Kathleen Fraser on HOW(ever)

The following excerpts are from Kathleen's book: Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity from the University of Alabama Press, 2000. Kathleen read some material on October 2nd, but also spoke extemporaneously. These excerpts cover some of the founding adventure, the innovative necessity of HOW(ever). Enjoy.

Kathleen Fraser

Kathleen Fraser
photo courtesy of Camille Roy

By the Seventies, my evolving hybrid poetics—and my former perception of myself as a unique and private (read isolated) poet—began to be shattered by the compelling and unavoidable questions of gender and how these entered one’s writing and individual situation in a politicized world. The freedom to explore innovative forms seemed even more necessary and exciting as a condition for the imagination’s activity and architect-poet’s expression of that. Yet, it was just around this same time that I began to discover how many exploratory works by modernist women writers had been either quietly removed from anthologies and textbooks…or were simply never acknowledged by those empowered to create these documents.

This awareness and witness brought me to troubled silence; but within the stifled place, I began to discover an even more powerful urge to help break down and dismantle the concrete wall. Teaching in three significantly different university writing programs, between 1969 and 1974, underlined that need with increasing urgency. Women students constituted the majority of writers present, but they seldom spoke unless called upon and, in their writing practice, tended to follow a safe and limited model of prosody learned in earlier classes.

It became clear that this performance anxiety—in the charged field of authority and fluency—was not confined to a few “problem” individuals. The inability to enter into public conversation was pervasive. One experienced it in the lopsided post-panel exchanges often held among writers after community literary events: women were seldom heard from. The mandate for a more equitable participation was clear, but the ability to carry it out was waylaid: I, too, was convinced that I did not have the scholarly training required to speak with sufficient authority in public exchanges where writing practice and theory were being tested and defined. Although I valued analytical skills necessary to thinking and writing, I did not feel comfortable pursuing the combative tone that often accompanied the arguments I imagined as necessary to these public exchanges.

This well-defended position began to shift as I immersed myself in the new feminist/modernist scholarship of the Seventies and Eighties and recognized issues and insights that focused and helped to authenticate my own concerns. I began to see how useless an isolationist position could be. I wanted a more concerted acknowledgement of the under-appreciated modernist women innovators, as well as more focus given to the significant body of work being produced by contemporary experimentalist women poets, that is, a two-way street between poets and scholars. But is seemed that this dialogue was not going to happen unless women poets initiated the conversation. Taking on such issues—through the editing of HOW(ever) and occasional written talks and essays—became a part of that practice.

--from the Introduction (2-3)

The following is an excerpt from the chapter "The tradiatio of marginality...and the emergence of HOW(ever)" from Translating the Unspeakabe (34-36)

“...in the fall of 1981, I was scheduled to teach a course called “Feminist Poetics,” which I’d introduced into the Creative Writing curriculum at San Francisco State University in order to consider—within the community of a classroom—the very questions that had been pressing upon me for years. Why was there no specifically acknowledged tradition of modernist women’s poetry continuing out of H.D. Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Woolf, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Laura Riding, Lorine Neidecker, and Marianne Moore as there clearly was for men working out of the Pound-Williams-Olson tradition or the Stevens-Auden lineage? Why had most of the great women modernists been dropped cold from reading lists, anthologies and university curricula? And why were most feminist and traditional critics failing to develop any interest in contemporary women poets working to bring structural and syntactic innovation into current poetic practice?

Then there were also the puzzling questions of language and gender, which were being argued convincingly, often from opposite positions. Did female experience require a totally different language, as Luce Irigaray seemed to suggest? How was that difference located in usage, a usage that had perhaps occurred and been ignored, dismissed as insignificant, or dropped out of the canon and quickly absorbed—at times, actively appropriated—by powerful male figures in the writing community? How was gender expressed and imprinted socially?

Teaching this class raised my distress level as it simultaneously gave me strength of purpose. Something more had to be done. There was a conversation with my writer-friend Bob Gluck, that sticks in my mind. It began with the above symptoms of distress and finished, for me, with his gentle but clear statement: “Kathleen, you must decide who your audience is and then address it.” He was not talking about the private act of writing.

I went away again for the summer with that sentence dogging me, and my resolve became clear. I began formulating a tentative plan for a modest-size journal, which I hoped to lure my writing-group colleagues into being a part of. I missed our particular way of talking and the feeling of support that came from it. There was no longer any question in my mind. I had to give time to making a place where our issues could be aired and some new choices put forward in women’s poetry—asserted and selected by women—including a revival of modernist figures and a closer look at contemporary work discounted by critics. I wanted a serious yet informal conversation among poets and scholar/teacher/critics.

I wrote to my scholar friend, Annette Kolodny, and asked her if such a project seemed of use to her. I wanted to know if she thought it would be taken seriously by the feminist critical community, whose books we poets were reading but whom we imagined as a fairly insular group with minimal interest in what were, for us, burning issues. I suggested to her that perhaps women critics simply didn’t know how to begin thinking or talking about the more innovative compositional work going on and the seriousness of its quest. Perhaps there was some fear?

I wondered if it would be of help to scholars if each poet were asked to write “Working Notes” about her particular writing process. It might also be useful for the poets—as well as the formally trained scholar-critics—to do informal commentary on books by other women. Perhaps new insights and descriptions coming directly from the poets might provide useful clues for the careful detective work in which scholar-critics are engaged?

Annette agreed with all these speculations and assured me that she would welcome such an attempt. Her letter was the final encouragement I needed. I returned to San Francisco and talked with Frances [Jaffer] and Bev [Dahlen], who both agreed to give it a try. I suggested that we enlist, as contributing editors, two feminist scholars whose essays we’d been reading and discussing in our writing group and who had become friends in the process: Carolyn Burke and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Two years into our venture, when Beverly could no longer continue as an active editor, a poet-scholar, Susan Gevirtz took her place, adding new perspective to our enterprise.

That’s the gestation part. But to show what a collective labor it was to name our journal, let me share my notes on our first meeting, in which we were searching for a name that would identify us clearly. The ideas came flying fast, as in a jazz improvisation of three instruments, where one voice comments on the phrase played by another, a movement of call and response, until some new resolution of the classic tune has been achieved. The suggestions started with Parts of Speech, then Feminine Endings (after Judy Grahn’s poem), then Indefinite Article, the Text/ure, Alice Blue Gown, Red Tulips, and Para/phrase. Next came Where (we) are, the I (too)—as in Marianne Moore’s line about poetry: “I, too, dislike it”—and, finally, HOW(ever) from her next line; “However, there is a place for it.”

First However was one word; then we broke it into its typographical and parenthetical components. The name represented for us an addendum, a point-of-view from the margins, meant to flesh out what had thus far been proposed in poetry and poetics.

There were problems in asserting a point-of-view that defined itself as female and often feminist, and in making a journal devoted solely to the publication of women writers. Some people inevitably felt excluded, as seems to happen whenever a new aesthetic is asserted publicly. Given the territorial bias we’ve all been subjected to in Western culture, the expectation of exclusion seems to be almost automatically programmed. But rather than seeing ourselves as exclusionary or here to displace or replace anything or anyone, we hoped instead to be an added source of information and stimulation. One thinks of Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Black Mountain, the Harlem Renaissance, the New York School and recent Language-centered propositions and knows that there is plenty of room for exploration of multiplicity in poetry and theory being practiced by women, with out destroying our basic support of one another. The reward for asserting a vision is to become visible, to participate actively in the wider literary conversation, and to help in creating a community that has been waiting to come into view. It turns out, in our case, that there had been many women like us, feeling isolated for years—excluded from the aesthetic or political mandates of existing poetics.

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