Monday, July 27, 2009

Open Letter: Beyond Stasis: Poetics and Feminism Today

This is less a statement of feminist poetics than a statement of anxiety about feminism and poetics.

First, I wonder: what is a feminist poetics?

Writing difference, asserting versions, multiplicity, complication?

What’s a useful question to answer here? How do I, as a writer, experience writing, as a woman? The question is so qualified.

The question is about writing but after writing.

The question is how is the writing received? (Natalie Simpson, “Never quite arriving, or: a poetics of anxiety”)One of the most impressive issues of the critical journal Open Letter that I’ve seen in some time has to be “Beyond Stasis: Poetics and Feminism Today” (Thirteenth Series, Number 9, Summer 2009), guest-edited by Kate Eichhorn and Barbara Godard. This issue covers more than two hundred pages on and by some of the most provocative of Canadian women innovative writers over the past twenty years, including Rachel Zolf, Natalie Simpson, Oana Avasilichioaei, Rita Wong, Trish Salah, A. Rawlings, Angela Carr, Suzanne Zelazo, Sylvia Legris, Sina Queyras, Margaret Christakos, Nathalie Stephens, Joanne Arnott and Lola Lemire Tostevin. Produced out of the result of a conference that never got off the ground, I almost wish there were fewer conferences in the world, just so more issues like this could come to fruition; most conferences that actually happen don’t have half the energy and verve of what’s happening here. As Eichhorn writes in her introduction:

This issue’s title, “Beyond Stasis,” is both a statement of fact and a call to action. It also references the intentionally sardonic title of a conference on feminist poetics that four of the issue’s contributors attempted but ironically failed to realize five years ago. As Elena Basile explains, our failure to move “beyond stasis” at the time, however, may hold valuable insights into why a younger generation (or two) of Canadian women writers and critics have struggled to establish and sustain dialogues on poetics, politics, feminism and (post)nationalism since the mid 1990s: “A few insistent questions kept haunting our meetings, which today I am tempted to read as symptomatic both of a deep-seated anxiety for cultural/political recognition, and of an ambivalent desire to engage with the legacy of second wave innovative poetics in ways capable of addressing present issues and concerns without falling prey to
generational nostalgia or generational resentment.”
One of the questions that comes up throughout is the sheer amount of critical lack for a whole generation or two of Canadian women writers; I would suggest that the problem is even broader than that, that this isn’t simply a gender issue, or even one of generation. As Christakos writes in her piece, “Assignment of the Cleft”:

Over the past two decades, apart from the crucial support of the small literary presses who have published my work and the grants I have received through peer-juried recommendation processes, there has been very little in the way of my work being offered any critical attention, or sustained exegesis. I don’t think my experience of paltry reception is unusual though. Every innovative writer colleague of my own generation has been woefully overlooked. The question I suppose remains: who would or should do that looking, that receiving? In the 1980s one hoped for response from one’s mentor generation. In this era of antic overwork and exhaustion, most senior writers, unless they are located within academia, do not participate in the production of poetry criticism. It is almost expected now that emerging writers should ‘pay their dues’ by expending a great deal of artistic energy on writing barely remunerated or unpaid ‘reviews’ generally for any of the small-circulation Canadian journals or for online magazines, and for doing the slog work as assistant editors, interns, program coordinators and event organizers for their seniors.

It is rare to find a critical essay on any of the writers of my generation or the two next generations composed by any of the writers whose influence most powerfully
shaped my/our work.
I’ve wondered the same for many years about the same critical lack, but would cast the net far wider, from anyone beginning to write in the 1970s to the present, overshadowed, perhaps, by the long shadows of the first wave of 1960s innovators. Overshadowed, and too, caught up in the overwhelming amount of work that hasn’t been done, against those few left who seem willing to do any of it, and even fewer publishing options for critical writing. Does anyone remember the days when journals such as Contemporary Verse 2, Paragraph, Brick: A Journal of Reviews, Essays on Canadian Writing and others existed for the sake of continuing conversation through reviews, interviews and essays? And why is it that writers such as Lisa Robertson, Natalie Stephens and Anne Carson seem to get more attention and critical response in the United States than by those in their own home country? In her piece, “Nothing Simply This Way Comes,” Sina Queyras gets more specific, continuing (nearly) the same thought, writing:

In fact, Canada is in the very odd position of having some of its most innovative poets both in the mainstream spotlight and reviled by it. The more successful women such as Anne Carson, Margaret Atwood and Moure become, the more they are attacked, portrayed as terrifying creatures, and here at home, often much maligned – described as national embarrassments and worse. There is something perplexing about poetry – more specifically, feminist poetry – and its unwillingness to con/form that seems to evoke very personal, direct, and often anatomical or body-related attacks. “I have developed an allergy to Erin Moure, and so should you,” Shane Nielson suggests. What exactly is he allergic to? Is this aversion to the terms of the conversation offered by Moure, in his inability to engage in it? Should we develop an allergy to all things in a poem that tear and demand attention? Should we develop an allergy to thinking texts? Complexity? Discomfort? Innovation? Anything we don’t understand or like? Poems themselves? Language?
Another point that Rachel Zolf brings up is in the resistance that most seem to have to so called “difficult work,” including resistance by those who profess to want to engage with such, whether reviews, critics or other writers, as Zolf asks exactly what poetry can, is and should be doing. What exactly is the problem?

Leaving aside any latent (or not-so-latent) interpersonal issues underlying these responses, the exchanges bring up some important questions. Do we have to like, enjoy, feel uplifted by everything we read? What is it about a text that makes it likeable – or not? What do readers hope to ‘get’ out of texts? Should poetry enact a transparent transmission of meaning? Is its task to provide comfort and certainty in complex and different times? What can and does poetry do?
Part of what makes this issue like a conference itself is how the issue is organized into sections, beginning with “Positions” and “Dialogues” into “Histories” and “Analyses,” ending finally with Tostevin’s “Afterword,” where she begins by acknowledging the sixteen years between this current issue and the “Redrawing The Lines: The Next Generation” issue of Open Letter she edited. Where has the time gone, and what has it done? It’s compilations such as these that keep me optimistic for the future of critical inquiry and discourse through and about Canadian writing generally, and poetry specifically. As Tostevin writes in her endpiece:

So what does feminist poetics mean today? Is it, as Natalie Simpson asks, writing with a difference? is it an assertion of versions, multiplicity, complication? It is certainly all those, but does this apply exclusively to feminist writing? As Holly Dupej points out “third-wave feminists are rightfully weary of such ‘essentialist’ notions of gender and cultural categories, and the falsely universal definitions that they imply.” Doesn’t this also apply to the creative imagination, I would like to add? Or as Heather Milne asks, has the time come “to push beyond the stasis that has come to characterize our generation’s orientation to feminist poetics?”

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