is a visiting assistant professor in the department
of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University. She
has published articles on Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian in HOW2,
no. 3, and her article on Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warlands
collaborative poetry appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Contemporary
Literature. She is currently at work on a book manuscript that
traces a tradition of American womens experimental writing
from Gertrude Stein to the present.
thoughts on style
think that blurring the lines between poetry, fiction, and literary
or cultural criticism is a good and necessary thing that is happening
of its own accord, not just for women but for everyone. It happens
"naturally" because we all see the boundaries differently. The boundaries
between gender, genre, class, culture, etc. are of necessity skewed
by the differences in how we see them. What happens unfortunately
in academia is that those who see these boundaries too differently
get knocked out of the game before they even get to graduate school.
It's amazing, if you just think about it, how much power freshmen
comp teachers have--not in terms of their status or earning power
which is ridiculously low, but in terms of how they can calcify
an idea or loosen its grip on a young writer's mind. Techniques
that readers learn (usually in school, sometimes on their own) to
"grasp" a text become one of the determinants of its worthwhileness.
One of these techniques is assignment of genre to a text. "Is this
a poem? What is a poem?" As boundaries blur, I think, everything
becomes more like a poem--open to more subjective reading, less
linear, more "dreamlike"--but this too crumbles because then I would
have to say that some cultural critiques on the CTHEORY site are
poems while certain poems are quite linear indeed and I'd have to
call them "verse fiction." Or something like that. A waste of time
to do this, I think.
you pointed out in your prompt for this HOW2 forum, writers
are constrained in many ways by the "forum" of academia. What that
means is if they write the way they'd like to, nobody pays any attention.
There are few things sadder than paranoid academics who have something
to say and spend all of their energy scoping out the potential hazards
of speaking the way they want to. The truth is that we all get ignored
much of the time, and those who aren't ignored occasionally are
usually very frantic crazy people. I sometimes imagine what my life
would be like if everyone treated me like I was the Rosetta Stone
(not fun, no Peace). I don't mean to belittle the paranoid academics--I've
been one-- because usually someone has terrified them into being
that way, and there is a tremendous amount of fear and loathing
that gets bantered around in the name of higher education. But as
Audre Lorde wrote in "A Litany for Survival":
we are alone we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
for when we are silent
we are still afraid.
so it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
all you want to do is get tenure and you think that conforming will
get you there, it probably will and you won't be reading this anyway.
But if you're looking for an "instant and this triumph" that "you
were never meant to survive" (not necessarily meant literally, but
a triumph that will outlast any possible moment of judgment by others,
or by yourself) realize that the answer is not to shut up and die,
because that is what will happen if you need a triumph and you settle
for "safe" expression (when it becomes non-expression). This isn't
the same thing as cheerfully taking on and experimenting with forms
of writing that are traditionally acceptable. Not at all. If you're
being coerced or denied expression--you know it, and it's NOT a
pleasant or cooperative experience!
Cynthia Davidson is the editor of Rio: A Journal of the Arts,
an online magazine that publishes literary work and artwork (http://www.engl.uic.edu/rio/rio.html).
She teaches writing at SUNY Stony Brook. Davidson is the author
of, Athena's Mother, and has contributed poetry and criticism
to ACM, ebr, Science-Fiction Studies, and other
journals. She is currently working on an article about Alyson Hagy
On experimentation and critical style
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
sometimes hear about The Pink Guitar as a text of desire.
A talisman. Hence, as experimentation and critical style is a topic
of discussion, Mytili Jagannathan and Elisabeth Joyce asked me to
write into this amazing space (HOW2 as a place to stand)
and talk about this--this desire, this fact of my having done critical
writing in an experimental style. What I am about to say is--its
not just a style. Its a method. Who gave me permission? How
did I "do" it? As many questions as there are--here are
what I think are some answers: Desire, need, and the political-cultural
moment. Even reckless, but determined, I was willing to play and
fail--I was already an artist. Although it took me years more to
recognize this absolutely. Whats going on? I could give you
a contradictory narrative. This would be very typical--compliant
and resistant me inventing (or addressing) something. I knew this
writing was risky--indeed "The Pink Guitar" essay discusses
some of the negative reactions of some fairly annoyed, and momentarily
powerful, people. (Some of whom were "in charge of" my
tenure for my academic job--and against it, too.) Not a joke--of
course there are potential negative impacts--some people are going
to hate what you do, and possibly think you are self-indulgent or
narcissistic (etc.) for choosing essay modes. Thus the risk of this
kind of expression--the joy of it--must overcome and swamp prudence
or narrow conceptions of what writing is, what a career is. Sometimes
you have to wait to feel safe. Safer. It is a very subtle and situational
decision. There is no simple "answer" that the past can
give the present on this issue. But if you can stand (or can survive)
that joyous impudence and imprudence, then proceed. But dont
forget that I was, during this same period, writing critical prose--in
Writing Beyond the Ending and H.D.: The Career of that
Struggle--prose and analyses that I also absolutely wanted to
write. No one was making me do it, as if one kind of writing is
better or truer or more authentic than another.
course, one is subject to professional pressures. If you jump track,
write another way, writing "otherhow," you have to make
sure that all your kinds of writing are excellent, tested out, I
mean by an interior standard of solidity. That way if other people
hate it, you will know how to measure it for yourself, on your own.
I began with an essay not in The Pink Guitar (something from
1978 called "Psyche, or, Wholeness") and then wrote "For
the Etruscans." But it wasnt "prewritten"--it
was a negotiation with materials arrayed. It came about this way.
Having given a seminar at a Barnard Conference on Women and Society
on the question (not the certainty) of "a" female aesthetic--a
burning issue in 1979--I was asked to write it up. So I did. I now
see the commitment to multiple citation and to recording many of
the voices of that seminar as a mini-Arcades. A feminist
Benjaminian Arcades. Although I was committed to collaging
other peoples voices with my own as only one among many, in
actuality it did not quite work out that way. Authorship is not
dissolved by fiat. But that is why the "author" of that
essay is myself and "Workshop 9"--the presence of interlocutors
was aware of using modernist "devices" for feminist purposes.
The fluid form of talking, the enormously excited and participatory
group of women for whom I was the seminar leader--writing into that
fervent and palpable and aroused and debating female space was crucial.
I was writing into a cultural and political need for analysis and
the collection of evidence. Thinking was a real situation. It was
a moment (this writing comes from a political and cultural moment).
There was nothing willed about it. There was a politics of culture,
and I was trying to name some part of it. But without distortion.
For I also did not try to falsify or distort what I thought: that
"feminine" writing tactics were the tactics that can be
chosen by any non-dominant group. The rhetorics are situational,
not essentialist strategies. This was not the popular finding then,
when we were, in general, in the full bloom of a dynamic and rather
absolute sense of female difference. Yet insofar as I was acting
oppositionally--refusing patriarchal culture as a choice, I also
chose to use the very rhetorics I discuss.
writing to friends. Free writing for poetry. These were some sources.
Teaching, as a social free association along the lines of investigation.
I think what I did, in these essays, was to invent an intersubjective
space, one between reader and text, between writer and reader, between
author and evidence, between analysis and need. A looping of response.
Not one of hierarchy or claims of controlling authority over a set
of materials. And the central strategy of modernism--collage--was
another source. I entered the practice of the field (a central strategy
of the postmodern)--the creation of an extent or an area, a site
in which things happen. Ludic things: Rhythms of apprehension. Stress
shifting. Changeups. Carnivalizing analytic discourses. Mongrel,
hybrid sounds. Placing the reader, as well as the writer, in a variety
of subject places. Faceting. Dissolving the author into the sounds
of the text. Making chaos, diversity, mélange. Constructing
loose ends! Making there be a porous openness of thought, not a
sealing over of thought. There is a loft in this method--and it
is not just a style--it is a method. It is not willful writing
as in "I will myself to do this because it would be a good
thing." It is writing poised as art is on the cusp of willful
willessness. To possess this possession, become dispossessed.
I chose to create desire, attention, loose ends, and an endless
intersubjectivity between others as equals (undo "the"
binary--I have no goal but this), then I am putting a little bit
of utopian change into writing. I am interested. I am interested
in this. To change the hard, hard heart. The essay is anti-patriarchal
writing as a method of investigation. The essay expresses the need
to make something that gives pleasure. That is, aesthetic pleasure
as political pleasure--transformation. To the degree that we all
live in some form of political, economic, sexual, social and intellectual
complicity with forms of the patriarchal, this choice of writing
might not be possible. Or seem possible. Yet it is possible. The
opening may be small. A pinhole. But it remains possible.
Readers interested in DuPlessiss work might want to look at
The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (1990) as well
as "-words: An Essay on the Essay," American Literature 68,
1 (March 1996): 15-45, and "Reader, I married me: A Polygynous Memoir,"
in Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism,
eds. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn. New York: Routledge,
1993: 97-111. Her work in the long poem, Drafts 1-38, Toll
will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2001.
random thoughts on stylistic experimentation
Linda A. Kinnahan
thinking about the questions posed by Mytili and Elisabeth for this
forum, Im struck by the (logical) necessity to frame these
questions in relation to public institutions be they
academic, publishing, or technological structures that determine
or shape the production and reception of our writing. Although the
"personal" is mentioned as an umbrella term ("Is
inclusion of the personal a taboo, an innovation, or has it been
worn out by overuse?"), the invitation to the forum does not
pose a host of questions about the personal to the extent that questions
are asked about the institutional pressures in our lives. Im
neither trying to assert a polarity between the private and the
public, nor suggesting that these questions do so, but am interested
in observing how much the "personal" or "private"
restlessly unsettles all of my imagined responses to the
host of questions so thoughtfully posed by this forum. I cant
begin to think of "models of critical writing" without
almost viscerally feeling the compressed time of my days, the need
to make use of time efficiently, the need not to waste words or
move in tangential directions because (like so many) Ive got
a kid to pick up (and any number of other realities might be inserted
here at the end of this sentence).
this has to do with my schedule these days, with wanting to garden
but spending much of the day in my office trying to finish a manuscript
that never wants to end, while knowing my "work day" will
end when kindergarten ends, and that I need to make the oatmeal
cookies I promised for my daughter to take to her class for snack
tomorrow, and then I need to rush back to school for an evening
graduate seminar in "Feminist Poetics," which seems a
remarkably wonderful and appropriate course to rush to after such
a day. But exhausting in rapid shifts and forms of attention. None
of this schedule is unique to me; and no event in the day is distinct,
finally, from any other. They echo into each other, and I think
of Virginia Woolf as I mash butter into sugar and explain measuring
to Chloe. (And of course think of Woolfs concern with how
"Chloe" is measured and learns to measure). And then I
think, how so very banal and typical and clichéd that I locate
my academic experience in relation to the domestic and the maternal,
and maybe even how self-centered, given this stage in my life. (I
would have written a different response ten years ago). And so I
undercutting comes from somewhere, and I suspect its related
to the training Ive received as an academic, which powerfully
prompts me to analyze my critical ground to the degree that much
gets censored. And what is interesting to me is not that everyone
should know about my daily life but that I censor its possibilities
for taking me somewhere in terms of my critical writing. I wonder
how I might more fully allow the echoes that go on throughout my
day, that carry soundings from one arena to another, to more fruitfully
be admitted into the process of critical writing, whether
or not the process shows up in the final product. Thinking back,
its the essays that allow the process to show up (I just taught
DuPlessis "For the Etruscans" last night) that first
prompted me to consider how the essay form functions to contain
and censor; what Im interested in thinking about now is how
those efforts to contain and censor are internalized in my thought
processes. When I spoke earlier about "different forms of attention,"
I meant that the boundaries between ways of thinking so often descend
from the form of writing/creating we are doing, so that I begin
thinking in certain ways that differ depending on whether I am moving
toward an essay or a drawing or an oatmeal cookie or a chat with
my daughter. Id like to disturb that originary moment (which
isnt originary at all), in which the shapes of my thinking
are too often determined by the shape/genre/form of the product.
I love the "innovative" essay, I also realize I cant
focus on writing that essay as an end in itself. This has
partly to do with my own sense of insecurity and partly (largely)
to do with practical knowledge of the hierarchies of the academic
institutions in which I work. Ive read too many files as a
member of a search committee or a tenure committee. And we all know
that the ability to stand up at MLA, for instance, and read off
of a randomly arranged series of notecards is "allowable"
for only a few. Id like to think this wont always be
the case but in the meantime, Im trying to tackle the issue
from the other end where the essay gets started in our heads,
what shapes the directions we feel free to take or prohibited from
considering, what happens when a different focus of attention is
brought to the matter.
I like to think that a more permeable focus would help me not to
feel pulled in a million directions (and unfocused about most of
them), I also realize that many tasks in critical writing do involve
isolated, systematic, and synthetic processes that demand a comprehensive
grasp of an issue (and thus, lots of research, reading, thinking)
and an ability to situate a discussion in relation to other discussions.
I actually enjoy these processes, but at the same time they are
probably the most problematic for me when I think of issues of time
and writing, because they suck up time, lots of time. So, in deciding
how to choose my time, I most often find it imperative for professional
reasons to read that extra article, etc. rather than sit and write
in the kind of relaxed (which doesnt mean unfocused or unthoughtful)
manner Im enjoying right now. This choice is intensified by
the overwhelming amount of information available now, and the difficulty
of letting go of the notion that I have to keep up with everything.
Technology terrifies me in this way, because it presents itself
in my life as a way of demanding more from my time, asking that
I keep track of and make use of more information. My own terror,
Im sure, closes me off to many of the benefits of technology
and of the web, and perhaps as time eases up I can also relax in
front of the computer. Who knows. And so, its now time to
turn off the computer and pick up Chloe. No cookies today, but maybe
a little PBS and some time in the yard before class tonight, thinking
about Erica Hunt and matters of the sandbox.
A. Kinnahan is an associate professor at Duquesne University, where
she teaches twentieth-century American and British literature and
women’s 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.
Politics of Critical Style: Two Manifestos
are. And emotions where objects are and shifting changeable be,
is. And are. And are thought. The world doesnt need us to
express it, though in our expression (the face we show the world
and the words with which we face the world) it is a different world.
Always in words and in the world a different world.
question can be honestly answered the same way again and again?
a recent and rare good nights sleep in Guadalajara, I dreamt
that George Oppen died. The dream tears are not real tears though
I believe, tearless, the dream is real. So the dreams tears
are in the dream real as the dream abuts the real in moments of
overlap we might call "writing" or we might just call.
When I say "dream" I certainly dont mean only sleeping,
and certainly never asleep. We read and speak to wake.
question can be honestly answered the same way again and again?
Doesnt a formally same answer suggest (impossible, happily)
a sameness of question, impulse, pressure?
not a question of existing outside a market (theres no there
there), of dodging the negotiations in favor of some beautiful walk
in the woods. Nor is it a question of reifying the dividing lines
as if "the one" and "the other" have no overlap,
are not, as processes, made of and in the overlap. Its a question
of exigencies, of paying attention (and to what), of necessary appreciations
and necessary deprecations. Of measure, and all in good measure.
question can be honestly answered the same way again and again?
Doesnt formal conformity obscure nonconformity of content?
Or smooth the discontent so as to soothe the unsuspecting reader?
Can we be lulled into subversion?
a question of which exigencies are most compelling in a given circumstance,
a question of how to write the exigencies of the circumstance most
compellingly. The pressures of the poemwhat I consider as
a standard or measure, a fuelresist any kind of taking for
granted. So a phrase like "this is how its done"
would simply have no place in any action, exploration or expedition
approached as poem. Its a question of belief and question,
a question of attitude or stance, of position. A question of posit
and not answer, of essay and not statement. Of what is this world,
and again what is this world.
question can be honestly answered the same way again and again?
And who if truly compelled could answer it thus? (It is in the act
of speech that sight resides and flight takes, in the act of act
that the play shimmers. As a beginning, wanting seeing and feeling,
to do, do over and all other. As a beginning, asking to ask.) Is
not the answer, the question, to ask?
glittering is handsome and convincing"
page pretends to stand in: sans red velvet curtains: oh can you
imagine it: say can you: providing a pleated frame or content: or
kindly about wind (remembered argument) about wind kind kin (forget
it, angel) unkind spectacle about glasses stylish expectorate, about
spreading and perhaps borrowing whether or not and there is some
use. There is about use, angel, forget kindly to convince: what
is the use, etc., "what is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness
if there is no pleasure" no about faces or kitties if there
is no substance no recitative no je sais quois if there is
no pleasure "no pleasure in not getting tired of it."
best thing to do is wear it (there is no bargain is there) and then
be reckless and then be reckless be reckless and resolved on returning
gratitude. Gratitude return (hair windy in predictable paths yet
wind nonetheless gives sight direction) and then the box becomes.
Then the box becomes wood stained green and dust tells us skin softly.
Another kind of hair kindly. No disgrace in care but the uses of
the letter a. A letter a plan of action a hum so as the minds
mind to distract, attract, punctuate. Not like but like. Asked but
done. Truncate so quicker kinder to glitter upon. In the eye of.
does not want a finer fancy present. Close quote. Want it finer
and fancy present and fancy with no error but her erroneous diligent
diligence. Subtract audacity and only the blind no carafe. Mercenary
questions extract flutter relief. Shutter release the tongue makes
it strange. Willful erroneous or kind. Any kind. Q & A and Ps
& Qs and Q & U and mind yours in persistence or play it
again, this time with kindness.
spreading and picking up speed to tremble end over end the difference
is a silver triangular box from Oaxaca and a rectangular wooden
box from New York. The difference is of memory enticement and use
value, as the value is not equal but measurable. Frames order the
arrangement, style the system to blueprint a suggestible hazard.
Not mercenary necessity but things come out of the box that you
can count. In reference to a staircase. Keys with locks long lost,
one ring, one watch long stopped fit for a princess when the weather
says cozy up incontrovertible. Held aloft against a sky provides
a ground or a view to transparency.
take the thing to turn to turn the thing a view from not new from
every angle cut glass angled to turn the thing yet not all at once
as turned in a hand take it in and turn then turn return.
place is pale in comparison but tin in the teeth does not deceive.
Deceit being the least measure, ratchets do come in handy, and hook
and eye, engine and a service economy we cannot but benefit from.
There are exceptions. Exceptions are windy and fluttery and heartfelt
which means something.
Jen Hofer is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and currently
lives in Mexico City where she is editing and translating an anthology
of contemporary poetry by Mexican women which will be published
by University of Pittsburgh Press and Ediciones Sin Nombre in 2001.
Her translations, essays and poems can be found in recent or shortly
forthcoming issues of Explosive, Facture, Lipstick
Eleven, Tripwire, West Coast Line and in the a+bend
press chapbook "as far as." Duration Press will be publishing
her translations of the Chilean poet Soledad Fariña in its
Fall 2000 chapbook series. Recently, she and her fiddle have joined
forces with the visual artist Melissa Dyne to form Groundzero Telesonic