Notes: Fences, Stop Signs, Shifters, or, the Conditions of Community

June 2015

Recently in a workshop at Bard College with this year's  Language and Thinking faculty, we did some reading and writing around selections from several texts: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of a New Science, Fanny Howe’s “Bewilderment,” and in the group I was in, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, among other things. At the same time, I was thinking about all the ongoing crises here and around the globe, including those in the poetry world around Kenny Goldsmith’s performance of a reworking of Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the Interrupt 3 Conference at Brown and even more immediately Vanessa Place’s tweeting in Blackface of Gone With the Wind. All of this was reaching a crescendo on Facebook and elsewhere in social media in the experimental poetry scene in the U.S., just as I was leaving California. In New York before bed, I had begun reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. The question hovering over our thinking and writing in the workshop at Bard was what needs to be the case for things to be otherwise.

Last year watching the British crime drama Broadchurch, I found myself pleasured by the cinematic fetish of West Bay’s cliffs in Dorset—straw- colored and sheared to the sea, up against a panoramic sky, the sort of visual pageant infrequently found on American TV. The diegetic sound offered a counterpoint. Words were spoken, conversations occurred between characters; what did he say?  We understood none of it. What was it? Rewind. Listen. Hit play. Rewind. Listening. Disciplining ourselves, learning to hear English spoken otherwise.   “Otherwise” implicates a perspective. 

In the course of explaining how scientific revolution shifts the "historical perspective of the community that experiences it," Thomas Kuhn describes a psychological experiment. Subjects were shown a series of cards, including anomalous versions—a black four of hearts for example. Many people “without any awareness of trouble” articulated what they saw according to existing conceptual categories, for example, identifying the card as either a four of hearts or spades. Over time, some subjects experienced hesitation and an “awareness of anomaly,” eventually registering the discrepancy in the card while others “were never able to make the requisite adjustment of their categories" (Preface, 63-4).

Describe [something] you couldn’t recognize for what it was as it was happening… (Longabucco)

The first time I read at Small Press Traffic (SPT) back in the late 80s or early 1990s, I was in my mid-to-late 20s and SPT was in a white building on the corner of 24th and Guerrero.  C was there, though he would come to hate and stop going to these events. As soon as someone discovered that he was not a poet or artist, that person would begin to drift, eventually turning away.

Wearing a ribbed long-sleeved shirt in tawny yellow, I nervously perused books for sale.  The shirt fit like a cliché. In my memory, Kevin Killian found me in stacks, like the library, though SPT had, I think, nothing of the sort, the books displayed on ledges hip high, facing out at you. I remember he said something kind, made me feel welcomed. Strangely, I don’t recall what I read, but that I read with Jean Day whose work I was unfamiliar with, whose language is chilled marble. Now having excavated some of the history of that present (of which I knew nothing then), I realize, the audience, there to hear Jean, would have disliked, frankly, disparaged whatever I had read. Too embodied. The subject had not been cut-out. Poor subject. She didn’t even know it. Double b(l)ind.

You must have something to give in the economy of the field.

You must make yourself vulnerable.

You must espouse a recognizably radical politics.

You will attend many readings and say something positive to the author afterwards.

You must be fortified.

You should appear to be comfortable.

You will recognize that you are deeply uncomfortable.

We will not always say hello or be sociable.

We will feel our power and superiority over others.

We will feel brutalized by our disempowerment, so many silent cuts.

We will feel inside this community, held.

We will always feel outside this community.

We will be pleased to be included.

We will feel the sting of our exclusion.

We will try to be inclusive.

We will not discuss our feeling.

They will commit violence in the name of overturning it.

They will take up more time and space because they can.

They will disagree.

I will still need fellowship.

I will experience moments of startling depth and connection.

I will be sick to my stomach.

I sometimes wonder about the healthiness of participating in this community.

I am on the edge

 given the histories of you and you— (Rankine 140)

Look at the subjects. Look at who is refusing the subjects. The individual who is at the center of an author function can only stutter I I I I I I.  On the periphery are those whose mouths should be shut. Who should not have opened their mouths he said he knew where her mouth had been and it had been all over. “Who do you think you are, saying I to me?” (140). She called out a fact. And because this fact had a story—that the avant-garde in poetry has a history of white supremacy—and because he has been trying to keep the facts in order in line in his line of vision this speaker who is she was called a mouth.  Look at the pronouns.  He deleted his post.  But there were witnesses.

“Every scientist [poet] who turned to chaos [language, or contrarily, marked experience, the body] early had a story to tell of discouragement or open hostility” (Gleick).

Every scientist/poet who turned over the rock of white gendered supremacy anytime had stories of virulent hostility.  Threats. Words and their histories. Let us conduct autopsies on the practices and languages that are being used and by whom. Who describes my death? Calls for a mouth to be shut, uses a body.  In other words,  


Look at the street sign Jim Crow Rd.

[Photo: Jim Crow Rd. by Michael David Murphy
printed in Citizen]

Look at a world collapsing inside.

Look at the stop sign whose face that never reads Stop! has been turned away.

Look at the back of the stop sign all grey, or is that white?

Look at the shadow of the stop sign. It looks like a lollipop or the sign of a hanged man.

Look at the white houses with their black roofs.

Look at the white car in the driveway.

Look at how the white houses stand out against a blue sky.

Look at the white space against the black type.

Look at how the trees are dark against the glare of whiteness.

Look at the stain on the edge between the blue-black road and the yellowing grass.

Look at how you can’t see what the name of the crossroads is.

Look at the fence deep in the background.

In her latest book, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes how during a book tour for The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, a well-known playwright comments on her pregnancy asking her “how did you handle working on all this dark material [sadism, masochism, cruelty, violence, and so on] in your condition?” Nelson explains “the old patrician white guy …call[s] the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that wild oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks” (91).


Writers, Verlyn Klinkenborg says, must authorize themselves. “No matter who you are” (37).  This is a claim that provides permission; in fact, is an imperative. I wonder about imperatives. I wonder about I’s who authorize themselves. Yet permissions are powerful. I know the necessity of authorizing oneself.  One needs a commons.  Step out onto the stage of this blog.

I’s and their authority cut all kinds of ways.  My I’s too. Foucault reminds us an author is subject to punishment. The author function provides a means for controlling the bewildering energy of a text. It puts up fences. An obsolete definition of the word authorize, the Oxford English Dictionary, says is “to vouch for the truth or reality” and yet, Rankine also cautions, “all our fevered history won’t instill insight” (142); however, "that man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it….achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable” (Rankine 126).

What is the space between I and I and you and we and they. What’d he say? What’d I just say? Say it again so I can hear we can hear       between

in  world of differences
                   who's there?

collective life              alive in the gaps

powers of departure

processes of becoming



Longabucco, Matt. Workshop at Bard College June 6, 2015
Gleik, James. “Revolution.” Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Several Short Sentences About Writing. New York: Vintage, 2013.
Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 2015.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: an American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.
Thanks to Matt Longabucco for the writing prompts that generated much of the work in this piece.


Up From the Archives: Talking with Roberto Bedoya

The dominant US ideology of Whiteness had policies that made me invisible which I challenged, still do.
                                          -- Roberto Bedoya

In September and October of 2008, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roberto Bedoya, writer, activist, arts administrator, curator for the reading series at Intersection for the Arts in the 1980s, and so much more!

You can find the interview here:

Outside is the Side I Take: Part One

Doing Civic: Part Two

Roberto Bedoya is the Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. He is also a writer and arts consultant who works in the area of support systems for artists. As an arts consultant he has worked on projects for the Creative Capital Foundation and the Arizona Commission on the Arts (Creative Capital№s State Research Project); The Ford Foundation (Mapping Native American Cultural Policy); The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations (Creative Practice in the 21st Century); and The Urban Institute (Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for US Artists and the Arts and Culture Indicators in Community Building Project). He is the author of the monograph U.S. Cultural Policy: Its Politics of Participation, Its Creative Potential (www.npnweb.org <http://www.npnweb.org/> ). He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Artists№ Organizations (NAAO) a national arts service organization for individual artists and artist-centered organizations, primarily visual and interdisciplinary organizations. NAAO was a co-plaintiff in the Finley vs. NEA lawsuit. Bedoya has been a Rockefeller Fellow at New York University and a Visiting Scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.


Celebration of Kathleen Fraser's 80th Birthday!

On Sunday March 22nd, Kathleen Fraser turned 80

Claim through and through,
breathe me now window.

Lift. Oh turn your back.
Turn will do.
                          --"Claim" from Notes preceding trust

photo by Steve Dickison

and a crowd of people from far and wide

a small portion of the audience
photo by John Sakkis

gathered at the California College of the Arts Writers' Studio on De Haro in San Francisco to fête Kathleen.

The event was organized by Stephen Motika and Susan Gevirtz, and co-sponsored by The Poetry Center and Small Press Traffic

The Writers' Studio was jammed with countless writers, book printers and artists, former students, colleagues, friends, family, and admirers. A group of about 15 writers each read for some 6 minutes, offering selections from Kathleen's work and their own responses, some in the form of poems or mini essays in various styles; some spoke extemporaneously about their encounters with Kathleen's work and with Kathleen herself. Opting to give myself entirely to the event, I didn't take notes, but here's a bit about what I remember people presenting.

photo by John Sakkis

Frances Richard talked about Kathleen's work and poetic matrilineage, Brian Teare beautifully re-encountered Wing via Mel Bochner's work, one of the original inspirations for the piece, John Sakkis elaborated a kind of litany inspired by Fraser, Jeanne Heuving told the humorous story of her move from an admirer of Donald Barthelme as a model for what she might be aiming for in her own writing to an encounter with Kathleen's New Shoes and its playful erotic energy, and then later with when new time folds up, in which Jeanne found pleasure in the graphic elements of "Etruscan Pages."
Eléna Rivera, Norma Cole, Beverly Dahlen, and Brenda Hillman addressed Kathleen's work in poems and experimental mini essays. Kazim Ali recounted an experience of taking Kathleen's workshop in New York City and his excitement about the promise of working with scissors and glue although the workshop never got around to actually using these materials since their discussions were so vibrant; nevertheless, cutting and pasting are integral facets of Kazim's process. After working through the lunch break, the whole group walked down the street for the Robert Creeley memorial.

Linda Russo recounted her experience of meeting Kathleen at a reading and Fraser's impact on Linda's own writing and book work. Lauren Shufran discussed moving to San Francisco from Buffalo and completing an interview with Kathleen started by Linda Russo. In Washington Square park Kathleen and Lauren talked for some 6 hours. Listening to these recordings later, Lauren was struck by how much of the time Kathleen was engaging her. Lauren and a number of other readers noted Kathleen's generous correspondence and the beauty of her letters. I read from "Notes re echo," briefly contextualizing Kathleen's use of the epistolary in poetry and literature's long and ongoing interest in the letter, from Ovid and Horace to Spicer, Mackey, Bellamy and Adnan, suggesting that the letter provides a formal and rhetorical zone in which the personal and the lyric can be remade, enabling poetry to work the lyric, record and remake the social, poetic and political landscape of our presents, or what will become our histories.

Kathleen closed the evening first by reading "little joy poem," published in The New Yorker. The New Yorker asked Fraser to change the title of the poem, but Kathleen refused. They published it.

little joy poem

Like a shiny bus in the snow,
I feel good this morning--
new upholstery, green and tough,
I'll never wear out!
The snowplow came at 2 a.m.
last night on its lonely task
and I looked from the window
waving my toothbrush.
(At night, the snow
changes color.)
Here I am--two legs
a new morning
and joy,
like the whiteness of cold milk,
filling me up.

Then, reading from WING, gorgeously produced by Dale Going who was in the audience from the east coast, Kathleen left us with her words and resonant voice vibrating in the air.

photo by Dale Going

The good news is you don't have to rely on my memory. Night Boat Books is going to publish a limited edition collection of the essays and encounters with Kathleen's work. This is forthcoming in the Fall. Keep an eye out for it.

All of the presenters offered rich and engaging encounters with Kathleen's work, but of course, even this diversity barely scratches the surface of Kathleen's contributions to the poetry world. There are indeed her more than 15 books, but there is also her work as a teacher, her feminist poetics seminars, workshops, and other classes at San Francisco State, her mentoring, her work as the founder and editor of the groundbreaking HOW(ever) and HOW2, her role as the Director of the Poetry Center at San Francisco State (1973-1976), her dumpster diving there to rescue NET Outtakes footage (a fact John Sakkis noted in his talk as "legendary"), and more.

I first met Kathleen at SFSU where I was an MA student beginning in the fall of 1985. I remember being in Kathleen's seminar and working with classmate Mira Pasikov on our presentation of Barbara Guest's Seeking Air. I was in my early 20s. It was daunting and exhilarating. During the years I spent at State, Kathleen suggested I interview various writers, write reviews of books or performances. She prodded me to do this and to submit these pieces to Poetry Flash. And I did. I'm still doing it!


H A P P Y   B I  R  T   H  D  A  Y  KATHLEEN!

Some more pictures of the event:

Arthur Bierman, Kevin Killian and Kazim Ali

Beverly Dahlen and Norma Cole
photo by Kevin Killian

Elena Rivera
photo by Kevin Killian


House-Scrub, or After Porn by Rob Halpern at Margaret Tedesco's [2nd floor projects]

Sunday March 1, 2015--at Margaret Tedesco's [ 2nd floor projects]
Sundays 12–5pm, Wednesdays 1–8pm, and by appointment

Left: Nancy White, Untitled; Center: Courtney Johnson, I am Living My Fantasy;
Right: Gregory Kaplowitz, Untitled (Shroud)Photos from M. Tedesco's blog

We celebrated the artwork by Courtney Johnson, Gregory Kaplowitz and Nancy White along with the publication of Rob Halpern's chapbook HOUSE-SCRUB, or AFTER PORN. 

Tedesco's light-filled and airy room accommodated some 35 or so people eager to hear Rob read. Many of these same people later headed over to Small Press Traffic's 5pm event, a Field Report with Jennifer Tamayo, Amy De'Ath and Cassandra Troyan. For a report on that event, click HERE.
photo courtesy of Margaret Tedesco


Here's a brief excerpt from Rob's compelling and beautiful work:

There are so many things I want to tell you, things that embarrass me most, though it's hard to voice any one of them, even for you whom I've come to trust. So far, all my writing amounts to these strategies of evasion. That's what I was telling Dana & Lee, sitting outside in the late August heat as we tried to grasp where it all might be going. Casting idols on my brain, the sun produces these false appearances, the dahlias burning under gunmetal skies, so I've yet to discover what real life feels like. At least that's what I tell them. But what I want to tell you is, well, take my body, for example, a place where incommensurables collide rhetoric & blood, price & value, datum & event the bad equivalent of a hole in a soldier's bladder before he's given the form to join the donor's club. The dialectic, having come to such dumb arrest, yields this taxonomy of wounds pasted to a straw man I'll never fuck, a cheap shot at militarization, its so-called human face. What figure do combatants cut against a company that earns the bulk of its twelve billion in annual revenue from army contracts, and whose product tracks my car as it moves thru any one of eight hundred Oakland intersections. This is why my book amounts to a simple X without the algebra to resolve its value in the world where the word 'decorative' modifies unintelligible things, thereby assisting sales. As in every cash-starved city, the promise of federal dollars makes military surveillance an easy cow. See what I mean, in the absence of incident, structure eludes, the poem being but the gesture of a body groping its own withdrawn architecture. Whether bound or bundled, all my usable parts compress to the volume of a prosthetic device shoved inside a foreign orifice. This is how capital explodes in song, usurping the air you might be privately singing, the way the very idea of the flood dries up after the deluge. That's so dutifully Rimbaud, but what would the equivalent be? After the idea of collapse recedes, my use of disjunction will bear no relation to a break in the chain of title, a detainee's autopsy report, or any old forensic audit robo-signed& withdrawn in hazy spells of law. But nothing appears to accumulate inside the hole my organ makes when, mortally wounded in grenade attack, his blown genitals get contracted to a public utility, a city square or park, this being but an asset to securitize, a convention by whose rhyme scheme 'scars' and 'cars' seem to be of common scale, a sound to sing no polis.



Field Report with Jennifer Tamayo, Amy De'Ath and Cassandra Troyan

Sunday March 1, 2015

Yesterday afternoon Small Press Traffic and Mills College collaboratively hosted a conversation/field report with Jennifer Tamayo, Amy De'Ath and Cassandra Troyan on the subject of gender and sexual violence in the writing scenes in New York, Vancouver and the UK, and Chicago.  The Bay Area writing scene has been grappling with these issues as well.  Artists Television Access (ATA), where the event was held, was packed with people standing, sitting on the floor, and spilling on to the stairs.

Each of the three presenters spoke for 10-15 minutes, informing attendees about recent events, the work they and others are doing, and articulated their own questions, doubts, and concerns about actual and potential possibilities for action, change.  After Jennifer (who went by JT), Amy, and Cassandra spoke, the audience was invited to ask questions while Samantha Giles and Stephanie Young recorded these questions on large sheets of paper. Each speaker then addressed some of these comments and concerns, the event culminating with all present invited to offer up  ideas for action.  Below I've tried to capture some of what I heard the participants saying. There have been a number of sexual assaults and gendered violence in writing communities and various public discourses around these events, many of those under discussion in the last year or so. Some of these I was hearing about for the first time. I've done my best to reflect a small portion of the content of this urgent discussion. For more info on this event and the discussants, please see Small Press Traffic's web site.

Jennifer Tamayo (JT) told us about her experience working with Enough is Enough, a group that came together after several sexual assaults against women in New York in August of 2014.  JT expressed frustration with

·         pervasive sanctioned sexism

·         unsafe poetry events

·         misogyny

·         the promotion of poets accused of sexual assault

·         a poetics of domination that operates under the guise of aesthetic gesture

·         the valuing of reputation over accountability

·         the lack of institutional and community memory (the aggressors are forgotten)

·         and  both the lack of resources and the continual refrain of "the lack of resources" as a   rationale for an absence of response.

JT spoke of various concerns and tactics--

·         considering who maintains a safe space

·         attending other events and meetings

·         supporting the shutting down of readings with men who are sexual assaulters

·         working on developing a site to maintain institutional memory.

JT closed with a list of "15 Things I've Learned."  There was no way for me to record all of these but I found this list powerful in its ethos of critical assessment, for example, when JT asked "What is preventing me from using these resources?" Other things on the list include:

·         "Organizing poets is hard and infuriating"

·         Demand what you want and be direct

·         Writing and thinking together is empowering

·         Shaming works


A number of these statements were interwoven into larger points and thus do not indicate discrete items, but as I was so engaged with listening, my pen couldn't keep up.

JT also noted "Ways I have Failed":

·         my efforts are too sectional

·         and are focused around cis women

·         Enough is Enough hasn't reached out to older generations

and argued that "there needs to be more destruction before building" since the problems are systemic.

This last claim I found particularly provocative and engaging; throughout the discussion, we returned to this a number of times.

Amy De'Ath's talk began with outline of three topics: First Nations in Vancouver and here in San Francisco, class in the UK, and online organizing.  She explored how one might use gossip and conjecture as a feminist strategy. De'Ath contextualized her own position in Vancouver as a settler on unceded Coast Salish territories, reminding us of the more than 1,017 indigenous women and girls who have been murdered in Canada and how the Canadian government refuses to launch an investigation into these murders, considering them isolated criminal cases rather than sociological and racist.  Amy offered a critique of Rachel Zolf's Janey's Arcadia worrying that it risks implying catharsis, suggesting that white settlers can cathartically work through settler issues, but also noting that this might be part of the problematic that Zolf intends to present.

Amy used to live in London and was part of the UK poetry scene which she described as "macho and exclusionary along class lines.” De'Ath expressed frustration with the confidence and rhetoric of entitlement among the  dominant male writers and wanted to think about how this is linked to "the poetics of  difficulty” particularly associated with Cambridge poetry. She discussed the posting of Elizabeth Ellen's "An Open Letter to the Internet" to the UK poetics list-serve and the fallout of that discussion. A group of feminist poets collectively left the list as a result.  There might be a piece in the Chicago Review that is forthcoming on all of this. I'm not sure.  De'Ath also discussed her participation in a group and list-serve that excluded cis males but did have one male queer feminist artist. Amy noted that she (ambivalently and hesitantly) thought that he should not be in the group, for reasons not at all to do with his personal politics – a position he later confirmed when he thoughtfully volunteered to leave. She also recounted the fact that a woman of color left the group because she did not feel welcome there. There were only two direct immediate responses to this woman's email announcing her departure, and for De’Ath, this event raised several serious problems in relation to issues of race and the question of what kind of content gets the most attention, and who is most comfortable speaking up in a space. At a number of points throughout the evening the conversation turned to the ongoing problems of white supremacy and racism across numerous writing scenes.
Last but not least, Cassandra Troyan spoke about their experience in Chicago which, because of  geographic, racial, and class segregation, doesn't quite have a central writing "community." They noted that when it comes to gendered violence, "silencing is extreme," with few women willing to name the men involved since many of them run institutions, presses, etc.  Troyan spoke of their work with the Chicago Feminist Writers and Artists (CFWA)and Feminist Action Support Network (FASN), noting that there is a cross-cultural scene there, with people coming from punk, radical, art, and music communities.  Troyan expressed interest in an accountability process, in facilitating safe spaces, in collective goals, discussing ongoing Sunday workshops on a variety of topics, from mental health to self-care, healing justice, generational violence--that have been taking place.


Some of the Questions/Comments Proposed by Attendees:

 How do we surface unconscious bias?

How can people support individual work?

What can we learn from what others are doing?

Someone wanted to know why JT read off the list of names of the 72 attendees at the first Enough is Enough meeting.

How do we respond in the moment? How to call shit out!

Exclusion and transformative justice and how these are related to systems of incarceration

What are the limits of gossip?

How does information move?

How to differentiate between aesthetic preference and closed communities

What is the link between aesthetic difficulty and class, gender, race?

How to dismantle white supremacy in poetry circles?

The problem of indigenous issues not being able to be made present. An attendee mentioned someone who did not come to the Sunday event because of this concern. There is simply no space to address this issue, given the community.  Another participant underscored this claim noting that race cannot be addressed precisely because the community is largely white and cis.

Some of the comments under A Call to Action, generated by the entire group included (The discussion was out of time as ATA needed to close for the evening. Some of these were more notational or working propositions, rather than explicit calls):

An understanding that not everyone wants to take action in the same way. How can we make this possible?

Creating individual healing for those most affected.

Safe spaces.

Establishing Support Liaisons

Organizing Rage Liaisons

How to collectively lower inhibitions around booing and hissing


Some people suggested that writers of color do not need white people or cis men. A brief discussion about who is needed or wanted ensued.

The atmosphere was alive at this event. Stay-tuned: there may be follow-up meetings.


Class and New Narrative Redux!

I've decided to dive into the archives of xpoetics which has now been "on air" since 2008 (can hardly believe it) to give some of the posts a second life. While I do not very often publish my own work on xpoetics, sometimes I do, and I am going to take the liberty of exhuming one of my pieces:

Out of Context: What’s Class Got to Do with It?
A Review of LIAR by Mike Amnasan
San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear, 2007


It is particularly fitting to begin with this piece since LIAR was published in 2007, but was actually written decades earlier.

Prior to its publication, the sole surviving copy of the manuscript was in the hands of Camille Roy who photocopied it for classes she was teaching. My review of LIAR was originally published in Crayon 5.




Marianne Morris's "Mother Poems" and a Poetry of Live Address

I am so pleased to offer you a selection of work by UK poet Marianne Morris. In addition to a selection of poems, Morris has graciously shared with us a prose piece contextualizing the poems and their relation to performance and politics via live address and human interaction. Enjoy!

Marianne Morris started Bad Press in 2003, which has since published over ten, mostly female, authors, in the UK and North America.  She has written over ten chapbooks; her first full collection, The On All Said Things Moratorium, was published in 2013 by Enitharmon Press.  She holds a PhD in performance writing from University College Falmouth, and a BA in English from Cambridge University; St. John’s College awarded her the Harper-Wood Studentship for Creative Writing in 2008. She is currently studying Oriental Medicine and herbalism in California.

by Marianne Morris

The sequence called ‘Mother Poems’ is the result of a long process of my efforts to develop a poetry of live address: it evolved out of editing original drafts of a poem variously called ‘The Great Sublimation’, ‘The Unsublimation’, and ‘Greek With Me’. These titles evolved in the aftermath and anticipation of ten separate public readings over two years.[1]

The act of public reading provided assistance in the composition and editing of these poems because it focused my attention on the idea that the poems were being heard, and therefore belonging in the realm of human interactions. After reading an early draft in New York, for example, I significantly cut a long section referring to Hegel’s writings, hearing or understanding in their live echo as I read, a disconnection between the obscure references and the audience’s immediate ability to grasp their origins.

‘The Great Sublimation’, the first in the series, relies on a framework of references to Ancient Greece to maintain its focus, but is also marked by the extensive use of quotations from Hannah Arendt, G.W.F. Hegel, John Keats, Jacques Lacan, J.H. Prynne, and Harvey Yunis. This focus on quoted material links back to Plato’s conception of writing as unable to articulate its needs for itself, always need[ing] its father to help it’, and its implied need for legitimacy.[2] Reference has also been associated with male tendencies in conversational speech, which ‘men tend to orientate to its referential function’:

 Men’s reasons for talking often focus on the content of the talk or its outcome, rather than on how it affects the feelings of others. It is women who rather emphasise this aspect of talk.[3]

 I employed reference material in ‘Mother Poems’ in order to subject it to poetic language. I cut the quotes up, changed them, and added my own words. They are intended to function in these poems more as raw materials than as indicators of outside knowledge. In addition to the quotes already mentioned, in the final poem, I also included fragments of the initial notes that I made during composition. The earliest drafts of ‘The Great Sublimation’ were heavily footnoted, and part of the editing process involved amalgamating the text of the poem with the text of these notes. This helped to resolve the conflicts implied by the two different registers of discourse, and also to contain and streamline the poem, reasoning that the presence of footnotes would not only interrupt the flow of poetic discourse, but also to imply that there was thinking about the poem’s content that needed to be done separately in order for it to convey its full meaning.

The word feminism has a medical root. In 1875, it denoted ‘[t]he appearance of female secondary sexual characteristics in a male individual; feminization’ (OED). This root is particularly interesting with regard to the semi-permeable boundaries of polis and oikos, because in the early medical sense, feminisation was the appearance of female characteristics in places where they were not expected. In accordance with a feminist poetics, then, I wanted to write a poem through the idea of the fixed, male, despotic space of polis being confronted by some of the female qualities of oikos – permission, fulfillment, intimacy. I wanted to see what would happen if Ancient Greek polis had a mother.

I came to this conclusion through various public readings of drafts of poems that ended up as ‘Mother Poems’. I started off introducing the early drafts at readings by explaining that I had some grievances with Ancient Greece. In a January 2012 reading in New York, I described the drafts as the result of my thinking about Ancient Greece and ‘trying to fight with it in my poetry’.[4] This description was a modification of my earlier attempt to describe the poems in the introduction to a December 2011 reading in Berkeley, CA. I discussed this earlier introduction in an interview with the California-based poet, David Brazil:

DB: In your reading in Berkeley in 2011 you said, “Fuck the ancient Greeks.”  Were you thinking of any ancient Greeks in particular?  Would you rather root for the Persians?  How about the modern Greeks?  How about petrol bombs against astunomoi, February 2012?

MM: Oh dear, how rude. I am so not punk. I am actually pretty fond of a number of Ancient Greeks, Plato and Sappho among them. I think maybe it’s just that the Ancient Greek ideal city-state of polis would benefit from a mother. I have been working on a poem for a couple of years now that attempts to address the faulty elitism of polis, the city space which excludes everyone except the male heads of households, but which nonetheless still retains important ideas for contemporary thinking about political engagement (for example, in its conceiving of speaking and acting as equally valuable). And I’m about to contradict myself, but I also get frustrated when I see so much Ancient Greek thought sneaking into modern theory—Jacques Rancière I am looking at you—at least partly because one of Plato’s best ideas in the Phaedrus is that writing is just a little kid who needs its daddy to hold its hand because it is immutable and doesn’t know how to speak to anyone, and the reiteration of Ancient Greek thought in the present time seems like a perfect metaphor for this hand-holding. I have many imaginings about a poetry of live address that can and does know how to speak and who to speak to.[5]

These comments are tied to Plato’s description of writing in the Phaedrus, where he tries to discredit it as being immutable, confined to a rigid space, unable to speak to anyone. The paragraph that particularly bothered me was this:

The offspring of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.[6]

This seems to me the crux of the contradictions inherent in the notion of a ‘political’ writing, or perhaps simply the anachronism of it. Political space is, etymologically, womanless, and when it translates into contemporary time, it carries that inherently masculine structure with it, in patriarchal traditions of thought. Plato prescribes here for writing a patrilineal doom: it is doomed not only because the written word amounts to a helpless babbling Echo, but that its only hope is in its being helped along by its masculine elder, who provides through his very presence a form of legitimacy. Jacques Rancière’s recycling of this idea serves only to reinforce this perception of the written word, both as helpless, and requiring the help of its father. Rancière is speaking generally from ‘the Platonic point of view’ when he paraphrases this idea, without directly acknowledging its source:

By stealing away to wander aimlessly without knowing who to speak to or who not to speak to, writing destroys every legitimate foundation for the circulation of words, for the relationship between the effects of language and the positions of bodies in shared space.[7]

Rancière recycles the root of the idea and builds on it, crucially altering the clause about illegitimacy to posit writing itself as the root destroyer of ‘every legitimate foundation’ for its own circulation. Most peculiarly, he also brings in ‘the position of bodies in shared space’ to support his argument: surely bodies in space are the correct setting for reclaiming the legitimacy of language, where ideas remain possible, unfixed, and subject to dialogue. Rancière’s manoeuvre here in fact reinforces the anti-political aspect of the written word that Plato finds so oppressive, first by attempting to re-posit a stale idea, and secondly by sourcing this idea from the archive of a fatherly figure, whose very presence ‘protects’ it, and gives it legitimacy. Its legitimacy comes from the safety of repetition; it is (literally) unimaginative, and thereby the antithesis of progressive politics.

For Rancière, therefore, it is no surprise that ‘[p]olitics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it’ (13) – essentially prescribing a permanent re-positing of what is already in existence, a championing of the status quo. His politics consists of the interpretation of events, sealed in by existing actualities, rather than the imagining of the future possible, in which the idea of change is rooted.

Politics here is submitted to a reading of itself as relating to fixed categories of what is visible, what can be quantified, and what does not change. The comments made in the interview with Brazil quoted above aim to challenge this notion. What I particularly like about the exchange is the way that, in re-positing my original aggression back to me and challenging it through confrontation, the aggression necessarily deflates and submits to more careful and articulate examination: a somewhat crude example, perhaps, but therefore perhaps a striking metaphor about the importance of poetry’s having an audience, or of being thought of as having an audience. Not, perhaps, to the extent that a poet is writing for ‘a reader’, but that, particularly in the context of a poetry that is read in public, it is part of a social interaction, an exchange, and will encounter people in different contexts on its way. I do not mean to invoke the category of ‘the reader’ as the building blocks of a market, a mutable category exhibiting a particular taste. This is not ‘the reader’ discussed by Barry and Hampson (paraphrasing Donald Davie):

the general poetry reader will tolerate a degree of surface difficulty, but only so long as the subject matter remains essentially familiar.[8]

 Nor is it the reader Don Paterson describes as seen by ‘the Mainstream’ as ‘equal collaborator in the creation of the poem’, contrasting this with the reader in Postmodern poetry, who ‘is alone’.[9] These allusions to the reader are tied to the idea of poetry as a product, and the idea of the public as its patrons, who in turn expect a particular kind of service. I have come to conceive of the idea of an audience in the sense discussed by Nicholas Bourriaud as ‘relational aesthetics’, which produces

[…] an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space[.][10]


we the massive majority in our bodies are few

as am I from my seat upstairs alone being with you

being with you


The reader, who does not exist, becomes anyone; it becomes the category of people listening, which is unfixed and uncertain. It is predicated on the only things that a person can assume to have in common with any other person, the abstractions that fall under the watch of the category of compassion, and under the motherly qualities of care lacked by ancient polis.





Some of ‘Mother Poems’ became a weird pop opera, which I performed in London at POLYply 11 (June 2011) to a backing track of reggaeton and synth voices.  Some of it went into the final manuscript for DSK, a chapbook printed by Tipped Press in Tokyo in 2012.

 I read the final version of this poem in June 2012 at a reading to mark the launch of the fourth issue of The Paper Nautilus, a magazine devoted to women’s poetry and poetry criticism. I read with four other female poets, all my age or younger than me. In terms of thinking about the relevance of ‘Mother Poems’ to the current sociopoetic landscape, this reading seemed an exemplary event in that the other readers were all young women. In addition, each poet was asked to read the work of another poet in addition to something of their own, which opened up the reading to new voices and new poetries, broadening the dialogue, expanding the sphere of knowledge, and posing a generous model for sharing work.


[1] I first read ‘The Great Sublimation’ in Cambridge, May 6, 2011, and then read subsequent drafts at nine separate poetry readings: POLYply11 and Intercapillary Places in London (June 2011), Hi Zero in Brighton (November 2011), a house reading at Woolsey Heights in Berkeley, CA (December 2011), Segue in New York (January 2012), Lyric & Polis in Falmouth, Cornwall (February 2012), Poets Against Dominque Strauss-Kahn in Cambridge (March 2012), Stichting Perdu in Amsterdam (March 2012), the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol (April 2012), and the Poetry & Revolution conference in London (May 2012).
[2] Plato (1973) Phaedrus & Letters VII and VIII. Translated by W. Hamilton. Middlesex: Penguin, p.56
[3] Holmes, J. (1995) Women, Men and Politeness. London: Longman, p.2
[4] MARIANNE MORRIS, SEGUE READING SERIES, BOWERY POETRY CLUB, JANUARY 7TH, 2012’ [audio] [online] Available at: < http://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Morris-Marianne/Morris-Marianne_Segue-BPC_1-7-12.mp3> [Accessed September 19, 2012].
[5] Marianne Morris, Iran Documents (Tennessee: Trafficker Press, 2012), pp.44-5.
[6] C.D.C. Reeve, Plato on Love: Lysis, Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades with selections from Republic, Laws. (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2006), p.275.
[7] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by G. Rockhill, 2006 (2000). London: Continuum, p.13.
[8] Barry, P & R. Hampson. New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible. Manchester: MUP, 1993), p.4.
[9] Don Paterson & Simic, C., New British Poetry (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2004) p.xxix.
[10] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les presses du reel, 2002), p.14.