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  • Signifyin(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino
  • Elisabeth A. Frost

How can one be a ‘woman’ and be in the street?
That is, be out in public, be public—and still
more tellingly, do so in the mode of speech.

—Luce Irigaray1

A 1984 anthology of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group of poets included a section in which the writers commented on their contemporaries—most of whom are still unfamiliar to readers of American poetry. Rae Armantrout wrote about Susan Howe, Barrett Watten about Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein about Hannah Wiener. There are 56 of these entries. At the head of this section, announcing what might be perceived as a principal source for the positions on aesthetics (and politics) in the various selections that follow, the editors chose a single text for several of the poets to respond to. That text was Stein’s Tender Buttons.2

The entries in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book’s “Readings” section—all appreciations of Tender Buttons and all written by men—bear witness to Stein’s importance to this particular “movement.” Yet among what I will call feminist avant-garde poets—writers who make use of experimental language to distinctly feminist ends—Stein’s influence is just as potent, even inescapable. A number of recent feminist avant-garde poets linked to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing owe a debt to Tender Buttons, and Stein’s work in general remains a subject of homage. But at the same time, many of the changes working their way through feminist discourse in America appear as well in feminist avant-garde writing. In particular, recent feminist avant-garde poets don’t simply acknowledge Stein’s language experiments, as the contributors to The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book did, but contest them—and her—as well.

Over the eighty years that have elapsed since Stein wrote Tender Buttons, a number of experimental women poets have reexamined the connections between the symbolic domain of language and the subjective experience of sensuality that Stein pioneered in her erotic, and other, poetry. Stein’s language experiments in Tender Buttons serve as a fundamental influence. But Stein’s tendency to isolate intimate, personal experience from the public sphere is being revisited by recent feminist avant-garde writers who perhaps have more ambivalence toward Stein’s politics than some of their male colleagues. Poets like Susan Howe disrupt conventional language in writing that conspicuously combines an awareness of gender with public discourse—in her case, actual historical documents form the backdrop to an examination of the gendering of language, history, and nation.3 In recent years, feminist theorists like Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig have focused on the social implications of language and sexual difference, challenging women writers to create a distinctly feminine writing or to eliminate the “mark of gender” altogether on female speech.4 Unlike Stein herself, these theorists stress the political implications of speech in the public sphere, the impossibility of separating the symbolic realm of language from the social realities language reflects, a conviction that surfaces in writing like Howe’s and in that of feminist avant-garde artists working in a variety of media, from Barbara Kruger to Karen Finley. While Stein is not the only source for feminist avant-garde writing today, her body of work, particularly Tender Buttons, remains a source to be reckoned with for a range of artists who see Stein as among their most important, and sometimes troubling, predecessors.

In what follows, I examine the influence of, and divergence from, Steinian poetics in two writers whose feminist avant-garde agendas lead them back to, and in contest with, this formidable woman forebear. Both Harryette Mullen (who has published three books of poetry, and is soon to issue a fourth)5 and Leslie Scalapino (author of nine books of poetry, prose, and criticism) use a fundamentally Steinian language yet voice differences from Stein’s politics by engaging with questions that Stein tended to avoid in her poetry—issues of race, class, and inequity in American culture. In their recastings...