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.