Rachel DuPlessisA few words about HOW(ever), 1983-1992.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis



My association with HOW(ever) began when, in response to my essay “For the Etruscans” and other work, Kathleen Fraser involved me as a corresponding editor of the distinctive newsletter-format journal that she had just founded. Beverly Dahlen and Frances Jaffer, the other first editorial contributors, were also my friends and long-distance colleagues.

It is important to understand that Fraser’s vision, commitment, power, sense of style and nuance were the animating force of this journal at all times. This journal was a remarkable cultural intervention, unifying as it did an interest in “feminist” thematics (women’s life, subjectivity, narratives, pressures, choices, and agency) and what has been called a “feminine” poetics—not, theoretically, limited to women, but involving anti-closural, anti-Aristotelian sensibility, disparate centers of interest, multiple vectors and tones, “beginning again and again,” and dialogic, discursive variety.

In the first issue, Vol I, no.1, May 1983, glossing the “however” motif in two directions (towards feminists and towards avand-garde formations), Frances Jaffer noted “Unhappily, most feminist publications have ignored the experimentalist work which women are writing now and have been writing since early in the century.” I knew this for a fact, since, at the same time, I was working hard to make the publication with which I was closely affiliated—Feminist Studies—receptive to such work. It’s not that experimental work was not-say, available in at least one such venue. It's that it made no appreciable dent on anyone's sensibility, so far as I could see. I served in a variety of ways on Feminist Studies for about 15 years, first on the board as an editor most concerned for literature and culture, helping to create its intense feminist analytic stance. At a certain point in the late 70s and early 80s, I became the Associate Editor for Creative Work. In that capacity I solicited work from, and published Dodie Bellamy, Judith Small, Diane Glancy, Valerie Fox, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Naomi Replansky, Cheryl Clarke, Kathleen Fraser, Heather Thomas, Rosmarie Waldrop, and (I think) Beverly Dahlen and Jaffer herself. Probably others as well. But the point is that Frances was right: the presence of this work in a centrist-feminist though left-analytic journal did not catch the attention of what Alicia Ostriker was going to call the “feminist poetry movement.” Indeed, when I moved from those editorial positions on Feminist Studies (to be simply a manuscript consultant), Ostriker became the Associate Editor for Creative Work. It would take a large cultural history of the braid of feminisms—what was acceptable, legible, visible, and meaningful and when—to sort out why the occlusion of work that did not participate in a realist or apparently realist aesthetic occurred. To me it was the premature formation of one feminist ethos that was taken, almost triumphally, as the whole ethos. So, as I said, Frances Jaffer was right, despite such cross-over efforts as the one I have just detailed.

If you look at the second issue of HOW(ever) [I, 2 (October 1983)] with a commentary on “what's on my bookshelf” by Fraser, you will see that cross-over impetus working in the other direction.  Fraser is proposing to assimilate as the ground for HOW(ever) academic and university based work, mainly feminist, on women modernists by Friedman, Perloff, Gubar, DeKoven, Burke, Ostriker, myself, Juhasz, and others, and she adduces issues of journals ranging from College English and Feminist Studies to Montemora and Contemporary Literature. You can see that we were trying a certain kind of brave intervention—literally bridging a gap that was quite wide at first. It now seems clear that a new generation of poets, critics, and poet-critics were paying some attention.

Let me say a word about Kathleen Fraser’s editorship, for she was at all moments the journal’s animating force, giving time and life’s blood to the endeavor. The journal involved a brilliant repositioning of forces already at work in the community of poets and poetics, but forces that would not have gotten as effective a hearing without her intervention. Fraser had a gift both for awareness of schools and for a utopian transcendence of schools. Because of her struggle, when the literary history of these decades is written, HOW(ever)’s space, flexible and decisive, will be seen to have contributed to poetry, poetics, and the burgeoning study of innovative women writers in the university and in other institutions of artistic production and reception, like the Poetry Project or Naropa.

HOW(ever) nurtured four generations of women artists. Strange to say it this way, but first, it nurtured the dead, but recoverable modernists, already the subject of feminist criticism, and given further poetic currency in this journal—I am talking about H.D., Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, Lorine Niedecker, Dorothy Richardson. It gave serious attention to living writers whose full reception had been blocked, twisted, or delayed: Barbara Guest and Laura (Riding) Jackson. It seriously enhanced and engaged the work of those poets of about the same generation as Fraser whose work was brought into an intellectual and poetic community and seen in constellation with each other even when poetic groupings had divided such women as individuals (such as Armantrout, Notley, Harryman, Mulford, Owen, Cole, F. Howe and S. Howe, myself and many more). Finally, it nourished a vibrant generation of younger women poets. In a phrase, it made older modernists, understudied writers, and current poets all contemporaries of the present.

HOW(ever)’s and Fraser’s editorial position repeatedly made the point that these issues in dissemination and reception of women’s work were part of one recurring problem in the twentieth century. Fraser made this point not punitively or dourly, but by creating an effervescence and excitement about the recovery and new presentation of work by innovative women. In part because of its brevity, each issue had zip. It had—if this is not too wild a thought—a feminist Poundean flair— “ideas into action.” HOW(ever) was prescient and forward-looking (with issues focused by topic, with statements in poetics and worksheets, with elegant visuals)—those are ideas that a more recent journal like Chain has picked up (ed. Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr). The recent anthology by Mary Margaret Sloan called Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (Talisman House,1998) and the forthcoming anthology edited by Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue (‘We Who Love to Be Astonished’: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics, University of Alabama Press, 2001) are also clearly indebted to the ethos, poetics, and intellectual position taken by HOW(ever).

I could say again what I said in January 1992-nine years after the first issue—when asked to comment on the existence of this journal that was, apparently going to cease. I wrote:

HOW(ever) was a bridge between underknown modernist women and ourselves. It continued radical modernism. It was a space of positive resistance to and powerful critique of the period style in poetry, making a formal and intellctual critique that did feminist cultural work. It was a space for heteroglossias, for conflictual discourses. It was a space for radical eagerness, for swift shifts, for coupure and splicing. It was a place in which one felt comfortable, buoyant, testing many genres (ode, pensée, essay) and many arts (sounds, as if music; visual fields, as if collage). It was a space for a sisterhood of exploration. I am grateful to have had it—grateful most especially to the generosity, brilliance, and labor of Kathleen Fraser, its founder and editor. I see the fruits of its experiment in many places now. But still, I am sorry that its time is up.

However, luckily, that time is still ours.



BIO: Rachel Blau DuPlessis teaches at Temple University in the English Department and Creative Writing Program. She is a poet-critic whose recent work includes Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (Cambridge UP, 2001) and Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan UP, forthcoming October 2001), part of her on-going long poem. She also edited the Selected Letters of George Oppen (Duke, 1990) and wrote The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Routledge, 1990). She is known for her feminist and gender-oriented studies of modern and contemporary poets.


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