Mar 31, 2015

On "New or Neglected Relevant Women Poets"
The Feminist Interiors of How(ever) 
Below is a continuation of yesterday's post, paying tribute to this major journal of women's innovative poetics from the 80's and '90's....

Part 2
Postcards: Controversy & Exchange in a "Pithy" Way

The "Postcards" section was first published in HOW(ever)'s second issue.  The description and rationale for this section reads:
postcards intends to suggest that short and pithy form of communication used increasingly among overworked women writers we know who need to express something urgently but can't stop to write a longer letter. Because we have limited space but unlimited desire for dialogue, please contain your comments by typing them on a standard-size postcard. 

Sometimes, we may also read an excerpt from longer letters, as in the case of Dodie Bellamy's comment below:

I still feel some 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. Perhaps this is why women don't seem to be accomplishing as much as they should--they're always fragmenting into little groups  which don't give support to those outside the group, and consequently never achieve a position of significant power. But then, I'm also increasingly disillusioned with writing that is so overtly feminist that politics swallow experience.

The idea of the "overworked woman writer" is certainly a reality we women knew in the '80's -- and even today, a time in which women may be sharing more of the housework and cooking and child-care responsibilities with men, but still can wind up doing the bulk of that work and managing careers as well.   The idea of writing a "postcard," something brief and manageable and just dropping it in the mail -- could today be the modern form of "email" or a text message:  a note blurted out in a hurry, but important to send.

"Postcards" was a brilliant idea on the part of Fraser and her editorial staff, one that took into account women's lives and material situations.  However, the idea of keeping the postcard sections brief "blurbs" by "overworked women writers" was not always honored --  as exemplified soon, in  Vol. 1 Issue No. 2 of that year, by the rather longish letter printed from Jed Rasula, then of Sulfur.  Rasula's is a letter that offers a sparing debate with Beverly Dahlen, who had in an earlier issue made some critical remarks about an essay by Rasula published in Sulfur.  Rasula, in turn, replies to the general editor, Fraser, directly.  He begins his argument in response to Dahlen's piece with many compliments on the HOW(ever) project in general:

Dear Kathleen,
I'm most grateful for the lengthy response/introduction /greetings & the issues of HOW(ever)--which I've found exceptionally absorbing and powerhouses beyond their modest physical size--and I'm going to take you at your word, responding quickly, maybe inadequately, on the spur, without letting it build up in mind, written there & ultimately there erased. ...

.... I would like to incite you to consider, further, my proposition via anecdote that there is a demonstrable feminist neglect of the great modernist women who have been tainted by their association with the generation of modernist men, and who are "men's poets." (I don't quite get, by the way, what Beverly Dahlen's point about that was.)
I think your bringing up the spectre of the power of editors and anthologists is right to the point--and by now, as you've clearly seen, to the point of the Emperor's New Clothes essay in Sulfur.

And here is Dahlen's response in "Alerts":

Jed Rasula's review of ten books by or about the women writers of the modernist generation seems to be generally well-informed (though he perhaps doesn't know--at least he doesn't mention--that H.D.'s The Gift, as issued by New Directions, is drastically cut) and is a useful contribution. The review begins with a fantasy that the work of the major male writers of that period is out-of-print and inaccessible by way of illustrating what has been, in fact, the case with the women writers. His statement that "feminists have ignored the modernist women writers as blissfully as the men have" is, however, simply not true.

"Postcards" may have been used as a kind of "letters" portion of the journal, as in the Jed Rasula-Beverly Dahlen example, in addition to the separate "Letters to the Editor" section in many of the issues.  The "Postcards" section was flexible, a container into which all forms of opinion and reaction could be hosted and shaped.  At times, this "shape" might be molded into more of a traditional book review, as in Jean Miller's review in Volume 3 of Utopia, by Bernadette Mayer, hot off the press in 1984 from United Artists Books.  In its fluidity of form, "Postcards" provided space for condensed considerations of the social situation faced by experimental writers and intellectuals in general -- who happen to be women.  When I read the following prose-poem lines from one "Postcards" piece by Janice Williamson, of the University of Toronto, I am reminded of what it was like to be a woman intellectual in dominantly male intellectual circles in the 1980's:

from time to time Wittgenstein's lion dominates discussionwomen in the room. silent, flatten into two dimensions beside quiet mysterious men

I was a graduate student during almost all of the 1980's.  But I remember well --  what it was like to be an evolving female intellectual, the attitudes of the men around me, the credit given to men for projects I might have imagined or fostered, the subtle put-downs by some of the male faculty at both institutions I attended, and just what it was like to watch other women in rooms amongst the men – many intuitively slinking back into those "two dimensions" expected of them, of us, as male bravado dominated atmospheres.  And I have to say that I unfortunately have experienced this phenomena repeatedly in my professional career.  Even as I write this now, I know this would provoke a defensive reaction on the part of most men I know today, to consider that women are thus stereotyped and treated.  Sexual politics as it was then -- and still often is now -- is seen mostly as "sexual tension," "heterosexual fiction": and not in the boldly political lack of inclusion that HOW(ever)'s "Postcards" section could so warmly, and controversially, articulate.  I wonder who is articulating such travesties of social justice and equality in this so-called "post-feminist era"?

A "Sisterhood of Exploration" -- Death and Resurrection

Is it any surprise that such a maverick journal would cease publication after only six years?  Funded primarily through subscribers, offering such "radical" social views – that women should be included in an intellectual-artistic movement --  would challenge business as usual in the circles of American poetics of the 1980's.  And it would also challenge the staid acceptance in academic circles about forms of poetry   and lyric-analytic writing.   It's not hard to imagine that HOW(ever) wore its editors out -- or its editors wore it out – maybe even before its time was over.   Sadly, in  January 1992,  HOW(ever) published its final issue, in which former contributing editors of the journal were asked to write, as it were, "Final Postcards," as in this example from Rachel Blau du Plessis:

HOW(ever) was a bridge between underknown modernist women and ourselves. It continued radical modernism. It was a space of positive resistance to and powerful critique of the period style in poetry, making a formal and intellectual critique which did feminist cultural work. It was a space for heterglossias, for conflictual discourses. It was a space for radical eagerness, for swift shifts, for coupure and splicing. It was a place in which one felt comfortable, buoyant, testing many genres (ode, pensée, essay) and many arts (sounds, as if music; visual fields, as if collage). It was a space for a sisterhood of exploration. . . 

While HOW(ever) would cease to exist, the sexual-textual work that it stimulated would continue throughout the '90's in various ways and means. The same winter that HOW(ever) stopped publishing,  for example, Rae Armantrout would publish her now legendary essay in Sagetrieb (Winter 1992),  "Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity."  This essay by Armantrout came in response to a well-intended but misguided comment by Ron Silliman, who had suggested in his own writing that women and minorities necessarily needed to use more traditional modes of representation, in order to describe their social oppression.  Armantrout gave her wonderful flip-flop response to that argument, reminding readers that women have never belonged to that Symbolic of representation to begin with -- and therefore that women were / are completely "at home" in the liminal space provided by linguistic-experimentality, and its cutting-edge challenges to representational forms.  

I do remember that, in 1991 and '92, when I was first settling into New York City after finishing my Ph.D. at Stanford, and I was attending city poetry readings, that there was still this "hush hush" atmosphere around the "F" word as applied to poetics.  We were not supposed to talk about the privilege of one gender.  The politics in reading halls and in anthologies had not been openly addressed.  But we women had these conversations the backseats of cabs or on the sly.  Many of us were not as bold as Armantrout, publishing such a strong critique against a male colleague and friend!  Many women seemed to want to avoid mainstream conversation, and its potential public humiliation, about the "F" word, feminism, or the "G" word, "gender injustice.  The debates I heard at conference denigrated the very idea that "gender" could be an issue in a writing that evaded identity itself.  How could it matter, whether men or women were doing the writing?  this was the rhetorical question on the table framed as premise. 

However, it was a fact – and still is – that women are not  as well published in most journals, including those of the more avant-garde, unless the journal, or anthology, l is devoted exclusively to women.  Writers like Spahr have published "Numbers" counts, in her article by that name in the Chicago Review; and the new generation including the feminist poet Amy King keeps tabs on the "numbers" through arenas like the VIDA project. 

Things have changed in terms of consciousness.  And they have also stayed the same.  I recall how both in my grad program in California and then in my early professional like in New York, I found such discussions were made equally taboo – and that those of us bringing up the gender politics of the avant-garde were all too easily erased from the cultural screen entirely.  

Still, behind the scenes, many of us were producing materials that would emerge by the late 1990's as a second-wave "HOW(ever)"-style revolution. When Talisman published Sloan's Moving Borders as the first collection specifically of contemporary American women's experimental poetics -- going back as far as the post-war era and Lorine Niedecker -- the Barnard College symposium on the women's lyric was also organized. And U Alabama Press's poetics series would publish We Who Love to Be Astonished; this was and still is a major U.S. series.  We had a big party to celebrate, and Ron Silliman was one of our anthology contributors  -- writing, in fact, on his good friend, Armantrout's, poetry.  

And since those days, Armantrout has won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, has become a Professor at the University of California, San Diego;  Lyn Hejinian has become a Professor at the University of California, Berkeley; and Ann Lauterbach has been heading the Bard College writing program for many years … and many many other women have won accolades and awards and been given tenured positions in academic institutions – to teach that very material that HOW(ever) once brought to the attention of the poetry community in the late 20th Century.

By 1999, HOW2 – a kind of HOW(ever) of the internet -- was up and running.  This resurrection, or reincarnation of HOW(ever), was located at the site and can still be viewed in archives next to HOW(ever) on the web.  The editors of How2 included Australians Ann Vickery and Kate Fagan, and Redell Olsen in London / Cambridge.  The primary focus of HOW(ever) was to build knowledge about and community for women and feminist writers.  That focus was therefore extended world-wide through the portable avenues of the World Wide Web -- albeit into mostly English-speaking countries and cultures.  What began primarily as a Bay Area women's artistic movement linking women with similar aesthetic and political concerns across the American continent was now a burgeoning global movement.  And it was inviting -- and also transformed by -- a younger generation of women writers and critics.

Continuity with HOW(ever), under the mentorship of Fraser, was always a chief concern with the editors of How2.  Olsen, for example, in her last published issue of How2 several years ago, in a column entitled, "Highlights from the HOW(ever) Archives,"  noted the original intention and importance of HOW(ever), and  provided a series of "highlighted" features from its original ground-breaking "mother" journal, including:

Kathleen Fraser, “Why However?”, HOW(ever), vol. 1, no. 1 (May, 1983).
Barbara Guest, from “The Türler Losses”, HOW(ever), vol 1, no. 3 (February 1984).
Norma Cole, “METAMORPHOPSIA”, HOW(ever) ,vol. 4, no. 4 (April, 1988).
Susan Howe, from “Nether John and JOHN HARBINGER”, HOW(ever), vol. 5, No. 4 (October, 1989).
Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Activity of Writing," HOW(ever), vol. 5, No. 4 (October, 1989).

Most importantly, the two main regular features of HOW(ever), its "Alerts" and "Postcards" sections, would continue under the same names in How2. "Postcards" would now have the descriptive paragraph that similarly seeks an interactive response from How2 readers:

A chance to respond informally to the content of the How2 journal. We are interested in comments and reactions to work that you find here and encourage you to respond to and to extend the questions and debates which interest you in our latest issue and in material contained in our extensive archive. We welcome further discussions of modernist and innovative poetry by women that you feel are relevant to our concerns.

The "Postcards" section also became a group mourning site, when the great Barbara Guest died.  It hosted "The Barbara Guest Memory Bank," where writers could share their reflections on Guest and her extraordinary contribution to the women's avant-garde in American literature by writing in on-line.

The "Alerts" section continued in How2 as an additional "commentaries" section, mostly offering reviews of newly published books, as in its original HOW(ever) version.  It  also offered "Improvised Conversations" with How2 readers.

Through its web-driven technologically, How2 in many ways continued to foster and expand a community of women who were intellectually-oriented writers -- perhaps far beyond the dreams of the original HOW(ever) editors.  Features like sound recordings, full-color images, video clips, and even video-author links to email accounts and e-books of poetry -- for example, Quick Flip: a How2 Chapbook, with Maggie O'Sullivan, Cynthia Hogue, Leslie Scalapino and Lyn Hejinian in collaboration with others -- could not have been conceived in the context of a paper journal during the 1980's. 

In 2015, long after the demise of both journals, at least for now, I want to honor HOW(ever) as "the mother of us all."  It was – is -- a mother of a journal, worth reading and studying decades after it was published.  It stands as a model of both intellectual freedom and gender justice – a measure of the possibilities still available for women's experimental poetries to come. -- LH

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