- “Life’s Disguise Doth Keep Flies Off”: Teaching Lynn Lonidier’s Poetry1
Whether teaching undergraduate or graduate classes, I integrate lesser-known women poets as part of the inquiry, not as curiosities, but as opportunities to discover something in the “raw” as contemporaries might have done. Because critical apparatus can be limited or nonexistent, and because biographical or historical information can be scattered and fragmentary, teacher and student alike must operate with fewer aids, working together to make fresh sense of the unfamiliar work. In the process we have to reflect on what we already know how to do as readers, defamiliarizing our expectations about genre and gender to create a richer sense of the complex cultural milieu in which both more familiar and less familiar poets have interacted. Put this way, however, it might appear that this is just a matter of intellectual engagement, of expanding our knowledge about women poets and our repertoire of critical approaches. Intellectual engagement is certainly and centrally important to feminist inquiry, but I have also found that less familiar poets may introduce particularly volatile issues that are not simply resolvable in intellectual terms. I do not want to treat the intellectual and the emotional as easily separable, but the force of the emotional cannot be taken for granted, nor can it be “managed” through any simple pedagogical strategy.
That my courses focus on or include in a substantial way the work of women is important, but does not by itself mean that my pedagogy is feminist. Rather it is the ways we pose questions that define the approach as feminist; that is, the ways we seek to understand not only the gendered subjects of our inquiry as situated in time and space, but also the ways we understand our gendered selves as situated at the intersection of multiple and complex forces. A grounding question then has to do with how we might understand gender differently if we see it as in relation to other factors and modulated through time and space. At least one aim is to consider the extent to which our choices and decisions, like those of the writers we study, are both constrained and enabled by the forces—material and ideological—circulating around us. To think of gender as one such force—rather than as a given or locked-in part of one’s being—continues to be news for many of [End Page 137] my students. For some the news is exhilarating, for others threatening, but almost always it motivates strong response. What might be cordoned off as “just” an emotional response to charged questions about gender may in fact signal something very important about our situatedness, serving not only as a personal barometer but also as a cultural and historical barometer. Comparing our responses and pooling our experiences allows us to see, instead of mere idiosyncrasies, how and to what extent and with what consequences we are culturally and historically situated. In every class this cooperative approach to inquiry has to be constructed anew, never naively presuming a space free of power dynamics, but requiring that we figure out how to negotiate power differentials (and that, certainly, can be a bumpy ride). Cooperative learning is not of course exclusive to feminist pedagogy, but has been a part, even a contested part, of feminist pedagogy in the academy from the 1960s on (Flannery).
The twentieth-century American poet Lynn Lonidier has proven to be an especially challenging and rewarding poet to teach in the context of feminist inquiry. Part of a complex network of writers, artists, and activists in the 1960s until her too-early death in 1993, Lonidier worked across genres, experimenting with forms and in the process troubling dominant ways of understanding gender and sexuality. Her poetry has the capacity to surprise, to disorient, unsettling what one might think poetry should be or do—and unsettling what can sometimes seem to be standard-issue notions of identity in relation to art. In a 1973 biographical note about her work, Lonidier is quoted as saying that through her poetry she was trying to “pay [her] respects to hard-put-by Women’s Liberation and...