Contemporary Literature 45.3 (2004) 397-420
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An Interview With Rachel Blau Duplessis
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Rachel Blau DuPlessis is a poet-critic par excellence. Yet to call her a poet-critic may belie the extensive range of her critical and poetic enterprises. If poetry and politics often exist in an uneasy relationship with each other, DuPlessis's response to her need to do "cultural work" in both areas has been to take on critical projects intended to alter cultural institutions and practices quite directly, and to write poetry such that the shards of social and political strife turn into inspired, word-driven language. Her ambition, in short, has been to remake culture and poetry itself.
DuPlessis began her career with the rise of the feminist movement and the insight that because of emerging gender critiques, "all of culture would have to be changed." Broadening this critique in subsequent years to include issues of race, ethnicity, and class, she has immersed herself not only in diverse critical and poetic projects but also in the communities that give rise to them. The breadth and energy of her career as an activist, critic, and poet would seem achievement enough for several people. Among these endeavors, poetry has been an instigator, mainstay, and culmination of her life's work.
Born in 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, DuPlessis received her undergraduate and doctoral degrees, respectively, at Barnard College and Columbia University. DuPlessis grew up in a nonreligious household, although one imbued with Jewish heritage, which she describes as involving "both a Yiddishkeit, a spoken word, through my mother, and allegiance to the Book, a written [End Page 397] word, through my father and grandfather." Her grandfather, dead long before her birth, was a rabbi and essayist, and her father was a professor, at Columbia, of American philosophy and religions, including American Judaism. Writing her first poem, "Memory," at the age of twelve, DuPlessis has dedicated her poetic explorations to a revisioning that "necessitates the multiple, forceful, and polyvocal invention of a completely new culture, and the critical destabilizing of the old."
This revision has resulted in multiple critical books, beginning with the groundbreaking, much cited and reprinted Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985); H.D.: The Career of That Struggle (1986), and, most recently, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (2001). DuPlessis has also engaged in important scholarly projects surrounding the work of her poetry mentor George Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen (1990) and The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (1999), a volume co-edited with Peter Quartermain. Turning back recently to her early feminist activism, she co-edited with Ann Snitow The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation (1998). Mediating between her critical interpretive work and her poetry are a series of exploratory, experimental essays, several of which are collected in The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (1990).
For most of the last two decades, DuPlessis has concentrated her poetic writing on a project entitled Drafts, an undertaking as ambitious and open-ended as Pound's Cantos. Drafts began spontaneously as the concluding work of her early volume of poetry Tabula Rosa (1987), in which relatively traditional poems staging a feminist critique of poetry arrive toward the end of the volume at the nontraditional writing of "Writing," a prelude to her first two Drafts. In "Writing," the material manifestation of writing, including actual handwritten poems inscribed on printed pages, becomes the instigation for a processual and serial composition that folds back on itself. Having composed some sixty-five Drafts to date and planning a total of one hundred and fourteen separate works, DuPlessis has developed the most recent Drafts to become ever more capacious in their deliberate inclusion of both critical and random gestures, as well as in their sense of our lives as political. Published [End Page 398] as part of the Wesleyan University Press's prestigious series of collected works of innovative poets, Drafts 1-38, Toll (2001) by itself is nearly...