“Kathleen Fraser’s Feminist Alternative: HOW(ever)”
Extracted from Chapter 6 of Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Hanover, NH and London: Wesleyan UP, 2000). Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
[. . . ]
HOW(ever) began in 1983, more as a broadsheet than a journal, with sixteen to eighteen pages (8½ by 11 inches) stapled together in an inexpensive format. It was modeled on Carla Harryman’s journal Qu, of which each issue could be read in one sitting. After considering titles such as “Parts of Speech,” “Feminine Endings,” “Indefinite Article,” “Alice Blue Gown,” “Red Tulips,” and “Para/phrase,” Fraser, Dahlen, and Jaffer finally decided on HOW(ever). These provisional titles point to a range of possible influences from Gertrude Stein to French feminist theory. The eventual title alludes to Marianne Moore’s lines about poetry: “I, too, dislike it./However, there is a place for it.” As Frances Jaffer suggests, the very title of the journal suggests a second take after all the givens, or the “exception.” There are no equal signs here; language is seen to inscribe processes of power rather than a democracy of phonemes.
Significantly, the shorthand occasionally used for the journal’s title was H(er), which foregrounds not only the journal’s feminine focus but also its ties to a modernist avant-garde of women’s writing. The possessive pronoun signals a territorialization, the mapping out of an alternative space to other poetic formations. H(er) also echoes H.D.’s abbreviated title for HERmione. It would be particularly appropriate for Dahlen, whose admiration of H.D.’s writing (including Helen in Egypt) moved her to write The Egyptian Poems. Like Language writing, HOW(ever) emphasized process and method in the foregrounding of the word how. As Fraser pointed out much later, “Perhaps the most pivotal factor in HOW(ever)’s creation was the urgency to provide alternatives to the romantic I of fixed unilateral authority…”
The opening editorial statements suggest that HOW(ever) began with a complex editorial policy, only part of which was to reclaim forgotten or marginalized modernist women writers and artists. According to Fraser, “HOW(ever) proposes to make a bridge between scholars thinking about women’s language issues, vis-à-vis the making of poetry, and the women making those poems.” She thus aimed the marketing of HOW(ever) at two potential audiences: one academic; the other, comprising women writers not affiliated with institutions. As Fraser notes, the first issue of HOW(ever) was published when “women’s writing” was beginning to be recognized in the academy. Issues that continued to be the focus of scholars or editors at this time included the following:
· the creation of place: (magazine/book/essay/caucus) where women’s editorial choices could be asserted & exercised
· the foregrounding of lesbian subjectivity/its literature
· the celebration & legitimization of female body/“female language” as basic grounds for investigation
· “common language” (as in Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language or Judy Grahn’s The Work of a Common Woman), asserted as the superior agency of literary exchange…often seen as the only valid way to empower a female community
· a growing sensitivity to class/race issues in women’s lives.
In particular, Fraser was interested in theoretical issues that arose when women’s innovative writing was combined with political practice. However, she resisted the idea of a “common language” because it was another way of prescribing the field of “women’s poetry.” Building on the idea of difference within community, Fraser hoped to move away from both master narratives and prosodic patterns in order to show that “our hearts did not belong to Daddy” or, for that matter, to a substituted “mommy” figure still common in feminist strategies of reversal She argued that an all-women editorial collective was a necessary part of the HOW(ever) project: “It is probably realistic to speculate that even as many male writers were extremely supportive of our undertaking, had any one of them been an active voice in our collective editorial labors, a discretely different sum ‘product’ would have emerged.” Fraser felt that men would bring along their own histories, as well as a specifically male style of logic and argument. By working independently, the HOW(ever) editorial group was free to figure out issues one by one.
In this respect, Fraser seems aware of the likely epistemic and behavioral inflections of gender. Frances Jaffer, in her opening editorial statement, also outlined a praxis that focused on “what can be written in other than traditional syntactical or prosodical structures may give an important voice to authentic female experience.” As the writing, working notes, and letters featured in HOW(ever) reveal, the “truths” of female experience were interpreted broadly, covering a diverse range of subject positions. What became apparent was that no one tendency in form or style captured experience more accurately than any other.
Looking back at HOW(ever). Fraser reflects that it was a model “not just for a different kind of writing but for the assertion of editorial choices by women.” There was no hard-and-fast editorial policy: “We had to trust our individual responses, our discretionary sense of authenticity and difficult pleasure, to acknowledge variable tastes and persuasions as the work began arriving.” Primarily, they were looking for “that which had not yet been uttered because forms were still being imagined to contain those unsayables.” She notes that although conflicts often occurred in the editorial process, the use of a collective form helped clarify the reasons for their choices. It was important to argue for the “necessity and value of a certain work, to ask for reconsideration when there was a strong difference, [and] to think even more closely about why or how a particular piece was causing excitement in one of us and not in another,” for to do so was to open up and interrogate powerful and persistent ideas of cultural value.
This editorial conversation was supported by the inclusion of a “Working Note” for each poet, the only requirement that HOW(ever) imposed upon its contributors. The “Working Note” was to give some idea of the processes that had gone into the production, and of any formal problems proposed or encountered. This was to reinforce the idea that no text is produced in in a vacuum, but always within a social and aesthetic field. The end of each issue also included a section called “alerts,” set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected books by innovative women poets. Its informality encouraged a flexible form of criticism, although it still maintained a far more traditional form than the reviews published by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. There was also a “postcards” section which included letters that commented on past reviews or offered information on forthcoming work. Finally, the editors’ notes provided updates on new or forthcoming books, conferences, and readings.
While focusing primarily on the literary, HOW(ever) also drew attention to relevant topics in film theory and art. The second issue initiated a visual aesthetic in order to promote similar conversations along a parallel track. Subsequent issues presented art works which generally foregrounded the structural, such as “alphabets, words, [and] de-composition.” This initiative was Fraser’s, whose interest in art was both intense and long standing. Fraser thought that to juxtapose visual work alongside written texts would enact a convergence that would provoke further processes of thought or points of attention. She hoped to give space to “writing as different in its goals and its ‘product’ as a painting by Nancy Spero or Elizabeth Murray was from a picture by [Willem] DeKooning or David Salle.” Such expansions complemented the business of exploding genre, and showed innovative poetry on a broader and more interdisciplinary scale to traditional literary histories.
HOW(ever) further set out to show that American and Canadian women writers participate in a common tradition. Frequent postings in the “alerts” and “postcards” section of new Canadian books or forthcoming events in Canada are evidence of this. To a lesser extent, British news was forwarded by writers like Wendy Mulford. By listing Simone de Beavoir and Luce Irigaray alongside Shulamith Firestone and Nancy Chodorow in the very first issue, Fraser also brought together what were seen as quite separate—even conflicting—directions in feminism, namely French feminism and Anglo-American feminism. In doing so, she foregrounded differences within feminism, as well as framing the multiplicity of feminisms that HOW(ever) hoped to feature.
One of Fraser’s declared aims in HOW(ever) was to present a set of writings from both “established feminist scholars and working poets” that would move critical discourse beyond those “readings” which sought to impose interpretations on texts from without. As such, she hoped that her journal would enable the two disciplines to cross-fertilize in an encouragingly unofficial space. While poets were implicated in this endeavor by being required to supply a “Working Note” on their practices, Fraser notes that the editors were largely unsuccessful in soliciting any material from critics that did not simply develop an argument with the usual footnotes. She and the other editors put considerable effort into encouraging submissions:
I sent out a large number of personal letters of friendly invitation to feminist scholars and essayists whose work I discovered in my reading. We handed out flyers at regional and national MLA sessions and at conferences on H.D. and E[mily] D[ickinson] and V[irginia] W[oolf], inviting contributions…but with mostly silence in return.
Although Fraser suggests that academic feminists were not yet ready to move out of a male-dominant academic practice, HOW(ever) was also competing for attention against emergent scholarly journals such as Signs, Feminist Studies, Frontiers and Heresies, most of which were refereed and therefore preferable outlets for the work of career academics.
Fraser says she had “envisaged…a place for informal, incomplete response to current and historical works, with particular emphasis on recovery of texts, letters, critical reputations of lost or dimming modernist women writers.” The issue of preservation and cultural memory was of fundamental importance. The brackets around the “ever” in the journal’s title could be seen as a symbolic closing off of any future for women’s work. “[W]e hardly ever heard about their poems where I was sitting listening,” she writes. “You mean in school? I mean where poems were being preserved and thought about seriously and carried forward as news.” Borrowing from Pound’s “literature is news that STAYS news,” Fraser is concerned here not only with the cultural recovery of past women writers, but also with those canonical processes by which the work of present women writers will be made over into a past. She astutely realizes that such survival will depend, for the most part, on the community of feminist academics. While staging itself as opening up a dialogue between writers and critics, HOW(ever) is in fact an early intervention into the institutionalization of poetry. As Fraser notes in an editorial preface, “HOW(ever) hopes to create a place in which poets can talk to scholars through poems and working notes on those poems, as well as through commentary on neglected women poets who were/are making textures and structures of poetry in the tentative region of the untried.”
Her project focused on the academy in several ways. Significantly, the editorial group formation was quite traditional in structure, with a chief editor (Kathleen Fraser), associate editors (Frances Jaffer and Beverly Dahlen), and contributing editors (Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Carolyn Burke). The inclusion of the latter guaranteed an academic editorial perspective. DuPlessis actively promoted innovative writing in scholarly journals and at conferences while publishing her poetry in small presses. Given her interest in écriture féminine and the French women’s movement, Burke could elaborate on the aesthetic and political connections between French feminism and experimental women’s writing. Both editors would therefore be invaluable in shaping an intertext between the academic and the poetic. Another function of HOW(ever)’s editorial structure was to indicate the degree of individual involvement in its publication. The withdrawal of Beverly Dahlen enabled Susan Gevirtz to take on the workload of an associate editor. As HOW(ever) evolved, the constitution of its editorial would gradually change. Towards the end, Myung Mi Kim and Meredith Stricker produced three issues as guest editors.
Perhaps the major site of contestation in HOW(ever) was the debate over poetic form. This was particularly evident after the publication in a guest-edited issue of an article by Annie Finch titled “The Sonnet Transfigured.” Three original members of the editorial collective—Beverly Dahlen, Kathleen Fraser, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis—were moved to respond to Finch’s call for a reclamation of the sonnet form. All three disagreed with Finch’s contention that “poetry is to stop fear,” and that “the structure of the sonnet” as “a way of organizing, channeling and making familiar” is particularly well suited for doing this. 
DuPlessis argued that the desire to situate oneself in relation to power—to take hold of or “ride” power, as Finch suggests—does not make it necessary to opt for the sonnet form. And for DuPlessis, the use of fixed forms as “stylistics counters” to anxiety or fear was implausible. In such circumstances, it is best to ask what “romantic” might mean in the context of the sonnet. Its recuperation, she suggested, “is only possible within a full analysis of lyric ideology, beauty, and pleasure.” As a genre, the sonnet is “already historically filled with voiceless, beautiful female figures in object position.” Since these are rendered as muses, the sonnet is more of a “son-net” (or medium of a male subject) than a “sound-net” which emphasizes different voices.
While DuPlessis recognized that for some women writers the muse is arguably a male force, for many others it is female—“maternal, mirroring, lesbian...” DuPlessis seems to add difference per se as a recognizably female force, for she continues to list the female muse “as a child; a family configuration; a community; an old, wise, mischief elf; a dark-colored person; a light-colored person; a force transcendent; a force chthonic…” DuPlessis then encompassed all other difference in a binary model of sex/gender, stating that “[t]he muse for women is labile & bisexed, bigendered.” This is problematic because it not only elides sexualities within an either-or model but also attempts to fit different sorts of influence into a prioritized sexual paradigm.
Fraser responds by expressing her concern at Finch’s either/or attitude towards the use of traditional forms. For Finch, the surviving poet might choose to align herself as struggling writer either with the sonnet of the humble and lower-case “i” or with the sonnet of the powerful and even frightening upper-case I. Fraser suggested that to surrender to traditional binary descriptions merely reinforces such “false” structures and that Finch’s bind “is indeed double since it seems to dismiss or discount a third existing position provided for us by dozens of formally transgressive works written by women poets,” namely the exploration of “alternative poetic models and strategies.” As Fraser pointed out, much “breakthrough works of poetry by women and men have engaged the traditional sonnet, etc., by brilliantly reversing, unhinging and transfiguring it.” Her examples included the sonnets of Laura Riding, Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets, and Alice Notley’s When I Was Alive.
Fraser found Finch’s position further problematic in privileging the sonnet tradition as some law or authority which must be addressed, “as if it were a Jungian shadow to be conquered.” Her point is that “[w]hen one linguistically links the act of making a poem to that hierarchic purpose of winning and/or maintaining control over chaos with familiar ‘technology’ and methods of ‘writing efficiency,’ one risks courting the clichéd counterpart of this male tradition: ‘female inadequacy.’” Furthermore, arguments about the sonnet tradition illustrate a larger debate over margins and center: “Isn’t it that very attempt to align oneself with an acknowledged center, to win approved product status from the representatives of any established center, that throws the marginalized poet into a condition of fragility and mute chase?”
Significantly, in the same issue as the responses by Dahlen, Fraser and DuPlessis (summer 1991), Norma Cole emphasized the importance of determining who speaks when considering poetic form. As Cole points out, readers “are accustomed to having male writing in female characters’ mouths.” She points to the recent practice of gender reversal, as when Carla Harryman puts words into the mouths of androgynous or genderless figures, or when Leslie Scalapino puts words into the mouths of male characters. Arguing for the highly subversive effects of such practices, Cole’s observation rests uneasily alongside Jaffer’s initial call for the representation of women’s lives. Indeed, such strategies are perhaps more contentious as a feminist practice than a return to the sonnet form.
While the term HOW(ever) is often used to denote a specific group of feminist poets attracted a specific group of feminist poets (such as Fraser, Dahlen, Jaffer, Gevirtz, and DuPlessis), the journal itself managed to include a wide variety of feminist practices. Black writers and poets from ethnic minorities, such as Sheila K. Smith, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Myung Mi Kim, were presented alongside British writers like Wendy Mulford and Pamela Stewart. For the first time, working projects by both Canadian writers of the feminine (écriture au féminin) and Language writers could be presented in the same forum. The range of contemporary poetry featured in HOW(ever) undid the presumption that there was merely one tradition or politics of practice. The journal also included writing and information about modernist women who were otherwise considered noncanonical, such as Mina Loy, as well as writers associated with later poetic communities such as Lorine Niedecker and Barbara Guest.
During its lifetime, HOW(ever) was positioned confusingly as either a rival venture to or subset of Language poetry. In his debate on Language writing with Michael Davidson in Sulfur, Eliot Weinberger takes the opportunity to stage a critical appraisal of HOW(ever). He argued that, unlike Language writing, HOW(ever) was “the most exciting group activity occurring in American poetry today.” Adrienne Rich, by contrast, collapses the project of HOW(ever) with that of Language poetry, when she refers to Susan Howe, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Kathleen Fraser, and Frances Jaffer as “the Feminist Language poets.”
Each of these framings of HOW(ever) and Language poetry is misleading. HOW(ever) is best viewed as operating alongside the community practices of Language poetry, such that some women writers chose to participate in both. At the same time as Fraser was forming HOW(ever), Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten were entertaining ideas for a similar project to be featured as a special issue of Poetics Journal. This was the “Women and Modernism” issue, which they began planning almost from the inception of the journal. Originally, they had set a 15 March deadline for what was expected to be the spring/summer 1983 issue. If that schedule had been kept it would have coincided roughly with the first issue of HOW(ever), which appeared in May 1983. Early that year, Hejinian outlined the “Women and Modernism” issue in detail to prospective contributors such as Susan Bee, noting that she and Watten wanted to present two types of essays: “[O]ne dealing with questions in terms of earlier women writers and artists (Stein, Laura Riding, H.D., etc.) and the other discussions by and about current writers and artists and their own personal thoughts. Which is to say, I am interested in both the historical and the’“personal’ approach.” Such a framework distinctly parallels Fraser’s own editorial statement. Together, the “Women and Modernism” issue and the ongoing project of HOW(ever) confirm and contextualize one another, as well as providing a clear example of the illusory nature of strict community boundaries. Indeed, along with Beverly Dahlen and Carolyn Burke, Fraser would contribute essays to the “Women and Modernism” issue.
Criticism of HOW(ever) tended to focus less on its choice of writing than on its politics, and particularly its exclusive interest in women’s writing and the prioritizing of gender. Some felt that HOW(ever) was in effect essentializing or decontextualizing the writing. According to Jane Miller, for instance, “[t]here is always a new sentence, a new voice, a new timing that needs to be found, and it may come out of a female experience but must be transformed into something else, larger, to move from construct into art and from report into rite.” Although Miller agrees it is important “to have one’s own sexual imaginings” or environment “mirrored in art,” she believes that “Great poetry is always…about more than one thing.” Besides, “[T]here’s a time and perhaps the time is now, when feminism blocks transcendence (not to another world, but in this one) and is another crutch…”
[. . .]
Susan Gevirtz notes that many reactions to HOW(ever) were grounded in old debates about the “woman question.” She cites a review of HOW(ever) by Robert Peters that illustrates the persistence of Victorian anxieties about women writing. Noting that Gertrude Stein and H.D. “seem the primary goddesses behind this sort of writing,” Peters stated that he had yet to meet anyone who could remain excited “after twenty pages or so.” Arguing that “[a] poem is not a set of easy metaphysical speculations on the nature of grammar, guilt or the primal flood,” he concluded, “Let’s not keep the trope flying, let’s strangle the little creature in his crib before he soils his pants and screws up our life.” The metaphor of infantilization parallels the one used by Wayne Koestenbaum in theorizing the results of collaboration between male writers. While the “child” of such masculine literary processes is culturally acceptable, textual births by women writers are deemed unnatural creations.
Peters’ comments are part of a general backlash against the proliferation of feminist magazines. In the face of this narrow-minded and negative reception, both the format and practice of HOW(ever) have become a model for many other magazines. Apart from journals like Big Allis, Black Bread, Chain, Motel, and 6ix, which are edited by women and present a forum for contemporary women’s writing, the Canadian broadside (f.)Lip most closely reflected HOW(ever)’s editorial practice. As Fraser points out, HOW(ever) was deliberately modest in size, and therefore something which could be read between work commitments and familial obligations. One of (f.)Lip’s editors, Angela Hryniuk, states that their journal took a similar form for the same reasons: indeed, it got its title partly for being something that women could “flip” through. Aimed at formally innovative writers and women in the academy, it also hoped to attract a broader community of women readers. This ambition was not altogether successful. As Hryniuk notes, “A lot of people who weren’t already reading similar writing or weren’t in the academic community didn’t know what to do with us.” Consequently, “[w]e had to deal with feminist anger that we weren’t like everyone else.”
In 1992, after seven volumes, HOW(ever) came to an end. “As you might imagine,” Fraser told Daphne Marlatt,
the decision has been extremely difficult to make, provoked by major and unexpected depletions of time and energy for editing competing with the more private pull of one’s own writing. Also, funding for our ‘modest proposal’ has been nearly impossible, between an intentional page limitation and our peculiar hybrid of innovative poetry with feminist critical writing.
As with (f.)Lip, the radicalism of its form accelerated its demise in a period of increasing conservatism. Fraser, however, held hopes for the future, and ended her letter to Marlatt on a positive note: “We’ve got a good start on building a much-needed community; the talent and invention of women poets is clearly burgeoning; and the once non-existent dialog among scholar/critics and innovative writers has warmed up. Surely there is more to come.”
Fraser’s optimism was well justified. Seven years later saw the first issue of a daughter magazine, HOW2. [. . . ]
 Frances Jaffer, “Why HOW(ever)?” HOW(ever) 1.1 (May 1983): 1.
 Kathleen Fraser, “transfiguring,” response to Annie Finch’s “The Sonnet Transfigured,” HOW(ever) 6.3 (1991): 16.
 Kathleen Fraser, “Why HOW(ever)?” 1.
 Kathleen Fraser, “The Jump: Editing HOW(ever),” Chain 1 (Spring/Summer 1994): 43.
 Kathleen Fraser, “The Jump,” 43.
 Kathleen Fraser, “The Jump,” 45.
 Frances Jaffer, “Why HOW(ever)?” 1.
 Kathleen Fraser, “The Jump,” 43-44.
 This is also an advantage envisaged by Charles Bernstein in having a collective editorial for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E.
 Kathleen Fraser, “Why HOW(ever)?” 1.
 In HOW(ever) 3.1 (January 1986) at 13, the editors also state that they “intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking/writing critically.”
 Kathleen Fraser, “The Jump,” 44-45.
 Kathleen Fraser, “The Jump,” 46.
 Kathleen Fraser, “Why HOW(ever)?” 1.
 Kathleen Fraser, “Why HOW(ever)?” 1.
 Adalaide Morris and Diane Glancy would also be contributing editors in later issues.
 Annie Finch, “The Sonnet Transfigured,” HOW(ever) 6.2 (October 1990): 13.
 Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Thinking About Annie Finch, On Female Power and the Sonnet,” HOW(ever) 6.3 (Summer 1991): 16. Taking her HOW(ever) response as a springboard, these arguments would be further developed in “Manifests,” Diacritics 26.3-4 (Fall-Winter 1996): 31-53.
 Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Thinking About Annie Finch,” 16.
 Kathleen Fraser, “transfiguring,” 15.
 Kathleen Fraser, “transfiguring,” 15.
 Norma Cole, “Whose Mouth? Cole on Quotation, “ HOW(ever) 6.3 (Summer 1991): 15.
 Eliot Weinberger, “A Final Response,” Sulfur 22 (1988): 201.
 Adrienne Rich, Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose eds. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994) 270.
 It is unclear why the “Women and Modernism” issue was delayed for so long that it appeared one year after the first issue of HOW(ever). The clash of schedules between the two would not have helped matters.
 Lyn Hejinian, letter to Susan Bee, 26 February 1983, Hejinian Papers, Mandeville (74, 2, 10). Although Carla Harryman, Erica Hunt, and Diane Ward proposed papers on Jane Bowles, Louis Zukofsky, and Bernadette Mayer respectively, none would reach publication. Hejinian also wanted to expand the focus of the Poetics Journal issue to include articles on art and film. A primary distinction between HOW(ever) and the “Women and Modernism” issue would be that one-third of the eventual contributors to the latter would be male. As with Fraser, Hejinian hoped to attract an academic readership for the issue. She told Susan Bee that she and Watten planned to distribute the issue to Women’s Studies programs. See Lyn Hejinian, letter to Susan Bee, 23 March 1983, Hejinian Papers, Mandeville (74, 2, 10).
 Jane Miller, letter to Kathleen Fraser, HOW(ever) 2.2 (February 1985): 15.
 Quoted by Susan Gevirtz in “Doctor Editor,” Chain 1.1 (Spring/Summer 1994): 54.
 Wayne Koestenbaum argues that “men who collaborate engage in a metaphorical sexual intercourse, and that the text they balance between them is alternatively the child of their sexual union, and a shared woman.” See Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (New York and London: Routledge, 1989) 3.
 In a postcard to HOW(ever), Daphne Marlatt states that “HOW(ever) has been a model for (f.)Lip.” See “Why?” HOW(ever) 5.2 (January 1989): 13.
 Angela Hryniuk, personal interview, 31 July 1994.
 Kathleen Fraser, letter to Daphne Marlatt, HOW(ever) 5.2 (January 1989): 14.
BIO: Ann Vickerys book, Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing, was published by Wesleyan University Press in December 2000. She has recently completed a research fellowship at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, investigating cultural constructions of identity in modern Australian women's poetry. Ann is the editor of HOW2.