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Call and Response: The Gifts of Women Poets (Part 1)
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”
While I am very much a fan of recovery projects, this collaborative endeavor is not that. If, as the curator, I must frame it at all, this rich pageant of poets highlights the very worthwhile intersections we all reach individually in our lives: that of recognizing that women-identified poets are of intense, even transformative value, despite living in a culture that often devalues the feminine. Each writer sings out an older or no longer living poet who had a personal influence on them. What you will find is a series of anecdotes and lead-ins to the work & personhood of these female poets who have endured and brought forth, for us, words that have deepened, moved, and given us the gift to see otherwise.
An added bonus is how these personal impressions move attention away from valuing by accolade and dismissal by stereotype and, instead, focus on how poems can be as significant as any life-changing event and change individuals intimately—for the long term. These writers give us a glimpse into the significances they experienced at the point of poetry, of poet, of one life meeting another, at the juncture of alchemical moments that ignite our imaginative possibilities—both on the page and through the poet. Yes, women’s words can actually do that!
By noting aloud their impact, these models might encourage us to open further and appreciate the power of the crone, the word witch who works with the wisdom and balance of experience to impart ideas, insights and imaginings that will aid those younger selves coming along to detect connections and mine histories long since shelved or pigeonholed by bias. We may live in hard times, but we have a richness in literature, especially in the less-explored female tradition in poetry, that we may turn to for strength, concepts to explore, and new imperatives to prioritize. What gets dubbed the feminine runs throughout, and for that reason, as Lorde says, “So it is better to speak.” Our culture needs a sea change in what gets valued, and such poetry is one way towards recognizing and realizing it.
The list below is doubtlessly incomplete, and on that count, I hope others will add their paragraphs to these, take them into the classroom, send them to friends, turn TVs off with poems and use them to explore these poets’ works and lives more extensively. I hope you grow heady with the bountiful richness that follows. I am immensely grateful to both the writers who felt the urge to share and to the women poets who inspired that impulse in all of us through poetry.
On Etel Adnan
Etel Adnan’s work revealed to me at a crucial time in my life the subtle oppressions we enact within the systems we perpetuate. More importantly, she charts a way to engage the pain and its potential transformative properties. I took great heart in a possibility of transmutation—as a way of living differently. Adnan considers her life as a poet a “counter-profession,” a voyage with a liberatory horizon within eyeshot. Her work is not simply “against” the territorialization of individual bodies in our sectarian nation-state(s). It is through & beyond, borderless in perpetual rebellion, as we must be, in order to address our condition in creative and thoughtful ways.
I first chanced on Anne-Marie Albiach’s poetry in the early ’nineties in an anthology picked up in a Paris bookstore (Poésie en France 1983-1988, ed. Henry Deluy). A brief selection from her Mezza Voce was the first entry in an alphabetically arranged collection. The opening words, “. . . La lumière // «Certes ô Réel Jointe» // QUI L’AVAIT ÉBLOUIE DANS UNE ATTENTE AU SOUFFLE AIGUË,” literally took my breath away. Albiach’s writing, with its gaps (espacement), erasures, breaks, vocables of extremity, displaced physicality, stylized arrangements of typography, and hieratically balanced phrases, gripped me the way kabuki or a work of Racinian tragedy might. The obvious analogue might be the Mallarmé of Un coup de dès, but Albiach’s writing seemed, if such might be possible, both more severe and more tender. The body, the breath (souffle), “prey to the elements of grammar,” pushes back everywhere in this work like Stevens’s “pressure of reality,” radically outside of yet completely committed to the language. Never had I experienced such a simultaneous demonstration of both cruel autonomy and radical vulnerability in the signifier. You have no idea what’s going on and yet it all makes perfect sense. I went on to write my MA thesis on Albiach (specifically on Keith Waldrop’s excellent translation of her book État) for the University of London, which was subsequently published in a short-lived academic journal called Interstice. Claude Royet-Journoud contacted me about the piece and offered to put me in touch. Albiach was famously reclusive: most people were terrified of her. Somehow Anne-Marie and I hit it off and thus began a ritual of semi-irregular treks out to her apartment in Neuilly, usually bearing lilies (in a nod to our common appreciation for Mallarmé) and chocolate. On one of those visits I recorded Anne-Marie reading from État—the only recording we have of her, that I know of (you can hear it on PennSound). I had been looking forward to another such visit, on moving across the Atlantic in 2012, but instead woke up (literally the day I landed, once I got a wifi connection from my new neighbor) to the news Anne-Marie had passed away. It wouldn’t make sense to describe Anne-Marie’s work as “experimental”—she wasn’t a tinkerer, and she was too invested in the journey of the writing to “try things out”—but she showed me how you could be totally “out there” as a poet, deadly serious, and utterly human (even funny) all at once. That you must write with your entire body, not just your brain, so that it’s okay, even normal, to be in the dark about what you’re doing. You have to trust the language. That to be a poet is to be a kind of astronaut or spelunker in your own body and soul, with language as a lifeline, one that could also kill you, if you aren’t careful. And that the page itself is enough of a stage if you make it so. Rachel Blau Du Plessis once wrote an essay on Albiach comparing her to Charles Olson. I still feel more differences than overlap in the work of these poets, but when Olson says that the “projective” poem transfers energy from where the poet got it by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader, I always think of Albiach. Even though I never could, and never will, write “like” her, the charge she handed me, that she hands us, is something to live up to.
It was the 90s. I wasn’t yet 30. I’d already known Armantrout’s work before Paul Hoover’s Postmodern American Poetry anthology came out, but I didn’t have any of her books. The first thing is I laughed. There was wit in this poetry. It wasn’t just a ponderous alternative to the general post-confessional method of the day. Rae Armantrout writes like a laser, not just through the culture, but through the prevailing aesthetic of the 70s and 80s, and, and was a glimpse of the future. I felt it instantly when her collection Made to Seem came out soon after. Her poetry contains one of the biggest lessons for readers and writers, that one can have a lightness of touch with the heaviest of materials. The tone is brilliant. It floored me then and it’s been flooring me ever since.
On Louise Bogan
It seems almost incontrovertibly true that the practice of poetry requires a kind of irrational commitment, a belief that whatever you find in the language, and whatever you find in yourself, matter in ways that other people cannot or do not or do not yet understand—you can call it, if you like, a trust in the daemon, or a faith in the language, or a devotion to something no one can quite name. And it seems true as well that you can’t make good poetry—except by accident—unless you think hard and patiently, sometimes with all the learning you can find, about what you’re writing, about what you’re rewriting, and about what other people wrote before you were born. If you are looking for a poet, a critic, a writer whose lifework contains both truths—who found the hot and the cold, the knowable and the unknowable, and who respected both—you could do a lot worse than to read all the poems and at least some of the prose brought into the world by Louise Bogan, who came from a hard early life amid mill towns in Maine to become the author of several handfuls of perfect, and frightening, epigrammatic and lyric poems; she was also, for decades, the in-house poetry critic at the New Yorker, explaining as best she could the poetry that she felt was best (and was modern) to readers for whom it was all (still) new.
Nobody in the history of American poetry has come closer to the effects created by W. B. Yeats: sometimes these effects made her imitative, but sometimes they made her terrifically memorable. Some of her poems (including a self-lacerating one called “Women”) addressed gender directly; many of them addressed what she took to be a woman’s (a cisgender straight woman’s, in today’s terms) attitudes towards romantic and erotic love. Bogan brought her critical gifts to her poetry, but she knew that without passion and weirdness—without the capacity to surprise yourself—those gifts were not enough: if you want to shock your students, or your teachers, or yourself, try her four-line advice to aspiring writers, “Several Voices Out of a Cloud.”
First generation up North was a choking place to be. My parents had migrated from Arkansas and Alabama to the west side of Chicago, funneled into a prepared depository dotted with concise factories and butcher shops with floors covered in bloody sawdust. Stacked in a roach-riddled tenement, they were told—“Now make a life.” And then I came, slick and wailing and expecting that life. First generation up North was seeking structure and the backhand slap. It was Smokey Robin’s syrupy croon, leering city boys who smacked Juicy Fruit and that trapped mouse scrabbling its blues beneath the stove. It was my mama and daddy confounded in a place that had sounded like so much gold, and me negotiating streets that arced and snarled. There ain’t no girl like a girl who grows up colored in Chicago, she’s a mess of wandering and wondering, and Gwen Brooks penned the words I needed to find the root I craved. She taught me that lush, gorgeously inventive language could grow in places where it was not encouraged or nourished, where it was not intended to exist. She wrote the beauty of the bottom rung, of chaotic boulevards and rollicking gospel sermons and cheap cuts of meat. She fought for “an expression relevant to all manner of blacks, poems I could take into a tavern, into the street, in the halls of housing project.” She wrote relentless muscle into the days of little brown girls. Art urges voyages. When I was a child, she was my furtive whisper in the dark, the hope that words had the absolute right to change everything. Now that I’m a woman, she is my fist. Every word of hers is held tight inside.
On Olga Broumas
I came upon Olga like one enters a cave of space and hears the echo of breathing. I heard her out loud before my eye ever saw a letter she inscribed. Oral and aural and I felt licked, like a baby, like a lover, like a thing being tenderized for consumption. Easy to say on the tongue—tongue is spiritual, sexual, material and in Olga’s sounds (her poems are sounds) it is all three, none and one. She retreated into the shadow after reading but later when we talked we found we each had secret Egyptian roots. I followed them out to the cape for a weekend where Olga taught me and some other poets too about vowels and breath about how poets lived inside sound. She had us chant our own names but without consonants. She had us pronounce them in our mothers’ voices. She forbade us to speak during breaks. What kind of poetry workshop was this? When at last I tried to read my poem to the group she stopped me and asked me sing it instead. I sang it. Sang I sound still, still in days and years that stretch since then, my ear resounds and swells. She made a space in me or she uncovered it or she uncovered my eye to see it. Either way the way I reckon she beckon and where she Mother and lover beckon, I rebel-son still singing and reeling do love her and follow.
On Anne Carson
I got to know the poetry of Anne Carson after I heard her read at AWP in Vancouver, Canada, in 2005. Anne Carson was a classicist, and she was extremely funny and beautiful in an eccentric way. She was actually crying a little as she got up to the podium and said, “This is a WAY lot of people.” She recited some unusual, quirky translations of Catullus—I’ve read enough from antiquity to know that they were as sex-obsessed and idiosyncratic as anyone today. She had a way of bringing out how much Catullus was so near to us. She somehow sneaked into her translations refrigerators etc. She then read a long poem inspired by a woman painter, and I have to say it was an inspiring and challenging experience. (At last—a writer who thinks readers can think!) I am no expert in her work, but I came to love her book, The Beauty of the Husband, and I think it is one of those rare works of genius that will receive its due in a more enlightened age. For example, in one episode, she was able to reveal a woman’s vulnerable, even humiliating eroticism, performed for a male whose gaze might be engaged by lust or pity. The speaker in this poem felt like a primate in heat, presenting her rear to her husband, but she expressed how she felt ridiculous and hopeless, and yet there was still genuine yearning. I believe her work, not unlike that of Marguerite Duras, presents an utterly feminine voice that is able to fully comprehend and accept the masculine world, even in spite of how she knows (or especially because of how she knows) the game is rigged. (If you want to read my longer blog post about Anne Carson’s reading at AWP, you can find it here (Search for “Carson”)).
—Jeffrey Ethan Lee
My father was an itinerant evangelical preacher. When I was a toddler, he forced my mom to tape orange construction paper over my naked baby pictures, revealing only my head. “Because you are a girl, there’s little reason for you to go to college,” he said. I enrolled at a Jesuit college as an act of rebellion. All that is to say, at age 19 when I encountered Lorna Dee Cervantes’ lyrical poem Caribou Girl in a Chicano lit class, it was my first encounter with language that queered gender. Regardless of sex, all caribou have antlers and because of that, males and females are difficult to tell apart. I heard blood pumping in my ears. That day was the first time I paid attention to what I paid attention to. “I loved the girl some thought too strange, / too dark, who spoke the cadence / of her own mythology, her own sanity, / with the words from books / trailing her lips like shadows.”
I was first introduced to Cha 10 years ago in a nonfiction writing class taught by Lee Klein. This class was a big deal for me because it actually made me feel like I was good at writing or could be good at writing and that I could keep reading and organizing my thoughts and get better. We read an excerpt from Dictee, and it totally changed how I thought about writing, especially nonfiction writing. Like I guess when I thought about nonfiction I thought about some stuffy white man talking about some book about the Civil War or World War II, but this class and Dictee in particular showed me that nonfiction writing is so much richer and diverse and playful and narrative can be poetic and images can be incorporated and stories can be told so many ways. Reading Dictee was hugely inspiring and made me want to use and not use space on the page and write poetry in ways I had never thought of before. I usually have the book somewhere near my bed because I love the language and the format and the meanings but I also see it as a reference book, like I’m constantly picking it up and referring to it anytime I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, and I need to be reminded that it is understood.
I owe all my interest in Inger Christensen to another truly dynamic, formally inventive woman poet, Cathy Park Hong, in whose undergraduate class I first discovered Christensen’s Alphabet. There have only been a handful of occasions when a single book has seemed like an bullet to me: piercing my flesh, radically revising every part of my body that it touches. Though perhaps in our political climate that exact simile is inappropriate, it still seems true. The work of Inger Christensen shot through me, critically breaking something in me—some notion of what the poem can and should do—in such a way that it was impossible to see poems, any poem, quite the same again. I could hardly imagine, as I was reading Alphabet, that in fact I was reading a book that wasn’t “my own,” wasn’t “American,” or that I was even reading a book in translation. It was remarkable to be, at once, and only through words (words translated from words) so close to someone who, in some sense, was so distant from me—in the “so-called Old World,” as Christensen would’ve put it. But that is the power of poetry: to collide us.
In not just Alphabet, but in books like Light and Grass and It, Christensen put forth a radical new way that the poem can work, move and persuade us. Christensen is a testament to the very ability of language to connect us—which, mind you, doesn’t mean we are now or should be treated as, magically the same—even despite our various, beautifully different tongues.
In 2000 I was 19 and on my own, a bold-ass having my first fling with a (married, older) woman. I was hungry for lips, fingers, love-words, lust-words, a dykish, woman-of-color-affirming lexicon to tell the world to fuck-off with. Chrystos, a two-spirit lesbian Menominee poet, was the first person whose writing made me salivate: whore’s nose, maid’s knees, warhorse, woman-thief, weeping bones, screaming cunt, diseased meat. Through her poems and lyrical essays, I learned that Blacks were also indigenous people, that Mercedes-Benz, of their own volition, worked with Hitler, and the phrase “everything is political,” which a white male poet once laughed at me for saying. There’s a brutality inherent in the idea of survival, especially for black and brown bodies: the threat of death is as real as death. The mission, always, is to stay alive. In the poem “There’s a Razor,“ the pan-handling narrator says, “I’m not going to be your happy patsy/taking the rap to clean up your mess/with your rope/I can kick ass/I can hum a mean tomorrow/Give me the quarter and shut the fuck up.”
I got to meet Chrystos in 2006 at Brecht Forum where she gave a reading and Q&A. She wore a blue tee shirt and shiny red leggings. I was a ginormous fan of her book Not Vanishing and told her that I had stolen my copy from a well-known New York university. She chuckled, said “good for you!” and signed it.
She remains unfazed by literati who attempt to whittle her poems down to “angry” and “unlearned” in order to shame and, ultimately, silence her. She exists, primarily, outside of the okie-doke of major lit establishments and academia, as I do–no MFA, no problem. She says:
“Find the place where you belong and do your work there.”
“As a former whore, no john ever gave me as much trouble as most printing presses.”
And my personal favorite, for love and la revelución:
“It does not matter that we may not win our war to save our mother. It matters that we fight honorably for her.”
I first discovered Cheryl Clarke’s poetry during a Women’s Studies course while an undergraduate at Barnard College. I recall reading Clarke’s first book Narratives and then, Living as a Lesbian and thinking “Damn this woman is speaking to me; she’s black and lesbian and is writing about her sexuality and deliciously documenting her life as a lesbian feminist and the world is not exploding!” Perhaps the world was exploding, but in a powerful way. I remember opening Narratives and seeing myself reflected in the poem
“hair: a narrative”: it is passing strange to be in the company
of black women
and be the only one who does not worry about
not being with a man.
I was empowered by her words and her advocacy both off and on the page and I loved that she would constantly call folks out on their phobias. It was during the mid-to-late 80’s that I discovered Clarke’s work and as I look back, I can piece together the impact her poetry had on me as a young black lesbian poet finding my voice in the world. When the #BlackPoetSpeakOut political movement began last year, a protest that began online via videos and in verse, protesting the unpunished deaths of unarmed black men and women, I immediately thought of Clarke’s work; as she has consistently used poetry to participate in justice movements. The necessary work which Clarke continues to do in the community via poetry, essays, lectures, educational outreach and LGBTQ advocacy remains both relevant and intergenerational. Clarke is a self-proclaimed “black queer troublemaker” and celebrates those who, like her, agitate and resist. I am fortunate to now call her friend and just this past week she shared a powerful new poem on her Facebook page, “#All this for changing a lane?,” a poem that seeks justice for Sandra Bland, a young, black woman, recently found dead while in police custody. An excerpt reads:
but check it out: you’re a fly black girl, smoking a cigarette,
brown skin and open brown face—even when ‘irritated’—
being told by a smokey to dump your smoke
brags ‘I will light you up’ and
drags you from your car—
sorta like lynching, except Sandy was in custody,
though not convinced of its lawfulness.
It is a fortunate experience to find a literary mother. When mothers in one’s real life have no idea how to understand you or simply don’t want to try. I used to be able to go a long way on a little bit of effort until I realized I deserved more from the literature I was reading.
It was in Wanda Coleman’s poetry, essays, and short stories that I found what I demanded/needed from a writer, who was based in the United States, the country of my birth. A Black female writer who grew up in Watts Los Angeles, who came from poverty, who struggled with poverty herself as an adult as a single mother with two children, who faced a white supremacist world that said “no to me every time I turned around.”
She is, to this day, beside Baldwin, one of the most uncompromising Black writers I have found. I don’t think most people understand what a gift she is. Or if they do, they see it as a topic of discussion—to use as a teaching tool to encourage a classroom to probe themselves without the context that made the black artist in the first place. Or as an anomaly, a credit to meritocracy, bootstrap mythos, someone real, etc. I don’t know all the reasons you give to us nowadays.
But Wanda! Oh Wanda was my first poetic foray into what it really meant to be a black woman. She continues to teach me after her death two Novembers ago, I haven’t left, why should I leave? And as I continue to suffer being a black woman in the United States, I reach to her more than ever for her counsel. For her humor. For the wisdom that she left about interpersonal relationships. The racist system we live under. As a mother. As an unapologetic sexual being. As someone who lived and wrote it down despite all this “racist bullshit.”
One of my favorite lines: “violence against a persistent adversary is therapeutic.” It’s from a poem about killing roaches in an apartment she lived in as a child, but I know when she wrote that line she wasn’t talking about roaches. She meant the forces that kept her from being herself, from having to feel like she’s either “pretending or explaining, it’s such a drag!.” It’s a drag alright. Not being black, being black is a gift! But just the forces that keep you down. From trying to keep you from remembering. Simply being yourself is a violence against a persistent adversary, says Wanda. It was the best thing a mother could’ve taught me.
I discovered Beverly Dahlen, first via “A Letter at Easter: for George Stanley” and then her remarkable ongoing, multi-volume work A Reading in 1985 in the Hay Library at Brown University. Later, (1990’s) when I lived in San Francisco, I heard her read at the Poetry Center and awkwardly introduced myself. I continue to slowly grow to know her and her work, because work of this intelligence and commitment requires thoughtful progress. Dahlen’s personal modesty is considerable: it sweeps away distraction and pretension. Because of this, she can go directly into the work and, as the title A Reading suggests, hers is the work of reading the world. This practice, life-long I would say, of deep attentiveness—aesthetic, political, psychological—has shown me how attention can flourish as generous and responsive. (I sent Bev a little self-made chapbook earlier this year, and she sent back a poem-reply to the chapbook.) Perhaps more importantly, we often fail to consider how attention is not merely receptive. In Beverly Dahlen’s work, her vital awarenesses are inventive, playful, honest: they plumb gorgeous, subtly transgressive deeps. One shelf in my library holds books to grab in case of a fire. Beverly Dahlen’s books are on it.
A few years ago the poet Cody Todd introduced me to the writing of Tory Dent. That is a fairly flat sentence and does nothing to capture the anguish ecstasy braggadocio messiness in Tory Dent’s poems. When I enter Dent’s name in a search engine, it is attached to “H.I.V.” attached to “AIDS”: “Poet wrote about fight with AIDS” “Poet who wrote of living with H.I.V.” & while these statements are true of Dent’s poems, they ignore the sheer amount of, say, fucking, that takes place in her poems. The near animal aggression of the body the struggle of the heart to keep itself hidden while also displaying the potent power of its passion the tension that exists between an act and a summary of the act: “Only my mouth taking you in, the greenery splayed deep green.//Within my mouth, your arm inserted, a stem of gestures, breaking gracefully.” Dent’s unapologetic verse, which creates its own measure its own rise & fall & singe & song & erotic sigh that is, at its source, a howl (“If you knock out my teeth, I’ll still go down on you, conscientiously,/vine along a trellis, and suck you with my gums.”), released me from a new attempt to be quiet in poems. Prior to meeting Dent’s work, I had been told by a writing professor in a PhD program that I needed to be tamed, that my writing was not civilized, and while I intellectually understood the heart of darkness in his thinking, my spirit absorbed his words and when I found myself in a new PhD writing program, I created a new bio that, in part, read “She is risking silence in her poems”. Silence = Acceptance = Polished. Dent’s poems, however, made me feel as if I was being eaten alive without anaesthesia by a woman whose cut was delicate and jagged. Years later, I met the poems of Jayne Cortez whose surrealistic images were so sharp and raw, I realized how my education had prepared me to be polite aka tame aka civilized. Every Jayne Cortez poem is a love song a political statement an historical excavation a celebration of being alive a question an act of, not unsilencing, but showing the dangers and risks of silencing. And they play: “The enemies polishing their penises between/oil wells at the pentagon” and “Tell me that you have no desire/to be the first to fuck/into the fission of a fusion/of a fucking holocaust” and “Do not allow flies to dominate your day”. One year, I taught Cortez’s On the Imperial Highway and a couple of students, those who had been indoctrinated into the polished “cooked” verse ideology, had issues with Cortez’s work. It was too wild; it was didactic; it was vulgar. Cortez’s poems are wild oh god yes they are wiiiiiiiild and yes they are sometimes didactic and yes they are VULGAR baby. But so what? Her poems also employ parallelism and slant rhyme and anaphora (& its persistent friend, burden) and her metaphors are off the fucking chain. A friend once wrote to me about my manuscript, in part, quoting from Yeats: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” This “but” is being used falsely. If this “but” were true, poetry would not exist on the other side of rhetoric. Poetry, when it’s doing something profound, something that will resonate, dares to be both rhetoric and lyric. During Cortez’s lifetime, her poetry was not lauded in the poetry mainstream, which is a good thing. She started her own press and published her work and yeah, that sucks because it’s evidence of a mainstream poetry publishing world that refused her because she refused to be soft and palatable, but I will always be grateful that Cortez did the tough thing and published her own work. Now her poems are in books that every library in this nation, if it so chooses, can order and shelve. Had she sat around waiting to be validated, we wouldn’t have her lines. In very different ways, both Dent and Cortez’s poems refuse containment & in very different ways, their refusal to be tamed reminded me of how deliciously beautiful my verse had been and would be again.
Most people figure out what they want to be when they grow up before their mid-30s. While working as an advertising copywriter in Arizona in the early 2000s, I learned how to turn lingerie facts into concise, pre-Twitter zingers. A couple of friends at the catalog company were poets, and they encouraged me to make the natural transition from writing for work to writing for myself and anyone who would read my poems. My next step was to learn as much as I could, to read books by poets who would teach me what was OK to put in and what was better to leave out. At bookstores and libraries, I continually gravitated toward books published by the University of Pittsburgh in the 1980s and 1990s because of their innovative approaches and contemporary themes. I learned from Etheridge Knight and David Wojahn that poets could comment on themselves and their culture with equal impact. Then I stumbled upon a red book called Captivity by Toi Derricotte, and I immediately identified with the speaker in every poem. A white man got closer to understanding what it was like to be a black girl. In this book, Derricotte taught me that a poet has the ability to make her passions or obsessions yours. Her poems often begin in a self-effacing whisper and end with a line that makes you pause as you take in its full power. They juxtapose moments of beauty and ugliness without judgment. Derricotte shows you an experience and lets you decide how you’re supposed to feel about it. I don’t believe Derricotte’s main goal was to create poems about race, gender, or other significant cultural concerns; instead, through remarkable restraint, she provides insight into what it has meant to be a black girl and a black woman in the United States from the 1940s to the present. Derricotte is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and I moved to the city in 2006 wondering what sort of poetry community existed there. Luckily I’ve been able to hear Derricotte read twice, and again she has taught me, this time how to stand up in public and tell your story in your voice. No one else but you can do that. A couple of years ago, I brought my copy of Captivity to her reading, and she seemed surprised when I told her how strongly it had affected me. Then she signed it and quickly scratched out a doodle around her name—an impromptu burst of energy. I return to Captivity often. It’s like a favorite record album, but it will never wear out. I continue to play it long after I’ve internalized the melodies and what the words mean.
—Daniel M. Shapiro
I first read Emily Dickinson in the Louis Untermeyer anthology of “Modern American Poetry” which my ninth grade English teacher kindly gave me. I got into the modernists first and was, in the beginning, a little put off by Dickinson’s use of rhymes and meters. I didn’t know enough to know how unconventional those were. But I kept coming back to her because of what I (dimly) heard as the mock feminine or campy way she addressed herself to concepts such as God, immortality, nature, etc. No one else was doing anything like that. And then her word choices were endlessly surprising. Who else has ever said anything like “narrow fellow” or “battlements of straw”? I especially like the way she opens up a charged field of potential, such as the one the trees in her Four Trees Upon a solitary Acre “maintain,” though it remains “unknown” what “plan” they “severally – retard – or further.” At some point I knew I wanted to be there, do that.
Diane di Prima describes a Shelley poem as “a wind, or a river” and “matter in motion.” I think about this today when I read that Scientists now say consciousness might be a state of matter, and I laugh. Di Prima is a poet, university founder, teacher, scholar, philosopher, publisher, grand/mother, friend, radical activist and mystic, a “piece of wind/ w/ a notebook & pen“—and she is all these like poetry itself is a vocation, art/craft, practice, ontology and epistemology, a way of life: yes and absolutely and still uncontainable by any one notion. Studying (with/under) di Prima woke me to the matter in motion; I think of her when I think that I can’t write or live, and I laugh.
On Rita Dove
The South—and particularly Virginia, where I grew up and where Dove teaches at the University of Virginia—is a complicated origin. Consider Thomas Jefferson, roiling with all of the contradictions of race and social justice, memorialized in his thoughtful, scientifically considered and liberal slave-built monuments. Despite all the comforts of a trauma-free and largely happy childhood, I was not at ease very often. I was anxious, restless, yearning. I wanted to be from anywhere but the South, turning my uneasiness about myself into an unfair condemnation of quilts and dialect and chitlins. I reached for anthologies, seeking voices that are rooted in place, comfortable with clear, lyrical, and brave examination of history. I was obsessed with poets who explored the Civil Rights era, poets of color, poets who spoke to the personal in the context of the political. The first of those voices to reach me was Rita Dove’s. Her sifting through the painful legacy of history, of family history, of guilt, of pain, always with a glimmer of forgiveness and hope, lit a path for me. Fellow cellist, her crisp string-taut words roll with the rhythm of beautiful images and are rich with the full embrace of metaphor. She gave me permission to explore the language of the place that had embarrassed me for so long. In adulthood, Dove welcomes me back with the richness of Mother Love, Grace Notes, On the Bus with Rosa Parks. Her voice still speaks clearly to me to this day as I puzzle through a poem or move forward in a novel, feeling my self-consciousness rise in my blood. I can hear her confident examination of guilt, sadness, anxiety, her loving celebrations of home, of potato bugs and mandolins and magnolias, of remembrance.
In 2011, Dove stirred the world with her “poetic time capsule,” The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. She became a target of critics, most notably Helen Vendler. In “Are These the Poems to Remember?” Vendler accused Dove of everything from a shallow tokenism to veiled anti-Semitism, all bundled with the opinion that Dove simply wasn’t intellectually up to the task, and that her inclusion of non-white voices is inappropriate in an anthology meant to capture a century of poetry. Vendler writes, “In [Dove’s] choices, no principle of selection emerges.” In her response, Dove demonstrates her characteristic eloquence, strength, and deep affection—not just for the poems and poets she included—but for the intersection of voices that created the Twentieth Century, poems Dove believes are lasting and worthwhile as entries into the canon. These are not just poems and poets she artificially inserted to create a racially diverse volume. Dove also laid bare some uncomfortable truths about the deeper biases and tensions in Vendler’s critique, an act that, too, spoke to the greater world of non-inclusive poetry. Dove is so much more than the subject of a controversy. Read her work, which, in kinder days, Vendler had described as “falling on the ears as solace.” It certainly is for me.
On Mari Evans
Mari Evans is a poet who embodies both the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and the praxis cultivated by the Black Arts Movement. As a poet, she works with lucid, spare lines that declare her presence, straightforward, from the start. Her first collection I Am A Black Woman up to her most recent volume of new and selected poems Continuum has made that more than evident. Her poems are often brief, but not bombastic. They ease into an image and send you into a concluding idea that startles and shakes you after the sweet prelude. Evans has not only written poems or carried out a long career as a professor, she has also written several children’s books, plays, and produced, wrote and directed a television show called, “The Black Experience”, which documented the real lives and images of black people in a way that was certainly a precursor for some of Toni Cade Bambara’s ideas on filmmaking. She also edited an indispensable volume Black Women Writers (1950-1980), which is still a significant text for scholarship regarding Black women writers. Her collection of essays, Clarity as Concept, deftly ties the political duties and craft into a well-woven approach to the poet’s life. As a poet, she reminds me that the path to writing and saying meaningful things must continually be cleared and populated with what affirms us. She is a living legacy who should be far more recognized. She is a model for coming to the page and writing whatever is necessary.
In 2002 I entered the MFA program at California College of the Arts, then still bearing the “and Crafts” part of its moniker. Over the course of Kathleen Fraser’s open-form ekphrastic writing class during my first semester, my air-tight understanding of myself as a writer was poked full of breathing holes. She and I worked together for the next two years, often meeting at a café near her apartment in North Beach to talk about poetry. Kathleen’s open sensibilities, disdain for writing fashion (in spite of her early career in fashion-fashion and exceptional personal style) and constant reinvention of forms blew apart my ideas of what writing is and should be, but there are two things in particular that Kathleen gave to me that I often think of. The first was her intolerance of any kind of posturing, defensiveness or limiting self-consciousness on the part of her students. She once told me she favored one member of our class, whom I considered rather lackluster as a person and a writer, because he didn’t “beg exception.” This was shocking and revelatory. The second lesson was inherent in Kathleen’s frank dislike of the poems I was writing at the time. She didn’t pull punches, but neither did I, which made me realize the degree to which I knew what I was doing and why. I still think we were both right most of the time. The range of Kathleen’s own work, from epistolary to collage to the evocatively halting force of hi dde violeth i dde violet, which she wrote in response to Norma Cole’s stroke, has kept my sense of what is possible in poetry propped wide open over the years. Her commitment to presenting others’ work, particularly women’s, in HOWever and at the Poetry Center, is an example to work toward. Most recently, in a dark place of postpartum exhaustion I revisited Kathleen’s essay, “To book as in to foal. To son.” and she turned me outward once again.
On Gloria Frym
A student of Robert Creeley’s, Gloria Frym helped me form my poetry lineage and by example, helped me understand that I could be a poet, editor, parent, and a teacher. Her devotion to poetry is total; her integrity as a teacher exacting. When I think back to her teaching, the thing I recall the most was how she seemed to somehow get out of the way as she led, a delicate practice that I try to emulate (I think of this as teaching by the Tao). Frym continues to mentor writers as professor at California College of the Arts (she is the current chair of their MFA program). As a poet, she brings careful language-attention to prose and rules the short story. Her book The True Patriot is her latest prose collection published by Spuyten Duyvil fall 2015.
During my first year in the poetics program at the now defunct New College of California, Frym served as my mentor for an independent comparative study on poetries of wartime. This was the early/mid 90s in the Bay Area, a time when writing from a declared subject position (“identity”) was actively discouraged; despite what felt like the dominant tastes of the time, Frym encouraged me to write about Vietnam, my mother’s storied life, and the experience of my diaspora.
On Louise Glück
By the time I’d discovered The Wild Iris at sixteen, I’d enough adjusted to being in the closet that the self-surveillance it required felt banal rather than terrified or exhausting. There was a sense of interiority I enough wanted to be real that I learned to treat it like it was, either in advance of its being so or despite its not; and then there was all the inexpressible stuff that felt realer than real, which was hardly allowed into that other ersatz interior, let alone the world outside it. It was in the context of what felt like the necessity of this emotionally warping practice that I fell in love with Louise’s poetry. Its lyric voice—vatically unwavering, irreducible— was the opposite and then some of my fearful reticence. Its acuity knew reticence, too, it was implied, enough to reject it. (It hadn’t yet dawned on me that refusing to wear a mask could itself become one, but I was late-blooming.) “Mock Orange,” from The Triumph of Achilles (which like The Wild Iris I bought at a suburban Borders), begins thus:
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth sealing my mouth, the man’s
I wanted to inhabit an interiority not scared of the inebriating confidence of desiring and not desiring without shame. It wasn’t emotional honesty, so much as emotional honesty in drag. Which is to say maybe I fell in love with this poetics of emotion because on some unconscious level it suggested that even the most urgent expressions of feeling were also theatrical, that there was no more real feeling than this of feeling real. The opening of The Wild Iris’s eponymous poem begins:
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Hear me out: I’M NOT FINISHED TALKING. I had a fantasy, discovering Louise’s writing, that in learning how to write like this I could learn to feel unembarrassedly, unapologetically. As far as ideas went, it was ridiculous if not perverse, but it was also one of the main reasons I applied to Williams College. I wanted to work with her, even as my poems were at best derivative of hers. Who’d want to work with that? And indeed, in the first poetry workshops of my life, she crossed out whole poems save for single words. My poems were fraudulent and unpersuasive as my feelings. And then not coincidentally around the same time I found myself on the verge of my first romance with a man, and writing poems, so it felt, as documentation: so if I didn’t have the guts to go through with all that this, my life, suddenly seemed to entail, at least there would be an archive of having gone out on this limb. Poem after poem came. I gave them to Louise. She read them, and in a turn of events so elating I could hardly believe it was real, she liked them. Succinctly: I wrote my senior thesis under her supervision. I was becoming a poet at the same time as I was becoming a queer man—they were happening in real time, simultaneously, equally under her uncompromising and infinitely generous tutelage. It was only after graduation that I finally worked up the moxie to come out to my parents, and I did it with The Prodigal Son, the poetry manuscript that without Louise could not have been written, under my arm. Things got ugly before they didn’t, but suddenly what hadn’t even had words was happening, and this was enough. I somehow ended up at the Talmadge Hill train station, heading into New York to leave my parents alone with the poems. I had enough change to make one phone-call at the station payphone, so I called the person who so singularly had helped me to this brink, who had given me these first lessons in inspiration and poetic stake.
I will forever remember how fate guided a burst of Patricia Goedicke’s last words into my body. I had just hitch-hiked to the Bay Area from Missoula (where, I found out later, Goedicke taught for over 20 years). The sweeping energy of the wide plains sky was fresh in my bones as I wearily scanned a library shelf. A spark: As Earth Begins To End (2000) sent out a sharp, dry call to me, electric blue, “rifles whistling / their black songs.” Here was a poet who had whittled away a linear aesthetic for tireless decades, a slow talent, tempered. Her gift for scansion and sequence was achingly present in every line, “for the world as we know it moves / Necessarily by steps.” She was lithe, self-reliant, and strongly influenced by the chauvinistic austerity of 1930s and 40s free verse, especially her teachers Frost and Auden. Yet she infused her lineage with parody (“I say to You we have raisins for souls / Even when I drop mine into water / It won’t swell.”), with ecological communion (“I have watched from a safe corner / The rape of mountains, the eagle’s reckless plunge.”), and with a subtle but staunch feminist stance (“no pre-ordained / hand-me-down hierarchies for her / or me either […]”). To this day she remains a keystone for me, having immeasurably enriched the more sober strands of American poetry with her graceful, conscientious passage.
All quotes are taken from the last four books published during her lifetime: As Earth Begins To End (2000), Invisible Horses (1996), Paul Bunyan’s Bearskin (1992), and The Tongues We Speak (1989).
—Allan Andre Markman
When Andrew Joron introduced me to Barbara Guest’s work in the late-90s—her books Fair Realism, Defensive Rapture, and Selected Poems—it instantly inhabited me like a path I was obligated to follow into unknown territories. I learned her writing, as we all often do, working backward through it in reverse chronology. When I later got to know Barbara, just five years before her passing, she was the sharpest wit and most incisive thinker I had yet encountered. Her penultimate book of poems, Miniatures (2002), which she sent me via post, demonstrated her version of the closed-captioned poem, attentive always to the translation of image into language. Her book of essays, Forces of Imagination arrived shortly thereafter, and when, in her essay “Wounded Joy,” Guest writes, “What we are setting out to do is to delimit the work of art, so that it appears to have no beginning and no end, so that it overruns the boundaries of the poem on the page” it echoes, for me, the necessity of commune, of voices coming into the poem that are never only the poet’s. For my own poetic practice, this idea of the ongoing and interconnectivity of the poem with the life of the poet—the life lived, imagined, and overheard—is paramount; it is what Robin Blaser calls the “flowing boundary.” Guest’s work is always observant of other voices speaking; it is always flexing and advancing the limitations of form at the boundary of her art. As a graduate student at Mills College, I had the opportunity to print a broadside of a new poem—“Nostalgia of the Infinite, 1913: After Giorgio di Chirico,” later published in The Red Gaze, titled simply “Nostalgia”—in honor of her 2002 reading. In it, she writes, “You began the departure. Leaves restrain. You attempted the departure … Waving farewell.” Then 82, Guest was still at the height of her powers even if her physical body had dramatically slowed. Reading this poem now, it arrives as a conversation between the here and the hereafter, between Barbara Guest and her readers. It is an invocation and a reminder that boundaries are to be overrun, that the poem keeps on going without limit, and that the conversation never stops.
On Joy Harjo
During a rough Missoula winter, snow blowing wild through everyone’s souls, shifting the patterns of highways, making traction tricky, I volunteered to pick up Joy Harjo, the University of Montana’s first Richard Hugo Visiting Poet, from the airport. The Chinook wind blew in a tall, slim thaw with long black hair, eyes so deep that I was stricken, recognizing many places at once, and a voice lyrical with laughter and resonant with gravitas I knew as wisdom. There are moments that change everything, and your life that has wobbled, leaning over the lip of despair, suddenly brightens, and you know that if you step out in the fearful air, you will fly. Joy turned out to be one of the finest teachers I had as a graduate student. She introduced us to writers of color outside the canon, like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Ishmael Reed, Sandra Cisneros, and Native poets such as Leslie Silko, Linda Hogan and Adrian Louis, who awakened us to voices speaking out against social injustices. No one missed class. Why would we? No one, including me, wanted to miss a word she said. We were graced with an oracle, a female Crazy Horse, a visionary poet-teacher, surely with feet of clay like the rest of us, but she never denied that, which made us love her even more. Quickly she won us over with candor, with music, with love. Never arrogant or self-serving, she taught us that “poets are truth-tellers,” that “we must turn slaughter into food.” We felt like lost relatives sitting around her kitchen table. She taught us to risk everything, to create images that bridged the real and the spirit worlds, using deep music to preserve the stories of our ancestors, to preserve the magic and mystery in our own work. I learned valuable teaching tools, to walk as an equal with my students, as she would say, “this journey for all of us…”
Thus began our long friendship and my lifetime tutorial. Despite great distances and changing relationships, Joy and I are still in frequent and close contact. We read and criticize each other’s work. The title of her latest poetry collection, Conflict Resolution For Holy Beings is apt. Her poetry is the resolution for all of us.
On Susan Howe
How did I first stumble into Susan Howe? My Emily Dickinson, of course. Startling, almost shocking. Like Anne Carson’s Eros the bittersweet. That you could write about like that. But still it was writing about. Still a gap.
I think it was Singularities that blasted open my notion of poetry. The way she inhabits others. Is inhabited by them. “The Adirondacks occupied me.” Clarity of line. Sharp intelligence. And texts. Inhabiting them completely, diving into them deeply. Time collapses—they are all our contemporaries, all of them. And complete lack of sentimentality—writing about King Phillips war, how can you write about captives and massacres and etc. with not a trace of sentimentality, our whole national narrative is based on this sentimentality. But there is no trace of sentimentality here. Saw digression hobbling driftwood/ forage two rotted beans & etc./ Redy to faint slaughter story so/ Gone and signal through deep water. “Forage two rotted beans.” My God, what must that be like, to forage two rotted beans? But plainly stated, no editorializing. That kind of integrity. And discipline.
All this—inhabiting and being inhabited, the collapse of time, the clarity, the intelligence, the integrity, the discipline—throughout her work. And I have to mention the special delight of Pierce-Arrow (as a music camp kid I’d excitedly told the science camp kids about George Boole who I was reading at the time: dog dog equals dog, this seemed the most wonderful thing in the world, okay I was weird), of seeing the way even logic (which we think of as cold and inhuman but it is completely human, a map of one aspect of the human brain) can be inhabited that way.
Finally, the language. Its ambiguity and precision. Texts are borrowed, transformed, transfigured. Words on the page are slanted, rotated, at times crossing over each other. Possibilities open up. How to be worthy of these possibilities? How to find equivalent possibilities and not settle for less?
On June Jordan
June Jordan was a poet who understood the purpose in leaving an undeniable body of work. Her poetry and work as an essayist were searing in terms of the discussion of many issues that are still painfully relevant on a global scale—rape culture, police brutality, colonialism, economic exploitation, misogyny, racism—but the remarkable qualities that resonate with me are her impact as a professor and mentor, who thought carefully about teaching in an empowering pedagogical style, which, much like her poems, often remind people of the power of love. Lately, “Poem About Police Violence” and “Poem About My Rights” strike me as touching upon everything that should be discussed these days, and yet, still remain uncomfortable and untouched in some circles. On the other hand, her program Poetry for the People at UC-Berkeley and its accompanying book Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint completely informed my pedagogical stance as a teaching artist, who exposed young poets to a diverse range of poets and gave them the tools to share what they learned. Jordan was a planner who made sure her work would be circulating long after her passing, and she was writing constantly until she could no longer write. She knew to have the opportunity to speak without flinching (and to keep speaking) on the page was an act of resistance. Resistance helps us create a space where loving ourselves and others becomes easier. How Jordan quoted Emma Goldman saying, “If I can’t dance, then it’s not my revolution.” How Jordan danced sweet, soft, hard and sharp across lines, sentences, and her laughter. How she reminded us that love is worth fighting for.
On Myung Mi Kim
Working with Myung Mi Kim fundamentally altered and established my poetic practice. Suddenly I was immersed in a world where we studied The Work of Silence and The Long Poem–worlds previously unheard of to me as a poet transferring from a traditional MFA program (workshop/craft class) to San Francisco State University in the mid-1990s. My poetic constellation imploded to include Mallarmé, Celan, George and Mary Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Beverly Dahlen, Jack Spicer, Michael Palmer, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and a continued focus primarily on experimental women writers. Kim’s poetry is her pedagogy. She asks Do you see this? Who’s missing? Who gets to speak? What is nation? Her radical attention and generosity created seminar discussions where our every sliver of discussion was linked to show how it contributed to or opened up the subject at hand. Did we see? Do you hear this?, with attention towards the daily, the practice, the insufficiency of language to truly encompass our bodily selves, here, right now. Why this word? Why this mark? Why this space? “Building is a process. Light is an element.”(Dura). To attend, to investigate, living, breathing. (Next stop, may I suggest “Eight discourses between Myung Mi Kim & Divya Victor“)
[Editor’s Note: Part 2 of “Call and Response: The Gifts of Women Poets” can be read here.]
Tags: Alexandra Naughton, Allan Andre Markman, Amber Atiya, Ana Božičević, Anne Carson, Anne-Marie Albiach, Barbara Guest, Beverly Dahlen, Cheryl Clarke, Chrystos, Daniel M. Shapiro, Diane Di Prima, Elizabeth Robinson, Emily Dickinson, Etel Adnan, Frances Badgett, Frank Sherlock, Gloria Frym, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hoa Nguyen, James Meetze, Jayne Cortez, Jeffrey Ethan Lee, Joy Harjo, JP Howard, Judith Roitman, June Jordan, Kate Colby, Kathleen Fraser, Kazim Ali, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Louise Bogan, Louise Gluck, Mari Evans, Melea Seward, Metta Sáma, Michael D. Snediker, Myung Mi Kim, Nikki Wallschlaeger, ohn Gallaher, Olga Broumas, onathan Skinner, Pamela Uschuk, Patricia Goedicke, Rae Armantrout, Rickey Laurentiis, Rita Dove, Sarah Mangold, Stephen Burt, Susan Howe, Tara Betts, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Toi Derricotte, Tory Dent, Wanda Coleman
Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 by Amy King.