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Links: Poetry, Palestine, and Kafka

Some thoughts and links on poetry, Palestine, and Kafka for the start of summer:


I recently was honored to give the keynote at LaGuardia’s Women’s Studies Conference on Adrienne Rich and in particular her time teaching in CUNY’s SEEK program. I’m hoping to publish a version of it somewhere soon, including a long section I didn’t get to include in the actual talk about her “Talking about Trees” response to Brecht. In the meantime, here are my two favorite pieces about Rich that have come out lately, in the many great ones that have come out since her death and the publication of her Collected Poems. First, here’s Michelle Dean in the New Republic, who makes use of the archives of Rich’s letters to her friend the poet Hayden Carruth to trace the many transformations of her mid-life: the end of her marriage, her husband’s suicide, and her coming out as a lesbian; her growing activism as a feminist and anti-war activist; her growing love of teaching (unlike many writers, she never resented the time spent with students and seemed to feel younger people had something to offer); the change in her poetry away from the formalism she’d been rewarded for early on; her increasingly difficult health struggles. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, about how dominant the awakening at middle-age narrative was in the stories of women’s lives I grew up with, and how much it applies to those of us today, many of whom grew up with feminism and who are having our children mid-life instead of coming out the other end of the early years of immeshment.

In Dissent, Lidija Haas covers a lot of the same ground, with an emphasis on Rich’s defense of poetry’s political engagement. When I was working on my talk, I was thinking a lot about how Rich approached teaching during the time of the Vietnam war and student strikes, how you do justice to the intensity of the moment while also seeing the classroom (and poetry) as something that should extend our thinking behind the heat of the moment.  And then I realized some of Rich’s writings which are most intensely in the moment are from the ’80s, as the horror of backlash and Reaganism set in; Haas begins with Rich refusing an award from Bill Clinton calling art “incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” The answer for “why write poetry in ‘times like these” is that it is always times of these. I’ve also been thinking a lot about a passage in Rich’s 1981 essay “Towards a More Feminist Criticism” in which she expresses a different side of the issue: of course, activism and poetry mix, but about what is lost when writers are elevated to “spokespeople” above on-the ground activists and how we might look at the causal relationship between these things:   “It’s not that I believe in a direct line of response, from a poem to an action: . . . In fact, it may be action that leads to poetry, the deed to the word.


We recently marked 50 years since the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It has been a time of heightened activism both here and in Israel/Palestine, where political prisoners recently ended a forty day hunger strike and where hundreds of Jews from around the world recently joined Palestinians and for a series of non-violent actions connected to Israeli celebration of occupation. Two recent pieces point to how, in spite of everything, non-violent resistance still matters:

First, over at In these Times, a good piece by Tamara Nassar about the results of the recent Palestinian hunger strike. Prisoner solidarity is such an important part of the history of liberation struggles, and it’s easy to think there’s no leverage to be had over the brutal Israeli government, but Marwan Barghouthi is one of the most respected figures in the Palestinian community, and we’re in a period where international solidarity can’t be ignored.

And at JewschoolJodi Melamed has an interesting piece about the Sumud freedom camp, an inspiring action to help the families of Sumud return to their villages. Melamed talks about something I’ve wondered about a lot – Jews who want to oppose the occupation and Israeli violence but haven’t come around on BDS. A lot of times those of us who support BDS react with frustration to these folks – BDS, we point out, is the international, non-violent solidarity moment liberals claim they had wanted (if only there was non-violent resistance, we would support it!) But Melamed makes a convincing case that if there are actions like the Sumud one (inspired in part by Standing Rock), and organizations like the Jewish Center for non-Violence to organize and support them, people who aren’t there on BDS can take action, and when we come together on non-violent action, it dissipates so much of the rancor that marks the debate. It’s not about compromise or meeting in the middle, but a realization that, as I believe is very often true, action guides our beliefs, not the other way around.


This semester in my fiction writing class I taught The Metamorphosis for the first time. I’d had it on there before, but always took it out in the end of semester crunch. To prepare for the discussion, I happened upon something a student gave me years ago: this little book, which, despite appearances, is not a kind of spiffed-up Cliff Notes but is a real book, and a fascinating one at that, co-written by R. Crumb and offering gorgeous visual riff’s on Kafka’s work plus their own take, one which emphasizes Kafka’s Jewishness and the role of the Prague ghetto in shaping his vision. There are lots of telling details I didn’t know, but this is the one I keep coming back to: this account of the details of Kafka’s famous “day job”:

Did everyone know this but me? I mentioned this to J., who said, I don’t know if you want to go there with the political implications of this: was worker protection the model for hated bureaucracy? But I think about it differently: I like the idea that this person who, at least in most versions of him we have, is so apart from others, from comfort, from his own body, that we think of him as barely functioning in the world, let along thinking he could shape it, let alone doing so – – – that this fragile man maybe did more good than all of us robust good citizens? To plagiarize Jamaica Kincaid writing about a different corner of the world and its cruelties, there’s a world of something in that, but I can’t get into it right now.

Novels and Children

When I was in college, one of the first books of “theory” I read was Roland Barthes Mythologies. It’s a lovely book that I hope people still read, even though many of its reference points were already pretty obscure twenty years ago. It’s one of those books that was called “theory” because they didn’t know what else to call it, although just plain criticism, or better yet, essays, would have done.

One of the little essays is called “Novels and Children.” It starts like this:

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Two Virginia Woolf Passages in Search of an Essay

In two weeks I’m heading up to the “happy valley” in Western Massachusetts for my 20th college reunion at Smith College. I’m working on an essay about this – not about me or being forty-one or about the turning of the generations, but about the place, its history and what, if anything, it still means to spend time in a place dedicated to women’s education, history, experiences.

When I’ve visited recently, especially when there are no students there, I keep thinking about its beauty – it’s such an obvious thing, the beauty of the place, but you forget it, and it has to mean something. And the quietness when the students are not there, but that everything is waiting for them, the care that is given to help us believe we are cared for:

“A. Williams – one may read it in the moonlight; and next to it some Mary or Eleanor, Mildred, Sarah, Phoebe upon square cards on their doors. All names, nothing but names. The cool white light withered them and starched them until it seemed as if the only purpose of all those names was to rise martially in order should there be a call on them to extinguish a fire, suppress an insurrection, or pass an examination. Such is the power of names written upon cards pinned on doors. Such too the resemblance, what with tiles, corridors, and bedroom doors, to dairy or nunnery, a place of seclusion or discipline, where the bowl of milk stands cool and pure and there’s a great washing of linen.”

Virginia Woolf, “A Woman’s College from Outside,” 1928

In Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy writes she was grateful for her Catholic education, in spite of everything because it was a history, a narrative, that she could reject and modify but it got her into the story. Looking at the world Smith gave me, I think something like that – it was not perfect in all sots of ways I want to give proper attention and space to – but it was a history. For many of us, you could be ambivalent or reject assets of the history, the traditions, but few were apathetic to it. It didn’t make a utopia, it may or may not have made a counterculture, but it was an experience, it was something, it wasn’t a place you went to pass the time. And so I go back to Woolf:

she lay in this good world, this new world, the world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, ad there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming. “Oh,” she cried, as if in pain.

Absent Fathers and Present Mothers: Reading Mary Gordon and Alison Bechdel

In Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechtel quotes from Virginia Woolf’s diaries in which she reports that her great novels about her parents, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse could not have been written while her parents were still alive.

That Woolf reports this as a matter of simple, unsentimental fact seems another thing that depends upon the absence of her parents. For Bechtel, the irony is clear: that her mother is still alive is what makes Are You My Mother? a looser and messier book than Fun Home, her elegy to her absent father and investigation into his absence. Her mother keeps popping up, challenging the story, shifting out of place.  

Woolf lost her mother at 13, an event which underscores the longing romanticism with which she paints the mothers in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  To my mind, there’s still no more devastating passage of loss than the parenthetical by which we learn of Mrs. Ramsey’s death: “(Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.)”

More often, however, it is the case that women marry older men and outlive them, that fathers leave and mothers stay, and that fathers’ inner lives are a bewilderment to their children, and that writers write books about absent fathers and present mothers. Another contemporary writer, the criminally under-read Mary Gordon, has produced in The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother a pair of memoirs that explore the legacies of an absent father and a present mother. Like Bechtel’s father, Gordon’s used intellectual pretension and artistic ambition to crush the residue of their secrets: in the case of Bechtel’s father, his attraction to men; in Gordon’s, his Jewishness.

Bechtel and Gordon wonder what it might mean to use words differently than their fathers who used them to dissemble and conceal, and both struggle with mothers who might prove to have a more unshakable relationship to language and belief than their daughters. When Gordon helps her mother, a devout Catholic, endure the terror of undergoing invasive tests while suffering from dementia by reciting the rosary she wonders how it is that there are no words in which she might find similar comfort, despite her whole sense of self being that of a writer and reader.

Part of the poignance of Gordon’s books is that her mother’s dementia places her in a limbo where self-disclosure is neither forbidden nor permitted. At one point, she decides not to escort her mother on an excursion – in part because she’s not sure if she will enjoy it but in part because she is working on her book and would rather write about her mother than spend time with her.  Sometimes I wonder if those with abusive or absent parents become writers or artists not because there is more material there, but because they are “liberated” sooner from the desire to please, placate, from the requirements of decorum. In a piece I wrote a while ago on Alison Bechtel, I talked about the ways therapy promises to essentially, kill off our parents without killing them: to kill Woolf’s angel of the house, to kill the need to please, and allow for truth. And yet, it seems to me, this is often cold comfort indeed, not only for those who mourn but for all of those, who, like Gordon and Bechtel’s absent fathers and present mothers still seek the comforts beyond truth of art or faith or beauty: that is, for all of us.


Today in Feminist History: Carolyn Heilbrun, 1926-2003, and Amanda Cross

Carolyn Heilbrun, author of many books including the classic Writing a Woman’s Life, and the first woman to get tenure in Columbia’s influential English department, was born ninety years ago this week.

Taking as its starting point Virginia Woolf’s remark that “very few women have yet written truthful autobiographies,” Heilbrun moves through the work of writers like Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Eudora Welty, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others to explore how self-perception, nostalgia and romanticization shape the stories women writers tell in different forms: “she may tell it in what she chooses to call autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.”  Read more

Best of 2015: Ten Essays and Articles from Ten Magazines

Here are ten remarkable essays or articles I read in 2015: not the best but ten that have stayed with me. My only rule was that I picked ten from ten different publications to spread the love around. A few of these were published before 2015, but I read them all this year, and none of them are too tied to any news cycle, so in my humble option they are all worth taking a look at.

The profiles: 

  1. “Voice and Hammer: Harry Bellafonte’s Unfinished Fight” by Jeff Sharlet in Virginia Quarterly Review.  A few days ago it was Frank Sinatra’s birthday and I saw a few people send around Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the original “write-around” that solves the how to write about the very written about problem. Sharlet’s essay reads like that, if Sinatra had been a lifelong tireless radical and truly important political figure. It brilliantly does the thing some of my favorite profiles do: make you realize how little you knew about an iconic figure.

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8 Approaches to the Papers/Grading Dillemma

If you’re any kind of an academic, or spend anytime with anyone who is, the end of a semester comes with the neurotic repetition of an essential truth: we hate grading papers. But the time to think about what to about that comes at the planning stage, so I thought I’d do a January post about this eternal question.

A while back, Rebecca Shuman had a piece on Slate that proposed a simple solution: stop doing it. Stop giving papers, stop grading them. Like a lot of her pieces, it was a combination of a solid insight with broad generalization and pure-Slate contrarian click-bait. I like the impulse at the core of it: if something isn’t working, maybe we should not do it any more. But there’s also the very-Slate like impulse that everyone out there is doing one conventional thing mindlessly, and only you are brave enough to call them out. The truth is, there a lots of professors out there with creative approaches to teaching writing and to using writing in a range of classes, and there’s also a very interesting literature out there on it. Partly to clarify my own thinking, and partly because I think this might be useful to other folks, I put together a list of some of what I think I’ve figured out after teaching composition, creative writing and literature for fifteen years. Some might apply more to folks teaching in one discipline more than others, and it’s probably impossible to do all these things in every class, but it’s probably possible to use some of them in any class.
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Quick Hit: Baldwin and the Magazines

In a 1984 interview,  Julius Lester asked Baldwin about his early days after the war as a writer publishing reviews and essays “for publications like The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary and Partisan Review” Baldwin described the people he met through these publications as a kind of “Olympus”:  “Dwight MacDonald told me that I was “terribly smart.” I certainly learned a lot from them, though I could not tell you exactly what I learned. A certain confidence in myself, perhaps.” 

Out of curiosity, I looked up all the bylines where Baldwin originally published the essays in his now classic first two collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name. Here they are: Commentary, Harper’s, New Leader, Partisan Review, The Reporter, The New York Times Book Review, Encounter, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Le Preuve.  The Fire Next Time was published in its entirety in the New Yorker, Baldwin’s first published essay in a national magazine was for The Nation, where his later work frequently appeared, and he was on their board during the last years of his life.

Of course no recent particular event and no particular magazine of note that maybe would have been predisposed to miss the work of an African-American who is probably the greatest essayist in American history and any prominent “serious” publications missing from the list  are just a coincidence. 

The Dancer and the Dance

This summer I published a poem about Lee Miller in Narrative.  Miller isn’t exactly obscure – people interesting in photography, war journalism, or surrealism are probably at least somewhat familiar with her life and work. But she isn’t a household name either – I didn’t know anything about her until I read Francine Prose’s collection of biographic essays about women – many artists in their own right – who have served as “muses.” I’ve been working on a group of poems, short fiction and short essays on other artists I’m interested in for a variety of reasons – people like Jay DeFeo and Isa Genzken and Maria Lassnig and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Again, none of these people are unknown, but they all have fascinating, not-common knowledge stories that having fascinating things to say about obsession, passion, bodies, sex, death, and all the other good stuff. I’ve worried, though, about how to talk about wanting to do this – it sounds a little old-fashioned: ah, those second wavers with their projects of “rediscovery”! Haven’t we found them all by now? Not by a longshot, as it turns out.  

This was on my mind recently when I read this great piece by my friend Joanna Scutts about the usually disappointning results and diminishing returns of the seemingly inexhastable genre of novels about writer’s wives, and how they tend to smooth over the uncomfortable details literary biographers deal with. Being in love with a difficult man – who can’t relate, these books seem to tell us. In wanting to bring women’s stories “from the shadows,” are we most interested if the shadow takes the form of a great man? Are we more comfortable with stores of talent squelched and repressed than those who worked through these paradoxes?

“That city which the people from heaven had made their home”: Thoughts on Baldwin’s “Another Country”

When I was volunteering at Housing Works Bookstore, one of the musicians who came to perform was a woman named Tift Merritt. I knew of her a little from my ex-boyfriend, and listened to a bunch of her music right around the time she played the show at Housing Works. Her most recent album at the time was “Another Country” and for a few weeks I kept listening to its title song, with its simple, sweet plaintive refrain:

I thought these things would come to me
Love is another country, and I want to go –

I want to go too. I want to go with you.I want to go too. I want to go with you.

She was incredibly gracious with the volunteers, and asked one of us if we had a copy of Baldwin’s novel hand. (But only if it wouldn’t be too much trouble). As I remember it, we managed to find one and she put it on her stand during her performance.

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