Feminist research and anthologizing

Here’s the introduction to my anthology of some poems by women from Latin America, translated from Spanish to English. It explains my research methodology and the theories I developed while reading and translating.

* Introduction to Towards an Anthology of Spanish American Women Poets, 1880-1930 – HTML

* Introduction to Towards an Anthology of Spanish American Women Poets, 1880-1930 – PDF (154K, 42 pages)

Here are a few of my main points.

I considered poems by several different criteria; any one of them were sufficient.
* work of high literary quality by my own judgment
* work that was important in its time
* work is by a woman who was part of a known community of women writers
* work has a strong feminist message
* work is representative of a well-known category or type of poetry of its time and place
* work that was intertextual with other poems

I chose to use chronological juxtaposition, not by author’s birth date or publication of first book, but by when they were active in literary communities.

Some of the point of the anthology is to provide a backdrop for the more well known poets of that time and place. So, for instance, I believe that readings of Gabriela Mistral or Delmira Agustini may change when seen in context with the poems by their contemporary female authors writing in Spanish.


Last but not least, I would like to shift the balance of gender in the practice of defining literary movements and other groupings of poetic styles. By re-presenting a broad range of women’s work from a particular time period, I hope to make it possible to refocus current definitions of literary quality. For example, modernismo as a movement was defined from men’s work, and then, in many cases, quality was determined from whether a poem and a poet’s life fit that definition of modernismo. Therefore, I feel it is a useful experiment to begin to define literary categories from a body of women’s work, from which it is possible to form other parameters of literary quality. To begin that task, it was first necessary to find the women’s poetry.
I began this project with the assumption and belief that there were women poets in Latin America 100 years ago who are worth reading today. My initial questions were: Which women were writing? What were their names? Where and how can I find their work to judge it for myself?

María Monvel
One more bit where I quote myself. (I am SO cheating.)

I noticed a common theme in many anthologies, including those which were promoting a feminist view: they hailed women’s recent work as if women’s poetry were a new phenomenon. As Adrienne Rich said in 1980: “Each feminist work has tended to be received as if it emerged from nowhere; as if each one of us had lived, thought, and worked without any historical past or contextual present. This is one of the ways in which women’s work and thinking has been made to seem sporadic, errant, orphaned of any tradition of its own” (11). Joanna Russ also pointed out this problem in How To Suppress Women’s Writing (1983); she calls it “the myth of the isolated achievement” (62). This isolation was especially apparent in short biographical notes in poetry anthologies, in which male poets were discussed in a context of other men, while women poets were presented as lone examples of excellence.

This bit about the “myth of the isolated achievement” is a pattern I see over and over again when women’s work is discussed — in literature, in poetry, in technology, in politics, or anywhere.

Look for it yourself in articles with a supposedly positive spin. Once you start to see it, and if you start looking at history, and women’s history, you will see the poison for what it is — the perpetual erasure of our history, and a tool that keeps us isolated from each other and from generations past and upcoming.

The time changes, but the pattern remains the same; not just in Latin American poetry, but poetry in general. And not just in poetry, but any genre of writing. Not just in writing, but in many, many fields. In poetry, a distant foremother is invoked, perhaps Sappho or Sor Juana. The lack of (significant) women is pointed out. Then a comparatively recent “appearance” of women is celebrated. The women appear, as if by magic or spontaneous generation. The crest of that wave of women’s achievement is always right now, or just about to happen.

You think you have achieved something in life? Made the situation better? Broke ground? Our daughters will be pointed at as if they were the first… over and over again. Unless we break through the wall, somehow, as I hope that the Net and blogging will help to achieve. Women have been achieving great things for as far back as I have ever tried to look.

Joanna RussDale Spender

A bit of a poem by Adrienne Rich

I’ve been looking in my books for a particular poem that I remembered copying into a notebook about 20 years ago, and found it finally tonight:

The world tells me I am its creature
I am raked by eyes    brushed by hands
I want to crawl into her for refuge    lay my head
in the space    between her breast and shoulder
abnegating power for love
as women have done    or hiding
from power in her love    like a man
I refuse these givens    the splitting
between love and action    I am choosing
not to suffer uselessly and not to use her
I choose to love    this time    for once
with all my intelligence

It’s from “Splittings” by Adrienne Rich – from The Dream of a Common Language. I love the way that “choosing not to suffer uselessly” is repeated throughout – and the way the lines are split – caesura – and the two lines that are not split, “abnegating power for love” and “with all my intelligence”. It would have been cheap and easy and wrong to split the first, and it obviously makes sense for the last line to come together rhythmically, in a rush, for the sake of wholeness & synthesis.

Poetry is often useful to talk about things that it’s impossible to talk about otherwise. I love how this poem throws gender and queerness right in to the list of impossible things – things that impossiblify love.
Pushed even further in “Cartographies of Silence”, so beautifully at the end.

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A few feminist seeds scattered to the wind and you

The documentary Paris Was a Woman, about just a few of the women in Paris in the early 1900s and especially the 20s; writers, painters, poets. I especially liked the interviews with photographer Gisele Freund. The tension between Stein and Beach as Beach suddenly turned to throw her weight of attention, of critical attention and great-man-making, behind Joyce and people like Hemingway who she decided was a big fat genius before he had written a single stitch.

Rant mode…

Consider the poisonous sexism of Joyce and how the poison is worse when it is in an elaborate feast. Think for a minute about how good Ulysses is, and it’s damn good, and then about how he produced it while knowing SO many genius interesting articulate politically and artistically aware women and what women characters does he write? Not any who have a thought in their head – a dumb teenager who confusedly tolerates a masturbating creep on the beach and an illiterate slut taking a shit. I could slap him. (And also could slap every person who’s ever pointed out Molly Bloom to me as an example of a female character I could love in great literature. (and no I said no I won’t No) I can love the book and admire the talent but hate the dreadful vindictive poison — as well as the thing in Joyce and so many other writers of dicklit that makes them gather masses of mediocre sycophants to make themselves look better – unable to tolerate other actual geniuses. It is just that sort of person who is consecrated later in history as a “great” writer, unfortunately – something to keep in mind as a sour-grapes comfort as the most of us head straight to being Minor Poets. Think how irritated I am as I continue to digest Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and the magma builds up in my fevered thoughts. Oh! The more beautiful and excellent the art, the worse the poison is and the madder as hell I get.

It was funny to be watching this movie with my partner who didn’t really know any of the writers or painters even the most famous ones. Joyce and Stein, their names, but not their work at all and he had never heard of Sylvia Beach. That puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it? I plotzed when he said “H.D.??? Who?”

To get the taste of all that out of your brain try downloading some of this:

Free mp3s of Adrienne Rich reading from Diving into the Wreck and other works – from the Pennsound archives. On the very long file, the 38 minute one, it sounded a little like Di Prima introducing her but then I decided it wasn’t and the accent was just a bit similar. It’s nice to have the huge file of the entire reading in my iTunes. I love hearing her inter-poem comments, nerdy little snippets about greek drama and patriarchy.

Oh, and if anyone happens to have some recordings of Di Prima’s early readings I’d love to have more of them. I have her doing a few of the Revolutionary Letters; they’re so flamingly fiercely beautiful!

Elisa speaking up about biological determinism. Very lovely!

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Making lists and breaking aesthetics

Marilyn Hacker said on the WOMPO Women’s Poetry mailing list recently:

If, as feminists,we can’t discuss racism openly, if not “comfortably,”
then what did all the feminist writers who were discussing it in the 70s ,
and those doing so now –Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toi
Derricotte, Alicia Ostriker, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo,
Marilyn Chin, Elizabeth Alexander, Jane Cooper, Rita Dove, Irena Klepfisz,
Alison Joseph, Jan Clausen, among others — — accomplish ? There
are a lot more African American poets, Asian American poets, poets of
color, published now, enough of them that they don’t have to conform to
any kind of mold or expectation , political or formal — and yet that
change doesn’t seem to have changed the consciousness of many women whom
I’d have expected to have READ those poets and thought about what they’d

Yes, exactly!

I note that it is important to go on making lists like this and telling people what to read. Lists of names make paths and entryways for people who need the guidance. As readers, we can’t rely on any sort of established power structure to represent diversity.

I also note that reading widely with an open mind needs to come first. THEN break and re-form your aesthetics and your poetics. In other words, upper class white people with the education that goes with it can’t impose the aesthetics they’ve developed from that background onto what they read from who are not just like them Keeping your tired old privileged aesthetic is like saying that beautiful meaningful things can only be built with legos. Maybe Legos made of gold, but still — so limited!

*** A rant I’ve been wanting to make for a long time***

I’m thinking of a particular incident with a person who happens to be quite powerful at the moment. I’ll call him Mr. Darcy. A few years ago, Darcy was just on the cusp of coming into that powerful position. I was tagging along to an event with my friend Martin, a poet and translator. Darcy, Martin, and I ended up hanging out over coffee. I didn’t register on Darcy’s radar as a person… a mohawked callow youth, perhaps Martin’s unaccountably freakish girl-of-the-minute.

And Darcy proceded to trash and eviscerate the idea of multiculturalism and political correctness. “Yeah, I make my anthologies and put in the really good poets, and then have to throw in some crappy PC person, and be all multicultural…” He spoke the names of some people of color with venomous bitterness and derision. I began to speak up to say that if he didn’t like those particular writers, he should look further into the latino, black, vietnamese communities to find ones that he did like, because the ones he was referring to weren’t necessarily the best by my judgement either… When I said this, it was as if a dog had spoken, an unexpected miracle. I talked about some ideas of poetry-of-inner-city communities poetry in public places, at bus stops, etc. And he got mad, saying that what people needed was to learn about real poetry, like Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, and only the classics of American poetry should go up at those bus stops to force “real culture” on “those people”. He said the same sorts of things about modern women poets, including dissing on “confessional” “disgusting” “PC” women. (Who should also get a forced dose of Dickinson; almost enough to make one hate Dickinson… almost…)

I was shocked that Darcy would be so open about his bigotry — to someone like me, someone who clearly did not agree with him — He assumed, maybe, that I was a person it was safe to be bigoted in front of — that I would be complicit, even after I spoke up and argued with him. That purple mohawk radical feminist or not, I could be ignored or co-opted.

I am now grateful for this moment of my own invisibility on Darcy’s power-map. From his dismissal of my importance, his figuring that I didn’t matter, and his willingness to expose his own “pride and prejudice” in front of me, I learned some crucial and ugly things. I studied his anthologies to see the “presentable” face of racism and privilege, now armed with the knowledge of its unguarded scorn. Darcy’s anthologies never picked the poets of color who had been around, who were part of a tradition. Instead they would pick a short inferior work by someone very recent, the youngest person possible… Darcy behaved as if he could safely assume there were no traditions, no leaders, no communities, but only isolated examples he could safely tokenize and encapsulate… in short he only saw mediocrity in work by people of color or women, because he didn’t look deep…and then he actively promoted that vision of their mediocrity. This kind of tokenism harms everyone. I look back into anthologies all through the 19th and 20th centuries, and see the same pattern.

I still have trouble believing the depth of Darcy’s ignorance or his active malice, whichever was foremost in the operation of his racist, sexist aesthetics.