Saturday, January 05, 2008

She desired release

One of the things I like about Cate Marvin's new book, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, is the way she brings both a female and a feminist perspective to the various relationships she describes in her poems, primarily male/female. I wish I had the book at hand--I would quote a stanza or two.

While women are accepted more and more in terms of their leadership abilities in politics, business, education, and the arts, a sense that one must somehow veil one's femaleness, deflect attention from that, still seems to be out there. This is the Elizabeth Bishop conundrum: her devout wish to be thought of simply as a poet, and not as a female voice, reflects the anxieties of an earlier era of feminism and female advance in the professions. To be a female voice, it is often argued, is to be ghettoized. And that was her position.

But isn't to constantly deflect attention from oneself, from the quintessential self, a form of self-defeat? It's like saying, 'don't listen to me.' While I really, really like Bishop's poetry, she does disappear into the work completely in a way few male poets do. I suppose one could argue that that might be a flaw of various poets of both sexes--not to disappear into the work.

But not to bring the insights of a specifically female experience into the work, which may involve identifying or describing experiences that only women do have, seems to be a dreadful waste and shame. A lot of writing that I've seen lately from women, especially on the No Tell Motel website, is heavily invested in metaphorizing female experience to the point that it is strange, odd, unrecognizable. To deliberately make it strange to the point that, at least for me, a sense of entry into experience is lost.

Of course, I also think that men should write about subjects that border on or involve female experience--why not? Women have written about subjects men identify as important for years.

But I suspect that all of this talk is cringe-inducing. Feminism itself has been so derided and devalued that women are often reluctant to even take up the label. Like the term "pro-life", the term "feminisim" invokes a specific political vocabulary, one that all women do not share. Not all women are liberal, for example. Yet there still seems to be some common ground that connects us on some subterranean levels: common threads of experience to which we have differing reactions.

And that, perhaps, is the problem with the reception of anything that smacks of "female experience" or "feminism": that these threads of experience do not have a universal response or tone, as some might suspect. That the invocation of birth or mothering does not indicate a particular political position or a uniform response. There are two sides to this--one, a culture that wants to understand motherhood or femininity only within certain parameters; that is, that desperately wants to cling to the sureties of stereotype. Two, the culture wants to conflate women's responses to their own experiences with particular political lines of thought, whether that thought is liberal or conservative.

What mars or impedes the reception of art that desires to approach and reinterpret or examine or simply respond to experiences that are uniquely female is politics itself having been too much conflated with feminism. If you are convinced, as William Logan is, that the mere mention of gender MUST invoke certain political responses or conditioned responses, and you cannot separate yourself from that, then something is radically wrong either with the poems that attempt to shatter a sense of uniform response or with the audience itself being absolutely unwilling to reflect on the subject matter, ridiculously resistant.

A key experience I had in this area was a workshop I participated in about five years ago. I wrote a poem that described a child in utero as having feelings and impulses--I described the proto-child as "desiring release" from gestation. This was only a small part of the poem, one that did not take political positions about women or gender. And I mean political as political, not in the broad sense as it's often used in the humanities. The discussion of my poem veered off into political waters: could the "fetus" have feelings? Why wasn't it described as a "fetus"? Why was it referred to as a "child" or "daughter"? The responses of the speaker in the poem did not reflect a recognizable political position, so the audience attempted to fill that in, as though any poem about pregnancy or gestation must have to respond to the abortion debate. This still puzzles me: art and politics cannot be forced into such close alliance or the artist loses all ability to subtly track actual human responses to experience.

How is it possible to move forward with art that incorporates women's experiences? You can try to avoid conflating the personal with the political (to quote a phrase), but if the audience is so emotionally resistant to the idea that women do NOT have a uniform response to certain critical experiences (either because the audience believes in very traditional stereotypes, or because the audience associates these with particular political positions), what can you do?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"But I suspect that all of this talk is cringe-inducing."

Hardly! I love reading your frank thoughts on what are important issues for a little over half of the population. And I appreciate your strict "count" of female vs. male poets being posted on Poetry Daily-- the numbers tell all. Keep counting, and you'll start to get angry. It's not paranoia. (Though women are often told it is-- watch the movie "Gaslight" and you'll get even more paranoid.) As a writer I respect once told me, "Please continue."