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?