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  • Our Bodies, Our Poems
  • Jennifer Ashton (bio)

pehaps what we wee eally saying was that we did not know ouselves what to do with ou bodies ight now.

Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, "Foulipo"1

Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr's 2002 anthology, Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, announces itself in part as the product of a conference. While plenty of volumes published by academic presses (as this one is) have had similar origins, the particular conference in question, a gathering of writers and critics to address contemporary women's poetry at Barnard, 8–10 April 1999, generated a lot of buzz at the time.2 First, there was the fact that, on the same weekend, the first People's Poetry Gathering was taking place downtown at Cooper Union, where the mission to "praise" "oral traditions" such as rap, cowboy poetry, blues, and spoken word also led a number of participants to redefine the inevitable competition between their conference and the Barnard conference as a conflict between the upper and lower classes, the rulers and the oppressed.3 Second, there were equally exaggerated flashpoints within the Barnard conference itself: willful efforts to provoke (some successful, some not), such as Marjorie Perloff's criticism of several women poets for their name dropping and empty theorizing—which in turn led to numerous objections that Perloff was declaring theory, in effect, the realm of men, or the organizers' decision to put poets of the so-called Language school, like Lyn Hejinian (still synonymous at that time with the US avant-garde), at the same roundtable with poets of the "mainstream Lyric," like Jorie Graham (who, as it [End Page 211] happens, was also among those implicitly accused by Perloff of bandying mindless theory "nuggets").4

Of course the last was also a way of making good on the claims of the conference title, "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary Poetry by Women." Just as Rankine and Spahr acknowledge in their introduction, and as some of the conference participants noted in their talks, the meeting of "Lyric" and "Language" was (and to some extent still is) of particular interest precisely because so many of the key figures of the Language school at one time or another had articulated their own poetic aims in direct opposition to the "lyric tradition."5 However, that these should meet, as both the conference title and as Rankine and Spahr's anthology introduction maintain, in "innovation," and more particularly, in innovation "by women," is a function of a series of arguments that have unfolded and, I would argue, very much taken hold, over the course of the last three decades. Rankine and Spahr's anthology, along with a flurry of recent work on women's avant-garde poetry, mark a kind of culmination (if not necessarily an endpoint) of those arguments. Moreover, that the conception of the lyric that emerged as an object of such hostile critique at the height of the Language movement in the 1980s and 1990s should emerge as an object of interest in its wake is not so much surprising but rather, as we shall see, virtually required by the logic that underwrites what is meant by women's "innovative" poetry.

While "innovation" and its variants turn up on almost every page of Rankine and Spahr's introduction, the disappearance of the term in the transformation from conference title to anthology title is striking. One could speculate on marketing explanations; after all, two prominent anthologies devoted explicitly to women's "innovative" writing—Maggie O'Sullivan's Out of Everywhere: Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the U.K. (1996) and Mary Margaret Sloan's Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women (1998)—were published in quick succession just prior to the Barnard conference. For that matter, both predecessors were invoked frequently during the conference, and Sloan herself was one of the major participants. Yet if the titles of those earlier anthologies and of the Barnard conference helped to codify the meaning of the term "innovation" by associating it with the distinctive formal practices of a particular group of writers, Rankine and Spahr's...


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