HOW2 Postcard

A chance to respond informally to the content of the How2 journal. We are interested in comments and reactions to work that you find here and encourage you to respond to and to extend the questions and debates which interest you in our latest issue and in material contained in our extensive archive. We welcome further discussions of modernist and innovative poetry by women that you feel are relevant to our concerns.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Women and Mentorship: Jena Osman and Sarah Dowling

by Julia Bloch

28 October 2008

Reading the How2 feature on women and mentorship reminded me of some discussions on the topic now available on PennSound. In fall 2006, a few of us started the Emergency reading series at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. We wanted originally to ask poets about this idea of the “emerging” poet, a word we were so accustomed to seeing on the backs of new paperbacks, on calls for first-book prizes, in residency announcements. We wanted to showcase poets who hadn’t seen a lot of exposure of their work; we also wanted to put them in conversation with more widely known poets to hear what they might have to say to each other about this word but also more broadly about influence, community, and practice. Our first pairing, the first reading of the series, featured Jena Osman and one of her former students, Sarah Dowling.

Sarah read selections from her manuscript “Keepness,” which deals with the intersections of documentary form and private perception, and “Amateur Cartography,” written in response to a series of found photographs. Jena read and projected images from “The Interruption of Strategic Influence,” which is named after the U.S. government office responsible for planting false stories in the foreign news media and which included a performative challenge to the audience, a moment in which she asked us, “If I asked you for help would you give me help?” Not really sure if she were breaking the fourth wall of the poetry reading, we hesitated, giggled nervously, and then let her continue. (The awkward moment turned into an extended listserv discussion on the Writers House site about the ethics and psychology of poetry readings.)

The Q&A after the reading became an extended discussion of some of the contours of mentorship, contours that you can see in some of the poetry from that evening, too: Jena mentions that parts of her piece were written by a mentor of her own, Thalia Field. Afterward, Jena and Sarah talk about shared material interests, including a shared interest in what Joan Retallack calls poethics, or the act of linking aesthetic practice with the experiences of everyday life. Retallack writes about putting ethos in the foreground of aesthetic process and asks questions like: how does art come into contact with contemporary experience? how are writing and reading integral to making sense out of everyday life? or, as Sarah describes it, how do we meet our historical moment with compassion? how do we address presentness in our work? For both poets, a poethical practice manifests as an intense interest in documentary materials: Jena describes the experience of poetry as an alternative to consuming the newspaper uncritically, poetry as a way to meet and confront daily events.

Both poets feel the word “mentorship” to be a somewhat vexed term: Jena talks about the “baggage” of the word mentorship, suggesting Robert Creeley’s concept of company as an alternative, and Sarah shares the surprisingly gendered results of her Google search for the word “mentorship,” from odd psychodynamic corporate models to “disastrous alliances” between Ana├»s Nin and Henry Miller, H.D. and Pound, and so on. Their own mentoring relationship, she said, felt less like a top-down instruction model and more like a “discussion”: “finding these webs of shared materials, shared concerns, not just between ourselves but also moving outward toward other people, other versions of community.”

In the introduction to their anthology Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker write that they chose to feature women born in the 1960s and 1970s, in the middle of second-wave feminism, to talk about their living mentors and role models. Their assertion is that women of this generation (and maybe later?) have a tangibly different relationship to poetic lineage—and to the history of women’s writing. Certainly for Sarah and Jena, overlapping aesthetic practices say something about their overlapping generations. But I wonder, too, about the gendered contours of “emergence” in the twenty-first century, and whether we need a new vocabulary to describe the poetic “career.”

Click here for a directory to the sound files for the evening. The Q&A is hard to hear in the beginning, but gets easier about three and a half minutes in. Not all the questions were miked, but stay tuned for the poets’ answers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ecopoetics Postcard: “The "Outside Us": Woman as Landscape” by Addie Tsai

Yeats once wrote that for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us. Yet, what happens when man is raised with a kind of entitled position to state that women are part of the “outside us”? In other words, the crisis of eco-feminism, for me, is that women are often, unspokenly, implicitly, considered a part of the landscape. Whether through exploitation, subjectification, degradation, throughout many cultures, women exist as thing to be defined by man. And as a woman born of an American mother and a Chinese father, also as exploited through the exoticism of the half-breed, the hybrid, the born of both lands but neither native, neither claimed as one’s own. And additionally, as a woman born a twin, also exploited through the subject-object crisis of that thing, those things, which are twinned: twin beds, twin engines, twin jets, duplicate images, Doublemint Gum, the Bopsey Twins, carbon copies, a pair of any two objects that are, in every detail, the same.

In general terms, I am most interested in composing (and reading) a poetics that merges the object with the subject without any clear distinction. In my own consciousness as both person being perceived and perceiver, I have found the boundaries between the two blurred and merging. I could spend years knowing a person as an individual, outside of my racial lines, outside of my gender-specific distinctions, outside of my twinning. Yet, the moment any of those elements were introduced alongside me, suddenly there I changed from [she] to [it], from self-contained to open for discussion and comparison. In my work, I attempt to force that merging of the natural/physical world and the emotional interior of the speaker—that seems to be an honest portrayal of eco-poetics as it relates to the human condition.

This postcard forms part of the forthcoming feature on Ecopoetics in the next issue of HOW2.

Ecopoetics Postcard: “Returning to the Meadow” by Anna Reckin

One Mid-Western spring – the kind of spring that’s all-but summer, when snow-thaw and lilac seem surreally close to one another, I read Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’, and writing and thinking about writing has not been the same for me since.

Most of all, it let me work with landscape: landscape as metaphor, landscape as poem, a poem that can be walked through as if it were a green grassy space. The more I work with and within Olson and Duncan’s composition by field, as a writer and as a scholar, the more central it becomes to me. Its insistence on the primacy of space: the space of a page, the space of a field, two- and three-dimensional space and the proprioceptive as basics for accessing memory and imagination; and its understanding of sites that are open, exploratory, playful, but at the same time bristling with material resistances: historical, political, environmental, linguistic. Whose meadow? Who gets to walk there? Is the water table rising or falling? What happens when it floods? What does it look like from the edge, from the middle, next to the watercourse? What’s its relationship with the nearest settlement? Idealized construct or part of a material economy? Margin or meeting-place? Mid, met, mediating – Duncan’s juxtaposition of ‘meadow’ and ‘made’ is especially resonant for thinking about language.

As a metaphor that’s also a form, it released me into a poetry that seemed possible, true (so far as poetry is ever ‘true’), unsentimental. Reluctant – for all the reasons Kathleen Fraser and others have set out to let a poem’s sayings be from ‘a me’ to the outside, a monologue without a stage, I found in Duncan’s work and those who followed radical permission: a place where if there’s an I, she’s produced by a space, emergent or forced out, haunting, or ‘heard off’, from somewhere in the wings. Sure, she has a viewpoint, but ‘who’s telling the story’ is less important than where it’s happening, the cry can’t be prised apart from the wilderness.

When I started to look for ways to theorize this and connect it with other ways of looking at spatiality, however, I drew a blank. So many of the main theorists of spatiality are interested only, it seems, in urban space – very often in constructions of North American urban space that ignore or are set up in contradistinction to a ‘rural’ that can be labelled (and stigmatized) as ‘pastoral’. Retrograde, conservative, escapist. What I end up wanting to work with (creatively and as theoretical construct) is a meadow that can be a field and/or a city square, a contact zone manifest in soundscape, in performance, in marks on a page. A field whose edges keep folding back in; a field I keep finding (myself) in.

This postcard forms part of the forthcoming feature on Ecopoetics in the next issue of HOW2.

Ecopoetics Postcard: “Modern Pastorals” by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

A modern day eco-feminist "pastoral" poem goes something like this:

We'll hang on
to what proved useful

Eggs are full
of flame retardant

(from "Headline Song" by Armantrout,
2005, p. 94)


Noah's ark wrecked, a wreath on reefs
untallied ho and compass clatch
insurgent, strategic mass proctored
by priests of weed and wrack, full
fathom strive to earn this infamy,
president pretzeled in Bosnia tank

(from "Safe Haven" in Schultz,
2000, p. 54)


and daggers sloughed off
as evidence of old, if imagined,
wars against spirit or self--
lost in the high grass that
dissolved ages hence, however
strait our gates and warm

(from "Baudelaire's Knee", in Schultz, 2000, p. 45)

As in Baudelaire's "Reve parisien":

Et le ciel versait des tenebres
Sur ce triste monde engourdi

Harriet Tarlo, analyzing a portion of Rosmarie Waldrop's Lawn of Excluded Middle, one of the books that prompted me to start writing poetry again, observes:

Certainly when we follow the 'logic' of the piece, we
find, as we often do in women's experimental writings,
that it is thwarted, just as the female speaker is in her
quest here.
(Tarlo, 2000, p. 252)

Prominent for me here is the word "thwarted" -- because it seems to capture well the feeling I have when writing in recent years, or perhaps the impetus or impulse for my writing [anything] at all, as a human struggling not to be swallowed up . . . .

Schultz quotes an email from Charles Bernstein:

. . . in the wake of September 11, I felt a continued
commitment to poetry, to poetics and indeed to teaching.
If anything, 9/11 made me feel an intensified sense
of the relevance of the office of poetry. Not the
demeaning sense of poetry as 'comforting' in a time
of crisis . . . I mean poetry as a way of thinking in, around,
and through 'the real,' and in particular, a way of going
beyond the deafeningly deceptive representations of
'reality' provided by the massed media.

(Schultz, 2005, p. 211)

Repeated televised versions of the events of 9-11 traumatized me as I watched this for me at first seemingly surreal film from afar in my living room in Japan (I had a similar feeling watching the breaking news of the sarin gas [Aum Shinrikyo] subway incident here both because journalists did not yet understand what the events were that they were reporting and the use of the word "sarin" confounded me as initially I assumed it could be an ordinary word of Japanese I had not yet learned...). A student of mine was a 9/11 eyewitness in New York; the song lyrics he wrote in English in my creative writing class upon returning to Japan haunt me still, as do poems such as Maxine Kumin's “The Beheadings” published in the November/December 2005 American Poetry Review:

After they sawed through Nicholas Berg's neck
with an inadequate knife while he screamed,
after the heads of David Pearl
and Richard Johnson were detached
in midthought, in terror but
caught alive on a grainy video, what
did their stored oxygen enable them to mouth

and some of the poems published in, e.g. the all female anthology A Chorus of Peace, such as "War Photograph" by Kate Daniels which begins:

A naked child is running
along the path toward us,
her arms stretched out,
her mouth open,
the world turned to trash
behind her

. . . even a poem of Margaret Atwood called “A Women's Issue” in her Selected Poems II: 1976-1986, which, after describing incidents of female genital multilation and rape, comments:

You'll notice what they have in common
is between the legs. Is this
why wars are fought?

While my own teaching and writings pre-9/11 dealt with gender, war and environmental destruction, post-9/11 it has often seemed difficult to teach or write about anything else. I have found myself almost desperately seeking out writings by, most especially, feminist female poets, innovative as well as sometimes more stylistically conventional, that engage such topics as the effects of patriarchy and capitalism on the ecosphere, including war and rape, war and environmental destruction, war and notions of masculinity/femininity, including works connected to wars earlier in the world's history, such as Japanese female poet's works connected to the second world war and Japanese feminist issues:

People bore children
and the children went to war
when they came back
the children bore children--
there are children everywhere.
But the women, they simply bathe.
It will all be over soon
perhaps the grass will grow
and people will die in the grass

(from “Will You Marry Me?” by Taeko Tomioka,

Because I felt too full of rage listening to President Bush's 'logic' during his televised addresses to the public attempting to justify war, I had to go read them later on the internet after calming down. Yet examining such texts seems to fuel the almost involuntary habit of writing as imperfect antidote to the "massed media" and patriarchal control of the ecosphere.

While the avant garde is frequently linked to a rejection of patriarchy, and realism and formalism to (political) conservatism / the political right, poets might exercise caution -- to avoid imitating devices of oversimplification and divisiveness used by politicians. Spahr has written:

Lyric is not and never has been a simplistic genre,
despite its seeming innocence. It is only recently,
after modernism, that it has gotten its bad name
for being traditional, for being romantic in the derisive

(in Rankine & Spahr, 2002, p. 1)

Yet in Belsey (2002) can be found a succinct statement summarizing an idea treated in great detail in books such as Poggioli's "The Theory of the Avant-Garde" published in English in 1968:

The avant-garde is not just a matter of style. Because
it poses questions, it undermines all certainties,
including the certainty that you possess the truth--
and are entitled to kill people in its name.

(July 19, 2007)

Works Cited:

Armantrout, R. “Headline song” (poem). In J. Goldman and L. Scalapino (eds).
War and Peace 2. Oakland: O Books, 2005.

Atwood, M. “A Women's Issue” (poem) In Margaret Atwood. Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976-1986. Boston: Mariner Books, 1987.

Baudelaire, C. From “Reve parisien” (poem). In Les fleurs du mal/Flowers of evil (p. 52). Trans. G. Dillon and E. St. Vincent Millay. New York: Washington Square Press, 1962.

Belsey, C. Poststructuralism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Daniels, K. “War photograph” (poem). In A chorus for peace. M. Arnold et al, eds. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press 2002.

Kumin, M. “The beheadings” (poem). American Poetry Review (November/December 2005).

Poggioli, R. The theory of the avant-garde. Trans. G. Fitzgerald. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Rankine, C. and Spahr, J. American women poets in the 21st century. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Schultz, S. A poetics of impasse in modern and contemporary American poetry. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Schultz, S. “Baudelaire's knee” (poem). In Aleatory allegories. Applecross: Salt Publishing, 2000.

Schultz, S. “Safe haven” (poem). In Aleatory allegories. Applecross: Salt Publishing, 2000.

Tarlo, H. `A she even smaller than me`: gender dramas of the contemporary avant-garde. In Mark, A. and Rees-Jones, D. Contemporary women's poetry: reading/writing/practice. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Tomioka, T. “Will you marry me?” (poem). In other side river. Trans. L. Lowitz and M. Aoyama. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1995.

This postcard forms part of the forthcoming feature on Ecopoetics in the next issue of

Ecopoetics Postcard: Susanna Fry

I don’t think it’s quite a conscious thing. I don’t think it’s quite an unconscious thing.

I am fascinated with layers to my work, layers in the world, the way things build upon each other and form bigger things. I create a work in a series of sittings, walkings, lookings, touchings, starings. I then melt them all together. One of the things that sticks with me from my college courses in eco-feminism is the traditional sense of dualism that our contemporary world adheres to. I grew up in a very black and white family. A family that ran on logic. I believed that there was only one right way to do something. One right way to behave. One right way to look. I still struggle with this idea. I’ve spent many years wandering around looking for someone / something to guide me; to show me the way. However, when it comes to writing poetry I abandon this dualism eagerly. I do not want to try to fit into a certain structure or shape. I strive to be as inclusive as I can, allowing strange images to play off each other and form into even stranger ones. I am into multiplication, exponents, and divisions. I think of my poems as collections or sacks of stolen things.

How can my world not be seen as female, if I am the female seeing it?

As a feminist and a poet I am able to see the intersection of the two as a possible eco-poetics. I am constantly looking to the world for answers. I am constantly alone. There is no answer I keep trying to remind myself. The world backs me up with its proud silence. To the woman looking for answers this is a very powerful conclusion. My work takes the form of air, lists of corner store debris, birds’ feathers. I could compare my work with words to my garden. Once I start digging more and more items surface; rusted metal scraps, doorknobs, Sunkist soda bottles. I refuse to see this as an answer but rather as the initial question.

Allowing it to justify itself.

Time is very important to my writing. Letting an image sit with me over a period of time. As a poet my priority is to not only speak through images but also with them, to have authority but to also be submissive to things like wind, love, electricity. This complicated and fluid action is my own personal eco-poetics. I don’t know that a poet could say that they were not influenced by their surroundings. It appears impossible.

This postcard forms part of the forthcoming feature on Ecopoetics in the next issue of HOW2.

Ecopoetics Postcard: Cara Benson: “it’s high time...”

writing is two things simultaneously. writing is itself. writing is, well, then, writing. so in writing itself the writing issued a statement. this statement. it is said, anyway. the said saying so. so that it has been said, but not yet because it isn’t always that the simultaneity is concurrent with the spontaneity of utterance. not all utterance is written. nor, vice versa. in other words, what is said is not always written, and what is written not spoken. is it thought? if it is thought, as verb and noun, is that heard? if a word is uttered in a mind and there is no hand clapping for the tree that was felled, what were woods? how does thought precede word? precede wood? does a tree clap when people fall? what are those flapping leaves but an audience? if the audience does not clap, did you bomb? if so, are your words missiles? is this praxis or pragmatics?

if the word is the beginning, the begging is brought empty handed. how can you clap with your hands full of prayers? if you are holding hands with other hands, who will clap? were you listening? or thinking yourself? who can listen, write, think, speak, clap, or enact manifest presence (an epitaph) so simply spoken situationally? that said, it’s time for breakfast. they flew my eggs in from utah.

This postcard forms part of the forthcoming feature on Ecopoetics in the next issue of HOW2.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

by Frances Presley

Dear Lauren
Happy New Year!

I wanted to let you know that I’ve started work on a response to the wonderful Jena Osman project, which specifically concerns female figurative statues in public places.

I was especially drawn to the Osman project, because I have been working, with the poet Tilla Brading, on a long sequence relating to Neolithic stone monuments on Exmoor (‘Stone settings’). There is debate about whether some of these, particularly the longstones, are memorials, but it also raised the whole issue of types of memorials, whether ancient or modern, and the more recent examples of these, which have also become part of the sequence. They include WW2 memorials on Exmoor, as well as my own ‘longstone’ texts of the Iraq war.

Has anyone raised the issue of female figurative statues and their significance? It is, of course, simply an aspect of the extent to which women occupy public space in general.

I was thinking about it last year when we had an invasion of the Anthony Gormleys at the South Bank (and beyond) - the English sculptor who is best known for sculptures which are slightly abstracted versions of his own body.

Some of the, comparatively rare, statues of women are of British queens. On the subject of women as public figures, and rulers, the derivation of the words for king and queen are very revealing.

Cyning= king = cunning ruler

Cwen = queen = wife of king

Charles Beem also makes the following observation. “Women were not recognised as legitimate participants in the public spaces of political, military and sacerdotal activities. The construction of female kingship, then, was a gender-bending process…”

(The Lioness roared: the problems of female rule in English history, Charles Beem, Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)

All best wishes