Friday, October 9, 2009

This is What a (Pro)Feminist [Man Poet] Looks Like

Welcome to our third forum, where each day this week you will find new responses.

This is What a (Pro)Feminist [Man Poet] Looks Like

To read our introduction, please click here.

And please visit the original This is What a Feminist [Poet] Looks Like!

Monday October 5: Brian Teare, Christian Peet, & H.L. Hix
Tuesday October 6: Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Kareem Estefan,
    & Kevin Simmonds
Wednesday October 7: Mark Wallace, Mike Hauser, & Nate Pritts
Thursday October 8: Philip Jenks, Tim Atkins, & Tony Frazer,
Friday October 9: Tony Trigilio, & David Lau

Bibles for the Black Madonna by Tony Trigilio

Tony Trigilio’s recent books include the poetry collection The Lama’s English Lessons (Three Candles Press) and the chapbook With the Memory, Which is Enormous (Main Street Rag Press). With Tim Prchal, he co-edited Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (Rutgers University Press). He teaches at Columbia College Chicago, where he also co-edits the poetry journal Court Green.

My poem, “Bibles for Vietnam,” in The Lama’s English Lessons, roiled in me for years before I could write it. I didn’t understand why until I realized the poem explored a crucial moment in my identification as a feminist. I grew up in an old-world, lower-working-class Italian family still too close to its immigrant heritage to make much sense of the social changes of the 1960s except to distrust them as utter betrayals of the tribalism we saw as a matter of survival. Gender politics were not speakable; we literally did not have a language to bring these ideas into being. Our class position? Equally off the map. The invisibility of economic class as a marker of identity in American culture is, of course, a perfect divide-and-conquer mechanism: I’m not the first person to note that in such a situation, you are so busy earning a subsistence wage, and so worried with the consequences of failure to earn this wage, that the possibility of re-envisioning the world is someone else’s luxury. So, as a child, the world I was learning to represent in language was one in which basic sustenance was precarious. As for gender roles, we simply were grateful my sister married above our social class, and we hoped my brother, unable to afford college and a draft deferment, might come home from Vietnam alive.

I wrote my brother letters. Well, no, I didn’t. I was too young to write anything legible, so I dictated my rudimentary thoughts—”I miss you,” “Come home now,” or, my favorite, “Is Vietnam like Brooklyn?”—to my mother, who appended them to the letters she was writing. I’ll never know exactly what she wrote. Those letters didn’t survive. But these moments constituted some of my earliest links between communication and what I would now call feminism. My mother took on a conventional stenographer’s role, and I learned to dictate to her.

But she also inverted the standard passive subject position of the amanuensis—because it was in this role she taught me language. I learned to read by remembering what I had said and reading back those words, in print, after she wrote them. At one level, of course, all I’m doing is recasting in a tidy domestic scene the basic argument of Of Grammatology. It was more than this, though, because my brother’s service in Vietnam—where he did, thankfully, come back healthy and whole, and brought me a lovely souvenir camera from Saigon that stoked my later passion for photography—is also the location where these particular speech acts take on their political tint. In “Bibles for Vietnam,” I’m trying to vocalize my mother’s feminism from that location.

“Bibles for Vietnam” emerges from these memories of learning language, but it’s shot through with other memories—specifically, recollections of the endless parade of Vietnam vets that started showing up in the late-1970s as reformed-drug-addicts-now-freshly-minted-Christians on the televangelist shows my mother used to watch. And my memory of discovering that my mother secretly gave money to Jim Bakker’s PTL Club.

Yes, the poem is funny, especially for those who know me deeply: the devoted Buddhist convert whose mother’s tiny donations helped build the PTL Club’s massive Christian theme park. Even though “Bibles for Vietnam” is, for me, a meditation on social class and religious power—on explorations of the way our immigrant Catholicism privileged obedience over spiritual growth—audiences nevertheless get big laughs at the lines about my mother (Jim Bakker is a punch line unto himself). I was ashamed of what she did; and I’m sure at an unconscious level, I was looking for those laughs as a justification for my anger when I composed the poem. I wanted to write my own shame into the poem.

But this poem also stages my earliest participation in feminism. As I realized this, after a couple years of including the poem in readings, the laugh-lines felt less satisfying. My mother’s family practiced what she described as a “voodoo Catholicism” in southern Italy, and it was a decidedly matriarchal version of Catholic tradition. They moved to the States, where my grandfather worked at a rubber factory and took ESL classes at night while my grandmother—who picked up her barely intelligible English in scraps wherever she could—raised their eight children. My grandfather died of a heart attack when most of the kids were still in school, and my grandmother, once the heir of a matriarchal religious tradition, was left to raise eight children as a single mother who didn’t speak the language of the country in which she lived. Her husband was the family’s language, and now he was gone.

My mother spoke of this matriarchal religious tradition with regret, as something the women of her family lost with the move to the United States. So it was for me that I began to associate substantive religious critique—real spiritual backtalk—with the voices of women, and abstract figures like the Church Fathers became the stuff of unquestioned obedience. These female dissenting voices also were the stuff of danger, because you don’t get the luxury of checks-and-balances in an institution that can claim infallibility anytime it wants. The so-called pagan voice of my mother’s lost tradition confirmed for me that religious authority could offer guidance only when it trusted doubt—when authority was underwritten by messy conversation and backtalk rather than monologue. These early insights helped shape me as a person and a writer. The research for my first book of criticism, on the prophetic poetry of Blake, H.D., and Ginsberg, began really as a book on H.D.’s proto-feminist religious visions and her sense that Freud (her one-time analyst) was more guru than he wanted to admit and could be redeemed by a crash course in gender studies by his most famous poet-analysand. It was in graduate school, studying experimental women’s writing, that one of my professors, Mary Loeffelholz, once came to the exasperated defense of feminist studies itself, against the charges of a female student who demanded that literary production and critical reception stand distanced, impartial, and apolitical in its relationship with everyday life. I remember Mary saying, “Look, feminism is simply the acknowledgment that the lives of women are as much a legitimate object of research as the lives of men.” Seems simple enough; but if women’s lives are a legitimate object of research, then it might follow that women’s subjectivity, their agency, was just as legitimate a mode of inquiry—an almost inevitable corollary. And if this was true, which of course it is, then the matriarchal voodoo Catholics of my heritage were a force of political dissent rather than just an eccentric impulse that could be brushed off by the Church Fathers as corrosive paganism.

It doesn’t take much effort to be skeptical of the Church Fathers’ pronouncement of indigenous matriarchal traditions as paganist. Similarly, it’s no great revelation that I saw my mother’s voodoo Catholicism as a mode of resistance. Later, I would call their mode of dissenting practice “feminist resistance,” but the abstractions of language don’t do justice to the tactile constraint she felt as a working-class woman shaped by capitalist patriarchy. She had no vehicle, no matter how hard she tried, to make her eclectic religious background a legitimate practice of the self. I mean, she wasn’t constantly checking out books on witches from the library just because she was hooked on the vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows. This was more than entertainment; it was an effort to shape and reshape her subjectivity in response to a changing social environment where second-wave feminism had not yet trickled down fully to families like ours waiting in line for welfare cheese, milk, and butter.

I try not to read “Bibles for Vietnam” publicly anymore, because it understandably produces an immediate kind of laugh-track at lines like, “She gave to his theme park, // committed us in monthly payments, / clandestine phone calls from the kitchen.” I’d laugh, too, if I was in the audience. I mean, it’s a poetry reading, after all, and we’re all looking for some kind of humor—something to hijack the sobriety. But for me the poem is funny and more than a joke. It cannot exist without its feminist commitment, and this makes the poem a tribute to the language my mother gave me, an ode to the language of resistance unavailable to her. I describe her affinity for Jim Bakker as a kind of spell, an attraction to the supernatural, phantasmagoric Pentecostalism that framed his entire show—and, more important, an attraction that emerged from her desperation to find a voice that might come close to approximating the legacy of spiritual authority that her foremothers had created and sustained. Of her PTL donations, I write, “A spirit must have taken over: a mare, goblin, // Black Madonna, Italian rustic / voodoo of her girlhood, the old country.” The Black Madonna refers to particular European medieval images of the Virgin Mary painted with black skin, which many scholars attribute to pre-Christian, earth-goddess spiritual traditions in Europe. For my mother, and her mother, the Black Madonna was an image of female power. In “Bibles for Vietnam,” I’m trying to reconsider how the feminist impulse in this tradition is distorted by male religious authorities—Jim Bakker the most obvious, but he also morphs into images of Catholic priests in the confessional, and into the born-again Vietnam veterans he was fond of interviewing (who were nearly always represented as men softened by their religious conversion in ways that actually strengthened their privilege and cultural authority).

The poem is my ode to the matriarchal voice her mother brought to the States from southern Italy—and that was muted by male religious authority to the extent that even the Black Madonna could be co-opted by the Church Fathers and turned into an evil spirit that “take[s] over” my mother and convinces her to give money to Jim Bakker, our “chimp-faced barker” of televangelism. This muting, in my mother’s case—and in the case of many of those cut off from middle-class privilege—was fused to class striving, to the American tradition whose rhetoric attempts to persuade the working-class and poor to vote against their own interests in the hope that they, too, can, like Jim Bakker, transcend their humble beginnings and rise into the middle- and upper-classes: “We all come out from trailers, even Jim, // but some of us build amusement parks / and talk with satellites in the sky.”

My mother never called herself a feminist. I don’t think that matters. In her world, power had been centered at one time on women in the Black Madonna tradition and had been nearly erased from her childhood as her mother struggled with the more pragmatic, day-to-day exigencies of raising eight children alone. But even when I was a child, “a young boy growing out of my own ribs” in the poem as I watch PTL with my mom, I could see my mother trying to reclaim this voice. Jim Bakker was one of the worst choices for this reclamation project, of course. Pentecostal spiritualism recalled the magick of the goddess-centered spirituality of her foremothers, to be sure, but it only recovered this natural supernaturalism in order to immediately re-cover it with paternal versions of religious authority.

Around the same time she was making her clandestine donations to the PTL Club, my mother was re-reading her dog-eared copy of Erica Jong’s 1973 feminist classic, Fear of Flying. I was an inveterate reader, hyperlexic from an early age, so I’d noticed the book when she first read it soon after it was released. But I was seven years old, and I can’t say it made much sense to me. I thought it might be about airplanes; when I snuck a peek at it, I realized I was wrong and, bored that it wasn’t about jumbo jet travel, I put it right back on the lamp table next to her reading chair. But a few years later, during the time of her PTL donations, when I noticed she was re-reading the book, the back-cover descriptions and brief (and rattling, for me at the time) excerpts I read made sense to me: not as a landmark text of the industrial world’s women’s movement, but as a landmark text of my mother’s women’s movement, in which her loss of matriarchal religious authority made her afraid to fly, and this loss constrained her so much that she needed to fly anyway. At its worst, my comments here might suggest that she was seeking a transcendental release from capitalist, religious patriarchy: such a move, though, would be nothing but escape, and would do a disservice to the embodied here-and-now relentlessness of Jong’s book. Instead, I look back on this discovery of her Fear of Flying as something that revealed my mother’s split psyche at the time, her efforts to forge the supernaturalism of her own mother’s tradition—roughly approximated in, but co-opted by, the notorious Jim Bakker—with the necessity of focusing on the material conditions of women that helped shape Jong’s book.

My earliest mentors saw, in some diffuse way, that my embrace of feminism and my struggles with the way it inflected my early self-awareness of male privilege was embedded in something larger and more personal than just the texts of critical theory. It wasn’t until I was reading deeply in H.D.’s revival of so-called pagan goddess traditions—research that influenced poems such as “Bibles for Vietnam”—that I realized I was continuing my own mother’s work, that I was extending the work of her foremothers as a matter of political, aesthetic, and personal necessity.


David Lau's book of poems is Virgil and the Mountain Cat (UC Press). He is the co-editor of Lana Turner and teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College.

for Laura Martin and Johanna Isaacson


1. If feminism is not politically radical, I’m not sure what it is. The I’m-not-sure-what-it-is condition of the keyword today correlates with cultural feminism having become a certain kind of accepted norm far from its revolutionary heyday, characterized by what Alain Badiou calls a passion for the real. Overt discrimination against women still does occur, but cultural feminism has incorporated itself into every aspect of our lives—from mall, to military, to mega-church.

2. There is yet another problematic with more significance for progressives. Nancy Fraser recently argued in the New Left Review that a neutralized, quasi-reactionary form of feminism has become a integral part of neoliberal global capitalism—women form one more group of needy subalterns to be “represented” in our democratic markets when they are not, as in Afghanistan, an open justification for humanitarian militarism: protecting women in disparate countries from their barbarous men.

3. Democratic capitalism can obviate problems of a more modest feminism, like the one criticized by Fraser. To the extent that such problems dissolve through reforms to the law-business—witness Obama’s equal pay legislation—our amnesiac and atomized culture forgets about feminism as both a reformist and a revolutionary struggle, but not, I think, without having been fundamentally altered by a certain cultural feminism, as in the better and/or improving political situation for women today generally.

4. Actually existing anti-capitalists and radical feminists—we think the way to resolve fundamental questions of justice and injustice, the type raised historically and contemporaneously by radical feminism, is to abolish private property, to surpass and abolish wage labor, those two social mechanisms of unfreedom. And today, even as an unprecedented crisis of capitalism ensues, it is very difficult to see how something like a radical politics capable of challenging these sorts of structural inequalities could emerge in developed nations.

5. The lived history of global feminism in the past century is still very much a politically open horizon of possibility. It may still be the case, as Perry Anderson argued more than a decade ago, that with the collapse of socialism as a global emancipatory project, feminism as an emancipatory project remains viable for the left’s hopes of radical renewal on many distant and variegated fronts.


6. There was some notable controversy stirred up by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s “Numbers Trouble,” which appeared in the Chicago Review two years ago. At issue was a seemingly simple claim made by poet-critic Jennifer Ashton that roughly half of all jobs, honors, and publications in the American Poetry World now go to women. Through some data collection from a variety of sources, Spahr and Young show that this is far from the case; especially when it comes to aesthetically progressive fora, mainstream po-biz having come closer to equaling things out.

7. Jennifer Ashton’s response to their criticism, also printed in the Chicago Review, was equally disabusing and nonchalant. Her claim about numbers, she now emphasized, was beside the point. She was angling after a contradiction emerging among aesthetically progressive poets and editors about the status of women as poets: “my argument was a response to the fact that the ‘innovative writing community’ on the one hand explicitly embraces the logic of poststructuralist and anti-essentialist feminisms of the 80s and 90s, and on the other spins out an implicit logic that makes women poets’ formal choices look like a necessary function of their situations as women.” This is an astute point. At the heart of contemporary radical identity politics there is a deep contradiction: hybridity, flux, experimentation, and play rule when it comes to the subjective (or with poetry, the aesthetic), until there comes a moment when one must essentialize identity strategically for politically representative purposes. And suddenly we are women, black, Chicano, gay, Asian; suddenly we are a certain kind of poet with similar identity markers. (The complement to Spahr and Young’s analysis in “Numbers Trouble” is Spahr’s splendid talk “The 90s,” where she explores the aesthetics of the dynamic experimental poetry breakout that took place during that decade.)

8. I am sympathetic to Ashton’s criticism as well as that of Spahr and Young. The point I would like to emphasize with respect to their discussion is an implicit point of Spahr and Young’s analysis, one that seemed deemphasized in much of the ensuing discussion and chatter.

9. The 20th century of American poetry will largely be remembered as the feminist century. The first half of the century saw women emerge as some of the leading poetic voices of the avant-garde: Moore, Stein, Loy, H.D. However we measure their politics today, these women remain fixed stars in the firmament, part of our age of poetic heroes. The postwar period of American poetry extended and continued this tendency, so that it’s possible to say today that American women poets lead the way when it comes of progressive aesthetics. (These are the numbers that emerge from historico-aesthetic scrutiny of the poetry.) The number of excellent poems and volumes by American women poets of neo-vanguardist stripes seems a testament to this changed reality; they are my referent.

10. The feminist project is still a vital one for American women poets in the new century (many of these poets, however, are in desperate need of radicalization, which the crisis and meltdown of our way of life may help accelerate). Witness the discussions, posts, and conferences organized around feminism. One of the (if not the) most interesting poetry conferences of the year, ADFEMPO (Advancing Feminist Poetics and Activism), took place two weeks ago at CUNY in New York.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Philip Jenks Responds

Philip Jenks was born in North Carolina and grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. He got his BA from Reed College, and did graduate work at Boston University and University of Kentucky. He has studied under Susan Bordo, Neil Hagerty, and Stanley Fish. Philip Jenks published two volumes of poetry, On the Cave You Live In (Flood Editions, 2002) and My First Painting will be “The Accuser” (Zephyr Press, 2005). He gratefully collaborates with Simone Muench. Their poems have appeared in a range of journals and in the chapbook Little Visceral Carnival (Cinematheque Press, 2009). He also collaborated with Sasha Miljevic, publishing Distance, an ekphrastic hybrid of prose and poetry (Dutch Art Institute, 2009). He recently completed his third manuscript, Colony Collapse. Last year, his poems appeared in the first Chicago snow, but they blew away.

-How do you see yourself as a participant in feminism?

I seek to continuously rework consciousness and action, my own and others. As with anyone in privilege (and some may argue anyone, let them argue. I know this is the case for me.), I’ve internalized patriarchal discourses of power, at others’ expense and my own. Rethinking, reflecting, and working to speak to it is one way. As Arendt said, we must “think what we are doing” and the grotesque seduction of patriarchy, of internalized oppressions is that it seeks to unthink thought and undo action – and yet make its Logos seem seamless. It may even recast itself as a liberation, as feminist activity. Whenever I affirm the lived lives and the absolute and total equality of women, I may be a participant at some level. If I help eliminate some part of masculinist structures of hatred, gendered hatred, then “I” have done something. How, the operative word, is in everyday language, action, inaction, in how I do and do not treat others. And, how I accept being treated. All of this is written with the caveat that most critically, I must listen and learn more. Part of the struggle is in listening to my sisters.

-How do you support feminism in your role as teacher, mentor, editor, publisher, blogger, poet, etc.?

I’d like to say I always do so, but then again have I? No. In each of these arenas, I’ve made errors – but one role is to learn from them continually as a gendered subject and as a man in relation to power and power structures that inscribe upon us (the) woman as the second sex/gender. As an educator, I have learned that teaching Freire’s critique of the banking system of education – with its superstructure of dictatorial power is insufficient. Rather, by incorporating bell hooks’ reconfiguration of Freire, I have learned an engaged pedagogy that seeks to move away from either/or binaries (also via Patricia Hill Collins’ work) and towards a both/and concept of the educator as facilitator. This isn’t news as a concept but as a practice it is continually challenging. We are pushed to think of the student as an academic unit. Objectification runs rampant in the core of the traditional academic model of education. Are there educators immune to it? No. No. Absolutely not. Rather, it is a continual process of re-learning and improving.

In very practical terms, it may also mean continuing to work to listen in new ways. This may seem obvious, but in a seminar or a q/a lecture format, all too often machismo wins out. In the field of composition, we dwell (importantly) on matters of non-native speaking/participation in class and how we may work as educators with different voices. This effort must include everyone in the room including differences in gender and sexuality, in class, ethnicity, all – it is interlocking and intersecting. In a sense, the answer might be (and this would be a bit rhetorical), how do we undo the power of the panopticon, with its masculinist traits of vision as primary locale for Knowing? This is particularly important to me as a poet, musician, and blogger. Am I over-prioritizing one sensory apparatus? Am I authoring or working to support a range of understandings that are not located within vision? I read in the Norton Anthology about how important vision was in poetry. I suppose that’s true. However, what kinds of vision? And, how is vision being thought about? Is it done so at the expense of the body? Is it done so in ways that separate seer from that which or who is seen? Or, is it as Merleau-Ponty noted, a criss-crossing of relations and senses? Theory aside, if I am writing or educating or mentoring and not listening to the lived horrors of my sisters, then I am a failure as a feminist.

-How and when did you first recognize the importance of feminist issues?

Oh. There are several layers to this answer. I first recognized it because of my mother and my sisters, particularly my mother. She worked laboriously by day as a mother, as a “housewife”, as a part-time worker. Such demands would be enough to exhaust anyone – and are. However, late at night I would find her reading Buber and we would talk about that. I was just a kid. She also worked with some local women’s organizations and is a very strong woman. However, I believe that the structure of the family was such that dad’s interests came first. I saw that yet knew full well (and I think he does too) that had she more time, her career would have exploded. She is a powerhouse of knowledge and quite charismatic. All that said, I received another dose of the importance of feminist issues moving from Morgantown, West Virginia to Reed College. The whole culture there was entirely different. I must give credit to working with Susan Bordo and reading Allyssa Wolf. Without their influences, I don’t think I would have made the connections.

-What branch of feminism, model of feminist poetics, feminist icon, or etc. informs your poetry? Or, from which of these does your poetry diverge?

I know there are compelling third wave feminisms out there and even that term is misleading because third wave incorporates a range of different voices and beliefs – some so crucial – yet, I think second wave feminisms have received a bad rap, particularly in contemporary practices. “They” hate sexuality. “They” view women as hapless victims. Rather, I see second wave feminism as a location where power relations are intersecting in vital ways and yes, there is victimization, disappearing of actual lived lives (not the “disappearance” of the so-called subject in some theoretical discourse), violence. Now, the danger in continuing to answer this question in relation to my above response is that I do not wish to label the following poetics or icons or names as being of any particular “wave.” I love ecofeminist thought and action. That is for them to decide. Perhaps I’m a contradiction or wrong-headed. For me, I love feminist poetics that does with language/poetry(s) what I attempted to say bell hooks does with pedagogy. Thus, the traps of patriarchal formal discourses are undone, sometimes through resequencing, splicing, sometimes through eliding, and sometimes through a lived life that I cannot articulate or understand by stand by. I think highly of Emily Dickinson for these and many other reasons – and for me she’s an icon of strength and refiguring language. Those guys didn’t even know what to do with it. That’s what is so fabulous about Susan Howe’s revisiting of her work as well. I also think highly of Adrienne Rich not only for “Diving into the Wreck” but also for Of Woman Born. I wrote my dissertation on the significance of being-born and motherhood. We men are pretty caught up with dying. Icons are many and few, but I have not One. Maya Angelou. Alice Notley. Simone Muench. Allyssa Wolf. Elizabeth Treadwell. Leslie Scalapino. Jennifer Moxley. Carolyn Forche. So many more voices. They are talking with/to each other but at many junctures there are relations of power and how it is inscribed upon the body. Take Allyssa Wolf’s magnificent Vaudeville for example. On the one hand there are moments of horrific oppression. Wolf’s work does not a-void the truth of patriarchal power. Yet, women, girls, people live there and sometimes they dance. Is there some hope? Absolutely. Apocalyptic? Yes, but never without the redemptive quality of re-imagining new spaces and ways to be.

-Are there specific feminist tactics you employ?

I would say one thing I can do is listen and read, try to find out about women’s voices and experiences not only from the culture that I live in, but across the world. One tactic is to not forget the ways that power works to erase the embodied voices of people on this planet. And be hypervigilant. Be careful because the structures of power are seductive, as Bordo illuminates in Unbearable Weight, so much so that it is easy to confound oppression as a form of resistance.

-Do you think of your work as queer or gender-variant, and, if so, do you think of it as supportive of feminist poetics?

Yes, I do. Which I know is dangerous in and of itself because in so doing, I’ve made a declarative statement from the standpoint of my own ego. I hope so. My work does engage multiple sexualities and transgendered experiences as coextensive and foundational to approaching Circumference. It was my hope that my work on the Hydra series had some contribution to rethinking how we think about both gender and sexuality/s. Of course, whether or not it succeeds as feminist poetics is tough to say. Also, I seek to listen, not as a voyeur but rather to include divergent voices that refuse me myself and I. Furthermore, to the extent I am capable, the elision of the “I” in many of my poems is connected to this support.

-Have you ever felt conflicted about your relationship to feminism?

Yes. I live within a masculinist oppressive structure of the world. Have I ever been attached to my privilege? If so, then I have had a conflicted relation with feminism. And, I have had that attachment. Also, which feminism? Nihilistic hyperprivileged white feminisms sometimes make me ill. But, then I return (when at my best) to what I believe to be an accurate and strong defense of total equality for women.

-Do you have any concrete suggestions for altering the gender disparities in the poetry world (or perhaps the greater world)?

Reformulate school curriculums in ways that are not just “open” to feminism but are feminist – explicitly and adamantly. Gilligan’s research shows the effect of gendering on our youth. There is no question that one method to change consciousness is at the K-12 level. And, affirmative action does not go far enough, nowhere near. Gender disparities exist at the level of income and this must be abolished, permanently.

In terms of the poetry world, why is it that so many liberals are willing to “embrace” affirmative action but when it comes to everything from the institutions of poetry (e.g. editing positions) to publishing work and readings, that the selfsame notions of affirmative action (which is hardly radical) go out the window and into the recycle bin? Men would do well to be listening much more often at poetry readings at their little desks as they read mountains of work that was chosen on its merit, written by women. Is that concrete? Instead, we institute the same “merit-based” approaches of fake equality in the interest of Literature and the Word. But, it doesn’t work that way. It means someone else is being silenced. Most of the time, those voices are the voices of the oppressed.

-What are some things men can do to account for male privilege (either in poetry or, if you're feeling ambitious!, the greater world)? Can these be applied to other categories of privilege (white, hetero, without disability, etc.)?

I think that it’s tricky to fully transfer any discussion over from one dimension of marginalization to another. However, at the same time, privileges and oppressions are interlocking. What Hill-Collins called a matrix of domination where one may be both privileged in one category and oppressed in another (or all too often oppressed in many). As a person who is dis/abled, does that mean I have a full understanding of what it means to be a woman in our society? But, my experiences of privilege are differently informed. Men must interrogate structures of masculinity, which mask themselves as power as well – and often are, but these are complexities that men are often refusing to even entertain or explore. Let the women deal with gender. Men within the poetry world can actually make a substantial contribution. Curators don’t have to feature male readers. They just do not. Is that essentialist? Sure. We can debate that another day. However, the point stands. Part of male privilege is in being….male and deconstructing that isn’t going to make it go away. Men can influence how contests (or what contests) are run and for whom. Men can influence what is not going in the latest anthology. And concretely, we men could do a better job of listening. I’ve said enough.

Tim Atkins Responds

Tim Atkins is the author of Folklore 1-25 (Heart Hammer), To Repel Ghosts (Like Books), 25 Sonnets (The Figures), Oriental Tapping (Penguin), Horace (O Books), and Folklore (Salt). A forthcoming volume, Petrarch, is due in the new year from Barque Press. He is editor of the online poetry journal onedit, senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of East London, a practicing Buddhist, practicing father, and is lousy at multitasking.

-How do you see yourself as a participant in feminism?

My participation in feminism is (as with all my various engagements in this incarnation) inconsistent, at times comedic, somewhat impressionistic & generally informed by my primary view of my self &, subsequently, all sentient beings, as empty & imbued primarily with non-gender-specific Buddha-nature. A Buddhist prays for the alleviation of suffering in all living beings, & I therefore don’t experience the world as divided along gender lines. This is not meant to be disingenuous – I know that there are many & various discriminations practiced along these lines & I am equally aware of the fact that my view may stem from the fact that I belong to the sex which has traditionally been the oppressor – but I’m of the opinion that all sentient beings are equal & should be accorded equal respect whatever aspect of human incarnation they chose to identify with. As a Buddhist it is important to work towards a world where difference is acknowledged, & discrimination eradicated, but it is my belief that the root cause of suffering & oppression comes from one (always oppressor; occasionally oppressed) having an incorrect (&, again, non-gender-specific) view of the world as opposed to one being of an incorrect gender. There is indubitably plenty of suffering in this world & just because it comes from having an incorrect view doesn’t make it invalid. One Buddhist path is that of compassion (love fixes the world) & another is understanding (see things as they are & you’ll be free). Understanding is said to be higher but I must confess to being reasonable at the former path & in occasional trouble with the latter. It seems to me that Feminism is about love, knowledge, & freedom. How is it possible to be in the world (in Buddhism, all beings are connected) & not be a participant?

-How do you support feminism in your role as teacher, mentor, editor, publisher, blogger, poet, etc.?

I hope that I’m a passionate advocate of all writing which I like. My poetry models are Bernadette Mayer, Eleni Sikelianos, Lisa Jarnot, Alice Notley, & Joanne Kyger. Bernadette & Alice have been particularly important in my understanding of what a poet can write, & I hope that my love for them demonstrates & disseminates their work. (Alice once said “All poets are girls!” & I love that quote, though it’s evident that she didn’t spend too much time in the British poetry scene of the 80s & 90s.) Just as important have been Ted Berrigan, Clark Coolidge, Jackson Mac Low, Bruce Andrews, and Miles Champion. I’ve never thought “is this a man or a woman?” when I have picked up a book. I hope that my writing & poetry presence demonstrates a complex yet ultimately joyful relationship with language & the world (of all genders). Affirming the world & believing in the positive has got to support feminism. …Unless I’ve got my head in either the sand or my ass.

-How & when did you first recognize the importance of feminist issues?

Feminist issues are human issues. It is hard to take the curriculum of being human without seeing injustices perpetrated against people of all types of recognised groupings; & hoping to see an end to those injustices & sufferings. I can’t remember when I first felt that things were not all well with the gendered world, though. One book which changed how I looked at women (& men) was Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room but I already knew (growing up in Worcestershire in the 1970s) that much was wrong.

-What branch of feminism, model of feminist poetics, feminist icon, or etc. informs your poetry? Or, from which of these does your poetry diverge?

Bernadette Mayer is my absolute poetry idol. What branch is she on? Eleni Sikelianos has for many years been my poetry soul mate & my life changed enormously when I met her. I don’t know if it is a coincidence that they are women: to me they are first & foremost my friends & fellow travellers. I loved The Slits, X-Ray Spex, The Raincoats, Patti Smith, & Meredith Monk when I was a kid & their DIY & unshaven ethics excited & inspired me enormously. & then I loved the Japanese court poets, Nina Simone, & Gertrude Stein. But here, again, they were all just a part of a world which I grew up in. I was perhaps lucky to find myself in a world (or an imaginary world of my own making) where gender wasn’t an issue: I simply saw people (or at least my role models) as artists. As far as branches of feminism go, I can’t say I can get much from angry people of any persuasion. The world is most definitely not running on love alone, but it is something which helps it run better. Louise Labe and Sophie Robinson are current enthusiasms as far as poetry goes, but all the folks listed above continue to excite & inspire me.

-Are there specific feminist tactics you employ?

Read without prejudice. (Try to) be here now.

-Do you think of your work as queer or gender-variant, &, if so, do you think this supports feminist poetics?

In my little world, how your heart moves about is more important than whether your bits go in or stick out. I think, also, that the term “feminist” is as vague & open to contradiction as, say, “Hinduism”: one can always find a statement which offers a different view of the world or approach to it. Lumping loads of different streams of thought together seems very often to be both patronising & dangerous. The poet Czeslaw Milosz said “generalisation is the enemy of mankind.” ..& yet we all do it. …& it is often how the world is best changed. My most basic sense of poetry & self is one of emptiness. I want to be filled more than I want to (or feel capable of) doing any filling. I hope that my work (in its openness, doubts, & lack of a solid identity) is pleasing & supportive to beings of all genders. My current work (versions & perversions of the love poems of Petrarch) depicts women as absurd & idealised (only) because they are seen through the much more absurd & idealistic eyes of men. But I hope that this dance is at least as happy in its absurdity & linguistic pleasures as it is harrowing: & I don’t think it’s hetro-specific.

-Have you ever felt conflicted about your relationship to feminism?

Many of my friends have much stronger & more particular views than me. I disagree with many of those views when they advocate a strong / permanent gender separation or essential difference. But I love swimming in these friendships & arguments. What do I know? All labels trouble me, including that of Buddhist. I think it’s more important to be happy & open than consistent.

-Do you have any concrete suggestions for altering the gender disparities in the poetry world (or perhaps the greater world)?

Comrades! Read & write good poetry, have strong opinions, &, in a world where billions of people are starving, keep those opinions in perspective. To have the time & economy to write poems & debate aesthetic (compared to ones of basic human survival) questions vociferously & ridiculously is an incredible privilege. For me, poetry is a utopian practice. If we decide to fall out with one another over differing publication agendas &/or line-breaks, then how on earth can we demand that others behave with any grace or equanimity? Workers owning the means of production is one of the great strengths of poetry. Part of our task is to create the world we want. & we do.

-What are some things men can do to account for male privilege (either in poetry or, if you're feeling ambitious!, the greater world)?

Read beyond one’s comfort zone, read beyond one’s nationality, read beyond one’s gender, & read beyond one’s language. I suspect, also, that it is more pressing that men engage with feminism than women. Ornithology (to mangle a lovely phrase) may well be of greater import to humans than birds.

-Can these be applied to other categories of privilege (white, hetero, without disability, etc.)?

Yes. By extending one’s vision, it is impossible not to see all beings as interconnected. I believe that (almost) all inequality stems from ignorance: people in power not having a right view of the world (& as a result not acting accordingly) as opposed to people having a right view & then acting deliberately wrongly. Only by seeing the world correctly can all beings become equal. But what is this world? & what is equality?

Petrarch #120

      I write to assure you that I have not yet felt from whom I & all the                         world await     her final bites

Women who imitate birds

Women who assume knowledge in men when there are none

Women who are searching for some sense in the journey when they meet which may or may not happen

Women       unseen       may produce the same effect

Women who favor soap

Women who speak to animals in order to have sex

Women who remember the name of 9 to 13 sided shapes

Women who sleep and women who do not

Women nameless to the nearest twitter

Women whose love folds the hole in the stone

Women in Durer

Women adrift in an organ of something’s lightless glare doubt-dried & dreamless

Women who exist versus those in whose Laura       possibly       don’t

Women whose ovaries contain pearls       cars       broken off syllables       existence & great books

Petrarch #212

Men who dream of children and are satisfied to languish

Men who embrace shadows and lie down with therapists in order to embrace them

Men who swim a sea that knows no depth or shore

Men who insist on the beach       high & mincing

Men who live in cocoons       & ride scooters

Men who read about glaucoma and are forced to give up yoga

Men who buy books of lists of 10000 stupid things and then do them

Men who struggle with the violence in surrealism

Men who live in ridiculous vivid       or South London light

Men whose hypochondria reaches its apex in the hours after midnight

Men who like the smell of sweat on women       perfect for Poulenc

Men whose 20 years of long & heavy labour say they have won only sorrow this star bait & the hook

Men who do not see the beauty of the world

Men who tremble before men who tremble before women       & those who lose it

Tony Frazer Responds

-How do you see yourself as a participant in feminism?

I'm not a participant in it, although I respect it. I would caution against the catch-all phrase however, as, from the outside, it appears that there are feminismS, and some of them diverge from the center.

-How do you support feminism in your role as teacher, mentor, editor, publisher, blogger, poet, etc.?

I do not consciously do this, and do not regard it as my role or purpose to do so. I go out of my way, however, to attract women poets whose work is in tune with what I am trying to achieve aesthetically. It is unlikely, for instance that I would wish to publish neo-formalist poetry by a committed feminist, whatever respect I might have for her gender politics. The poetry comes first, the ideology some way after. It is therefore also true that I might well be interested in radical (or indeed, any) poetry by a non-feminist woman writer.

-How and when did you first recognize the importance of feminist issues?

When I was a student in the early 1970s.

-Have you ever felt conflicted about your relationship to feminism?

Not at all, although, as with any ideology, I've had problems with some of its adherents.

-Do you have any concrete suggestions for altering the gender disparities in the poetry world (or perhaps the greater world)?

It will, I hope, be no surprise to you that men make up the greater percentage of the submissions here, and indeed at all magazines and publishing houses with which I have exchanged information. Given that women represent slightly more than 50% of the population, make up some 65% of the readership for poetry (in the UK), and seem, at an amateur level, at least, to make up at least half of the poetry-writing public, this is surprising. In view of this, and given that Shearsman is one of the very few publishing houses with an absolutely open submissions policy, one would have to question what impediments there are, which result in female submissions forming a minority. It would appear that women are more reticent about sending out their work, and still more so if they are sending it to a man. Should I therefore employ a woman as, say, Assistant Editor? Guest Editor? It has been floated a couple of times, and I'm still considering it as far as the magazine goes.

There's been a good deal of public debate about this whole issue (I'm thinking of one involving Juliana Spahr, but don't recall the names of the other participants, in Chicago Review and elsewhere), and none of the debaters addressed the basic issue of what one is supposed to do as an editor, if the work doesn't come in. I invite women poets whom I admire to send me work. By and large, this results in failure, and often in being completely ignored. Richard Owens at Damn the Caesars gave an interesting chapter-and-verse analysis of this last year, with a frightening list of the women writers who'd turned him down. This was after he'd been taken to task for not having enough women in an issue of his magazine.

So what's the problem? I wish I knew. It would be a good idea for there to be more women editors in positions of power in the literary world. On the other hand, women do hold significant positions here in the UK. Five of the biggest-circulation poetry magazines are edited by women; all of the major grant-giving outlets seem to be run by women; a significant percentage of reviewers in mainstream journals are women; the Poetry Society has a woman as Director and a woman as President. At least half of the major literary festivals also seem to have women in charge, either of the whole event, or of the poetry side of it.

One problem in the UK (I cannot speak for the USA) is that, despite all that I've just said, there are very few magazines or presses started by women. In all the above cases, women editors took over existing successful operations. With modern technology, it is easier than ever to start a publishing operation, online or print. If more such new publishers were to come into being, I suspect that, slowly, things would change for the better over all. On the other hand, Sarah Hopkins, Asst Editor of Tears in the Fence, and former Literary Editor of Spare Rib (the first Feminist magazine in this country), has an extraordinary essay in the latest issue (#50) of T i t F, where she describes being harangued and physically assaulted by women whose work she'd turned down at Spare Rib. It's not a statistically valid sample, I know, but I've only been threatened with physical violence once by a male author.

-What are some things men can do to account for male privilege (either in poetry or, if you're feeling ambitious!, the greater world)? Can these be applied to other categories of privilege (white, hetero, without disability, etc.)?

I'm not sure how much more they can do other than be aware of the issues that might be getting in the way of such disempowered sections of the public, and then actively encourage those who are to disempowered to participate, with the assurance that the playing-field is level. How much they can do proactively is debatable and will depend on how much power they have. I would be interested to hear if anyone has valid strategies to recommend.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Mark Wallace Responds

Mark Wallace is the author of a number of books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and criticism. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. He is the author of a multi-genre work, Haze, and a novel, Dead Carnival. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and along with Steven Marks, he edited Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s (University of Alabama Press), a collection of 26 essays by different writers. Most recently he has published a collection of tales, Walking Dreams (2007), and a book of poems, Felonies of Illusion (2008). He teaches at California State University San Marcos.

I was 24 the first time I heard someone use the term “feminism” in a positive way.

That’s not because I grew up in a politically conservative environment. Just the opposite. My parents were religious, but all through my childhood I went on Sunday mornings to the historically liberal New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, in downtown Washington, DC only several blocks from the White House. The main ministers and a significant portion of the congregation had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and remained consistently activist on the subjects of race and poverty. The minister who led our youth group in my junior high and high school years was gay.

In college I was an English major at The George Washington University, also not far from the White House. There I had several excellent female professors, but I have no memory of them speaking about feminism. They taught me Creative Writing or Practical Criticism or The 20th Century American Novel. While those courses featured women writers, no discussions that I recall placed the work specifically in a feminist context. If there were classes on feminism available at that time, I don’t remember them. There may have been, not that I would have taken them.

At both that church and university, a number of women must have been feminists (in fact as I know now, many of my women professors then were). But at the time I knew only of several who—by rumor—were supposed to be, and I never spoke to any of them directly about feminism.

I mention all this because it seems both remarkable and ordinary that a young man growing up in a liberal and sometimes activist urban environment should not have discussed feminism with someone who claimed to be feminist until 1986. It says something about how far removed from the training of most young men in the U.S., both in school and otherwise, feminism was when I was growing up. And it still is.

I had heard about feminism, of course. The main phrase I remember, one I recall repeating back to our mutual satisfaction to several of my male professors, was “Feminism is about allowing women to do all the terrible things that men are already allowed to do.” I don’t know who first told that to me, but it sounded funny at the time, and I’ve always loved a quip.

My first extended encounter with feminism was through a professor in my creative writing graduate school program at SUNY-Binghamton. Gayle Whittier was a short story writer and Shakespeare scholar who spoke openly of herself as feminist. While she didn’t teach feminist theory, feminist issues were certainly highlighted in the texts she taught. I was scornful of that for a few weeks and then, realizing how much she could teach me about writing, I started listening to the rest of what she had to say. As I read more widely and began to interact more consistently with adult women than I had as a boy, I came to see that there were many things about gender politics that I had never noticed.

Today I think of feminist discourse as an essential element (in fact one of the oldest) in the history of human rights activism and the struggle to expand democracy. While crucially and obviously the main goals of feminism have to do with changing the conditions of the lives of women, I think it’s important for more men to understand that feminism also has a long history of creating positive benefits that cross gender lines. Feminist participation has often played crucial roles in working class movements and social services that benefit men. In fact I’ve long since come to believe that feminism has positive benefits even for more privileged men. Interacting with people over whom one has too much power is psychologically debilitating in many instances. Men who enact extreme physical control over others (whether we’re talking about physical abuse or, say, slave owning, as Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass among others documented so well) are usually also self-destructive, though admittedly not inevitably. In less extreme cases, learning how to participate in a genuine give-and-take with social equals helps people learn to respect themselves and others in ways that allow for a greater range of friendships and more fulfilling human interactions. People who feel they’ve had some say in the lives they’re living tend to be happier with themselves and others. And people who are surrounded by people who feel happy (or at least satisfied enough) about their own choices have more chance to make positive changes for themselves. These ideas aren’t new: the Greeks, for instance, believed that true love and companionship could only occur among social and intellectual equals, although unsurprisingly that idea in Greek culture was reserved only for relationships between men.

So while it should hardly be everybody’s first goal, I think it’s important, especially for pro-feminist men, to insist (and show how) feminism is a good thing for men, rather than (as many men continue to think of it) as something that’s simply an attempt to seize power from them and use it against them. Many women already know that (they might even find my saying it here odd or elementary) but it’s undeniably clear that most men don’t.

I don’t have much of a specific intellectual theory about what’s the most useful approach to feminism. Sometimes I think that’s a problem but usually not. I’ve read a certain amount of the work of well-known theorists considered important to feminism (I recognize that these writers have various relationships to feminism and other intellectual discourses): de Beauvoir, Butler, Irigarary, Kristeva, hooks, Spivak, as obvious names. I’ve learned a lot from the work of women more associated with psychology and psychoanalysis like Alice Miller, Karen Horney, and Nancy Chodorow, all of whose writing has important implications for feminism. Many of my favorite feminists are poets and fiction writers and playwrights, both past and contemporary, too many to name here. I’m interested in whether there’s such a thing as a feminist poetics on the level of structure rather than simply theme, although I haven’t felt entirely convinced by accounts that say there are. Still, crucial issues in feminist literary and cultural theory (excess, ornament, fragmentation, and multiple voices being only obvious examples) can certainly lead to structuring poems differently.

When Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s essay “Numbers Trouble” ( a response to Jennifer Ashton’s essay “Our Bodies, Our Poems,” which claimed that women had now achieved equality in the realm of literary production) caused such energetic debate a few years ago, I wasn’t surprised that resistance even among artists and intellectuals to acknowledging gender disparity remains powerful. I don’t think this resistance comes from the fact that the disparity is vanishing, although in some areas of contemporary American life it has been altered. I think it comes from the fact that gender struggles remain so intense that many people won’t even let themselves see the severity of them (and in fact these struggles remain intense at least partly because people won’t let themselves see that they’re severe).

While social conditions such as jobs and wages have changed (although not nearly enough), at least in some contexts, I don’t think there’s been any significant improvement in the degree to which men and women interact with each other satisfyingly or understand each other’s differences. Gender trouble in the U.S. remains pervasive, not simply in structural imbalances but also in individual interactions (which are of course greatly shaped though not entirely determined by structural imbalances). At best, in the intellectual and artistic worlds, slightly greater levels of awareness lead to problems that might be slightly less severe. But as much as artistic and intellectual communities don’t always operate on the same principles as the larger societies they are part of, they are still deeply enmeshed in those societies. Even poets don’t talk only to poets. I feel skeptical that the literary world can change that much more thoroughly than the larger scale society with whose practices it remains intertwined.

These days I live and teach in North San Diego County, an area where feminist ideas have not spread widely, to say the least. Regional culture seems not so much anti-feminist as pre-feminist, with great emphasis placed on an isolationist traditional family as the source of a happiness granted by God. This belief is significantly at odds with the realities of many people’s family lives: multiple marriages, a high divorce rate, single parents raising children on low wages. Those conditions (which aren’t inherently destructive although the people living through them often feel that they are) are themselves often functions of belief in the family. People get married and have children here often long before they can support themselves financially or handle an adult sexual relationship. Family is a mythical end they rush towards long before they’re mature enough to have a family responsibly.

The culture at the university where I teach, Cal State San Marcos, offers an important contrast within the region. The current university president and provost and many deans are women. Perhaps because the university is still less than 20 years old, 53% of full-time faculty are women, a larger percentage than at most U.S. universities. Courses about women and feminism in various cultural contexts are available. Many students taking those courses are probably encountering feminist ideas for the first time. Still, female students often have significant family pressures that work against their getting worthwhile educations. For instance, these women are urged (beginning when quite young) much more often than men to take caretaker roles for other members of their sometimes struggling families. Nonetheless, at Cal State San Marcos, many more women than men are getting college educations. Although I can’t account for this statistic, 62% of undergraduates at my university, and 72% of the people who actually finish their degree, are women.

As a professor of creative writing who occasionally teaches general education literature courses for non-majors, I don’t teach courses directly on feminism or women’s writing, but all my courses feature some feminist writers and I talk regularly about gender with my students. As just one example, a course I teach that interrogates the concept of civilization includes discussions on the social institutions of marriage and the family through an examination of Chopin’s The Awakening and Freud’s Dora: A Study of a Case of Hysteria (admittedly, Freud’s not a feminist, but his work certainly opens up relevant gender discussion), discussions of religion around H.D.’s ideas in Trilogy about creating (or, as she has it, recovering) a more gender-balanced religious mythology, and conversations about race, gender, marriage and colonialism through the lens of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Although ensuing conversations sometimes become contentious, most students feel passionately engaged by problems of gender and are eager to discuss them. Even people who dislike feminism care greatly about gender. And when somebody cares greatly about something, they’re often more open to new information and changing their minds than they recognize.

Sometimes I speculate (with only a little irony) whether the greatest effect I may have on students relative to feminism comes simply from the fact that I’m a male professor who thinks of feminism as a positive social force and who talks about feminism that way in my classes. I’ve noted that it really does confuse many students. It takes awhile for some to comprehend that it’s even possible that I could be saying what I am. Even some of the women students interested in feminism and learning a lot about it in other classes may assume that by definition it’s something men don’t like.

Since I’m the one who suggested that Danielle add a question regarding occasions of feeling conflicted about feminism, I suppose I better answer it. Honestly though, while I may disagree with this or that point made by a given writer, I don’t feel conflicted relative to feminist discourse as such. As always, I think problems become more difficult when it comes to putting discourse into practice. Political, institutional, and personal decisions that involve gender issues can be tricky, and feminist theory isn’t any kind of magic formula that can solve all practical problems. Also, some women seem to dislike me because I’m a physically large, semi-successful white heterosexual male, and that response seems unfair. Still, nobody escapes being stereotyped, and I’m hardly subject to a more damaging portion of it than others. When I am stereotyped, most of the time it’s in the direction of assuming that I have more power than I do, which oddly enough in some situations ends up giving me more power. Still, these less pleasant encounters with women don’t occur because of problems in feminist theory. They have to do with the personalities and histories of the individuals involved, myself included.

Feminism is a discourse about power, obviously, who has it and who doesn’t and why. Any discourse about power can be misused. There’s a long history of liberation discourses becoming tyrannical in practice. As many Marxist theorists might attest though, just because a set of ideas can be misused or has been misused at times doesn’t mean that those ideas have no value. And of course feminist discourse is very aware of this problem. Science fiction authors I sometimes teach, like James J. Tiptree (really Alice Sheldon) and Ursula Leguin, have explored in stories like “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and “The Matters of Segri” scenarios about how power might be abused in societies controlled by women (a situation I don’t think is about to happen on a large scale any time soon). One of the things I like about feminist discourse, again, is that contrary what most men think, it’s rarely about an attempt to take and use power undemocratically. As a liberation discourse, it’s trying to explore ways of giving everyone more autonomy over their lives. Still, I don’t want to underestimate the degree to which many men hate and fear feminism because they believe it’s out to destroy them.
In a blog post on Harriet a few months back, Annie Finch made the important point that it’s a mistake to assume that one can count on any kind of general curve of progress in the status of women (and not just women, I would add). It’s only by paying attention to continued gender disparities that such disparities can be improved. Living in San Diego County shows me on a daily local basis how many social forces would be glad to push back whatever advances women have made. Informed men certainly have a role to play in resisting such anti-women ideas and efforts. Still, one of the reasons I’m more comfortable thinking of myself as “pro-feminist” rather than as feminist is that, as someone whose social experience is closely connected to conventional American male training, what it feels like to be subject to sexism (both individually and structurally) is something I experience mainly second hand, although those second hand experiences often have a powerful effect on me. I know what I’ve been told and I know what I see but I don’t often directly feel what it’s like. So it seems to me obvious that the most essential feminist ideas not only have come from women but will continue to come from them.

I can’t remember now whether it happened after my May blog post in response to the earlier Delirious Hem forum on feminist poets, or during an earlier round of discussion regarding women and feminism, but in any case, during one such discussion on the Buffalo Poetics listserve, fiction writer and poet Anne Bogle (she and I became friends around the time I was sitting in Gayle Whittier’s graduate school class) complimented me by saying that while many men she has known in the world of literature and elsewhere won’t talk about gender or feminism, that I always would. I appreciate the compliment. But I was struck also that her comment set the bar pretty low. That’s not a criticism of her compliment, which was both kind as well as accurate. As much as I feel engaged by ongoing discussions regarding feminism, I’m certainly not an expert on its history. One thing that’s important about this Delirious Hem forum is that it will show us more about what men (at least some) think about feminism and in what ways they feel engaged and active in relation to it. But it’s interesting and troubling that it can still be construed as a compliment to a (heterosexual?) man to suggest that he’s willing to talk about feminism. It almost sets up an echo of Samuel Johnson’s infamously sexist comment about women preachers; the echo would read, “When men talk about feminism, it isn’t done well. But one is surprised that it can be done at all.”

The fact that a man can still be complimented simply for being willing to talk with women about feminism shows exactly how much the gender problems raised in feminist discourse are not behind us, but continue to be pressing.