From the Archives: Erica Hunt, Eileen Myles, Brenda Hillman & Alicia Ostriker Talk Feminism
Eighteen years ago this month, when I was the Program Director at Poets House, I curated an event about intersections between feminism and poetry: What’s Feminism Got to Do With It?: Gender, Poetry and Everyday Life in the 21st Century. The year was 2002, and the United States had begun its war against Afghanistan five months earlier under the leadership of antiabortion president George W. Bush. Despite some grim political parallels, I believe you will find the remarks by the panelists prescient, bracing, and emboldening. Please click through to the audio recordings of each and listen in!
“Here in our current circumstances whenever I look up at the big screen, as I call it, the world, we’re in terrible shape,” says Erica Hunt. “We have bozos running our country, we have our nuclear posturing…we have unending violence in the Middle East, etcetera.” Setting the stage and the stakes (to disturbingly familiar effect), she provides an expansive, historical context for feminism as a social movement and makes global connections between war, violence against women, restrictions on reproductive freedom, racism, and xenophobia. As feminist poets, she asserts, “we have to recognize the resources and strengths that we bring to this task of healing the world.” She notes that “there is a great deal that women’s writing says about what it is to be human.” Feminism “shook up the question of what it is to be female and to be male,” she explains, and “we discovered gender, or the fact that we slip from gender and to gender and across gender, all of us, at some time or another….” Hunt explores how writing can enable us to identify “scripts” about constructed identities and reveal “where we have acquiesced and where we could have resisted and where we do resist and why we choose to.”
Eileen Myles talks about their life as a poet as “being in a procession of different rooms” and looking at “what happens each time I enter a different room and who and what I become.” In traversing these rooms, Myles metaphorically ejaculates at a marathon reading of Joe Brainard’s I Remember (an event at which straight men dominated the docket), listens in on John Ashbery’s “italicized way of speaking” as a gay man, and experiences radical feminist karaoke via the punk rock band Le Tigre. “Feminism seems to me to be a room that I’ve always been trying to get thrown out of,” Myles remarks, reflecting on the cultural policing of femaleness as exemplified by her Catholic schooling. “It’s not a room that really accommodates any of us, but we need to go to, to make something, even to make a mark, which is your foot dragged as you’re getting thrown out the door.” Ultimately, Myles asserts, “the poem accommodates all those entrances and exits.”
Brenda Hillman tracks her journey of feminist poetics from teenage rebellion——“smoking Winstons in the girls’ bathroom and writing the names of various creeps on the walls of the stall with pink lipstick”—to editing The Grand Permission, a collection of essays about motherhood and poetic form. In between, “the late ‘70s and 80s brought forward a new synthesis of experimental traditions for women’s writing,” she says, particularly in the Bay Area, bolstered by the likes of Kelsey Street Press and the journal HOW(ever). Her own subsequent work evolved toward “language experimentation” while exploring spiritual life, nature, and daily life. “I like the idea that nonbeing and stealth identity are very important for women’s writing, maybe even more important than regular identity,” she states and concludes that her allegiance lies with a “transpersonal collective and deeply subjective experience of poetry [that] becomes more elemental, more spiritually connected to the redemptive nature of language.”
“When you see a sign that says no trespassing, trespass at once,” Alicia Ostriker says, quoting Virginia Woolf, and adds, “which is what women’s poetry does.” She charts a quick history of the “women’s poetry movement” from 1960 to the present moment. Pushing back against the “poetry police,” she argues for the centrality of the authorial “I” in women’s poetry, among other characteristics. She notes that white middle-class straight women dominated the publishing landscape in the early 1960s but that the field would diversify in the coming decades. Moreover, she points to the development of women writing more experimental work, influenced by language poetry, and more spiritually-oriented poetry. She identifies “the poetics of postmodern witness” as a mode “using some of the strategies of modernism to deal with the catastrophes of our century” but featuring an “I” located “inside the poem being distressed and confused” who seeks a means of working a way through the calamities. Invoking Adrienne Rich, Ostriker says, “women poets are all engaged in changing the course of history, that’s really the job.”
Stay tuned for more selections from the Poets House multimedia archives!