claudia rankine and allison cummings


 Barnard Conference



We met while working at Barnard in 1996. Claudia was teaching in the English Department and running the Women Poets Prize, an awards-and-lecture series, while Allison was the Associate Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, which hosted conferences, lectures, and short courses on women’s issues. When we began talking about the conference in 1998, we thought about gathering poets whose work had absorbed postmodern poetics and theory, but which did not necessarily treat language or signification thematically. We drafted a list of poets whose work we wanted to highlight and hear more about. Most were in fact featured at the conference, although there were some notable absences – Susan Howe, C.D. Wright, Tracie Morris, Anne Carson, Erica Hunt, among others. These writers were busy or away, or we couldn’t reach them in time or afford to host them. Those who eventually did read at the conference, then, represented some of the many women poets whose work might be said to straddle poetic modes.

With a similar mix of chance and intent, the original conference title, as submitted via the Call for Papers, was “Innovation and Experimentation in Contemporary American Poetry.” The subtitle “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry” was added later to clarify the range of poets and poetic modes we sought to represent. The new subtitle, however, shifted emphasis away from hybrid poetry allied with no named camp, toward an intersection between warring camps. Later still, the main title was shortened to “Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women.” The focus on women’s poetry, though absent from the first version of the title, had been implicit in the original Call for Papers. We thought this focus appropriate, since the conference was hosted and in part sponsored by Barnard. A central aspect of our intent in gathering a diverse group of women poets was to hear not only their work, but also their own formulations of their poetics. Most discourse on late twentieth-century poetics has been written by men, and has aimed to delimit various aesthetic positions or movements. Given that the (slight) majority of poets writing today are women, the dearth of spokeswomen for various aesthetic positions is striking. Of course, there are exceptions who are quite outspoken about poetics: Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Annie Finch, Alice Fulton, Joan Retallack, Rachel Blau du Plessis. We hoped the conference would generate further critical statements about (women’s) poetry – and ultimately, most of the poets and critics attending did have something to say about the “meeting” broached by our subtitle: about whether such a meeting is possible, equitable, or desirable. Those labels were assiduously unpeeled in conversations throughout the conference, and several poets did share statements that provided insight into their own work and into larger assumptions circulating in the poetry world.

To foster this kind of discussion, we organized a roundtable discussion at which the poets could speak about their poetic practices, goals, and assumptions. We requested formal statements for this forum. It became very clear during the session that several poets strenuously resented our request that they pinpoint their poetics, and in retrospect we felt guilty for having put them uncomfortably on the spot. Nevertheless, the roundtable only reinforced the strange gender gap that had intrigued us in planning the event. Our musings went something like this: Why is it that so many women poets – or is it simply most poets? – do not want to describe – or is it reify? – their poetics? Perhaps they are not in the habit of theorizing poetry, leaving that to critics or other poets so inclined. Perhaps the wish not to anatomize one’s aesthetic position stems from a core belief in slippery subjectivity and a fear of reductively fixing one’s position, limiting one’s vision of what is possible. Could this belief, this fear, have particular urgency for women writers? Jorie Graham, for example, pointed out that if she had made statements about her poetics ten or fifteen years before, critics could now wave them in her face and call her to account for no longer practicing what she had written. Other writers (Emerson, Charles Bernstein, and the artist formerly known as Prince come to mind) have, of course, dismissed the hobgoblin of consistency for similar reasons – to free them to evolve – but they have done so in the context of making artistic proclamations rather than self-reflexive critical statements. Many poets are feeling their ways through an era of turgid, competing aesthetics; are women more likely to respond with reticence, as opposed to braggadocio? Whose nature abhors a vacuum? Perhaps a theoretical overview of our multiple current poetics has not yet surfaced – or not yet settled – completely enough to stimulate satisfying pronouncements.

One wonders, though, if this area of reticence across poetic affiliations could in fact be a “meeting place” – albeit one conspicuous for its depopulation, like an empty chat room. Most feminists are rightly suspicious of fixed self-definitions. But could this evasion of statement stem from a shared – if tacit – belief in the (old-fashioned) mystification of poetic inspiration, sources, and scope? Does critical analysis – or psychoanalysis, or any discourse that seeks to define the inchoate – necessarily or forever lay to rest the small disturbances that stir creativity? Some writers clearly do feel that analysis kills creativity, and perhaps this understanding of the writing process becomes self-fulfilling.

The poets’ roundtable raised these and other questions, which may not be answerable and were not answered there. We knew before we began how conferences tend to gather their own identity and momentum, like high school cliques, allowing only certain permissible inquiries, while rendering others “out of the question” and encouraging self-affirming head-nodding. For instance, when Jorie Graham objected to poetries that privilege the “word over the world” or vice versa, her statement was somewhat derided. Granted, Language poets (and other postmodern artists) are who they are because they find these two entities inextricable, but might the opposition between object and representation be addressed in other, less combative terms? Would it be helpful to cite two passages that seem to exemplify aesthetic poles, to test the question against text? Similarly, someone raised the issue of “music” in poetry. Many of the poets present seemed to agree that music must remain a key ingredient of what we consider poetic language, and each affirmed that she thought about sound in her work (though Hejinian said she preferred awkward sounds). Yet no one ventured to define how Brock-Broido or Lauterbach or any other living poet understands the term “music” or how ideas of musicality might shape meta-poetic discussion.

At the end of her talk on Harryette Mullen and Erica Hunt, Allison asked a related question: what ingredient buoys certain volumes – such as Hejinian’s My Life and Mullen’s Muse & Drudge – to the top of poetry or criticism’s charts? A professor came up afterwards and suggested that she thought the magic ingredient was “spirit.” Allison thought simultaneously: “how mystified is that?” and “Exactly.” That is, those volumes have a life spirit in them that is not primarily steered by intellect; they are both “upbeat” and open in tone, in treatment of ideas, and in their signifying; both are continuous rather than fragmented and develop their own music; both seem to be governed or permeated by a presiding spirit of cosmic equanimity. Are these responses merely mystified and mystifying, or are they still critically useful? Could one call the buoyant quality “voice,” or is that “out of the question”? Each book represents the world through the word, though each claims its legitimacy outside language, in the realm of the cultural, the historical and/or the personal. “Voice,” “music,” “spirit”: these and other terms imply a reality prior to the subject’s construction in language, and so represent a set of assumptions that many thinkers regard as outmoded. But what terms can one use to recognize the buoyant qualities in Hejinian’s or Mullen’s work, without obscuring these poets’ clear integrations of postmodern ideas of identity and language? If the history of American poetry is any indication (though we know past performance is no indication of future results), one might safely assume that new terms are sure to accompany the Next Big Thing in poetry, whatever that may be.

Other divisions within contemporary poetry were apparent in New York that weekend. The People’s Poetry Festival, which occurred simultaneously downtown, featured non-stop readings and some talks. Though more expensive (if one were to attend the entire program), that event included far more “street,” slam, and performance poets than the Barnard conference. Thus, the uptown debates between poets and critics who are mostly (read by) academics was shadowed by a less-theorized rift, between poetries centered inside and outside the academy. Kathy Crown, who attended both events (and organized a poetry conference at Rutgers a couple years ago), commented that “lyric” and “language” poetries may “meet” in spoken word poetry, citing the example of Tracie Morris. Maybe the gaps between inside/outside-uptown/downtown poetries describe a split between poetry that is primarily read – silently, alone – and poetry that is heard in public. Most academic poetry would get booed out of the Nuyorican in ten seconds, and much spoken-word poetry does not sing on the page as it does on the stage. Spoken-word poetry, despite its name, features the world. It creates with its audience a public, evanescent experience that is fundamentally in and of the world, while those quiet university readings are much about the word, and often seem far removed from any street of bleeding, mundane struggles. The downtown poetry events did serve to cast the academic debates uptown in a different perspective, and to introduce other, overlooked terms into discussion. However, if cross-pollination occurred as a result, it was mainly in retrospect and from afar.

In spite of the many unanswered questions – or perhaps because of them – we were pleased with the conference all around. We were impressed with the participants’ passion, preparation, and serious engagement with the issues, and very pleased that people continued talking after the conference. Perhaps certain basic issues could have been discussed at more length: what roles do music, autobiography, politics, philosophy, play in contemporary poetics? Some of these were raised or touched on, but none were thoroughly addressed. We needed more time, having underestimated the duration of papers and included perhaps too many panels for a short weekend. However, if the lack of time in part spurred people to continue the discussion beyond the conference, so much the better.