[A Paper presented on the panel: The Great Indoors: Gender, Writing and Re-envisioning Literary Merit, AWP 2011, Washington, DC]
I chose the train over the plane to travel to AWP this year because I like the gentle rocking, the bad hot chocolate and the sense of an interior.
That every (poetic) stanza is a stanza or a room is a truism I take seriously. The first stanza is a green room; the second is an antechamber; then, my favorite, the vestibule, also a part of the inner ear, a sense of balance is vestibular, suddenly a promontory, a curve into a cave and I’m there. It seems I never experience reading without entering a space, even if the writing juts, it alters the space I’m in, and in entering me, asks that I enter an interior.
When I was a young writer, newly eighteen, I pictured myself literally as a man when I visualized giving voice to my poetry in public. As though when I tried to dream myself into a writer-in-public, or to fantasize, a male dummy entered where my voice and body should have been. Thirty years later at the verdant epicenter of a small amphitheater in Palazzolo Acreide, Sicily, I felt I’d found my place, the spirit welling within me and the words sprouting from foot through crown in vowels that could stir as much as quiet, even though I knew, in its (ancient Greek or Roman) day, no woman would be wanted there except as figure or idea.
Could my voice fill an amphitheater, or my body? Can yours?
Do we privilege a macro over an interior disposition in writing? I’m not so sure. Think of the history and pantheon of male mystics, philosophers, and contemplatives—it’s possible we privilege maleness, period—as it relates to ideas, creativity, and of course authorship and its none-too-distant cousin, authority, the idea of the author as such. Writing demands equal measures of introspection and profound attention to exteriority—in nonfiction, we call it witnessing—the need to be open to what’s there, to note it with loving care. Nonfiction might even be tantamount to the particular or exquisite tension its writer re-creates between inner and outer worlds. It’s not that women are shuttled into interiors while men enjoy the outside; it’s that we’re only each allowed particular kinds of relationships to each.
Intellectual, writer; writer, intellectual. If the two are allowed to come together, they can augur a “public intellectual,” the likes of Susan Sontag, but consider how much trouble she had inhabiting the position: being a public intellectual required her becoming a celebrity, a site of iconic sexiness while at the same time she remained sexually closeted.
Women are expected to have a conflicted at best, and nonexistent at worst, relationship both to the exteriorization implied by public-ness and the inner authority implied by thought.
What I love about Sontag is that she had the guts to believe her ideas were worth hearing, and she could engage with absolutely anything put before her. Where she fails me is in her not allowing herself much of the time to be more than a dutiful daughter whose essays sometimes read like homework, answers to assignments or canon-making drills.
I’m casting about for a sense of female public intellectuals—can I count them currently on more than one hand?—but the view through the train window is distractingly surreal, and I’m negotiating fears of getting as far away from myself as possible: I don’t think I’ve ever digressed to the point where I’ve lost myself, or forgotten who I am. Was that a woman or a drag queen who just glanced past? White snow against undifferentiated white sky—why are there no deer in the clearing?—smoky pulsions of factory turbines, red cargo carts, divine: who comes to mind when I ask myself: who are today’s women public intellectuals? Or was Susan Sontag the only and the last?
A Wikipedia list of public intellectuals features 95 men to five women, including Camille Paglia, whom Susan Sontag suggested should join a rock band (no offense to rock bands.) I think: Rebecca Solnit, Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt. I think: if only Oprah would have Judith Butler on and inaugurate radical philosophy’s popular appeal. I think about Patricia Williams, Michelle Wallace, bell hooks, Angela Davis. Who ardently or urgently reads them now? I think of experimental women filmmakers, Abigail Child, Su Freidrich, Barbara Hammer.
I admit to being the product of an anti-intellectual culture, but I reserve the right to produce a counter-cultural space.
There’s an interview with filmmakers, Agnes Varda and Susan Sontag with Newsweek journalist Jack Kroll that you can watch online. The occasion was the 1969 New York film festival where Sontag’s film, Duet For Cannibals, and Varda’s Lions Love, barely available now, had just appeared. It’s amazing to watch each woman light a cigarette on stage, but more than this, the way they show absolute and utter contempt for their interviewer—his constant interruptions, his condescension. Just when I think they are doing something that today no one would be allowed to do, I notice Sontag isn’t breathing. She’s visibly heaving, breathing so hard and fast, it seems she might jump right out of her skin.
What do you allow yourself in your writing? Where do you allow yourself to go?
Do you have an inner life or have new technologies vanquished that? Is your sense of an interior private or expansive? Is it a real place or a conjuration? A place you make in writing or a dream? Do you know when you’re thinking or have your thoughts been quelled by worrying?
Roland Barthes writes about interiors—the utopian phalanstery and the TB sanitarium as places where desire circulates differently; I’m not sure that can be said for the hotel hallways and meeting rooms of the AWP.
I chose the train over the plane because I always say I want to be monkish and then I end up talking endlessly to the person next to me and making a new friend. Parsing the hours that could have been hewn by solitude. Because really I like nothing more than to read for long uninterrupted periods of time. I chose the train over the plane because I have a phobia of book fair halls and prefer the spaces of the Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angeles, like-minded folk gathered in a small place atop a winding staircase, spinning with ice and smelling of mulled wine: it’s ok if it’s vertiginous if it provides me an alternative to the ground I think I know so well.
“And yet it would be a kind of phalanstery,” Barthes writes, of a type of writing he wishes to produce, “for in it contradictions would be acknowledged… difference would be observed, and conflict rendered insignificant…” (The Pleasure of the Text, Hill and Wang, 1975)
My own next books are on Mood, a kind of interior subject, in one case, and the idea of the study, in another—the study as a heretofore nonexistent literary form, that issues from a particular idea of the student and inspired by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Ideas of Prose. The study as the place from which my writing issues, and one of its primary conditions of possibility: study as a practice that can have no rightful end, according to Agamben, because it does not need one; that does not demand the exclusion of undergoing from undertaking; that can begin to represent the enigmatic summa of my existence and the realities of lives of others that I still seek a form for, or that my writing has yet to perform a proper justice. (I imagine this as my contribution to the short form in an age taking shape around tweets and status lines).
Women writers are exceptions in a publishing world that remains a boys’ club, by and large, though it is possible there are more women editors of books than acknowledged female writers—more women clean up the shit (see Colette Guillaumin, Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology, Routledge, 1995); more men write or are allowed a public presence for their work. Still, to paraphrase Susan Sontag—you can’t spend every waking moment of your day feeling indignant. What state would be preferable? I don’t recommend ressentiment as a feminist stance: when defensiveness takes the place of a strategy for change. What’s needed instead is the clearing of a space from which to respond otherwise.
How does any of us understand the difference between our inner lives, and the writing that we produce? That which is pre-occupying and that which we have not yet occupied, in our thinking, in our life, and in our work?
My mother had been an agoraphobic letter writer—as a child I both acutely witnessed and just as surely felt her combination of vitality laced with fear; I saw that passion was the other side of anxiety, that going out or not was an effect of an immigrant legacy, and that the thinking, desiring female body in public was a threat. My own battles with exposition and disclosure through the years have taken many forms, but I remember in particular at one point momentously concluding that as a lesbian I had nothing to confess, and I went about refusing to confess because there was nothing to confess. These days, I think we are all expected to say a whole lot publicly and to say basically nothing much at all.
What do you feel you need or want right now?
I want something other than a list. And the degradation of the list as a multifarious, aesthetically powerful form, twin to prayer and kin to ritual, envelope for elegy, and for ordering systems of all kinds—a way of knowing and a poetics of finite infinitude. “Favorites” lists, best of the year lists are a perverse reduction of the “list” as such, and I wonder if they are really necessary. What would a literary, political and lived landscape of letters look like without them or if we refused to make them, contribute to them, or abide them? If you think there’s a relationship between the collection of poems you’ve just read and the coffee maker, cork screw, dehumidifier or Doc Martens you bought last week, then continue to generate lists, and continue to post thumbs up or down on the pages that announce a new book in the world. Our words and our work circulate in and through a marketplace; as such, they are commodities, whose readers are understood to be consumers. But we all know that there are ways of re-appropriating this flattening out of a book’s volubility and its value, its voice, and the alternate space it asks us to enter. I want something other than a list; and I want something other than a universe whose span is so shrunken to only include one to five stars, and I want something other than a thumb, which is just about as telling as a middle finger. Is the solution for us to assure that women writers appear more often on lists? Or is it possible to re-invent the terms by which a conversation can emerge. Co-conspiring to read and discuss each other’s work, and to make new work from it: in place of lists: what we need is a technique of interruption not replication, re-duplication, or reaction; in place of lists, lips. Lisps. Ellipses, “at once in-dwelling and eventuating from without…”**
I wish to thank Barrie Jean Borich, Cate Marvin, Patti Horvath, Randall Mann, and Susan Steinberg, for inviting me to be part of this conversation.
*The phrase is purposely resonant with Diana Fuss’ wonderful book, The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms that Shaped Them (Routledge, 2004).
**The phrase is borrowed from Avital Ronell’s book, Stupidity (University of Illinois Press, 2002), that I am currently re-reading.