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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.2 (2001) i-v

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After Patriarchal Poetry: Feminism and the Contemporary Avant-Garde. Introductory Note

Steve Evans

After Patriarchal Poetry.I defy any one to turn a better heel than that while reading.

(Stein 141)

he terms most centrally at stake in this special issue of differences--contemporary poetry, feminism, avant-gardism, poststructuralism--do not settle easily into any stable constellation with one another, and that is precisely why they have been chosen. The absorbingly complex and embattled practices these terms designate, the discrepant commitments and discrete historical trajectories each evokes, are treated in these pages as though they were all and simultaneously of consequence to one another. The gesture is counterintuitive, perhaps, but the pitfalls of considering these practices in isolation, or even in pairs, are familiar enough to warrant it. We know very well, for instance, that discussions of avant-garde poetry can carry on for entire generations without ever seriously confronting the question of gender; we know also that poststructuralist theory can sustain a decades-long debate about feminine poetics while seldom betraying more than a vague awareness of the actual shapes assumed by contemporary poetic practice; and we know as well how the feminist poetry that has been institutionalized within women's studies programs and teaching anthologies can be restrictively organized around a normative concept of "experience" that renders all but the most tentative [End Page i] formal innovations by women inadmissible and anathematizes theoretical reflection on poetic practice (by poets themselves, by their readers) as an overly intellectualized interference with the immediate pleasures afforded by cathartic identification. An avant-garde without women, a poetics without poetry, a poetry for which entire registers of experience, innovation, and reflexivity are taboo: such are the results of failing to hold, in however tense an engagement, the necessary terms of the complex equation examined in this issue.

The task is all the more imperative in light of the emergence (or more accurately speaking, the reemergence) of a feminist avant-garde poetry and poetics in the years since 1970, a phenomenon that simultaneously renews and transforms our thinking about feminism, the avant-garde, and poetry. While not the first women writers to "turn a heel" on the generic conventions and institutionalized gender biases of patriarchal poetry--the vital precedents of the 'teens and twenties, of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap's The Little Review, of Gertrude Stein's indefatigable experimentation, of Mina Loy's and Else von Freytag-Loringhoven's radical contestations of the sexual conservatism paradoxically retained amidst the "innovations" of many of their male contemporaries, of H.D.'s and Lorine Niedecker's subtly sounded deconstructions of masculinist lyric tradition, are everywhere legible in the recent work by women avant-gardists--the generation that emerged in the late 1960s/early 1970s was the first to heed the lesson that Susan Rubin Suleiman would (retrospectively) summarize in Subversive Intent: namely, "that if women are to be part of an avant-garde movement, they will do well to found it themselves" (32).1 The nexus of writers discussed in this issue--Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Hannah Weiner, Nicole Brossard, Fanny Howe, Rosmarie Waldrop, Kathleen Fraser, and others--did just that, blending the long-held avant-gardist commitment to autonomous artistic production and the second-wave feminist imperative to establish an "independent women's communications network" (Whitehead 21) with formidable results, not least of which has been the stabilization of a feminist counter-public sphere that, while certainly embattled, has proven resilient and enduring enough to facilitate, beginning sometime around 1989, the first unbroken generational transition in the history of feminist avant-gardism.2

The point has especial significance for this issue of differences, for while the texts upon which the contributors focus primary attention--Mayer's Sonnets, for instance, or Brossard's Le Désert mauve, or Weiner's Clairvoyant Journal--are those of the initial generation, four of the six [End Page ii] contributors--Sianne Ngai, Susan Holbrook, Juliana Spahr, and Judith Goldman...