Round table participants:

Daniela Gioseffi
American Book Award winning poet, novelist and editor of:
Wise Women's Web
Some of Ms. Gioseffi's Poetry

Janet Bernichon
Poet and Illustrator for Zero City
Some of Ms. Bernichon's Poetry

Wendy Carlisle
Pushcart Prize Nominated Poet
Some of Ms. Carlisle's Poetry

Johanna Drucker
Professor of Art History at
Purchase College, SUNY
Some of Ms. Drucker's Poetry
and Visual Texts

Chocolate Waters
NY State Poetry Fellow, Editorial Consultant, Director Eggplant Submissions
Some of Ms Water's Poetry


Perihelion's round table discussions were developed to stimulate an ongoing discussion about Internet poetry publishing.

Do use our bbs to participate and help provide the focus for future discussions.

The Untamed Nature of the 'Feminine Wilds'

   An e-mail assisted round table discussion
   hosted by Jennifer Ley

At one point in Barbara Kingsolver's new novel The Poisonwood Bible, her character Rachel, who is in the habit of constantly mixing up cliches, decides that her ultimate survival may necessitate using what she calls her 'feminine wilds.'

Queried, I'd have to say it was the moment I learned I could use a pen to express my own particular 'feminine wilds' that made me aware of just how much being a woman would affect my writing. I don't mean wiles, where learning traits that ensure winning, and if not keeping - divorcing well - a wealthy male partner, but wilds, [ME wilde, fr. OE; akin to OHG wildi] 1. a: living in a state of nature and not ordinarily tame or domesticated. *

Growing up in the 50's and 60's in a midwestern Catholic household, too many of my experiences were restrained and tame. I didn't even know I had any hidden 'feminine wilds' until I finished college, when I found out that in the mid 70's recession, even a magna cum laude arts degree wasn't going to earn me much more than the opportunity to take a typing test and become some advertising art director's devoted secretary.

"Why do all Royal typists
sit magically entranced
fingers glued to the quickest
clickety clack of the keys --
to earn that quick flick of the wrist
as the carriage carries homeward?" **

Answer: to pay off their college loans while they live for the weekends, the poetry readings and performance arts events in NYC's SoHo and Greenwich Village. Yes, in some ways I felt as though I'd been done.

Today, manual typewriters with their thick black rubberized carriages are a thing of the past and I don't always have to drag out feminist irony and sexual innuendo to express myself. But much of my work is still affected by that proto-feminist/Catholic crucible in which I was formed, my 'wilds' bubbling below the surface, as of yet incompletely alloyed. Over the years I've rewritten Catholic dogma, parodied male behavior, reinvented a father who died too soon to see who he might become. At the same time, I've made my peace with *men* and with some of the more traditional aspects of being a woman, learned when to cede a skirmish to win a larger war, learned to enjoy the way words can seduce, entertain, move many different kinds of readers, as well as incite and enflame.

But every time I think to myself, 'surely, I've done enough of THAT,' my feminist subconscious proves it still has its own agenda. Like Rachel, I needed, and still sometimes need, my 'feminine wilds' to survive. Writing has been and continues to be a large part of that survival.

Perihelion's fourth round table features six women whose writing, art and 'feminine wilds' represent many aspects of the 'writers who are women/women who write' spectrum: Daniela Gioseffi, Janet Bernichon, Wendy Carlisle, Johanna Drucker and Chocolate Waters. I think you'll enjoy what they have to say.

The Questions:

1. How much does being a woman impact on your writing? Has this changed over the years?

Daniela Gioseffi:

When I began publishing, the women's movement of the 70's was just beginning and some of my earliest work was published in MS. magazine and in feminist publications and anthologies such as, WE BECOME NEW: Twentieth Century American Women Poets. Women's writing was just beginning to come to the foreground and this made a huge difference. Not only was I publishing at the dawn of the feminist movement and women's awakening, we were reviving women writers who inspired us from the past; we were becoming sexually honest and more open; and I was the first Italian-American female name to make it into mainstream publishing, particularly in poetry, to any degree. There was Diane DiPrima on the West coast and Daniela Gioseffi on the East coast, and that was just about it for we Italian female names in American poetry.

Janet Bernichon:

Recently the majority of my poems deal with women's issues, the focus changing with the events of my life. I have been face to face with desperation in my work as a nurse working with women in a chemical dependency unit and as a breast cancer survivor. I know the survivors, I know the victims and I want to tell their stories. Cancer empowered me as a woman and gave credibility to my voice.

In the sixties, I wrote as a creative outlet of things that mattered. It was that awful teenager-in-love stuff. As I matured, my work turned edgy. I began publishing in the mid-eighties. Dark, depressed, angry at everything poems. They were fueled with random rage at all the wrongs of the world.

I own this rage now. It has a face and it is mine.

Wendy Carlisle:

"The unseemly has been the enemy of women's progress," said Alice Fulton and I believe her.

I was raised at a time that had ideas about what was proper for women. Pregnant at 17, a mother twice by the time I was 20, I was locked into my 'place' as a woman/mother where my self-expression was less important than protecting the status quo. My writing was sad and sentimental---and bad. Later, during graduate school in the 70's and early 80's, another me, liberated, edgy, and self-destructive (if you can't 'behave' you might as well kill yourself) came forward. Fighting against the good-girl, the idea of that role still leaned into my work. It is only recently that I have understood how to stop being role defined: Being a woman is in everything that I do. Being a 'good girl' no longer is. Using Kafka "A book is an ax for the frozen sea within us." and Johnson " I do not care to converse with the [wo]man who has written more than [she's] read." as guides, I have found women poets who inspire, delight and free my work and through their voices have discovered how to speak in my own voice.

Johanna Drucker:

The quote that Wendy cites from Alice Fulton seems absolutely appropriate to the various dilemmas I have faced as a woman writer: the internalization of limits on modes of behavior that extend to writing practice as well as social interactions in every sphere of being. But the process of becoming self-conscious about one's work and one's gender go hand in hand for me so that the themes and issues I address in my writing are aligned with the task of trying to understand how the process of "gendering" actually works.

I think that every aspect of my writing is affected by my being a woman. The subject matter of many of my books is directly engaged in feminist concerns. The sources I draw on are explicitly associated with gender as it is historically and culturally constructed. And the circumstances of writing, publishing, and being subject to criticism -- and also ignored by certain critics -- is also all related to gender. I've watched so many "scene" dynamics in which career opportunities are engineered according to gender politics that it is hard not to notice this as a feature of all professional activity. It's shocking to see how unconscious many of the participants in these processes remain -- women as well as men.

Chocolate Waters:

I've always been a poet and wrote my first poem around age 8. My early work was either about horses or, about what Janet terms "that awful teenager-in-love" stuff. I even sent a lot of it out...(yikes!). Like Daniela, I didn't start publishing prolifically until the resurgence of the Women's Movement in the 70's (unlike Daniela, however, Ms. never published me :-) ). In the 70's, I became a self-styled "radical lesbian feminist stomping bull dyke" and this point of view colored almost all of my - often polemical and didactic writing - during that period. I was not only "self-conscious" about gender as Johanna phrases it, (and about sexual orientation), I was also totally defined and encompassed by it. Since I was a founding mother and editor of Big Mama Rag in Denver, one of the first "radical feminist" newspapers of second-wave times, I was able to use that vehicle to gain a considerable following as a "dyke poet." Subsequently, I've spent many years trying to mitigate that reputation - or at least not be stereotyped and pigeonholed by it. Reaching a wider audience - reaching anyone who will listen! - has always been a goal and in recent years I hardly think about being a woman at all (oh goddess I never thought I'd say such a blasphemous thing)! Perhaps a better way to phrase that is that I like to think I have been able to transcend my identity as a former woman-identified-woman to become a poet-identified-poet who is, of course, a woman.

2. When you think about the poets that influenced you, how much do you think gender, or gender specific subject matter and imagery, had to do with the influence?

Daniela Gioseffi:

So many poets have influenced me, both men and women. I think the women of conscience like Anna Akhmatova, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston or Grace Paley gave me license to be who I am, a writer of conscience and social concern, active in Civil Rights and the anti-nuclear and environmental movements. I edited WOMEN ON WAR:INTERNATIONAL VOICES for the NUCLEAR AGE in 1988 to learn from and gain inspiration from all the great poets and writers of peace activism whose voices I collected. The point is not that I did it or that I'm tooting my horn, but that there had never been a book collecting women's voices on issues of war until 1988 is something for us women writers to think about. We need to pay more attention to issues that have traditionally, seemingly belonged to men. When I researched such issues, I found plenty of brilliant women who had plenty to say about nuclear war, war economics, the horrors of genocide and slavery and cruel colonialism. WOMEN ON WAR was the first multi-national compendium of women's voices on these important issues of survival. War machine economics impact greatly upon women and children as most of the poverty in the world, 95 per cent of it, is among women raising children, often alone. Great women's voices and lesser known women's voices on these world peace issues inspired me greatly, so that I went on to edit ON PREJUDICE: A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE, the world's first multicultural text on xenophobia, racism and sexism. This time I included some men, but women were well represented.

Male writers like Chekhov and Yeats, Whitman and Ginsberg, have also influenced me with their humanity and perception. Shakespeare was a great early influence, along with Edna St. Vincent Millay, a marvelous pioneer among American women poets. Any good, decent writer with something to say and an original way of saying it, and all whom I've edited or read have become an influence for my own writing, but the women writers give me an extra special impetus to feel that if they can do it, so can I. That's why my generation of women, the feminist pioneers of the early 70's were and are so important to the blossoming of the younger generations of women writers who came later, just as the pioneers before us inspired us, to. We all pass on the torch, generation after generation, I feel. Or should try to!

Janet Bernichon:

I enjoy a variety of poets, both men and women. I also enjoy the various genres of poetry. I agree with Daniela that more women should be heard in the arenas that belonged primarily to men. I love poetry that shows conflict and struggle in life, be it taking out the garbage or receiving the death penalty. I want to read about people not things. I read more poetry where women are the subject. Sharon Olds influenced me the most. The first time I read "The Girl" I though, damn, I wish I could write like that. Survival. Everything returns back to normal. But does it really?

River Houston's poetry about living and dying with AIDS is stunning.

Although I am a nature lover, I am not a nature writer. Or reader. No poetry about pastoral meadows and puppies. It just doesn't move or inspire me (unless it's Michael McNeilley's "Say Goodbye").

Wendy Carlisle:

I think "gender" a great deal. I admire many male poets and would not want to say that Hopkins and Eliot and later Dunn, Merwin, Hall, Dacey and others, were not an inspiration. However, it is the women, Olds, Laux, Hull, Rich, McCarriston, Sexton, Plath and Clifton and many more who gave me a guide to the poetry of telling. Their poems are lyrical, their subjects often (gender) unspeakable. I owe them much.

Johanna Drucker:

Women writers, not only poets, serve as an important influence for their courage to be and write as well as for their ways of writing and their works. I am far more indebted to the prose writing of women, Jane Austen, the Brontes, early Doris Lessing, H.D., Mina Loy, Virginia Woolf, and so on, than to the work of women poets, since my work has a prose orientation.

But my writing simply wouldn't exist without their writing as precedent. Their commitment to the social sphere, to imaginative life, to reflection upon their lot and lives as women, as well as their various uses of narrative and language are all examples to me of ways of writing through and about a gendered experience.

Chocolate Waters:

When I think about the very first poets who influenced me I have to say that I never gave any thought to their gender because there was no thought to be given to it - they were all men. I started reading poetry circa 1956 and memorized the very first poem I ever read: Longfellow's the "Wreck of the Hesperus." (I can still repeat it if you'd like to hear it :-) ). As a child I went on to devour other poet storytellers, moralists and balladeers like Alfred Noyes, Eugene Fields, Kipling, Henley and later my teenage favorite, the wonderfully gloomily melodic Poe. I was attracted not only by the narrative and the morals of the stories, but more importantly by the entrancing rhythm of the words. I loved to hear the words as they were spoken out loud, still my primary criterion for favorite poems.

As a young college student the only woman who was taught in my writing/poetry classes was Sylvia oh-let-me-stick-my-head-in-the-oven-and-my-finger-down-my-throat Plath - and perhaps a bit of Diane Wakoski, who I always had much more admiration and respect for. I'm sure Emily was also taught but I swear all I remember is "I'm nobody - are you nobody too?" (and not getting what she was really talking about) and being a rather egotistical type, I was not impressed by that nobody stuff. It wasn't until years later that I came to appreciate Dickinson as the mover and shaker of modern poetry that she really was.

I did discover the Beats in college and loved Ginsberg but not many of the rest of that school. I wasn't interested in sucking Gary Snyder's "horny cock of poetry" because I wasn't interested in sucking any cock at all! It wasn't until I became involved in the Women's Movement that I began discovering women poets, both current writers like Judy Grahn and Alta and Marge Piercy and Nikki Giovanni as well as many of the resurrected women already mentioned here.

3. Who are your favorite poets, and why? (Please name at least one contemporary and one historical writer.)

Daniela Gioseffi:

Some of my favorites are mentioned in the question above, but to simply list them here: Shakespeare, Rabelais, Lady Murasaki, Enheuduanna, first poet known to civilization-- Sumerian priestess 24,000 B.C.; Yeats, Whitman, Dickinson--a pioneer innovator of American poetry; and more recently Grace Paley, a mench of a woman, a marvelous story writer, the Chekhov of New York! A decent and talented person, a fine writer of conscience! Grazia Deledda, the first woman novelist to win the Noble Prize for Literature in 1928, so forgotten in America, is an Italian woman who inspires me as a pioneer among Italian women. Also, Vittoria Colonna, the first European poet to publish a book of poetry, is an inspiration to us all, a Renaissance woman who paved the way for all of us in the Western world, as Lady Murasaki paved the way in the Asian world of the Orient, the first novelist of all time. Lady Murasaki invented the novel. These are the sort of women we feminists began discovering during the 70's movement as we resurrected "Herstory" and women's literature of the past. In those days, I would go on WBAI-Pacifica Radio in New York and read an entire novel by Kate Chopin, like THE AWAKENING, as part of their emerging feminist programming--or stories by Zora Neale Hurston, or poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, first Afro-American woman to win the Pulitzer for poetry, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, pioneer poet of the 40's, the greatest sonneteer in American poetry. She rivals Shakespeare in the form of the sonnet. These women have craft and brains and guts.

Janet Bernichon:

Favorite contemporary poets-- Sharon Olds, for the afore mentioned reasons. I also like that she doesn't self disclose. It leaves us to wonder what is based on experience and what is not.

Michael McNeilley can write from any point of view and in a variety of styles. Insightful, edgy, disturbing stuff at times but always worth reading. He can turn mundane everyday occurrences into unforgettable events. He can write about anything.

Historical-- Poe. His demons sound so good when read aloud. I vacationed in Maine for several summers. We had no TV or radio. I found an old book of Poe at an antique shop. Read the Raven to my son on every night.

Wendy Carlisle:

Then: Dickinson, Whitman, G.M. Hopkins, T. S. Eliot because he was the first poet past Shakespeare that I noticed. Shakespeare. Wallace Stevens. Rilke. Rumi. That old red wheelbarrow guy, WCW. (see above) more, more.

Now: (see above) and Tomas Transtromer, W. Szymborska, Anna Swir, Naomi Shihab Nye, C.D. Wright (wonderful!!!!), Billy Collins, C. Milosz and Susan Mitchell who writes words you can rub your body against and and how can I stop?

Johanna Drucker:

My favorite poets comprise one list, my favorite writers another. Starting with poets I would say that the flexibility and agility with language as material has always attracted me to Ovid, in particular The Metamorphoses, which more than any other classical text, seems to address certain philosophical concerns about the way the task of trying to capture experience in poetic language is always frustrated by the mutating capacity of language itself. I love Catullus for his succinct ironies and observations. William Carlos Williams for the human breadth, Walt Whitman for his scope and line, Zukofsky for his intellectual rigor, Baudelaire for his darkness, Apollinaire for loving the vernacular, Rimbaud for his dreams and Coleridge for his, Shelley and Byron and Keats -- but this is getting too broad. Closer to the present, it's the poets I know and read -- Jean Day, whose The Literal World took my breath away, Rosmarie Waldrop, Susan Howe, Maureen Owen, and then Charles Bernstein, whose capacity to shift registers and incorporate what he sees, hears, and lives into his work is always inspiring to me. I'll skip the prose writer list for now, but Mina Loy's Insel provided rare pleasure when I was given a copy a few years ago.

Chocolate Waters:

Just one of each?! How about one hundred?! OK, OK I'll name a few of both - in addition to those I've already mentioned and not necessarily in any order and by no means comprehensive (but always ever-changing): Mary Oliver, W. H. Auden, Ogden Nash, Mark Strand, David Ignatow, Charles Bukowski, Edna Millay, Carolyn Forche, Tess Gallagher, Pat Parker, Chrystos, Jan Hardy, Charles Webb, Yeats and Osip Mandelshtam.

4. Have you ever written something that you didn't particularly think of as feminist and been surprised to see colleagues refer to it as such?

Daniela Gioseffi:

I'm not sure I have. Nothing in particular comes to mind as feminist thinking is always a part of me and my output. So I was never surprised to find anyone discovering it in my work, even when it wasn't a major intent or theme of a given piece.

Janet Bernichon:

I am not sure. I write feminist and nonfeminist themes. I can't think of any particular poem or story.

Wendy Carlisle:

Not that I can think of.

Johanna Drucker:

I think much of my work was positioned as a "woman's" work even if it wasn't perceived as "feminist," which is a different thing, but which had the effect of making it unacceptable within a community of poets for whom the issues I was raising -- narrative, in particular -- were considered beyond the limits of their (male) interests.

Chocolate Waters:

There was a time when I could have written "how now brown cow" and someone would have said, "See that proves how much she hates men." !!!

5. Have you ever tried to write from the point of view of a man? If so, how did this change your writing?

Daniela Gioseffi:

I have many stories from the point of view of a man, but more from the point of view of a woman. And, many poems where I don't think about gender at all, as we all face similar universal truths regardless of sex and men and women are more alike than different, really. I feel that the good writer has to be able to enter the skin of all peoples of any sex or background in order to create believable characters and empathetic characterization. The great writers have always been able to do this. One of the great feminist novels of all time is ANNA KARENINA and its by Leo Tolstoy, Then look at A MAN, the biography of a Greek Resistance Fighter by Oriana Fallaci, one of the world's first great female journalists. I think a good writer can write from any point of view and be convincing, as good writing, good characterization, requires empathy with all peoples of every kind--and with all the characters in one's poem or story. I think its an important developmental exercise to write from differing persona.

Janet Bernichon:

I have written from the point of view of a man a few times. I had to feel what a man felt and think like him. Since this man was abusive towards women, it left me in an unsafe place mentally. I needed to end the poems and get out of the character. Easier said than done. Did it change my writing? Yes. The poems were brutal.

Wendy Carlisle:

Yes. It's that old Jungian anima/animus...he's in there and I just have to access him. Since I believe it's all part-and-parcel I don't think it changed the work.

Johanna Drucker:

I don't write from the point of view of a man, but I have been interested in exploring various erotic subject matters from a range of perspectives that are not fixed in my own experience, but in my fantasy life. I'm also interested in thinking of gender as a spectrum, or gradient, rather than an either/or situation, so that I think much of my writing is undertaken with a gender ambiguous, gender ambivalent, and gender-pseudo-neutral attitude -- that is, one in which whatever is gendered about it comes through incidentally rather than intentionally.

Chocolate Waters:

NO. Though I can identify with Johanna's gender as spectrum or gradient and Daniela's thought that men and women are more alike than different - but in whose dream?! Tee He. A good writer can include all points of views and perspectives, if she is so inclined. I do think we live in an era where everything is open to re-interpretation and possibility. :-)

6. How has the Internet changed the way you communicate with your audience, other poets, members of the editorial community? Do you think the Internet is helping women to break what is left of the 'glass ceiling' in the literary world? If so, how?

Daniela Gioseffi:

The Internet has made a great deal *more* work for me and made it even harder to keep up with hardcopy work, submissions, reading, writing reviews, and freelance deadlines, as I'm living in two worlds, the electronic and the paper, snail-mail world. My study is in chaos, though I was always orderly and organized before the Internet. Now I'm in front of my computer even longer and hardly have time to surf by the time I finish answering e-mail and coding, updating and building my e-zine and webpages. Zapping work around, etc.

The plus is I am meeting new young writers through the Internet, the generation younger than mine, and many women who are taking advantage of the Internet to build their own e-zines and websites. It is also very empowering and, of course, it's easier in many cases to zap work via e-mail than via snail-mail. There's an immediate satisfaction in seeing one's work out there on line. It's an exciting new medium in many ways, but there is less of a chance to earn money from one's writing on the web than in hardcopy. We put all this wonderful stuff out there to share, yes, but there's no remuneration. How do the younger women see this changing for writers in future? How do e-zine editors feel about the prospect of subscriptions and payments for writers in future? Is advertising the only way? Those are my questions to the younger generation.

Of course, literary magazine publishing was never very remunerative. I've always made more of my living from giving readings, and advances from books never went very far when one considers the years of work that go into a book. Even my books from big publishers with what poets would think of as large advances, were never enough to live on without supplemental teaching, but isn't the Internet cutting into our chances to make any part of our living from books? There are so many pros and cons. I don't see how the issue of the glass ceiling is relevant to putting *free* literary work on the Internet. But, certainly no one is stopping we women from doing that. The issue is how to put bread on the table with our work, but that's always been an issue for poets and fiction writers, it's maybe just more of an issue with the Internet. At the same time the web is power to the people, including women, in so many ways, as long as we can fight censorship and keep free speech alive on the web.

We can publish our own zines and communicate with each other and set our own tastes and it's all wonderful, but...are the big guys who control things reading and logging on, and are we getting the prizes that count? "Best of the Web" is a good step toward our Pushcart Prizes, but we don't have those "Pulitzers" and "National Book Awards" yet for web publishing. And if we found them, will the women be more in charge of taste and who gets them? I think I need a younger generation to tell me their views on these things. I'm ready to listen.

Janet Bernichon:

With the Internet I feel I am directly connected to my audience, because the response is immediate and personal. I have made many friendships on the Net. Heard many stories, read many poems. It is such a large medium that someone will find and relate to what I write. But because I know I can be exposed to such a large population, I take care to communicate my ideas about women's issues because I care so much about them.

I have had positive feedback from the editorial community, print media editors solicit my work after reading my web work.

I like developing the whole package of a web site (I promise, the update is almost ready!).

Will we break the glass ceiling? Yes! Our work is on display for all to see and if it is good enough, the audience will find us.

Wendy Carlisle:

The Internet has made a profound change in my writing life. Although I live at the end of the world, I no longer work alone. There is a cyberspace of other poets for me to access. I belong to several on-line workshops and have used the open forum in WDS to post poems I have questions about. I have timely responses to on line submissions which allow me to see a poem published while it is still 'hot' for me....not after as long as a year, often after I had forgotten what issues it raised. I have had interested (and interesting) responses to my poems as they appear on line and all of this real time input has allowed me to move forward--making changes in outlook or attack where necessary.

E-mail has facilitated communication with editors for better or worse and let me know immediately their level of interest in my sort of work. The web humanizes correspondence between writer/editor. I have even been able to begin a friendship with a print editor via e-mail correspondence. I have not been aware of a glass ceiling on-line. There is the cyberpoets/printpoets dichotomy, but that is breaking down fast. I simply don't see success as gender-based here. The 'old white guys' who rule the world, don't rule the web. For which I am duly grateful.

Johanna Drucker:

My academic work has certainly been facilitated by the Internet. I do much of my correspondence, editing, and business online. But like everyone else here, I am feeling that horrible sense of overwhelmedness -- and the pros and cons of being able to access much more and having less time to reflect upon and absorb the work and writing I find in the electronic environment.

Chocolate Waters:

The Internet has not only widened my audience but also added the elements of immediacy, instant gratification and more extensive communication. I've always received letters from readers but, perhaps because of the immediacy of the Net, I receive comparatively more E-mail than letters these days. That is probably because itıs more expedient to write an E-mail than a letter, but it could also be because the Internet is making my work available to more readers. That operates both ways because additionally, I get the opportunity to become aware of even more poets and can more readily communicate on a personal basis.

Regarding the editorial community, I love being able to submit my work electronically. It saves both time and postage and I don't feel obligated to print out the rejections and paste them on my bathroom wall. Delete is a great option!

I don't know if the Internet is helping break the glass ceiling because we all bring our own individual dilemmas and complaints to whatever medium we are using, and the Net could be just one more area to promulgate complaints. I do feel more positively inclined though because the Internet is a forum for everyone and if we don't like how we are being treated here we can just publish our own web page or create our own E-mail lists etc. Of course, as the medium becomes increasingly commercial, we may run into the same kinds of problems with exposure, advertising, stardom and money that we have always had. We'll see ... The element of inclusion, however, is a powerful one for women.

7. Please add any additional thoughts here:

Daniela Gioseffi:

These days, with Mother Earth in big trouble, the ozone disappearing, the land and water being polluted beyond repair, many species going extinct, humankind on the brink of omnicide, I feel that the "language school" of poetry is "fiddling while Rome burns." I feel that a great deal of decadent poetry, ie. from the John Ashbery, Jorie Graham school of solipsistic, uninvolvement, is uselessly decadent. Yet, it often seems to receive the majority of prizes and attention, as it drives the everyday readers away from poetry in droves. I dislike the nonsense school of poetry, that so called "experimental" stuff that offers no soul or heart, no inspiration or communication. I want to side with accessible poets who have something human or intelligent to say, something of conscience to offer. I'm not talking about a lack of experiment with language either, and I'm not talking about squelching originality or experiment. Neither am I implying the use of only social-psychological as under Stalinism or Hitlerism.

I simply prefer a Stephen Dunn or Galway Kinnell to a Richard Howard or John Ashbery and a Carolyn Forche, June Jordan or Grace Paley to a Jorie Graham. Mainly, the work of many language school poets seems bloodless and boring--uninspiring to life or writing or reading. I don't have any trouble at all understanding the concepts of the "language school of poetry." There is really nothing so subtle or esoteric or marvelously new to be had there. It's a great deal of intellectual machination over nothing new. Though John Ashbery, its most venerable proponent, is an exquisite craftsman and a pleasant, cultured gentleman, he really has nothing at all to say, except that life is meaningless, an action painting that flows by us leaving nothing in its wake but the moment of experience. How sad that his exquisite talent with words is so wasted on a lack of vision beyond nihilism.

Nihilism is always too easy. There are greater realities. We have a gorgeous planet, full of teeming, feeling, procreating life and the children of the future to concern ourselves about. There is plenty of suffering to shed light upon and plenty of beautiful human character to celebrate. Lots of heroism to inspire and observe in the everyday. Plenty of epic concern to ponder. I believe, as does Wislawa Zymborska that there is no such thing as being apolitical. "Even apolitical poems are political and the moon is no longer moonlike." One can't wash one's hands of what is happening in the world, as many language poets seem to, and write only for some esoteric band of brothers who think they are more civilized and learned than the rest. It's overdone, this idea that" poetry survives in the valley of its own saying," and "a poem should not mean but be," and that "lovers do not heed our sullen craft and art!" It need not be gospel! A poem should mean *and* be and be good enough for the workers in the field to want to sing it, too! Maybe to want to sing it to save their lives, even! Or simply to live more fully! I loathe artistic snobbery most of all! Snobbery to me is a very carnal sin. "I'm nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody, too? Don't tell they'll banish us, you know!" [Emily Dickinson]

An intellectual snob repulses me, yet that seems to be what Richard Howard was calling upon us to become when he made his speech about poetry at the PEN Awards Ceremony a couple of years ago, saying how poetry should be our little secret, us poets! Don't have a poetry month, or try to put it on subways, or the radio, the Internet or television, because no one but us poets should ever, or has ever really cared about it, or will, he seemed to say. I don't think one can achieve any really good writing with such an attitude. Good writing comes from an avid desire to share experience and communicate with others, not just other poets, or it's folly! "That love is all their is, is all we know of love," wrote Dickinson. We write to save our lives, to laugh and to sing to others. To say we are not alone in this mysterious adventure of tears and laughter, pain and love, despair and hope--not just to "fiddle while Rome burns." I'd rather be a street sweeper and feel useful, than write solipsistic language poetry which leaves everyone cold or puzzled and disinterested.

"The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance," as Prospero says at the end THE TEMPEST, and we need to be kind to life, to forgive it for hurting and cheating us of some of our desires, instead of trying to annihilate all meaning--as the "language school of poetry" too often does. Even if LIFE IS A DREAM, as Calderon said, "we are such things as dreams are made on," as Shakespeare said, and we ought to inspire a dream of a future for those to come, so that the beauty of life on this planet can come from the tradition of the Shamans, priests and healers of the tribe. I want to carry on the work of the Shaman. I've dance and sung poetry and I want my poetry to be accessible, entertaining and thought-provoking. I want desperately to communicate the importance of caring for living things, of commitment to life, of the glory of nature, the beauty of creation and of music, and the need for its preservation. I want to help with words to alleviate pain, share experience, stir feeling and share empathy. That doesn't mean every poem has to be heavy with concern, but it ought to be attempting to communicate something to someone, even if only laughter or satire, and not just be a nonsense exercise in solipsistic self-involvement or nihilistic ennui.

Recently, I had to review a group of National Poetry Award winners, and there was one poet's book, in particular, which I felt very sad about: Lost Was, poems by Heather Ramsdell, was selected by Jame Tate and published by The University of Illinois Press. I felt how badly Heather Ramsdell had been led astray by the "language school" of poetry. She had none of John Ashbery's crafty imagery and none of James Tate's wit or humor to save her work. Her book was dull as dishwater and had nothing much to communicate, and she was being congratulated for it. There were some worthy new books among the winners, as for example Gray Jacobik's The Double Task or Silent Treatment by Lisa Lewis. These books were trying to say something important, though one was vibrant with life and nature and the other sad and morose, both communicated with delicately nuanced craft. I think of Tony Hoagland's The Donkey Gospel. That was one of the books I enjoyed reviewing most from the 1998 crop. There is still plenty of good writing going on, but the "language school" of poetry, for the most part, is not producing poetry that will last the test of time or bring new readers to the art. I'm sure of that.

I feel strongly about this and I find the prizes and attentions that go to meaningless, decadent, overly conceptual, artsy-fartsy art for art's sake counterproductive! I'll uphold the work of a poet of conscience like say Allen Ginsberg, over the work of a James Tate any day! Better yet, I celebrate the work of a Grace Paley, Gish Jen or Toni Morrison! These are writers with craft, art and soul. Also, humor. They have it all. And, Grazia Deledda ought to be translated and read more in America. You can find a sampling of her on my Wise Women's Web E-zine where I am thrilled to publish many fine women writers whose work I believe in--many of conscience, too.

Please, forgive me for having plenty to say under "additional thoughts" but these remarks are essential to my philosophy of writing. I need to stand for what I feel poetry should be and do in this world. To join with others who agree on such points and work with them for decent, good, meaningful poetry--whether formalist or free verse, oral or written, the content is as important as the craft. Indeed, they're inseparable and organic to one another. As a literary critic who publishes reviews in various publications, I look for content and craft, craft and content, not one above the other. What the poet has to say is as important as how she/he says it, and a wonderful painting deserves an appropriate frame. Try to drink a hot cup of coffee without a cup! If you can't actually see a gorgeous sunset, you can at least dream of seeing one! Yes to life and yes to its visceral poetry! Yes to babies and brooks babbling to learn about sound and song, but no to grown-ups babbling to merely themselves and calling it "language poetry!" And then getting all the big prizes and money for saying nothing--except that certain fascist forces want very much to have *nothing* important said. About, for example, military profiteering and its chemical pollution, and S & L thievery, so they scurry forth to praise babbling idiots with no human vision in their poetry! Beware The Walrus! Oysters should not go walking with him!

Janet Bernichon:

I used to get upset when people would mistake me with my art but now I realize that I am the people I write about even if it is only for 30 lines or under. If someone is convinced that I am writing from my experiences as a battered, hooker, victim, adulterer, divorcee, addict....then the poem has done what it is supposed to do.

Wendy Carlisle:

Daniela's comment that "Good writing comes from an avid desire to share experience and communicate with others, not just other poets, or it's folly!" and "We write to save our lives, to laugh and to sing to others." both strike me as just right.

As for me, I write because the lid is off Pandora's Box and I cannot do otherwise. I love the discipline required to do this work. I love the work itself. I love language that fits the page. I love to tell the truth about the uncomfortable and find words for the unmentionable and say the unspeakable. I love most the fact that each reader writes his own poem using my words.

Johanna Drucker:

I feel quite lucky to have come of age as a writer in the 1970's at a moment in which feminist issues had already forged a certain space for women as professional creative artists. Though I encountered real difficulties in the circle of male poets I first knew, I also encountered significant stimulation, support, encouragement, and exposure to new ideas about writing. I'm always interested when people have a strong reaction to "language" poetry, since I came to language poetry at the time it was coming into being in California. I was writing very abstract, linguistically dense work. And I was very gratified to find there was a context for this work since the personal, confessional, and lyrical voices of other modes of writing (though I respect them when they are strong, well-crafted, and interesting in content and form) didn't work for me. In the end, one has to write according to the aesthetics one believes in, and if that involves a level of density or difficulty that certain audiences resist, so be it. The language poets (and they are a heterogeneous group with many attitudes, modes of writing, and points of view) served as one of my first audiences and remain so. Their commitment, and mine, has often been to a project dear to much of the 20th century avant-garde: to defamiliarize habitual modes of thought. For me this isn't possible within the traditions of lyric verse or writing that seems, first and foremost, to proclaim its populist accessibility. I write to come to terms with my experience. I think I would echo Wendy's sentiment, if I understand it correctly, that what's amazing is the extent to which we can all use the same language and to such different effects and ends.

I participated in a conference in St.Louis a couple years ago that was organized around a conference titled The Dual Muse. Among the other conference speakers were Derek Wolcott, William Gass, Breytan Breytanbach, and others. A serious split developed that threated contentiousness along the lines of formal and aesthetic concerns as they linked to political concerns. The argument suggested that embattled political positions cannot "afford" experimental language in poetic expression. I was struck by two things. How far this attitude was from that of the early 20th century avant-garde, particularly in the Russian/Soviet context, where poets committed to radical politics made the strongest investment in radical poetics as a means of making a social transformation through aesthetic form. And then, secondly, by the vitriol with which poets attacked each other -- as if one aesthetic position were necessarily bought at the price of another. This just isn't true. Aesthetic territory exists if you invent it. It isn't finite real estate, it is the infinitely expandable domain of creative work.

One final note, however, with respect to Daniela's comments. I am disturbed by her description of language poetry as having nothing to say. There may be bad language poets, or bad poets using the rubric of language poetry to write badly, but the committed language poets of my acquaintance are writing in a spirit of serious philosophical and aesthetic inquiry against the grain of easy consumability because they feel, as I do, that only by making such alternatives to mainstream culture can they keep alive a place of original thought and language and writing. The struggle that poetry faces is to compete with commercial language and the formulaic languages of entertainment -- not to resist experimentation and originality from within its own communities.

Chocolate Waters:

Although I started out this round table discussion by proclaiming that I've been a poet since I was a child, I have never been completely comfortable with the distinction poet. To paraphrase something Marianne Moore once said, "I only call what I write poetry because I don't know what else to call it." For me "poetry' has always been about communication - I want to tell you something I know or have experienced - and I don't really care what that process is called. What communicates to one person, however, may not translate to another - therefore all schools of poetry and communication are valid. Inclusion is the philosophy I prefer, not one way is right and another is wrong.

I have always taken what I write out into the world and presented it to many different kinds of audiences -sexually diverse, ethnically diverse, academic, non-academic etc. When I was first performing my stuff, I didn't even say I was a poet - I just said come and hear what I have to say and see if you can relate to it. Poetry is for people - not for other poets, or at least only peripherally for other poets. The best poets have always been philosophers and activists and thinkers (and weird-s and wacko-s) - people who can touch and spark and inspire other PEOPLE.



* Webster's Collegiate Dictionary copyright 1996

** Jennifer Ley, 1977, first performed at Chumley's in the Village

Please visit Perihelion's bbs to add your comments to this round table discussion.

Back to Perihelion