Wednesday, February 27, 2013

C-Word and Fugue in the Key of Machine

I have a new chapbook coming out, Fugue in the Key of Machine. The chapbook collects the poems I wrote during and immediately after my husband's deployment to Afghanistan, while I was pregnant with our second son. The poems in it are some of the most tense, direct, and angry poems I've ever written. I read poems from the collection for the first time at The Louisville Conference last weekend, and as I was preparing for the reading I was almost overcome by nerves. This chapbook is the dumpsite of the most traumatic things that have ever happened in my life--my anxiety about my husband and my fetus' safety, my deepening estrangement with my father, and the anger I had about the unfortunate detour that my delivery of my son took when I delivered after picking my husband up from the airport in a town hundreds of miles from my supportive Ob/Gyn. I wasn't uncomfortable reading about my anxiety or trauma, as some of the best contemporary poetry is haunted with both. But I was really nervous about talking about my negative experiences as a laboring woman. This is not something anyone wants to hear about, I thought, and as coded and veiled as the poems were in order to allow me to write them (most of the poems in the chapbook are ekphrasic responses to abstract expressionist paintings) the thing that worried me the most was reading the poem where I use the words vagina, labia, and cunt.

I prefaced the reading by saying I was nervous to read these poems that used this language I hadn't entirely given myself permission to use, especially the c-word, which has a complicated feminist history.

Well, I read the most challenging poem "Improvisation 27: Garden of Love II (1912), Vassily Kandinsky"--but my willingness to talk about, and read in public, about the physical fact of my second delivery is something I still have to work through. Is unsentimental, gory labor taboo? When my college professor/poet Paul Allen published a chapbook His Longing (The Small Penis Oratorio), I happily helped proof the gallies. It didn't offend me and I wasn't particularly afraid for Paul that it would draw too much criticism. But I constantly worry that vagina, labia, and cunt when desexualized by violence, even mutilation--are too much for the audience. I feel a lot of threat in the poem, and I wonder if the tearing vagina is too grotesque, political, and confrontational to gain the acceptance that the small penis (comical, self-depreciating, unthreatening) does.

Annie Finch on Lyric Subjectivity in the Work of a Poetess

Finch’s work on the tradition of sentimental poetry , and Lydia Sigourney in particular, in her article “The Sentimental Poetess in the World: Metaphor and Subjectivity in Lydia Sigourney’s Nature Poetry” positions 20th century poetry and its critics within a Romantic tradition of poetry which demands a certain subject position. Finch argues that the critical rejection of Sigourney and her fellow “poetesses” is culturally constituted by the expectations of the Romantic tradition, a tradition in which all things described or addressed in the poem serve as vehicles to illuminate the state of the subjectivity of the poem’s persona, rather than the conventionality of their religious or moral convictions, which more ego-driven male poets of the time also display even while such male poets continue to be paid critical attention as “serious.”

Finch explicitly connects such lyric personas as both authoritarian and gendered, suggesting that “This egocentric model of poetry is based on the male-defined poetic tradition of romanticism,” was either rejected by or not available to 19th century women poets, a tradition “within which many of the currently canonized female poets established themselves with great difficulty” (4). Finch argues that even those 19th century women poets of the canon “such as Rossetti, Barrett Browning, and Dickinson struggled with the desire to express a subjective romantic lyric authority even though it was impossible for them to adopt that role consistently or unambivalently” (4).

Finch then goes on to describe the sentimental poetry of Sigourney, illustrating through her readings of the poems how Sigourney’s poems approach the natural objects they describe as equal subjects to put in dialogue with the poetic self, sometimes even privileged over that self. Finch describes how this poetic reverses various hierarchies such as reason over emotion. Finch lavishes some attention on how such poetic “effacement” is created by the poet, describing how “metaphor is an indicator of the subject/object relation within a poem, and hence a synecdoche for the way a poet positions her or his poetic self in relation to the world the poem describes” (6). Finch contrasts Sigourney’s poetics with William Cullen Bryant’s speaker’s “appropriation” of nature (7), and suggests that even Sigourney’s metaphors are couched as questions to the natural subject, and refuse to be used as signs for the poet’s lyric subjectivity.

This work by Finch offers a way at looking at the subject position in relation to the ekphrasic object that connects poetics to an appropriative gaze. Second, Finch’s reading offers a way of contextualizing the female exphrasic gazer as an inheritor of a Romantic literary tradition which is often inhabited, as Rossetti, Barret Browning, and Dickinson did earlier, with some ambivalence about their authority in the poem and the creation of the lyric subject.

Finch, Annie. “The Sentimental Poetess in the World: Metaphor and Subjectivity in Lydia Sigourney’s Nature Poetry.” Legacy 5.2 1988. Web. 9 Sep. 2012 JSTOR

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Introduction: Mystique School

“I hurt all over,/ I am so loved” are the last two lines of my first book. I wrote the book at the beginning of my marriage and titled it “Mystery School.” I thought of the poems as diving into the profound mystery of a woman’s experience as wife, mother, bearer of both life and death. It was easy to think, as I was writing the poems, that the sadness I felt haunting my young family was the loss of my first pregnancy and the loss of my family of origin. It’s only years later, with the manuscript still unpublished, that I wrote a comic to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and I understand “the problem” causing the deep dissatisfaction running under and through the poems I wrote as a young wife and mother. One of the poems, “Still Life of a Carpet Moth,” ends on this image of neglected and thwarted potential, “the shriveled sapling/ our landlords planted/ before they left.” I offer this introduction, and the retitling of my book “Mystique School,” as an offering of hard-won clarity for the reader. In “Mystery School,” I thought the love of family would reveal to me the meaning at the center of my life, and it is only years later that I realize to my great frustration that love is only almost enough. I believed that if I had love an d a family I would be fulfilled. I didn’t realize, or accept, the point of Friedan’s book, that in devoting myself solely to my family I was ignoring the “work in which [I could] grow as part of society.” I still believe that the love of my husband and children has strengthened me and given me a deeper understanding and love for the human. But love is not the sum of my potential.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Armantrout's Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity

Because it doesn't seem to exist in digital form AT ALL, here's my annotation for this totally foundation feminist poetics essay.

Rae Armantrout’s foundational essay “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity,” offers a way of understanding the social in experimental poetry that is critical of a particular type of lyric subjectivity, described as univocal, closed, Romantic, imperial, and appropriative.

For Armantrout, the stable poetic subject is inherently appropriative, serving epiphany demanded by mainstream form, constructed by metaphor’s appropriative nature. Armantrout specifically calls out the type of poems that most agree constitute conventional poetry of witness: “The conventional or mainstream poem today is univocal, more or less plainspoken, short narrative, often culminating in a sort of epiphany” (Armantrout 288). Elaborating, Armantrout argues that “such a form must convey an impression of closure, and wholeness, no matter what it says” (288). Closure and wholeness are bad things for Armantrout, as she suggests they don’t adequately represent the fragmented reality of a marginalized or oppressed subjectivity.

Armantrout points to the work of Lyn Hejinian as exemplary, a poet who she describes as creating “dynamic, contrapuntal systems in which conflicting forces and voices (inner and outer) are allowed to work” to create paradox and doubt (Armantrout 294). In the other poets discussed in the essay, doubt is stressed as well, using methods described as “counter point,” “epistemological double take” (294), “regression from solution to problem” (294), and finally “ambivalence and doubt” (294). Armantrout seems to reject a subjectivity’s ability to represent reality without doubt and tension.

Armantrout uses a poem by the confessional poet Sharon Olds to convey everything she thinks is wrong with mainstream poetry. In this critique of the use of an extended metaphor, or conceit, in the poem, Armantrout charges: “What the poem seems to imply is that people and things are serviceable, […] ready to be pressed into the service of metaphor” (Armantrout 290). In this way, metaphor, when applied to people, objectifies them. Armantrout continues, responding to a section of the poem where Olds narrates her daughter’s unspoken thoughts, “When Olds claims to know what is in her daughter’s mind […] I am repelled as by a presumptuous intrusion” (Armantrout 290).

For Armantrout, it is not only poems which present solutions instead of problems (epiphanies), or the failures of a univocal poem to present the fractured and doubly conscious reality of marginalized people that is a problem, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a lyric subjectivity which objectifies other people and claims to speak for them.

In her description of mainstream poetry, in which poems see the world only in order to organize it into neat systems of meaning, Armantrout convincingly damns them as appropriative. She suggests a language-based alternative, “another kind of clarity that doesn’t have to do with control but with attention, one in which the sensorium of the world can enter as it presents itself” (Armantrout 290). Armantrout’s critique shows us the ways in which including other’s voices can lead to appropriating them into one’s own meaning-making system. Instead, Armantrout offers a vision of polyvocality which is paying attention to the world that influences the poet’s speaker without subjecting that world, including Other’s voices within it, to appropriation. The key there seems to be that doubt and uncertainty, rather than personal epiphany, allow “conflicting voices” to exist.

Image by William James Topley.

Never Say Dead

It's fun to be engaged in an art form that constantly has its legitimacy questioned. After the inaugural poem, some questioned how important is poetry, really? One of them was this unfortunate Washington Post blogger, and here is her amazing retraction/apology. With so many links to angry poets and defenses of poetry that truly, you will feel sort of like you're engaged in a worthwhile endeavor, my poet friends.