Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Square/Plumb/True by Hugh Behm-Steinberg

Hugh Behm-Steinberg is the author of Shy Green Fields (No Tell Books) and Sorcery (Dusie Chapbook Kollektiv). His poems can be found in such places as Crowd, VeRT, Volt, Spork, Cue, Slope, Aught, Fence, Swerve, Dirt, Sweet and Zeek, as well as some more multisyllabic places such as Puerto Del Sol and New American Writing. He teaches in the MFA writing program at California College of the Arts, where he edits the journal Eleven Eleven.

My wife Mary and I live in an old coach house in Berkeley that was converted into living space in the 1970’s by this guy called “Sixpack Tom,” so called because he would escape his family in the front house by grabbing some beers and going to work on the horse barn in the back. You can still see his bootprints on the ceiling upstairs above the dinner table, along with the pawprints of his dog. It’s a great house, but nothing about it is square, or plumb, or true. Put a ball on the floor and it will slowly roll to the northeast corner.

The thing is, the house looks fine, everything looks like it lines up the way it’s supposed to line up. You see a corner, you think 90/90/90 because that’s the way corners are supposed to be (even when that’s not how the corners actually are). We’re raised to see interiors a certain way, and when they’re like that way (but not exactly, sometimes not even close) our brains just make up the difference. This is how everything should meet, so that’s how it is (even when it’s not). Because you’re not really thinking about it you start moving towards the northeast side.

I think that’s what patriarchy is: a crooked house you’re trained to think is straight. We think we’re liberal, unsexist, unracist people, and we wind up publishing journals or teaching courses with syllabi that’re ninety percent male and all white.

Or I write a draft of an essay about feminism and the only woman I reference is my wife.

I came up with this extended metaphor as I was teaching the class that produces the journal Eleven Eleven. I was trying to explain why we use quotas: at least half the writers we publish in Eleven Eleven should be women, and at least 10-20% should be writers of color. When I insist that my students do this, am I getting away with something as a male teacher that I couldn’t as a woman (would I be called a shrew?). As a male in a patriarchy I’m supposed to be authoritative, if I turn that authority towards a pro-feminist direction, am I supporting feminism or curdling it? I remind the students of this because last year when my fiction staff (all but one of whom were women) picked ten stories out of the slush pile, all of them were by men.

So for me, one part of feminism is asking questions, and not letting myself get too comfortable with my own answers – are the corners square (or am I just taking them for granted), am I taking our culture’s fuckeduptitude about gender into account – or do I just think I am? As much as I can I try to resist that default mode, of thinking of my life as normal when it’s only singular, one of many, and complicit.

Feminism is about inclusion and equity, empathy and confidence and empowerment – and that fundamentally these concerns involve gender. It’s about being aware of power structures and acting responsibly. To shut up and let someone else speak for a change, to make sure the person who isn’t speaking speaks, even it makes everyone uncomfortable to hear what they’re saying. And to do this not just in the theatre of my head, but in the practice of my life. The short answer to the question “how can I be a (more) feminist man?”, the one you get if you’re standing on one foot, is don’t be a sexist asshole, be a decent human being, but the problem is that most of us don’t think we’re assholes, we don’t spend much time thinking at all. Trained not to see a slope, ignoring the crookedness is the default setting of our culture.

But does any of this make me a feminist poet? Because I don’t know if I am. When I first started thinking about this essay, I wanted to write about a masculinist poetics. I thought I’d mount a defense of Iron John (is there a poet who has done more to sabotage their career than Robert Bly?), but my heart just wasn’t in it. How should I write about my male body? Or of being a part of the patriarchy (and a card carrying member of the worldwide Zionist conspiracy to boot), enjoying its rights and privileges? What if I like all the things ecriture says I shouldn’t, what if I aspire to writing that single, closed, phallic poem, a little bossy, sure of what I’m saying even when I’m full of it, and I’m just not good enough a writer to pull that off? Or I’m not sure that what passes for post-avant writing practice is any more or less feminist than most other writing practices. Or I can’t help it, I really dig closure.

I lean towards ardor a lot more than irony in my writing because it feels riskier to me – to risk coming on too strong as a man is scary in a way being mordant isn’t. I’m more into the utopian/esoteric possibilities of HD than any of the other modernists because it makes me feel strange to believe what she’s saying. The immanence of something better than what we settle for now.

I like to think I apply feminist principles to my editing and teaching when I use the following rules: 1) at least half the authors I publish or are on my syllabus have to be women, and at least 10-20 percent have to be non-white; 2) I try to avoid using the usual suspects. I don’t trust journals that have two well-known women in bold print on the cover and all the unknown writers in the table of contents are men. I don’t want to substitute one sort of privilege for another. I rotate authors out of my syllabus frequently, because unfairness comes in all sorts of forms, including the one where someone is famous not (just) because of the quality of their work, but because they got there first, or they knew someone, and now they’re safe.

So, feminism as fairness, or recognizing the lack thereof – a working method to see what’s crooked. To be a feminist (male) poet (person) is to be conscious of the problem, and do ones best, one act at a time, one student at a time, to overcome it, stay out of corners, and work with anyone who wants to do the same.


  1. Congrats, Hugh, I applaud you. We need more men that think like you in the writing world. In the world in general.

  2. "but the problem is that most of us don’t think we’re assholes, we don’t spend much time thinking at all. Trained not to see a slope, ignoring the crookedness is the default setting of our culture."

    yes, oh, exactly.