HER KIND: Why do we care so much about our hair?
Lisa Russ Spaar: I wonder if our being mammals has something to do with why hair—which can seem weirdly both animal and plant—is so primally charged, across time, place, and culture, with all sorts of projection and symbolism.
Hair (or lack of it) is associated with virility and strength (think Sampson and Delilah, think premature baldness, think Brangelina’s “heroic,” Byronesque tresses), sexuality and modesty (consider the marriage or religious veil, all those hirsute or shaved torsos, no-shave November, the popularity of French waxing or the full Brazilian, the so-called Holy Whores—Mary Magdalene or Mary of Egypt—whose hair grew to cover them), freedom (“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair. / Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen. / Give me down to there hair, shoulder length or longer / here baby, there, Momma, everywhere, Daddy, Daddy, Hair!”), personal expression (the mullet, the Mohawk, the faux hawk, My Little Pony hair dyes, dreads, the Van Dyke, the soul patch, Pippi braids), transgression (the bearded lady, fetishism, scalping, Medusa), sacrifice (think tonsure, think voodoo), mythology (Rapunzel, Godiva, Beauty and the Beast, all those apocryphal urban myths about ticks and handguns and mice hiding for weeks in beehive up-dos), illness (chemo hair loss, the lanugo of anorexia), aging (nose hairs! The uni-brow), memento (a lover or baby’s hair braided into jewelry pieces, pressed into lockets, clipped and tied with a ribbon), humor and derision (wigs, clown tufts, toupees, comb-overs, plugs), and rites of passage (a baby’s first hair-cut, the growing of payot), not to mention the burgeoning commercial industry (salons, treatments, products, cures) that has grown up around it. Hair, like fingernails, can apparently grow after death, and survive in graves and on mummies for centuries. The potent, the rogue, the surprising, the transformative: this is also the stuff of poetry.
So no wonder hair holds a particular place in the poetic imagination. I’m not just talking about all those hair haiku websites. I’m thinking about Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” Sherman Alexie’s “Good Hair,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo,” Kiki Petrosino’s “Afro,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals,” Sappho (“But you, O Dika, wreathe lovely garlands in your hair”), Debra Nystrom’s “The Haircut,” Robin Behn’s “My Hair.” And of Rumi (“I’m tangled, like the curls of my love’s hair”) and of Cate Marvin’s “Why I am Afraid of Turning the Page” (“Spokes, spooks: your tinsel hair weaves the wheel / that streams through my dreams of battle. Another / apocalypse, and your weird blondeness cycling in / and out of the march’ &c).
What do you think, Zayne? Hair. Poetry. Poetic Hair. Hair Poetry. A tautology?
Zayne Turner: When I first read the question, I thought: how do I care about hair? I cut my own hair—because I’d rather buy other things, not because I’m particularly good at it—and my mother’s repeated advice about hair is, “Once you walk away from the mirror, your hair becomes everybody else’s problem.” But you remind me, Lisa, of all the years I did care, very much, about the visibility of my hair. Curled, straight. Brown, blonde, red, or not. How much I just wanted my hair to not betray any sign of difference–style as invisibility, protection.
And now, your question of a tautology between Hair + Poetry make me think of style & visibility, identity, textural aesthetics & access. Personally, I find that my desire to style myself into invisibility has waned—both in terms of my hair & my poetry. So I find myself reading & writing more in the liminal areas. But then I find myself thinking of hairy questions like: at what intervals do erudition, intellection, formal/procedural necessity become so tangled they become more about the spectacle of the mass, the physics of the impossible snarl? And if so, does that matter? Or what if someone decides to take a snarl & slather it in tonic? If we make snarls shiny, but do not undo the tangle, do we just make our knots able to be skimmed over, combed through? What of those who decide to keep everything in a ‘manageable’ style or length, where nothing can possibly tangle? And what of bun fillers, wigs, weave, extensions, Bumpits? Chewing gum or glue? What if the tangle is the result of materials & objects not entirely consisting of our own keratins?
Swinging back to a more closely literal orbit of poetry, I’m thinking of the conversation between Barbara Hennings & Harryette Mullen in Looking Up Harryette Mullen, how the politics of accessibility or aesthetic choice intersect with literacies, economic opp/ortunity/ression, gender, race, our aggregate identities. The brouhaha over the Penguin Anthology & subsequent reviews. Amy King’s “Poetry & the Beastly Po-Biz” (which gives us an allusion & flirtation with another hairy tale–), taking on conceptions/receptions/productions of group identity in poems, by poems, around poems. I’m thinking of #solidarityisforwhitewomen, and the ‘divide’ between page and stage in poetry communities. When is a trick (repetition or volume, perhaps) a stunt, when is it a device. A choice. A tool.
The near invisibility of visual and concrete poetries in all of these discussions. How even an adventuresome press like Siglio would like us to “Please note that we do not publish poetry.” Does poetry somehow not exist in the world of visual-literary hybrids? Or just The Last VisPo? The towers that be, that divide.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel. Let down your hair. Let loose. Loose women. Lack of moral fiber. Split ends. Now we’re in a tangle. A hairy problem. Pepón Osorio’s “En la barbaria no se llora.”
LRS: No crying in the barbershop, indeed, Zayne. Clearly, it’s hard to think about any aspect of hair and hair culture that isn’t psychically italicized.
Your mentioning of the Osorio and of sites like The Last VisPo makes me think of other poet/artists who foreground hair as subject or material, or who privilege sheer process itself in their work. There are so many of them, but right now I’m recalling those hair-like red threads and flosses in Jen Bervin’s series on Dickinson’s fascicle scorings and variants, for instance (incidentally, Dickinson herself seems to have been obsessed with hair—not only her own auburn tresses, which had not dimmed by the time of her death, but hair in general, referring to the word itself some 27 times in her lyrics), and of course the temporal beatitude of your own luminous hybrid work, which evokes, by turns, meridian cross-hair grids and the ephemeral fletchings of border spaces. Cindy Sherman’s perverse and haunting photo collage spread of the Grimm Brothers’ Fitcher’s Bird toys with the “humanimal” excrescences like feathers and fur.
Surely there is a language of hair. As Marina Warner puts it in From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, “The language of the self would be stripped of one of its richest resources without hair: and like language, or the faculty of laughter, or the use of tools, the dressing of hair in itself constitutes a mark of the human.” Just as our “callings” are signaled by our “hairy signs”—a military crew-cut, a skater boy’s flaxen mane, a butch girl’s crop, an athlete’s pony tail—Warner writes that “on the one hand, hair is both the sign of the animal in the human, and all that means in terms of our tradition of associating the beast with the bestial, nature and the natural with the inferior and reprehensible aspects of humanity; on the other hand, hair is also the least fleshly production of the flesh . . . [and] seems to transcend the mortal condition, to be in full possession of the principle of vitality itself,” connecting it with magic, relic, loss.
What happens to our hair reflects our helical dance with the mortal coil. Zayne, do you know Stephen Cushman’s three-line poem “Story of my Life”? It goes:
And how we arrange, ignore, or style our hair (Warner mentions Joan of Arc’s fatal boy cut, Frieda Kahlo’s angry self-shearing in the wake of Diego Rivera’s departure) can help reduce (or exalt) us to our essential selves, allow us to express gender ambivalence, sexuality, anger—or permit us to be other than we are (Harryette Mullen in “Quality of Life”: “Tina Turner set fire to her wigs so she could wear all that burnt hair.”)
And so I’m especially intrigued by the related matter you raise about “style & visibility, identity, textural aesthetics & access.” In his booty call poem “The Ecstasy,” John Donne writes that our bodies “are ours, though they are not wee.” Hmmm. But when he goes on to say that our bodies are our books, he may be on to something related to these issues. In fact, I think your questions probing the interaction of “product” (conditioner, sea salt spray, dye, straightener, what have you) or embellishment (beads, dreds, extensions) (and here, in poetic terms, I’m thinking of elaborate syntax, recherché diction, cross-outs, collage, &c) and, for lack of a better word, a poem’s essential message or matrix, its “own keratins,” as you say, are at the heart of what’s at stake in thinking about poetic “style.” When does texture, gesture evince or reveal something essential, occult, and signature, and when does it lapse into or fail to deepened into anything more than mere surface glitter, dross, smoke and mirrors?
ZT: That is the question—or, at least, is something that concerns me quite a bit. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a craft talk by Dara Wier at work recently, and she asked all of us if there was some thing, some quality or event, etc. that only happened in poetry. That we couldn’t get in any other genre/medium. And my immediate reaction was a deep and sudden sense of discomfort. I think that’s one of the quickest ways to make a room of writers suddenly a wild and— depending upon who’s facilitating/speaking— divisive place. (And I appreciate that, in that context, the question was more about what we each got from poetry, more than what poetry is.)
I hate it— and I think many others do, too— when talk of craft or aesthetics devolves into statements about who is/could/should ‘be’ in poetry or art or whatever, and who isn’t or shouldn’t be. But also I think there’s something at stake with these kinds of conversations— especially/even just on the level of the individual practitioner/reader/entity. How we each define revelation or surface gloss or genius or careerist posturing crap for ourselves says more about each of us than about the work. (Which is something I first heard from Brian Reed at UW Bothell’s fantastic Convergence on Poetics.)
And I think that it’s dangerous to go about without knowledge of self. On a micro to macro scale, with various kinds of ‘dangerous’ consequences for various arenas. Halliburton, George Zimmerman, NSA. Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus. Egg on my face, my fly undone.
One could argue that knowledge of self is really what’s at the heart of the VIDA Count.
I’m thinking now of Paradise Lost, how Eve is described as turning away from the outside world (aka Paradise) “with unexperienced thought,” and preferring her own reflection, the “answering looks/Of sympathie and love” she finds there.
LRS: I love your turning toward Eve here, Zayne, in the context of your meditation on the difference between what we get from and what is, and especially in relation to “knowledge of self.” Hair is revelatory of female agency and selfhood in Paradise Lost, I think; here’s a familiar passage describing Eve’s hair from Book IV:
Shee as a veil down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d
As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d
Subjection, but requir’d with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best reciev’d,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (4.304-311)
In John Milton: Language, Gender, Power, Catherine Belsey calls Eve’s hair in this passage “both a glory and a snare.” Leaving aside whatever Milton’s own conflicted feelings may have been about the paradoxes of Eve’s nature, I’ve always responded to the electric balance between the language of traditionally “modest [female] pride” (“veil,” “unadorned,” “ringlets,” “gentle sway”) and the language of wild and “wanton” (archaic meaning: “ungovernable”) naturalness (“dishevell’d . . . / As the Vine curls her tendrils”). Rather than finding in this description a woman who coyly seems to be one thing but who is also already guilty of a fatal susceptibility and inevitable lapse, I read instead, in that barely pent, “sweet reluctant amorous delay,” a signal of volition, an ownership of desire.
And speaking of ownership and desire, could Cher and her new blonde tresses be a kind of low (or high)-end parallel to my discussion of Eve?
In Milton, though, Eve’s hair manifests the multitudes she contains, and is at the heart of her mystery and her power. She is her own answering look.
ZT: Mmmm. Yes. I love the reading of Eve via her (vexed!) hair. Paradise Lost is one of my favorites—not just because of the textures/language, but also all the complex characters and Milton’s own thorny logics.
And—after a quick nod to the platinum connection, which is hilarious—Cher is absolutely an example of being multiple & full of volition. The Cher connection also makes me think of survival—of pulling yourself up & through this post-lapsarian (a phrase you definitely mine for all its worth, Lisa!) world by your wigs and Bob Mackie originals.
Also, speaking of amazing things on the internets, have you seen this, Lisa?
LRS: Heh. Wonderful. Future jobs for poets! Naming the cardigan shades at J. Crew, the haircuts of the future.
Seriously, though, this conversation has been a joy. We got us, Babe, &c.
You: Swoopy bangs?
Me: Acoustic feelings?
ZT: Looking back, I’m realizing that we didn’t even address hairlessness. Or hair replacement therapies. Or really, the whole world of body hair. We might have to keep this going off-line, Lisa!
Zayne Turner grew up in the rural High Desert of Oregon. She is the author of the chapbook Memory of My Mouth, available from dancing girl press. She has received grants and fellowships for literary & visual arts from the Arteles Creative Center in Finland, Oregon Arts Commission, Vermont Studio Center and the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. Her literary work can be found in places like Ancora Imparo, Caketrain, Coldfront, Poecology and Terrain.org. She also sometimes makes things on Storify.
Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and most recently Vanitas, Rough (Persea, December 2012). She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems and All that Mighty Heart: London Poems, and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry appeared from Drunken Boat Media in March 2013. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, an All University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, Poetry, Boston Review, Blackbird, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies, and her commentaries and columns about poetry appear regularly or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.