“The signal of a breaking point”
by Kate Fagan
In “Drafts 44: Stretto,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis writes of a disparity between experience and perception while sounding a call to poetry’s material capacities: “Thought is frightened / for it can’t think anywhere near the size of what has happened / to bring is forth and set it rolling out.” She continues her exploration of poetical responses and responsibilities by invoking a “glinting world” whose clouded skies are “tangled in the long veil of the page,” and completes her meditation by gendering a curious and urgent “gift” of fear:
For many writers and artists in this edition of HOW2, DuPlessis’s words hold singular and troubling currency. Relations between congested material occurrences and poetry’s timing — between our descriptions and our perceptions of the world as it appears to unfold — are crucial to the texts and visual works that congregate at this issue’s mis/fitting seams. Since HOW2’s Fall 2002 edition, an ongoing war has been declared and carried out against and within Iraq by a coalition of political and media forces including the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. “Sometimes I can’t see clearly,” writes Geraldine McKenzie in the first of two New Writing features. “[T]his light sun of forgone conclusions drives the day / bitter pace and headlong into what never ceases / work which was punishment due our hard place / the squandered skirts of heaven… / it’s raining and the world comes out to watch.” Or as DuPlessis observes, equally acute in another context, thought is frightened, for it can’t think anywhere near the size of what has happened. How other than in kinds of fright are we to approach the Bush administration’s “New American Century”?
Thought also is revitalized and made sharp by such blunt events. As writers and thinkers “we’re called to run a time behind, upon, within, inside / plus of that scroll.” This might be the gift to which DuPlessis refers: a gift of critical calling, not predatory upon political spectacle and catastrophe, but finding ways to acknowledge and apprehend them — despite (and to resist) their near-normalization via a profound array of everyday rhetorical strategies. Carla Harryman offers this in “The Ear of the Poet in the Mouth of the Performer,” featured in Kathleen Fraser’s “Resisting Type” In-Conference panel:
We must ask these questions, even as we sometimes feel their inadequacies, or mistrust the point of doing so. They are questions in and about contexts for our writerly and scholarly labors. They make a political address to the how and here of knowing. How might community-based poetry and art projects like HOW2 respond to such breaking points, and what kinds of signals do we mean to transmit? In current political weathers “the challenge of writing anything” — a challenge embodying vastly different scales of action, impact, place and experience — is undeniably “at stake.”
This edition of HOW2, the first in a second online volume, includes dozens of different and edgy tussles with “breaking points.” A break is partly a beginning. It can provoke new currents of thinking and radical revisions of what has passed already, while stressing matters of form and method. In “Networking Women: an Instance,” Renata Morresi cites Nancy Cunard’s notion of “the underneath of history” as a stepping-off point for a feminist revision of London-based modernist journal Life and Letters To-Day, focusing on the editorial influence of Bryher (born Winifred Ellerman). Morresi’s work appears in the second of our In-Conference features, “Networking Women: Subjects, Places, Links Europe-America 1890-1939,” alongside complementary revisionist accounts of modernist cultural, sexual and publication economies by Marina Camboni, Diana Collecott and Gigliola Sacerdoti Mariani. Collecott’s “Another Bloomsbury: Women’s Networks in Literary London during World War One” reminds us that certain narratives need to be broken so that we might recover “the buried, the wasted and the lost,” as Mariani writes — stories of living from history’s underside that are obscured too easily in the competitive and powerful babble of conventional and complacent literary myth-making.
Julia Lisella’s Readings on American modernist Genevieve Taggard continue the project of excavation and witness. Under a rubric of “the Genevieve Taggard effect,” Alison Van Nyhuis critiques “the marginalization of poets or the production of canonical/poetic misfits because their body of work does not squarely rest on either side of a literary divide.” She calls for holistic interrogations of anthologizing processes, which consider the life conditions and artistic intentions of specific writers rather than imposing upon them “our own discursive confections” — whether we lionize them as exemplary renegades, or censor them into conformity. Catherine Daly unpicks several of Taggard’s little-circulated pamphlet poems, while Nancy Berke scrutinizes “ideologies of aging” and volatile exchanges between private lyrics and public functions in Taggard’s poetry, including socio-economic class categories and racially biased citizenship roles within 1930s America.
Category-panic is central to Anne Jamison’s account of Virginia Woolf’s and Ezra Pound’s contrasting recuperations and repudiations of Christina Rossetti’s sometime “modern cadence.” Jamison questions the exclusivity and gendered convenience of genre demarcations: what happens if we re-imagine Rossetti as an influential modern, by exposing established hierarchies of “modernist” aesthetic and formal properties? Other pieces from Alerts tackle these ideas in contemporary scenarios. Jane Sprague observes how Arielle Greenberg’s “rich, collaged textual world of glossy pop culture surfaces” presents an assortment of female subjects who strategically manage to “sustain themselves and exist in a jangled world of blurred edges, ruptured syntax and shifting subjectivity.” Laura Hinton recommends “expand[ing] beyond well-grooved arguments about the lyric, and mov[ing] the topic of experiment into experimental forms, like the prose poem and intergenre, poems that are no longer clearly ‘lyric’ anymore.” Genre is splitting at the seams — and with it, neat periodizations that retreat into sameness when faced with threatening difference. Broken narrations offer choices: how literally to proceed, once comfortably acceptable forms are interrupted or abandoned or recast? Which structures are brought to light, and which lights will be visible?
Both New Writing segments work with problems of form and alterity. In “Inappropriated Others,” Dodie Bellamy is explicit about erotic taboos and encounters involving “lovers drawn to inappropriate beloveds,” as Jeanne Heuving writes. “I watch fat men now, this secret ostracized world of ridicule and invisibility. I feel scorn for the mainstream, the hip, the cool.” (Bellamy) Kevin Killian parodies confessional and hetero-normative desiring modes in his panegyric to Kylie Minogue, while Christine Stewart tests limits of fantasy and corporeal risk in “St. Augustine”: “I consider a certain point on the screen. / I cover up one slit. I find the nonzero. // Habit descends unexpectedly / in my florid sleep, // in ripe / folding / civility…/ I cradle in / the remembering / of / gender. / I shred / the pink / borderless / tongue.” Sound artist and visual poet Amanda Stewart shreds different forms and coordinates in excerpts from “I/T,” featured in Pam Brown’s selection of contemporary innovative work: “He would go spiritually with humility / the / re the / her, goddesspollutedwhoresaint, and he / would save her! The clean attractive would be / saved!”
Sawako Nakayasu’s feature on contemporary Italian poetry suggests diverse “breaking points” that are met during translational processes. With thanks to the collaborative work of at least fifteen writers and translators, we offer a series of stunning Italian poems alongside their English counterparts. Milli Graffi unravels her lines in a fold between inner and outer, undoing “the privilege of reticence” to write: “In the indentation of the final hollow // a voice burrows itself // in the privilege of reticence / last coat of the beast-like heat // before the outside splinters // and ESCAPES.” Sylvia Bortoli’s pared lyricism gives the act of thinking an arresting and sensual physicality: “Open your mind and lean / on the indigo your thought / like a light finger / which softly probes the body / of words / and follows / the hare’s / anxious flight.”
These are just some of the pleasures, serious deliberations and subversive humors of the new HOW2. I briefly want to acknowledge several other breaks, and to extend gratitude and thanks to various people. This issue makes a transition to a new editorial team. Ann Vickery has completed four issues as editor and leaves the role, while London-based innovative writer and scholar Dell Olsen joins us as managing editor and I begin as editor. Ann worked tirelessly to expand the international focus and spirit of the journal, remaining committed along the way to local acts of experimentation and feminist practice. We are fortunate to gain Dell’s considerable energies and experience as we renew HOW2’s creatively challenging and necessarily adversarial project, and think about the ongoing usefulness of internet journals as sites of play, controversy and exchange. Roberta Sims continues as HOW2’s web-designer and I would like to thank her for lending so much time and creative input to the magazine. Finally and especially, thank you to founding editor Kathleen Fraser for generous advice and assistance during HOW2’s transitional months; to all associate editors and contributors who worked on this issue; and to a growing community of readers, whose ideas always direct our directions.
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