Translation: Feminismo, by Alfredo Arteaga

This poem is by the Argentinian writer Alfredo Arteaga and was published in 1917 in Antología Contemporánea de poetas argentinos. It is guaranteed to annoy. I stuck it in my anthology of women poets, in Appendix B. This is what our poetisas had to deal with — damning praise, the gist of which is, “Shut up, look pretty, quit writing poetry!”

Don’t be fooled; it is not a feminist poem. It’s a critique of the feminists of 1917, who were fighting for rights, for education, for the vote, and to be taken seriously as writers. It’s a great example of how feminization can be used by patriarchy to infantalize and silence women, to deny them agency.


Feminismo


Porque es vuestro, mujeres, el encanto
que ilumina y perfuma la existencia;
porque vertéis amor–eterna esencia
de toda la alegría y todo el llanto;
porque, al pasar vosotras, los más nobles
y fuertes corazones se estremecen
y juncos, tiemblan los que fueron robles;
porque gemas y flores nos parecen
creadas sólo para vuestro lujo;
porque no hay en el mundo quien ejerza
función sagrada o soberano imperio,
sin estar sometido a vuestro influjo;
porque dáis, aunque débiles, la fuerza
que penetra al abismo del misterio
y sube del ensueño hasta la cumbre;
porque la irradiación de vuestra gracia
a todas las tinieblas presta lumbre,
y nos brindáis un bálsamo divino
para cerrar heridas del destino;
porque formáis la excelsa aristocracia
de virtud, de bondad y de belleza,
a la que sólo el vil infiere agravios;
porque sóis la suprema fortaleza
(que dijo Salomón en sus Proverbios)
ante la cual se humillan los soberbios;
porque son siempre necios los más sabios,
si en vuestra copa no han bebido un día
la ignorante, esencial sabiduria;
porque es vuestra la luz de las leyendas,
el alma musical de los cantares
y el fecundo calor de los hogares;
porque recibe Dios nuestras ofrendas
con agrado mayor, si vuestras manos
o labios la elevan; porque el cielo
os desterró para adornar la tierra
y aquí extender de la ilusión el velo;
en fin, porque, entre títulos humanos,
os pertenece el título que encierra
toda la majestad y la dulzura –
ese nombre de madre–¡oh bellos seres
que derramáis primaveral frescura
en los tiempos más foscos de la historia
y que santificáis nuestros placeres,
contentaos por siempre con la gloria
y con la suavidad de ser mujeres!




Feminism


Because it's yours, women, the enchantment
that illuminates & perfumes existence;
because you shed love–eternal essence
of all happiness and all sorrow;
because, on meeting you, the noblest,
strongest hearts tremble
and oaks turn to shivering reeds;
because to us you seem to be gems and flowers
created only for our luxury and enjoyment;
because there isn't anything in the world that exercises
sacred function or imperial sovereignity
without being submitted to your influence;
because, though weak, you give strength
that penetrates the abyss of mystery
and you mount in dreams to the summits of mountains . . .
Because the radiation of your grace
brings hunger to all that’s dark and and hidden
and you bring us a divine balm
to heal the wounds of fate:
because you form the highest aristocracy
of virtue, of kindness, and of beauty
to which only the evil give offense;
because you are the supreme fortitude
(just as Solomon said in Proverbs)
before which soveriegns make themselves humble;
because even the wise are most foolish
if they never drink, from your cup,
your naive, essential wisdom:
because it's yours, the light of legends,
the musical soul of the singers
and the fertile heat of the hearths;
because God hears your prayers
with greater amiability if your hands
or lips lift them to heaven;
because heaven exiled you to adorn the earth
and extends here the veil of illusion;
in fin, because, among human titles
you have the title that encompasses
all majesty and sweetness,
this name of mother–oh lovely beings
that spill over with primeval freshness
in the greatest focal points of history;
you who sanctify our pleasures,
content yourselves for always with the glory
and the softness of being women!
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Nitpicking at Langston

So, I keep vaguely talking about Hughes’ editorial choices – what, of Mistral, he chose to translate and present to a U.S. English-speaking audience. Selecting poems to represent a poet’s work is a hard job! I respect what he did, and yet have many critiques of it. And how it was read – as critics and other poets and editors praised him for capturing the essence of Mistral’s womanliness. Leaving aside the problem of Mistral’s mystical womanliness – for someone so complexly genderfucked – I want to look at some of Hughes’ choices as a translator. Specifically, I want to nitpick a translation and in fact, I would go so far as to call it a complete misreading. A gendered misreading. (I have more to say about Mistral and race, and Hughes’ biography, and how here, Hughes wanted to see and believe in that nurturing mixed-race populist world-mother that in fact, Mistral represented herself as, and bought into. But this poem in particular struck me as Hughes’ mistaking of Mistral’s coolness and her radical position as a woman writing women.

Here is the poem in Spanish:

ROCIÓ

Esta era una rosa
que abaja el rociò:
este era mi pecho
con el hijo mío.

Junta sus hojitas
para sostenerlo
y esquiva los vientos
por no desprenderlo.

Porque él ha bajado
desde el cielo inmenso
será que ella tiene
su aliento suspenso.

De dicha se queda
callada, callada:
no hay rosa entre rosas
tan maravillada.

Esta era una rosa
que abaja el rocío:
este era mi pecho
con el hijo mío.

What is this poem *about*? Dew… But Hughes makes it about a son. He sees a Virgin Mary worshipping her son. Sentimentally and rather tritely. In my opinion, he misses something crucial in the poem’s voice and italics; it is written in two different voices! The mother (older) contemplating her own breasts and what they have done – in the bracketing stanzas in italics. And the middle 3 stanzas where her marvel at the act of nursing is described.

Here is Hughes’ translation:

Dew

This was a rose
kissed by the dew:
This was the breast
my son knew.

Little leaves meet,
soft not to harm him,
and the wind makes a detour
not to alarm him.

he came down one night
from the great sky;
for him she holds her breath
so he won’t cry.

Happily quiet,
not a sound ever;
rose among roses
more marvellous never.

This was a rose
kissed by the dew;
this was my breast
my son knew.

To nitpick further. The winds are not making a detour; if they were, they’d be “esquivan” not “esquiva”. So the winds are not the subject. I’m just saying. Rather: the rose and her petals avoid the wind, to protect *the dew*.

Here is my translation:

Dew

This was a rose
covered in dew
This was my breast
and my nursing baby.

She pulls in her petals
to hold the dewdrops,
and shies away from the wind
lest they loosen and fall.

Since the dew has descended
from infinite heaven,
she’ll have to
hold her breath.

At her great luck, she remains
hushed, hushed:
out of all roses, this rose
is so amazing.

This was a rose
covered in dew
this was my breast
and my nursing baby.

(disclaimer… I could improve on this if I fiddled with it for a while longer. That’s actually a first pass effort.)

Yes, she is marvelling at her baby. But first of all she is marvelling at her breastmilk! That’s the point! She’s stunned, quiet, amazed, holding her breath at the amazingness of the milk – not only at the fact of the baby itself! It’s way more like Inanna applauding her wondrous vulva than it is like a Hallmark card about a mom cooing over her babe that came down from heaven.

Yes, I do think I can grok a poem about breastfeeding better than some dude, no matter how cool he is. (And he is cool – I totally love him. But I do not really love his translations of Mistral! Oh, Langston! )

Just a little translatory rant to liven things up. I could pick apart quite a lot of that little Hughes book, in totally insane detail.

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gender wars in Argentina

I’m still editing my thesis and while looking over the bibliography for the hundredth time I had the horrifying realization that I had dissed Jean Franco by only citing a book she wrote in 1969 and nothing since. I think it is too late… but anyway in looking up Franco’s work online I came across this:

The Gender Wars

In July of last year, several members of the Argentine planning committee that had drawn up the guidelines for a nationwide curriculum resigned when they discovered that changes to their proposal had been made, apparently by the Minister of Education under pressure from the Catholic Church. Mention of Darwin and Lamarck had been eliminated, references to sex education had been erased, and the word “gender” had replaced by “sex.”

“Gender” rather than sex (in this case género and sexo) was especially controversial.

its use “intended to provoke an ideological shift and to generate a new conception of the human person, of subjectivity, marriage, the family and society. In short what is proposed is a cultural revolution.” Using the word gender “as a purely cultural construct, detached from the biological,” he warned, “makes us into fellow travelers of radical feminism.”

Then he quotes Shulamith Firestone. Ha. Kind of ha. Not really funny when you think about it.

Wow.

Absolutely fascinating… I am going to have to at least mention Franco’s later work and I feel really dumb for not looking earlier.

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provocations

While I’m writing all this feminist criticism I do find that I spend a lot of time describing and refuting sexist criticism.

There should actually be a special category or word for works that especially offend, that are so egregiously sexist that they sting feminist to action. They make it all very clear. Really, work like this does us a favor. It needs special mention, a category of its own.

This occurred to me the other night as I was talking about feminist science fiction with Laura Quilter. What to put in the femsf wiki? I was trying to argue for this “worst offenders” category for feminist sf. What are the books that outraged me when I was 12, and made me suddenly realize I was not, as a girl, included in (male) universalist claims to represent humanity? What made me shriek, “Hey! That’s not ME… and it pretends to be. So I better stand up, say something, and represent.” What are the touchstones of sexist thought?

Instantly a few revolting candidates spring to mind… Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and certainly Podkayne of Mars. For me, I think, attempts to create the “plucky girl” stood out more strongly than the usual objectifications of women in fantasy and SF. I identified with John Carter of Mars easier than I did Arkady Darrell, for god’s sake.

Well, I’m led to think of all this again as I contemplate the horrors of Sidonie Rosenbaum’s “Modern Women Poets of Spanish America.” It sounds good, doesn’t it? But its horrible sexism was one of the main inspirations for me to translate Juana de Ibarbourou’s work. Rosenbaum praises and insults Ibarbourou sometimes in the very same sentence – she’ll refer to her freshness and sponteneity and then “lack of profundity” and “superficiality of thought.” She’s primitive, she’s ardent, etc. It’s a classic example of what (in How to Suppress Women’s Writing) Joanna Russ calls denial of agency. It’s as if the poetry just flowed unconsciously from Ibarbourou’s “brain”… not that Rosenbaum thinks she has a brain, so I should probably say “flowed unconsciously from her very being.” As soon as Ibarbourou writes about anything other than “take me now, i’m nubile and willing!” then the critics slam down on her for being a) pretentious b) boringly intellectual c) pretending to have understood suffering d) being obscure e) being too complicated. Even though they were previously saying she wasn’t complicated or mature ENOUGH.

Well, it’s endlessly annoying.

My point is, in part, that I have a strong impulse to slam the people who are trying to make anthologies of women writers and who do it in a way that exacerbates the entire sexist discourse of what women write and how and why and whether it’s “really” any good or not.

This means that as I leap into publishing my thoughts on the subject I will be criticizing pretty much everyone else in my field.

Luckily most of them are dead.

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damning with faint praise and no space

After two years of research, reading prefaces to anthologies of Latin American poetry and descriptions of women poets in literary histories, I’m a veteran of hateful sexism. You’d think I’d be inured to it.   But this sentence dripped with such venom I thought I’d share it and perhsps that would defuse some of its power:

“She acheived a sort of stark and uncompromising beauty that came very close to justifying the 1945 Nobel Prize she received at a time when Reyes, Neruda, and Borges were all still very active.”

Thanks, Rodríguez Monegal… *sarcasm*. Why not just say right out, “Mistral did not deserve the Nobel Prize” and then explain why you think so?

There’s another phenomenon I keep seeing. A critic will praise a woman poet’s work to the skies, but then won’t discuss it; instead, will briefly describe the woman’s life, family, and reputation, while giving all the critical attention (and lots of space) to male poets who are not better writers. For example, Anderson-Imbert called María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira “the nucleus of Uruguayan poetry” and of modernismo; he praises her high level of complex thought and her technical perfection; but then he wraps her up in two paragraphs, following up with five pages in detail about Julio Herrera y Reissig, whom he calls “not a great poet…” If he’s not a great poet and Vaz Ferreira is, why did she get two paragraphs and he got five pages?

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outrageously erased

Today in the library I meant to write up a formal description of my anthology project, but instead skimmed through biographical dictionaries.

I checked out several huge fat multi-volume dictionaries of Latin American authors, and some other Spanish-language Encyclopedias of Famous Women. It was interesting to see patterns emerge. Some encyclopedists knew a fair amount of Cuban women writers, but missed all the Chileans. Others got the Argentinians and Uruguayans, or knew about certain of my own favorites like the Venezuelan poet Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, or massively famous feminists like Adela Zamudio, but missed the Cubans entirely except for Gomez de Avellaneda. *Everyone* was blind to the very strong groups of Guatemalan women writers. Some of the encyclopedias who knew the Matamoros-Borrero-Xenes circle still missed Emilia Bernal, or perhaps left her out on purpose for being too scandalous – I have no idea.

Sainz de Robles’ Diccionario de Mujeres Celebres, 1959, was strong on international and historical references. I’d enjoy reading all of it someday. If I found similar books from 1900 or so, and simply read them through, I’d understand these women’s poetry better. I’d see their references, just as reading a historical review of Sappho-myths helped me understand the poetry of Mercedes Matamoros and Nydia Lamarque. And just as my somewhat random knowledge of Norse mythology clued me into understanding Juana Borrero’s poem about Ran’s daughters.

Anyway, I studied patterns, took notes, xeroxed some things, and added considerably to the short biographies of many of the poets.

I enjoyed skipping around in Cesar Aira’s dictionary of authors. The appendices, which listed writers by country and then by birthdate, looked extremely useful. Though he missed quite a lot of the women I think are interesting. I like to think that he just didn’t know about them – rather than that he knew them but rejected their work as inferior.

Then I got into a terrible history-of-literature book, Literatura Hispanoamericana, volume 5 of an enormous and authoritative-looking reference series, Historia de la literatura española. It’s from 1969, and its author, Professor A. Valbuena Briones, included only one woman in his 600-page review of five centuries of Spanish-American literature, and it was… wait for it…. who do you think? There are only two possibilities and it is unimaginable to leave one of them out. It was Gabriela Mistral! He left out Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. Fucking incredible… of all the people you’d think it would be impossible to erase. I kept looking through the index in dismay and finally flipped through the books’ opening chapters. Nope! No Sor Juana! I still hope I’m wrong. It keeps my faith in human nature going. The Valbuena B, he’s an amazing guy. I started having flashbacks to my classes 20 years ago in the Spanish department at University of Texas… maybe those old fossils had learned off that very book. Since The Valbuena had huge bibliographies that made it clear he had at least opened the flyleaf of many fine books that had women in them, we have to think that perhaps he is the distillation of many filtering layers of sexist anthologizing and critical reviewing, so that all the times that women writers were shunted off into the last paragraph of the last chapter of the book finally came to a head, like an enormous, gross zit, and popped, leaving nothing for Valbuena Briones to work with. He didn’t even have the obligatory section of “mention a couple of women while putting them down and lamenting that they aren’t better and there aren’t more of them” which I notice in so many literary doorstops of the 20th century.

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Fitting and not fitting

While I was doing my research I pretty much ignored Chile and in fact I have completely ignored Gabriela Mistral because I figure everyone else has written about her already, and she’s well known. Ultimately I have to go and read her poems and read something about her life – in fact, probably I’m being stupid and there’s a biography of her out there in English that would be easy for me to find, with pointers to lots of other good poets.

My poet this week has been Olga Acevedo, a Chilean born around 1895. Acevedo fits firmly with the other women I’ve been translating, all the ones who are “not quite modernists”. Well what if they’re not? Why not call them something else? Because there was definitely something. Why not call it a genre? For god’s sake.

My special favorite, Juana de Ibarbourou, doesn’t fit strict definitions of modernismo in her early work mostly because she’s not quite rigorous and formal enough. I read somewhere in an interview with her that until after her second book, she didnt’ even know what a sonnet was. She’d read plenty of them, and written them, but had never studied the rules of verse. (All the poets did not study the rules of verse, but the ladies DO roll their eyes.) She just DID it – but slightly “wrong”.

Back to Acevedo. I got very excited at her early poems. Acevedo mentions silence a lot. There’s a lot of not-speaking, and dot-dot-dot ellipses, ghosts and statues that can’t speak but who want to speak and paradoxically ARE speaking through the poem. The sort of poem that goes like this, “I’m totally mute, I’m a statue, I can’t speak! Oh, the sadness!” (Not an actual line.) It’s a beautiful rhetorical strategy that makes me aware of all the things they’re not saying. Despite my writing ALL THE TIME there is plenty I’m not saying and can’t say because of social convention or attempts to be private — and I don’t always feel comfortable with that. Show me a wall and I want to break it. Reflex! But these early 20th century women, their silent speaking statues are all talking to Rodó, in response to his essay “Ariel” in which a philosopher explains to his students (gatherred around a statue of Ariel) all about their duty as artists.

I wondered about the phrase “la tristeza de ser”, which was in quotes in Acevedo’s poem “Serenata”. Is it a quotation/translation from French? Or Kierkegaard? I could translate it as “existential despair” but I’m not sure if I want to be anachronistic if it’s an anachronism. If you’re going to say “sadness of being” you might as well say “existential despair”. Anyway, Acevedo’s angst is expressed thusly: She’s passionately addressing a ray of pure white moonlight as it streams into her room, and she wants to hide her face in its gauzy negligee and melt away into perfumed nothingness like a ravished bride. Hot stuff!

In other early poems by Acevedo, I noticed a lot of blue which is now a red flag, or really a blue flag, for me that something is going on about Art and Poetry with capital letters. Anything that’s blue, or anything about fountains or swans, and the poet is definitely talking to/about Darío and “Azul” — and so is addressing the ideas of modernismo; the poem should be read in the context of modernismo whether you “count” it or not in that genre. Pure art, inspiration, beauty — Beauty — as a way of being. These women, these adherents of maenidismo, saw themselves as living their lives as art. I feel like the more I read, the more I am in their dream-world. Edith Södergran is there — and the Comtesse de Noailles — and I’m sure so many more from other countries and languages. I want to put my Latin American women together with them in a lovely anthology, someday, to show the connections.

My own dreamworld is still this imaginary, beautiful data structure of all the texts in the world. I want it to be easy to see relationships between books. I want people to be viewable as nebulous clouds of text-production and consumption or maybe those are the wrong words; texts and people have conversations and relationships.

How much happier I am to be putting all this out into the world, instead of just in private notebooks! And not to be a lonely super-reader autodidact freak anymore. I mean, I still am, but the value of it is different once I’m not talking to the air.

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Genre classifications and sexism

I come up against this again and again. Critical literature focuses on defining a genre, and women end up just outside that definition. So it always looks like they just miss the boat because they’re not quite good enough. Really, though, if you look at the moments when the genre is being defined, the boundaries are arbitrary. Other genres could be declared.

I need to read more widely…

So check this out.

With respect to her poetry in particular, critics have often failed to recognize the modernity of its lyric voice on account of its traditional verse patterns. Reflecting a dual attitude of competition and cooperation with her cultural world, Noailles held a similarly double-voiced discourse toward conventional interpretations of woman. Her classification in literary history as a belated French Romantic further obfuscates the significance of her work. While recognizing her predecessors, Noailles was frequently unable to find adequate models in their works for a distinct poetic identity. In seeking new versions of the feminine self, she acknowledged women who were unable to write and, more broadly, she attempted to provide a formerly silent Muse with voice and presence. (Catherine Perry)

She’s not quite a romantic… or she’s a “late” romantic… but she’s not quite a modernista either – like de Ibarbourou, Bernal, Vaz Ferreira, Elisa Monge, Mercedes Matamoros, and so many women poets of the 1890s to the 1920s.

I’ll be looking for Perry’s book. She has more to say on her brief website on de Noailles:

A discrepancy between form and content, reflecting Noailles’ situation at the cusp of the antithetical world views of nineteenth-century Romanticism and twentieth-century Modernism, characterizes her poetry, where dynamic concepts and images strive to dissolve a largely classical structure. By actively engaging with her French literary heritage while finding a source of inspiration in Greek paganism and in Nietzsche’s radical thought, Noailles constructed an original poetic world view. Her work is best described as Dionysian–ecstatic, sensual, erotic, playful, sometimes violent, and always marked by a tragic undercurrent which becomes more apparent in her later poetry.

“Dionysian” describes Agustini, de Ibarbourou, Bernal, and Matamoros very well. I would prefer a different name if we are going to declare a new genre… Imagine the articles as we define Maenidic poetics and make brief offhand mention of Ruben Darío – and how he doesn’t quite fit the Genre. A pity, really, as his work contained echos of Maenidism, traces which can’t help but reflect the prevailing spirit of the time.

***
It occurs to me that I have had a giant epiphany about this, but I’m reinventing the wheel. I did a little poking around and found this excellent bibliography: Gender and Genre. My god! right up top we have “Benstock, S. (1991). Textualizing the feminine. On the limits of genre. University of Okla. Press.” Looks perfect! I’m still 15 years behind in academic literary theory. Though I think it might be more like “feminizing the textual” than “textualizing the feminine” – that’s what’s going on in a lot of the criticism I’m reading. The poets are textualizing the feminine. The critics feminize in order to denigrate and marginalize. *sigh*

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Damned with machista praise

From an essay by José Carlos Mariátegui – cited by Daisy Zamora in the intro to her anthology, La mujer nicaragüense en la poesía:

“Los versos de las poetisas generalmente no son versos de mujer. No se siente en ellos sentimiento de hembra. Las poetisas no hablan como mujeres. Son, en su poesía, seres neutros. Son artistas sin sexo. La poesía de la mujer está dominada por un pudor estúpido. Y carece por esta razón de humanidad y de fuerza. Mientras el poeta muestra su “yo”, la poetisa esconde y mistifica el suyo. Envuelve su alma, su vida, su verdad, en las grotescas túnicas de lo convencional” (Zamora 22).

“The verses of poetesses generally aren’t women’s verses. One doesn’t sense in them any female feeling. The women poets don’t talk like women. They are, in their poetry, neuter beings. They’re artists without sex. The poetry of women is dominated by an idiotic modesty. And that’s why they lack in humanity and power. While the male poet displays his “I”, the poetess hides and mystifies herself. She wraps up her soul, her life, her truth, in the grotesque tunics of the conventional.” [translation by Liz Henry]

I don’t know the year that Mariátegui wrote this essay, but most likely sometime in the 1920s. It’s fascinating to contrast his criticism of women with that of other (male) critics who run off at the mouth about the oversexed women poets who go too far with their passion and who can’t seem to write about anything important, anything other than love. I had just been writing about him in conjunction with Magda Portal, María Wiesse, Angela Ramos, Alicia del Prado, and other women who were publishing in Amauta, a Peruvian magazine. He was the only man mentioned in conjunction with these very political, activist women, and I wondered if he had some interesting take on feminism. Well, he sure sounds jerky in that one excerpt, kind of like he wants a free show from these un-neuter women who boldly strip themselves of their tunics…

Last week I translated Magda Portal’s poem “Liberación”. And check out these lines:

Un día seré libre… Seré libre presiento,
con una gran sonrisa a flor de corazón,
con una gran sonrisa como no tengo hoy.
Y ya no habrá la sombra de mi remordimiento,
el cobarde silencio que merma mi Emoción.
Un día habré logrado la verdad de mi Yo!

One day I’ll be free… I’ll be free, I know it,
with a huge smile that flowers from the heart,
with a huge smile that I don’t have today.
And then I won’t have the ghost of my shame,
the coward silence that tamps down Emotion.
Someday I’ll have achieved the truth of my Self!
[forgive the translation… a crude first draft.]

Wow! That just can’t be a coincidence. It sounds like she wrote it in response to Mariátegui. A little bit of poking around on the web and I found this fascinating essay by him all about Portal’s poetry, comparing her to Agustini, Ibarbourou, and others: 7 Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana, from 1928. Mari&ategui has a huge crush!

I find it annoying how he says her work isn’t “descended” from any other women — as if feminist geneologies would demean the work or the poet, and as if she sprung up out of nowhere and as if no other woman anywhere were writing like that. Praise becomes isolation; isolation becomes tokenization. I understand that his motivations were partly nationalist, but from my perspective, I see every introduction to women’s work from this era saying “How come this woman poet has no equal, no precursor? Where did she come from? ” as having a subtext of assigning freakishness to women writers.

But then, the more I look, the more I find that these women writers often were surrounded by other writing women. They’re not left out because they’re trivial; they’re left out because non-triviality is defined to be male.

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Anthologizing; standards of selection

I’ve been working on my anthology project for over a year. It’s of poems by Latin American women writers – well, Spanish America – and is focused on work published between 1880 and 1930. My goal is to give a fair representation of what was being published by women in that era. I’ve done a lot of research! And I could spend years expanding this project; it’s fascinating and there is a ton of material. To do this project right, I would need to go spend a couple of months in various big libraries. I’d like to visit the Benson Latin American collection in Austin; I’m familiar with it because I used to work in that library system. I’d like to go to big libraries in Buenos Aires and Uruguay and Cuba and Guatemala, to look at copies of women’s magazines and other literary magazines from the turn of the century.

For now, I have quite a lot to work with. I have good work from about 40 or 50 poets, and many more I haven’t yet been able to judge. I’ve translated a smaller core group of 21 poets, made short bios for them, and compiled lists of their work, where I could find that information. Most of these poets are not well known. You have your famous ones in roughly this order:

– Gabriela Mistral (Won the Nobel Prize)
– Delmira Agustini
– Alejandra Storni

I’d say that’s it for the “known” writers that you would expect from an academic who is a latin americanist, or is from Latin America. Storni, especially, was hip recently. And a few poets in the U.S. will have read selected translations of Mistral. Usually the dippiest and stupidest of her poems.

Beyond that, people seem to know Juana de Ibarbourou; Salome Ureña, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Correct me if I’m wrong! The other writers are either little-known even to most literary people, or they’re known (or known of) by people from their own countries. This is not surprising; academia rewards specialization. People tend to become experts in a particular time, place or “literary movement”; even so narrow as to study a particular writer. The mindset of the ambitious anthologist must be quite different.

I find most of my “unknown” women poets only in anthologies that are country-specific, and often only in old anthologies from 1930. There is a certain sentimentality attached to them, as they might have been poems memorized in grade school for recitation…. again, the poems best known are not the best poems.

So what do I mean by “the best poems”? On some level, I have an absolute artistic standard, a very traditional “golden bookshelf” one, that I’m judging by. It’s elitist and snobby. I like density of language and meaning, a “leaping” quality, and intertextuality. I like a surprise. I value poems that are exciting to me as a poet – and value them over poems that might be more exciting to a general audience. This kind of discernment is good to have, but it can also be a liability or an obstacle to interpretive vision and judgement; it can be blatantly classist; it’s like wearing blinders. Steeping myself in non-elite traditions gives me other standards to judge by; like with literary genre, you can’t judge one sort of thing by the standards of another. In other words, I believe that literary critics, anthologizers, and teachers have to get over that sense, or not be limited by it.

On another level, I want to find “what’s interesting to people now” including anything that I think will be unexpected. If I see (and I do) that “latin american women’s writing” is being marketed in the U.S. as having a certain kind of eroticism, then I want to find poems that are metaphysical and abstract. When I read prefaces to other anthologies that say that women mostly write love poetry that’s overly sentimental and twee, and that men’s poetry is more important because it’s political, then I want to find some political poems by women. Whenever I make up my mind to look for something that I’ve read doesn’t exist, frankly, I’ve found it! That is very satisfying to my notions of feminism.

Overt feminist content often interests me in a poem, so while Adela Zamudio’s “Nacer Hombre” doesn’t make my snooty elitist filter, it is boldly feminist. It has also been an extremely famous poem for over 100 years. That alone gives it historical interest. And when I show it to people, they tend to respond with surprise and pleasure that such a poem was written at all in 1887:

Cuánto trabajo ella pasa
Por corregir la torpeza
De su esposo, y en la casa,
( Permitidme que me asombre).
Tan inepto como fatuo,
Sigue él siendo la cabeza,
Porque es hombre!

Actually, these sentiments were not so rare as people think. It is a sad symptom of the state of history, and of feminist history, that it should be so surprising.

I look for works that are representative of a particular kind of writing. Here’s a perfect example: Emma Vargas Flórez de Arguelles, born in 1885 in Colombia. I found a few of her poems in an old anthology of Colombian women poets. She never published a book, but had poetry in magazines and newspapers and was part of a family of poets. That’s all I know about her. If I could go to Colombia, or if I spent a week digging, I’m sure I’d find more about her life and more of her work. The poem I am including in the anthology is called “Manos femeniles.” It’s totally barfy. I’ll give you some of my English translation:

Professional hands that instead of a needle
take up the pen, driven by longing,
and instead of embroidery, shape verses;
you’re the busy secretaries of the soul,
that in happy times, peaceful, create
harmonious verses from honey and vinegar.

It gets worse. Lilies, mothers, children, Christ, butterflies, shy maidens, fragility, embroidery, stars, pearls, honor, and “holy obedience” all make cameo appearances and one is slightly tempted to think of the word “doggerel”. But then I think back to Longfellow and Tennyson, who are just as barfy and doggerel-prone and yet who are still judged to be “good” though out of fashion. If they were women they would disappear into the mists. How unfair! And Emma Vargas actually fits the stereotype of “women’s verses” that make people roll their eyes. Shouldn’t we actually take a long hard look at such poems before we judge them?

Indeed when I look deeper at “Manos femeniles”, it’s got something going on. I realize now, from reading a lot of poems like this, that there’s something similar to the U.S. women’s temperance movement going on; that Vargas is part of the feminism that thought of women as essentially holy and better than men; the famous “angel in the house”. The poem addresses famous men directly, challenging them to think of women poets as interpreters of a sort of fragile women’s dream-world, as if women are more directly in touch with the land of fantasy and imagination than men can be. In a modernist aesthetic, this is like saying that men can’t be good poets! They’re too sullied by gross impurity of the world and of just being men, apparently. Men sin a lot, and have battles and make a lot of noise. Women care for the wounded and for children, and are Christlike, while also sort of magically channelling poet-energy from the stars, from flowers, jewels, and from, you know… modernist fairyland. Then she winds up the poem with a rousing call to sisterly action:

Women of America, sisters of dreams,
for new songs, our hands together all
shall weave a laurel wreath,
and – united – we’ll add from our gardens
fresh violets, exotic jasmine,
leafy lilies, red carnation!

You have to admit that’s kind of cool! And while by my absolutist golden-bookshelf standards, I would sneer at it if it were written last year and read at a poetry slam, when I picture it in the context of its time, it’s interestingly radical.

This is getting to be a very long post. I will continue tomorrow.

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