Norma Cole

Beverly Dahlen

Kathleen Fraser

Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Informal correspondence is continuously encouraged for the postcards section.

Whose Mouth? Cole on Quotation

Interesting questions for your next issue. It/they intersect with my thinking about questions around "site of enunciation" - i.e., who puts words in whose mouth? I am thinking about how readers are accustomed to having male writing in female characters' mouths. And currently women writers are putting words in androgynous (Carla Harryman) or genderless mouths, or in male mouths (Leslie Scalapino, her "construction worker") - very subversive -

--Norma Cole

From a letter to Myung Mi Kim, 10/30/90. Norma Cole's My Bird Book is forthcoming from Littoral Press.

Responses to Annie Finch's
excerpted in HOW(ever) Vol. VI, No.2

I don't agree (to begin with) that "poetry is to stop fear." It may focus fear or anxiety, but stop it? No. Make it familiar -- no. "Make it strange ---": I seem to be drawn to that motto, derived from Shklovsky's work.

I've been writing something "like" sonnets for the past year (on and off) myself. I've never been attracted to the use of an arbitrary form before, but I make much of its arbitrariness. The form seems a kind of padded cell in which I go mad. These poems are the opposite of stopping fear, unless "stop" can be interpreted as the shoving of a gag in one's mouth to quell the screams.

--Beverly Dahlen
From a letter to HOW(ever) 11/25/90. Dahlen's A Reading (11-17) is available from Potes & Poet Press.



trans: [from L. trans, across, over] a prefix meaning a)on the other side of, to the other side of . . . b)so as to change thoroughly; c)above & beyond.

Annie Finch's "The Sonnet Transfigured" (H(er), v.VI, no.2) speaks to me and worries me. She proposes an either/or dilemma for herself as surviving poet: she may choose to align herself as struggling writer with the sonnet of the humble, lower-case i, the "half-drowned woman" (read water/yin/anima), or with the sonnet of the powerful, even frightening upper-case I (read fire, yang, animus). Her 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 since Emily Dickinson, up through the great modernist writers and into current innovative practice. It is as if we were without alternative poetic models and strategies for acknowledging, addressing and dismantling that state-of-being Finch calls "fear", when we engage in the making of poetry.

She yearns for the antidote and clarity of traditional solutions: "the structure of the sonnet . . . is a way of organizing, channeling and making familiar" -- but links it with an all too familiar lure: the gender-inflected "sonnet-trophy", which she proposes as something we might aspire to in our search for "a form", "our consciousness", "our sonnet" (her emphasis on the essentialist singular). Also problematic for me is her yoking of this work to a suggested dependence upon the received iambics and metrics of a single-minded sonnet tradition, as if it were a Jungian shadow to be conquered: "and it is the big I, in this i am bic pen driven to meter world now? . . ."

When 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". 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? Doesn't this return -- to the retrograde embrace of what Finch calls the "big romantic I" -- undermine self as maker, self as inventing authority? Why would one choose to be limited by the preordained music of a conventional metric and lineation when so many breakthrough works of poetry by women and men have engaged the traditional sonnet, etc., by brilliantly reversing, unhinging and transfiguring it, happily de-fusing a single-minded demonstration of a particular law & order script in our lives as writers. [Some intriguing variants on the uniform production of a traditional "form" are Laura Riding's sonnets, Bernadette Mayer's very recent Sonnets [from Tender Buttons Press], Alice Notley's When I Was Alive, [Vehicle Editions], including intentionally female versions of classical French forms, and Edwin Denby's sonnet sequence "Mediterranean Cities", included with dozens of other original views of the sonnet in his Collected Poems.]

And what about the pleasure of the text's making as investigation of syntactic and syllabic habit? That pleasure certainly includes some effort to gain formal control over one's material and inner chaos in a way that is often quite different than dashed-off notes in a journal. (On the other hand, "dashed-off notes" is as available as any other, trope for formal acquisition and inclusion in a work.) Finch seems to propose the strictness of the sonnet as a dreaded but necessary kind of return to the reassuring authority of "the big I" -- the gender-endowed animus, whose sexual "fire" appears to be part of what is fearsome and intact, yet something we might nevertheless need to "just get on top of and ride along". Might not this surrendering to tradition's binary descriptions and known equations only reinforce a false familiar?

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 "sonnet-trophy" -- in order to find our what else is there. What else?

--Kathleen Fraser

Founding editor of HOW(ever), Kathleen Fraser teaches at San Francisco State University. Her "Frammenti romani" appear in 8, Fall 1990.


Thinking About Annie Finch, On Female Power And The Sonnet

I experience intellectual curiosity about Finch's idea that the sonnet concerns love for the repressed female power (anima) and the repressed woman (rather than appropriation, scripting within romance plot, objectification). Given the current structure of romance, it is hard, though perhaps not impossible, to "ride it with its big romantic I." For some attention might be turned to what "romantic" means in order for the woman poet to exercise her intelligence by surfing on top of it.

To postulate the sonnet is not a necessary corollary of wanting, desiring, to situate oneself in relation to one's own power. To ride the animus (if this Jungian model is apt), to know (as Finch says) the fire, the volcano, one could as easily postulate another sound-net (son-net), not the sun- or son-nut. Something large, gigantic. Something narrow and flaming, something that structures the consuming passions by burning with them.

With the metaphors of fires and blasts, Finch is simultaneously talking about feeling a muse (another name for power). The muse for women is labile & bisexed, bigendered. I have seen women writers for whom "muse" is arguably a male force or figure (as Finch would say), but also ones for whom muse is a female force or figure -- maternal, mirroring, lesbian; 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. . . . and fecund mixtures . . . . surely I respect Finch's invocation to her own muse. But having felt, at times, many of these forces (including volcanic fire), I take the variety as marks made across my chronological life and my social space. The sonnet, in Finch's analysis, does not seem a necessary part of this configuration, just an accidental one, some name to help contain (tame?) the powers.

But I don't think that "poetry is to stop fear." Therefore the taming that the sonnet provides is not an active possibility for me. There are several reasons. First, "form is a verb not a noun," as Baraka says (missing reference). Second, formalism, the use of fixed forms simply as stylistic counters, is implausible: "writing is a struggle against stylistics"; "poems are practices, not constructs." This from James Scully, title essay, in his brilliant book Line Break. Third, the sonnet is a genre already historically filled with voiceless, beautiful female figures in object position. I have written about the ideology of the lyric in "Otherhow," in The Pink Guitar. Hence the sonnet with its intense placement of the female figure, and poetry with its notions of beauty would (in my view) have to be ruptured before being recuperated, and recuperated only within the terms of a full analysis of lyric ideology, beauty, and pleasure, the creation of a critical lyric or a work of critique incorporating and sublating the lyric. As one example of what this might mean in practice, an important piece by Laura Moriarty in Big Allis 3, "An Interrogation of Pleasure." Scully: "Finally there's no way to dehistoricise technique or limit it to the internal economy of a poem. Any technique takes place . . . A technique is a relationship not simply to materials, though materials too are historically specific, but to an audience, a constituency."

--Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Recent work by Rachel Blau DuPlessis includes The Pink Guitar (Routledge: 1990) and Draft X: Letters (Singing Horse Press: 1991).

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