by Nina Puro
In August 2014, the “alt-lit” literary scenes in Brooklyn and the Bay Area were shaken by multiple reports of gendered abuse and sexual assault. The conversation spread quickly into the literary world at large, and discussion of the long history of misogynistic pieces and practices emerged.
Since earlier in that season, the United States has engaged more visibly— and hopefully more deeply— with race. In the wake of protest after all-too-commonplace deaths due to police violence, endemic racism has gained wider media attention.
Back at the ranch, a mind-blowingly beautiful slew of meetings, responses, readings, and themed issues have coalesced.
Still, I was curious about the fact that most of the reactions were e responses, e.g. purporting to speak for a collective group, or thoughtful pieces by one individual. They weren’t conversations.
Kitchen tables, fervent whispers in bars, email threads, and private meetings are where most of the action has always been, and they’re how the responses are formed. They leave room for disparity, disagreement, and slippage. They leave room for listening, for the multiplicity of overlapping feminisms that exist in any room of feminists.
I am curious about how many statements denounced certain practices, incidents, or people but did not propose solutions or alternatives. I was struck by how fragmented many public presentations seemed: political critique, poetry, and personal life held gingerly apart, clinically spliced.
Intersections are not discussed.
Ideally, feminism leaves room for messiness, for intersectional feelings on all levels.
With this in mind, I invited a few women— Jennifer Tamayo, Marisa Crawford, Monica McClure, Becca Klaver and Krystal Languell– whose work I admired to talk in a collective commons, e.g. a gdoc.
It’s an admittedly narrow sample: emerging NYC-based cis female poets, socially on terms that range between acquaintances and friends. Yet within that (dare I say?) circuit there’s a breadth of stances, an overlapping network of roles and alliances. They run feminist presses and book clubs, curate blogs and readings, sit out of readings, gather groups to protest, gather their thoughts in private and write them down and sometimes publish them.
This doesn’t offer easy answers, but it offers nuances that might be useful when considering more recent incidents.
Which is to say: there have been many other awfulnesses since these conversations took place, most notoriously Kenneth Goldsmith’s wildly racist “performance” of Michael Brown’s autopsy and Vanessa Place’s racist Twitter “project” transcribing Gone with the Wind and subsequent ousting from an AWP subcommittee after public outcry. These events have been written about saliently elsewhere–I recommend Ken Chen’s take. This conversation took place before these incidents, but in the wake of them, the discussions therein may be valuable.
I am grateful for the thoughtful responses that emerged, and privileged to know these folks.
Cosmonaut’s Avenue: Tell me a bit about your work and what spurred you to do it. How has it changed you? Has it impacted your self-conception and/or relationships?
Jennifer Tamayo: I love this question: “How has it changed you?” but I can’t locate an answer that satisfies so I’ll get super specific: poets Laura Mullen & Lara Glenum changed my life. Their care and encouragement shifted my understanding of what happens in poetry, and the kind of relationships that are possible through poetry. They taught me about art as process and pleasure and, as a 25-year-old woman of color who had battled depression much of her life, those things were radical for me.
CA: How does (or doesn’t) your activism correspond with your poems and poetics? Do you feel your poems are overtly “political,” or are the two separate spheres? Do you feel your writing process and organizing/activism process happen in similar manners?
Jennifer Tamayo: Is there a way for poetry/poetry spaces (imaginary, “real”)/poets to not be political? Even the decision to have your poetry be decidedly “not political” is political. My poems/work are political and, in the recent years, I’ve been trying to make it aggressively political to make up for all the years I spent pretending my poems weren’t for fear they would be sidelined or dismissed.
CA: Yes. For me, poetry is a comment on the world and thus inherently political, but it’s also only one facet of a personhood/identity, and I guess I’m wondering how deeply linked it is for each of us and how we made those choices.
For example, I use signifiers of class/heritage frequently, but have only once written an overtly queer poem.
Monica McClure: I give myself more room to make mistakes in terms of morality in my art than in my activism. My poetry appropriates contradictory desires and identities and is performed confrontationally, and the content coupled with the flippant delivery has upset women audience members before. Though I don’t mean to trigger anyone I am ok with that byproduct because I want to defamiliarize and call attention to casually terrible attitudes about women, among other things. However, I want there to be fidelity to my ethics— and I don’t think of my art as being separate from myself/my activist self at all. The difference is that when I’m speaking and acting outside the context of art, it’s a dialogue. I’m accountable for other people’s feelings and comfort. The stage or the mic or the role of performer limits the audience (more often than not) to simply reacting. It’s politically powerful to perform, maybe even a little fascist. I was glad women at this particular reading confronted me about my performance. Then it became a dialogue and the political/ethical feminist and the female performer had to meet in me to answer this woman. I think basically what I said was that I could do whatever I wanted. I’m still not sure if I believe that, though I do think it’s powerful to try to be all your identities at once until the categories explode. What is post-identity? I think my art and my politics definitely share this characteristic: embracing the both and the all, and thus being neither one or the other. Easier to do in art than in politics, of course; political action has to be somewhat cohesive. Appearing as a subaltern in an often white male dominated space is a political act. Saying whatever we want and taking up space is.
Jennifer Tamayo: Si, Monica McClure! Mi cholita! I remember in graduate school writing about my writing and describing the pain of contradictory, competing, “selves”— it was a limited reading of my own work that didn’t encapsulate the agency, power, possibility that these unstable selves can provide. I remember being by your side when the woman approached you, Monica— and I remember feeling angry by the woman’s confrontation— especially because it did not feel like dialog to me. I remember feeling ready to become physically violent— (!!!)—something I hadn’t really felt before in this context. Anything that threatened my fellow poet@’s performance space was unacceptable to me, and defending it felt necessary. As POCs, women, queers, trans-folks we’ve spent too much time either being told to be quiet or to explain ourselves to people who are often uninterested in creating real, safe spaces for us and our writing— they just want to wear us down— so I say fuck them. We don’t need them.
Marisa Crawford: Yes yes yes yesssss to all this. I feel like— I’m a feminist, and feminism necessarily comes into everything that I do and say and create, including my poetry, because feminism is how I understand the world. When I was in college and first getting really interested in poetry and in Women’s Studies, I was writing poetry but wanted to figure out how to make my poems “political”— first I thought that “political” poetry was didactic or anthemic or too direct in a way that didn’t resonate with me as a writer. Then I read Helene Cixous and learned about écriture féminine, which made me think that I had to totally subvert narrative traditions in my poetry in order for it to be feminist. Then, later I started working at Aunt Lute Books, a nonprofit feminist book press in San Francisco, and working on their anthology of U.S. Women Writers made me realize how vastly diverse “feminist” or “political” poetry/writing can be— that “political” writing is a category that subsumes so many different traditions and styles. And that letting myself be my feminist self within my poems and use a weird/awkward/girly/performative/silly/playful tone was inherently feminist/political enough.
As for more direct forms of activism, I agree with Monica that I leave more room in my poems. If I’m organizing or teaching or editing a feminist project, I don’t leave as much space for the weird, the confusing, the inexplicable, the not-so-easily defined and contradictory materials/content/voice that comes into my poems. When I was in college, I worked closely with the poet Rita Rich. At one point she said something to me like, “If we could understand everything, we wouldn’t need poetry” and that still sticks with me. Poetry is a space for magic, inexplicable, mystery, riddle— I don’t want my poems to be seamless and closed-off. I want them to be open and otherworldly. And I don’t think activist projects always have room for messiness and contradiction and openness to interpretation in the same way.
CA: Large-scale public protests and conversations about street harassment have been more apparent recently. At the same time, the most “progressive” rooms I’m in heavily feature white dudes reading in “art spaces” in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. How do you negotiate public space vs. private space?
Becca Klaver: Women are (sometimes) treated like humans inside walls and rooms. Being harassed on the street on a daily basis reminds me of the extent to which I’m still not seen as fully human, as a subject rather than an object. Which makes me feel scared and powerless, but also gives me information— as in, it’s possible that the more subtle, covert biases that I sense in those progressive rooms are actually there, even if I can’t point to them. Because I know what it’s like on the sidewalk. Or because other women know what it’s like to get trolled online. Feminism has always been about this for me— often I’m less interested in egregious instances of sexism than in the places where I suspect something’s off, but haven’t found “proof” or a way to articulate my misgivings yet. I suspect that intuition and instinct— so-called women’s knowledge— are actually tools that have evolved and sharpened in women alongside a rational culture that degrades and subjugates that knowledge because it wants empirical evidence to be the only thing that matters.
And there’s still so much to articulate, which might mean inventing new words (think of all the “man” prefixes in the last couple of years: -splaining, -spreading, -slamming). That has been, and should still be, a role for the feminist poet: to point to things with language where there’s only vague, seemingly ineffable discomfort.
Krystal Languell: I am working on articulating my thoughts on “safe space” out of my background as a domestic violence shelter volunteer in 2006-2007. More recently, I’ve talked with friends (and here I’ll be vague for obvious reasons) as a part of their support network in the process for leaving violent or unsafe relationships, calling upon what I learned in training and experience at the shelter in Indiana. I am also thinking about conflict resolution, where “conflict” doesn’t have to be a dirty word, a process I’m not trained in but am very curious about for the purpose of pursuing a peaceful life.
In the last one to two years I’ve slowly been reading up on prison abolition (Angela Davis, Jackie Wang, Assata Shakur, and yet in no way am I an expert on any of these writers) and the convergence of this set of terms orients me at present: safe space, accountability, conflict resolution, prison abolition. Certainly when a person does harm to another, there should be consequences. But I believe obsession with punishment is Puritanical and the prison industrial complex provides a fine example of what happens when we become obsessed with punishment. I’m talking with my students right now about Emily Abendroth’s ]Exclosures[ (Ahsahta), and I asked them to describe their ideal commons. They struggled with it until I asked them, “I mean what do you do about jerks?” How do you create a common public space when you know there are jerks (and worse of course) out there who can breeze in? We’ve been talking about all these ideas since September (same group of students) including police brutality and surveillance. I’ve read (or been told?) that exile was the harshest punishment in ancient Rome, that it was equivalent to the death penalty in some ways because the ‘criminal’ would certainly starve or get eaten by a lion or whatever *because human beings need each other to survive,* and so at present I’m left wondering when a space is violated what is the appropriate and humane response.
My question is: what does accountability look like? And if we don’t agree on the answer, how do we go forward together?
What is certain in my mind right now: prison abolition; end to carceral thinking. Also, I cannot be angry and alone because that shit kills people.
Lots to say about Belladonna events and books and the current state of how things are getting done, and it can certainly connect to all this, but I’m out of time at the moment for spinning that web.
Becca Klaver: I’m glad Krystal asked about accountability. It’s a word that some of us used when we first began announcing the Enough is Enough events. I think accountability is the positive alternative to shaming, punishment, and ostracization. In my view, accountability calls upon the perpetrator, or anyone unwittingly complicit, to examine his/her own actions and decide how to better be a member of a community (or communities, or a citizen in the world). I think that’s what the handout that the Enough is Enough group produced and shared at the November 6, 2014 event at the Poetry Project does, too. It calls upon. It asks curators, editors, writers, and others to ask themselves what part they can play in changing a culture that hasn’t always been safe for some.
The other thing that happened at that Poetry Project event was that some alleged perpetrators’ names were named. I feel torn about that. Those names and incidents were mentioned in order to illustrate larger, systemic problems–like, “Here’s an issue the community should think about, and here’s an example of it”— but of course people get fixated on the particulars. On the names. And the specific incidents do matter. But I can see how an effort toward accountability gets sidetracked when it starts to look like shaming and finger-pointing. On the other hand, I’ve heard from several people that they had no idea that these sorts of incidents— women getting drugged at the Copula series, for example–had taken place before the Enough is Enough meeting, and so bringing up specific events did wake people up and spur them to action. I think there’s a palpable sense now, in New York, anyway, that if you blow the whistle, you will have people there to back you up. This isn’t about ganging up on bad guys: it’s about supporting victims and survivors. Also, there are concrete, inventive, generous new initiatives in the works, like The Ruth Stone Foundation’s Safe Places in New York City, organized by Ben Pease and Bianca Stone. I love their version of accountability, where you’re not only accountable to your friends or to your immediate community but also accountable to strangers passing through town.
Jennifer Tamayo: “My question is: what does accountability look like? And if we don’t agree on the answer, how do we go forward together?” That’s a big one Krystal. I’ve used that term without a deep, comfortable knowledge of what that looks like in action. I recently took a workshop on “Undoing Bias and Oppression in the classroom” and we talked a lot about how the first step is intervention– stepping in and saying this is happening/happened– at every opportunity and immediately, in the moment. We even practiced key “intervention” phrases- which felt a little odd and awkward and schooly but then it became clear that this type of schooling is necessary. We don’t know what words to use with each other and this becomes a type of excuse for not engaging. This feels like the beginning of a type of accountability: use language to hold the space.
Krystal Languell: Grateful for both of these responses. Yet, at the same time…at the Poetry Project on 1/7/15, I shared some about the backlash to my calling a man out for a misogynist/sexist poetry performance and I wonder if that’s useful to bring up here. What Becca calls “intuition and instinct” drove me to write that original piece for VIDA–I KNEW something was wrong with what happened but struggled to find the language for it, and once I did a bunch of people were pissed and others were too uncomfortable (I guess?) to say anything publicly. People I expected would jump in and get my back did not. But plenty of others did, including both women and men who were present for the original event. I’m still sorting through how to feel about this–is it fair that I was angry about what felt like a conspicuous silence from some people? This is the first time I an articulating this feeling semi-publicly.
CA: How does (or doesn’t) the gurlesque/sad girl theory fit into feminist activism? What about “Internet feminism”? How are forms of protest (and writing) gendered? How are your forms of protest (and writing) gendered?
Monica McClure: With anything important, it’s crucial to have an alternative. Feminism gets mystified so quickly, so we have to constantly show the nuance of our experienced womanness. Commercially appropriated Beyoncé feminism isn’t great, but it looks great if there isn’t an alternative— even if she is Lana del Rey. Capitalism looks better to the world when Cuba (even though it’s fucked up) stops defying global capitalism. My writing is gendered only insofar as people believe it is. I’m aware of the extent to which it isn’t up to me because I appear as a gender conforming woman. Sometimes I’m writing as an “I” that isn’t confessional, but it’s usually read that way because, you know, I’m a woman. I think the response is more gendered than the writing.
Krystal Languell: I just finished reading Sarah Vap’s End of the Sentimental Journey (Noemi Press) yesterday and it’s all over this. (SPOILER: “End of the Sentimental Journey” is a synonym for “cunt.”) In it, among much else of course, Vap argues that Difficulty is code for Female and is used as a coded, gendered critique.
Becca Klaver: I think all of these ways of describing women’s and girls’ art and writing are interesting and important. They name aesthetic trends that have a (complicated) relationship to larger cultural trends. And so many connections have yet to be articulated: like, what do the Gurlesque and sad girl theory have to do with third-wave feminism, if that term means anything to you? What do they have to do with how we understand gender in terms of affect and performativity now? People resist and contest these labels, and I understand why, but my feeling has always been that we need more and more ways of describing what women’s writing is like. Once the terms for describing women’s writing proliferate, then there will be less of a need to feel territorial about them. There has always been more than one way to be a feminist writer— or experimental woman writer, etc.— and I think the labels validate this writing and help make sense of it, which means that it has a better chance of being remembered— read, shared, taught. The labels matter, but they’re not everything. And of course, there are plenty of valid critiques of the ways these terms have signified so far. But we’re still in the midst of theorizing them— that’s our work, and the critiques become an important part of the narrative. What’s most interesting to me about the Gurlesque and sad girl theory in particular is that they’re aesthetic terms that clearly point to questions of identity as well: they’re labels that describe how art is made and describe how people behave in the world— what their relationship to pop culture is, how they present themselves virtually. So of course it gets personal.
CA: What about online vs. IRL communication, alliances, attention, and boundaries?
Monica McClure: Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” offers irony as a tool for holding incompatible things together within a practice of socialist feminism. She writes, “Blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community.” I think we are cyborgs at this point in history, so online communication is as big a player in how we form relationships as IRL. This ironic fragmentation is what we’re dealing with now, and it’s not always useful to try to unify the fragments. That’s one reason why it’s so hard to identify as one kind of feminist. Solidarity is for non-cyborgs and white women (a joke). Online and offline, we are engaging with both fiction and social realities. For example, I am physically in my office being exploited by my wealthy white male cis boss as I’m reading about an ironic political myth that might one day shift power away from the hands of old white men like my employer. My body and my mind don’t feel so separate in the simultaneity of this moment. As this is happening, I might email JT about an instance of misogyny in the poetry community. My point: the border between private and public has dissolved to our benefit, online and off.
Marisa Crawford: Part of why Becca and I wanted to start WEIRD SISTER was because we noticed that a lot of conversations around feminism as it relates to poetry and the poetry community were happening online in kind of ephemeral ways— in private Facebook statuses or comments that could only be viewed by certain people, and would sometimes later be deleted. We saw this happening a lot with conversations responding to the NY Daily News article featuring women poets, for example. Becca brought up the idea of WEIRD SISTER serving as a kind of online archive for conversations about feminist issues within literary communities, of creating a “static link,” as she’s called it. Another impetus for starting WS was to formalize these conversations, which creates more accountability around them, to carve out official space online for more feminist voices within poetry. To directly critique and discuss specific events, writers, poems, books, etc., alongside and in connection to other aspects of culture. In their essay “Numbers Trouble,” Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young talk about how gender equity is about more than just equal representation, though representation is of course incredibly important as well; it’s about promoting and publishing and writing content that actively engages with political ideas around gender, race, class and sexuality. I wanted to carve out a space within the poetry community and the literary blogosphere in particular for more feminist voices to be front and center. I also think sometimes that the poetry world is so small that we’re scared to even be critical of each other’s work. I see that changing for sure, and I want to continue to carve out space online to push that vision forward.
CA: Do you think we’re effecting genuine change or speaking into a vacuum? How will we know? How have you changed through studying and reframing the past (e.g. seminal feminist texts, lineage, history)? How does/will this generation differ from the old guard, both in means of protest and in terms of permissible behavior?
Krystal Languell: “Germinal” (not “seminal”) since “seminal” is derived from “semen.”
CA: OMG I DIDN’T KNOW THAT. Thanks.
Marisa Crawford: I really liked this interview I read with Le Tigre years ago, where they said something about how they were okay with “preaching to the choir” with their feminist music/performance art. I’m not totally sure I agree with it 100 percent, but I think the idea changed how I think about art/activism a little bit. If feminist poets are the only people reading my poems (hint— they are), and they find them exciting or inspiring or illuminating or generative or connect with them in some way, maybe that’s effecting enough of a “genuine change”? I like to imagine/hope that my writing, poetry and otherwise, might push people to think about something in a new way, might bring an element of feminist thinking into their world that wasn’t there before, but I’m not sure how often that happens. Reading, watching, listening to feminist texts from the past helps me to think about my work and my community’s work as part of some feminist lineage/s, which helps makes me hopeful that change is being affected, even if it’s happening really slowly and over time.
CA: Checking bias within oneself and holding community members accountable for their actions is an essential part of growth. Efforts toward accountability risk being perceived as attacks based on interpersonal dynamics. How can we create communities and intellects that are safe and open but still critically examine our members and ourselves?
Jennifer Tamayo: I’m not sure I want an “open” community; that sounds harsh, no? By this I mean, I want to reconsider the benefits of exclusivity and how this might be a more viable pathway towards creating “safe, equitable, more liberatory” spaces. When I think open, I immediately think “open to whom?”— and how might that reinforce those who tend to take up the most space without considering for others? I want to nurture the vulnerable, angry, energized part of myself that might only be allowed to survive in less open, less compromised spaces… and that may mean re-imagining what I’ve considered my poetry community for the past few years.
As for critically examining ourselves and others, Krystal’s point (above) rings true for me. We need to be okay with conflict, disagreement, and negativity— these are learning and growing moments and should be received as such. This is something I’m working on, especially with close friends, colleagues and collaborators— those whose presences are vital to me and who are fighting for what I’m fighting for. I find this kind of conflict the most important and the most difficult to navigate. For example, how do I speak with my family about internalized racism? It’s much easier for me to have this conversation with strangers, but with family and friends— the stakes are different.
Krystal Languell: Because Belladonna* is a big part of my life and it’s largely a feminist separatist organization, I can understand a stance against openness in some ways, but I immediately think back to how I got here— and if spaces were more closed the way you, I think, describe them here, JT, I wonder how any of us would have gotten where we are. How does the next, say, 25 year-old newbie to NYC, who each of us was at one point, find her way in if she finds that poetry micro-communities are all self-contained and closed networks? I met someone recently, I guess I won’t give her name, who’s an Eastern European poet/writer new to a Ph.D. program here and she described having a really hard time finding a way in to a writing community outside her school. I think that’s one of the jobs of feminist poetics is to make a space for her and make her feel welcome. Know what I mean? And if I’ve taken the idea of open/closed differently than you intended, please tell me that.
Jennifer Tamayo: Yes— thanks for getting me to clarify, Krystal. I would be in agreement about feminist poetics needing to create safe and welcoming spaces— but, for me, that would also include making those spaces simultaneously hostile, antagonistic, closed to/towards anyone who threatened its viability.
CA: What is your favorite snack to eat while smashing the patriarchy?
Becca Klaver: Have you guys tried this new scallion hummus? Wakim’s, at your local Brooklyn grocery store? It’s really the best thing to happen to scallion cream cheese addicts since everything bagels.
Nina Puro is a queer poet whose work can be found in Guernica, H_ngm_n, the PEN Poetry Series, and other places. A member of the Belladonna* Collaborative; the author of forthcoming chapbooks from Argos Books and Dancing Girl Press; and the recipient of a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony, Nina cries and lives in Brooklyn, where she works in arts administration for a feminist film.
Becca Klaver is the author of the poetry collection LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) and several chapbooks. She was a founding editor of Switchback Books, is a contributing editor at WEIRD SISTER, and is co-editing Electric Gurlesque, the second, e-edition of the Gurlesque anthology. She also co-hosts the feminist comedy podcast The Real Housewives of Bohemia. She attended the University of Southern California and Columbia College Chicago and is completing her PhD at Rutgers University, where she’s writing about late-twentieth-century women’s experimental poetry and the everyday. Born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, she lives in Brooklyn.
Jennifer Tamayo is a Colombian-born transnational artist and activist based in New York City. JT is the author of Red Missed Aches Read Missed Aches Red Mistakes Read Mistakes (Switchback, 2011), POEMS ARE THE ONLY REAL BODIES (Bloof Books, 2013) and YOU DA ONE (Coconut 2014) . She writes for WEIRD SISTER, a blog that explores the intersections of feminism, literature and pop culture.
Monica McClure‘s debut poetry collection, Tender Data, was published this year by Birds LLC. She has written about feminism for The Hairpin, Huffington Post, VIDA, and &Now 2015.
Marisa Crawford is the author of the poetry collection The Haunted House (Switchback, 2010), and the chapbook 8th Grade Hippie Chic (Immaculate Disciples, 2013). Her writing has recently appeared in Hyperallergic, The Hairpin, Bitch, and The &NOW Awards 3: Best Innovative Writing (&NOW, 2015), and is forthcoming in Electric Gurlesque (Saturnalia, 2016). Marisa is founding editor of the feminist website WEIRD SISTER, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Krystal Languell was born in South Bend, Indiana. She is the author of two books and several chapbooks. New work in 2015 includes a collaboration with Robert Alan Wendeborn, Diamonds in the Flesh (Double Cross Press), and a collection of interviews, Archive Theft (Essay Press). A core member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, she also edits the feminist journal Bone Bouquet. She is a 2014-2015 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council workspace resident.