Lady in the House Questions: Rachel McKibbens

1.What has been your ultimate journey?

Being a parent. I’ve been a mother since I was a junior in high school, it’s taken me twenty years to figure out what I’m doing; what works, what doesn’t. When I was young, I wanted to have six boys. Big mean boys. The idea of girls frightened me. I didn’t think I would know how to raise one since I was not raised as one myself. But having three strong daughters has allowed me to become empowered by my own femininity and that shit is exciting! Plus, they’re big and mean, in the best way.

 

2. How do you start? How do you end?

In the dark. It’s my inner-former-foster child; I am only motivated by chaos – as long as everything is falling apart, I am able to create. I don’t end. I wait.

 

3. Do you worry about the politics of classification? How do you classify yourself?

I struggle with classification every day. Being a non-Spanish speaking Latina and recovering misogynist slash feminist is HARD. So many times, someone has asked, “What are you?” and I want to say, but never do, “Everything.”

 

4. When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down?

I’ll knock anything down if it needs it. Not all walls need it. Some of them have a good reason, so I let ’em be. But it’s important to know you have the power to construct or demolish. This question reminds me of something a girlfriend told me, back when I was in an abusive relationship. For five years, I was getting my ass kicked, and my only answer to that was in trying to come up with ways to devastate him so he would finally leave me, and my friend just shook her head and said, “Or you can just walk out of the door, Rachel. Leave. Not everything has to be a fiery explosion of brick and mortar.”

 

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Lady in the House Questions: Rachel McKibbens

On “Little Books,” the Physicality of Writing and Revising Fairy Tales: Gina Fragello and Stacy Bierlein in Conversation

HER KIND: Welcome to the Conversation. In her poem “Anatomy,” Monica Ferrell writes: “The heart has no sense of humor./ It offers itself piteously like a pair of handcuffs,/ And is so clumsy that we turn away.” Thinking of when you first started writing to the present, could you explain the “anatomy” of your own work?

 

 

GINA FRAGELLO: So I’ve been reading this quote all day, and Monica Ferrell’s entire poem, trying to sort out what I feel about this—  not even so much with regard to the anatomy of my writing as, perhaps, the anatomy of my own heart…and if I can speak for Stacy a little bit here, because she and I have known each other for a long freaking time, have seen each other through a lot of that “quarry full of marble statues, with heads and genitals erased” that Ferrell calls “the past.” It’s a stunning poem, and incredibly provocative, and has been haunting me, and yet I’m not sure my own heart recognizes it entirely.

I think the heart has a sense of humor. I know my own heart has a somewhat dark, macabre one at times…but it’s definitely there. And when I think of Stacy’s writing, I really think of her entire terrain, almost, as the comedy of erotic love…that to me is what Stacy’s work is all about.  But I’ll stop speaking for Stacy! I’ll speak for myself…it’s hard for me to imagine the heart functioning without humor. I think what Ferrell means here is that the heart in the throes of pain can easily lose its sense of humor for a time. But my own feeling about that would be to say that, sadly, as fucking gruesome as those moments are to live, they’re also the moments when we are most generic versions of ourselves, in certain ways. The heart without humor is a less individual heart, perhaps…and there can be something intense and cathartic about falling into that raw, primal human brew of just blind aching…but I think the heart is also at its most selfish in those states, its least able to care for others or see things clearly or process. I’m (more than a little) interested in self-destructive impulses, certainly in my work I explore those impulses a lot…so I’m not saying here that the heart has to be at its highest water mark or its best self to be interesting or worthy of exploration…far from it.  Still.  A heart without humor?  I guess I can’t quite imagine loving a heart like that, or knowing what love would feel like with a heart like that. Without humor, I’m not sure the impulse to write–to document ourselves–even exists.  Every tragedy is a bit of a tragicomedy.  I mean, Romeo and Juliet is a comedy, right? There’s Romeo, freaking out with love over Rosaline, and in walks Juliet and—  bam— if they’d waited just a few more weeks and gone to a few more crowded parties, maybe he wouldn’t have had to kill himself because he’d have met another girl and been swooning under her window. Romeo lost his sense of humor about himself, if he was old enough to have one. He didn’t realize he was in love with love, or see the larger canvas of his own suffering, but of course Shakespeare did see it, he had an incredibly subversive wit, sometimes crazily subtle.  Can you write without a sense of humor?  I’m not sure.  I know you can’t read without one…

I’ve also been obsessing over semantics all day in this Ferrell poem, since writers are crazy this way. I’ve been thinking, Is the heart the handcuffs, or is the heart the willing, clumsy and desperate slave that thrusts its wrists out to be shackled, with so much raw need that we turn away? I’m not sure what Ferrell’s meaning is here: is the heart the prisoner or the jailer? Is it the same thing, in the end? The heart offers itself like handcuffs. Well, we’re slaves to our hearts, and they can be naked and piteous to the point that we wish to run from them, and are certainly capable of driving others away with them, yes. This part resonates deeply with the writing process, actually.  I think most art, really—  painting, music, writing—  has a great deal to do with having feelings so raw and seemingly unsuitable to daily life and conventional decorum that the impulses need to find expression elsewhere. I mean, generally speaking, songwriters don’t write about what a pain in the ass it is to stand in line at the DMV, even though we all could “relate” to that experience.  Songs, novels…the art we’re compelled to make is usually about a more secret underbelly of human need.  Lust, heartbreak, crime, atrocities of human nature. We write what haunts us— what we’re enslaved to. We usually, when we’re first starting out as writers, also do this without any kind of governor or filter. We spill out onto pages; we gut ourselves. The tightrope of craft is, at its core, all about learning a skill set of how to express ourselves in ways that aren’t wildly narcissistic, that allow and invite the reader in…yet the mysterious alchemy that people call talent or passion or heart has to do with the truth that craft alone can never make writing more than “competent,” and it’s that messy catharsis and nakedness–our slavery to our own hearts–that is the very grist and soul of the human impetus to make art. We strive to communicate the things that are beyond normal modes of communion, but somehow with just enough distance or clarity to make it more than emotional masturbation. Art is mysteriously singular in its ability to convey certain emotional states so strongly that it can produce/replicate them in people who are otherwise not feeling those things in their own lives at that moment–it can suspend one reality and cause the reader to enter another. What else does that? I mean, I was going to say maybe sex, but then you’re a participant in a different sense…or at the very least you can’t…uh…generally reach the same breadth of audience…

I haven’t said anything about the anatomy of my work, except that I guess probably I have.  I started writing very young, like many writers: I dictated stories to my mother before I could print, and I started writing my first “novel” at the age of ten on butcher block paper that had to be torn off a roll, in secret, telling no one I was writing, hiding the pages. I did this because my heart was conflicted and twisted and fucked up and hurting and spilling in ways that felt dangerous, because I was confused by violence and inequities I saw in my neighborhood, in my extended family, and I needed an outlet. My feelings were grossly clumsy and uncensored and to unchain them in life would not have just been embarrassing and foolish but potentially dangerous, given my environment at the time. Writing was the one place I could reveal and unleash my messy heart, to which I was very much a slave (so maybe the heart is the handcuffs?), but that in Normal Life I kept well hidden, and feared, and sometimes loathed. As my work…well, what they call “matured,” I guess I learned certain tricks about how to make the piteous heart on the page relevant or accessible to anyone besides myself, and to see a larger canvas. But yeah, without a sense of humor, my heart would be shut down by now–anyone’s would be— and there would be very little point to writing fiction, or to reading in general. On some level, most things that make you cry— in life and perhaps especially in the writing process–should also be able to make you laugh, because laughter is one of the very core experiences that connects people. I’m thinking of Emily Rapp’s new book The Still Turning Point of the World which is about her son’s impending death from Tay-Sachs, and is probably the most brutally heartbreaking book I’ve ever read by an American writer of my own generation. It’s also, at times, incredibly funny. I have never loved a writer who didn’t offer me a clumsy, piteous heart, and I have never loved a writer who lacked a sense of humor, or who didn’t find a place of freedom in the inevitable handcuffs of what it is to be human and to feel deeply…so I guess that tells me a lot about the kind of writer I want to be, too.

 

STACY BIERLEIN: Several years ago I heard a group of writers being asked why they started writing fiction and their answers were lovely and true. To stay in touch with my own humanity, one man said. Yes, to remind myself that I am human, another man said. To lay my heart bare, a woman said.

I think Ferrell is right in “Anatomy,” that too often “the heart has no sense of humor;” always it “is so clumsy.” Too easily we turn away from it. But as I think on the impulse, the very need a writer feels to lay her heart bare … how that phrase has a sweet sound to it, lay it bare, three words we say with ease. But there is nothing easy about facing a blank page with a heart that might fool or escape or confuse or evade you; might offer itself “like a pair of handcuffs” all too ready to chain you to a wall. To lay your heart bare you have to wrestle and secure and interrogate it. Worse yet, you must strive to understand it.

Like Gina, I was always writing fiction, even as a very young girl. Yet the first time I remember really pouring myself into a story, doing the kind of writing that makes your palm sweat against the pencil as you go, I was nineteen. I spent part of the summer with girlfriends on Martha’s Vineyard. On the Vineyard no one wore shoes and we shared flimsy little cottages without bathtubs or phones. We showered at the beach; trusted we would meet up with our friends at whatever beach party was being given whatever night. We never made actual arrangements, things just sort of happened. I’m making it sound a bit too precious, I know, but I guess it was a precious time. We were young and full of ourselves, obnoxious and away from authority— pretending we were born to live inside the JCrew catalogue.

I met a boy–a gorgeous stoner boy with a scratchy voice–and we spent a lot of time making out on the beach. We didn’t know each other’s real names. That summer we all had island nicknames so he was Taz and I was Space and if we were away from the crowd our friends knew we off together making out in the sand. At the end of summer we did what all the other kissing kids did. We said goodbye without exchanging names or numbers and went back to our respective studies at our respective universities. The unspoken rules of that world required me to forget him and move onto a school-year boy. But my god, the way he kissed me and the way I craved kissing him … There seemed no way to forget a boy who kissed you like that. My heart was full of him and my head was full of the romance novels and American soap operas I had been raised on. An older friend tried to warn me that the musings of a spoiled girl desperate for love seldom make great literature. But why not, I thought. Why not? Plus, I was sixty pages in at the time of the warning.

Years later, post beach parties and soap operas, when I had finally become an adult (or believed I had) with real-world responsibilities, I looked back to that manuscript to see exactly why it didn’t work. Where, with regard to craft, had I failed? I was tutoring three nineteen-year-old writing students, one of them writing about a summer love, and wondered if there was something in my own mistakes that could be helpful to them. I was shocked to see that my story had little physicality. The story inspired by a boy who had aroused every part of me had very little mention of the human body. Our touching, our exploring, all that kissing–the playful, fun kisses, the deeper, inspired kisses, the sloppy drunken ones–had not made the page. Instead the story imagined us years later, the him-character attractive and reckless and unable to commit; and the me-character, well, the me-character was dead. It makes sense. I had grown up on stories constructed upon the death of the female. Barbar, Bambi, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Love Story. Recently a friend joked to me that she was pleased when her kids reached for Harry Potter because in the beginning of Harry Potter the dad dies too. But typically in popular American literature, as in current U.S. politics, the female body is the first sacrifice.

About the lack of physicality in that early work: what I saw in the story, years later, was that I had written the heart and the body and the mind as separate forces unable (frightened? unwilling?) to merge. When my character craved the union of her heart and body and mind, I killed her off. It was a cowardly move for a writer, even a young one, but there it was on the page. My character was a goner. How much of this separation of mind and heart and body was bad writing, how much was my own psychology and how much was simply training? As teenagers we were constantly told to guard our virginity by using our brains. How many times were we coached to do this–to put our bodies and hearts in opposition to our minds? Here is something that bothers me to this day: If the circuitries of attachment live within us, why did we allow ourselves to be so easily trained to detach?

In the 1990’s I had the honor to spend time in South Asia where I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism. I admired the way Buddhism invites us to synchronize our minds and bodies, to find compassion and calmness (or, let’s say, our hearts) in the mind-body. I noticed American Buddhists saying and writing it this way, mind-body, hyphenated.  It is a simple act of punctuation that held a great deal of meaning for me. I felt that I could thrive as a writer when my stories became more physical, when I retrained myself to consider the mind and body as one. I wrote hard in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and while I did not write specifically about traveling in Asia, this experience was freeing in a way that I am not sure I can define properly.  The stories in my current collection come from this time of retraining and giving myself permission to mix things up.  In these years I was also reading Surrealist poetry.  I noticed on my bookshelf recently that collections of Surrealist drawing and painting and poetry almost always have the word desire in their titles. In the years I worked on those stories I kept a quote from Kasha Berg’s poem, “Desire,” next to my computer monitor.  It said. “Your eyes make that mirror look so dumb.”

These days, as I work on a novella, I keep a quote from another poem next to my monitor, “The Straightforward Mermaid,” by Matthea Harvey.  She writes: “The straightforward mermaid starts every sentence with ‘Look …’  This comes from being raised in a sea full of hooks.”

 

GF: I love that line, Stacy.  A friend recently pointed out to me that when I’m going to say something that means a lot to me, I tend to begin with, “Listen to me.” If the straightforward mermaid begins every sentence with “Look,” I wonder what creature begins sentences with “Listen”…I think here, of ancient stone statues whose ears have fallen off with time…of a graveyard of earless statues, watching over the past, somehow.  I grew up in a place where girls’ voices were not heard, and as I write that it just made me laugh, because…well, where would be a place, I guess, where girls voices are heard?  Even now, much less in the 1970s. I think of my own daughters, who are twelve and are certainly heard in their home, and even I’d say are heard at school to whatever extent, at least, the boys are heard…but when I think of what they see in the larger culture, from the comparative invisibility of female characters in the Pixar movies they watched when they were little, to the brain-dead images of teenage girls they’d see on popular TV shows, to the incredible underrepresentation of women they see in politics in an election year…the way they see female celebrity represented in the magazines in the grocery store or stacked on the kitchen table in my parents’ house…is there a girl out there who does not need to begin sentences with “Look” or with “Listen,” when girls are still so actively erased and reinvented in a convenient, easy media image?

I love that Stacy was, at the age of 19, writing something that sounds like a Susan Minot novel–it sounds, almost, like an early draft of the novel Evening. Minot is the writer I’ve been comparing Stacy to for ages, although maybe Minot and Lorrie Moore mixed in a blender, because of Stacy’s penchant for and brilliance with organic word-play.  But yes, it’s so revealing that the girl/woman of the piece had already been “erased” in her version…in Evening, the grown up version of this kind of story, the woman is only dying, ha!  She’s still present to unfurl the tumult of her own erotic/romantic nostalgia. Certain images are kind of stalking me through this conversation, and I think the marble statue is one…we talked about Ferrell’s line in which the past is a quarry of marble statues with heads and genitals erased.  But wow–what is the past if not…genitals? Nostalgia is intensely sexual and romantic.  Memory is powerfully arousing. Our pasts present themselves to us, in memory, almost like a series of sexual encounters, or orgasms…we skip all the in-between lulls and our brain rapid-fires the emotional climaxes at us.  This is why memory and the past have such a power to haunt, right? Our eyes and ears and mouths and brains may all be missing from the past…but our genitals have, I think, almost gone into overdrive because of the loss of those other functions. The past is the ultimate unrequited love.

When I think of the anatomy of my work, I realize that I have always written about both The Past, and the body in distress.  These are two of the most powerful and consistent strains in my work, really. My debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, which came out in 2006, is a contemporary retelling of Freud’s “Dora” case study…I’d split Dora into a pair of identical twins who each represented a facet of her personality, and one sister is struggling with pretty brutal physical manifestations of anxiety that are derailing her wedding plans, while the other is anorexic and addicted to painkillers for a back injury, and is engaging in an S/M affair with her father’s law partner. My forthcoming novel, A Life in Men, is about a woman traveler with Cystic Fibrosis, and her efforts to live a life on the widest possible canvas, rather than being limited by her disease. Both novels–and many of my short stories–have a focal point of an incident or period in the past that still traps the protagonist emotionally and continues to dictate current choices. The schism between who we could be if we could forgive ourselves for the past, vs. who we are when we remain captives to guilt and anger, is one of the most interesting emotional terrains for me.  I don’t know that this always necessarily has to overlap with the body in distress, but for me these explorations have tended to be parallel. My work is extremely sexual and always has been…but it’s also extremely concerned with the body in less than optimal health, with the body struggling, and how the past, sexual expression, and in the moment choice all overlap in the context of an active physical realm. I think literature too often ignores the body almost altogether, and in more mainstream fiction, sexuality almost always seems to be connected with perfect physical health that almost doesn’t even bear mentioning because it’s such a “given.” I think on a very fundamental level, I’m simply drawn, in terms of my work’s anatomy, in terms of my explorations of the heart in handcuffs or the heart’s ability to laugh at itself…I am drawn to the ways the heart and body overlap messily, and don’t step out of each other’s way conveniently.  I am interested in the active relationship between the genitals and the head, without which…well, yes, we would be mere marble statues guarding over a dead Past.  The Past is more alive and kinetic, I think, in my work, and genitals can’t get switched off even when people wish they could–physicality in general inserts itself as a constant force to be reckoned with.  A Missing Head, on the other hand, can carry many meanings.

 

SB: When I read Gina’s manuscript for My Sister’s Continent, the first thing that caught my attention was the strong and unwavering body awareness that both Kirby and Kendra possess.  Sometime later I read Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s tour de force, “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls.”  Brumberg beautifully supports the claim that girl culture experienced a turning point in the 1920’s, that by 1930 most American girls became body focused and approached their own body image as a project.  It occurred to me that if I was teaching a gender studies course, I would teach Gina’s novel along side Brumberg. Gina’s protagonists, Kenda and Kirby, reach adulthood in the 1990’s. For both the body is a project that dictates the course of her life.

Kendra is an expert at controlling and manipulating her body. She is a career dancer, daring and poised and most often risking her life in some stage of bulimia and anorexia. In her personal life she is sexually fearless, confident, determined. In Kirby, the sharp observer, emotion never fails to manifest itself physically. Kirby suffers anxiety-induced irritable bowel syndrome though most of the novel. She is unsure of herself sexually. Like so many young adults today, she constantly feels defeated by the mirror, only in her case she does not need to scrutinize her own image in a full-length piece of glass. She has only to look at her twin sister, the ballerina, whose version of their body–and Kirby often thinks of it this way, their body, where as Kendra claimed her bodily independence early on and in various ways–appears to be cooperating, even if it is at way too high a price.

There are important truths in My Sister’s Continent that few novels could tell so well.  With regard to body image and sexuality, Kendra and Kirby face an obstacle that Freud’s subjects and the mid-century girls Brumberg describes did not. The AIDS epidemic created an environment of thinking about sexuality literally in terms of life and death.  Our body’s yearnings could prove fatal.

To say more about this idea of the body as a project: whether we learn it from our mothers, our role models, our peers, or popular culture, Western women commonly view their bodies this way and the project is a rather public one. Our obsessions with appearance are encouraged at every turn. Popular advertising and the fashion industry can so obviously be blamed for contributing to a culture of bulimia and anorexia, but as far back as Nancy Drew–remember how Nancy was attractive and wise, and her chubby best friend was the foil?–we were being sold the so-called virtues of being thin and therefore sexy.

In American culture the body is all-consuming. We crave internal control of our bodies and diet dangerously. Our fixation on weight sells books about calories, fats, and carbs by the millions. Skin care and hair care are multi-billion dollar industries. We kick-box and zumba and barre– fitness clubs far outnumbering libraries and universities and bookstores. We suffer our perceived flaws as we offer ourselves to the world as decorative objects. We exhibit. We adorn and pierce and tattoo.

I saw a picture once— it may have been in Brumberg’s book— that had been taken at Cornell University in 1995.  It was an image of graffiti outside a gender studies classroom that said “Our Bodies Make Us Worry.” This was a response to an assigned text, Our Bodies, Ourselves, which had been published twenty-two years prior. It is striking to me that the more optimistic slogan, Our Bodies, Ourselves, belongs to the earlier generation. I hate that we have in many ways failed our foremothers. I think we owe a lot to the 1970’s, an era that gave women the new feminist literary canon including “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and helped ease (but not quite erase) taboos about virginity.  At the same time, girls were introduced to Judy Blume’s Deenie and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (One of the first things to love about My Sister’s Continent is that Kendra gets into Kirby’s car and quotes Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.)  Deenie taught girls that masturbation was an acceptable form of sexual pleasure and Margaret helped to demystify menstruation. When I first read these books in the 1980’s, I assumed they were new publications. My parents and my friend’s parents considered them somewhat seditious but didn’t forbid us from reading them. It feels unnerving to me that Deenie and Margaret are still considered subversive; that along with Forever (in which a high school boyfriend and girlfriend have intercourse for the first time, consensually, sensitively, and with a condom) they are among the most often banned books in school libraries.

Last year, at my daughter’s school, sex education expert Deborah Roffman gave a talk to parents of children in grades kindergarten through eight.  My daughter was six at the time and some of the other six-year-old parents walked into the program saying, “Oh, they’re only six; we have a lot of time to have these talks.” Deborah was non-negotiable in saying we do not. “Will you wait until they ask about calculus to teach them math?” She wanted to know. I loved this response. Our kids are at a natural age to ask questions about where they came from and how our bodies work. But why don’t we start the conversation, avoid the confusion we felt, and empower them with the answers?

My own mother kept a stack of brochures from our doctor’s office when my sister and I were little. When I had questions about sex or my body, a brochure was supposed to have the answers. But I was a timid girl. I let the questions stew in my brain for a long time before I actually asked them. Yet when I came across the word “masturbation” in Deenie, I immediately asked my mother what it meant. Believe it or not, there wasn’t actually a brochure for that one. She amused herself by instructing me to ask my father when he arrived home. When I asked him that night, he looked at me, stunned, and directed me to talk to my mother. It was the same for my friends, the circling back to the other parent, the non-answer answers. My mother, and her mother before that, was educated about sexuality by earlier versions of the same brochures. But the brochures were cryptic and often left us more confused.  My grandmother referred to them as “the little books.”

I recently read that in the late 1920’s teenage girls whose mothers subscribed to Ladies Home Journal received a pamphlet about connections between their emerging sexuality and germs.  It was written by a female MD and distributed by the Lysol company.  Can you even imagine that some of your early question about sex answered by a pamphlet that is essentially an advertisement for disinfectant?  That’s a pretty serious lack of optimism.

In the novella I’m working on now, a young woman carries a fair degree of anger about the misinformation she received as a girl.  She suspects the storybook and movie characters that she met as a preschooler first misled her. Sleeping Beauty is the one that really pisses her off now.  After sleeping for 100 years, the first thing Sleeping Beauty is meant to do upon waking is to get married.  And most of us bought this story fully as little girls.  Some of us twirled around in our dresses to that sweet song, I think it was called “Once Upon a Dream.”  I wish I had been the girl who said, Um, doesn’t she need to eat something?  How about a boyfriend or two first?  I think we will agree that waking from a hundred year sleep to get married, in all its classic magic, was always a ridiculously wretched idea.  

 

HK: Stacy and Gina, you co-edited the cult-like MEN UNDRESSED anthology in which women wrote about sex from the male perspective. Do you think women shy away from frankly writing about the body, especially from a male perspective? What do you consider an “authentic” voice in this case?

 

GF: I don’t believe at all that women shy away from writing frankly about the body–I think, if anything, the opposite is true, in that some of the most visceral recent body-writing comes from women writers.  Not that male writers haven’t contributed beautiful and naked physical and sexual literature…but I’ve sometimes wondered if male writers are feeling the same urgency to write their bodies these days as previous generations of male writers did, when sexual writing was still so taboo. What writers from Lawrence to Miller to successors like Roth and Updike may have felt, in terms of the proscriptions against such candid body writing, was largely already brought out into the open and accepted by the time of my own “coming of age” as a reader and writer, whereas women writers were really only beginning to own this terrain, still, in the 1970s. Beginning with writers like Erica Jong or Judith Rosner, a wide array of women from Kate Braverman to Kathy Acker to Alice Walker began exploring the body as literary terrain…not just in the States, of course, but elsewhere…with French feminists like Irigaray and Cixous; with Jeanette Winterson…ground was still very much being broken with books like The Bluest Eye, with Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? and Bastard Out of Carolina and other work by Dorothy Allison, and of course Mary Gaitskill, even in the 90s.  I see the response, even, to memoirs like Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, and it tells me that women are still deeply hungry to explore the body in language, and are greeting texts that engage with that imperative as though gulping for air. What male writers were exploring so deeply in the first half of the twentieth century, up to the sexual revolution…it’s not OVER, obviously, and you still see male writers like Stephen Elliott who are approaching the male body in new ways and making a big impact. You see writers like Steve Almond who write with a raw vulnerability and emotion that the earlier male American writers often deeply lacked or hid under a lot of posturing bravado or explicit description. Men are still breaking new ground in defining the male experience. But it’s ground the exploration of which began much earlier than with women writers, existed on a wider scale, was more embraced by the dominant literary establishment, and has had a wider breadth of examples, forefathers and sources. Women from about the 1970s to the 1990s had a LOT of ground to make-up, in terms of defining their own experience of the female body, rather than allowing future generations of female readers to believe that they were supposed to…well…feel like Lady Chatterly.

So no, I don’t believe at all that women hesitate to write the female body–to insist on claiming it as our own and no longer leaving its terrain to texts penned by men. You see roots of this extremely far back in literary history, though Modernist writers like Jean Rhys may be the first to be widely known for it, and then you see a real explosion of women claiming the female body as literary terrain during and after Second Wave Feminism.  What I do witness is that women attempting to write the male body is a relatively new literary movement, in any wider sense.  I do see writers like AM Homes and Mary Gaitskill being pioneers of something quite new here, as late as the 1980s and 90s…of something that had very little wide scale precedent prior in literary fiction. And that’s the new movement Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience sought to explore and celebrate.  I haven’t researched this, but there are no doubt dozens if not hundreds of anthologies out there celebrating women writers depicting the female body, whether in literary fiction, memoir, erotica, what have you. I don’t know of any projects that aimed to explore what women were doing in terms of grappling with and exploring male sexuality–something male writers, for example we were talking about Lawrence, have done for generations with women characters and female sexuality…

This is an extremely exciting movement to me because it indicates that women writers are now beginning to explore sexuality as a subject matter that helps us not to just be understood but to understand others. As Cris Mazza talks about in the Men Undressed introduction, one of the timeless purposes of literature is to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. We write from a place far deeper than any political agenda, no matter how true it may concurrently be that women need for our bodies to be recognized as every bit as normative as the male body, and not as some Exotic Other. But as writers, we write never just so that others can understand US but so that we ourselves may understand the larger world, and live inside another head for a time.  These needs are twinned, and women writers’ explorations of and forays into male sexuality in fiction indicates to me a deep maturing of the movement of women’s body writing–that women are no longer feeling it so deeply upon ourselves to have to stand up and Represent Women, but that we can, if we choose, simply write as human beings.

As a writer, I think both things have been deeply important to me.  I’ve certainly always considered my work “feminist,” if not in a clean or politically-correct, party-line kind of way of the old Second Wave feminism on which I was weaned. But I think a lot of women writers of the 90s were complicating those old definitions…I hate the term “post-feminist” and think it’s deeply erroneous and problematic and that it also gave way to an absurd amount of woman-bashing by women who then became mini celebrities by telling men how lame and unsexy the feminists were…I object to a lot of what came out of that so-called movement, but I do feel that there were also a lot of pro-feminist writers who were refusing to adhere to certain didactic binaries that were maybe popular in our mothers’ generation. And I have, since fairly young as a writer, always been interested in exploring male sexuality in my work, alongside female sexuality. My first published stories from a male point of view were in the mid-to-late 90s, and my forthcoming novel has…I think five?…male points of view, all of which are plenty sexual. It’s become very difficult for me to even conceptualize writing for very long without a male character compelling me just as much as female characters, and my wanting to get inside their heads to understand what makes them tick. I’ve had one male character who appears in two novels of mine who I found very hard to shake; in the first novel, he didn’t have a point of view of his own, but was only seen through the lens of others’ perspectives, so in the second he became a more major character.

I mean…it’s interesting. I find it almost weird when any woman says she “isn’t a feminist”— feminism seems essential common sense and a basic human right to me. Yet I also find it truly curious when men and women seem to…well, the Mars and Venus perspectives, I guess. Since I was in elementary school, some of my most intimate friends have always been men. I was never a tomboy— I never played sports and I was always kind of girly— so I don’t mean this in a “one of the guys” kind of way.  I mean that deeply intelligent men who have complex, layered hearts are every bit as interesting and comprehensible and compelling to me as deeply intelligent women with complex, layered hearts. I mean that we can find kinship and recognition across gender lines, easily, if we are open to it. There are a lot of people in the world who still seek to oppress women in a variety of ways, and silence the female body, but the group MEN, as in nearly-fifty-percent-of-the-population, is not a group whose feet we can dump that burden at. Men come in as many varieties as women do, and can’t be reduced to Other any more than women have enjoyed being Othered throughout history.

 

SB: I like that Gina argues against the term post-feminist and agree completely. Any suggestion that feminism is over or has been replaced by something else seems insane to me. And I have to admit that I feel betrayed by younger women who reject the term feminist. By rejecting this word they might have embraced they fail to recognize the ways in which the feminist movement has benefitted their generation. This suggests a disheartening lack of context.

I agree completely with Gina that this emergence of women writing the male body is an exciting moment in literature, one we sought to celebrate in Men Undressed. It is my hope that women do not shy away from writing this kind of material; that women who might have in the past will not continue to. I remember as a writing student being told by an editor that I admired that my work would be more successful if I learned to keep my politics out of it. That seemed like an impossible thing for me to try to accept but because it was advice from someone I deeply admired, I caught myself holding back on my political/feminist/womanist views in subsequent works. That became more frightening–the realization that I had self-censored–than the idea that writing revealing my political views might not find its way to publication.  I discussed this with a friend from my writing workshop, and a very fine writer, Don DeGrazia. He told me, “Don’t be an asshole. Self-censorship is the most dangerous kind of censorship.”  He was right, of course.  One of the things that I love about Men Undressed, as well as the story collections Other Voices publishes, is that they might find their way into the creative writing classroom and become permission-giving in some way.  Ideally, they might speak to someone the way Don spoke to me: Don’t be an asshole, just find your best work.

A few years before working on  Men Undressed, I recommended fiction to a family friend who was applying to MFA programs.  We had discussed previously Blue Angel by Francine Prose, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and Secret Son by Laila Lalami.  Thinking of short stories, I suggested she read “Mirror Ball” by Mary Gaitskill, “Spleen” by Josip Novakovich, and the Tania stories by Tod Goldberg. She noticed that the works we were discussing were acts of narrative cross-dressing. I insisted to her that these were not simply writing experiments; these are authors finding important material. I hadn’t had an agenda in pushing her toward those stories other than to show her some very fine fiction. I remember reading a Grace Paley interview in which she described the value of a writer getting away from her own voice. She said that in writing stories she started listening to voices other than her own, and from there she learned to clear her own throat.

 

Gina Frangello is the author of the critically acclaimed novel My Sister’s Continent. She is the executive editor and co-founder of Other Voices Books and the editor of the fiction section at The Nervous Breakdown. She lives in Chicago with her husband, twin daughters and son, and teaches at Columbia College and Northwestern University.

Stacy Bierlein is the author of the acclaimed story collection A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends and a coeditor of the short fiction anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. Her award-winning anthology of international fiction, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, is used in university classrooms across the country. She is a founding editor of Other Voices Books and the Morgan Street International Novel Series. Her articles about writing, publishing, and the arts appear on various websites.  She lives in Southern California.

On “Little Books,” the Physicality of Writing and Revising Fairy Tales: Gina Fragello and Stacy Bierlein in Conversation

Necessary Luxuries: On Writing, Napping, and Letting Go

by Kelli Russell Agodon

I have slept all day.

I’m on the first day of a weeklong writing residency in a town made up mostly of aging hippies, artists, and ghosts, and I am tired. My two friends who arrived with me are in other parts of this cabin with their laptops glowing—one works on a novel, the other writes poems. While these women write, I rest in my bedroom having already taken three naps; it’s 2:07 in the afternoon. My friends and I have created a pattern of pulling ourselves from our regular lives to come here every six months and write. Last spring to help us prepare for future writing residencies, we made a “What To Bring List” and beneath big frying pan, candles, booklight, and worry dolls, we wrote in dark letters: Kelli should remember she sleeps a lot the first few days and she shouldn’t get freaked out.

Since then, I have learned while it seems this tired feeling will last the entire week, it never does. What I’ve discovered from these first days of napping is that in the process of settling in and letting go, I realize how worn-out I am in my regular life and how I’m constantly on. My body, the same one I push to the limits in my daily routine—writing, editing, being responsible for my family, working late hours into the night to make a deadline, volunteering, commitments—that same body and the mind it keeps so safely inside, is exhausted.

I now recognize that much of a retreat is about going deeper, letting go of concerns and allowing my daily life to fall off or go on without me. This was hard at first. I worried, How will my family survive without me? (They did.) I worried, What if I get there and have nothing to write? (Never happened.) I wondered, Is it fair to take time away to write? (It is.)

Now, each time I arrive at a residency, I see myself as me again. Not a mother or wife. Not someone’s daughter or sister. Just me. A writer. And here, I take care of myself. My entire day circles around writing and it feels as if it’s a luxurious indulgence.

My schedule creates itself. I walk to the lighthouse when I need the fresh air of this Victorian town to move through me. I wake up at two in the morning with an idea for a poem then write for hours knowing I don’t have to wake for work in the morning, knowing I’m only accountable for myself. I imagine it’s how I’d live if I didn’t have any other responsibilities except myself, my writing.

Here we live together in a funky cabin with a 1950’s push-button stove and outlets that require us to bring two-prong adapters for our three-prong lives. We exist as ghosts do during the day, passing each other without talking, giving each other the space she needs to do her work until we meet in the living room at five o’clock.

As we gather I, along with my two friends, begin setting out prosciutto, rice crackers, hummus, brie, cherry tomatoes, and a bar of sea-salt chocolate on the coffee table. We open bottles of red and white wine. We make a toast to our writing and then spend the next hour discussing what’s on our minds—from what we’re working on to what synchronicities are happening while we are here.

I do not worry if the bills have been paid, if the dog, cats, or guinea pigs have been fed. I think about my writing projects—if my new poetry manuscript is in the best order and revising a longer nonfiction work. Here we are able to nurture ourselves and our words.

We place a scarf over the old piano where we put our altar items—candles, a matchbook with Frida Kahlo on it, a photograph of my father who died twenty years ago this year. The cabin smells like a mix of the stargazer lilies the last resident left and the subtle scent of vanilla from three of the candles we lit.

I sleep hard here and think about writing so obsessively, I begin to dream about book pages spinning over me when I sleep, a typewriter dinging, Sylvia Plath reading poetry on a stage that looks out to a field of wildflowers. In my dreams I attend an Andy Warhol museum opening, I talk with Gertrude Stein. My life takes on a magical element where the literary slice becomes not just the largest piece of my life’s pie, but the entire dessert.

Soon I am reminded that writing is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Here, on a cliff in a cabin with two other women, I let go of my fears. I let go of any belief that I should be doing something else with my life. Poems move me in and out of hours, a day is spent under pages of a manuscript. I live simply and fulfilled without all the other minutiae of my regular life swirling around me. My friends and I discuss what matters to us. We ask questions about how we can live better and how we can take this “retreat lifestyle” home with us when we return.

When our Happy Hour time together is done, we return to our rooms to write. I unpack a pair of yoga pants, a long-sleeve cotton t-shirt, a warm sweater, and my favorite pair of slippers—my uniform this week. I look at my laptop, an electric candle, on the small desk in my room. I notice how little of my life I brought with me. Just the basics here, but with more time to write and rest. As I begin to write again with the sound of the wind moving through the forest of maple trees that surrounds this cabin, I realize how little is needed to be content.

Necessary Luxuries: On Writing, Napping, and Letting Go

Kidney Stone in My Shoe

by Sonya Huber

This summer I decided to read the Essais by Michel de Montaigne, a Frenchman from the 16th century who is said to have invented the essay. I think I gave myself this task partly because of a lingering imposter complex about my surprising role as an English professor. As I made it past the 1300-page mark, I was glad to get to this sentence: “I am not excessively fond either of salads or fruits, except melons. My father hated all sorts of sauces; I love them all.” I sighed with relief when Montaigne stopped quoting Seneca and turned toward his real body, even when he dished about the details of his agony with kidney stones. Give me melons, give me sauces—just give me something specific, something with taste and smell and heft.

I had already been told that Montaigne taught himself to write as he wrote, developing his skill over time; nobody explicitly told me to avoid two-thirds of his work, but I should have. I didn’t hear, however, that Montaigne’s decaying body was also his writing teacher. As he ages and becomes ill, he becomes vulnerable and specific. Melons and kidney stones give me something personal, something that reminds me of Montaigne as a corporeal being. Montaigne’s kidney stones bring him back to himself and make him strangely most alive.

Don’t get me wrong: He’s very approachable for the 16th century. He likes the simple life and the ordinary man, despite the fact that such pronouncements from one of noble birth living on an estate sounds at times like self-congratulation. Slogging through his statements about bravery and generals and military campaigns, I learned about Montaigne’s preference for quiet, competent servants and his dislike of women who want sex too often. He’s got a healthy self-regard that reads like a rapper’s list of metaphors for greatness but without the rhythm: “Never was a man less inquisitive or less prying into other men’s affairs than I.”

The essayist’s voice is often propelled by a sense of entitlement— the ability to pronounce a truth for the human race—which is a voice that many women have to struggle to attain. The memoir is easier; we say what has happened to us. We ask ourselves as we write whether we can say anything of universal relevance at all. Reading Montaigne let me understand that the voice of authority is part of the essay’s legacy, and let me see that this is where I and many of my students and essays from “minority” viewpoints have struggled. We have struggled to create essays that “sound” like essays because we didn’t have the balls to proclaim or the life experience to assume that people would listen.

It could be that I was primed to find fault with Montaigne. I’d been told he was my literary “father,” as he is described as the originator of the essay and the art of digression. Literary nonfiction is continually trying to establish itself in academia as a serious form, and the essay and the name “Montaigne” are often used as shorthand for claiming our roots as a real field. In the end, it’s not Montaigne that I object to, but the focus on him as the “father” of my genre, which makes me inevitably think of my “mother” and who she might be. This is especially painful in a field where so many female authors are not given their due as founders and guideposts, from Margery Kempe through to Annie Dillard and beyond. I would rather have eight sets of great-grandparents, male and female, than to be told I am descended from one man. As Montaigne would say, “They make me hate things that are likely, when they would impose them upon me as infallible.”

Montaigne is also popular these days because he’s avowedly secular; despite his statements of belief in Christianity, he blames none of his afflictions or his privileges on the power and judgment of an angry God. He despises cruelty and the wastes of war. He is open, questioning, and wandering—and in the end, completely self-contradictory. However, he’s not the only ancestor of nonfiction. I am partial to the sins and confessions of St. Augustine; what I love about that 4th century work is what I also enjoy about many women authors: the focus includes the body, the corporeal, the secret truths of physicality and the inevitable complexity this introduces. While proclamation has been my weak point, I have always understood that an observation rings true when it is anchored in the detail of my life.

That brings me back to Montaigne’s kidney stones, a painful affliction he focuses on for the last third of Essais. I don’t enjoy his pain–It’s just that his writing suddenly zooms into focus when he has a specific ailment, which forces him to tell me how he personally deals with pain. He writes about how his “pains strangely deaden” his appetite, and how his mysterious fits bring him a “crafty humility” because he can’t know the cause of kidney stones or the timing of his attacks.

When he mentions his body, he is speaking to me as another human; I also have a crafty and painful condition, rheumatoid arthritis. He writes about his fear of death, and his view of treatments, and experience of pain itself, with a thoughtful specificity that challenges me to do the same. I haven’t tackled any of these in my writing, fearing that the focus on the body would sideline me as self-centered and narrow, a tag more easily attributed to female writers of nonfiction. When we write about the body, we are seen as writing for women—and not all women, but just those who share our specific condition; when men write about the body, they are seen to explore universals and write for humanity.

Montaigne’s kidney stones are his path to humble brilliance through the vulnerability of describing illness. He burrows deep into the strange ease that happens after a fit of pain has passed, and I am there with him as a real presence. When he describes the way an illness strangely causes him to “think myself no longer worth my own care,” I connect with the general depression that pain brings on. He admits that death is easy to deal with as an abstraction, but the details of it bring him to tears. And he writes about the strange pain of bouts of wellness: “If health itself, sweet as it is, returns to me by fits, ‘tis rather to give me cause of regret than possession of it; I have no place left to keep it in.”

So I will go ahead and swagger, because the entitlement of the essayist’s voice is a costume that Montaigne offers as a model. With my swagger, I will claim that the best writing of Montaigne deals with mortality and the body, and what Montaigne offers there is the willingness to switch moods, to describe things as they are, including the piss and the vomit. And not to be ashamed. Montaigne, as a man of wealth and noble birth, had a life that predisposed him to think that his offerings were worthy. But we can swagger like Montaigne, and I can try to write about my swollen knuckles without ever apologizing for being “depressing.” Montaigne did not give a shit about that, and we should not either.

Kidney Stone in My Shoe

“Woman” is the Gateway to Full Humanity: A Conversation With Poets Jill Hammer and Joy Ladin

HER KIND: Prompted by comedian Elayne Boosler’s quip, “I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body,” Jill and Joy takes on a conversation that opens our minds and hearts to the limitations of gender identity, with letters and poems that speak to the things in which we have a difficulty in naming—spirit, body, sexuality, love, womannes, humanness. Their exchange is one of compassion, and it serves to affirm the bodies in which we are blessed to inhabit and inspires us to develop a more precise, richer, and embracing language for ourselves. Thank you Jill and Joy for being a part of the conversation.

 

Sept. 22, 2012

Dear Joy,

I don’t feel like a person trapped in a woman’s body. I try very hard not to believe in the mind-body split. I try not to think of myself as a non-gendered person, or soul, or personality, inside a woman’s body. I try to think of myself as a body with biological and spiritual dimensions. I think this way of understanding the self is an important resistance to the mind-body split that governs so much of Western civilization and takes us out of our own experience. So for me, having the body I have isn’t an accident of birth; it’s part of my identity.

For me, that means finding language to describe my body experience, particularly those parts of my body experience that mainstream society hides. I’m bothered by the ways that the body experience of people identified by society as biologically female (i.e., people with a vagina and uterus) is commodified or erased, along with body experiences that don’t jibe with normative views of body or gender. For example, my pregnancy experiences were a complete surprise to me because real experiences of being pregnant aren’t discussed in the public sphere. And there’s more complicated stuff, like how body interacts with sexuality, or what it means to be a woman born of a woman, with that connection of sameness and difference.

As part of my effort to find a language, I’ve been part of communities that explore liturgy and ritual based on the body experience of women. I’ve also tried to write from that place of inventing language for what our bodies feel. In a poem called “Ariadne,” I write:

Trust what the body tells you.
Everyone else is lying.

The girl with the lantern is here,
disorganized, stubborn,
to take you through the dark tunnels.
You don’t want to trust her,

but she knows the way.

Follow her down
into the arms of the earth:
the other disorganized, stubborn body
that never lies.

Do not turn left or right.
Below the skin,
the pulse is singing.
Follow that sound.

Cynthia Ozick writes in an essay called “The Meaning of Life”: “Our task is to clothe nature, to impose meaning on being.” Ozick has also expressed that her body experience as a woman is irrelevant to who she is as a human being. I disagree with both statements. I think we don’t need to clothe nature but to relate to it. I don’t think we need to impose meaning on being, but to uncover it. And I don’t think we should deny our body experience; we should embrace it. To me, that doesn’t mean embracing easy dualities about gender, but it does mean taking our bodies seriously as sites of being.

 

Sept. 23, 2012

Dear Jill,

I love starting with that quote, though I see it as less about the mind/body, or human/nature, split than about the way the gendering of bodies dims and distorts our humanity. I think the quote is reflecting on the way our bodies are given meaning by others, meanings that are read as revelations of who we are rather than projections of social, cultural, or family assumptions: “woman” here is an existential cookie cutter, taking the pattern of the female body and cutting humanness down to fit. From that perspective, this joke is a sort of Zen distillation of feminist awareness of the inadequacy of the term “woman,” a term identified by most people with a certain kind of body, to name the humanity of those to whom it is applied.

Obviously, that’s never been my problem. I have struggled instead to make myself visible by embodying the sense of femaleness that my male body couldn’t embody. To me, the identity of “woman” is the gateway to full humanity, and one of my ongoing challenges is the reluctance of others to call someone with a body like mine a woman.

For me, the mind/body split has been a life saver. Thank God I wasn’t born into a culture that encouraged me to dissociate body and mind, body and self, body and soul! The mind/body split is the foundation of my experience. I’m not saying that you are wrong to see that split as something to resist—as your marvelous poem shows, there is much to be discovered about the richness and wholeness of life by insisting on the body as the fundamental fact of existence. I think you are right that we don’t have adequate language for bodily experience—I think that’s true of all bodily experience, actually, and I don’t think that we can ever really make language (a system of signs that will always be bound up with culture and that must apply to many bodies) adequate to bodily experience. As poets, I’d say that’s good news—we’ll always have plenty of work to do in the gap between language and bodily experience. As people, well, like other failures of language, this one can be painful, violent, and sometimes fatal.

I love the idea that truth can be found by listening to the body, that the voice of the body is the voice of the earth, the meeting point of the human and the largeness the human grows out of. For me, though, the body is most truth when it is in dialogue with the mind/self/soul it can’t adequately express:

Letter to My Body

Philosophers shilly-shally, but it’s true: you are me; I am you.
This dust, these rays, this strange internal sense
that after all these years, I finally exist – all of this
is only mine through you.

You still seem surprised – that’s part of your charm –
that I wish to be extracted
from your handsome bindings.
This, you say, is only the beginning,

which is why it feels like drowning
in what we’ve both survived.
Ever the politician, I say I’ll be your widow,
smiling cheerfully as you die.

Not yet, you say, as though
– this is the other part of your charm –
you still believe in time.
Violent laughter, yours and mine.

Let’s go out into the woods
of meaning and matter, among the laurels and the mustard,
the unlit suns and unnamed branches, listening shoots and loosening leaves
we only appreciate when we’re drowning

in one another. Let’s break up before we meet
and fall in love again
in the darkening parlor of the heart,
let’s wait for God in the gathering dusk

and watch the stars come out.

Love,

Joy

 

Sept. 23, 2012

Dear Joy,

Your reading of Boosler’s quote makes sense to me. It’s moving and challenging to me that the mind/body split has been so important to your emotional and spiritual health. I’ve spent so much time trying to undo that split in myself. I have felt that in my early life I rejected the body—because it’s so frail, so awkward, so inconvenient, so abused, and unloved by our society, and so easy to dislike. As an antidote to that, I have tried to be open to the truth and beauty of my body as best I can express it. I’m trying to figure out how to write about the soul within the body without dividing the two—as you do so beautifully in your poem about the dance of soul and body.

I deeply agree with you about the “existential cookie cutter” that is gender essentialism. I can remember the pain of being rejected because some piece of me fell outside the (visible or invisible) dotted lines. What’s complicated for me is the ways that mythic images of gender have helped me appreciate my own experience. I’m thinking, for example, of the sheela-na-gig (a vaginal figure meant to embody the gateway to life) I saw in a cathedral in Ireland, which is an image of rebirth—a very different image of vaginal anatomy than the ones we see in our own society. Those images are important for me, and they are also problematic because they may be used to reify what gender is or “means.”

I like when I can find a more complex mythic structure—such as medieval kabbalah, which has plenty of sexist aspects, but which speaks of gender as something that is relational. The Divine, and the individual, can have one gender in relationship to one entity and another gender in relationship to a different entity. That’s powerful for me as a reflection of how we might sometimes experience gender in our bodies and souls.

On another note, I love the moment in your poem when you say, laughingly, that the body still believes in time. In most spiritual systems, time is an illusion—but it’s the deepest reality for anything with a body. And I love the idea that the body can only appreciate the beauty of the woods when it’s accompanied by the soul, and vice versa. Time and the timeless have to go together.

I am always trying to understand the dichotomy between the weightless and timeless soul and the body, which feeds on other bodies and is implicated in death, violence, and time. In one of my poems, “The Face of the Deep is Heavy” (the title is a quote from the book of Job), I write this:

I give nothing
says my soul curled up in the night
I take away nothing

my soul does not know what is true
but the sea knows

we are the life that comes from death
we stand on crushed shells

of the creatures we once were…

Here is another poem, “The Dragon and the Unicorn,” on a similar theme. It was inspired by “The Lady and the Unicorn,” a series of six unicorn tapestries housed in Paris.

The Dragon and the Unicorn

She will never understand
why he does not eat the maiden
and be done.
If that white horn were hers, she would use it differently:
to play dance tunes for volcanoes. To pierce God.

She will not lay her head in a pale lap.
She despises halters,
and even before she was born, she was not a virgin.
She has a double portion of lust
for the world and for what lies behind the world.

The unicorn vanquishes death. The dragon is not impressed.
She curls around the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil,
flicks her tail, pretends to doze.
The unicorn gazes at heaven. The dragon eyes a bird.

The maiden shows the unicorn a mirror,
round and perfect as Venus, its blond handle graceful.
The unicorn looks into the mirror and smiles.
The maiden shows the mirror to the dragon.
The dragon breathes on it.
It cracks into a million pieces,
each one reflecting her burning eyes.
Has she not improved matters?

Death will be back. She has no doubt of it
and it will be her turn then. She will choose differently.
She will let death live
in her, and consult it
at every moment.

Thanks for this conversation, and much love,

Jill

 

Sept. 24, 2012

Dear Jill,

I love “we stand on crushed shells // of the creatures we once were”—that strikes me as a kind of transgender motto, although I find myself uncomfortably aware that whatever I mean by “I” at any given moment will end up as the “crushed shell” of whoever I become. I’m coming to think that one of the most interesting aspects of trans experience, both phenomenologically and in terms of poetry, is that it reverses the usual ratios of being and becoming. I mostly experience myself as becoming, a process, transition from not-being to—more transition. I have a sense of being too, but it’s tenuous, fractured, relative. As a result, neither my body nor gender feel like firm foundations on which to build or rigid templates that threaten to oversimplify my messiness. Reading your poems—I’m so happy to see them, they meld myth and archetype in a fluent, precise and personal tongue—I recognize the peculiarity of my trans perspective, and my fantasy that my transition was bringing me toward some kind of stable sense of gender and identity.

Most importantly, though, your combination of critique of gender cookie-cutters and embrace of gendered symbolic systems gives flesh to something I say but don’t, I think, fully experience: that whatever else it is, gender is a language of self-definition, self-awareness, self-expression. Some of the violence of conventional genders is social, physical, economic—beating up feminine boys or masculine girls on the playground, killing trans women in city streets, not hiring the gender deviant, not paying women as much as men, etc. But some of the violence is what happens to us when we try to understand and express ourselves with an inadequate language, a language that has too few verbs and nouns and only the most simplistic syntax, a language that renders much of us mute, inexpressible, unthinkable, unspeakable. So I don’t see a contradiction between your critique of the conventional meanings of “woman” and your embrace of feminine archetypes and myths: having suffered the effects of a gender language that is unworthy of and inadequate to you, you, as poet and scholar and teacher, have scoured the treasury of human song and story to create a more capacious language, one that enables God-piercing double-lusting carnivorous unicorns to name themselves, that offers women feminine symbolic language for the darkest, wildest, most violent, least conventionally feminine aspects of themselves. Your language doesn’t substitute one set of terms for another, insisting that women stop naming themselves as passive and only name themselves as violent; that would be just as inadequate and coercive as the conventional gender language you reject. Your unicorns and dragons stand in relation to maidens, your Persephones are passionately involved with boundary-blurring Hades figures. As you say, you are striving toward gender languages that are relational rather than static, and the sky of your conception of “woman” is crowded with wheeling constellations.

My sky is pretty bare by comparison. It’s foggy and quiet in the dawn of my gender, one or two birds are singing but I can’t name them. The little window of my self frames a world of familiar things to which I stand in new, still-evolving relationships. Whole histories unfold in a single day, histories that those around me would probably call the past or future, childhood or myth, or utopia or apocalypse. I call them “today,” and know that the today I call “tomorrow” will erase and rewrite them as patterns in sand are erased and rewritten by waves.

Letter to the Feminine

You are a dream of clam shell and olive,
dark places between tails and spines, sheets stained
to reveal the spiritual complications
of your carefully perforated wings,

a calculated performance I rehearse again and again,
style detached, breasts incandescent,
little theaters of impossibility, immature stages
of the women in which you clothe me –

dead women, married women, women stuck between medieval pages,
fluttering in slips, flirting with socialism.
mounted, judged, incarcerated,
rubbed by unknown hands.

I wade through your editions,
lives you’ve bound, lives you’ve stitched,
lives you’ve flushed with dedication,
to unearth the truths you’ve hidden

in my own time, my own skin,
my own self unfolding
toward you and away,
over your passionate objections, through your suffering.

Love,

Joy

 

Sept. 24, 2012

Dear Joy,

Thank you for reading my poem so carefully. I’m grateful. I’m just going to take a minute to enjoy “carnivorous unicorn.”

And I want to take another minute to appreciate your sense of becoming. So many of us build a castle out of our identity, holding strongly to the self-definitions we have won with great difficulty. The unfolding, shifting, unpredictable sense of becoming seems to me to be a real truth about all of us, one that many of us try to hide from others and ourselves. Thank you for exposing my sand castles!

You speak of the feminine as a “calculated performance,” but I love the image in your poem of the feminine as a book publisher, producing various bound volumes (which of course are not as neatly bound as history or society would have it) that we can read, but not experience. “My own self unfolding” then feels like your own book of the feminine coming into being, writing itself down, beginning to be read. “Clam shell and olive,” for me, dips into the world of myth: Aphrodite being born fully formed out of the sea. You’ve hidden creation stories in your poems! I love the phrase “spiritual complications”—it somehow manages to span theology, gender ambiguity, and childbirth.

I’m also very struck by what you say about gender and language. “Some of the violence is what happens to us when we try to understand and express ourselves with an inadequate language, a language that has too few verbs and nouns and only the most simplistic syntax, a language that renders much of us mute, inexpressible, unthinkable, unspeakable.” I’ve had the experience of having something I wanted to say or feel and not being able to get there because I didn’t have the language—and having to painfully, slowly, almost traumatically invent the language (which is why I love poet Alicia Ostriker’s phrase “stealing the language”). Sometimes I’ve brought together communities of women to try and find this language which is unknown, unmade—language about spirit, about body, about sexuality, about community, about love. It seems to me this is a necessary act of resistance: to attempt to discover what we would say if our language truly belonged to us, if our vocabulary was not deliberately scoured of words of self-knowing. It seems to me that you, “in the dawn of your gender,” are inventing your own language, from which I and others have learned and will learn so much.

I’m sending you most of a poem called “What is in the Goddess’s Tefillin?” (Tefillin are Jewish prayer objects containing sacred text, traditionally worn only by men but now worn by some women.) Like your “Letter to the Feminine,” it’s a search for “the dream of clam shell and olive.”

a tendril from a grapevine
one grape clinging like a jewel

a stone from a funeral
hide from a tambourine
the bag of a weary midwife

wicks of Sabbath candles
ink of burst berries
ground antlers
floodwater from a submerged city

seed from a barley harvest
emptiness of famine

sugarcane   quartz crystal sun

a parchment
who is like your people
one nation in all the earth

nothing
no words
nothing
blackness
blackness
stars

an orphic hymn:
creator of the world
diversity of the sea
you are the great fullness
and you alone give birth—

and who is like you
o my people
who bind your stories to your arms

I too
tie my story to the parabolic curves of my body
my physics like an alphabet

do not think
I have remembered
you must recover me
from the tar pits of the years

bind me as a sign upon your hand
let me be an ornament
between your eyes
my temple
is in the glands and synapses of your body

remember

So glad to be remembering with you.

Love,

Jill

 

Sept. 25, 2012

Dear Jill,

I’m so grateful for this conversation, for all you are teaching me both about your engagement with gender, the body and poetry—and about mine. I’ve never seen my own experience in this light before, and I’ve never reflected, even in the privacy of my own mind, with the feeling of safety, acceptance and affirmation, of compassionate welcoming witness, you have given me.

One of my deepest wounds—I think it’s common among trans people—is my lifelong awareness that most people won’t accept what I know about myself, won’t grant me the right of self-awareness and self-definition. I still carry on a silent argument with voices that insist that my drive to become myself is delusion or solipsism, that my expression of my gender is caricature and self-parody, that there is no perspective or set of values from which I am not essentially monstrous. I grew up telling myself that I really was who and what I thought I was, even though no one could see it and no one would believe it. Like many trans people, I kept combing and questioning my feelings, testing them, trying to prove to myself and to that invisible audience that they, and I, were true. The conventional model of transition—the one that gets publicized—seems to erase this argument by saying that I have always been “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” so that once my body is brought into alignment with the woman I’ve always been, all the conventional forces that reinforce non-trans people’s sense of gender identity should reinforce mine. But I have never been “a woman trapped in a man’s body”—I’ve been me, a person with a male body and female gender identity and little in the way of language or safety to explore what that has meant at different moments in my life. This conversation has given me both, freeing me to say aloud, to myself and others, that whatever else I am or seem to be, I continue to become. Thank you for accepting and embracing this truth. This me.

I celebrate the work you are doing to help women develop richer, more precise and embracing language for female selves. Having lived on both sides of the gender binary, I have found that neither masculinity nor femininity are adequate languages for selves. Gender is mostly elaborated as an external language, a means for identifying (and misidentifying) one another, and locating masses of people in large interlocking systems of relationship. Thus, the work that you and other feminists are doing to enrich the language of femininity is also blazing a trail for those who identify as male.

You recognize something in “Letter to the Feminine” that’s crucial to the language I’m working to develop—the idea that I can name myself and my relation to the world paratactically, through accretion, lists of overlapping and sometimes contradictory assertions that wave toward the truth that keeps growing through and beyond me. In your “What is in the Goddess’ Tefillin?” poem you do this too, bringing an extraordinary range of image and experience together into a torrent that washes away boundaries between modes of spiritual experience:

wicks of Sabbath candles
ink of burst berries
ground antlers
floodwater from a submerged city

This list reminds me how wide and wild the soul—my soul—is, how rich the birthright of humanity. Thank you.

Letter to God

You say because I’m always about to die,
I am truly alive. My shadow stretches
over fallen branches, my skin smiles
under fingers of light, grass smiles along the path

You say is mine.
When You look at me, you see a child.
When I look at You, I see
a woman under a tree, a dog, a sign,

libraries of books I neither read nor write.
Life for You is easy as death, You do both all the time.
Try it You say. Be dead. Now be alive.
Now be everything you desire. Now let desire lie.

 

Sept. 25, 2012

Dear Joy,

I’m so grateful, too, for your loving witness, your poetry, your friendship, and your courageous presence with these questions and becomings. You help me understand the evanescent images I am trying to look at without holding them too tightly. And you help me by being so vulnerable to your ephemeral self.

As per your penultimate request—Now, be everything you desire!

Love,

Jill

 

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion and the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, a program in Jewish women’s spiritual leadership. Her mythic feminist poetry has been published in many journals and anthologies, including Natural Bridge, Zeek Magazine, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Encodings, Bridges, and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. She is the author of three books: Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and the Omer Calendar of Biblical Women.


Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution, and author of the recently published Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, as well as six books of poetry, including newly-published The Definition of Joy, Forward Fives Award winner Coming to Life, and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration. Her essays and poems have been widely published.

 

“Woman” is the Gateway to Full Humanity: A Conversation With Poets Jill Hammer and Joy Ladin