‘A Peculiar Hybrid’: The Feminist Project of HOW(ever)
This paper was originally presented at the “Poetry and the Public Sphere” conference at Rutgers University in April 1997.
In discussions of contemporary feminist poetry developing since the 1970s, a polarized opposition between the mainstream (or content-oriented, self-expressive, accessible) and the avant garde (experimental, theoretically-informed, inaccessible) has become a standard strategy for mapping the current field of women’s poetry. This dichotomous critical strategy has itself been examined recently in ways that explore the usefulness as well as the reductiveness of such terms, and while my task here is not to survey these debates, I do want to place my discussion of HOW(ever) within this ongoing conversation. Although these terms are in need of close scrutiny, the fact remains that such a mapping has had historic consequences and that women practicing innovative linguistic strategies (for the lack of a better term) have, until recently, been underrepresented in critical discussions, publications, and narratives of literary history, even in feminist projects. And, although these terms “mainstream” and “avant garde” are sometimes crudely devisive, we need to fill out the histories that have grown up around them—in part, as a way of broadening our sense of a feminist public realm—before we discard them as inaccurate or problematic. The journal HOW(ever) emerged in the early 1980s as a journal responding to the experience of this division on the part of both poets and critics, a journal interested in filling a perceived gap in feminist networks of publication and critical discussion concerning women’s experimental poetry, and as a journal seeking to broaden the notion of feminist cultural work. HOW(ever) occupies an important textual space for historicizing and theorizing the public, political possibilities of an avant-garde feminist practice.
Ten years ago, fresh from my doctoral examinations, I attended a graduate student conference on “Feminism: Theory and Practice,” here at Rutgers University. The goal of the conference was to discuss and develop possible bridges between the materiality of feminist activism and the theorization of feminist scholarship—a weighty task. This opposition between activism and the ivory tower, between the masses and the elite, between the concrete and the abstract, is not unrelated to the aforementioned dichotomy between “mainstream” and “avant garde” and the host of associations attached to each term. At this conference, I attended a panel that included a paper on women poets and the visual page, and the speaker (forgive my poor memory) introduced us all to a journal called HOW(ever), which at that point had been publishing for four years. She also brought subscription forms and I subscribed; I went on to write a dissertation and then a book that included a chapter on the poet Kathleen Fraser, the journal’s founding editor. Part of what I want to talk about here today, then, began here ten years ago, as I found a way to enter a reading community and to begin to learn new reading strategies that expanded my notions of feminist writing, that bridged for me the various modes of such writing, and that illuminated for me the urgency of fostering and supporting feminist cultural work in its multiple forms.
The notion of a bridge needs to be stressed. As I look back through the six volumes of HOW(ever)—the twenty-four issues that span the years from 1983 to 1992—I am struck by the bridging of various facets of femininst expression enacted textually, intellectually, and aesthetically, and its bridging of generations of poets. I am struck by the rich resource its pages provide for the understanding and study of twentieth-century experimental women poets. I am struck by the way the journal develops an instructional importance, teaching its readers not only about current and past poets but about how to read them, how to shift reading practices, how to re-examine standard practices of reading and writing, re-envision expected roles of reader and poet, reconsider accepted modes of discursive and material authority.
So—to the journal itself. Begun in 1983 by Kathleen Fraser, HOW(ever) proposed to “make a bridge between scholars thinking about women’s language issues, vis-a-vis the making of poetry, and the women making those poems.”(Fraser, 1.1, 1) Fraser opened the first issue with these remarks, stressing the sense of displacement and isolation she felt as a woman poet “writing experimentally,” sentiments echoed by associate editor Frances Jaffer’s remarks that a “vehicle for experimentalist poetry” is needed to be “read side-by-side” with the feminist poetry most often supported by feminist publications, to fill in a gap left by decisions and practices arising from the belief that “now is the time for women to write understandable poetry about their own lives, and with feeling, with the heretofore undeveloped self in prominent display.” Jaffers articulates, in this first issue, a notion of the “experimental” that will guide the journal’s development while refusing a strict or narrow definition of the term: “...the myths of a culture are embodied in its language, its lexicon, its very syntactical structure. To focus attention on language and to discover what can be written in other than traditional syntactical or prosodic structures may give an important voice to authentic female experience.”(1.1, 1) In the second issue, in response to a letter from Dodie Bellamy (who designed the journal’s logo) expressing concern and “confusion over the issue of dividing women’s writing into the categories of avant-garde and non-avant-garde, and supporting only one side of what seems to be a rather arbitrary division,” Jaffer re-emphasizes the journal’s task: “We’re trying to fill a gap, not create a split...If we’re successful, it’s possible that in the future there will be feminist magazines in which experimentalist and more formally traditional writing will be published together.”(1.2, 15) In the final issue of HOW(ever), in 1992, Jaffers expresses some disappointment over the amount of impact the journal has had on “mainstream” publications and criticism, rearticulating a desire not to divide but to encourage interaction among plural feminist poetics.
For such interaction to occur, however, the work of experimentalists needed to be acknowledged, both as a contemporary practice and as a long-ignored tradition. Such acknowledgment had not occured in the realm of the male-dominated avant garde or the realm of feminist criticism and poetry. Fraser’s invitation to both poets and scholars to engage in dialogue about women experimentalists created a space for recovery and discovery, for what Susan Gevirtz termed a “sanctuary in which to hone, flex, inquire, from which to venture out,”(6.4, 14); or Rachel Blau DuPlessis described as a “bridge between modernist women and ourselves...a space for heterglossias, for conflictual discourses...a space for a sisterhood of exploration.”(6.4, 14, 14, 15) Fraser, noting that HOW(ever)’s “peculiar hybrid of innovative poetry with feminist critical writing”(2.1, 14) limited both its potential funding, dissemination, and audience, remained committed to shaping a “place in which to find or assert our own particular hybrids,” an alternative to “journals shaped by various male-dominant poetics or a feminist editorship whose tastes/politics did not acknowledge much of the poetry we felt to be central to our moment—the continuously indefinable, often ‘peculiar’ writings being pieced together by women refusing the acceptable norms.”(6.4, 15) True to Fraser’s initial vision, the journal continually addresses a number of gaps perceived in the publication and discussions of experimental poetry, such as discussions of this century’s experimental modernist women writers; commentary on the relationship between poetic structure, female experience, and feminist politics; attention to contemporary women working innovatively with language; and commitment to the actual publication of works by such contemporary women.
From its beginning, each issue contained discrete but interactive components: creative work, author’s working notes, short critical commentary, editor’s notes, and correspondence that sought to establish women’s experimental writing as a significant tradition in the twentieth century and as an integral part of the contemporary poetic scene in America (primarily), Canada, and England. In these pages, while a separation of poetry and critical commentary seems assumed by the journal’s format (the placement of short critical commentary, letters, and editorial notes after the “creative” pieces), the thematic, theoretical, and structural relationships between poem, critical essay, and notes form an integral part of the journal’s feminist project. In the process, the textual space of HOW(ever) both comments upon and puts into practice strategies of writing and reading geared toward exploring the relationship of language structures and female experience. Such exploration takes place as a process of sharing materials and ideas, of teaching new concepts, of recovering forgotten ground, of producing new knowledge, of producing a reading community.
HOW(ever) remained throughout its publication a slender, stapled sequence of some sixteen to twenty-five creamy, yellowish 8 by 11 inch pages, resembling a community newsletter more so than either an academic or a literary journal. The deliberate limitation on length allowed the subscription cost to remain low ($5.00 when it began), enabled publication within a severely restricted budget, and, most significantly, invited the reader to consume the entire issue. The physical dimensions of a given issue suggest a concern that the reader actually be able to read, and perhaps reread, its pages—to not be overwhelmed or overburdened. The format of the journal reinforces this concern, for the constituent parts of each issue are each compressed in their function, focus, and presentation. At the same time, these distinct sections or parts—variously devoted to poetic works, literary criticism, and correspondence—illuminate one another. The simultaneous impulses of compression and interaction compel significant reformulations of poetic expression and literary criticism, which I would like to consider by looking at the various parts that make up the textual space of each HOW(ever).
In the poetry section of the journal, usually the first two-thirds, various writers are presented, each receiving a couple of pages. Usually a work is preceded by “Working Notes,” which range from a poet’s comments on sources and motivations for their work, to aesthetic and philosophical speculations on the gendered dynamics of language and form, to contextual marginalia (Susan Howe precedes a set of poems in one instance with verses from scripture). These notes, usually the equivalent of a paragraph, introduce the poems by giving us a contextual and critical lense for reading them, often offering the reader a guide to understanding the poet’s process and to developing engaged reading practices. For example, Daphne Marlatt describes the poem “departure” as part of a travel journal from a trip to England, “written in a series of layers, almost archeological the urge to dig deeper in, to the hidden [not yet verbalized] series of connections that underlay, like root systems, like bone-seeds, the obvious data of our trip. Writing/traveling a series of intersections, two kinds of speech as my Canadian tongue found its way around the remnants of my British one.”(2.3, 2) Or notes from Rachel Blau DuPlessis: “Writing from the center of, the centers of, otherness...Understanding formal marginality. Marginalization. Setting the poem so there is a bringing of marginalization into writing. Putting that debate right in the piece by making several sayings or statements be in the same page-space.”(2.3, 1) Fraser has described the “Working Notes” as “brief descriptions of the project’s germination and how that was translated into its formal making,” evolving as a way of engaging productively with the “hostility,” “wary bafflement” or “resistance” among scholars and critics in the face of this poetry, hoping that the notes will help “certain of the puzzling pieces...fall into place, or, at the least, alert an active curiosity.”(15)
The “Working Notes,” then, seek to create a public space for tracing and exploring acts of reading and writing as working processes—to let the seams show rather than distance the process from the product, the writer from the poem. They shape reactions and readership, show choices happening, build voice. Such a construct contradicts what we might expect in reading a literary journal, where usually a biographical note is all that might be appended, or within the still powerful legacy of New Critical practices (which some might say characterize even poststructural readings), approaching a poem as a hermetically sealed artifact (ie. Should the poet be telling us how to read the poem?). Defying notions of poetic autonomy, detachment, transcendence, and polish, these notes not only register women’s experiences (often relating details pertinent to the poem having to do with gendered lives) but also compel unconventional modes of reading. The notes interact with the poems as textual eruptions into the usually silent/silenced space of the page—the space within which the issue of gender’s impact upon syntax, form, or word arrangements resides but is not acknowledged. By including notes and acknowledging a potential textual component of “creative work” customarily omitted, HOW(ever)’s format foregrounds the possibilities of such extra-textual material in a way similar to Susan Howe’s description, in a letter in the January 1989 issue, of discovering in the Beinecke Library drafts of extensive notes by H.D. accompanying her manuscript of The Gift: “Most interesting [in addition to gross mis-editing of the work] to me were the Notes—three drafts—She did three drafts (50 pages each) of notes—so careful, so lovely, a new way of thinking about notes—rather akin to Dickinson’s variant readings for me—that open the text to new possibilities—only here no one even mentions there were (are) notes!”(2.1, 15) The notion of notes as variant readings is often reinforced by the fluidity with which these notes (and the poems that follow) move between a kind of discursive “essaying” and a more associative “poeticizing.” For example, Meredith Stricker writes in introducing “The Queen Bee”:
On an ideological level, confounding the traditional confines of something called “literary criticism” and its masculinist assumptions and precepts, these notes insist—not that the author’s reading is “right”—but that claims to truth promulgated by notions of objectivity and neutrality are skewed by their relentless dismissal of exactly what these notes explore—that aesthetics, form, language usage are intimately bound up in positions and constructions of gender and power.
More overt and directed encounters with traditions of literary criticism that have silenced women take place in the section entitled “alerts”(usually including two or three short [one-half to two page] essays on past or present poets), in the correspondence section entitled “postcards,” and in the editorial notes and bibliographies that end each issue. These sections operate to recover and introduce poets, to provide bibliographical information on studies and new works, to engage in dialogues, to lay out conflicts, to combat a sense of isolation, to develop a community of voices. The compressed essays in “alerts”(usually two or three that focus on women writers of the twentieth century) alter categories of literary history while enacting certain reformulations of the category of “literary criticism.” There is a certain abandonment of mastery, occuring in part from the formal pressure of space, but also from the effort, it seems, to develop an energetic set of conversations in these pages rather than encouraging a dominant voice. “alerts” invites the input of poets and scholars, announcing itself as “informal commentary and information,” presented “in brief letter, journal or notation form,” intentionally considered “not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking/writing critically.” Prefiguring a contributor who in 1989 asks “Can we practice criticism without reproducing the...struggle for mastery,”(Kerry Edwards, 5.3, 10) the “alerts” section from its very inception is modeled in resistance to such authority. Whether or not a piece is excerpted from a longer essay, as some are, there is a sense of excerptedness about them, and for the reader, a sense of entering the conversation midway—not in the sense of then being out of the loop, as if everybody but you understands Hegel, but of being swept up by voices at their highest, most impassioned pitch, when finally the preliminaries are behind us and we’re getting right to the point, the good stuff. Just as the space of these essays is compressed, so is their discursive operation, leading to essays that are like small gems, full of a focused light aimed at a particular issue. They are full, also, of gestures toward larger structures, like literary tradition or contemporary theory or feminist epistemologies, without the need to logically or systematically engage these structures, to call up all other critics who one then wants to disagree with.
Like the poetry that precedes them, these essays challenge conventional structures through reacting to compressed space, employing gesture and elision, foregoing critical mastery, creating in their rapid juxtaposition a collage of essaying voices. The “alerts” section of this “peculiar hybrid” allows a space to consider, acknowledge, and explore language innovations by women. In doing so, at the same time that it participates in the Anglo-American feminist project of literary recovery and revision, so important to the 1970s and 1980s (and now), the journal records the energetic interactions of American women’s poetry with theories of language and subjectivity entering American intellectual circles in that time period. While the journal remains grounded in explorations of women’s voices and experiences, these very terms are questioned as poetics and theory interact, as boundaries between forms and practices shift. The essays, which blur into the correspondence that takes place (as dialogues, as informational, as questioning) in “postcards,” provide in many ways a primer on feminist theory, a deliberate toning down of abstraction, mastery, and power that one usually associates with the authority of “theory”—a discussion of feminist theories in ways that are understandable to a wide audience and enacted in the poetry itself. In this way, theory is conjoined with poetry, each making the other accessible, intelligible, or at least enter-able. Fraser writes of HOW(ever)’s concern with “the structural re-invention of the poem’s terms, as well as the range of female experiences informed by those structures,” a concern that develops through commentary on Cixous or Irigaray, on Marianne Moore or Mina Loy, and through the practice of Susan Howe, Theresa Cha, and many others. Particularly at a time when the notion of “feminine writing” was being advanced to talk about male writers of the avant garde, HOW(ever) plays an important role in identifying the dangers of (once again) ignoring the gendered signature—the signature that the journal’s format continually insists upon.
As the journal develops over its six volumes (the last volume edited by Myung Mi Kim and Meredith Stricker), submissions begin to define the focus and range of the individual issues, which include such areas as: boundaries; bodies & knowledge; the paragraph; erasure & restoration; the visual page; the politics of poetic form; and textualization. Increasingly, the verbal opens up to other realms, as visual works, sound collagists, oral traditions, and multiethnic legacies are brought into the evolving text of HOW(ever). In reading the issues sequentially, I noticed how often a “postcard” might mention a concern that is then addressed an issue or two later—for example, the need to include more ethnic perspectives or the need to acknowledge performance art. As the journal develops, it—like the “Working Notes” and the essays and the poetry—chooses to let the seams show, to foreground the process of editing and selecting, to enlist the reader, and through these choices to work to transform ideas about feminist practices and dichotomies. Taken as an interactive text, HOW(ever) in its entirety engages the politics of process, enacting “text” as a “literary passage, that is to say, a place of transition, an area which either leads to something different or a space where change is occuring.”(Nelly Furman, 4.1, 15)
BIO: Linda A. Kinnahan is an associate professor at Duquesne University, where she teaches twentieth-century American and British literature and women’s studies. Her book, Poetics of the Feminine: Literary Tradition and Authority in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser, examines modernist and contemporary poetry in relation to gender and language. She has also published on contemporary American and British women poets such as Denise Riley, Carol Ann Duffy, and Barbara Guest. She is completing a book-length study of feminist reading practices and contemporary poetry and is actively pursuing a second book project on modernist women poets and economics.