Blake Butler, Kate Zambreno, Amy King and I recently had a nice, interesting, and lengthy conversation about gender, publishing and so much more, prompted by lots of things including the recent, and largely excellent discussion in Blake’s “Language Over Body” post about the second issue of We Are Champion. We thank you all so much for engaging with us on these issues. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 can be found here.
Amy: I want to try to connect such modes of discussion and modes of writing with why we might have an inequitable publishing history by citing excerpts from Joan Retallack’s essay, “:RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM.” Blake, when you say we’re “just people” or we’re “just bodies,” I think you’re resisting the notion that biology is essentialist and destiny (it’s not) that determines how and what we write. You are, in fact, by default arguing against the primary thread of feminist literary tradition that says women’s experiences have traditionally been ignored and must be heard via the writing and, I suspect, you imagine that writers could empathize their way into such positions and write those realities. Just a guess.
But this notion falls short of what types of writing have been deemed masculine and feminine. I hope Kate jumps in soon because she most likely has more to say on this matter than I.
Kate: I am quite interested in engaging with and extending Cixous’ notion of l’ecriture feminine, of feminine writing, where she sees many male writers as great examples of feminine writing, writing that writes that body, the taboo, that’s emotional, that’s privileged by voice, that writes against the dominant culture (she includes Bernhard, Kafka along with Lispector and Bachmann). So I do in my criticism reclaim writers like Artaud and Rilke – and more problematically Henry Miller and Bataille – as women. A sort of genderbending. And on the flip side I think that there are many female writers, even innovative female writers, who I don’t consider writing the feminine, even in terms of experience or aesthetic (nor should they have to, they have their own deal, I’m just saying what I’m interested in!) And I haven’t read this issue in question of We Are Champion, and isn’t there a possibility it doesn’t have this straight white dude aesthetic? But of course even this issue of aesthetic hides what you, Amy, are troubled with and you should be troubled with – how male writers are seemingly valued more and vaulted more in both the mainstream and any sort of innovative writing culture.
Blake: Coming off what I said above, I think its rather arbitrary to choose gender as the most important factor, and the main one to attend to in a forum, via the fact that our body influences our mind. Of course it does, and that is part of what makes an author’s ID interesting, but to imagine that we have to limit ourselves (yes, limit) to understanding the body via organs to me is really old. It’s also rather a sidestep of the matter itself, which is what the word is: the body speaks for itself. It doesn’t need a canister, it needs a door. Louise Bourgeois’s art is hugely about the body, and yet for her the body is the machinic creator, not the thing itself. The body is there in the fingers, the blood, and sidebar to what comes out, like hair: “It is not so much where my motivation comes from but rather how it manages to survive.”
Amy: Blake, again I ask, why do you think that pointing gender disparity means we must limit ourselves to discussing the fact of gender bias? If anything, this conversation is an attempt to broaden, identify, and dissect the complexities such interrogations entail. It’s not just “about an organ,” which still seems incredibly reductive and only serves to maintain the binary, reductive thinking you seem to want to resist. As I pointed out earlier, there’s much more to gender, how we learn it, speak and write it, what’s expected of us based on it, etc. than whether or not I have a dick. I can’t believe you’re sticking by gender=penis or vagina. It starts with the body, as in, ‘Oh, it’s a baby boy,’ and then studies show that people begin to treat babies more roughly who are boys and the opposite for girls. And so the conditioning goes, from jump: be a big boy don’t cry here my sweet girl get along with everyone and cooperate boy should be adventurous and independent autonomous girl should train as a potential mother to be nurturing kind soft spoken etc ad nauseum—at it’s most basic. Gender starts based in biology but certainly doesn’t stop there. Male modes of behavior are expected, learned and enforced just as female modes are. It’s not fair, nor is it fair that the masculine is supposed to be better than the feminine, but history says conquering the world via imperialist adventures is much more important to write about than detailing and debating what goes into raising children / people. I actually suspect that Bourgeois’s inquiry into “how it manages to survive” addresses the latter mostly-ignored history of people, which is classically thought of as a feminine consideration / female domestic work. Now I feel reductionist, but your continued re-framing down to whether one has a penis or vagina seems to call for such basic explication.
By way of starting to identify the masculine mode, Retallack notes,
“[What is intelligible] is a world authored in the image of Rational/Universal Man—Homo Protoregulator studding a clear and distinct (Cartesian) prose with man’s randy, generic pronouns … We have been presented with a subtle and treacherous ‘text’ declaring itself generic and normative starting point—homogenius, monolithic, active, authoritative… [Judith] Butler sees the generic feminine as subtext, either subjugated or subversive (reactive) to the master narrative.”
Retallack cautions against simply writing within the binary of masculine/feminine, that to simply respond to the normative by attempting to subvert it is to essentially reinscribe/reinforce that binary. [This also speaks to my issue with the Gurlesque as I saw it defined by the anthology, but that’s another story.]
Retallack proposes, “To make real gender trouble is to make genre trouble.” And I think that’s where ‘fringe’ poetry and fiction gets their power. Because it’s easy to look at a list of popular fiction or nonfiction bestsellers and say, Well that book’s about male subject matter like war or adventure, conquering nature or taming the uncivilized; Where are the serious how-to books regarding raising and nurturing people?, etc. But once we enter the territory of certain not-so-popular fiction or especially poetry, the territory is murkier and not so easy to say, ‘Well, that subject matter or that mode of writing is masculine.’
“Our best possibilities lie in texts/alter-texts where the so-called feminine and masculine take migratory, paradoxical, and surprising swerves to the enrichment of both/n/either, and all else that lies along fields of limitless nuance. This is not a vision of androgyny but of range … For example, the French poet Dominique Fourcade likes to declare that as a poet he is a woman…”
And with apologies for the long quote, a final bit,
“From the end of the nineteenth century to the present the exploding genre (if not gender) project has been located in what is called ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ traditions. Because of the masculinist bias of establishment literary traditions, these labels have often been applied pejoratively to connote the threat of unintelligibility. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about our present time is that women are finally powerful enough sociopolitically to undertake the risks of this feminine challenge in their own texts.”
That’s a long way into trying to start talking about what I think might be going on via the resistance against pointing out gender disparities, especially as these disparities enter into ‘experimental’ poetries and fictions—and what to do about it. Do they really exist in this realm/on these proverbial fringes? Am I, a white woman currently living a fairly middle class American existence, going to be able to, or even attempt to, write a poetry that does what the poetry of say Thomas Sayer Ellis or Bhanu Kapil does? Or should we find ways to de-prioritize certain voices by getting more, even saturating the literary landscape, of those unusual and mostly-neglected voices out there via publishing, reviewing, discussing, etc?
Kate: We are publishing Bhanu at Nightboat, her fantastic notebook Schizophrene. You might not be able to write the poetry of Bhanu but you can publish Bhanu, solicit the work of Bhanu, write about her works. At Nightboat one of the writers and I joke that we publish the experimental subaltern, but that’s also what really jazzes us and jizzes us and all those things writing is supposed to make you do. And of course you point out something that’s important to remember in feminism, that most of feminism historically has been very white, privileged, middle-class, heteronormative.
Blake: I don’t know what else to say.
Amy: I know that Kate and Blake were originally discussing a poem that was just a string of presumably offensive phrases. From what I read, this type of poem doesn’t shock or undo anything, except perhaps to say words we’re scared to say, diffuse their power, etc. I’m curious why Kate found it discussion-worthy and why Blake found it post-worthy. It sounded just like a bald attempt to thrill or titillate, that fails in my estimation. It reminded me of the masculine-shock mode that’s never really shocked me out of or into anything, though I wonder if women aren’t supposed to be complacent in the face of such work. Or am I just projecting? Can we in fact imitate such poetry and would we? I’m curious to know if we can even identify what modes have tended to be masculine and feminine, and beyond.
Kate: Yes when Blake posted about that one poem he published on Everyday Genius, by Sean Kilpatrick, a really great dialogue I think came out of the debate (but I do think it didn’t get ugly because it didn’t deal specifically with a woman writer or gender). And I really enjoyed dialoging with these other commenters about the poem, which I really liked, but the conversation led to what we expected literature to do anyway, why we read, etc., the value of certain works, and I and others defended the poem against some commenter’s charges of misogyny, stating firmly that that shouldn’t necessarily rule out a work of literature from being exciting or interesting, defending work that comes from anger or the unrepressed, placing it in a tradition of Sade or Artaud or Bataille, writers that have shaped me tremendously. Artaud’s agitation against the patriarchal family, against institutions, Sade’s tracts against the bourgeois. (Point to be made: not all feminists are the same, have one stringent hardline position.) And I didn’t think of the poem in the masculine-shock mode, it’s one thing to say it’s not shocking, or it’s too much a rewarming of before, or that it didn’t interest you, but it’s unfair I think to suggest that I in digging the work am somehow complacent, as I am anything but complacent. And I don’t always read with a specifically gendered body, or write with a specifically gendered body, although out there in the world, in society, I am always gendered, that is the difference. Although I do align myself proudly as a feminist, as a radical feminist, I am a different radical feminist than say Andrea Dworkin. And I also teach women’s studies and gender studies. But I am realizing that at least Second Wave feminism is an ideology, and as a writer I’m uncomfortable with ideology, and in fact wish to dismantle and problematize the ideology, make it messy and subversive and cover it with body fluids.
But I think there’s a huge difference, again, in being an asshole in writing, in writing the unrepressed, and being an asshole rhetorically, shutting down a dialogue. I think that Sade and Miller and Bataille and Celine yes even Artaud and Breton were all huge huge assholes, wouldn’t want to be in relationships with them. But as I said in that discussion I don’t think a major determinant for whether you dig a writer is whether or not you want to be in a relationship with them, or whether they’re humanists even or good people. I don’t expect all the writers that get me off to be ideologically pure. But part of my critical project is to interrogate this complicated relationship I have with these writers, like the male Surrealists, or theorists like Deleuze and Guattari, who in many ways don’t include me as a woman or consider gender. And I feel that a bit as well with the liberatory spirit of HTML Giant – if I say, hey, wait, don’t just objectify women, don’t discount women writers or reduce them merely to their bodies, basically, hey let me in so I can discuss these ideas without being passively self-hating or women hating by just ignoring what’s obviously there, so in my face – then I might be in danger of stereotyped as the humorless feminist. Could I have been more humorous in characterizing what I was offended by? Yes.
Blake: I can only speak about why I like the piece, not its context, because context for me is the least interesting thing. Clearly no writing can be made to please all people or it would be a rather suffering writing, in its blood.
Sean Kilpatrick’s writing in this piece is a series of negation, negation of negation, where the humor is not of shock, as these are all old words, but using the juxtaposition of shifting energy and collage in a way that manages, in my body, to create a silent terror, as I realize I feel nothing from the text, and in the feeling nothing, as the words continue to move and no, not shock, but employ a barrage that has been neutered by its employment as shock, to create a kind of void around the void, a laughing that is dead silent. It’s not even a matter of feeling compromised or hurt by the dead words, but some kind of beaten hysteria buried in there, some kind of mausoleum, like a puppet made of meat, or as came up in the comments, “a balloon animal out of a jar of glass.”
Also: I find the poem, in its blank blank, rather moving, especially in rereading. I also find it really funny in its language, the way it cantakers around like a pile of blood looking for a hole in a plastic floor.
Also: who gives a shit? Why do we need barriers? Why walls? Why shouldn’t something be slathered, allowed to suffer in no suffer? This poem seems to you to make women complacent in it? Then, to me, the poem wins. You can be defeated by this? You can assign it this property, despite feeling nothing? There’s the cash. I don’t know. Why can’t something carry this nasty power? What if Sean Kilpatrick were actually a woman? Would it then be empowering? What if Kathy Acker were a man? What if Acker’s Janey Smith were actually a mental fuckdoll he used to employ his terror on? Would that make the books any less what they are? Would it make them more that?
This deletion want for the power in the blank and in the revulsing that is no longer revulsing but has become a condom on the street, should these words be removed? What kind of power can be written with the removed? I think maybe a lot more than the real. There is a power in the nothing. There is more to shock than shock, and more to language than who had a fuck on who.
I don’t know. Church.
Amy: Let me clarify that I asked if women were supposed to be complacent in the face of the poem; this question was no true commentary on the poem. I haven’t seen the poem; only a few of the “bad” words were noted on Kate’s blog, which reminded me of Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay – that’s why I asked. I don’t usually feel defeated in the face of any poem, and what a weird way to put it: a poem would have the power to defeat anyone? If a poem fails, I’m simply disinterested and walk away. Not much shocks me anymore, even if you wrote a poem about my grandmother’s labia, couched in “humor” of course, which someone did. If anything, I wonder what’s in the psyche of that person that would imagine this would have some special effect on me. Then I wondered what he thought he knew about me that such a boring transparent poem would inspire some reaction like offense or thrill. I didn’t see it as it was intended, I suppose, which was under the ruse of a Flarf tribute or some such claim, which I ultimately grappled with as so much ‘we want our own special important movement.’ But no, I asked if women were supposed to be complacent, not having seen the poem. Please don’t extract an insult from a question; I apologize for not being clear that I have not read the poem.
Roxane: I must say I too found a lot to think about and even admire in Kilpatrick’s poem. The sheer relentlessness of the pace and tone and subject matter created an interesting sense of numbness for me because each line was progressively more horrific. I didn’t really analyze Kilpatrick’s in terms of gender or bodies though certainly there is, in the latter half of the poem, an intense desecration of the fertile female body. I find that really interesting rather than problematic. If we’re not careful, concerns about gender will begin to influence the kind of art that is made. I didn’t read this poem as masculine or titillating and I almost think to suggest that is to be reductive of the work in question in much the same ways we’re asking the naysayers to not be. I absolutely believe a woman could write “fistfucking rules.” In the reading of it, I was more focused on the grotesquerie of the poem as well as the use of language.
Amy: Speaking of grotesquerie, I have my own work to attend, as we all do now, I’m sure. Shall we call it a day? If so, thank you, Roxane, Kate, and Blake for weighing in on what I imagine to be the stirrings of conversations to come. Call it a fourth wave or resuscitation, but I’m sensing we’re at the beginning of a moment and am grateful for the engagement.