What an exciting, energizing two days the Advancing Feminist Poetics and Activism: A Gathering conference was. I must offer my heartiest thanks to Belladonna, the independent bookstore/publisher/collectives, who conceived, organized and executed the event, along with the CUNY Graduate Center’s Center for the Humanities, Center for the Study of Women and Society, PhD Program in English, and Poetics Group. There was such palpable intellectual and creative energy at the event, which explored and emphasized the necessity and possibilities of feminist poetics and activism today. I didn't attend a single uninteresting panel or reading during the event. It was also wonderful to see so many creative people--brilliant, visionary, socially and politically activist women in the poetry world!--I know and admire as well as those I've never met or seen but only read over the years. My only complaint arises from the concurrent scheduling situation; because of the multiple simultaneous panels, it was not possible to audit most of the intriguing discussions, and if you jumped from room to room (there were 4 panels per time slot for most of Friday) you very well might miss the people you were hoping to see. I do understand, however, the economic and logical necessities of fitting the event into two short days, so I'm looking forward to the videos of the panels, when those go online.
I also want to thank poet-scholar-activist Tonya Foster, a member of Belladonna's Collective Committee and the organizer of the panel I was on, which, as the Opening Plenary I panel, inaugurated the event on Thursday afternoon. Our panel had grown out of discussions we'd been having over a series of months, and focused on orality and literacy in relation to African American and Diasporic literature, but also had come to encompass discussions of "the commons," and in particular, the "feminist commons." Other panelists included Meta DuEwa Jones, who spoke about Erica Hunt and Tracie Morris; Evie Shockley, who talked about Sonia Sanchez's Do These Houses Have Lions?; and Julie Patton, who showed slides and discussed her creative, activist work with young people in Cleveland, as well as her mother's artwork. We ended up running short of time, and I went last, so my talk, discussing Kamau Brathwaite's, Jay Wright's and Marilene Felinto's strategies for utilizing orality and feminist-inflected oral and written discourses (historical, mythic, etc.) to subvert conceptions of aesthetic mastery, was smushed into pithiness, but I do feel like I did succeed in getting my points across. And I got to read a translated (though not by me) snippet of Felinto's work, so that was fun too.
Our panel was packed, as were most of the ones I attended, despite their concurrency; at the 12:45pm discussion on the "Body and Discourse," chaired by Kate Eichhorn and featuring Joan Retallack, Trish Salah, Laura Smith, Nathalie Stephens/Nathanaël, and Ronaldo V. Wilson, there wasn't even standing room for most of those present. This panel, like the others I attended, delved into the questions that people had been posing and hashing since our opening presentations, and involved some contention and argumentation, rather than an amen chorus, which was refreshing.
Two of my favorite moments at the conference were the Thursday night keynote talks-performances, and a reading, introduced by scholar-poet Kate Hinton, that Mei-Mei Berssenbruegge and Ann Lauterbach gave on Friday. At the former, Kathleen Fraser talked about her trajectory from newly-minted English major just arriving in a very male-dominated New York poetry world in the early 1960s to her move to California, her years of young motherhood, and her connections with some of the figures who would become so important for developments in feminist poetics and practice/praxis. Amidst this she wove in some unforgettable anecdotes, such as that Barbara Guest was the only female poet whose work she came into contact with in those earliest years, outside of the "modernist women," that Charles Olson was huge, dominating figure and not the sort of person for women to be alone with, and that George Oppen was a serious, but encouraging poet. Fraser concluded her comments by reading a moving pamphlet-long poem, whose title I wrote down as "hi dde violent i dde violet," that she had written for fellow poet Norma Cole. Erica Hunt, a writer and thinker I admire tremendously, followed and in a way only she could do, she managed to weave in a demonstration of her mother blind-folded and boxing to discuss the feminist projects feminist poets had engaged in and needed to continue to pursue, especially in light of the economic, social and political situation we all now find ourselves in, and which has been unfolding since Erica and the other writers in the auditorium began their work. She was sharp, witty, oppositional, elliptical, concise, and offered up a series of grace quotes. "We write what just might escape commodification" is but one of them.
The third speaker, Eileen Myles, gave a talk called "Yoga for Losers" which succeeded not only in reminding everyone that the "academy was a patron" and a fraught place and space for the poet's work, but also called out the Language poets, asking where was the great language poem on AIDS, and wondered whether the model of "schools" of poetry was less apt that "stores," decried the pervasiveness of pornography for girls' and boys' imaginaries, invoked some contemporary women writers doing what she thought was outstanding activist work, and even expressed her exhausting with the term "feminism," ultimately urging that the hard work continue, in a range of new forms. As more and more poets (and writers in general!) appear to view the academy as the route, as opposed to one of many, or even just a byway, to pursuing an avocation as poet, Myles's critiques assume even greater importance.
The Berssenbruegge-Lauterbach reading was also a highlight. I have seen both read a number of times; Berssenbruegge was one of the first of the younger generation "experimental" American poets (not counting some fellow students) I heard read and met in college, and she came to the university a few years ago as part of the Asian American Studies program's 10-year anniversary celebration. I had an account of Lauterbach and John Ashbery reading from the latter's long, double-columned "A Litany" at the Bowery Poetry Club a few years ago. This was the first time I'd seen them read together, and with the focus being on their art-inflected poems, they complemented each other perfectly. Berssenbruegge read from her collected volume I Love Artists (Univ. of California Press, 2008), which really should have received one of the major poetry awards, as well as from some new poems. Her quiet manner and soft voice require the listener's concentration, which the poems thoroughly reward. She also read lines and fragments from others, something poets never really do, in order to convey the spirit of the reading. Some of the fragments of lines I wrote down from the various poems were: "there are three dimensions of gray"..."your waking is a blue brushstroke creating a space"..."this color of being sentient, like seeing Venus in the day"..."where openness is form"..."but I am my contact with green"..."forest is the originary fullness of this presence"..."you turn back my words to stay in that region."
Lauterbach, whose work I believe always benefits from being read aloud, especially by her, traced her poetic development in relation to visual art, which has served as a formal rather than a visual source. She noted the centrality of the visual to most poetry, and her own attraction to resistance against or inquisition of the visual. She also read poems marking her stages of confronting the visual, including the first she'd written, some time ago, in which there was no visual description whatsoever. One of the poems she read, "The French Girl" (from Clamor?) struck like a lightning bolt this time. She finished with the poem "The Scale of Restless Things (Fra Angelica)," written after going to see that exhibit at the Met with a former student, Garrett Kalleberg, and it was a fitting conclusion to a great reading. Afterwards she and Berssenbruegge, along with Hinton, took questions, and Lauterbach provided one of the most succinct and thoughtful responses possible to the question of how to appreciate a poem, particular poems like hers, explaining how a poem is an experience that we ought enter like any other experiences we've never had, and how it negotiates the parallel subjectivities of the reader's I and the lyric/narrative voice's (I/we/multiples). That space of negotiation ought be fruitful and pleasurable, rather than merely a puzzle to be interpreted and solved.
Erica Kaufman and Rachel Levitsky
L-r: Evie Shockley (back turned), Julie Patton, and Tonya Foster
Kathleen Fraser, reading her poem to Norma Cole
Ronaldo V. Wilson (in tie), speaking to the panel (l-r): Nathaniel, Trish Salah, Joan Retallack, and Laura Smith (who spoke about Akilah Oliver)
After I left my dinner companions on Friday, I took up a friend's invitation to check out a fashion show/performance party, Dangerous Equations 101, at a small shop, Dangerous Mathematicians, on the Lower East Side. Unlike this events at Bryant Park a week ago, this was a low-key, non-industry affair; the shop's owner creates and sells innovative, sexy clothing for women with a geek chic edge. The "models" turned out to be practicing engineers, scientists and mathematicians and the clothing had a S&M-ish edge, which I doubt would probably go over better during the weekend or at clubs than at most workplaces. It appeared to be well-made, and really, the funnest aspect was just listening to the musicians and seeing another slice of New York I seldom see.
Dangerous Mathematicians store window