American Writers

“There exists a great politesse around women’s poetry,” Courtney Queeney writes, “and to write critically is, in some ways, to betray one’s feminine self (the part that’s supposed to blink a lot and sigh into the shadows when the menfolk start talking politics at the dinner table).”

In solidarity with Kamy Wicoff’ and the SheWrites call to action, I’ve already bought Francine Prose’s Gluttony and just bought Adina Hoffman’s My Happiness bears No Relation to Happiness, which looks like a historical and biographical tour de force.

That’s not enough, of course. I think it’s worth thinking long and hard about the problems, internal and external, that seem to keep women in what Adina Hoffman herself comes to call a “ghetto.” Here’s an interview with Mya Guarnieri where she talks about the problem of hybridity that plagues me daily (and Alarcon too, if a little less).

Guarnieri: So you’re an American writer? Not a Jewish writer?

Hoffman: I should probably just say that I’m a writer, no adjectives attached, but I suppose I used the term “American writer” because it’s both more neutral and expansive than any of these others; it doesn’t necessarily imply anything specific, beyond one’s place of birth and the use of an American idiom. And perhaps I also meant to say that no matter how long I live in the Middle East, I’ll never be an Israeli writer. To call yourself a “Jewish writer,” meanwhile, is to put yourself in a kind of ghetto, as if your concerns are only Jewish. The same is true of the term “woman writer,” which I also don’t use. Of course I am Jewish and I am a woman, and both of these things matter to me, but I’d like to think my imagination extends beyond such categories.

It’s interesting that Hoffman thinks of “American writer” as the most general label available to her. The term is not in practice “neutral” and “expansive”—we don’t need to look at the Publishers Weekly Top Ten list to establish that the American Writer has both a structure and a gender, and that the Great American Novel tends by definition to be about a boy’s life. (For a great account of why this is problematic, see Zunguzungu’s post “On Repressive Anti-Sentimalism” here.) But of the labels available, American Writer is clearly the most powerful, and she’s free to choose it. It’s hard to be the  best “American” writer if you’re “ghettoized,” as Hoffman puts it, into a subcategory.

(Ghettoization. What a word to use in this connection. Whew.)

I started this post with an excerpt from Courtney Queeney’s article “The Kings Are Boring: Some Thoughts on Women’s Poetry”, from the August 2009 issue of Bookslut, because it reminded me of prior talks we’ve had about some of the features of Jezebel and DoubleXX that make them problematic discourse communities. Queeney’s piece is honest about the risks that attend projects like She Writes and WILLA—great projects born of a moment of crisis that  offer members shelter from the storm, but which run the danger of confirming in some larger way that the only solution to a segregated society is to create a secondary one outside it. Let’s resist that, WILLA and She Writes: let’s keep women’s writing from turning into women’s sports.

(I say that, by the way, as someone who a) despises ALL sports and b) nonetheless resents the way in which women’s sports have been marginalized, except when it comes to tennis. I’m using the comparison advisedly: unlike sports, where women are statistically smaller and weaker, there is no biology limiting our ability to record-break along with the big boys.)

This may require a move away from the “politesse,” and it may involve developing a way for us to talk about aesthetics and politics in a way that doesn’t let friendship, or the good feeling that comes from uniting behind a cause, interfere with our ability to disagree.

I hope, in other words, that She Writes and WILLA don’t become another set of shelters from the storm. I hope they’re where the storm happens.

Queeney turned me onto Arielle Greenberg’s really interesting 2003 essay “On the Gurlesque,” which describes a trend in poetry written by women that involved clashing different definitions of “girl” or “grrl”-ness. Greenberg defines the “Gurlesque” as partly a response to “victim tales” or modes that are merely confessional. It’s something else, a perspective that exist at an indefinite remove from (for example) the oft-used traumatic event:

Instead, the poem mocks the very notion of victimhood in a way which is even more disturbing than a straightforward version of the same tale, because the speaker seems as taken by the melodrama of the scene as she is wounded by the pain. This honest assessment of the perverse pleasures of horror—even horror so closely associated with women’s suppression—is one of the key markers of the Gurlesque.

Other key markers include a Whitmanesque desire to contain all contradictions, to be simultaneously ungendered and all girl. Greenberg sees the Gurlesque is a very specific reaction to a time of transition—an in-between stage, in fact:

Gurlesque poetry takes its cues from all of these things: subversive and angry but flirty and sweet, owning and critiquing sexuality in candid ways. Its origins in the turbulent years after the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s make it a poetry which documents a psychic schism; if, as John Berger wrote about depictions of women in art in Ways of Seeing, “the social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living…within such a limited space…at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two,” then the Gurlesque poet watches herself and is herself at once, both punishing and promoting what she sees, rejecting the notion of herself as object while trying it on for size.

That last bit seems like it describes something we see all the time, no?

“Can women poets really afford the luxury of writing this way, with the patriarchy still in such power?” one male audience member asked me recently. This reply came from a young woman in the audience: “Yes, but we are the first generation who can, and that’s why this is so exciting.”

I like the male audience member and the young woman who replied, but I think they’re having the wrong conversation. American Writerhood includes us. It’s a mistake to proceed defensively because it leads to bad art. Our first responsibility is to the stuff we’re writing, and it’s frankly impossible (for me, anyway) to write well when I’ve stuffed my world view into a particular aesthetic canister or find myself thinking in a merely reactive or reactionary way. It might be poetry accommodates political affiliations in a way that fiction definitively can’t. Queeney, for one, doesn’t think so: as she sits down to dutifully review a group of women poets she’d sat herself down to like, she finds that  “despite my copious notes and the hours I spent staring at pages, I was fundamentally uninspired by most of what I’d been given.”

She never writes the essay on those poets and neither should we. I’m buying books by women today because it’s the right thing to do. Dollars count. But I want to point out the difference between timing and content. These aren’t spurious purchases motivated by a desire to statement-make; they’re books I would have bought anyway that happen to be written by women. That I bought them today is where the activism happens, not that I bought them at all, and it’s vitally important that we keep that distinction healthy.

As someone who, when angry, can only think of a character named Meat Messions who meets an unsavory end, I want to note the activist impulse, mark this as a moment of crisis to which we will respond in terms to which we do not subscribe (here, the tyranny of the market and the power of the all-mighty dollar), and then note too that anger, however righteous, can’t interfere with the real work the members of She Writes and WILLA are here to do, which is to be American writers.

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