“Friends, bitches, countrymen: lend us your ears!” After some hoots and applause, the poet Sarah Vap continued, “And let’s not forget the line that follows that one: ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.’” So began “Friends, Bitches, Countrymen: Contemporary Feminist Poetics” at the University of Southern California on March 26 as part of their Visions and Voices Program. Providing context for the event for a diverse audience, Vap gave what may be the best description yet of third-wave feminist poetics: “Nothing feels more complicated and more relevant to me than figuring out the relationships between language and power, language and gender, language and racism, language and sexuality, language and systemic violence, language and incarceration, language and citizenship.” Indeed.
Vap’s initiative was to bring five thinker-poets to campus for deep interrogation of the practices of poetry and feminism: Dawn Lundy Martin, Carmen Giménez Smith, Danielle Pafunda, Arielle Greenberg, and Stacey Waite. But Vap explained to me later that this event was what she calls “self-organizing”: the participants were in dialogue for months prior, “noting where there were sympathies and antagonisms and resonances and gaps—and sometimes they chose to highlight those resonances, or let those gaps stand, or create resonances….” She did not provide a full event itinerary to the organizers as she, herself, was not sure what shape the evening would take: “This, to me, is a feminist event in its form and making as well as its content.” Vap’s excitement in bringing a group of women poets with radical feminist politics into conversation was contagious: “I imagine that their feminist poetics are going to be complicated, and I imagine that they might be un-gentle, and it’s likely their feminist poetics are going to want to undermine all kinds of ideas, undermine all kinds of systems—and I hope they do it.
Dawn Lundy Martin began the event with a video essay. The jumping off point for her piece was the 1964 play Funnyhouse of a Negro by Adrienne Kennedy, which involves a fractured character named Sarah with many selves—Duchess of Hapsburg, Jesus, Patrice Lumumba. The video showed a slow-motion close-up of what I eventually realized was a woman dancing joyfully against a cityscape, while Martin’s voiceover addressed race, womanhood, and black masculinity with quiet intensity. Then some of Kara Walker’s most recent work filled the screen—not the silhouettes by Walker we are used to, but sketchy and dynamic images. Here we have pencil-to-paper rather than X-ACTO-knife-to-material. Between the stitching of the dancing woman and these stills was news footage of acts of police brutality upon a peaceful gathering of families of people of color. Her words made elliptical reference to the film, exploring the black and/or female body as a site read by society, a site that is also perhaps inscrutable. Martin’s words, dizzying in their intelligence and reach, had a palimpsestic effect without giving any subject a particular privilege or priority. The effect was almost overwhelming. Yet this was an event about being overwhelmed, creating a space in which people often had to produce and present work within structures imposed by others.
Reading “Four Parts of an Idea About White Privilege and Transforming Innovative Poetry and The Academy,” Carmen Giménez Smith’s narrated an enraging dream of powerlessness alongside compelling quotations about race and gender (from bell hooks to Conan O’Brien). Reading the third section, Giménez Smith called us out concerning tokenism in what we assign, what we read. “I’ll be honest, your efforts underwhelm me,” she said, going on to state, “My efforts underwhelm me too.” She continued, explaining her carefulness as a Latina in the academy and her peers’ inappropriate comments and requests, finishing with, “Yeah, I’m pissed. I’d like you to join me in being pissed.” Giménez Smith listed off demands, showing how we might move beyond “being pissed” to action: 1) Acknowledge privilege; 2) Call the elders out; 3) Move beyond token acts of diversity. With each demand, she explored what such actions could and should mean. Her final section was a generous and perhaps necessary one for those of us who work doggedly in the academy to subvert the cultural hegemony that she identifies. Her piece was layered and powerful, pointing to intersections between gender and race, to the academy, and to what we can do to upend the common practices academic liberals may hope will make an impact. “Poetry is not benign,” she said.
As Giménez Smith finished, Danielle Pafunda came to the front, and the two began to sterilize their hands, open some bottles, pull out what appeared to be bandages—all which had been sitting innocently on a nearby table but gone generally unnoticed. Giménez Smith then placed herself on a chair and unzipped Pafunda’s dress; Pafunda worked the straps off and exposed her shoulders and bra. The dress slid to her elbows, which were bent to hold her pages on the podium. Giménez Smith stretched on some plastic gloves, and began doing something to Pafunda’s back that we could not see, while Pafunda talked about the female body as a “system” by which her own poems are “rigidly regulated”: “Sometimes I look at my husband and am horrified by the knowledge that his DNA has lodged in me, courses through and activates me via the fetal cells that travel in pregnancy to the host’s brain, breast tissue, etc. I am my family’s – my kin’s—living crypt.” As she spoke she sometimes winced, and at one point gave one small gasp, giving us a hint of what Giménez Smith was up to. Pafunda’s essay invited us to consider what is in a female body (particularly one that has given birth), what it is worth, and who owns it—what a girl is, too, for being a girl is the beginning of the female body’s troubles. Eventually Giménez Smith dabbed and covered Pafunda’s back with a bandage. The white cotton was turning red—this was no fake-out. During the question and answer session we finally learned definitively that Giménez Smith had tattooed Pafunda on stage while she was reading her piece. Later, Pafunda showed some of us—a red “f” that resembled a forte sign. “F for feminism!” she said. It was her first homemade tattoo—and Giménez Smith’s, too.
Arielle Greenberg’s talk, while perhaps the most like an academic paper—involving slides and the interrogation of a particular portmanteau, the “Gurlesque” in her title “Beyond the Gurlesque: A Call for a Radical Third Wave Femme Aesthetic of Masochistic Pleasure & Other Delights”—also exploded the common practices of the scholarly talk. She explained her term “Gurlesque” as describing a particular aesthetic of women writers born in the 70’s. Greenberg acknowledged that the first iteration of the Gurlesque movement had been hindered by one of the the same problems as Second-Wave Feminism: representing only the (apparently) straight white suburban woman. “Perhaps the Gurlesque doesn’t go far enough in destroying the status quo,” she said. Greenberg stated she wants to move “beyond the Gurlesque,” then considered the issue of femme identity. She called up fellow presenter Stacey Waite, “because in order for you read me as a femme subject, I need a butch.” With Greenberg sitting on Waite’s lap, Greenberg’s discussion of the femme/butch dichotomy was given physical manifestation. After some time, Waite sat back in the audience, and Greenberg discussed other women’s experiences in a patriarchal system as well as her own. Considering troubling realities, Greenberg described her poetic response: “an erotic, explicit, arousing, disturbing, feminist aesthetic of sexual pleasure that kicks the patriarchy in the nuts, even as it may choose to suck cock.” She closed her talk with a poem from her recent series of pornographic poems that describe doing just that (and much more).
Stacey Waite rounded out the night with their experience of being intersex (Waite’s choice of pronoun is deliberate) and, for the majority of their life, not having the label but nonetheless what they “had already known in [their] body.” Waite’s intersex identity places them in a place that often does not fit into the easy binaries of male/female, even queer/straight. “I move through the world as a contradiction,” they said, “and there was a long period of time where that felt terrible.” Even in spaces that one would think an intersex individual would be welcomed if not at least understood (a fan email, friends, colleagues, solicitations for various lists and anthologies), many remarked on Waite’s not fitting into any easy category. Waite read two poems that were striking in their ability to provoke empathy for the experience of being intersex. Waite explained, “I believe if all the genderqueers keep writing, keep talking, keep creating, we can take back the playground from the norm-protecting bullies.” Considering how packed the theater was, hopefully many (genderqueer or not) heard and answered Waite’s call.
As Susan McCabe and Sarah Vap came forward with the presenters to start off the question and answer session at the completion of the talks, I could not help but feel a particular elation, not only in what these poets had said and performed, but that they were doing it in a place like USC, an academic space that typically does not embrace radical feminism. It felt as if these writers were getting away with something. Someone asked about notions of accessibility and feminist poetry, which I could not help but feel was directed toward potential naysayers in the audience who were considering the limits of the university setting. Waite explained what they often tell their students when they get frustrated with Judith Butler—that Butler is working within an oppressive patriarchal system that makes it nearly impossible for her to express her feminist ideas. Then Greenberg took the microphone and stressed the importance and value of difficulty in creative work—that it should demand much of us as readers and artists: “If it’s not difficult, then what the fuck are we doing this for?”