Thursday, November 08, 2007

On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence: Some Considerations [I think this is the final version]

barbara jane reyes
Subsequent to the Chicago Review’s publishing of Juliana Spahr’s and Stephanie Young’s now notorious essay, “Numbers Trouble,” on gender disparity in the US experimental poetry scene, these two authors initiated a project entitled “Tell US Poets,” and issued a call for information on feminism as it exists for women writers in the world outside of North America. I responded to Spahr and Young, and to my relief, they were both receptive to my criticisms and questions. I asked if they were interested in hearing about American feminisms from the perspective of women writers from communities of color, for I was troubled by what appeared implicit to me in their request for non-North American information: that all women in North America experience and define gender relations, power dynamics, and feminism in the same manner.

This is a dangerous assumption, for Third World conditions exist in North America, in North American countries that are not Canada and the USA, among Native Hawaiians and the First Peoples of Canada, on Native American reservations, in the prison industrial complex, in urban, inner cities, in rural and agricultural settings. I suspect that women in these communities do not have access to the feminism which exists in white American middle class households and their corresponding professional workplaces and educational institutions.

As well, North America is comprised of many immigrant communities (one of which I am a part), who have different beliefs and practices of gender relations, and who live in varying degrees of integration into and isolation from mainstream institutions and popular culture.

And so I have come to both appreciate and resent this, “Tell us what we need to know about feminism in _____,” (fill in blank with a name of a place that isn’t in America) coming from white American women who are middle class and professionals.

Perhaps a “Please,” and a withholding of any initial assumptions would have made me appreciate the request a little bit more. This “Please,” would have made the request sound like a request and not a command. I would have also appreciated an explanation of why the requesters feel they do not know enough or anything at all about the feminism of “other” women, why this information is not something they have not found, where they have looked, to whom they have spoken as they have attempted to gather information.

I am critical of the assumption that communities of “others,” or those of “other” places deemphasize feminism because of these “other” communities’ inherent or essential misogyny.

I am critical of the assumption that “other” communities’ misogyny is essential.

I am critical of the assumption that “innovative” poetry coming from these “other” places will abide by the same standards by which “white,” “avant garde” American poetry abides; I find this problematic precisely because these standards are determined by this same “avant garde,” their cultural values and their relationship with English.

As well, I would ask that this American “avant garde” reconsider that we of “other” communities may not group ourselves in the groupings set up for us by those who do not live in our communities.

Consider that Filipino American poets may have more historical and linguistic commonalities with Chicano and Latino poets.

Consider that Filipino American poets may have more aesthetic commonalities with African American poets.

Consider that Filipino American poets may have more oral tradition/storytelling commonalities with Native American poets.

In thinking about what is “innovative” poetry for women of color poets, and in thinking about this alleged reticence of women poets to submit their work to journal and anthology editors for publication, here are a couple of my reference points:

(1) Chris Chen, who curated the Asian American Poetry Now reading at the Berkeley Art Museum in October 2007, discussed “post identity poetry,” for contemporary Asian American poets, as a process of movement and negotiation, between the already used and overused tropes of cultural artifact and sentimentality, and its binary opposite of blanket disavowal of any ethnic identifiers.

Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution reenvisions the American city and American language.Bruna Mori’s Dérive witnesses, engages, and participates in American city and its farthest reaches, via public mass transit. Sarah Gambito's Matadora persona is full of rage despite her apparent delicacy. Yoko Ono, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Shin Yu Pai, and Eileen Tabios write from visual and conceptual art.

(2) On the Harriet blog of the Poetry Foundation, Rigoberto González reminds us that not all poets are published (yet), or seek print publication. This may be interpreted as reticence but let me offer this possibility: Many poets not widely published are perhaps invested in live and recorded performance, which makes sense for communities for whom oral tradition is underscored over written tradition.

Harryette Mullen’s Muse and Drudge draws from scat’s improvisation, verbal games such as playground rhyme, and the dozens. The chanting of Mazatec curandera María Sabina, and of Tibetan Buddhism, Anne Waldman borrows and utilizes in her incantatory long poem, “Fast Speaking Woman.” In a similar vein, Genny Lim’s incantations draw from and expand her Buddhist traditions, and from Jazz.

Cecilia Vicuña draws upon the quipu tradition of the Andean people, elongating her words as she intones, as one spins fibers into thread. She incorporates actual string into her performance, tying herself to the space, and to her audience. She writes threads of words upon the handwritten pages of Instan.

In Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko writes that words set into motion, much like the casting of a spell, cannot simply be taken back. There are consequences to speaking, and so it should not be done lightly or carelessly. Here, word is the thing and the representation of the thing.

Spanning or blending poetry and theatre, Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, is performed by an ensemble of women.
Jessica Hagedorn, one of the original Colored Girls, has performed her poetic work with her rock band, the West Coast Gangster Choir. We can consider the ensemble poetic performance productions of Aimee Suzara’s Pagbabalik, and Maiana Minahal’s Before Their Words as descendants of Shange’s Colored Girls and Hagedorn’s Gangster Choir.

An emphasis on oral tradition in part explains the popularity of Def Poetry, slam poetry, poetry performed with music, not because it’s “new” and “innovative” a thing to do, but because certain types of music are simply a part of the oral tradition. We see Hip-hop poets as descendants of the Black Arts and Jazz Poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni. This Hip-hop generation includes such poets as LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Ishle Yi Park, Tara Betts, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Aya De León, Staceyann Chin, and Chinaka Hodge. We see many of these poets actively pursuing publication, literary awards, graduate degrees, writing and teaching fellowships, acceptance and participation in artist in residency programs, and professorships.

Still, another reason for this perceived “reticence” of women writers of color to publish also has to do with a general and justifiable distrust of American letters and Western institutions. I say “justifiable,” for the historical exclusion women of color voices from American letters, but I am also wary of blanket rejections of poetry written by women of color who are products of MFA programs, erroneously thought of as not ethnic enough, not political enough, not invested in, not informed by the communities from which these writers come.

A member of an Asian American writers’ list serve some years ago attempted to make the argument that the poetry of Myung Mi Kim did not speak to the Asian American experience because Kim was a “Language Poet.” Here, I interpret this list serve member’s inaccurate use of the term “Language Poetry” to describe Kim’s fractured usage of language, narrative, and expansive use of white space. But it is precisely these fractures and caesurae in Under Flag which embody and enact some Korean Americans’ experiences of war, American Occupation, and subsequent displacement from their homeland, of struggling to learn new language and culture, and of negotiating between what is native, acquired, and imposed.

Catalina Cariaga’s Cultural Evidence, in using white space and invented poetic form; Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s In the Absent Everyday, in questioning English words’ conventional meanings; and Heather Nagami’s Hostile, in examining translation and in criticisms of Asian American tropes are descendants of Kim’s numerous works.

What is “innovative” in our communities then: code switching, translating and fracturing language, while writing in polyglot and various vernaculars; integrating performance and music onto the page presentation; integrating our own cultures’ oral and poetic forms into written English and Western poetic form.

Debra Kang Dean’s Precipitates synthesizes koan and haiku with American Transcendentalism. Michelle Bautista’s Kali’s Blade integrates the movements of the Filipino martial art, kali, into written free verse. In Teeth, Aracelis Girmay pays very close attention to poetics rhythm and meter which mimic those of the African slaves who worked the American South’s sugar cane fields. Evie Shockley writes sonnet ballads in a half red sea, in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Do editors of American publications recognize these innovations? How do these editors read or deal with the “foreign” elements in this work, and especially “foreign” elements that do not abide by these editors' preconceived notions, assumptions, and prejudices? For example, not all Asian American poets are East Asian. Not all East Asian poets have Buddhist sensibilities. Not all Hip-hop poets are African American. Not all African American poets are Hip-hop. Not all Spanish writing comes from Latino/a and/or Chicano/a poets. Not all ethnic “innovative” poets disavow ethnicity; many enact rather than simply tell.

What happens to the work of “ethnic” poets who do not conform to some American editors’ expectations? How is this work received? Where does that work go? Who publishes it? And so is this reticence when we do not see this work in print?

One major theme I find in the poetic work of women of color is body politics, and its intersections with war, imperialism, race, and ethnicity. Combine these issues with the above explorations of language, vernacular, bilingualism, oral tradition, and performance. How is this work read and received by predominantly white, maybe predominantly male American editors?

Tara Betts and Patricia Smith write about the racially motivated abduction, torture, and extreme sexual abuse of Megan Williams. On the Harriet blog of the Poetry Foundation, Smith posted mug shots of Williams’ assailants, telling us, “This is where poetry comes from.”

In Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, Harryette Mullen writes of femininity, fashion accessories, advertising, marketing, and reproduction, in ways that verge upon pornography.

Invoking the spirit of Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Ching-In Chen’s “Ku Li,” utilizes strategies of sound association and wordplay, and in the process, tests her readers’ sensitivities at hearing this racially derogatory term in repetition.

Elizabeth Alexander writes of Saartjie Baartman, popularly known as the Venus Hottentot, whose prominent buttocks and sinus pudoris (elongated labia) placed her body in the Western world as a living display piece or artifact. Her preserved genitals remained on display in Paris, after her death in 1815 and until 1974.

Evie Shockley writes of the Middle Passage, of rivers in the tradition of Langston Hughes (this talk of rivers which influenced Jean-Michel Basquiat), and women who navigate these rivers: Phyllis Wheatley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sally Hemmings, Billie Holiday, and Anita Hill, to name a few.

Suheir Hammad writes of the plight of Arab women negotiating tradition and war, surviving tradition and war, and of finding and forming alliances and communities with women across ethnicity.

In the largely imagistic poems of Crazy Melon, Chinese Apple, Frances Chung has written about the inhabitants of New York Chinatown, pushed off the sidewalks and forced to walk in the gutters, Oriental curio objects gazed upon by white tourists.

Maile Arvin writes also of tourism, which continues to push native Hawaiians off their land and away from their depleting natural resources. Arvin also writes of Hawaiian Sovereignty as it permeates every aspect of her poetic speaker’s daily life.

Irene Faye Duller, in considering the global perception of Filipino women as sexual commodity and servant, has written, “I am the maid of the world, and the world has made me dirty.”

I write about Third World women in war and military occupation — Filipina brides, the gang rapes of Iraqi women, the Comfort Women of WWII, linking these power dynamics to pornography.

We are American poets and we are American feminists.

I don’t think we are reticent.


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