Friday, October 19, 2007

a letter to the editors...

In case you were wondering what all the recent discussion has been about...

Poet Stephanie Cleveland has agreed to allow us to publish her letter in its entirety here on the blog as a letter to the editors. At the bottom of this post, you'll find links to my response, as well as Melissa's.

Dear Susan and Melissa at blossombones,

I am a 28 year old feminist poet. I grew up in Winterville, Georgia, and now live in Manhattan. My poems have appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and jubilat, and are forthcoming in Conduit. Simone Muench encouraged me to submit work to you, as she felt you would appreciate my poetry.

I have been following your blog a little over the summer, trying to get a sense of who you are and what blossombones might be like. I hope it is alright to share some concerns with you.

I was frustrated and saddened by your recent blog post, in which Susan called for poems that were not political in their use of language. As a woman poet, the idea of a magazine focused on woman-centered writing appealed to me a great deal, but after reading those additional qualifications, I felt much more hesitant about submitting.

I do not have a lot of patience for post-modernism, at least not in the ways it is currently practiced in many US universities, poetry workshops, and women's studies courses. I think post-modernism frequently gets misused to undermine the women's movement, to prevent women from speaking about our common experiences of oppression under male dominance, and to keep us from asking for spaces free of men's words where our own ideas can be heard. I feel strongly that anyone who would accuse you of being essentialist for attempting to create a space for women's writing, would be using a rhetorical strategy against you that is sexist, elitist, and deeply anti-feminist. Many women outside academia (including myself, until recently) have never even heard of essentialism, and feel it, and other inflated, academic, post-postmodern jargon, mean absolutely nothing to us in our daily lives-- lives in which, in the real world, women are beaten, raped, and murdered by men every minute. Catherine MacKinnon has a wonderful essay about postmodernism and its effects on contemporary feminism in her collection of essays, Are Women Human?, if you are interested in further discussion on this topic.

In the world we live in, many spaces and opportunities that have historically been available to men remain closed off to women. The idea of a space for women's writing feels necessary, given that fact--it is not something you should have to justify to male or female peers. I was disappointed to learn you had considered featuring only women's writing in blossombones, but ultimately decided against that idea. I think a woman-only journal could potentially have been an important venture for women artists. Yet, as women, I think we sometimes focus more of our energy on trying not to alienate men, than on working towards our own equality. If you feel worried about excluding men, consider how a magazine featuring only women's writing would provide them with a rare opportunity to read, listen, and learn from women's poetry and ideas, published in woman-only space. That is a chance truly pro-feminist men would appreciate. As things stand, every time you accept a male author's work, it means giving him a slot a woman might have filled with her voice. To me that feels unequal, especially since men are not hurting for places to publish elsewhere.

Reading your blog entry and remarks about the guidelines, I also wondered if you might find it more useful to say that you are interested in work that speaks about the "female" experience, rather than a "feminine" one. As a woman writer, I have much to say about what it means to be female in this world. On the other hand, I do not identify with the concept of femininity at all. Feminine and masculine are, in my view, social constructs which compromise life for women, and to a lesser degree, men too. Women like myself--women who do not shave, do not enjoy wearing dresses, heels, skirts, lipstick or makeup, and don't like being seductive or sexy around men-- may feel a little alienated by the idea of writing about a "feminine" experience for blossombones.

I am all for offering you work that speaks about my experience as a woman. However, in order to talk about things relevant to women's lives, I need freedom to write about all my experiences, not just the ones men accept as relevant or worth hearing about. You write as though you believe any poem a woman might create about eating disorders or having a period will inherently be inferior. I would strongly urge you to reconsider that position. Your words sound frighteningly similar to sexist critiques men sometimes direct at me, and other women poets who write about specifically female experiences. If a male editor discouraged women from submitting poems about having periods or an eating disorder to his magazine, I hope his behavior would register with you as undeniably misogynist. I wonder sometimes if, as women, our decisions to cordon off parts of our lives as too trivial to write about, are evidence of internalized misogyny. Maybe we've learned hatred for ourselves, or for the parts of ourselves men don't care for, in a world that hates women so much to begin with. I think in some ways it feels easiest to be silent about those parts of our lives, rather than giving men the chance to ridicule us when we write about them.

But if you write off all poems about menstruation, eating disorders, or poems that involve women's emotions--saddness and anger, as well as humor and desire--you will be writing off work by poets like Alice Notley, Stephanie Brown, Louise Gluck, Jennifer Moxley, Slyvia Plath, and others whose poetry is incredibly rich and valuable. Alice Notley writes, "The purple blood on the toilet paper, with small clots is the horse's," in an untitled poem that starts out with that reference to menstrual blood and continues to rotate around descriptions of the poet's period. In Commencement Address, Stephanie Brown begins:

I have no more to say about throwing up or causing myself to get diarrhea there's nothing heroic about it though the movies on TV want us to endure quietly and cry appropriately. It's a wonderful role for any young actress to place herself in some household where the dialogue is sexual between all of them including dead grandparents who are still alive in theory and very much inside everyone's bodies,..."

Both these poems were selected by David Lehman for his anthology of American prose poetry in 2003, if male approval matters to you. I think many men however, believe bulimia, anorexia and menstruation are trivial if not disgusting topics, not worthy of getting poems from. Men themselves don't experience these things, at least not in the ways women do, so they may not feel obligated to listen. I think women, however, are completely capable of writing strange, strong, beautiful, unusual and brilliant work about these experiences, and I would ask that you not trivialize that work, or make fun of women poets who produce it. It feels difficult for me to understand why you would encourage women to write about lipstick on a beer can, but not blood on a maxi pad? Is it because most men think a lip-print is sexy and seductive, but menstrual blood dirty and nasty?

In my poetry, I'm using concrete, strange, inventive, lyric language; it's also language that is fiercely political. One of the most important claims of feminism has always been that the personal, the daily, is political. As a feminist, as a survivor of male violence, as a person who deals with sexism each day of her life, the simple fact that I write at all, that I open my mouth to speak, or type out my words on my computer, is a political action. It means I am daring to believe that my thoughts and ideas matter, that my poems about life as a woman have a right to exist. The majority of men in this world, at some point in their lives, will treat women and our words as inferior. This happens, particularly when we write about our experiences in ways men don't feel comfortable with. But each time I write a poem, I am calling men's labeling of my work as inferior, a lie. White people frequently tell lies about the work of poets of color as well, treating political poems by poets like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Sapphire, and Eileen Tabios, as having less artistic merit because they are overtly political, but do not assume political poems written against racism and sexism by these women are worth any less than a poem by Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery. Also, do not assume all strong, well-crafted poems are apolitical. As fiction writer Dagoberto Gilb writes, "To write is a political action....Writing transcends life and death. Writing becomes overt politics when it's about war, but writing is also about transformation of your soul. Losing your soul....I will say that this is politics too, just not what is usually called that." I think if blossombones attempts to depoliticize women's poetry, particularly in the deeply sexist, racist, and imperialist age we are now living in, you run the risk of making women's words irrelevant.

Stephanie Cleveland

Response from Susan

Response from Melissa

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