Rachel Blau DuPlessis with Andy Fitch

Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Photo courtesy of Robert S. DuPlessis.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Photo courtesy of Robert S. DuPlessis.

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Blau DuPlessis’ book Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry (University of Iowa Press). November 9th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: The phrase “patriarchal poetics” makes me picture an exclusionary male coterie, perhaps with Charles Olson calling out “There it is, brothers.” And I can infer how analogous group-formation dynamics arise in relation to racist, heterosexist or anti-Semitic constructs. But your examination of patriarchal poetics suggests that even those individuals who try to escape this constrictive model often end up demonstrating just how elastic, amorphous, almost irresistible its discourse is—say in the “imperial” rhetorical gestures that you describe certain liberatory poets making. Could you start to sketch the parameters of a patriarchal poetics by contextualizing these imperial deployments of multiple gender identity?

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Here’s the issue: when you first read Stein’s little essay-poem “Patriarchal Poetry,” you sense she has a conflicted (though that sounds too negative) attitude toward this topic. Noting this, I found it satisfying to observe that I, too, have a conflicted attitude. The word “patriarchal” picked up entirely negative connotations during second-wave feminism. It evoked, as you’ve described, an exclusive male coterie saturated with sexism and misogyny. Yet a more generalized usage of “patriarchy” remains quite tempting to Stein, since it suggests a type of totalizing discourse. Its “imperial” manifestation demonstrates that some poets’ subjectivity can reach any position in the sex-gender system. This provides an effective rhetorical strategy many men have deployed. They often possess the social capacity to shift among a variety of gender stances, all under a general rubric of maleness. Of course certain stances do get coded as queer, as fem, aggressive, then passive aggressive. But more generally I argue that because of male social power, male poets have had this capacity for an imperial appropriation and accumulation of wide-ranging subject-positions. The corresponding fact of women’s diminished social power precludes them, in general, from acquiring this capacity to deploy and inhabit and grab whatever subject-position they desire. And yes, women do have their own great range of female-oriented subject-positions. Though as soon as a woman reaches for male subject-positions, she often gets slapped down. Again yes, there always have been transgressive women who dress in tuxedos and so forth. But in general, male figures have the capacity to range and appropriate many more subject-positions including those that contradict each other. This gesture I call “patriarchal,” and men often get praised for it. Critics consider it a positive. Male poets struggle to retain such possibilities. You see that in the relationship between Pound and Zukofsky. Both want imperial authority, and Pound keeps slapping down Zukofsky because Pound thinks only one poet at a time can have it. Here we return to the more rigid feminist definition of patriarchy as a problematic form of dominance and exclusion. Yet my book adopts an ambivalent approach to patriarchy—noting both its oppressive and its liberatory capacities.

AF: Contradiction here seems essential in several ways. The privilege to inhabit (on an aesthetic level) these myriad subject-positions often depends upon not facing the real-life social/historical constraints and suffering that such positions bring with them.

RBD: Correct. Men might inhabit these positions in their image repertoire, in their poetic work, perhaps to some degree in their social relations. But the privilege of adopting such roles with glee and getting praised for it remains the exclusive property of select male figures. Because even the most adventuresome, avant-garde women historically have encountered strict social limits, both in their literary and lived experience. I should make a teeny star and footnote gay male experience, insofar as that it has, over the period I discuss, remained less acceptable, more maligned—though fascinating to straight men. Of course as the social positions of gay people change, so does this dynamic.

AF: Could we discuss the limitations specific female poets have faced when assembling an equivalent imperial project? Here I think of Stein’s The Making of Americans, and its attempt at representing totality through a sweeping syntax as much as any cumulative plot or character; or of Eileen Myles adopting novelistic forms, probing queer desire as a means of accessing a more expansive first-person subjectivity; or Alice Notley developing an epic scope and scale in works like The Descent of Alette.

RBD: Anne Waldman also fits well on your list. But Stein still seems the exception. Stein did not identify as a woman exactly. She considered herself a genius. Genius became her chosen sexual and gender subject-position. But I agree that, apart from Stein, most female poets attempting to access this positive patriarchal power have done so in our contemporary period. This comes directly from the benefits of the woman’s movement I would say, along with changes in gay status, lesbian status. Though that argument does make me a bit queasy, since one always can produce exceptions. H.D. comes to mind (again for trying to inhabit all available perspectives), but Woolf not really, Moore not really, Loy not really. Even H.D. generally does not inhabit the male subject-position, whereas Stein clearly does. Here I’m mostly not referring to sexuality or sexual practices. In many ways, one never really knows other people’s sexuality, even a contemporary’s, so that doesn’t motivate my project. But H.D. idealized certain male figures, perhaps because they provided that part of her she did not seek to inhabit.

AF: We’ve discussed the imperial gesture as an imaginative act on the part of male poets who don’t face certain social constraints. But beyond that imaginative act, do the material and relational conditions of literary production (which disciplines or idioms you can access, what types of books you can put out, how a given culture might receive them based on how it perceives you) likewise amplify or reinforce one’s authorial identity within a patriarchal discourse?

RBD: It does demand an imaginative act, yet one, as you say, that takes place and produces consequences in the real world. And women writers still do face a somewhat marginalized position in terms of literary production, reception, dissemination. That specific social difference still remains. Women don’t necessarily write any differently. Anybody can adopt his or her own particular style, his or her particular vantage on inherited conventions. But the conditions of literary production move at a different pace. We could develop many explanations, for example, why John Wieners ends up writing the Olsonic “Curriculum of the Soul” pamphlet called Woman (or Women, depending on the version). Perhaps the publishers found this juxtaposition intriguing. Perhaps no woman wanted that ghettoizing assignment—ghettoizing at the time. Perhaps it just didn’t occur to anyone to ask a woman. And here Wieners’ own qualifications depend upon his interest in drag. So yet again, in multiple respects, one encounters the familiar canard that the best woman for the job is always a man.

AF: Pound and Olson stand out as the most problematic cases in your book, since both articulate their desire for a liberated gender regime then directly marginalize the poetic contributions and social status of their female peers. Yet here, as elsewhere, you adopt a neutral, descriptive tone. Purple Passages doesn’t seek to examine why such contradictions took place, so much as to assert that they did take place, that they didn’t have to and that we now live with their legacy. Still many “why” questions came up for me. First, could you begin to describe Pound’s situation—how he mostly gets it right in his editing of The Waste Land, though then so clearly gets it wrong with Mina Loy?

RBD: For me, the most fascinating discovery writing the book came from this notion of choice, of existential and social choice amid constrictive gender norms. A regime of absolute gender binaries provides little freedom of choice. But modernity suggested this all could change. People could choose among a wide array of perspectives—unless one considers men hardwired to be sexist, which I do not and never have believed, not even in 1968 or whatever. People made choices: intellectual, relational, emotional, aesthetic and so on, continuously. So I propose that both Pound and Olson drive toward a choice that would proclaim, make women coequal with men. Then they turn the car. They just veer right off and you can see it happening. You see Pound kind of wobble. Pound remains quite opportunistic straight through his embrace of Italian fascism. He tries to play all the angles. And of course some men sense a great benefit in women’s sexual liberation (you can see this in the 1960s also). Still Pound places himself among a cohort of brilliant women. He takes great interest in them. He gives them some credit, some airtime. Yet he never quite acknowledges their originality. This pattern gets epitomized by the disparities between Pound’s editing of The Waste Land and his editing of Mina Loy’s “The Effectual Marriage,” which happens during the exact same period. Here Pound could help construct a gender-wavering Waste Land—a kind of androgynous, messy, queer, everybody-not-quite-real ghostly sexuality and could claim it as a masculine subject-position. Cutting out the poem’s most raunchy or jolly parts, as Pound does, allows for that to happen. Though then with Loy’s poem Pound basically operates as a gleaner. He was a quick study, Pound was. He saw it and knew it was new. Then he used the elements (authorial persona doubling as narrator, serial form, framing structure), I would say, to even better effect than Loy. Yet he gave her no credit for this. Again the problem doesn’t derive from him deploying her strategies (steal away—that’s my position). But she doesn’t have the right to get credited, and lacks the equal right to steal back. She wrote “The Effectual Marriage” while making lampshades. She led a different life than the person determined to become a great poet. You could say she let the ball drop, if you were so inclined. Or, to cite O’Hara: “oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”

AF: Though this goes back to conditions of production, too.

RBD: Right. But so Pound edits, apparently with absolute authority, Eliot, who then trumps him by inserting the Notes section—which adds this authoritative presence really to the body of the poem. This unexpected insertion establishes a new power position between Eliot and Pound, one that never again will change. At the same time, Pound appropriates somebody’s whole mechanism for a self-conscious poetics yet never, never says, I got all of this (or even some of this) from Mina Loy.

AF: Here I’d love to address some similarities in Olson’s relation to Frances Boldereff, but I also have a more general question. I hope we can get to the parallels you see between the growth of an individual, the choices an individual makes and then broader social developments—how we have in our heads this (perhaps reductive, as your own examples suggest) model for a neat trajectory of personal growth, then often apply this model to the conflictual, back-and-forth, hesitant nature of discursive social change. I’ll want to ask about your use of individual scenes or narratives to dramatize these bigger historical contexts.

RBD: Well all of these poets struggle to make their work. That remains clear throughout. They undergo immense struggles to complete certain poems, to explore territories that fascinate them. So I don’t mean to scold Olson. What’s done is done. But the broader implications, as you say, still demand attention—how a sex/gender system comes into view and gets articulated by the choices these individuals make around literary productivity. And almost every project I discuss becomes a powerful and important text for the rest of the twentieth century, producing consequential perspectives on sex, gender, society, poetry. Yet here I sense a strong contrast between my position and that of, say, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. You can see this through our different treatments of Fresca in The Waste Land. They make a tremendous amount out of the fact that Eliot wrote this somewhat nasty, amused and amusing satire of a bluestocking woman. Eliot deliberately dispenses corny clichés and remains invested in them at the same time. Eliot’s opinions do “suck,” as the kids might say, but his piece offers some fantastic writing. Then Pound cuts it, and Eliot concurs. No evidence suggests that Eliot went back on Pound’s cuts. He famously expresses his gratitude for them. Yet Gilbert and Gubar assess The Waste Land as if it still contained the Fresca material. They act as if the published, canonized poem retains these tonalities—and suggest that we should consider this scandalous. Whereas I, after acknowledging the importance of examining Eliot’s manuscript, treat it more as a shadow text. You can’t ignore it once you’ve read it. It does color your opinions. You sense in Eliot’s satiric mode that awe and fear of women from his early poetry, which does carry over into After Strange Gods and which he tries to ease by his career’s end. Still my point is you have to read the evidence, yet this doesn’t place you inevitably in the position of deploring. Purple Passages makes clear that I dislike or disagree with certain choices made in certain instances. Though there they are. We should study them, but not repeat them.

AF: Here perhaps we could discuss your own polyvalent relation to some of this work. In regard to Beat poetry, for example, you state that a conflicted or reactionary gender discourse still can inspire feminist responses. You assert that “tropes are never transhistorical,” that even the most misogynistic text will encounter an autonomous audience, one who can read it in unpredictable, non-determinist, potentially liberating ways. Along these lines, could you characterize your own personal relationship to the poets addressed in this book? Have they to some extent prompted this particular response—in spite of their sexist, hypocritical, opportunistic tendencies and decisions? Have you recognized a fraught, yet liberatory potential in their poetics, and tried to redirect this to more constructive ends? Does such a revaluative critical approach allow for its own imperial project?

RBD: Yes, indeed. It goes something like this, to speak just personally about a few texts from the book. Certainly Eliot remains crucial. The Waste Land never has gone out of fashion for me. Pound too has been extremely important, and later, in a parallel way, Zukofsky. Their long poems could epitomize the imperial gesture, though women stay off the screen for the most part. You’ll encounter a name here and there, but no co-equal gender norms appear in these poems, period. That’s a big lacuna. Still both fascinating poets present projects of great obscurity, here producing an implicit, exigent demand to study and to saturate yourself as reader in their world (which thereby becomes magnetic and quite hard to abandon). And then to get to the Olson parallel: very few women appear in The Maximus Poems, which seems astonishing, considering his historical claim to reconstruct Gloucester. If you decide to celebrate ship-building and fishing’s dangers and the brilliant navigational skills of these men, you also might want to describe the back country—the farms and small businesses women ran while the men stayed at sea for a year at a time. Both realms had economic necessity, but Olson couldn’t care less. I find it almost comical. I’ve said before that in Olson’s corpus women are mythic, whereas men are historical and mythic. Women receive no such historical credibility. They get shifted into the mythic register almost instantly. By contrast Creeley stands out as a very, very important figure for me, because of his (late, certainly uneven) attempt to think complex relational thoughts through poetry, through line and diction and a vernacular voice. Here I refer to his texts not his life. Of course Loy remains quite important also, even in what we would have to call a somewhat aborted career. She a savvy, acidic poet who goes for the jugular. I appreciate that model.

AF: So again, one central purpose of Purple Passages seems to involve foregoing a dismissive account of these patriarchal figures, and claiming your own ambivalent engagement with them as a productive one.

RBD: Absolutely. And beyond my personal experience, I mean to construct a quite polemical book in some ways, emphasizing the fundamental point that women want to be coequal and coeval. By coeval, I really mean cotemporal. We don’t inhabit some other, ahistorical, mythic time. We shape real time, real society, real history. This book basically articulates a form of liberal feminism. It says, coequality and cotemporality are what I require of a culture for women and for men.

AF: You occasionally cite the gender critiques posed by a subsequent generation of male poets—figures such as Bob Perelman, Michael Davidson, Barrett Watten, Charles Bernstein. Have these poet-critics addressed analogous gender dynamics in a more competent, proactive, inclusive fashion?

RBD: In certain works, definitely. And again, I’m not here to judge their personal affects and attitudes. Bob Perelman stays quite aware of these gender conflicts throughout his book on Pound, even if his scholarly focus often lies elsewhere. But with Davidson, Watten, Bernstein—these poets have taken clear critical stances, regarding gendered discourse, that I cite and praise (I also praise women who write on maleness, including Libbie Rifkin, Colleen Lamos). This book does not address what those particular male poets have done in their own poetry. That would make for a very different project. Barrett Watten has offered his own critique of Legend, presenting it as an amazing work from the point of view of male bonding and male jouissance, which seems about right. Women have no place in it, and that big lack does produce a question mark. Barrett sees this and states it quite clearly.

AF: And more generally: after sifting through numerous ways in which self-described progressive poetic communities continually have reinforced certain retrograde tendencies, can you share any insights regarding forms of self-oblivion among progressive poetic practices in our own present?

RBD: Self-oblivion does remain quite tricky. It’s hard to enact the attitudes you espouse. The seductions of male privilege do remain quite strong. And this book does ask something of male figures, which is to understand this sexual mechanism, to recognize more positive depictions of women, to help produce these both on a personal and social level. No one act, one poem, one critical article, one book can do the job. We need a much broader shift—with all its unspecified, unintended consequences to our literary culture. We have not gone the whole distance, even if certain men have done a good job articulating alternative positions.

AF: Along similar lines, what does this book ask of contemporary scholarship—especially, again, in terms of your self-consciously “analytic, invested, affectual” methods?

RBD: Well it does ask the critic to wear her heart on her sleeve a bit more. It does ask, what are the stakes for the writer (poet and/or scholar) in any particular literary act? Right now, as I write on Duncan’s H.D. Book, his notion of criticism seems quite drastic, and probably not for everybody. It deprofessionalizes the scholarly by transforming literary criticism into the personally invested, high-toned, all-encompassing essay. I doubt that the professional field of literary criticism can or would move this way. But it does suggest that critics should show their investments more, just as poet-critics continually need to refine their scholarly sense. Back in the days when I wrote The Pink Guitar people would say, oh I wish I could write this way; I’m going to start writing this way. And I’d think, uh-oh. Because you have to know what you’re talking about and not fuck up the evidence. You can’t distort as you see fit. You need to embrace the ethics of the scholar (in fact, The Pink Guitar underestimates what Dora Marsden ventured in shifting from Freewoman/New Freewoman to The Egoist—I didn’t understand her investment in what we now might call “post-feminism”). And here, with Purple Passages, I only wish I’d written a longer book. The way presses operate these days, your book has to stay so focused. That’s why when people come to me for advice, I say, a book is about something; it’s not about everything. And this particular book is about something, not everything. People will ask, did you include Oppen? No. How about Duncan? Only as a little codicil. Did you treat gay male poets? Should Ashbery factor into the book, etcetera. But many, many concerns did not make it into this book. That’s too bad, let’s say. Yet a kind of unity exists in the network of topics I do address. And the tonal shifts from The Pink Guitar to Blue Studios to Purple Passages do suggest a series for me. I hope to have made clear that The Pink Guitar operates most like an essay, Blue Studios inhabits a (tonal) middle space, then Purple Passages required more concentrated scholarly correlations—such as comparing Pound’s “revisions” both of Eliot and Loy, treating them in the same essay like that. This book doesn’t present a free-form collage sensibility, aside from the codas I put in. I don’t insert mini-poems into the text. So it seems a bit different along my color spectrum. That’s just the way it happened, so to speak. It turned out that way. That’s what I would say.


Rachel Blau DuPlessis is the author of six books of literary criticism featuring modernism and gender analyses, fourteen books or chapbooks of poetry, including her multi-volume long poem Drafts, and four edited volumes including The Selected Letters of George Oppen. Salt Publishing will bring out Surge: Drafts 96-114 in March 2013. This is the last book of DuPlessis’s long poem project, begun in 1986. Drafts is also collected in The Collage Poems of Drafts (2011), Pitch: Drafts 77-95 (2010), Torques: Drafts 58-76 (2007) and Drafts  39-57, Pledge, with Draft unnumbered: Précis (2004) all from Salt Publishing, as well as in Drafts 1-38, Toll  (Wesleyan U.P., 2001). Italian and French translations of significant selections of this work will be published in 2013 by Vydia  (titled Dieci Bozze) and José Corti. Her poetry can be heard on PENNSound; her websites are http://rachelblauduplessis.com and http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/duplessis

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