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.