"The Verge of a Language"by Barry Schwabsky
This July, an extraordinary three-day celebration of new poetry from across the U.K. and North America took place at The Greenwich Cross-Genre Festival. Organized by Emily Critchley and Carol Watts at the University of Greenwich, its focus was on innovative writing and performance, including work that crossed the boundaries separating poetry from sound art or music, and syntheses of poetry with video and other visual media. Although it is hard to pick favorites from a program that included such luminaries as Caroline Bergvall (whose installation Say Parsley, in collaboration with composer Ciarán Maher, had just closed at the Arnolfini in Bristol), Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Eleni Sikelianos, I’ll admit to having found particular inspiration in a performance by the work of the Zürich-based American poet Susana Gardner that made me feel that the exuberantly subversive spirit of the Cabaret Voltaire must still be alive somewhere among the streets where the gnomes hoard their gold. Nowhere in the official material was there an explicit statement of what a glance at the program made obvious: that it was about innovative writing and performance by women.
Now that’s interesting. For centuries poetry was discussed without anyone mentioning that, in fact, the focus of the discussion was poetry written by men; the same, of course, is true of art and music. In the 20th century, though, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the contribution of women to poetry, but for those ambitious for their work to be recognized, there was always the dilemma of whether to play it as “one of the boys” for whom “the mind has no sex” or to emphasize their gender at the risk of being ghettoized.
But now, it seems, women poets have no compunction about setting themselves up as the mainstream. And who can dispute them? As a couple of recent anthologies from the U.K. and U.S. demonstrate much of the strongest, most daring poetry is being written by women; it’s we men who have to decide whether we want to try and crash their party.
That prospect might be as daunting as it is desirable, especially when you read the American anthology, Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics (Saturnalia Books, 2010) edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg. The title and subtitle may set off alarm bells in some quarters—especially among those for whom critic Mira Schor’s warning (in her 2009 book A Decade of Negative Thinking) resonates: that “in a world with Madonna, J. Lo and Buffy, Venus and Serena, the Frida Kahlo industry, GRRLLL this and that, kick-ass female rock stars and thousands of other famous, powerful, talented, business- and media-savvy women” feminist struggles are still necessary but increasingly neglected. All the more so when they read in Arielle Greenberg’s introductory essay that the new women’s poetry—or at least the very particular strand of it in Gurlesque—bears “almost no trace of the earnestness, sensitivity or self-seriousness that marked many such poems stemming from Second Wave feminism.” But the fact that Greenberg, Glenum, and their posse don’t want to be the kind of feminists their mothers were doesn’t mean they don’t want to be feminists at all; they want a feminism of their own, with an in-your-face aesthetic that encompasses, as Glenum says, “burlesque and camp, girly kitsch and the female grotesque.” Or, as Tina Brown Celona writes in one of her prose poems: “For a while I hushed. Then I started up again about my cunt. Some said it was a vicious swipe at feminism. Others said it was a vicious feminist swipe.”
As for me, I’m just glad it’s a swipe; these poems tell you off and make you like it. The full-on fierceness—even obnoxiousness—of a lot of the poetry in Gurlesque is exhilarating. In the writing of Catherine Wagner, Chelsey Minnis, Dorothea Lasky, and others, being blatant is their response to what Emily Dickinson called “Truth’s superb surprise.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book of poetry in which the word “fuck” and all its possible permutations (fuckable, fucking, fuckwad) appear quite so often. It’s as if these poets are just not willing to get over the fact that a word that refers to sex is one of the language’s greatest carriers of belligerence and at the same time what the dictionaries call a “meaningless intensive”; they ring the changes on a syllable that seems to touch on everything we do and don’t want to talk about. Wagner’s poem “The Argument” exemplifies the resulting mix of trash talk and artifice, of indignation, abjection, and playfulness:
This book is called
Fuckfila on her journey her new spelling
reminiscent of Chick-Fil-A. Fill the
chick and filler well of ding ding dong.
Fuckin’ A. Behold a useful and
profitable book. If you think otherwise,
do not lay the blame on the book, but on
yourself. If you sourly refuse
the new erotic guest, do not despise
the well-ordered sequence nor the fine
well-ordered style. Then in this volume
she falls in love. It is a worthy book, and full of many ornaments: he who will not read it
is dull of mind. Various things are treated in it which it would tire me to relate, but accept the work which offers a cornucopia emending it should it be incorrect. The End.
The British poets in Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by U.K. Women Poets, edited by Carrie Etter (Shearsman Books, 2010) are drawn from a much broader stylistic and generational range and aren’t quite as confrontational as their American cousins. They are, however, subversive enough, apparently, to have a columnist in the Times Literary Supplement huffing that he just doesn’t get it, and that in this writing there is no “shared experience.” Well, encountering experiences beyond one’s own has always been part of what reading poetry is about—and turning the page whenever it gets problematical or troubling isn’t the way forward. I don’t find the poets of Infinite Difference scary. Most are more contemplative and perhaps more cautious than those in Gurlesque, and they seem much less influenced by pop culture. Wendy Mulford speaks for many when she explains: “I do not believe my work is difficult—the difficulties in syntax and/or linguistic choices, tropes, disruption, paradox/contradiction/erasion derive from the difficulty of catching the complexity of perception and feeling-thought complex, accurately and swiftly, as these are always coming and going.” That’s to say that this formally experimental poetry is essentially resuming the unfinished task that has been central to poetry from Romanticism to Modernism: to revivify perception by critically reflecting on it.
Which brings me to my big beef with the British poetry scene: the way the term “mainstream” has been usurped by a backward-looking poetry whose aesthetic lost its freshness a century ago—imagine if mainstream contemporary art comprised reiterations of Post-Impressionist landscape painting while the traditions that stem from Cubism, abstraction, and the readymade were considered marginal. Thus Andrea Brady, one of the best poets in Infinite Difference, has described her invaluable website, Archive of the Now, as “committed to exploring non-mainstream poetry which may be excluded from similar projects.” The fact is that Brady, like Mulford and Etter and (my personal favorite) Denise Riley, the other poets in Infinite Difference, are the mainstream of British poetry. Maybe what I mean by mainstream is something like the mysterious entity that Brady simply designates as “it” in her poem “The Real and Ideal”:
It looks outside the footprint of this house
like a magic workshop, tumbling in mechanics and flash memory, toppling
on the verge of a language which hardly knows it needs it. From this mist is safe deposit
as if the bulk were still erasable,
or the scholars born by exponent
would in future fail to discriminate our values.
Everyman was a pervert, they’ll say,
his dog microchipped and neutered, and the users generally agreed in theory.
At moments like these, when the poets of Infinite Difference take on just a touch of that Gurlesque fuck-em-all mentality, they seem ready to show the world that their efforts are not marginal but central.
BARRY SCHWABSKY is the art critic for the Nation. His recent collection of poems is Book Left Open in the Rain (Black Square Editions/The Brooklyn Rail, 2009)