Female Aesthetic(s) Symposium (Part 1): Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee with Metta Sáma

(clockwise from the top-left ) Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee
(clockwise from the top-left) Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee

In 2009, the poet Monica A. Hand asked for definitions of “female aesthetics.” While there are no actual definitions of female aesthetics or woman aesthetics, there are working definitions of feminist aesthetics. I was intrigued by this notion of the female (vs the woman, aka l’écriture féminine and Hélène Cixous’s writing from the body) and what an aesthetics of female would like and who could who would claim this aesthetics. A bit later, I put together a panel on Twitter to discuss this concept, and I invited some of the participants from that panel as well as some additional people I thought would have something interesting to say, to have an informal symposium discussion via email. What followed was a series of questions, speculations, ponderings, and anecdotes with Racquel Goodison, Monica A. Hand, Patricia Spears Jones, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Tracy Chiles McGhee from August 13 to 20, 2009. The Conversant has agreed to publish that conversation in  two parts. – Metta Sáma


Thank you all for agreeing to participate in this on-line symposium. As you know, Monica A. Hand posted a status update: Is there a female aesthetic, which drew my attention. Is there possibly, in some artistic forms, something called female aesthetics? Are they more transparent in some art modes than in others? Could a male work within a female aesthetic? (But this is jumping the gun.) Here are bell hooks’ thoughts on the black woman’s body in the classroom:

One of the things I was saying is that, as a black woman, I have always been acutely aware of the presence of my body in those settings that, in fact, invite us to invest so deeply in a mind/body split so that, in a sense, you’re almost always at odds with the existing structure, whether you are a black woman student or professor. But if you want to remain, you’ve got, in a sense, to remember yourself – because to remember yourself is to see yourself always as a body in a system that has not become accustomed to your presence or your physicality.

This quote is pulled from “Building a Teaching Community,” in Teaching to Transgress. We can certainly launch from here or from Monica’s expanded ponderings about her initial Facebook query:

I have been in a discussion with myself on the contemporary sonnet – the ruptured sonnet – one that breaks free in either meter, line (number of lines and length of line), voice (language and diction), and Volta, from the traditional sonnet as defined by Italian or Elizabethan conventions. (In many ways, I believe the sonnet has never been a fixed form. From its inception, it has evolved and taken different shapes according to the time within which it was written, cultural influences and the creativity of the poet.)

As I was studying several examples of ruptured sonnets – those written outside the tradition – I found myself drawn to those written by women.

After I posed the question on Facebook asking if there is a female aesthetic and how one would define it, I started researching the idea online. I came across some interesting material, in particular that of and about the Poststructuralist Feminist writers, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Cixous talks about feminine writing that is connected to femaleness, to female bodies. There is a very interesting article online written by Dr. Mary Klages, titled “ Hélène Cixous: The Laugh of the Medusa,” in which she discusses Cixous’s ideas.

I approach this discussion not in opposition to anything. I’m not sure whether to call it female aesthetic, feminine aesthetic or feminist aesthetic. I do imagine that there is something about writing from the body (as in writing from the depths of the earth) and drawing upon female sexuality and libido that appeal to me both as a writer and as a reader.

Is there a relationship between gender and language? Do female experiences and the magic of our bodies, our sexuality, and our desires inform the choices we make in how we approach language and form?

Pick up on any of these elaborations or begin somewhere new. You need not limit your thoughts to literature.

Summer rains & drains

~ Metta

Ruth Ellen Kocher: The “awareness” of which DeLana speaks is of some importance to everyone who understands the implications of subject position. I will say, also as full disclosure, that Mary Klages is a colleague of mine here at University of Colorado Boulder, although I used her work in my doctoral dissertation, Janus Faced Women: Multiplicity and Autogenesis in Modern Women Writers Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, and H.D., 10 years ago. In that work, I posit that white women writers such as Gertrude Stein and H.D. take a cue from the “recreated self” of the passing novels from the subject position of women, creating characters in their narratives who recreate their identities as “multiple” in order to adhere to the pressures of societal gender roles while attempting to stay true to a personal subject position.

This way of “multiplicity” and “autogenesis” is, in and of itself, a female aesthetic in writing and is necessitated by the myriad of roles expected of women, and that women expect of themselves. H.D.’s interpretation of Helen of Troy, for example, shows us a Helen who is not only the “face that launched a thousand ships” but a witch, a lover, an innocent … all created by splitting the literary figure in two, placing the ghost-facade of Helen (as we know her) on the ramparts of Troy while the “real” Helen is removed to a beach in the mystical Egyptian underworld where she might reunite with her “true” lover, Achilles. I love (love love love) how H.D. chooses to rewrite Helen’s story to impart personal want and desire and shows us a very vulnerable and human character we cannot know through Homer’s narrative. H.D. does this also in her poem “Eurydice” where she re-tells the tale of Orpheus through Eurydice’s eyes. For the first time, we see her not as the lost object of desire of Orpheus, but a being with wants and disappointments all her own, a character who curses Orpheus for his selfishness, for attempting to “rescue” her from a place she had grown to love in some ways, whose own self-centeredness and hubris emerges in his need to look back at her. H.D.’s Eurydice charges Orpheus with narcissistic impulse, and says he turned to see her only to see his own reflection in her eyes. This, for me, is a female aesthetic: that writing that reclaims the popular or historical notion of what is female and what appropriate female aesthetic might be conveyed within a narrative tradition.

The act of writing a “multiple” female character has been central to me and to my work. I feel that if there is any personal aesthetic of mine that can be called a female aesthetic, it is that impulse to find freedom in restriction … the experimental forms I use and create often are a means to find the greatest possible freedom under the circumstances of the greatest possible restriction … I’ve talked to Monica a bit about this idea of the “cage” within which I work, whether it is formal or free verse, so that I can somehow present a voice that seems limitless and embraces the “possible” despite the limitations imposed. I think this is how women, especially black women, have survived for eons … finding a way to create an entire universe within the “cage” so that the limitation becomes mute, and so, powerless of the female voice …

Tracy Chiles McGhee: I do believe there is a relationship between gender and language. As a matter of fact, everything that we are informs our choices, every layer, every aspect, every experience, even social constructs, at times, our subconscious and our genetic make-up, our origins, etc. We embrace who or what we are, we reject it, we love it, we hate it, we seek understanding of it, we write it down and we work it out. So gender plays a part as well, I would imagine. GENERALLY, I think the fact that women have vaginas makes us inherently have feelings of emptiness, which produces a longing. So we are always seeking to be filled and for fullness (full vaginas, breasts, bellies, hearts, spirits). What if you have a woman that represents the fullness that all women seek? Might other women who lack that fullness try to change the aesthetic altogether, hate or be jealous of that woman who has it, or try to emulate it?  At the same time, our vaginas are also vehicles for creativity, so we have the inclination to push outward, to pour out, to give birth. So we are in a constant cycle of taking in to be full and pushing/pouring out to create.  Whenever I write, it is always like giving birth, labor pains included. I can’t imagine that a man would have this reference in the same way but I don’t know because I am not a man.

REK: I appreciate your idea of longing and need and fulfillment … at its best, the idea says a lot about women as progenitors and creators … but I cringe just a little because that idea re-inscribes the notion of female identity as one centered on lack. Freud used this against us. Lacan used this against us … the idea that a woman wants and needs to be filled (by a penis or a baby) means that she is thus incomplete unless she is someone’s lover or someone’s mother  … that’s hard for me. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is a great article to read in light of that theory, especially in the way it incorporates Luce Irigaray and her idea that women are not without, but instead, overwhelmingly fulfilled … if I remember this rightly, she talks about how a woman’s WHOLE body is sexually full and complete without a man, that every part of the body is sexual and sexually stimulated, and that the lips of the vagina themselves form a completeness in the way they open and close and stimulate themselves  … I always got the image of the vagina as mouth here  … and I think it’s in that Medusa article where Klages talks about a figure like red riding hood as being a walking clitoris (hilarious, huh?) and the “attack” on her as being part of the conventional need to limit and own female power  …

It makes me think, too, of a writer like Anne Sexton who was charged (by that old stodgy guy, John Frederick Nims) of inappropriate subject matter when she published “In Celebration of My Uterus,” while, in his opinion, Sylvia Plath was able to write the same conflicts in a much more ladylike fashion. Well, that’s partly because Anne said “fuck you” to the white male establishment, and her husband, and her lover, while Sylvia became so engulfed in the need for (white) male approval that when she didn’t get it, she had a little run in with an oven. Anne’s suicide came very much as an inability to find her place in a world, in my opinion, while Sylvia’s came from not finding a place in a man’s world … So, some of the conflict I see inherent to female writers has a lot to do with the roles, or subject positions, from which we’re expected to speak. And expectations built on a perceived identity (all you black folks can dance, right?) seem to be the root of much evil …

TCM: Thanks Ruth Ellen for sharing with me the danger if I take that idea too far. Nothing like a cringe to get the conversation going LOL. I didn’t mean to suggest that the female identity is centered on lack. But if we were always fulfilled, wouldn’t we be content always? Isn’t life based on cycles?  Our moods change and our desires change. Sometimes we do feel empty and seek fullness.  But I don’t want to define fullness as merely penis and baby, but those are aspects for some women sometimes. There are many things that I need to feel full. The longing usually is what makes us do things, seek things, and fight for things. I guess I am speaking from my experience, and I can tell you that even though I am equipped with everything that I need to be powerful, there is still something that makes me continue searching, and writing is one way I work this out. I don’t know if this is a gender thing, a human thing, or a Tracy thing. I do appreciate why you would cringe though. I know that men have always tried to suppress women by any means, and so defining that longing as a woman thing and as a perpetual state of being would benefit them and not us.

Monica A. Hand: bell hooks in her essay, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” writes that those coming from the “underclass” who enter a “privileged cultural setting” must create spaces within that dominant culture to survive. Without such spaces, she says, we would not survive. “Our living,” she writes, “depends on our ability to conceptualize alternatives.” She calls this a space of radical openness – a margin, and proposes that it is not a place of deprivation but rather a place of radical possibility, a space of resistance. I haven’t found the actual reference yet but I read somewhere that Gertrude Stein called the sonnet a patriarchal form.

Taking into account hooks’s comments on creating a place of radical openness and Stein’s position that the sonnet is a patriarchal form, then maybe the sonnet (and other fixed forms) is where women are both literally and metaphorically resisting “tradition.” In addition to Ruth’s sonnets, I have been studying sonnets written by Gwendolyn Brooks, Wanda Coleman, Kimiko Hahn, Olena Kalytiak Davis and Karen Volkman. Each of these poets resist the form, break outside of the tradition. But even poets like Marilyn Nelson, Marilyn Hacker, Rita Dove (and even Edna St. Vincent Millay) who write within the tradition speak outside of it.

Of course, men have, are, also experimenting with sonnet and other forms. Is there anything different between what women are doing and what men are doing? Is fluid, associative, playful language female? I have read, for instance, sonnets by Henri Cole and D.A. Powell, who are also writing from the body, but their poems don’t feel female.

I have more questions than answers.

Patricia Spears Jones: I thought Monica’s questions were interesting, especially the language she used in her questions, particularly the phrase “the magic of our bodies.” That, I thought, was an interesting way to describe our physical selves.

I certainly think there is a strong female aesthetic in American poetry from the suspects: Dickinson, Anne Bradstreet, Phyllis Wheatley, each struggling to share a voice in a language not her own; H.D., Stein, Brooks, Millay, Louise Bogan (way underrated), Amy Lowell, Denise Levertov, Diane DiPrima, Audre Lorde, Plath, Adrienne Rich, Jayne Cortez, Lucille Clifton, etc. I would also add Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, just to keep this list as North American as possible.

I know there are, in many circles, an ongoing argument about form, but one of the fascinating and energizing things about American poetics is its breadth and variety and that is certainly true of women writers—those who are comfortable in their gender and those who are not. The focus on the body is important but limited. We are as much our minds as we are our breath, sweat, limbs, tears. There is more of a continuum-ing from mind to skin in women’s writing, whereas male writers seem to spin in the cerebral or muddle about in the murk of sensuality — one or the other.

I am not sure that a vagina makes women feel like they must fill something up — I don’t like the vessel version of the female body (in that we are essentially a womb to bear the next generation), but I certainly think that issues of maternity, child-rearing, THE DOMESTIC are important and certainly impinge upon bodies in ways that women poets and authors have begun to explore in language and form.

While I have written non-traditional sonnets, I never thought of it as a male or female form. What informs my work and the work of writers I enjoy reading, listening to and arguing with is a level of sensuality and unconventional topics. One of my favorite poets, and a mentor, is Maureen Owen. I’ve always loved her poems in response to women artists’ work, especially the poems in response to Mary Kelly’s famous piece where she used her infant’s diapers as an artwork. Don’t think a man would do that. Another good friend and poet is Angela Jackson who explores the blues within the tradition but snaps poems into shapes that reflect Mississippi to Chicago, motions very unlike her male Chicago poet counterpoints. Both of these women use different strategies to examine their personal lives, their aesthetic interests, history, religion, the human condition.

Each poet finds the form that tests her or his mettle the most — whether it’s the sonnet form or ballads or lyrics. But it is exciting to me to see how poets like Tonya Foster, Erica Hunt, Julie Patton, Harryette Mullen, Giovanni Singleton, et al. use either a variety of forms to explore the multiplicity of roles that we Black women play or an austere, intensely focused kind of word play in their poetry and/or texts. That Monica and Ruth Ellen are exploring the sonnet, indeed stretching the form’s boundaries, seems to be what many poets are free enough to do in this new century.

I keep returning to Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic,” which has been in my personal library since the early 1980s. I think that is what Monica was alluding to in the use of the word “magic.” Near the end of Lorde’s essay, she says:

When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying, rather than make connections with our similarities and our differences.

It may well be that the female aesthetic starts with figuring out the difference between exploiting power and using it differently; taking the magic of our bodies, our sensuality and not only seeking the pleasures there in, but finding new ways to share those pleasures in ways that allows our bodies to breath and stretch and bend, but not break beneath the weight of rage, need, stupidity; taking the language of oppression, suppression and dominance and re-shaping it, working a new language. Of course, I want that sense of shared joy; the desire for a community of equals working towards transcendence, but hey, I wanted to go to Woodstock.

REK: The irony to this discussion for me is that I took a grad seminar 12 years ago that focused on this exact question. We never really arose at an answer. After noting Patricia’s notion of the DOMESTIC as an aspect of female aesthetic, I immediately conjured up an image of the Rosie the Riveter poster … That started me thinking about the notion of “versatility” as an aspect of what each one of us has said. Is the matter of a female aesthetic grounded in a “versatility” of voice and form that male writers would not “seek” in their attempts to continually “adhere” to “maleness” … of course, I am speaking through a culturally heterosexual gaze of “male” … but one of the things that we might all agree on is the compulsion for men to be protective of that which is supposedly male and masculine. Women, on the other hand, are perpetually “adding” to that which we define as “feminine” … we added Rosie, we added Julia Childs, we added Camille Paglia, Oprah . . . the feminine seems to have a continual outward expansion like that of a growing star. . . whereas, from my perspective, the “male” seems to be choosing stasis. There has been no “men’s” movement and men who wish to live outside of expected gender roles face much more societal nay-saying than women who do … There are a lot more female firefighters than there are male nannies …

PSJ: I focused on the domestic because I am fascinated by June Jordan’s wonderful phrase about not seeing a sign for “women working.” Since women’s labor is often interior—the domestic, the office, the hospital—we have a unique way of looking at experience within these structures or our resistance to them (Joan Larkin’s Housework; Sapphire’s incest narratives). Maureen Owen’s and Lucille Clifton ‘s poems discuss child rearing, family history, trauma and celebration in radically different forms. Also, my own work is focused on movement within and without those structures as a single woman trying to stand her ground in this world. Like Oprah, I am childless and unmarried. Much of [my second collection of poems] Femme du Monde was informed by my status in this society and my embrace of it as a form of wholeness.

In my home, there is an amazing drawing by José Bedia, the Cuban artist, in which the body moves from the ground towards some place in the spirit world.  I know it is not fashionable to deal with spirituality in some circles, but there is also the spirit working in much of women’s writing — you really see it in the Irish women poets. I do think we conjure as much as we critique. Lynda Hull’s poems about scarcity, sensuality, loss and survival in Star Ledger are as lush as Brenda Hillman’s enthralled poems in Bright Existence.

When Ntozake, Jessica Hagedorn and Thulani Davis were doing “When the Mississippi Meets the Amazon” at the earlier version of Joe’s Pub, they explored the connection between language and music working with jazz musicians. Jessica later took that exploration into rock and roll. This continuous desire to expand the tongue — to move the language around and up — to explode the performative is something men and women poets do. But given the position of the woman singer — as vessel often, as object of desire — it is always a wonder to watch the performers hold onto their autonomy and use sexuality in whatever way they want to. It also helps to not be progeny as many male poets think of themselves: school of Baraka or Auden or Whitman, etc etc. Women poets can make that case if they want to, but I like that we are our provisional.

You are all so brilliant. It’s interesting to be the Woodstock generation rep amongst you. And hey, I wasn’t there, but I did see Jimi Hendrix a few months later and he was no nanny.

Monica A. Hand, author of me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012) is a 60-year old Queer writer who is committed to being self-determinant and free to make mistakes; otherwise, how will she ever learn anything. She has an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and currently is in the Creative Writing PhD program at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Patricia Spears Jones is author of three collections, most recently Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press) and four chapbooks including Living in the Love Economy (Overpass Books, 2014) and two plays commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines, the acclaimed experimental theater company.  A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems is due out from White Pine Press, fall 2015. Poems are anthologized in Angles of AscentA Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (W.W. Norton); broken land: Poems of Brooklyn (NYU Press) and Best American Poetry: 2000 (Scribners) and the bilingual anthology, Mujeres a los remos/Women rowing: An Anthology of Contemporary US Women Poets (El Collegio de Puebla, Mexico). She is editor of and contributor to Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women and is a contributing editor to Bomb Magazine.

Ruth Ellen Kocher is the author of Ending in Planes (Noemi Press, 2014), Goodbye Lyric: The Gigans and Lovely Gun (Sheep Meadow Press, 2014), domina Un/blued (Tupelo Press, 2013), One Girl Babylon (New Issues Press, 2003), When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering (New Issues Press, 2002), and Desdemona’s Fire (Lotus Press 1999).

Tracy Chiles McGhee is a Writer/Activist. Her writings have appeared in several anthologies and publications. She received the distinction of “Honorable Mention” for the Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Award in the 2014 International Literary Awards presented by Salem College.  Tracy is also the co-founder of the Literacy, Empowerment, & Action Project. She attended Catholic University Law School and Georgetown University. She resides in Washington, DC.