Kathleen FraserThe Jump: Editing HOW(ever)

Kathleen Fraser

This paper was originally published in Chain 1 (Spring/Summer 1994).


Perhaps the most perplexing—and dogged—question submitted to HOW(ever) (during my tenure as Publisher & Editor 1983-1991) was often posed as a demand in public forums, as if there existed a conceptualized and certified answer, as if such an answer were desirable, even essential. It went like this: "What kind of work are you interested in publishing?" [Or, to read it another way: What do you approve of or disapprove of? What do you like and dislike?]

        There was, at these moments, an attempt by the gentle, determined or accusing interrogator to track what HOW(ever) "stood for" aesthetically, to tack down what was wanted, to determine conclusively the basis for our decision to publish a particular poem/work. It continued to puzzle me that the unrehearsable impact of a particular linguistic splicing on the ear and eye (or the musical pressure of vagrant thought) should provoke such insistent need for codification.

        It was this casual assumption of a static absolute—as a value—that led me to observe two possible phenomena making their pressure felt in the world of contemporary American writing: 1) a pervasive pragmatics of "buy" and "sell," spawned by a national culture organized around product: who is "buying"/choosing & what shape/size/color is s/he looking for, and 2) a historical but often unconscious habit, perhaps more significant for women, of assuming that literary decisions of consequence were set (carved?) in stone and that their follow-through—in publication and critical acclaim—was initiated, articulated and canonized by Male Editors, Critics, Anthologists. Territorial imperative. Case closed.

        As late as the mid-Seventies, women still occupied mid-level assistant positions on the mastheads of both commercial and literary publications—acknowledged "first readers" of unsolicited manuscripts, proofers of galleys and keepers of mailing lists, proliferating correspondence, etc … but seldom experienced the pleasure and authority of asserting editorial choices or getting credit for it.

        By the Eighties, some things had changed. In May, 1983, when the first issue of HOW(ever) went into the mails, "women's writing" had been publicly identified by a group of mostly academic feminist scholar-poets and editors. Their community agenda focused on:

• 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

        These goals helped to create an important beginning stage for a female-based writing community and its claim to new publishing/editing territory. But for women writers who resisted "common language" as a potential replication of the weighty & threadbare treads of the traditional male prosody currently in use (and wary, as well, of prescriptive ideas of "women's poetry"), a taking apart and putting back together of the poem—of the very writing process itself—was the exciting task. So much had been hoarded, silenced, pre-judged as not enough or too much. Shadowing one's masters was no fun.

        "Common language" seemed too limited to hold the largesse of female-produced language forms and too essentialist in what it did not express or give value to . . . much like a door slamming and windows clicking shut, the fortress battened down against those who didn't fit the new politically-correct givens of a somewhat single-minded editorial aggregate.

        The male power structure we'd learned to recognize and analyze as the basis of the canon-forming profession of literature suddenly had its able female counterpart. This was not any less stifling.

        The meaning of inventing HOW(ever) in 1983 was absolutely based in the dilemma of and attunement to gender. Our hearts did not belong to Daddy. We believed we could make a place for work that spoke to us and surprised us, without the pressure of producing a BIG, "major" organ. Our goal, instead, was to put together a modest-size publication that adventurous readers—otherwise besieged by dense work commitments and familial obligations—would feel compelled to read almost immediately.

        We hoped that HOW(ever) would be a model, not just for a different kind of writing but for the assertion of editorial choices by women.  We had no preconceived esthetic bias, except that we preferred to be surprised and pulled into linguistic maps that clearly connected us up to sudden locations of self knowledge & recognition of intellectual/spiritual/esthetic zones we might otherwise never have inhabited. 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.

        We made notes on our reading. Often two of us would love a particular work for which a third would not feel the same enthusiasm. Part of our collective process was to clarify the reasons for our choices, in writing, as an attempt to convince a skeptical or less than enthusiastic colleague of the necessity and value of a certain work, to ask for reconsideration when there was a strong difference, to think even more closely about why or how a particular piece was causing excitement in one of us and not in another. We were opening up places that had been shut down by powerful ideas of “worth” and “importance,” long circulating through our well-schooled lives.

        We never held fast to any policy of total accord, but tried more and more to trust an instinct or conviction in one or another's response, when that intrigue was made sufficiently clear. Through this editorial conversation we educated and provoked one another to continuously widening curiosities and the consciousness of learned prohibitions. Also, our chosen poets helped us with each new work invented as well as with the process-oriented "Working Note" we required with every publication of original work. It was our way into the poet's thinking about the formal problems she'd set for herself—her methods, stimuli, and after-thoughts.

        On a parallel track with this evolving conversation was the visual esthetic initiated in Vol. I, No. 2, and foregrounded in each issue thereafter, with art works (usually, but not always, by women) focused on alphabets, words, de-composition. Our theme or focus was never determined ahead of time but always emerged from the works chosen, located in the structural underpinnings of that particular converging, inscribed during a discrete time frame. In this way, we avoided predictability because both language and visual image were in a continual process of suggesting each other. Our task was to attend.

        I found that my real editorial freedom (what kept me plugging through exhaustion and financial disaster), was the clearing of space for unmapped female experience and formal investigation . . . 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. What we were looking for was that which had not yet been uttered because forms were still being imagined to contain these unsayables.

        Such a delicate, tricky staging of vulnerability, chanciness, and resistance to male editorial approval was the core meaning of our project and in this sense HOW(ever)'s gender exclusivity made every difference. We didn't have the pressure of fathers, lovers, favored male poets and teachers from whom we'd learned so much. Whether we could have pulled down grant money, made a bigger academic splash, produced a bigger, slicker product (as one serious male poet advised us, in print, we must do) was vastly beside the point.

        Because we didn't have to carry all that baggage and hustle—inevitably a part of "big," officially funded projects approved by committee—we were free to figure out, issue by issue, what fascinated us and drove us to the next focus of attention. 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. There would have been a more heavily weighted set of histories to stare down, a male style of logic and argument with its confident and enlightened pressures always there to be negotiated.

        In truth, it was exhilarating to hold our collective nose and jump. Every issue felt like a huge risk—up to the final, two-women proofing . . . and a miraculous if tentative voicing of female presence, just waiting to cut loose.

        In retrospect, the one problem I grappled with over the entire course of HOW(ever)'s tenure was the issue of women vs. critically reflective writing. My second goal for HOW(ever) had been to elicit a set of writings from both established feminist scholars and working poets that would elucidate a modernist and current writing practice of apparently such imagined unfamiliarity in women's poetry that it seemed to cause a kind of shut down mechanism in not only the male critics but in the majority of women critic/scholars we looked to for "readings" of our work. They were brave enough to puzzle through Joyce and Woolf, Beckett and Ashbery, but when it came to the "odd" diction or unfamiliar visual forms proposed by a woman poet, the silence was appalling... a non-response, I might add, deeply discouraging to writers of immense gifts and proven seriousness.

        I hoped that, given an unofficial venue, women poets might be able to provide a precise and non-prefabricated description of their intentions and working methods to women critic-scholars, thus enhancing a cross-fertilization among the two arts/ disciplines within a "safe" and benevolent framework, unthreatened by any real or perceived form of canonical harassment or institutional bullying. I envisaged, as well, a place for informal, incomplete response to current and historic works, with particular emphasis on recovery of texts, letters, critical reputations of lost or dimming modernist women writers.

        The poets we published were instantly implicated in this effort by the "Working Note" required of each. But beyond this, it was the most difficult task to lure anyone into something speculative, partial, "informal," i.e. not sanctioned by the fully-developed, footnoted format. 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.D. and V.W., inviting contributions . . . but with mostly silence in return.

        The poets were the best at taking the jump: to begin to talk about new writing springing out of this quirky, unofficially recognized realm involved the development of a new descriptive language. It became clear that the internalized voice of a male-dominant academic method (and pleasure) of discourse was a fearsome gauntlet yet to be detoured.

The challenge is still there.


HOW(ever) Associate Editors included Frances Jaffer (1983-89), Beverly Dahlen (1983-85); Susan Gevirtz (1985-89). Contributing Editors were Rachel Blau duPlessis and Carolyn Burke (1983-89). Guest Editors for Vol. VI, Nos. 1-3 (1989-90), were Myung Mi Kim and Meredith Stricker. The final issue, Vol. VI, No.4 (Jan. 1991), was again edited by K.F. Special thanks is here given to Susan Gevirtz whose invaluable editorial and emotional support made the editing of H(er) a more positive labor.



BIO: Kathleen Fraser has published fourteen books of poems, most recently il cuore : the heart, Selected Poems 1970-1995 (Wesleyan University Press, 1997), Wing (Em Press, 1995) and 20th Century (a+bend Press, 2000). Her collected essays, TRANSLATING THE UNSPEAKABLE, Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, were published by the University of Alabama Press (Modern and Contemporary Poetics Series).

In 1973, Fraser founded The American Poetry Archives, during her tenure as director of The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, where she taught as Professor of Creative Writing from 1972-1992. Between 1983 and 1992, she published and edited HOW(ever),which has now re-emerged in electronic form as How2.

Fraser is a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry. She lives for five months of each year in Rome, Italy, where she lectures on American poetry and translates Italian poets.


back to readings

go to this issue's table of contents