It’s poetisas all the way down

You know that dumb story about how the universe rests on the back of a turtle and then the turtle is standing on another turtle, and it’s turtles all the way down?

People tend to take a particular rhetorical stance when talking about women’s writing. Even I do this. Even critics I admire the most. I was just reading this wonderful excerpt from Vicky Unruh’s book which will come out next spring. Take a look! The preface is titled “The “Fatal Fact” of the New Woman Writer in Latin America, 1920s-1930s”. Fifteen years ago, Unruh wrote a book called “Latin American Vanguards” in which women appear in one sentence – a sentence that denied they fit properly into the Vanguard genre. Now she’s writing this book, which I can’t wait to read, about women writers in that same era! In the preface I think she is circling dangerously close to saying that women only in the 20s just started literary life… But she completely avoids saying that, and instead talks about women as choosing to occupy a particular position in a performative, public, literary conversation. The book looks great. I am never going to hit this level of scholarly academic articulation, maybe. Yet I’m writing the same sort of ideas, and what’s more, I’m acting on them. I’m sharing that set of assumptions and theory, sharing that critical stance, and putting them into practice, as a poet, translator, critic, and editor.

Since I am researching the conversations not just of the 20s but of some decades earlier I am extremely wary of making claims about the Newness of anything – as people so often do. I guess what I’m trying to say is that- when people MAKE those claims, be very suspicious. I hope other critics follow Unruh; I hope it’s a general trend, and people will stop saying “Before this writer, women just didn’t write, and weren’t educated; how unfortunate” or “And here is the moment when love poetry began”. Acknowledge a little ignorance on your own part, instead. (I can’t tell you how many people think there was Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, and then there was nothing for a long time because women were just so terribly oppressed, and then there was Delmira Agustini or Gabriela Mistral. Maddening! It’s okay not to know, but it’s not okay to claim you know when you don’t and to base a lot of assumptions on that.)

Here’s an example. Maria Monvel started off her 1930 preface to “Poetisas de América” by celebrating the huge numbers of Latin American women poets, and wondering with a dismissive shrug why Spain lacks them. She comes up with an elaborate explanation of why this is so, and then mentions the few exceptions Spain has in her opinion. Other than those three women she “lets in” to the club of Real Women Writers, it’s like there’s a blank. Maybe she didn’t know; maybe she was deliberately creating a blank space in history. Either way, it’s criminal.

I’m looking at some of my xeroxed pages from a book I found, from 1915, called “Antología de Poetisas Líricas”, a huge book in two volumes; it was published by the Real Academia Española. It’s full of poetry by Spanish women from the 16th and 17th centuries. (In fact I bet you could make a strong argument that what Cervantes was making fun of – was them and their romances. Classic “make fun of women’s popular successful writing” stance. Surely someone’s said this.) I feel like listing a few of their names:

Doña Isabel Corrca
Doña Juana Josefa de Meneses, condesa de Ericeira
Sor Ana de San Joaquin
Sor Gregoria Francisca de Santa Teresa
Doña Juana Teresa de Noronha
Rafaela Hermida Jarquetes
Doña María Josefa de Rivadeneyra
Doña María Hore
Doña Margarita Hickey y Pellizzoni
Doña María Nicolasa de Helguero y Alvarado

That’s just part of the first page of the table of contents of a 1000 page book. Okay? And the hundreds of Spanish women poets in there are just the few who got published in their time, and who survived the erasure of history. Think how many more their probably were!

Or if you read about French feminism and feminist writers and movements and poets … and you keep looking further and further back… you will finally get to the 18th century… and think you can say “And then it began.” But no. Keep looking and you find more. I have ceased to believe in a beginning.

It’s women poets all the way down!

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