Monday, December 30, 2013

Talisman #42: The Women's Occupation




When I was in college in the late 1970s I carried around a blue heavy hardcover edition of the Norton Modern anthology; that book was my education in poetry (I was a history major then). When someone told me that John Ashbery loved the work of Laura Riding, I was able to track her down in its thicket of thin print-clogged pages. That was before she renounced not just poetry, but also anthologies, refused further permission to put her work in the Norton. Or so I recall. That anthology, like so many teaching anthologies, was organized chronologically. The sense of history that emerged from its pages was like an old film-strip, a sequence of images that lurched across a tiny temporal space, and suggested the coherence that in fact eluded it. But what seemed most important about that book was that it was full of conversations. I was at the institution best known at that time for a theory of literary influence, but I'm not talking about that father-son family romance model so much as about a larger social space, where poets' words called out to each other. It was a big, messy neighborhood, that Norton. While later reading offered more neatness, tighter narratives, meaner-spirited arguments over poetics (oh, Laura Riding!), that one was the big event that drew me in, as if it were the slide show to introduce me to poetic time shares.

I thought about Laura Riding's rejection of anthologies, especially her distaste for all-women anthologies, when Lisa Bourbeau wrote to ask me for work several months back for a "women's section" in a forthcoming issue of Talisman. One of the best literary experiences I've ever had was a Russian-American poetry conference in Hoboken in the mid-90s, organized by Ed Foster in the spirit of his Talisman House Press and journal. The two or three days were full of cigarette smoke, drink, loud voices, men bonding over hearing gunfire in the streets of American and Russian cities, and poets who (in one instance) bounded over the backs of our chairs, and (in another) tried to walk out of his own reading. It featured animated arguments between Russians; I remember asking Lynn Hejinian at one point to tell me what was going on. But it almost didn't matter, there was so much energy in the room, and because so much of the poetry was performative. There was Forrest Gander standing on a desk reciting a poem, asking Michael Palmer to help him when he faltered. Looking back, this seems a model for the journal, albeit a very noisy one. Talisman has always, with a tremendous lack of assumptions, presented experimental work that matters. The plain covers, whose insides were covered with dense type, were decoys for anyone wanting flash with their poetry. Those of us happy with the pan itself got another poetry education in its pages.

But Talisman House has never published many women. In the 1990s, there was a Selected Poems by Alica Notley, which kicks a pebble in my mind, but otherwise not many. (Talisman published a chapbook version of my first Memory Cards before the full-length book came out.) I go now to their website and find, under their "new" section, a list of 20 new books. Of the books by a single author, which number 15, two are by women, one by the Turkish poet, Gulten Akm, and the other by Donna de la Perrière. Otherwise, there are books by Leonard Schwartz (his If is a terrific book, by the way), Joe Donahue, Brian Henry, John High, and the late William Bronk, among others.

So it seemed a good thing that Talisman was going to publish women. I suggested doing it without marking it as a "women's section," to see if anyone noticed. But that did not happen. Instead, the new issue (read it here) comes in several sections: a section of miscellany running from Artaud to Marjorie Perloff's fine interview of Hank Lazer, with photographs of William Bronk in the bundle; a section on gnostic poetry; "The Occupation: The First of Three Major Selections of Works by and about Women Writers Around the World"; "Poetry"; and then, finally, "Commentary." The subjects of the first section are men; the writers of the second are all men; the "Poetry" section is male, and the commentator is Thomas Fink. Islanded in the middle of this male sea is the "Occupation," a fulsome gathering of women's work from Alice Notley's introductory essay on dreams to poetry by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge . . . Anne Tardos, and many others. Just after this occupation by women poets who write in English there is a section on translation that features women poets with their both-gender translators.


"The Occupation": In New York City, the occupation resonates with the after-echoes of the Occupy movement of 2011, with people reclaiming public spaces, living in them, setting up tents, small villages engaging in direct democracy, places from which to speak out. That makes sense, this occupation at the center of Talisman's male space. "Wall Street" is not simply an economic hub; it's also, at least according to its name, walled off. It will keep you out. Occupying it forces you in. But as someone who's lived in Hawai`i for any length of time knows, "occupation" is primarily what colonizers do, what armies do. (In Hawai`i, the Occupy movement changed their name to "de-Occupy.") They take up space that is not their own, and they do it by force of weaponry or culture or economy. Israel occupies Palestine, we're reminded daily. The USA occupies the world's movie theaters and radio waves. The English language occupies a vast territory, across continents and oceans. And so, Thomas Fink, in the "Commentary" section of the issue, writes this about Paolo Javier's work: 

“English Is an Occupation,” the title of a poem in 60 lv bo(e)mbs, embodies a metaphor performing a metonymic linkage between the imposition of the English language on Filipinos during the nearly half-century U.S. occupation ( resulting in the devaluation of Tagalog and other local languages) and the occupation itself. However, confirming Cura’s notion of “mongrel identity,” it also reflects the job of an English teacher or professor and of the “polyglot” poet writing in English: “persevere      counter ardor mystic parables/ today Paolo occupies you, today Paolo occupies you” (7). In this poem and in the book as a whole, density of allusions and the syntactically unpredictable juxtaposition of fragmentary utterances make the critic’s “occupation” of “translation” challenging, (Fink)

Here, the poet occupies more and less than a public space; he occupies the reader himself or herself--"Paolo occupies you." Paolo is not an English word, and many of the words Javier uses are Tagalog, so the English-only reader is carted off to the margins of this public/private square (El Centro Paolo). Fink writes about Javier's as "immigrant" poetry. He's the guy from the occupied place who leaves it, only to occupy the imperial power's language, space. He's the guy who gets translated and now occupies those translations. He's the guy who causes discomfort. After all, he's living in a tent, and he might not be washing himself enough with imperial soap!

At the end of Fink's long, patient, cogent review of Forrest Gander, Paolo Javier, and Stephen Paul Miller under the concept of "(un)translatability," he makes a kind of apology. While he has written about a white guy steeped in Mexican culture, a Filipino guy who lives in Queens, and a Jewish poet who loves Meher Baba, he has not written about any women, as he admits here: 


In the early stages of developing this essay, I believed that the poems of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge would be especially suitable for it. My impression, it turned out, was based on a handful of fragmentary utterances in different poems, and each time I tried to read Berssenbrugge’s powerfully abstract yet imagistic, disjunctive yet meditative poetry in relation to (un)translatability, I found that the work’s particular flux disabled whatever generalizations I hoped to cull from it. (Fink)

In other words, her work was so untranslatable that it defeated his attempt to write about it. To critique a poem is to describe it, and if the poem cannot be described, put into context, or otherwise closely read, its "particular flux" defeats the writer. Fair enough. He notes that he has written about three male poets, notes the absence of women poets. But it's not that there are not women in the work of these three men, however: "My subjects are three men, the first of whom engages in ekphrastic conversation with the art of a woman and the second of whom deploys the persona of a woman." So he hopes for some work on "translatability" between men and women: "That fact reminds me that one possibility for future criticism in this vein is the area that psychologist Deborah Tannen has so compellingly investigated: cross-gender communication. How do men and women foreground their efforts to translate what they wish to communicate to the opposite gender? How do they think about translating the “language” of the opposite gender to themselves? And also, for transgendered poets, how are the complexities of translation enacted and absorbed?"

I want to think about the difference between "cross-gender" and "transgender." To cross genders means to move back and forth between them, for men to communicate with women and vice versa. To be transgender means a crossing over, a leaving behind, a movement from one to another place. Both posit difference as the most important feature of communication. (And who am I to disagree?) But given that most of the essays and poems in this issue where there is cross-gender communication involve men writing about women (Gander, yes, but also the gnostic critics writing about Dickinson and Notley) that's like a Chris Christie bridge. You can cross it only one way. 

Thus far, I've left the women poets out of this conversation, as I engage with the men who seem walled off from them. Does Fink's notion of Berssenbrugge's "flux" and untranslatability apply to the women's section? Is that why it's walled off, lest it flood the other more masculine boroughs? In 2013 do we still need special sections devoted to women's writing? What IS women's writing? I'm loathe to say it's got flux, while the men do not; after all, gnosticism seems to reside in brokenness, which is a non-state of flux. (What new gnosticism is is still vague to me, even after reading much of the section.) There's no sense given by Bourbeau or Ed Foster of what they mean by "women's writing," so I'm going to the first essay of the "Occupation" by Alice Notley for clues. And here I find what Fink might call a cross-gender moment, or is it trans-? The essay is about dreaming, how poems emerge from dreams, how communication occurs (about the past and the future) during dreaming. And it's also about how Alice Notley becomes Allen Ginsberg:

"In 1997, after I had been informed that Allen Ginsberg had died, I became afraid for him in death. I wanted -- because he was my friend -- to be sure that in death he was safe. I dreamed that night that my stepdaughter Kate, who is deceased and in dreams is often my messenger from the world of the dead, came for me, in a rich dark blue skirt and sweater, to take me to the ‘second world.’ I gathered that this second world was an afterlife with an active artistic component, for there was a professor there who was trying to achieve an intense enough red for the second world’s mosaics. Then, my name became Ellen Goodman (yes like the columnist), so I knew that I was Allen, the good man, and I waited in a small apartment to die."

The woman poet becomes a "good man," who occupies a small apartment in his dying. Notley's dream-life is all flux, all symbol, all transformation. Dreaming reshapes the world; it is the world. Is this women's work? I don't think this "occupation" answers that question, nor do I think it really even poses it. But what it does is to open a space in a journal that has welcomed some of the best experimental writers now alive--especially those with spiritual affinities toward gnosticism--for women writers, however you define them. To define is to wall in and wall out, as Robert Frost would say, but the act of definition can also mend differences by creating a space where they can exist gently. Frost's wall was of uneven stones, not the barbed wire of many an occupation. To "disobey" is what Notley has often said she does. Next time, I hope Talisman disobeys its own categorical imperative and admits the company of men, women, transgender people, people of color, to the gathering. It might feel like the mob around security in the Madrid Airport, but things sort themselves out, we "translate" ourselves elsewhere, occupying our languages, ourselves.

A final digression that is not one. I'm about to embark on a course in small press publishing on the graduate level; it scares me, as I know so little about the subject. I collect poems, I even sometimes edit them a bit, but mostly I glory in the designs of others who are more talented than I am visually, and work the tired mill of publicity. But I do know that I will emphasize the need for a small press to have a mission, for young editors to find gaps that need to be filled, and to fill them. I will also ask them to consider that there is a difference between collecting poems and curating them. This issue of Talisman has collected some of the best poems I've seen in a long time. But the issue's curation is what troubles me. To collect marvelous poems by women, which is what Bourbeau has done, is one thing. But to organize an issue in which those women "occupy" a central and yet highly marked place, is problematic. Why is the last section, called "Poetry," composed only of poems by men? Why is the gnostic section composed only of men (even if it's based on a panel at a conference--another problem)? Why are there so few poets of color within the category of "women," and how do white women fit with international women poets with American "immigrant" poets like Eileen Tabios? This is not to say they do not, but to occupy those questions is where Talisman might move next--or we. Most of all, there's a difference between counting how many men and how many women are published (an activity that's telling, to put it mildly, as Spahr and Young have shown in "Numbers Trouble") and organizing a public/private square where they are not blocked off from one another in groups of apparent same. 

My own contribution to the new issue is here. It's a long prose poem in sections about baseball for my son on his 14th birthday. In other words, it's a long poem by a woman for a young man and about young men.


An after-thought: a diagram could at least be made of some of the crossings in this issue. Gnostic men joined by gnostic women (Notley, F. Howe, DuPlessis); gnostic women joined by members of the Talisman "poetry section," and so forth. A flow chart to suggest flux, rather than a group of isolated groups, in other words.





1 comment:

EILEEN said...

Susan,
I appreciate your thoughts on this!
Eileen