Alan Clinton on Tsering Wangmo Dhompa Reading at Santa Clara University

Who: Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

What: Poetry Reading

When: 4 pm, Oct 13, 2011 (already past, but as Dhompa writes, “I leave today and will see you yesterday”)

Where:  Santa Clara University

Life of bows
                    --Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

The plan to keep contained within easily defined needs.
The forms we aspire to. The bow as a source
of accomplishment (if you are a hunter). The bow
on a wall, without a specific task is malleable content.
A singular sigh may yet uproot all. But here we are
stacking sentences like a nervous habit. Now rising,
now sinking within the cordiality of our defenses.
The indentations of tongue made and then given
to lose in such and such a pursuit. But ah, memory
to secure at will. And poetry before the hour of silence.
Your aperçu making trees grow taller. Actor and spectator.

                                 (from In the Absent Everyday)


There is a moment sometimes when, on a walk, you go for a little longer than you should (because of the weather, or because it is “useless,” or it will get dark soon, or because the streets suddenly become unknown----which can happen in a single block!) and that is the space Dhompa’s poem “Selvage,” indeed all her poems, puts me in. At the end I feel like I’m at the turning point of that walk and want to turn back, but I’ve forgotten where to turn, and feel completely exposed and invisible simultaneously, like I need to find a voice, which won’t be there, or won’t be mine. I think it is a good place to be, to start a new year, the familiar key of entering the uncomfortable space of selvage.


Dhompa read an assortment of selections from all of her major works to give the audience of around 50 students, faculty, and members of the community a sense of her poetic career to date.

Tsering’s first book, Rules of the House, which is the most biographical of her works in form if not content, gave the audience a sense of the Tibetan poet’s communities in India and Nepal where she lived as a refugee before moving to the United States. Dhompa’s next two works, especially her most recent book My rice tastes like the lake, explore more philosophical themes related to temporality and selfhood, though they are always grounded in everyday experiences, especially the things she overhears or that people say to her. The new “style” works in two directions, towards disorientation and towards the essay.1 This duality allowed for a sort of wandering that left the audience intrigued, just unanchored enough. It also helps that, unlike many poets who write “avant-garde,” paratactical, or digressive work, Dhompa reads her poems slowly, so that the audience can linger on the phrases and so that their afterimages can layer themselves onto subsequent lines and leave the reader moving along in the particular essay poem she happens to be reading. One of the reasons this layering is important is that it creates a “de-sequencing effect” that allows Dhompa to truly render her poems as explorations, so that while My rice tastes like the lake is divided into eight titled sections, the individual poems are neither titled nor even numbered. I commented to her after dinner that this allows the poems to be experienced like clouds, the sequencing uncertain or potentially simultaneous as they float off the page into a an exploration with no specific starting or ending point. Dhompa, generous towards all interpretations, enjoyed this one.

This generosity was extended in a “question and answer” session that followed the reading. At first it had not occurred to me to have one because the reading was so hypnotic that I felt it should just be what it was, but when Dhompa asked me if we should open things up for questions, I thought, “Of course.” The questions were diverse and perceptive, and Dhompa’s answers were illuminating. Often she answered as if someone were helping her think about her work in a new way, an attitude which never seems contrived in Dhompa. “We” talked about everything from gender to culture to using initials instead of names to her use of various levels of colloquial and “high” diction to the difficulties she personally faces as a writer. In retrospect, I am not surprised at the number and range of conversations that arose in response to Dhompa’s reading.

As Dhompa and I packed our things and she caught up with some of her Tibetan friends who had come to the reading, a student had run (she must have literally run) across to the bookstore to buy Dhompa’s latest which, of course, our bookstore does not carry (SCU memorabilia more important than literature), and met us on our way downstairs asking Dhompa if she would sign her poetry journal. I don’t know what Dhompa wrote inside, but she signed for me, on Oct. 13, “To be continued,” a humorous allusion to the difficulty of knowing how to sign a book on the spot. But I think, if this student’s response to the reading was any indication, “To be continued” will take on a more literal reading for those present.

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa was raised in India and Nepal, and has received MA’s from University of Delhi,
University of Massachussetts and her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She is the author of three books of poetry available from Berkeley’s Apogee Press: Rules of the House, which was a finalist in 2003 for the Asian American Literary Awards, In the Absent Everyday, and most recently, My rice tastes like the lake. Tsering worked for the American Himalayan Foundation for 10 years, then quit to finish her memoir Imagined Country (forthcoming from Penguin) which, as she notes, “is not a usual memoir really. . . It’s sort of like talking about Tibet, through my mother. It traces my mother’s journey out, and my journey in, and the nomads themselves, the culture of the nomads. . . the way they think, how they see the land, and really also discussions of politics in terms of identity as seen by a nomad, as seen by me. So all those discussions happen within the book.”

1. I plan to undertake a more extensive analysis of Dhompa’s more recent work in its relation to the genre of the essay in a subsequent review of her latest book.

As Reported By: Alan Clinton

Alan's Bio:
Alan Ramón Clinton is a poet, novelist, and scholar of poetry and writing pedagogy who lectures at Santa Clara University in San Jose, CA. Clinton is the author of the monograph, Mechanical Occult: Automatism, Modernism, and the Specter of Politics (Peter Lang), a volume of poems, Horatio Alger’s Keys (BlazeVOX), and a collection of short fictions entitled Curtain Call: A Metaphorical Memoir (Open Books). His novel, Necropsy in E Minor, published by Open Books in June 2011, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize.

Second lesson

The newspaper showed a boy drinking from the sky. Water rested
in his clavicle.

M said he was not the kind her daughter would marry. Tashi
wanted to know if rain had harmful elements in it. M said decent
girls stayed clear of rain.

When it is hot, undress in the dark. Go to the roof. If the monsoon
clouds appear, wish farmers well.

Mothers teach their daughters to pick the best tomatoes. Shy to
the touch. Surface of cement. Tashi asks if husbands are picked the
same way.

Sunspot on cheeks. Wash with rose water. Pluck under your arm.

S held his penis and ran around the tree saying he was blessing it.
The elder roared with laughter and said he would grow up to be
a 'wild' one.

S was blessed. Free from the cycle of female births.

M taught us to peel an apple without disturbing it, saying time and
again how important it was to concentrate on the knife.

This is an example of a good woman:

(from Rules of the House)


Celebrating the Revolutionary Journal HOW(ever)

On October 2, 2011 Small Press Traffic hosted a celebration of the groundbreaking feminist journal
HOW(ever), published between May 1983 and January 1992. All of HOW(ever) and its second generation journal HOW2, available online here.

During this period two dozen print-on-paper issues were created. Kathleen Fraser, Beverly Dahlen and Susan Gevirtz were on hand to talk about the journal's genesis, describing its origins in the lack of attention to modernist women poets and contemporary experimental feminist poets and poetics. The journal was launched by Fraser, Dahlen and Frances Jaffer (who died in 1999). Gevirtz became one of the editors in 1985 when Beverly Dahlen left the editorial board.

Myung Mi Kim and Meredith Stricker assumed guest co-editorship of HOW(ever) for Vol. VI, Nos. 1-4 from January,1990 through January 1991.

HOW(ever) was a revolutionary and exciting journal that was smart, challenging, and seriously engaged. For many of us, it changed the context we were working in; it provided a context for our own experiments, a community with which to share our forays into the unknown. I was a student of Kathleen Fraser's in the mid-80s at San Francisco State University and I recall that many of the women in my cohort at State--people like Sally Doyle, Mira Pashikov, Megan Simpson, Lori Lubeski, Talli Ebin, and others, were jazzed about, changed, and charged up by HOW(ever). I know it has influenced me and each of the three other
women--Camille, Yedda, and Norma--who spoke at the event. Thank you HOW(ever)!

A lively and free-form discussion, the celebration is impossible to capture here on the blog. But, I've included notes, commentaries, and writing from the three editors and from each of the four women who read and spoke at the event.

Kathleen Fraser
Beverly Dahlen
Frances Jaffer: "Why HOW(ever)?"
Excerpts from Jaffer's obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle
Susan Gevirtz

Four contributors to HOW(ever) were invited to read from work that appeared in the journal's pages. These women included:

Norma Cole
Yedda Morrison
Camille Roy
Robin Tremblay-McGaw

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.

Beverly Dahlen's "The Naming of How(ever)"

The Naming of HOW(ever)

To Frances Jaffer in memory
by Beverly Dahlen

Beverly Dahlen
photo by Camille Roy

I met Frances Jaffer sometime in the mid ‘60s when I was working at The Poetry Center at San Francisco State. Mark Linenthal was at that time the director of the center and Frances was his wife. They used to entertain visiting poets at their spacious home on Jordan Avenue. Of course, I went to those parties and found Frances a charming hostess, but there was discontent beneath the surface. What came to be called the “second wave” of feminism was well underway: Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique had been published in ’63. That was followed by many other titles, but Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had been the book that launched the movement.

When Frances and I became friends we began to talk about this new feminism. We had seen the small periodicals that were beginning to appear—one from a group in Boston who called themselves the “bluestockings” for example, in honor of the original 18th century English group of literary women. And I recall that Mary Wollstonecraft—she who was the mother of Mary Shelley---was the author of a tract called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792)

In the late 1960s women all over the country were meeting in what were called “consciousness-raising” groups. Frances and I attended one of these groups in which women met privately to talk among themselves about their lives: everything was on the table--- frustration, fear, ambition, all the feelings which had been kept hidden, but also ideas for organizing politically. It was the beginning of “the women’s rights movement” or “women’s liberation” and it generated support for new laws, “equal pay for equal work,” among them, and campaigns for women candidates for public office. I note that it is an unfinished revolution. The proposed ERA has never been passed and Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to choose an abortion, is still being fought over to this day.

All of this was important, but Frances and I wanted to explore other aspects of feminism.

When Kathleen came to San Francisco in 1972, she, Frances and I began meeting to read and discuss our own work. Frances had begun writing poetry again after a long hiatus. Sometimes there were visitors to the group. Marilyn Hacker dropped by, Tamara O’Brien, Gloria Frym and others were members for awhile.

During this time hundreds of books having to do with the theory and practice of feminism were published. I was particularly interested in salvaging psychoanalytic theory for women and read Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate, which was my introduction to the school of French feminism. These women had embraced Freud and Lacan and their work; the essays of Julia Kristeva (Desire in Language) became important, in fact, foundational for me.

Reading and writing: they feed one another. We began to turn our attention to the “buried” women writers, particularly the modernist women like H.D., whose work was barely in print. I had read a couple of her poems which were anthologized, but knew nothing beyond that. Women writers had simply not been taught when I went to school in the mid ‘50s. By the time of our meetings many books were being published not only about the politics of feminism but the works of literary women were becoming available again. H.D.’s poetry and novels came back into print, as well as an account of her psychoanalysis called Tribute to Freud. Her book-length poem Helen in Egypt is a direct source of my own Egyptian Poems and her Trilogy, an account of her survival of the blitz in London during the Second World War, is a work that opens one to meditation on the powers of destruction and resurrection.

It must have been the early ‘80s when Kathleen suggested publishing a small newsletter to share our enthusiasms with others. We agreed, but what would we call it? We brainstormed a bit and landed on “however.” It’s the “however” from Marianne Moore’s poem called “Poetry.” It’s there, even in its redacted form:

I, too, dislike it.
     Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
     it, after all, a place for the genuine.

This is what we were looking for: a place for the genuine. A modest place for women writers who had for whatever reasons become discouraged, to turn again to thought, to interpretation, to innovation, to poetry. And for those who had never doubted, who had always written, to share their work with new audiences. Finally, it was always a pleasure to read the manuscripts of the young poets and to be able to represent them in the pages of HOW(ever).

October 2, 2011

Susan Gevirtz on HOW(ever)

Here are some excerpts from Susan Gevirtz's notes for her part of the conversation about HOW(ever). Not all of these things actually got brought up during the conversation as the discussion had a life of its own. I've tried to indicate in asides (in green) what appears in Susan's notes but did not get discussed on October 2nd.

Susan Gevirtz and Kathlee Fraser
photo by Camille Roy
From Susan Gevirtz:

Some of you were there, but for those of you who weren’t, I wish I could thoroughly invoke the world of November 1985 when I began working on Volume II No. 4 of HOW(ever).

There are a few things that may at least summon aspects of it :

  • First : the 2 words: feminist and poetics. [Susan wondered why she was NOT finding these two words together, anywhere!]
Susan, who was a PhD student at UC Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness Program, was alerted to a flier at San Francisco State with those two words together--"Feminist Poetics." The flyer was for a class taught by Kathleen Fraser. Susan sought out Fraser's telephone number and called her cold. Kathleen invited her over and they had scotch and cheese and talked. Susan ended up being a Teaching Assistant for Kathleen and got credit for it because her UCSC professors Donna Haraway and Jim Clifford were already subscribers to HOW(ever) before Susan even knew about it.

Being Kathleen's TA and then being made an associate editor (not even an assistant!) on How(ever) were life changing events and informed everything that followed. I can never express enough gratitude to Kathleen for this -- and of course also for introducing me to the work of Dorothy Richardson

I don't think Susan got a chance to talk about this conference (below) at the SPT event, but it is in her notes. I wish we had talked about this because I too went to this amazing event. My friend Sally Doyle and I were there. It was my first serious intellectual conference and it was thrilling!
  • Second: Emily Dickinson, H.D Dual Centennial Colloquium , October 1986 at San Jose State – Perdita was there, memorable talks by Beverly, Ann Friedberg about H.D, Richardson and others and Close Up, Susan Howe, … and more
  • The Poetry Center sponsored "Women Working in Literature Conference" at San Francisco State in April 1985: Monique Wittig, Olga Broumas, Jayne Cortez

  • Third: The low-tech nature of it all: i.e. bulk mailings that took hours to assemble on one of our floors and tables – which meant that we had a lot time to talk and argue . One thing Susan appreciated among many others about Frances is that she was always willing to disagree --about the writing being published in that issue, under consideration, our own, favorite new restaurant. Also we were laboring to send out an issue but we were not united under the banner of one common poetics. We disagreed a lot but one thing I’d risk saying we probably all agreed on was the oppressive nature of “the dream of a common language.” That book was published in 1978. It was compelling. Rich was brilliant and charismatic. But our project deviated from a kind of unity while attempting to make a place for devaitors to come together and converse
I want to say that the issues and concerns that fueled my passion for HOW(ever) haven’t waned in urgency but have maybe become more integrated into other urgent concerns. Sometimes investigation into these issues continues for many of us in ways that may not look obviously like continued investigation: –in writing poetry for example – or in more overt ways: like in Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s A Megaphone; without HOW(ever), I'm not sure I would have thought about poetry and cross cultural issues in the way that compelled me to start the translation symposium in Greece that I started … and the desire to continue to think about writing and form as kinds of politics in places outside of the U.S.

Some of the things we might have talked about while folding and stamping and labeling HOW(ever)s remain abiding unresolved questions and conversations –mattering more or less or differently than they did at that time:

+ What do we or does anyone mean by “experimental” ? Is the word “innovative” any improvement on all the problems with “experimental”?

+ Cross genre – what counts as poetry or experimental? -- issues of race, class… and why are so many we publish white?

+ How does what counts as “convention” change from one context to the next? For example…Greece and many other places… Convention as a fluid, impossible to fix, category

[Note: not all of these points were discussed at the SPT event.]

Why HOW(ever)? by Frances Jaffer

Frances Jaffer's note (below) appears in the first issue of HOW(ever) in May of 1983. You can read it here. Kathleen Fraser also has a note on this site as well. Since I am posting a longer work of hers here on xpoetics, I encourage you to read Kathleen's note at HOW(ever) here.

A vehicle for experimentalist poetry--post-modern if you will, to be thought of seriously as an appropriate poetry for women and feminists. The poetry feminists usually eschew, believing that now is the time for women to write understandable poetry about their own lives, and with feeling, with the heretofore undeveloped self in prominent display.

But the myths of culture are embodied in its language, its lexicon, its very syntactical structure. To focus attention on language and to discover what can be written in other than traditional syntactical or prosodic structures may give an important voice to authentic female experience. Certainly one should be read side-by-side with the other.

Unhappily, most feminist publications have ignored the experimentalist work which women are writnig now and have been writing since early in the century. And unhappily, most publications of "new" writing have had little interest in feminist language issues, although some of the women who appear in them have written brilliantly and movingly about their lives asw women. We want to publish an exception, however.

Frances Jaffer and husband Mark Linenthal

Yedda Morrison on HOW(ever), Theresa Ha Kyung Cha and Myung Mi Kim

Yedda Morrison on
Theresa Ha Kyung Cha
Yedda Morrison
photo by Camille Roy

When Kathleen Fraser asked if I could say something about the work of Theresa Ha Kyung Cha for an evening discussion of How(ever), I said I simply didn’t have time to do this astonishing work justice. To which Kathleen replied, “Please allow yourself to recall from your heart any memory of how you came to Cha’s work and why it was important to you.” This struck me as such an unusual and generous request and so in keeping with Kathleen’s work as a feminist and as an editor, that I couldn’t say no. So, briefly from the heart…

I was first introduced to How(ever) and subsequently to Cha’s work when I was assisting Margy Sloan in putting together her anthology Moving Borders; 30 years of Innovative Writing By Women (Talisman House,1997). Still in my twenties, access to all of the back-issues of How(ever) (and the women included in the anthology) was wildly exciting and helped plant the seed for the launch of Tripwire; a journal of poetics with David Buuck, a year or so later.

Around the same time, I encountered Cha more formally in Myung Mi Kim’s class “The Work of Silence” at SFSU. Myung’s own experience coming to the US from Korea as a child closely mirrors Cha’s. As a graduate student in the creative writing department with an undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies (though I still couldn’t open my mouth in class) I was particularly drawn to Cha’s work for different but also very personal reasons.

Cha’s writing was the closest I’d yet come to finding a poetry that cohesed and expanded my own sense of the tenuousness of language. Cha’s minute recordings of the often violent struggle to acquire language in her 1983 book Dictee, exposed the possibility of struggle as language and opened a way to engage the silence and silencing factors (class, physical isolation, illness) that had so shaped my own young life.

And while the acquisition of language for “us” (my brother and myself), had the relative ease of happening within our mother tongue, we hovered on the flip side of Cha’s equation; the place where she tracked the cultural, linguistic and physical erosion of the old through the acquisition of the new. Or, as in our case, the loss of language and the acquisition of “no language.” For my brother, over the course of three days, lost his ability to speak and has, for the past thirty-eight years, remained silent save guttural noises that I, and to my mind Cha, was trying to make sense of. Wasn’t Cha exploring a continuum of expression as mediated by mouth, nation-state and textbook? Wasn’t she/I trying to write into meaning/history the spits and silences resulting from profound loss?

Dictee affirmed my sense that the ability to speak let alone write couldn’t be taken for granted (especially in poetry- a physical space where things might happen), that we must acknowledge the privilege of fluid, recognizable speech and the silence(s) it betrays. That the fits and starts of acquisition and of loss are in and of themselves a language, a violence and a possibility. And that the discrepancies between interior life/language and the externalization/vocalization of language was a legitimate, even essential field for poetry.

A brief biographical note on Cha by Myung Mi Kim

DISEUSE- from Dictee (as published in How(ever), 1988)

Norma Cole on How(ever)

Norma Cole
phto by Camille Roy

Norma Cole began her contribution by marking three historical events:

The 1980 New French Feminisims edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle De Courtivron published by the Univeristy of Massachusetts. In this book, Norma and others "found in translation many of the great writers we know and love, e.g. Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, and Marguerite Duras. Duras talked about women, writing and embodiment." Cole then linked this feminist work to current cutting-edge neuroscience--"it's all about embodiment."

The 1986 The Poetics of Gender edited by Nancy K. Miller after a colloquium at Columbia.

Then, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History published in 1992.

Norma then read to us from her Postcard Review (How(ever) Jan. 1988, Vol. 4, No. 3) of Dennis Baron's Grammar and Gender :

Grammar and Gender
Dennis Baron, Yale University Press, 1986

For any of us who have been wondering about the ontology of "her" speechlessness and that d' "alliance of speechlessness and powerlessness." (1) that, we are assured, is individually based-- your own timidity --here is a helpful source book. Grammar and Gender is a thorough, informative narration on how we've been named strangeness, other, alien; how that's been built into the language we use(d), lodged in legitimacy. It is a book bearing witness to the man-made structure of events and political facts behind the word-set we know, "the powerful are dedicated to the investiture of speechlessness in the powerless."(2)

What becometh a woman best, and first of al: Silence. What seconde: Silence. What third: Silence. What fourth: Silence. Yea if a man should ask me til' dowmes day, I would stil crie, silence, silence, without the whiche no woman hath any good gifte, but hauing the same, no doubt she must haue many other notable giftes, as the whiche of necessitie do euer folow suche a vertue.--Thomas Wilson, Arte of Rhetorique, 1553.

"You can make your eyes, your smile speak for you and say more, perhaps, than words could express" --Harriet Lane, in The Book of Culture (1922)

Vives asserts that silence is a woman's noblest ornament, and he warns his female readers not to speak when men are present, for verbal intercourse leads inevitably to sexual intercourse. Vives explains that a woman can defend her chastity "stronger with silence than with speche"-- De Institutione Christianae Feminae , Juan Luis Vives (1523)

--Norma Cole

1. Michelle Cliff, "Notes on Speechlessness." Feminist Poetics: a consideration of the female construction of language. Ed. Kathleen Fraser. San Francisco State University, 1984. pp. 103-7.

2. ibid.

From the San Francisco Chronicle Obituary for Frances Jaffer, one of the three founding editors of HOW(ever)

After the Small Press Traffic HOW(ever) event, Beverly Dahlen sent an email to all the participants and quoted Stephen Schwartz on Frances Jaffer. Dahlen highlighted Schwartz's comments about Jaffer and HOW(ever):

"A Chronicle review of the latter volume described her as ``one of a number of feminist poets whose questions about language remain largely unanswered but rigorously investigated.'

[Jaffer]served as an editor of HOWever, a major journal of innovative women's writing. She was especially interested in the work of such female poets as HD and Marianne Moore."

You can find the full obituary here.

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/Chronicle/a/1999/01/30/MN81680.DTL#ixzz1azbApgly

Camille Roy's "Theory" from HOW(ever) 1988


   The theory states that the perfect sentence can be made to
   disappear by following a set of rules backwards. The theory
   is a jar, and the sentence is a fluid which can be poured out. It
   is part of your job to duplicate the theory indefinitely.

With practice, duplication becomes entrenched, like lifting weights.

   Breast-high partitions cover the linoleum floor, creating a
   maze through which workers stroll and softly talk. At either
   end of the vast warehouse are sealed rooms whose roaring
   ventilation systems cool the computers. You are allowed in
   these rooms, because you wear a special identification badge.
   Between the computer rooms stretch two rows of windows,
   that face twin lines of young olive trees whose leaves are
   covered with fine greyish hair. Beyond these trees the work-
   ers go to sleep and have sex.

   You receive a letter from a man you haven't seen in years. "I
   think of you fondly" he writes, and tells you about his wife
  Melody and her recent miscarriage. You remember with pleas-
  ure a pair of soft sandals and the notes he used to leave on
  your pillow. The notes have fallen out of the journal you
  stored them in, or the journal has disappeared.

"It's happened already," you complain to a co-worker. "First I was a young
girl and now I'm a 'woman with a past'."

   Your response time slows. For the first time you experience fa-
   tigue because the literal size of your understanding has in-
   creased, and other workers have begun to line up with ques-
   tions. The answer to the latest question requires a flow of
   logic outside your control. You close your eyes and your under-
   standing settles over the problem like a falling tissue. A sul-
   len crack reveals itself, a niche of wrongness. You announce
   your discovery, and the questioner goes away.

   You are lying side by side when she lays a hand on your sore
   breast. "You enjoy leaving me in the lurch," you complain.
   "No I don't," she says. As you lie quietly askew there is
   something tropical about your half-hold on sleep. Finally she
   says, "Tell me you never want to see me again."
   You say "I never want to see you again."
   "Don't say that." Her voice is so small you can hardly imag-
   ine her lips moving in the dark.

You pass a nil index to a routine which causes it to indiscriminately gobble
up the symbol table. You watch, drinking tea with milk and sugar, as a ser-
ies of fatal and non-fatal errors occur.

   The grated parmesan is as soft as flour, and radiant on a
   white saucer. This happens whenever she abandons you and
   the hours go by in which you could have had her. You feel
   lit up, uncontained. On the street bodies which fix your desire
   dissolve past the hard edge of your eye. Everyone looks hol-
   low. The background is a vivisectionist, a series of lacerating
   points in a fluid. Laminating.

Sometimes the work demands great agility and you feel you are twisting
and shaking while remaining mute. You and another worker do this
in front of one another, a demonstration of technique, as you have
learned the facts intimately and can now walk upon them. There is
a tangle of questions all over the floor, stepped upon. In the corner
of the cubicle lies a briefcase, and upon it is a blueprint with one
corner ripped. Therein lies a solution, you think. The engineer folds
up her eyebrows and walks away with the briefcase.

Working Notes, Camille Roy:

I wrote this piece from notes in my journal composed on the one-hour commute down Interstate 280 to and from work. That time is nothing time, a period before & after transformation by work, a period of silence, dissociation, minor playfulness on the page. What happens at this border truly doesn't "matter," because it doesn't occupy "time."

But down there, where I am an engineer in the suburbs, I feel I have to not only speak a different language but become one. I am translated. The notes I take in the commuter van are the notes of a woman becoming a different language. Further, my work involves computer languages, which themselves are a sort of translation between a formal logic, expressed in sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and a computer performing tasks. But what is left over, surplus, both unwanted and autonomous, is the sexual. Eroticism as a non-reducible term (or ghost? in a [missing text]

See the poem in HOW(ever) here:

Fictions, a poem by Robin Tremblay-McGaw from HOW(ever) 1989

Robin Tremblay-McGaw
photo by Camille Roy


this time he's leaving her teetering
in a skiff pushing
off into mist lake
sounds other world
her scarf
trails in the water of her own boat
a woman leaning her hair
washes lilies leaving
a scarred surface silent
after you he plunges in below
the surface is gutsy enough to
swim beneath the raft
barnacle covered can
grazes his back at the spine a fish
frightens him with its sudden
appearance while bodies cannonball by him
he's tan and you can see
the outline of him beneath the
flimsy barrier of swim trunks
reef she thinks
hot summer boy black curls
press into her as they dance
she leaps into grass
another boy she steals into the twilight
for us the boy (was he really
a boy wasn't he) hung
himself from the oak
in his parents' frontyard the school
bus passed and we all saw him only
a white sheet covered
body but we saw and then
the erasing he kisses
a girl in jail puts
another boy's cock in his
mouth she paints her nails
yellow with a marker he
bicycles everyday to
work his mother fixes cheeseburgers a quart of milk
in his ear a woman whispers push off
from the shoreline he tells
his mother old man P__'s gravestone
moves a little on its base each
year he says he's marked
the change himself it is
morning tufts of hair curl into his ears
the press of fluid on his bladder forces him
from the bed across the cool
wood floor to the bathroom a
lizard slips over
the flagstone in another country an elderly
woman has her tea smears
her pink ice lipstick on the cup her
white cloth napkin her hand on
the mirror when she leans too
close lean close comes to him and
fishing is the order of the day sunstroke
breaststroke her thighs expanding
and then snapping shut venus flytrap
infectious ivy spreads over them and they
are fixed for certain one spot
where anyone can see can
point with ease comfort something
that is known a tree
in the wind creaks only
which one is it they move
together just as you get your I'm
sitting on this bridge
no way for him to get
past me somehow he appears on the other
bank water trickling and trees
bursting in the wind she
thinks they're real

Working Notes, Robin Tremblay-McGaw:

I'm interested in the disallowed. Experience, dream, memory, time, vision, lies overlap. become indistinguishable. part of the text. of our lives. suspension in. a state between sleep, wakefulness. other. a mystery. the desire to write/explore. the ineffable brings me the page.

from HOW(ever) Vol. 5 No. 3 April 1989


Brashear, Bernheimer and Sonbert at Small Press Traffic

On Sunday September 16th SPT had its first Fall 2011 event in our new space at ATA on Valencia. We are so thrilled to be collaborating with these folks. Many events will happen at ATA on Sundays at 5pm though we will continue to have some events at CCA’s Timken Hall.
Jim Brashear with art from ATA
photo by Camille Roy

Our opening day couldn’t have happened in a more vibrant way. ATA’s theater was nearly full. Jim Brashear inaugurated the season with a sound piece. He stood at the front of the room and began talking into a microphone as if by way of introduction. But soon, audience members became aware that other sounds were emerging from elsewhere. Music from other spaces in the building contributed an aleatory element to the performance. At first, I wasn’t sure what was Jim’s work and what was ambient sound from busy Valencia Street outside.

This “not knowing” actually activated some panic for me. I worried about the unfolding of the piece, how it related to all the sound around it. But then, it became clear that Jim’s in-person improvisation was in conversation with that emergent and increasingly audible timeline of sound, and I was relieved. Of course, it isn’t uncommon for certain performance pieces to begin without the performer marking the beginning. The audience understands retrospectively that the piece has begun and so in some strange way there is no beginning or there is indeed a very clear commencement but it is lost to us since we didn’t know to look or listen for it until later. I found the piece engaging. Jim’s rich, sonorous voice, accompanied by the timeline of sound filled ATA. I was conscious of my body immersed in the space and sound and of the fact there were other bodies in the room. Invisible to us, sound waves moved around us, bounced off us, made a sonic network of us all.

I asked Jim if he wanted to include some information about his piece here on the blog as a number of people were interested and how he did what he did. Here it is, ever so graciously provided:

I've done a couple of versions of this elsewhere, and each time the looks of surprise make it worth the effort. When you're using technology for performance (particularly for sound, I think), everyone seems poised for the beginning, for the ON button to be pressed, for the needle to drop. My particular program (Kyma) allows me to circumvent that convention so that the seemingly impromptu (or rather, improvised) speech at the beginning is pulled forward into the performance and blurs the boundaries between, so that you're always looking back, or listening back, over your shoulder in time, wondering
how you arrived inside the field of sound. This does include a familiar performance art intention of emphasizing the everyday, pedestrian quality of performance, but also an attempt to activate the musical qualities of even the most seemingly non-musical speech (and could that be a potential definition of "sound poetry?). The structure of the program gives me the option (among many) of fading in the effects very slowly, because the whole project exists on a timeline, the same software metaphor found in most audio and video programs, in which the user arranges events that a cursor passes over in real time and activates them. My particular arrangement of them focuses as much control and modulation as possible on the voice, so that every vocal gesture is amplified to more dramatic levels. Speaking might already be musical, but why not bring out as much of its music as possible?
--Jim Brashear

Montage from Sonbert films
photo from Bright Lights Film Journal

By way of introduction to the showing of Warren Sonbert’s 1983 film A Woman’s Touch, Alan Bernheimer gave a brief and wholly interesting talk about Sonbert and his films. Alan said that Sonbert was an artist who, to an enviable degree, integrated his daily life and artistic practice. In fact his daily life provided the materials for his art. Sonbert’s films have been shown around the world and were included in 6 Whitney Biennial events. Wherever he showed his films, he also shot footage. Born in New York, Sonbert studied film at NYU and was very much influenced by Warhol, Rene Ricard, and Gerard Malanga. He came to San Francisco some time in the 1970s. Sonbert was prolific, making many films and writing extensively on film and other matters. A Woman’s Touch is a silent black and white visual pleasure; Alan told us it is an homage to Hitchcock’s Marnie. Oddly, some years ago, I read Sonbert’s piece “Narrative Concerns” in the Poetics Journal special issue on narrative before I had ever seen any of his films. They are hard to come by and have not been digitized. Alan generously provided copies of Sonbert’s Poetics Journal piece for the audience members. Here’s a few excerpts:

Alan Bernheimer
photo by Camille Roy
“The strengths of narrative as well entail its limitations. On one level narrative could be defined as the eventual resolution of all elements introduced. This classical balance is always satisfying: when the various strands are climactically tied together. But this also implies a grounding that may often enough be deadening”

“At this moment when anything can happen, narrative is at its most fascinatinog. (In my own films I generally try to include an image of a forward motin on train tracks in which several lines converge but cut before any actual track or direction is taken—it’s a metaphor for possibilities open.)"

“In my last completed work, A Woman’s Touch (1983), which lasts 23 minutes, there is a given and then a series of qualifications, almost like a Theme and Variations. The initial set is a number of images of women involved in solitary action. All is presented positively, benignly, almost too complacently: women at work, at play, constructing, striving, succeeding—a paean to their independence.”

Sonbert goes on to explain that in the end, the film closes this way: “The lines of the driveway converge in a path that leads to the door. The lines of the driveway converge in a path that leads to the house: but it is a cul-de-sac, a dead end. The man does have the last word. All the independence that the women in the film have throughout evinced, and as well the straining towards home and domesticity, here both converge in a narrative summation of tying together the threads within a devastating conclusive context.”

It is interesting to me that it is not the conclusion of the film that I recall. What remains for me is some of those images of the many women, among them, Johanna Drucker, Carla Harryman, Anne Waldman, Melissa Reilley. In some of the shots, their faces and bodies are radiant with pleasure and a kind of joy.

Melissa Reilley
photo by Camille Roy
 Here are some links to things online about Sonbert and his films.
Warren Sonbert's Films by Jon Gartenberg
Brief Candles: The Films of Warren Sonbert


Wrong Love by Litia Perta

I heard Litia read this piece last August and I was green with envy; I asked her to share it here, and graciously, she agreed.

Wrong Love
for Sam M.

So, I have been thinking lately about the relationship between loving and writing—and about the relation of both of these movements that I think of as creative ventures to the experience of failure. I keep returning to the etymology of the word writing—a strange word, one not related to the Latin scribere (from whence we derive our script, scribe, inscription, description).

Writing, the word itself, arrives to us through Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old Norse, tribal languages, and it means literally to draw the figure of something by carving it out, to form an outline by cutting into the surface of something, to score or mark through the gutting movement of making an incision.

To carve, to cut, to incise.

The early movement of writing engaged knives as the ancestors to our pens. And something in this brings much to my mind of loving—an experience that also carves itself into being, making a mark that cuts deeply so it may seem, at first, indelible. But like marks carved in ancient stone that must have seemed at first so clear, as soon as these lines are forged they open themselves to the dulling, softening, fading of time, perhaps one day (after many storms) to be smoothed over all together, to disappear.

There is a moment in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red when the red‐winged monster Geryon’s whole body forms “one arch of a cry—upcast to that custom, the human custom of wrong love.”

Wrong love. Thinking of this phrase as having many skins, the top one, surely, is the idea that the love between two people, or the love that one person has for another, can be bad or wrong or ill‐fated which maybe just means that it doesn’t last, or causes pain, or doesn’t make room for a person to live conventionally. But I wonder, of all these things, are these bad? And this has made me wonder whether wrong and bad can actually be said to be commensurate or whether we are in fact thinking through two very different qualities. What lasts? What causes no pain? What is lost when we live conventionally? This led me to think of the many ways in which being wrong can move a person both toward her own depth as well as, perhaps one day, towards a notion of what might be right.

As I sat to write this piece, a second skin of the phrase caught my attention and that was the notion of love itself as a mover through the world, alighting on certain heads, certain moments, perhaps herself trying to find a stable ground on which to rest. So she lands somewhere, thinking it looks good and finds quickly that she was wrong, wrong love, that the ground there was not stable, that she could not set down roots, much as she may have tried. Wrong love here not of a person or of two people but of the quality of wandering love herself, simply looking for a safe place to be, thinking she’s found one, and being wrong.

What has all this to do with knowing, and with writing—and what to do with failing? Seems like everything and again, being wrong seems the only path—at least the only path I have ever known—toward learning.

When I was twenty years old, I was obliged to write a senior thesis in order to graduate from college. I spent the weeks of spring break alone on my campus wandering through the strange landscapes of my mind to eventually produce 160 pages of text that I thought, initially, opened up a new kind of epistemology, a new kind of working inside language around nothingness and negation, a new way of being in words.

My two advisers were old men. Lovely men. One was stiff and tight and white haired and slim and elegant and lived in New York and stood when we met in his office and often pointed his finger to the sky when he made a point. The other shuffled when he walked and wore a straggly gray pony-tail, had grown up in Berkeley, wore turquoise rings, and his tweed jackets were enormous to fit over his ever-widening body. He wore spectacles and spoke rarely and had in his eye the most kindred glinty mischief spark I had at that point ever seen. I trusted both of them as guides and knew that somehow their oppositional qualities would balance out so that my work would be even-keeled and strong.

One morning, in the middle of writing my conclusion, I had a moment that was the opposite of blindness--the kind of moment where the universe cracks open and breathtaking light is let in, a kind of light that, for me, actually hurts. I saw that the entire path I had been on was wrong--that my idea didn't work, that my theory was crumbling beneath me and all I could think, with this new found sight, was that I was surprised it had taken so long to realise. I cried like a child and had no other recourse but to turn it all in anyway.

I was given honours for my thesis, was commended in all the ways my college allowed. Privately, this made me angry, I thought of it as consolation, a way in which they could acknowledge that I had worked so hard and failed.

When I met my two advisers, the pointy and the vast, in the soft gray basement of the philosophy building, they asked me how I felt about my work. I cried fresh tears. And told them, shamefacedly, that I saw now--that I realised--what they must have realised all along: that I was wrong.

The vast one smiled wide, and the pointy one shifted to his toe tips and they both agreed with me--and then welcomed me to the project of philosophy.

This early lesson is one that in love I am still learning. That it need not last or feel good or be right. But that even wrong love, perhaps only wrong love, can lead to knowing.

Litia Perta is a writer and a teacher currently living in Brooklyn.  She emerged from UC Berkeley's doctoral program in Rhetoric exhausted but unscathed and has been processing her institutional training ever since.  She is interested in transformation and in collaborating with others to develop ways (both pedagogical and spiritual) to support the transformations we came here to live through.