Ida Stewart

Preface, Part Two

 

Winter: a call for poems and prose by women

Of course, in the southern hemisphere, it's winter. Let's travel there for a moment.

Unsplendid will be devoting its Winter 2014 issue exclusively to poems and prose by women. In addition to poems, we invite prose—craft statements, meditations, manifestos, and beyond—in response to the broad question "Whither form?" To accommodate a wide range of voices, we must limit prose statements to 500 words. The deadline for poetry and prose submissions for the Winter 2014 issue is November 29, 2013.

In her essay "Female Tradition as Feminist Innovation," Annie Finch considers the complex implications bound in traditional forms for women writers: "It could easily appear, on the surface, that traditional form would be the worst choice for a woman poet today, being a tradition in which countless misogynist poems have been written; being a tradition that evokes numberless painful historical memories; being a tradition in which most of the poems women have written were erased and forgotten, let alone disrespected. Why would any contemporary woman poet willingly go back to revisit that poetic territory?"

To Finch, "innovation" is qualified by opposition to tradition, and she notes, "The historical problem is that contemporary women poets do not have a long and powerful female formal tradition to rebel against." However, Finch suggests that opportunity for innovation by women poets interested in exploring traditional forms resides not "in the imitation of the fathers but in the reclamation of the unfinished work of silent, or silenced, foremothers. Formalism presents us not with big stale husks but small growing seedlings, not the discouragement of huge closed books but the challenge of open, relatively empty pages." Don't blame the pattern, she implies, just the pattern's pattern of use.

While Juliana Spahr acknowledges this feminist reclamation of the "mythically gendered male tradition" in her introduction to American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, Spahr differentiates between reclamation and innovation. "Innovation is a word that is as hard to define as lyric, but for the most part here it means the use of agrammatical modernist techniques such as fragmentation, parataxis, run-ons, interruption, and disjunction and at the same time the avoidance of linear narrative development, of meditative confessionalism, and of singular voice." Indeed, many contemporary women poets understand their tradition to be one of rupture—of form and of lyric subjectivity—both as a way to account for a sense of multivalent identity and to break restrictive patterns in order to find better ways to understand and be understood.

Finch and Spahr provide two distinct takes on how contemporary female writers engage with poetic structure. We hope this first Unsplendid prose symposium will bring many more angles to light. We are not interested in stirring up the embers of the old poetry wars; hopefully we'll generate some fire, but the kind to gather around for warmth, not for burning things to the ground. We hope this discussion will reveal some of the many ways contemporary women writers are navigating the landscapes of language and culture with poetry. We hope to learn from one another.

Personally, I hope to hear how writers visualize or model "the poem" and "poetic form," and how these models evolve poem by poem, book by book, year by year. Today I'm particularly drawn to the notion of "poem as solstice." But in the past, I've been drawn variously to the notions of a poem as sculpture, as machine, as origami, as house, as embrace... And Finch's description of her model for form shows how necessary and provocative corresponding models for content can also be. She writes, "I can think of no more poignant a model for the paradox of boundaries than the way a vibrant, living, boundaryless poem flows in the consistent, defining shape of its form. To quote the contemporary Buddhist writer Thich Ninh Hanh, 'Form is the wave, emptiness the water.' I think of form not as a vessel that holds the water, but as the wave that gives form to the water, a rolling, repeating wave-crest that churns and dips more deeply into the boundaryless unconscious than my ego could go on its own."

Finch's water and wave model evokes the openness that Lyn Hejinian explores in her essay "The Rejection of Closure." Hejinian writes, "Form does not necessarily achieve closure, nor does raw materiality provide openness. Indeed, the conjunction of form with radical openness may be what can offer a version of the 'paradise' for which writing often yearns—a flowering focus on a distinct infinity." (His "momentary stay" is her "flowering focus"?) Hejinian notes that an "'open text' often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification." I'm fascinated—but not surprised—by Hejinian and Finch's shared attention to the paradox and potential of boundaries. What we talk about when we talk about form is certainly more complex and interesting than merely the (ir)relevance of sonnets or the blankness of verse.

In addition to models for form and content, I am curious about how writers describe the writing process, for attending to content as well as process will help us better elucidate the question that is form. In her essay "Form and Discontent," Rosemarie Waldrop writes, "As I begin working, I have only a vague nucleus of energy which is sometimes located in a rhythm, an observation, but more often in a phrase, a cluster of words. This means the energy has a semantic field. But the poem starts to happen as the energy encounters a formal pattern, an obstacle." Waldrop shows us how she finds paths across the landscape—the poem as a thing that "happens," form as an "obstacle" that poetic energy "encounters." Fascinating stuff, don't you think?

As a foundation for the prose and poems that we hope you will submit for this special issue of Unsplendid, I leave you with this rich definition of form by Hejinian: "Writing's forms are not merely shapes but forces; formal questions are about dynamics—they ask how, where, and why the writing moves, what are the types, directions, number, and velocities of a work's motion."

So, whither form? How do your poems "happen"? Can you describe how you visualize form, content, and the writing process? If you write in, around, or against any traditional or received forms, how and why do you do so? And what does any of this have to do with being a woman?

Please submit your poems and/or prose via Submittable by November 29, 2013.

Athens, GA
June 21, 2013