Poetry Month: Day 2, Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva

enriqueta arvelo larriva

Happy Poetry Month! Today I have been thinking about Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, a Venezuelan poet from the 20th century (1886-1962). Her poems are small and odd, but huge internally, like a pocket universe captured and studied from all sides; a bit abstract and philosophical. This, at a time when it seems to me like the way to be a famous woman poet was to blaze passionately forth in a sort of meteoric scandal of words. Arvelo Larriva’s positioning of herself is at the same time very personal and connected to the specific landscape of the Venezuelan llanos, the central plains — a tropical prairie. But at the same time she positioned herself as a very abstract, analytical, point of human consciousness.

Arvelo Larriva began writing and publishing around 1920 that I can verify (but I have also read she was a poet beginning at age 17, much earlier). Most of her poems that I’ve translated were published in the 1920s, but I don’t have all the research done to know exactly when they were written.

I’d like to point out a pattern I have found in looking at the work of women poets in Latin America. Their poetry was often being published little by little in journals, the same journals as more famous men who were their peers, who were in their same literary circles. But the men became famous more quickly, had books published earlier. I think this is one reason that books of literary history tend to describe the women as footnotes, afterthoughts, imitators, or as not quite catching the wave of a literary movement. It appears from short biographical notes on Arvelo Larriva that she began publishing in 1939. This is not true — she was publishing as early as 1918, and certainly throughout the 1920s, and was part of the Generación de 1918; and was part of the Vanguard of the 1920s student movement as well.

Why do I care? Well, because histories talk about those movements – but leave her out, or only mention her 20 years after her vital, early work. The elision of 20 or more years of her publishing history means that she is also cut off from politics; her brother and others of her political circle were jailed in the 1920s. She remained in their hometown on the prairies. My feeling is that the story of her life might be quite interesting and complicated, but that complication is not represented in any descriptions I’ve seen — which just marvel at how she could write clever poems even though she lives out in the sticks instead of in the exciting capital.

Her work persistently reminds me of the somewhat better-known poems by David Rosenmann-Taub from the 1950s. I’ll talk about his poems later this month and connect back to this post on Arvelo Larriva. I also think of some of the short airy poems of García Lorca.

So, onward to a few poems. They might not be your cup of tea. But I get very excited over their depth and over how different they are from other poems of the time. They stand out to me. Also, since I have read a bunch of her work, I am able to see some things in a larger context. So if it seems that I am reading too much into a tiny poem, try to bear with me.

Destino

Un oscuro impulso incendió mis bosques
¿Quién me dejó sobre las cenizas?

Andaba el viento sin encuentros.
Emergían ecos mudos no sembrados.

Partieron el cielo pájaros sin nidos.
El último polvo nubló la frontera.

Inquieta y sumisa, me quedé en mi voz.

Destiny

A dark impulse burned up my forests.
Who is left for me from the ashes?

The wind roamed alone, meeting no one.
Echoes emerged, mute, unsown.

Birds without nests divided the skies.
The last dust clouded the frontier.

Anxious and meek, I dwell in my voice.

“Destino” can be read in light of the Venezuelan llanos and the prairie burn-off of the dry season. Yet, like many of her poems, it can be read as a political commentary. There is the “dry season” layer, specific to the geography of Barinas, where she lives; the tangled, thorny groves are burned with controlled fires in order to clear room for new growth for vast herds of cattle. The poem could also work as a personal one about philosophical and spiritual renewal. However, the “pájaros sin nidos” ‘birds without nests’ can also be read as the journalists, students, and poets who had to flee the country under the rule of Juan Vicente Gómez, after the 1927 student uprisings or other political clashes.

Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva

The creative act of the word, of poetry, is presented as a solution to the problems posed in “Destino” as in many of her other poems. I see her as writing with intense vitality about violence, revolution, politics. But as encoding those concepts within a sort of personal artistic framework, where the poet’s voice breaks out of everyday life, a jailbreak from reason and order.

To be honest here on my translation, I am not happy with those birds without nests. Well, how long can one stare at the page muttering, “homeless birds… birds without nests… nestless….. no, dammit” before one just goes with whatEVER. Sometimes, I will be driving down the highway and a line of a poem I translated years ago will pop into my head — one of this sort of line, where my English is clumsy and graceless — and the perfect, beautiful phrase will come to me in a flash. From what people say, this happens to all translators and that is why we are always revising. I can work very hard on a translation, and feel in the groove for 90% of it, but that other 10% that just wasn’t inspired, is a torment.

I am also fond of this poem:

Vive una guerra

Vive una guerra no advenida. Guerra
con santo y seña, con la orden del día,
con partes, con palomas mensajeras.

Guerra pujante dentro de las vidas.
No digo en las arterias; más adentro.

Ni un estampido ni un rojor de fuego
ni humo vago dan desnudo indicio.

Mas paz de tiza la refleja entera.

And I will give you the first bit, which I think is interesting to translate. Try it yourself as a challenge, if you like.

A war lives

A war lives, unheralded. War
with saint and sign, with the order of day,
with parts of things, with messenger doves.

War throbbing inside whole lives.
I don’t say in the veins; deeper inside.

“Vive una guerra” continues the internalization of violent metaphors, with war metaphors to represent existential and philosophical struggles.

Someday I would like to really do her poetry justice, and translate her first two books. Just the little bit that I do know about her family (which included many poets) and her life and about Venezuelan politics, history, and geography, illuminates the poems for me. If I could do the original research, find the journals where her work first appeared, read her poems in that context, I imagine that I could translate them better, explain them, present them in a context that would help other people see where the poems lead.

There is more to say about the ways that Arvelo Larriva was framed as a woman, and about the gendering of literary history as it happens and in hindsight. I guess I’ll go into that more in future posts as I talk about other poets and their lives.

Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva

What I truly wish for is the ability to get some good, lowdown, dirty gossip. I’d like to know the poets I translate, who have been dead since before I was born, in the same way that I know the poets who are alive now in my city; what do people think of them, really? What are they like? Would I have liked hanging around with Enriqueta? Was she rude, kind, radical, bitchy, boring, pedantic, vindictive, wise? Was she more interesting when she was young? What was the course of her life? With many poets, I do get a sense for the arc of their lives and careers. With Enriqueta, I barely know a thing. And am not likely to get it in this lifetime. Maybe I’ll find an old journal or two, or a letter; her letters with Gabriela Mistral and Juana de Ibarbourou. Just knowing those letters exist, changes everything for me.

Maybe someone who knows more will write a longer Wikipedia entry. More likely, some boorish great-nephew will write to me and go “My god! You’re talking about old Aunt Netty and her insane scribbling! I didn’t think anyone cared about that! Blah blah blah, all those poetry readings, grande dame of Barinitas… She smelled like dusty lavender and dead mice… But, she made good cookies.” I can’t romanticize my dead poets too much, because I always imagine out those great-nephews who have become excellent dentists and who have healthy lives and perspectives lacking in poetry, who knew only the human being and not the metaphysical point in space and time that was the free-floating philosopher poet.

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Deep, then flippant, thoughts on SXSWi

I’m getting ready to fly out to Austin for SXSWi, where I’m going to talk at a session on Sunday afternoon, “Fictional Blogging”. Marrit Ingman at the Austin Chronicle interviewed me here: Where the Wild Things Blog. For once, I’m not talking about myself or making anyone’s eyes glaze over with my wild Theories About Twitter:

Liz Henry, who will present the Fictional Bloggers panel with blog-novelist Odin Soli of Plain Layne fame, emphasizes the importance of disclosure. “We want lying we can trust, lying that’s transparent,” she explains. “We don’t want to feel stupid and be tricked by hoaxes. But some lying, the lying of fiction, is good and ethical. It creates distance between a person and the world, and in this distance we can explore crazy, fascinating ideas.”

Henry adds, “If corporations used fictional blogs seamlessly and with artistry, a lot of people wouldn’t mind the fakitude. They’d be entertained. We could potentially love the PSP2 fake bloggers just as we love Chaucer Hath a Blog if the PSP2 blog was any good.”

Instead of being good, the ad company responsible for Sony’s viral campaign, Zipatoni, drew the ire of consumers with the blog’s lack of corporate disclosure, ostensibly teenage pidgin, and blatantly fake “flogging.” (“so we started clowning with sum not-so-subtle hints to j’s parents that a psp would be teh perfect gift,” read the first entry on www.alliwantforxmasisapsp.com/blog, itself shut down last December.)

“Companies who want to build out a fictional character should hire novelists and playwrights, role-playing gamers and LARPers, bloggers and social media people – creative world-builders who understand how to bring life to an online presence. Blog readers and Web-entertainment consumers are sophisticated. They want depth to a character,” Henry says.

Odin is an awesome geek and all-around internetty consultant sort of person as well as a novelist. I like how he includes his old .plan files as part of his web site. I always thought of them as old school blogging… And I wish I still had mine!

I’m working now for Socialtext now, as their open source community manager, but my panel has nothing to do with that and everything to do with my history as a bookish and writerly and bloggity person.

But because I’m being soaked up to my eyebrows in wikis right now, I talked about them with Marrit too, so bear with me while I write that up and quote myself at enormous unquotable length:

I’d love to see companies blog creatively from the points of view of minor characters in a novel or other fictional series. I don’t want Harry Potter’s blog; I want Dobby’s blog or Neville’s or Pansy Parkinson’s. Or better yet, a network of interlinked fictional blogs and worlds. In the imaginary world, we aren’t limited by truth, reality, history, or time. We can have Genghis Khan blogging in dialogue with Caroline Ingalls and Picard and two hundred different Harry Potters, with real people thrown in the mix. A smart company would interlock its fictional worlds and information and allow participation from everyone in the building of alternate fictional realities. There’s a lot of energy in fanfiction, for example. This energy should be welcomed by media owners and publishers, who need radical change in their approach to intellectual property.

Book publishers aren’t getting wikis either – or not enough of them are getting it. Every book needs a wiki. Every book needs a blog, but I’d push it further and say that they need wikis too, or blikis.

Wikis have enormous creative potential. Socialtext uses wikis and blikis to increase collaboration and speed up communication in big corporations. Corporate wikis change the ways people talk with each other at work, or how they approach the definition of a project. But novelists and creative writers need to play with wikis in many other areas. Wikis are clearly useful for worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy. But let’s push it further. We could write a novel as a wiki. Someone should do that for Nanorimo! Maybe they already have. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it, if you’re a writer? It challenges the idea of authorship, authority, style, and the singular voice of the genius artist. That’s a fine challenge with a ton of potential. When we get our first excellent bestselling novel written by a wiki collective — better yet by an open collective — we’ll know that our society’s approach to the generation of knowledge has evolved. Fans groups of particular wikinovel hive minds will spring up. Literary criticism will change as well, and academia’s resistance to collaboration will have to evolve to change with the times.

Book publishers aren’t getting how to make a blog into a book. What is the value of the book? Besides editing the blog and making it portable, a book should annotate. The book of Riverbend’s blog, for example, could have been a fantastic book rather than just a nicely bound bundle of printouts. Add information, indexes, annotation, glossaries, diagrams, geneologies. Enrich a blog; don’t just print it. Publishers think people don’t want footnotes. They’re wrong. When people love a world, a character, or a subject — or a blog — they want to know everything, on different levels. A generation that grew up listening to DVD commentary tracks and writing complex Wikipedia articles about Pokemon characters does, indeed, love footnotes, and the option for depth of information they provide.

Anyway!

The conference was great last year. It was supposedly the year of everyone marveling at OMG there are girls and brown people here OMG OMG there is a line for the women’s room at a tech conference! Diversity was nice, I think it will continue, and I hope it has positive and tangible results for the “diversity-providers” as well as making everyone else feel all warm and fuzzy. The conference itself benefitted, if you think of their increase in attendees as being correlated with the array of speakers from different backgrounds – and I do think that’s true. I had to laugh a bit at the SXSW magazine that came in the mail last month, and its article on the British Invasion. What a spin. “Last year we had women! This year omg white guys are invading our conference! It’s so radical!” Every cliche was invoked. It was sweet, really! I’m not complaining — British geek guys are super sexy, they dress nicer than American white guys, they don’t make the bathroom lines longer for all the women (that’s important!) and I think they grace any conference with their cute accents and snarky comments and the way they act sort of uptight and then get drunk and let it all hang out. Kind of like Spock. The invasion’s fine with me!

In fact, right after I talked with Marrit about collaboration, world building, and wikis, I had lunch with Paul Youlten from Yellowiki, a very fascinating multi-tentacled person who is now building a collaborative fictional Latin American geographical space, Batán. I did not quiz him too deeply on the imperialist implications of his Bruce-Chatwin-esque wiki thing because I think it’s a fine cultural experiment, and if English-speaking people are going to construct a fake Latin America, they might as well make it overtly fake rather than constructing it on real cities where people actually live. (I realize that only about 3 people will get this or laugh at it, but it’s worth it to make them laugh really hard. This means you, Brian, Prentiss, and Gabby!)

(Meanwhile, as I’m blogging this in a cafe, there’s a guy across from me with a big Daviswiki sticker on his laptop. Wiki Everywhere!)

Back to the conference!

I’m looking forward to seeing some people I don’t see that often – to the rush of intense conversations – to eating breakfast at my favorite breakfast place ever which I shall not name because I don’t want you all to go there and make it too crowded – And to picking up some more Turitella fossils from the limestone bed of Shoal Creek, because I gave all the ones I picked up last year to little kids. And to going to all the wiki panels and open source panels and doing more soaking-stuff-up.

Also notable in my pre-conference rush: I got very excited at getting my cute little MOO cards. I have two kinds – one for my real name stuff and one for the main pseudonymous-me.

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Paying attention as an art form

In thinking about the ways that value is created (including literary value, or imaginary ideas like money) I arrived at some thoughts about the ways people pay attention to each other on the Internet. If you want to pay attention to someone on the Internet, thanks to social software and blogging and rss and things like Twitter and wikis, there’s a lot of ways to do that, to navigate attention & identity individually and collectively, and to let that be seen in varying degrees. In fact, paying attention to people with people can be done with amazing artistry and skill.

People need complex systems so that they can pay attention to each other indirectly and obliquely through all being attentive to something else they have in common. That thing has to be complicated enough to be worth attention. It might be social justice or the good life or gossip or religion or who is the most popular celebrity and why or who wins the Superbowl and how; or seduction or courtly etiquette or art criticism. Functionally and socially those things are all equivalent. Paying attention is better, the better the quality of the synthesis achieved. Software making is heady as any collective endeavor is because it’s about people paying enough attention to the same thing to make the thing happen and a creation of any sort is a logical synthesis of ideas & their practice (it is maybe a result of synthesis on one level but on another it is the synthesis.)

I come to this idea also as I think about how much I want to teach my college composition students about the pleasures of thought that arrives at synthesis. I’ve also gotten here because my partner just laughed at me and shook his head with disgust when I squeaked “Oooo, I’ve just reached twitterlibrium!”

Also because it’s late at night, I had an overstimulating and hyperproductive day, and can’t stop thinking to the point where I fool myself into thinking I’m Barthes or something and can write things like “Praxis is synthesis! Art is the collective attention stream!” and feel profound… without any acid.

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Gender and genre in blogs

In her paper on Gender and genre variation in weblogs Susan Herring and her team hypothesized differences between male- and female-authored blogs. I haven’t read the paper closely enough to get the detail, but the gist of it is they expected women to say “I” more and refer to women more, and men to write more impersonally and refer to “he” and “you”. Instead they found that personal blogs, male or female, show the characteristics that had been predicted for women’s writing, according to, I think, other studies and sources like the Gender Genie, based on grammatical analysis by Argomon & Koppel. (I have to say, when I messed with the Gender Genie I thought it was just annoying…) While filter blogs, meant to give information on a topic, have the characteristics associated by the Gender Genie with men — whether they are written by men or women. Herring et al.’s findings contradict Argomon & Koppel. She suggests that genre itself is gendered.

I agree with this, which matches what I found in reading women’s poetry from 100 years ago and in reading the criticism about that poetry. The gendering of genre appears to me to happen over time as a way of valuing or devaluing the quality of the writing. Entire genres would become (simultaneously) “feminized” in order to devalue them, or as they became devalued they were described as feminine, or as women succeeded in the genre, it was considered less important.

Many factors contribute to this and one of them is that women at times do the less important things or write in the less important genres because there is less backlash for doing so. And when they do enter the male-dominated genres where power is considered to be located then there is a strong backlash and the entire genre is at risk of being devalued.

When women in the 19th century succeeded at Romanticist poetry, for example, they were hailed as being unusual exceptions, virile, oddly masculine, at the same time perhaps kind of slutty or of questionable and abnormal sexuality. And when women began to dominate the genre to the extent that they could not be ignored and tokenized, then the entire genre was disempowered over a period of years – it became girly, uncool, dumb, awkward, not cutting edge, old-fashioned. When it was clear that women had mastered it, it didn’t matter anymore.

In short, there is a pattern of the “pink collar ghetto” in literary genres as in other professions. (I just looked online for something to link to, to explain pink collar ghetto and did not find an adequate explanation. Yes, it refers to jobs with a high concentration of women. But it further refers to a process: as women enter a high status profession, the pay for that job goes down, and there is a tipping point where the profession itself becomes devalued because women have entered it and succeeded. I remember going in around 1991 as a fledgling tech writer to a meeting of the Society for Technical Communication, and hearing a lot of incredibly depressing but realistic talk about the pink collar ghettoization of tech writing.

Anyway, back to literary genres; the same pattern becomes clear as I do further feminist research; If you have read much Dale Spender as well as Joanna Russ then you can see a lot of good evidence.

I point to this as something that bloggers should be aware of & consider.

(I am using the word “genre” here but may be talking about some more vague category, literary movements or styles or subgenres, like “Romanticist Poetry” or “Western novels” or “science fiction” for example. )

In fact – a short digression – consider science fiction and how as women write in the genre, there is a scramble to define the part of the genre that only men do, or mostly only men do, or only men do well. Why is it so important to prove that, for example, “hard sf” or “cyberpunk” is so masculine? (Of course in the face of any evidence to the contrary.) Hmmm! Could it be a backlash to preserve the perceived literary value of a formerly male-dominated genre?

Back to Herring. From about page 15 onwards Herring & co get into the nitty gritty of some excellent questions:

Diary writing has traditionally been associated with females, and politics and external events, the mainstays of filter blogs, have traditionally been masculine topics. Furthermore, previous research shows that females write more diary blogs, and males write a disproportionate number of filter blogs (Herring, Kouper et al. 2004; Kennedy, Robinson and Trammell 2005). But what is the direction of causality, and where does gendered language fit in?

In conclusion Herring points out that the gender differences are in which genre a male or female author writes in, much more than any essential difference in grammar or writing style, and that:

Social and political consequences also follow from this
distribution: Men’s blogs are more likely to appear on ‘A-lists’ of most popular weblogs (Kennedy, Robinson and Trammell 2005), and to be reported in the mainstream media, in part because filters are considered more informative and newsworthy than personal journals (Herring, Kouper et al. 2004). This recalls the traditional stigma associated with ‘gossip’ and women’s writing (Spender 1989), and reminds us that genres are socially constructed, in part through association with the gender of their producers.

Oh look, she just referenced Spender. Right on… No wonder I like this paper.

Anyway it’s a good paper – go read it. I’ll read Herring’s other papers and I look forward to printing it out and giving it an hour or two of more close and serious reading and note-taking & reaction. Oh – and in good blogging and gossiping tradition I should mention that I came across this paper after reading Managing ‘Trolling’ in an Online Forum, which is amazing and excellent; I got to that from Wikichix, which I found because I was bitching about the lack of good feminist content on Wikipedia and a few weeks ago, some dude commented and told me to check out their talk page on Systemic Gender Bias. Since I am involved with some feminist wikis and ticked off whenever I try to engage with Wikipedia, Wikichix sounded great. If you are a wiki editing woman or would like to be, then sign up with Wikichix and add to the discussions there. There’s a mailing list and an irc channel as well as the wiki pages. & on alternet recently there was a brief article that talks about the Wikichix, Wikipedia vs. Women? with an interesting comments thread.

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Women of the Left Bank

I’m still thinking about Paris Was a Woman and at the moment am listening to Ed Sanders reading “Hail to the Rebel Cafe”. I know a lot of Latin American women were in Paris or visited in the teens and 1920s, and I’ll look through my notes to figure out who. All my biographical information on these writers is going into a wiki, which for now is private while I set up the structure and the skeleton, but will soon be public and editable by anyone.

I need to get a copy of Women of the Left Bank and add them too.

Here’s some of the people I can list as literary women in Paris from the documentary: Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Sylvia Beach, Janet Flanner, Alice B. Toklas, Colette, Janet Flanner, painter Marie Laurencin Berenice Abbott, Gisele Freund, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, Gertrude Stein, Ada “Bricktop ” Smith , Josephine Baker, Renee Vivian, Romaine Brooks, Marie Bonaparte, Elizabeth Bowen, Victoria Ocampo, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, Bryher.

We could also add:

* Gabriela Mistral
* Emilia Bernal
* Léonie Julieta Fournier (Nirene Jofre Oliú.)
* Comtesse de Noilles – Anna de Noailles

Of course, what about now? Where are we? Are we documenting this? I’d like to expand my women poets/writers wiki to right this minute and my own hometown. Why not document the moment and ourselves? Think of the riot grrl history that is already lost or slipping away. Let it be recorded on heaven’s unchangeable heart or at least the internets, failing heaven.

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Spoken word memoir

Just said this on mailing list but I want to stick it here too so I can remember it and think about it some more. In the context of people saying their students write this kind of thing that is more “performance art” than poetry. What I’m looking at is that this form is a new form – or genre – that we have a hard time judging properly – and there is a knee jerk reaction against it, but that’s because we’re seeing its manifestations popping up all over and not (as we will 30 years from now) its “best” or most characteristic examples. (And mediocre or dull formal poetry is certainly as bad as mediocre spoken word memoir.)

So this is a bit out of context but, anyway, here.

*******

I tend to feel that there’s a trend of memoir-style spoken word
performance that isn’t what I think of as poetry. It’s a form that’s not as dense and declamatory even as long poems; it’s more like the pace of a section of a novel. I think of them as vignettes or as their own form whose conventions I’m only starting to understand. As poetry, I don’t always like them. But as whatever they are, they’re their own thing.

There is something about the “coming out story” to them; again, they follow a convention of memoir, but of a sort of monologue sharing-aloud memoir. Does anyone know what I’m talking about? I could try to find examples online.

As far as content, the spoken-word memoir seems to extend and turn what I think of as a convention of the generation before me – the Boomer confessional, in which a shade of emotional subtlety is revealed – what is secret is revealed – the “private” of the nuclear family is violated in speaking the unspeakable – then, a moment of aesthetic awareness. For the younger spoken-word memoir poets there is a firmer security in speaking that kind of thing. It comes out, but it isn’t all. I think the point is more that it’s a conscious establishing of political identity, a playing
with identity and story.

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genre or movement?

I was challenged to explain what I mean by “genre” and how it’s different from a “literary movement”. So, is modernismo a genre? A movement? Or what? Some theorists talk about genre as form – as poetry, drama, prose; elegy, epic, lyric. Then there’s another way of talking about genre or subgenre, or “historical genres”: science fiction, gothic romance, realist painting. And if a literary movement is some people copying each other to do something a new way, or a particular way, and create a different frame of reference of aesthetic judgement, how is that different from inventing a genre — a body of work that shares some particular characteristics?

Or, think of it this way… a sonnet is a form, not a genre. But we could talk about a historical genre of “courtly love poetry” which often uses sonnet form. Or one could talk about a genre of writing about “courtly love” which would include various form-genres like poetry and exchanges of letters.

So am I way off base in using that word to talk about modernismo as a genre? And suggesting a countergenre? “Movement” doesn’t fit, and I’m trying to talk about the beginnings of decisions about canonicity… though I suppose you can talk about being canonical within a particular movement. But how critics/poets decide who’s in the movement and who isn’t is quite suspect. So if a movement depends on traceable connections between writers, and I’m reframing rather than proving connections, I don’t feel like “movement” is the right word. Plus – it makes me think of going to the bathroom.

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Gender and genre

As I continue reading Latin American literary criticism from the 20s and 30s onward, I keep noticing that critics often decide that women poets missed the genre bus. A critic will launch into a discussion of modernismo, and then mention at the end of the chapter that some women were writing, but they are really Romanticists who came to the party years too late. That in 1910, no respectable poet would still be writing in a Romanticist tradition; poetry has evolved beyond that. And then later, that in 1930, no respectable poet would still be writing in a modernismo tradition, because now the new thing is different.

As if only one genre could exist at a time, and as if there were a model of evolutionary progress. Literary Darwinism. And as if there weren’t fuzzy boundaries, as if even a single poem didn’t have multiple traditions feeding it – not to mention the entire body of work of a poet who might write in many genres, many styles.

But then, in a strange twist; the same critics lament that there was never a great woman Romanticist poet, never a real one who was Romanticist to the core; never a true poet of modernimso.

I see the same thing in science fiction. Oh, it’s too bad women don’t really fit “the genre” — don’t write “hard sf”. (Despite all the ones who did, and still do.) But then when they do… Well, of course when women start doing it, they’ve missed the bus; they’re out of date, they’re stuck in the past, they’re no longer the cutting edge. We men have already plumbed that genre to its depths and discarded it and we have our Great examples. We’ve gone somewhere else to redefine the center of power, now that you women have come.

And I begin to believe the same is true of the “where are the masterworks” argument. (Which is now happening, heatedly, on the WOMPO list.) Where are the masterworks by women throughout history? Where is our female Dante, Homer, Shakespeare? This question always asked as if there could be no possible answer except pity that the terribly sexist conditions of the past precluded women ever acheiving something great. How inassailably logical! Always, we are on the cusp of Now; because of the recent advances in women’s rights and education, we might, someday, hope to acheive a masterwork; the problem is, this arguement has been around for hundreds of years at least. It’s always almost. It’s always as if the problem were new and the carrot were just out of reach. And … this is a big fat lie. And women, if you buy into that lure of Now Almost Maybe and it might be you who surfs the new thing into the open arms of important history; well you’re actually screwing over the women of the past in order to eliminate some competition, you’re elbowing other women out of the way in a roller derby you aren’t going to win, because that token position is a shaky one. Be careful what you’re buying into.

It is very instructive to look at the ratio (As Beth Miller does in her essay “El sexismo en los antologías”) of women to men in anthologies over a long time period. We need more studies like this, with charts and data analysis… To make the patterns and process more obvious to everyone.

I remain convinced that not only are the masterworks out there (one small example – I’d put the Heptameron up against Boccacio any day) but there is something wrong with you definition of masterwork if you think they aren’t.

And I’m also convinced that one solution is to redefine genres. I like my idea of maenidismo as a genre. It fits so well. Redefine and recreate genres in which women’s work is central, is the core. In science fiction, we have some of that with the push to define a canon for feminist speculative fiction. But I’d like to see more thought and discussion; more genres invented. Perhaps the beginning is to take the work by women, and put it all together, and look for patterns, create groupings, look for movements and feedback loops. Then define the genre. THEN look and see if there’s any work by men that might half-way begin to fit in that genre.

I wonder if anyone else has used this approach? Probably; but it’s a new thought to me and I’ve been developing it for many years. It goes beyond the creation of women’s anthologies and studying work by women only. Create genres and traditions, and then let in men’s work halfway, as tokens. This avoids pure separatism, and the ghettoization that seems to accompany it. Even if this doesn’t “work”, with the ripple effects of power that I’d like to see, well, then it ends up functioning like other gender identity-based efforts and anthologies; as pockets for information and women’s work to be preserved for future rediscovery by people like me, which is maybe the best we can hope for.

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