- To Write Within Situations of Contradiction: An Introduction to the Cross-Genre Writings of Carla Harryman
This interview took place in New York City in May 2003. It was revised via email exchanges between Carla Harryman and Laura Hinton from that time through 2005.
One of the most innovative and sometimes overlooked founding writers of the West Coast Language Poetry school is Carla Harryman, author of twelve books of poetry and cross-genre writing that includes poet’s-prose, plays, and experimental essays. Her short classic pieces in collections like Percentage (1979), Animal Instincts (1989), and There Never Was a Rose without a Thorn (1995) reveal a commitment to cross-fertilizing literary genres, interweaving theory and fiction, prose and lyric, satire and dialogue, in a way paralleled perhaps only by Kathy Acker. Harryman’s more recent works like Gardener of Stars (2001) and Baby (2005) continue to build an aesthetic based on the blurring of conventional genres and literary boundaries, creating a non-categorizable mode of writing Ron Silliman has called the “inter-genre”: a radical prose-poetry disengagement from Romantic lyric or bourgeois “realism” in favor of a fantastical utopian language of desire.1 But perhaps Harryman’s most unusual contribution to the Language movement and to postmodern literature at large is her work in Poet’s Theater. A leading figure of the San Francisco Poet’s Theater in the 1970s and ‘80s, Harryman has continued poetry-performance work past the new millennium, staging a series of avant-garde poetry plays that include the ambitious multi-media piece Performing Objects Stationed in the Subworld (2001/2003), and a new piece, Mirror Play, recently performed in Michigan and to be performed again this fall in Wels, Austria.
It is not a single genre or piece for which Harryman is known, however, but for her refusal to be typecast, for her writing’s generic flexibility and poetic inventiveness as it “restages”—either upon a literal stage or through the medium of a literary text—hybrid writings that challenge and cross over formal representational modes, sometimes engaging collaboratively with other artists and media in the process. (The 2003 San Francisco performance of Performing Objects, for example, brought together an artist and a musician, as well as a co-director and actors, through Amy Trachenberg’s art-installation-like costumes and sets and Erling Wold’s songs.) Like most Langpo and experimental writings, Harryman’s writings have been confined to the world of small presses and their distribution. Her inventiveness and challenge to the structural foundations of mainstream commercial literature have made her an icon among her Langpo colleagues for over three decades. She is beginning to draw a wider audience with several urban-performance incarnations of Performing Objects and by appearing internationally (this fall Harryman is delivering a series of lectures in Germany). The upcoming issue of How2, which plans to devote a special section to Harryman’s work, attests to her increasing recognition.
One insufficiently discussed and—I would argue, essential—component of Harryman’s writing is its relationship to feminist politics. Through her feminist and Leftist political roots, Harryman has striven to create a wide and liberal range of experimental venues, expressing and exploiting the potentiality of ideological freedom. But Harryman has also created, in the process, what I would like to call “an aesthetics of contradiction.” In this introduction to Harryman’s writing, I explore the ways in which Harryman’s radical, non-genre-based writing practice is anchored to the feminist insight that literature itself must be unmade/re-made for it to begin to express women’s symbolic experience in a patriarchal social-textual order, and to begin to express women’s particular relation to cultural-artistic power. Harryman’s aesthetics of contradiction, I argue, play upon tension, conflict, female “exclusion” from mainstream and masculine-coded discourses, and the artifice of aesthetic surfaces and “games,” ultimately to reject the artifice of gender altogether.
In other words, Harryman’s poetic writings function not so much to render literary objects beautiful (although sometimes they do so in the process), but to question radically the function of literature—poetics used against poetics, as...