Adfempo report part 3

The Closing Plenary & Feedback Session

Before I begin this section, I would like to emphasize what most of you have probably already noticed, that I make no claims to objectivity in my reportage here, and these posts are no more then my blind and partial elephantine gropings. If you’ll remember, I was kvetching in parts 1 and 2 about my physical state, and by the end of the day, everything was exacerbated: fatigue, blood, general social overwhelm… and these factors very much influenced how I perceived the proceedings.

The onstage moderators were Gail Scott, Tonya Foster, Rachel Levitsky, and Erica Kaufman, all people whom I admire and with whom I have some rapport, so I hope that any criticisms that follow will be taken as constructive. Rachel began by apologizing for replicating inequalities in power dynamics by them being up on the stage with microphones while we were down in the audience, and pointed to microphones set up in the aisles for our use. Then each of the moderators spoke a little about their experiences of the conference, and each one (except Erica, who is relatively taciturn) spoke maybe a little too much. I wasn’t taking notes, and I don’t remember precisely who said what, but I think Gail and Tonya did seem to dwell a bit on the desire not to be pinned down or categorized, and brought up some resistance to “feminist” as a label. There was also some discussion of the notion of “the commons,” and although I understand the usual usage of the word, I wasn’t at the panel where the term was fleshed out, so I wasn’t entirely sure what they meant by it. There was also something about “exteriorization,” but again I don’t really remember what was being said about it: Tonya? When it came time to elicit comments from the audience, there were so many concepts on the table that it was hard to know what to address, and the moderators seemed to sort of nervously be pressing them all at once in layers of questions, surely out of a desire to make the discussion lively, but honestly I found it a little confusing.

One thing I have learned as an ESL teacher is not to layer questions, but to ask one question at a time. That might have helped me to focus better on finding something to say, but the topics seemed to lurch about from this to that, and besides I was afraid if I stood up I would gush blood, so I kept mum pretty much the whole time, even when Jen Scappettone tried to call me out (more on this in a bit).

I wonder sometimes about the function of speaking up in fora (is that the plural of forum? Word just auto-corrected it) like that. I mentioned the same thing earlier writing about the Q and A sessions after panels. Is the function really mainly to speak one’s mind and to listen to other people speak their minds? Or is it to sort of establish a social position? It reminds me an awful lot of testifying in church. If I really know what I want to say I am not afraid of speaking in public, but I can’t just open my mouth and speak. It doesn’t work that way for me. For one thing, I have a kind of microphone-induced Tourette’s syndrome. Whenever I’m in front of a mic and asked to say something extemporaneously, my id seems to take over and I say the worst possible thing I could say under the circumstances. Since I have a lot of conflicted feelings about groups, and about groups of women, and especially about groups of women writers, I really thought, even though my brain was roiling with possibilities, that I had better sit this one out.

Several people spoke, and here are some that I remember: Eileen Myles, Jen Scappettone, Jen Hofer, Evelyn Reilly, Lila Zemborain, Rachel Blau du Plessis, C.A. Conrad, Caroline Bergvall (I think), and Laura Elrick. I don’t remember who said what, or even what they said, exactly. Laura said something about how scary it can be to take the risk of “jumping into speech,” out of the “refuge of writing,” and I could relate to that, given my metaphorical Tourette’s. I think maybe a lot of people feel that way.
As an ESL teacher, here’s one of the ways I get around that with my students: I get them to write first, then speak. The feedback session could have started with writing, say, with a sentence completion exercise, or a questionnaire. Or people could have submitted anonymous comments to be randomly pulled from a box. I am sure this sounds juvenile, but it would have certainly changed the dynamic in the room from the parade of strong personalities that approached the mic to something a little more inclusive.

Let’s see what else I remember. I think someone suggested that we think of feminism as a verb rather than a static noun. I liked that suggestion. Someone else asked how many 17-year-olds consider themselves feminists. (Here I wanted to suggest that we look at “Girldrive” for our answer, but I was keeping mum.) Evelyn said something very cogent that I agreed with but I can’t remember what it was. Always have a pen at the ready, ladies! Write everything down! C.A. Conrad I think said that the most insidious force infecting our youth was capitalism, or something to that effect. Jen S. said that what is in urgent need of our attention now is not bourgeois white feminist issues, but international feminisms, and referred to Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s project of collecting information and responses from feminists around the world. There was, as there always is, some talk of the efficacy of poetry in fomenting political action.

I know that if I had stood up to speak on the last point I would have ended up sounding like Baudelaire or something, and I really didn’t want to be pegged as “the amoral hedonist aesthete” again in that crowd especially even if there is something to the accusation (that last sounds too apologetic, but I mean it good-humoredly).

You remember I said in an earlier post that the truffles I had brought would be important? Well, Jen S. began another comment with an anecdote, saying that she had finally got around to eating one of my truffles and had found that it was moldy inside. She wasn’t sure whether that had been an accident or some kind of conceptualist prank. [I protested vociferously that it had not been intentional!] [I would never do anything malicious like that, and actually was a little hurt that she thought I might.] She used the metaphor of the truffle to say that actually she had looked forward to a little more performative mischief at the conference, and to reiterate what apparently (someone told me this later) had been her question in the opening plenary: why are women so polite with each other and reluctant to critique other women, at least publicly? This is a paraphrase of a second-hand question, so if I got it wrong, Jen, please correct me.

Of course, one knows the answer to this. One wants to have some sort of solidarity with the other members of one’s oppressed group, and one wants not to undermine that. It’s not always healthy to repress one’s critique, though, and I reckon it finds its way out in other ways, maybe in opinions expressed in dyads and triads and in other forms of social behavior. I know that I feel a marked chilliness from some women writers, and I can only project the reasons for that. They maybe think I have bad politics, or that I am insufficiently “activist,” or just too absurd, or too male-identified, or too femme-y, or too much of a provocateuse, or that my mother dresses me funny. Maybe they don’t like that I am so much in contact with my inner buffoon, that it might rub off on them. Or you know, maybe they just don’t like me. There’s nothing wrong with that, even though it makes me a little sad. I certainly can’t allow myself to be stifled by their disapproval or dislike. I remember a friend in the punk days (which were heavily western-inflected) in SF saying something to the effect of “well, you don’t have to like someone just because they wear cowboy boots,” and you know, it’s true.

Still, without wanting to sound too generous or virtuous, I really try personally not to be chilly to anyone, even if I disagree with them, or even, maybe, in some way, dislike them. I am thinking in particular of someone (not a woman, BTW) who tried to tell me, when I said that I felt his Marxism bordered on the evangelical, that Marxism was “not an ideology.” What? It’s not? In this, I guess I feel like my politics are profoundly interpersonal: I want to assume amongst my fellow [sic] artists a common ground of affection that is meta-moralistic. (And I also, if you haven’t noticed, like to practice a kind of radical honesty.) Not everyone, clearly, shares this view, and sometimes I feel a bit like, well, not a pariah, but someone whose point of view and aesthetic affiliations are not really thought of by some people who are very wedded to their convictions as being worthy of consideration. It may be that I am projecting a kind of “scary mommy” or “judgmental teacher” persona onto them, and of course I have no idea what really goes on in their minds at all; I am only interpreting behaviors. Well, what sensitive person doesn’t enjoy a little social paranoia, I wonder?

The fact is, though, that I really do privilege “the aesthetic,” although I’m not so sure that I would say that the aesthetic realm is separable from the social and the political. Art is how I engage with the world. I don’t really know any other way to do that that satisfies me, although certainly there are other ways. That said, though, I don’t really understand why people want to write or read or listen to poetry about political convictions they already have. Is it that it shovels coal in the boiler for their impulse to activism? Or that they feel educated by it?

I love Stephen Rodefer’s, “It is not the business of poetry to do anything.” It really isn’t. For me, it is the space of liberation, and if that’s not some form of cultural activism (if not, in Charles Weigl’s terms, actually revolution), well then, I don’t know what it is. “Efficacy,” it seems to me, comes out of a paradigm of bean-counting. It’s almost I dunno Fordist [later edit: Taylorist. I meant Taylorist. I guess I just needed to Fletcherize]. When I make stuff I’m stepping out of that paradigm into a field of energies. Who agrees with me?

11 thoughts on “Adfempo report part 3

  1. This is a beautiful post. Reading it, I felt as I have on those rare occasions when I'm in a public place and overhear a conversation that compels me to butt in, usually to say something like, “Sorry to eavesdrop, but I really like what you said about X…”

    Now if only we were in public together, say on a bus between cities…

  2. It is strange that I never noticed a problem with women being too polite to each other. Often I have noticed the dynamic of women being rewarded for critiques of other women, particularly taking an anti-feminist stance.

    There does seem to be a reluctance among women to engage in real, two or multi-sided debate with each other (rather than one sided critique or just mean/snobbiness/socialcontrol). Perhaps this relates also to the comment box issue? I'm often suspecting that my love for debate is some betrayal of women who all got together at some point and decided not to do that, but forgot to tell me.

  3. Thank you for all this, Nada! So helpful and useful to read your take on the conference. To venture a brief answer to your final question: when writing about my politics in poems (which I'm doing more and more of) I feel a little bit like when I'm writing about sex: dirty. I like that feeling. Rather than serving a purpose, it feels like playing with mud…not necessarily the fertile kind, but the kind one can wallow in: a permission whose AFTER, when the mud is washed off, can be spectacular.

  4. “why are women so polite with each other and reluctant to critique other women, at least publicly?”

    A great question. Often there's just that chill. Often one is accused of being “against women” if one has a question or a critique.

    What did being nice ever do for anyone, Erin Moure says, and where feminist poetics are concerned I couldn't agree more. Challenging is the most generous gesture it seems to me, but challenging in what way?

    That's where I am hoping for some humour.

    Can't comment on the closing session since I had to leave to do a reading, but I thank you for your report, Nada.

  5. if every participant/audience member wrote reflections of their experience there as visceral and honest as yours, those of us not present could really actually feel it. thanks, nada, for your take. now i want more!

  6. Not to be an overly nice, and what's worse, lazy! lady-type, but – something like what Erika said. Super enamored of the report which speaks all around the spot where one kept mum. Also amen to Ana on the AFTER. Vanessa on the gels. Hi Anne! Hi Sina! Here we are, we're commenting!

    As to agreement or non, maybe I do have the overly-nice problem, like, got it where it hurts, i.e. in the synthesis-of-all-modes mode (of avoiding confrontation). But I do persist in flabbergastedness, it's not disingenuous, this flabbergastion every time I'm confronted with a split or delineation between a poetry of legible or rather – visible – or do I mean – efficacious? politics and a poetry of stepping out into a field of energies. Which is not to ignore the real way these splits, between those who privelege the former(s) and those who privelege the latter, do administer and sometimes even break relationships, or how perhaps each mode experiences the other as rendering its own impossible. Which, I think, is something like what my body experiences every time I encounter this split named as such: an insistence that I as poet have got to choose my sides. Which makes me feel fucking impotent as fuck, when what I want, when the only way I know how to proceed, is to venture out into a field of energies that may or probably definitely will collapse or change around me, this me all ridiculously heavy with ideas and confusion and problems of having a body in the world with others, in the world of awful systems. Sometimes I count things about systems. It never “adds up”.

    Some problems with my thinking here are that legible, visible and efficacious are not at all the same thing, also use of the word 'impotent'. (although perhaps that's the right word to use after all, with some heavy irony in my cheek, as the opposition of politics and “the aesthetic” feels like it comes from a masculinist history of placing work in its category and insisting it stay put)

    whoa Nada I'm not even sure you were naming such a stark binary, I mean, yes, I stake my whole deal on the notion that the aesthetic and the social and the political aren't so seperable.

    But what I meant to do was just come in here and say hey thanks thanks thanks for this and aallll the adfempo reports, but I think you hypnotized me dear Nada into confusedly arguing with who I'm not sure, in circles. Also I am reading Book of the Dead and it represents such a great weird mashing up of modes and sources, and gets away from itself I think, gets a little out of her control. So that is probably influencing me today.

    “So Friends! Hold the bloody sponge up! For all to see!”

  7. The last paragraph – agreed. Sometimes I get political, or toy with politics in poetry, but only bc I want to – not to preach to the converted, as you note. I have noticed, however, many applaud overt politics in a way that does sound like a congregational response; there is a desire for that kind of poetry, amen. I can't write it; it feels false and obvious but some need it for inspiration/motivation/affirmation. Don't guess they'd change their minds if it wasn't there, but the need echoes your note earlier in your post: the need to feel some alliance / allegiance with a like-minded group. But then, you likely already know this (“shovels coal”). I guess I'm just saying, there's room for Carolyn Forche and much more, though I don't go to her work or ask it to influence mine. I prefer the poetry that has no business, and therefore, permits any kind of work, even monkey business. But the fault comes in with the either/or – one poetry is better than the other mentality. Forche gets accolades, monkey poet gets scoffed at. Meanwhile monkey poet and Forche followers are doing the same political work proper, though monkey poet's purposes in poetry aren't so easily defined/consumed/understood. So Forche followers turn against monkey poet for fooling around instead of being serious with poetry, tho monkey poet is as serious or moreso. And the camps are broken down and the chill settles… as though we're ultimately in opposition. And again, you note all of this. Pardon my thinking aloud! Just got excited for a sec…

    Thanks for this post!

  8. Ben, should we take a bus somewhere? How about Bali?

    Vanessa, don't you think compulsion might be transnational?

    Anne, don't you ever feel with some women like you're trapped in the tea-serving scene of “The Importance of Being Earnest”? That forced politesse? I do.

    Ana, would you say you are writing about politics in the service of sensationalism? I don't mean like journalistic sensationalism: more like for the sake of sensation?

    Sina, don't you think there's actually a lot to be said for being nice? I mean genuinely nice? I'm just not interested in being diplomatically or hypocritically nice (even though to be perfectly honest I do this often)(I have to, because I don't like all that much poetry I hear or read, to be perfectly honest, and I don't see the point in telling people exactly what I really think all the time if it will only alienate them.)

    Erika, be assured there will always be more. The hurdy gurdy doesn't stop, does it. What would you like more of, exactly? I work on commission.

    Stephanie, aren't there different kinds of efficacy? Like sometimes, one's goal for change is just to get the guy. And sometimes it works! Now that's efficacy I can get behind! Nothing wrong with “bearing witness” or “leveling a critique,”of course, as long as it results in poetry that one actually wants urgently to write and/or read. Otherwise, seems to me, better to write an article, take some photos, make a documentary, write a letter, or head to the streets.

    Amy, do you think that if the monkey poet gets respect that it might actually neutralize the impact of her monkey business? Just wondering.

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