Sometime around late August/early September, I had lunch with one of the young women writers I see often in New York. She told me she had recently been to a reading in Philadelphia where Holly Melgard had, as she described, “performed childbirth, not actual childbirth, obviously, but just like made noises like she was in labor, and it was really loud, and people were really upset by it.” This performance apparently caused a great reaction. A number of people were furious, some felt insulted; why would some young girl who has never had a baby do something like that? That's what it seemed to boil down to, according to my friend.
Well, only Holly Melgard can answer that. But let's not pretend the WHY question is really just about explanation. Discussion about a controversial choice made by an artist opens up opportunities for all kinds of analysis. And with the sharp increase in people choosing to not bear children, emotions on this issue seem to be running high in our culture. From what I'd heard, Melgard landed herself squarely in the middle of it when she performed in Philly.
One segment for this Jacket2 column will be titled “WHY__________?” in which I will ask certain people Why questions. Participant responses must be between 100-300 words. One of the first people I had a Why question for was Trisha Low. Because it’s a thread running through all her writing and performance work (she reads their diaries, their feminist blog comments, their love letters; she dresses like one in performance then throws up fake blood on herself) I asked her: Why Teenage Girls? Here’s her answer.
After Tiqqun’s Theory of a Young Girl, I think Poetry thinks of teenage girls the way some magazine editor looks at a contact sheet, selecting the spectacle and then pulling it up on the screen for the airbrusher going “INFLATE HER HAIR SO WE CAN SEE THAT FRAGILE VACUITY. I WANT TO SEE THOSE CAPITALISTIC PROCESSES NOT THAT CELLULITE. HAVE THIS SHIT ON MY DESK BY 2.”
For all their twists and spin, poets like Kamau Brathwaite and Charles Bernstein seem strikingly direct in their politics when compared to Vanessa Place and her poetics of iteration. Where in a work likeWorld on FireBernstein clearly attacks the US invasion of Iraq, Place, like some other conceptual writers, seems to reject the idea that we might change the world by transforming our language. Indeed, at times Place takes direct aim at texts that seek a revolutionary change in the social order.
For instance, in her “Boycott Project,” Place reproduces feminist classics such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex with all female-gendered words replaced by their male counterparts. (See Place’s The Father & Childhood.)
So Pat had access to a typesetting machine + layout facilities + there was an old offset press in the office where she worked. We scrounged the paper to do the book from offcuts or somewhere + asked a friend if he'd print it. So four of us went to occupied the office after hours with a flagon of wine + probably a few joints + printed, collated + stapled the book in a night. With that book there was no copyright - this was because of my wonderfully noble + idealistic anarchism — + the opening statement in the book read "if anyone wants these poem use them" + they were used - they turned up in magazines and so on. So the book cost very little, I think we spent about $20 + I also learned a bit about layout, printing + collating. So I had had the big light bulb go on for me, a highly illuminating experience + I loved the idea of publishing + the freedom of self-publishing where you could design + construct a book in any way you wished, you could say whatever you wanted to — NO LIMITS, no restriction.
The next year Pat drove moved to Sydney, driving up from Melbourne with an offset press in her V.W. – with a few clothes, no furniture or other possessions – the press taking priority in the car. She moved into the our house + the offset press was set up in the front room until it became too chaotic + a space in an old ex barbershop in Glebe was found for it. this was the So that's part of the story of the beginning of Tomato Press.
(Pam Brown, notes from a talk on self-publishing, given at the Women & Arts festival, Sydney, 1982. 'Pat' refers to Pat Woolley, publisher with Tomato Press and later, Wild & Woolley. I transcribed these notes from a scan of Pam's handwriting that she was kind enough to send to me. Apologising for the roughness, she commented on pre-digital note-taking, when "PowerPoint was a nightmare up ahead somewhere." I've honoured the cross-outs and false-starts because they are perfect records of almost-instaneous edits. Note the shift from "went to" to "occupied.")
Every eccentricity of belief, and every variety of bias in mankind allies itself with a printing-machine, and gets its singularities bruited about in type, but where is the printing ink champion of mankind's better half? There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voices of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions. Men legislate on divorce, on hours of labour, and many another question intimately affecting women, but neither ask nor know the wishes of those whose lives and happiness are most concerned. (Louisa Lawson, The Dawn, May 1888)
ASSOCIATED LABOUR seems to be in its own small way just as selfish and dictatorial as associated capital. The strength which comes of union has made labour strong enough, not only to demand its rights but strong enough also to bully what seems weak enough to quietly suffer under petty tyranny. We have a notable example of this in the boycott which the Typographical Society has proclaimed against The Dawn. The compositors have abandoned the old just grounds on which their union is established, viz: the linking together of workers for the protection of labour, they have confessed themselves by this act an association merely for the protection of the interests of its own members. The Dawn office gives whole or partial employment to about ten women, working either on this journal or in the printing business, and the fact that women are earning an honest living in a business hitherto monopolised by men, is the reason why the Typographical Association, and all the affiliated societies it can influence, have resolved to boycott The Dawn. They have not said to the women "we object to your working because women usually accept low wages and so injure the cause of labour everywhere", they simply object on selfish grounds to the competition of women at all. (Louisa Lawson, The Dawn, October 1889)
the movement throughout the image of body, whole, gathered and real. begin. end.sense.
like a likeness, a sign, the ritual, repeat. To focus becomes the object is disappearing.
It suffices. An Astronomy of power, implicit, subtle, carnivorous, bureaucracies serenade their untied shoelaces
not being able to possess: not being able to
(Amanda Stewart, from "Icon", I/T)
In beginning my fossicky labours, my first desire was to visit Amanda Stewart. I wanted to ask her about her sense of Sydney, since we seem to occupy a similar orbit. She went to the same university that I did, twenty years before me, and studied in the same cultural studies node that I did (though she copped the guts of it and I caught the lingering whiffs). And like me, she has found herself working, making and thinking in collective arrangements that share an approach to method, rather than an essential identity. This means that she has been variously involved with sound artists, musicians, performers, film-makers, radio-makers, poets, critics, etc., and she has produced work that could be considered sound art, music, performance, film, radio, poetry (spoken, written, concrete) and criticism. She uses the word poetry to describe what she does, where poetry is a methodology. I mean methodology very literally: how things are done when things are done. For Stewart, experimenting broadly and socially with technologies of signification, including but not limited to language, is poetry: and this has come to include a good heft of work in lots of directions, alongside many technicians, poets and otherwise.
Free verse isn't just for students. One of the most interesting practitioners of the line - perhaps the most - in Australia is Claire Gaskin. Gaskin's use of the line is always working the line over other formal elements, even when she enjambs it:
suppose, for instance, that men were only
represented in literature as the lovers of woman
This is from the poem 'Paperweight', just one more poem from Rabbit #1. Whereas other poets worth reading work the line to energise a stanza or their poem as a whole, Gaskin's focus is on the line. This allows, I suppose, for readings of her work as dispersed, disjunctive blah blah, but such readings miss the point. Gaskin's power is that of a haiku-inflected, feminist-charged, Surrealist fission. Not fusion, as a lazy music as soup metaphor might have it. (Because we who love to not love formalism have heard all that 'line' before.) There is a post-formal feel to such 'free verse' too; not the echo of metre, but the echo of the line-based form of, in particular, the pantoum, in the recycling of sentiments and the 'soap in the stocking' line. In the above, though Gaskin is making a point, a not perhaps startling one, the emphasis comes down on 'says Woolf', giving her an authority that is common in many places, and yet in texts by men, generally subsidiary to the list of modernist men.