Mar 30, 2015

On "New or Neglected Relevant Women Poets": 

The Feminist Interiors of HOW(ever) 
            In honor of Women's History Month, and in acknowledgement of the battle that women artists, intellectuals and writers have always – and still – fight to get their work out there, to be recognized by an audience, to be counted, I am offering an "interior tour" – a reading tour -- of one of the most significant journals to have published exclusively on the topic of women's poetics in America: HOW(ever).   Originally delivered as a talk at the last National Poetry Foundation conference at the University of Maine, on a panel organized by Professor of English Linda Kinnahan of Duquesque University to honor this exquisite journal founded by Kathleen Fraser in San Francisco in the early 1980's, my essay appears in two parts.  Part 2 will appear  tomorrow, March 31.  Part 1 is below.  Dialogue and comments are most welcome. -- LH
Part 1

Feminist Experimental Writing of the Underground  -- the 1980's
Image from a Leslie Scalapino work

 Between May, 1983 and January, 1992, two dozen issues of the journal HOW(ever) were published in print on paper and sent to a network of subscribers via the U.S. post-office mail.  The editor in chief was San Francisco-based poet Kathleen Fraser.  Associate Editors, according to an early masthead, included Frances Jaffer and Beverly Dahlen, with contributing editors Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Carolyn Burke.  

This essay is a brief tour through HOW(ever)'s print-journal landscape – a feminist journal that would discuss, debate, honor and publish contemporary women poets of the American avant-garde.  My essay pays close attention to HOW(ever)'s significant interior design and special features, which intended to consider and draw greater attention to those  then "new or neglected" female poets, according to the journal's "Alerts" section:  those women writers producing under the radar of a still male-dominated U.S. experimental poetry scene  in the late decades of the 20th century.

A piece by Hannah Weiner
 I note in my rereading of this paper journal HOW(ever), which can be at least partially read on line through an Arizona State University archival web server and in many academic library collections, that three regularly appearing features bound this  journal together and also sustained the women's poetry community. These are the sections entitled "Alerts," "Postcards," and a wonderful, feisty "Letters to the Editor" -- the latter often containing lengthy and important essays by what we today consider major feminist-poetry figures.  I also note that the journal ran intriguing, often humorous visual-art work alongside new poetry writings.  It introduced a concept we now call hybridity and made that seem a vital part of the feminist poetry world.  HOW(ever)'s three regular features, combined with its experimental poetry/hybrid-writing design, helped to generate an interactive exchange amongst those poets and artists who were working in, but also well beyond, the San Francisco Bay Area.  In an era before internet software made "inter-active" a household world.  HOW(ever)  both created and expanded the interactive geographies of those female writers who had been underrated or overlooked by their close neighbors and male colleagues -- for example, Barbara Guest of the New York School, who had been long experimenting with a more conceptual poetic form but was not as highly ranked as her male comrades, like Frank O'Hara or John Ashbery.  Other writers published in HOW(ever) would include Trinh T. Minha-ha, Norma Cole, Marjorie Welish, Leslie Scalapino, Alice Notley, Hannah Weiner -- among many others. 

While many in the more main-line post-modernist writing groups would still consider "experiment" a male poet's preserve by the early '90s, the poet-artist female community generated and nourished through the internal pages of HOW(ever) would set the stage for a new wave of feminist creative activity in the field of poetics.  HOW(ever) – through the feminist dialogue and the work inaugurated and coaxed into the limelight -- would later inspire collections and anthologies devoted exclusively to women's poetics, for example, Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders in 1998.  It would inspire the major conference devoted to women's lyricism at Barnard College near the turn of the millennium.  And soon new feminist poetics volumes would appear, like that which was spun from the Barnard event, Women Poets of the 21st Century, edited by Juliana Spahr and Claudia Rankine; or my own editorial collection with Cynthia Hogue, We Who Love to Be Astonished:  Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics.  And soon after those volumes appeared, and nearly a decade after its original demise, HOW(ever) would be reborn through the appearance of its internet sister journal,  How2, a much more global journal, edited and written by women from around the Anglophone world.      

The first issue of HOW(ever), in May 1983, was introduced with Fraser's beautiful take-off of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.  Gracing the cover to this inaugural issue is the piece entitled, "Why HOW(ever)." It deserves to be reprinted in full.  But here are the first couple of salient paragraphs:

And what about the women poets who were writing experimentally? Oh, were there women poets writing experimentally? Yes there were, they were. They were there and they were writing differently and a few of them were chosen and did appear in the magazines for people writing in new forms. And then several women began to make their own experimentalist magazines. What about that? Well, they read each other. But we hardly ever heard about their poems where I was sitting listening. You mean in school? I mean where poems were being preserved and thought about seriously and carried forward as news.

And the women poets, the ones you call experimentalist, were they reading Simone de Beauvoir? Firestone? Chodorow? Irigaray? Some were. They were reading and they were thinking backwards and forwards. They were writing to re-imagine how the language might describe the life of a woman thinking and changing. And the poetry they were writing wasn't fitting into anyone's anything because there wasn't a clear place made for it.  

So HOW(ever) -- capital "HOW" -- would make it a mission to create that new "clear place" – literally providing a space in which women's writing could be read and seen.  It would also generate a women's-centered creative imaginative "space," in which feminist "thinking and changing" could occur.  HOW(ever) would go on to publish the mid-career work of such important figures as Guest, as well as earlier career writings by Normal Cole, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Marjorie Welish, and Susan Howe.  For example, in the early pages of HOW(ever) is a poetic essay  -- so rare -- by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.  

But just as important as the publication of these writers were the regular editorial features that brought writers into dialogue and debate.  They gave the landscape of these pages a community space for shared audience responses.  They offered an open and feminist-style of commentary, interrogation and reflection about new and prior
From Tele: A Narrative, by Elizabeth Lahey and Meredith Stricker
"performance story board"
 issues, long before web article "threads" and blogs were made possible through high tech.  These "low tech" responses were, however, immediate and usually in direct response to prior issues and writings.  Subscribers actually were readers, who wrote letters back on paper for editorial consideration.  The exchange was authentic and powerful.  It not only built a community of these often little-known women writers.  It helped to build their careers – and to generate scholarship about these works and ideas that is still burgeoning in contemporary academic journals today.  

On Alert(s)

In the first issue of HOW(ever), we view a description of what one of these sections, "Alerts," would offer:

alerts will be an on-going section of this publication set aside for informal commentary and information on new or neglected books by relevant women poets, in brief letter, journal or notation form. We intentionally think of these comments as not complete in the scholarly sense, with the hope of removing prohibitions linked with thinking/writing critically. Your response is invited.

An Alerts essay on Lorine Niedecker
This section formed both a new aesthetic for literary essays in the context of a journal on experimental women's work, and an invitation -- to literally give a "response."   The form of the writing is as purposeful, then, as this section's interactive purpose.   In the essay by Dahlen that follows, for example, we see a radical intervention in the literary critical "response" to an unusual poet like Lorine Niedecker, who in a poem like "Museum" generates "economies undertaken for the joy of seeing how much a few words will bear," Dahlen writes.  We read Dahlen's synthesis of what Ann Lauterbach might call "the complete fragment," all in the context of Niedecker's description of a botanical specimen:

   The eye
of the leaf
into leaf
and all parts
into spine

to see

Dahlen then adds, in her own "complete fragment," of this poem as

kind of 'flowering of the rod' unlike H.D.'s, but as visionary in its way, drawing on the scientific myth of evolution to evoke the sense of continuity of mind and form….

Responses from readers then add to this "flowering of the rod" kind of group criticism, as in Lisa Pater Faranda's letter regarding Niedecker, in which Faranda writes:

I was moved from Niedecker's poetry to her life, a life I learned was devoted to poetry for no more important reason than survival ...

This superb example of an interactive style of experimental criticism – which is engaged not only with the politics of the writing and the inclusion of multiple voices, but also with the form that criticism takes itself -- continues in the "Alerts" section with critical commentaries by Dahlen again on another interesting writer, Laura Riding Jackson.  "Why is "Riding" hiding, and who is speaking to us from within that evocative parenthesis? -- Dahlen begins.  And further commentaries in "Alerts" include that by Honor Johnson on Barbara Guest; Rachel Blau Duplessis on Susan Howe; and Rae Armantrout on Lyn Hejinian's The Guard.  
Work by New York City poet Alice Notley

These short essays are not always about specific books or poets, but about poetic concepts and theory, as in the excerpts printed in "Alerts" taken from a lecture Guest gave at St. Marks Poetry Project in 1986, which runs in HOW(ever), Volume 3.  In this lecture, Guest employs a description of a water journey along the Turkish coastline to discuss Mallarmé's "enduring phrase, an introduction to mystery, 'Not the thing, but its effect.'"  In this classic exploration of what Guest calls "the poetic process," she writes about:

The "thing" is the poetic process which gives off without notice an effect which is the poem. Each, the process and the effect, go on about in disguise, they must be uncovered, found out; Chapman's Homer must be opened by the poet.

In whatever guise reality becomes visible, the poet withdraws from it into invisibility.

This section of "essays" are, in style and substance, summed up by what Fanny Howe calls in one short piece in the "Alerts" section for Vol. 2, no.2, "lyric prose," an "ideal prose" that:

would be fixed and not fiction. For instance, the essay can be a very lyrical form with its own aesthetic, but is undermined because of its non-ego-centered focus. Given the essayist's generosity in discussing a subject outside her historical self, the work sustains a moral luminosity.

Trinh T. Minha-ha, stills from Naked Spaces--Living Is Round

The "lyric prose" of this criticism section is really remarkable.  One of my favorites is a piece on a beloved book I often teach in my women's literature classes, L'Amant (Marguerite Duras, 1984). 

Chris Tysh, using the evocative title playing off the various meanings of a French phrase, ""L'ECRITURE COURANTE OF MARGUERITE DURAS, begins the essay thus:

 So what do we touch, again and again, in the smooth dwelling of this brilliance? It is a book made like music, "measure by measure, beat by beat.  . . A desert begins. Illicit walls when one is so near crime, language collides, trembles at the edge of being revoked . . .

Here are early considerations of écriture feminine from the perspective of American women poets themselves.  While I was just starting to read Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray in graduate school, these women who were active writers and mostly non-academics already experienced and were transmuting the "French Connection" of theory and "poetic language" (ie., as in Julia Kristeva's use of that term as radical writing) into U.S. culture.  And while The Lover  went on to be a global bestseller, with a film version enveloping soft-porn elements, Tysh's reading of Duras's écriture courante signaled a response to the actually language pf Duras' poetry novel, not its potboiler sex.  It is a language offered to those who might see differently and hear.  


To be continued tomorrow….

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