and a Hard Place: Erica Hunt and the Poetics of African-American Postmodernity
by Kathy Lou Schultz
Erica Hunt is the inheritor of a legacy gone missing. A legacy of avant-garde practice by African-American women poets including Julia Fields and Elouise Loftin. A legacy of work that has escaped the notice of most scholars, that has been allowed to go out of print, or was poorly published in the first place. It is important to situate Hunt within this context of innovative African-American writing, a corollary and a parallel process of which is dismantling the construction of the American poetry avant-garde as white. The history of avant-garde practice by African-American women poets has been both misplaced and misread, leading to readings of avant-garde literatures that are entirely too white, and collections of African-American literature that eschew formal experimentation.
Hunt, whose lineage includes Language poets, feminist writers, and politicized writers of color, produces works that draw upon these categories while at the same time exploding the boundaries between them. In drawing from these multiple trajectories, a reading of Hunts work makes apparent the ways in which scholarly mappings of these traditions have been insufficient. While Hunt is commonly referred to as an experimental poet, the term experimental as used in relation to American literatures is both an over-used and under-theorized category. Erica Hunt's work requires one to position the term experimental across literary traditions, to understand how the term is used in the contemporary understandings of each tradition, as well as how its meaning has migrated historically. This paper seeks to position an understanding of experimentalism across the traditions from which Hunt drawsAfrican-American, womens, and avant-garde literaturesin order to both contextualize and provide a reading of Hunts writing practices.
It is instructive to begin with a statement of poetics by Hunt, an essay entitled, Notes for an Oppositional Poetics. This essay reveals that Hunt, a social activist, is intimately involved with working to dismantle those social structures that maintain racial and patriarchal hegemonic systems. She has incorporated these ideals into the interrogation of language, a fundamental part of her poetic experiment:
For Hunt, then, language as a political tooland the role writers play in shaping, illuminating, or subverting itis at the heart of her writing practice. Hunt goes on to call for a poetics in which it is important to think how writing can begin to develop among oppositional groups, how writing can begin to have a social existence in a world where authority has become highly mobile, based less on identity and on barely discerned or discussed relationships(Notes 687). This passage from the one articulation of poetics Hunt has published is particularly useful in understanding the ways in which her writing negotiates between what might narrowly be called Language poetry and a kind of testimonial social voice often expected from African-American poets. In short, Hunt incorporates aspects of both projects in producing a work that contains recognizable elements at the same time that it is entirely new.
As we will see throughout this paper, critical readings which are based upon and reinforce identity-based categories often perform a kind of normalizing function, enforcing conservative reading practices and expectations. What does it mean to read a writer such as Hunt up against the canonized versions of African-American writing? I propose that a new critical history is necessary to encompass readings of radical African-American literary practices, a tradition that includes such writers as Fields, Oliver Pitcher, Lloyd Addison, and Norman Henry Pritchard, and was carried forward through the work of several poets including Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, and Bob Kaufman. Readings that posit the avant-garde of American poetries as white have contributed to the disappearance of a number of these writers equally as well as a conservative black aesthetics that cannot account for their language and poetic experiments. The influence of these writers is felt on practicing contemporary African-American poets including Hunt, Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, and Nathaniel Mackey.
If we widen the conversation about black writing to include the precursors to the Black Arts Movement detailed in Aldon Nielsens excellent history of post-World War II black experimental poetries, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism, we can begin to see how the work of a writer such as Hunt participates in a dialogue which might include both African-American poets from, for example, the Umbra Group, and the Language poets, a loosely connected group that was never made up exclusively of white men in the first place, though some critical histories may lead readers to believe that to be the case.
We begin to see, then, with the example of Hunts work, that the question was never either/or: either form or content, either black or avant-garde. Her work illustrates the ways in which reading the histories of African-American literature and avant-garde poetries as separate colludes in a kind of essentializing of identity in American letters that leads one to draw pre-formed conclusions about the ways in which African-American literature is supposed to behave. Indeed, meeting normative expectations for how and what an African-American writer should write has often been a prerequisite to success.  Again, if we go back to Nielsen, we see that the necessary critical acclaim from predominantly white critics and editors was often achieved by black poets who sounded black or included black subject matter or content. For those writers who persisted in sounding black in a way that was not recognizable to a white audience, publication was hard-won, or often non-existent.
American literatures that are seen as part and parcel of identity(eg. womens literature, African-American literature, lesbian literature) are pigeonholed by particular expectations for form and content. Indeed, it has been the texts that meet those expectations that have been more readily canonized. In the particular case of womens writing, texts that meet normative expectations for narrative form have garnered favor from mainstream academic critics, whereas texts which employ such techniques as visual experimentation or use of the entire page as a field are still often absent from college curricula. These choices were borne out of cultural feminist publishing projects that celebrated womens poetry, particularly writing about womens experiences. A range of experiences or subject matter constituted the primary litmus test for what might be considered feminist writing. What was ignored, however, was the fact that these writers were filling the same containerthe narrative poem which became institutionalized in American literature after World War IIalbeit with different content. As Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller illustrate in their paper Gender and Avant-Garde Editing: Comparing the 1920s with the 1990s, the academy continues to exacerbate the division between testimonial or primarily narrative-based works, and feminist poetry that is concerned with linguistic innovation, and therefore is more experimental:
With the amount of activity taking place in the area of innovative feminist poeticsprint magazines, online magazines, reading series, and book seriesmuch of this activity taking place on university campuses, it is difficult to believe that Whitehead was entirely unaware of this tradition. Rather, it is more likely that work by writers such as Erica Hunt did not fit neatly within Whiteheads particular feminist reading, ie. innovative writing does not represent in a way that a feminist identity politics can recognize.
Keller and Miller go on to point out that the academic feminist focus on identity politics in literature creates a particularly dire situation for women of color doing experimental writing: It has contributed especially to the invisibility of the women of color whose experimentalist work resists fulfilling conventional expectations for work that representsin the sense both of representational aesthetics and of demographic representativenesscultural diversity. Those expectation for racial representativeness are now institutionalized within white liberal ideological systems in such institutions as the university which seek diversity in a way that collapses racial categories into unitary structures that least threaten dominant power systems. As Hunt points out in Notes for an Oppositional Poetics:
The literary canon, then, has been able to accommodate black writers poetic works which replicate known formal gestures while fulfilling a predominantly white audiences hunger for the supposedly authentic voice of African-American experience.
Conservative literary critics of the African-American tradition reinforce this focus on the category of experience, at the expense of discussions of literary form. As I have stated earlier, this is a hazard of critical reading practices informed by identity politics. Michael Awkward examines this topic in a discussion of the critic Joyce Joyces attacks upon Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
For Erica Hunt, however, the aesthetic quality of black texts is an essential concern of her writing practice. Hunts poems consistently interrogate what it means for a poet to participate in a conversation about what a black aesthetic contains, means, and signifies. The work does so in a way that engages form as well as what might broadly be called content. Furthermore, her writing participates in dismantling normative reading expectations while still concerning itself fundamentally with issues of race and gender. By taking on constructions of race on the level of the sentence, Hunt rewrites predominant racial narratives including the definition of blackness in America.
In a forthcoming essay Harryette Mullen writes:
Mullen is writing specifically here about a poem from Erica Hunts second book of poems, Arcade(1996), but her analysis applies to Hunts writing strategy as a whole. It is important to note that the current canon of African-American literature (as exemplified by the new Norton anthology) champions work that fulfills traditional expectation for form, content, and voice. Work by Erica Hunt and fellow experimentalist Will Alexander is notably absent.
A reading of Hunt becomes more complex, however, when we consider Houston Bakers historical approach to reading black literary conservatism and black literary experimentalism. Baker provides insight into the ways in which black writing has negotiated, encompassed, and rebelled against normative literary expectations. Readings of black vernacular have changed over time, having been seen variously as reactionary and radical. In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker proposes that the defining moment in African-American modernism is Booker T. Washingtons 1895 address to the Negro exhibit of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, which Baker reads as an enactment of the performance of minstrelsy: And it is, first and foremost, the mastery of the minstrel mask by blacks that constitutes a primary move in Afro-American discursive modernism.(17) This mastery of form is an example of radical back talk for the African-American speaker/writer:
For the African-American writer, then, mastery of dominant forms took on a subversive quality. Indeed, this mastery had to take place in African-American literature before what Baker calls the deformation of mastery could occur. In learning to manipulate the dominant discursive practicewhich was the vernacularWashington negotiated an effective method of black speaking in which to talk back to the oppressor. Therefore, Hunts refusal of black vernacular or the authentic voice must be understood within its historical moment. It is a moment in which the very notion of authenticity is called into question, and black speaking/writing has attained multivalent structures. As always, the sanctioned or canonized version of what that voice should entail is structured to support particular ideologies. I propose that traditional scholars currently fail to recognize those texts by African-American women that refuse to meet orderly narrative expectations. If we were to project Bakers argument further, Hunts work takes the next logical step, in effect enacting the deformation of the deformation of mastery.
Hunts playful prose-like poems shatter paradigms unprepared for texts that serve up language into new histories, local histories of a black woman who is witness to a world order in which appearances are not what they seem: In an era of palaces inhabited by officials whove inherited their squint you have to do more than scratch the surface (Local History 40). Hunts first collection of poems, Local History(1993), was published by small press publisher Roof Books in New York and includes three sections of poems. In this book, Hunt does indeed do more than simply scratch the surface. For Hunt the surreal is given over to the ordinary facts of existence, which for her bear political import. She extends the feminist engagement with the personal in both political content and her overall project.
In A Coronary Artist the female speaker dreams not only of Snow falling upwards but also of The bed in the corner of the empty lot. Cut logs careening away from the saw. They know whats waiting for them (Local History, 13). The impending crisis (You can smell the smoke answering the alarm) is positioned within the dailiness of family life:
In this world, the lived experiences of gender are highlighted in the artificiality of their construction: One becomes an adult without knowing the details of how it was done, knowing only which team youre on, which hat corresponds to your glands, but the effects of gendered power dynamics are still very real: Custom has it that a woman gets up first to solve the dilemma of the burning moment.(Local History 13) The family soundtrack runs in the background putting everything on hold.
In exploring the signs and symbols of language, Hunt persistently locates her work within the political sphere of lived events; dissecting languages apparatus is no mere exercise. She proposes that
Indeed, deconstructing the apparatus of language, of discourse, is part of a project in which Hunt confronts the apparatus of power. Hers is a poetics in which fore competes for space with ground; surface is constantly juxtaposed with reality; the mechanism by which the official state is run exposed for its bare brutality. The piece cold war breaks describes the movie version of the 20th century which soon will be the only version anyone remembers:
Replicant versions of history can repeat exponentially in which the news anchor is an actor played by the news anchor himself. Atrocity is boiled down to a bland soup of routine explanation in which the emotions are engaged only enough to mime concern and entertain. Such ideological manipulations put this reader in the mind of Disneylands Its A Small World, wherein genericread whiteworld citizens serenade the viewer/rider with what white liberalism most wants to hear: The Other is not Other at all, in fact, the other is just like me. This worldview flattens difference, ignoring the xenophobic outcome that results from the imposition of dominant cultural codes upon people of color.
In these poems, language becomes an active presence that can trip up or inflate experience. In a poem entitled The Order of the Story, the speaker exhorts the reader to invent a language and to describe various things.
Hunt is creating a kind of grammar of experience where language itself not only marks daily routine, but is also worn upon the body; she becomes in effect a sentence with a dangling clause, a part of speech that exists outside of the accepted laws or rules of grammar. She exists in violation. In addition, the title draws attention to the fact that Hunts writing practice de-orders or deconstructs traditional narrative structures, literally the way in which a story should be ordered.
Furthermore, language is the intermediary through which experience necessarily must be understood, indeed felt, but even then the woman in the poem can only hope to get within the vicinity of her own experience. For Hunt, then, language is opaque; it does not simply reveal or explain. The materiality of language, then, is primary. It is not possible simply to consume these poems as one might a nice dessert (or for that matter most poems one would encounter in The New Yorker). She calls our attention to the materials, the making of the product itself, and is aware that her subject position, and that of her poems, occupies a place within commodity culture.
Hunt is also the inheritor of the tradition of the epistolary, a tradition being turned inside out by Hunt and her contemporaries including Nathaniel Mackey and Dodie Bellamy. Mackey explores the form of the epistolary novel in his ongoing prose series, From a Broken Bottle, Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, two volumes of which have been published: Bedouin Hornbook(1986) and Djbot Baghostus's Run(1993). Dodie Bellamy challenges the genre in The Letters of Mina Harker, a novel from Hard Press. As Robin Tremblay-McGaw points out in her essay Class, Gender, Genre: A Culture Bomb, The Letters of Mina Harker, the epistolary novel carries with it particular class and gender implications:
Hunts work participates in this kind of rewriting of the history of female subjectivity. Taken into the hands of a black woman confronting traditional power structures, the epistolary takes new shape. Hunt uses the form to her advantage in the series of letters punningly entitled Correspondence Theory.(Local History 33) An exchange addressed simply to Dear is in turn answered Dear Dear a salutation that also functions as a kind of lament. One can imagine a womanly figure looking out over Hunts landscape of urban decay, racial tension, a hurricane about to hit the city, and shaking her head: Dear Dear, indeed. In this world, the city has become a Disneyland fa蓷de, complete with natives, in which the citys functions have been commandeered for the comfort of tourists. Street signs are moved around, and streets renamed so that tourists walk only sanctioned loops. The loops concentrate site; representative locales, ordinarily dispersed through the city, are packed into a pedestrian mall.(Local History 38)
The themes of Correspondence Theory are a relentless urbanity, rewriting of myths, and commentary upon political inequity:
This passage invites the reader to suggest or supply who one in each of the declarative statements denotes or connotes, effectively involving the reader in participation in a kind of meta-analysis of social oppressions while in the very act of reading the poem. However this work is not entirely open in meaning, but rather suggests particular trajectories. For example, the war at home evokes the struggle both by and against African-American men. The statistic one in four in prison is particularly horrifying, though in the year 2000, the facts are even worse.
Hunts work brings together disparate elements in such a way as to demand
new reading strategies. On the back of Local History, Charles Bernsteins
quote states in part: A new poet demands new readers. Hunts poetry,
it seems to me, demands a new public. The challenge for the critic is
to engage in the various conversations that Hunts work demands while
bringing together a new poetic discourse rigorous enough to answer the
questions that it raises.
Andrews, Bruce and Charles Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.
Awkward, Michael. Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Bellamy, Dodie. The Letters of Mina Harker. Hard Press.
Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology : A Study in Marxist Literary Theory. London: Verso, 1998.
Himes, Chester. Yesterday Will Make You Cry. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.
Hunt, Erica. Notes for an Oppositional Poetics. The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 197-212. Rpt. in Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing By Women, ed. Mary Margaret Sloan. New York: Talisman House, 1998.
_____. Local History. New York: Roof Books, 1993.
Keller, Lynn and Cristanne Miller. Gender and Avant-Garde Editing: Comparing the 1920s with the 1990s HOW2 Vol. 1, No. 2, September 1999.
Mackey, Nathaniel. Bedouin Notebook. Callaloo Fiction Series 1986; Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press, 1997.
_____. Djbot Baghostuss Run. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993.
Mullen, Harryette. Incessant Elusives: The Oppositional Poetics of Erica Hunt and
Will Alexander. MELUS Journal, forthcoming.
Nielsen, Aldon. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Silliman, Ron. In The American Tree. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.
Tremblay-McGaw, Robin. Class, Gender, Genre: A Culture Bomb, The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy. HOW2 Vol. 1, No. 2, September 1999.
 I am using the term Language poetry to describe linguistically innovative, politicized avant-garde writing practices that also frequently engage critical theory. This work is exemplified by such anthologies as Ron Sillimans In The American Tree and The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein.
 This applies equally to writers of fiction, as well as poets. Chester Himess novel Yesterday Will Make You Cry was published in a barely recognizable version by editors during his lifetime and was only recently released in its intended form by Old School Press in 1998. As the Old School editors point out in their introduction, Himes had decided to tell the story of his life using the voice of a white man, Jimmy Monroe, which enabled him to draw a few red herrings across the trail and resolve what appeared at the time as an irrevocable contradiction: being a black man and a writer and demonstrating that it is possible for an African American to go beyond ghetto experience The editors deliberately and relentlessly erased the tenderer and more artistic aspects to turn Himess manuscript into a hard-boiled prison novel. For many publishers in those days, the only place where the black man was not an invisible man was in a prison cell. (Himes, 8).
 Kelsey Street is a 25-year-old poetry press that publishes innovative poetry by women, and collaborations between poets and visual artists. Their authors include Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Erica Hunt, and Myung Mi Kim, among others.
BIO: Kathy Lous Schultz is a doctoral student in literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of two collections of poems: Re dress (San Francisco State University) and Genealogy (a+bend press). A third volume is forthcoming from Atelos.