All those years and I still remember the exquisite details. This specific memory does not have a year attached without much difficulty nor can I remember the time of day it occurred. Yet I can summon the sweet smell of ozone and hold onto the thought of how my own breath, in concert with yours, folded into one timeless moment.
We had pulled off a mostly deserted I-90W to wait out a thunderstorm witnessed hours earlier, which we assumed was fleeting from a distance reserved only for endless and empty horizons.
We found temporary refuge in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Waiting in a potholed parking lot, bordered by a 55-ft Jolly Green Giant statue and a gas station that sold cheap pizza and cold beer, you read A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford as rain poured hard and thick from a dark sky.
There was so much we didn’t know about each other – or the world – and a sublime anchoring in such fearless truth.
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
This moment, which probably lasted no longer than an hour before we got back on the road, forms the shadowed edges of how I’ve been preparing myself for this upcoming poetics inquiry of William Stafford. I want to be witness to his early morning and honest daily writing practice — his golden thread. I hope to explore how he taught poetry that centered curiosity as a method of facilitating an effective learning experience, his own and his students.
I feel a pull to reference an intention I outlined before I went to the Audre Lorde Archive in Berlin, my first poetics inquiry. This poetics inquiry is also an artistic project, which will explore how lived experiences of the “boundaries of one’s imaginative sympathy line up, again and again, with the lines drawn by power.” I use this quote by Claudia Rankine to bring attention to the phrase: lines drawn by power. This expansion of reference feels necessary in context to what I know about Stafford’s personal history and the now.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
At the age of 27, Stafford chose to be a conscientious objector when he was drafted into WWII — a few years older than I was during that thunderstorm. He chose not to participate in a war that was framed as moral, just, and unquestionably popular. He served four years in various prison camps for his decision. I want to learn what it means to live a life grounded in a commitment to practice non-competitive creative integrity. A life, like mine, lived when the United States was never not involved in wars and conflicts.
I am reminded that I know only what brought me to today: a poem, a ritual, that has not broken the line.
“As if a tenderness awoke, a tenderness that did not tire, something healing.”
— Sylvia Plath, from The Collected Poems; “Three Women,” (1962)
I was born into an isolated, literal Evangelical culture. A place where time was on always on trial and faith was righteous as pride. Our promised future had already been written. We were urgent. The rapture was past due.
All of us who knew even a fraction of the story internalized why Jesus hadn’t returned. Acts of a vengeful god are common and welcomed in this scenario. It was also true when you knew the ending tipped in your favor, knowledge became seductive. A blessing disguised.
To have learned about the world this way feels like a subtle theft. Trauma works that way too. False recognitions bound to real sounds, smells, touch, twists of phrases, and, if lucky, fading re-creations. A true con.
Decades later, I am still carving an existence that is receptive to invitation. There are no answers inside all these non-moments of relentless judgement. That clarity is its own rushed reality. Adapting gracefully to change is an ancient sermon. This is a map to all this undoing.
I’ve never had the same address for long. My current streak is seven years. I’ve far exceeded all prior knowledge of living in one place. I am as far west as I’ve ever been, which means my reverence for home has changed. Somewhere between this nostalgia and the truth is the hard edge of acceptance.
In all this stillness, I forgot how to let go.
So I start over.
As a habit, writing is its own method of reckoning. An ecstatic attention to spirit. A positive deviance. Specifically, I want to create a feeling of communion. I want this feeling in spite of its dominant religious significations.
The concept and practice of being “reborn” was an early fascination. I’d watch my father make his way to the front of the church and confess his weaknesses. Our sins were made public. We wanted to believe, as much as he did, that each confession was his last. His liberation bound so tightly to our survival.
I choose to keep these collective epiphanies to remember how far from home I am.
*horizon note = the beat or pulse underlying the whole of the poem (Denise Levertov)
“Most of the time, I think we’re embodied because we are supposed to be. I don’t think the goal is to leave our bodies behind, despite what many major religions tell us.” — Dana Levin
things that are abundant
have less value,
Their cheap cadence
mutates and twists
around its swelling chorus.
Shut tight. Loud as bodies.
Imagine if we answered
all these blushed curious inquiries
to rewrite backwards retrogrades
spoken softly enough
to understand its sacred feedback.
title is William Stafford’s reference to “that feeling you have when you go along accepting what occurs to you and finding your way out somewhere to the rim where you are ready to abandon that sequence and come back and start all over again” (Writing the Australian Crawl)
We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about “and.” — Sir Arthur Eddington
I. virtual systems
we have learned to covet reflective virtual objects
on occasion, we can still recall vibrations of analog sounds
in a digital world fueled by fossils & compounded fabrications
I wrap my arms around you as car alarms blare songs of protection
II. echo as residue
our preferences fill shapes generated by algorithms gone wild
authenticated searches find radical stability
a looped sacred ceremony
I get nervous when people start talking about wanting to own things:
land, houses, ideas.
This present moment feels like freedom,
a highly volatile state.
In my dream, I walked US-Highway 12.
I passed community banks flush with bartered dreams
and gas stations promising consistently low prices when paying with cash.
The ghosts all drove cars and didn’t bother me.
Lucid, I believed I was back in Berlin. I was brave.
I woke to trees taller than houses.
And then will come my turn toward considering the poem as a set of strategies.
— William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life
My aesthetic genealogy is borrowed from a working poetics. A magpie practice of creative slanted interruptions. One of my favorite writing habits is to post on Sundays. Years ago I discovered this practice as a way to reclaim time lost to benign neglect. It was a way to take back a day formerly dedicated to church services that framed ideal bodies as those willing to give up their souls.
Forgive this brief editorializing break. I’ve wandered to the edge of today’s subject.
It is safe to assume the forensics of great writers are investments in process.
For the last twelve and a half years, I traced the shapes of memory — collective and personal — in this wide open space. I anchored active examination into subtitled weekly posts. I curated evidence of expansion through parallel interpretations and felt for traction inside line breaks weighted by punctuation’s invitation to pause. I am aligned when tone reflects visual structure.
This time last year I was organizing myself to study Audre Lorde’s time in Berlin. Today I want to capture my emerging intention to study William Stafford this fall. The boundaries of this poetics inquiry are a promise to continue to carve out curious time. It is an extension of how conscious practice cleaves to the promise of honoring spirit. I aim to explore and investigate Stafford’s pacifist approaches — specifically conscientious objector — to writing poetry, his teaching methods of writing poetry, and his graceful rejection of competition.
Our days are urgent as parents wait for children to find them. Climate and change are conjoined into violent denials. Stafford practiced creative resistance strategies during WWII and the Vietnam War.
What might we borrow to alter our endangered lives?
“with the evolution of awareness came the possibility that existence could be more than survival, or that survival could be more than a response to fear, and could include the encompassing of joy” — Jeremy Wolff, excerpt from the essay Thots on Pot
Northern Plains’ cottonwoods spread their seeds this time of year.
Thick as snow, their white progeny coats lawns and 4×4 pickup trucks.
A soft blizzard similar to the way Saharan dust reached Texas this week.
Both are dramatic—all that settling.
When adoration and permissions share the same open mouth of devotion
it is recommended that you consult your prophesies to justify blanket explanations. Only then should you transpose your unknowing
into thoughts and prayers. A crash disrupts into eventual silence.
“writing…is a process of relying on immediate pervasive feelings, not an escape from them…” — William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl. pg. 88
I haven’t found a way to say I love you that isn’t complicated, so I practice loving you every day. Sounds of terrorized children broke through all those hours of visual noise. Hope is a map. A place to begin.
The distance of decades doesn’t always make things quieter. Calendars are more form than function. I learned early and repeatedly that love must be earned, and value is measured by others. An intimacy of detachment.
Addicted to seeking approval is one way of saying yes unconditionally. Instead, imagine a private collection of silent hymns. These days, I take care to mend memories as a way to create acceptance. A public chorus swelled.
Broken into speculative practices, writing things down reinforces pleasure and importance in tandem. Together, through famine and fortune, what stands out is love. An oxygen where sacrifice is not born from competition.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
T.S. Eliot, from ‘Preludes (IV)’, The Waste Land and Other Poems
concerts of effort
sounds better inside a fragment
forgive that this starts out so slow
posting at me to me with me
I’m casual to realize
to follow your our vision
is to be organized into spacial moments — threads
a witness of curation
the: father son and holy spirit
faith is within your standing
some think it is earned
as for me I was taught to be innocent
later learning curiosity had its own beneficiaries
a lesson on just how few original ideas are assigned majestic
fueling dark appreciations for wild abstractions
until it is as uncommon as creating reminders to breathe
I know this all sounds strange
you can call it: new wave vengeance
“the first 50 hours of resurrection are beautiful,”
says the man holding the door
–Tongo Eisen-Martin, excerpt from remove my heart racing, and babylon is fine
we learn to trust wars: cola, sex, cold. as acceptance forms rules, we smooth out the most deprived ideas and prioritize all threats as urgent. in theatres of conflict, repetition is grandeur. this translation officially makes mob landscapes familiar.
that’s why when your hands brushed against my sharpest edges: my heart, my gaze, my inordinate sense of danger; I felt intimacy performed as spacial intervention, an interlude. your fingers interrogated and found hard answers wrapped around tender legacy. we became undone. mapping unearned dreams onto each other’s gravitational pull, an attraction, we made our own stars.
future philosophers will discover these tensions and name them holy
all this absence, in the space of starting over, forms my backbone
i wish i could claim something useful here, like emotional resilience
or self-efficacy managed beyond the flutter of obscene distractions
structurally, skin has the capacity to absorb 1000 strikes soft as fur
before bruising, blue then purple then finally breaking open red
bold as light leaks found in the silenced literacy of family photos
this spread of truth tight and shallow in surrendering
what survives in me
i still suspect.
–Sonia Sanchez, “Fragment 1”
time signatures bridge memories spread wide,
open as my early childhood landscapes
we moved most often when work got too hard
or you simply wanted a change of scenery
self-destruction a competitive pursuit,
or why my syntax lacks a particular kind of self-love
I found an aesthetic: beg
more of a grasp than a hold
& I define how tight
shattered pieces create the best whole
naked sounds vibrate the loudest
most thoughts end
I have no body; the “I” writing this has no body: not in the old way. Zones. Pressures. Here a structured tension there an underlying ache. Vital signs. Phases of disquiet not clearly demarcated from areas of peace. — Laura Mullen, “Spectograms (projected autobiography),” Complicated Grief
Revolutions are frenetic desires. Seams stretch tight.
familiar stimulation: swelled power and impulse
Violence precedes peace when knowledge becomes ransom.
negative space: culture is public negotiation
Men speak in abstraction. Their distancing performative.
economies of scale: underwhelming demands for mass hysteria
“And whereas one of my students asks a visiting poet about education vaguely getting at what is worth pursuing? The poet suggests looking at whatever is/was missing in one’s life and begin there. So many nods in the room around that table they acknowledge it too. In the missing: power.
— Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (page 67)
The day Ronald Reagan died – June 5, 2004 – I absorbed the news of his death with reverie as his life was exalted by talking heads and famed acquaintances. Their rhetoric ultimately resting within that exclusive canon reserved only for legends. Crowds swarmed to pay their respects to an American actor.
In another breaking newsfeed, and still witness to a grand spectacle of publicized grief, I was transfixed as a captured tiger dangled from a helicopter high above Santa Monica, California. The majestic predator swung inside a canvas sling that looked more like a collective omen akin to a nursery-rhyme cradle.
The events were not related according to the news, yet the Overton window had widened just enough to propagate rumors into exaggerated false equivalencies. After all, time had shifted in unexplainable ways that leap year. Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” had convinced many that something had happened.
Less than a month later, the spacecraft Cassini reached Saturn (a planet associated with karmic lessons). Some speculate that Reagan’s recently released spirit had guided Cassini as it traveled the critical distance to fulfill its mission. As poetic murmurs, I gather these soft shapes into vivid memories. A gesture of truth.
“But your pleasure understands mine.”
— Clarice Lispector, The Sharing Of Loaves
At 39,000 feet, clouds rose like mountains
fading to dark as the blushing sun set
to black as the thinnest winter ice.
Ice we learned to turn our wheels into,
and when done correctly, such surrendering
was proactive evidence of a survivor’s effort.
In spring, we plant rosemary to remember
our deepest buried beliefs. We harvest
and revise our most shadowed secrets like wanting nothing
but distant empty horizons and bodies that do not betray.
We sculpt these altered thoughts and declare them working dreams.
In trust, our shared wishes for a braver future were coming true.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
— T. S. Eliot
2017 notes to 2018 self:
seek light / confront darkness
feeling worthy is a practice
be clear about priorities
inspiration is a higher form of knowledge
“discipline creates spaciousness”*
no matter how deep the ocean is, you will always find sacred land
These are my centerfold memories — the lessons I opened to over and over again. The specifics are tenderized images of evolution unraveled, then a consecration of release. As tipping points and space to witness, revision expanded bravery and abundance shifted structures.
My past experiences have been arranged into possibility bright as desire’s capacity to make power transparent. I exorcised ghosts to bankrupt suffering. I transitioned from shame to justice. I bartered verses delicate as externalized validation. I owned my name and its history.
Absorbing only credible echoes, I dreamt I was safe and expressed joy religiously.
“And is is strange how experiences blend and enhance each other.” — William Stafford
It is not that what I know today is necessarily different from what I knew yesterday, or that I have replaced prior knowledge with a brand new extended spectrum of understanding. It is more subtle than a transaction, more gracefully defined as complexity. This feels like transformation. A shift.
Love fits into this equation as a multiplier. The critical variables that come next are a matter of routine, a particular and conscious genre. A ritual.
An older German man at the Audre Lorde Archives likes to greet me by singing his favorite melodies from 1960s American pop songs. Our connection is assumed to be familiar on those grounds.
Other connections have taken longer to root, to find their own casual and wandering paths. Most often I simply smile, to show submission to a foreign tongue, and repeat my English phrases so we can entwine in a hopeful vernacular.
There is a mutual desire to be understood.
Mornings are typically dark and grey, thick with clouds that never leave. There are, of course, exceptions. Some days find swirling pink clouds opening their hearts to promises of illumination. The void of this work has been filled when silence is created from conscious expression. An expression that most days outpaces language’s translation of experience.
This poetic examination of Audre Lorde’s teaching, and by extension her methods of poetic practice, has strengthened the tender edges of my own belief of how change happens – personal, political, and everything in between. I feel marked with new annotations at the outermost areas of my known history. My knowledge is shaped into intentional practices around work, love, and living a conscious life. I have discovered purpose inside complex layers of wanting evolution. I can see, now, how those borders have always been informed by an interior landscape, whether I owned this fact or not.
This is a truth we all share.
The Audre Lorde Archive materials are predominantly audio recordings. Everyone I love is dreaming while I’m awake listening to student’s chairs scraping wood floors, birds chirping in public chorus, and occasionally a truck will rattle the open classroom windows as it barrels down the city streets. The digitized tape recordings also capture nervous laughter when Audre Lorde refuses to center whiteness – and white discomfort – in Black women’s lived experiences.
She asks the students, who are there to learn about poetry written by Black American women, “What is it you want to come from this investment?”
Because “what you want will help influence what you get.”
She names her expectations and her intentions: “What poetry will demand of you…is that you will not do it [experience Black women’s lives] comfortably. You will have to get involved or you will not get anything out of it.”
“I am here because poetry is crucial to me. It’s not merely what I do, it’s a way of living. And I believe it’s a way of living that can strengthen every person who takes part in it. I think that it is a crucial way of living for women and [inaubible]. I think that self-conscious recognition of our feelings are one of the primary ways of making the stuff we need to move through our lives. I think poetry is the visual actual recreation of this stuff in a way that can be shared and used. I’m here because I want to examine this body of literature which is very important, and I feel vital to me, in conjunction with the rest of you. … That’s why I’m here, because I’m greedy, because I’m curious and because I believe I am an endangered species, the same way each one of you is endangered.” — Audre Lorde, 1984, Black Women Poetry, Frein Universität Berlin (Audre Lorde Archives)
Establishing mutual visibility – we are all endangered species – through honoring of complexity creates an awareness, an opening, towards strengthening our respective relational capacities. I learned this personally from two wildly different yet equality vulnerable experiences this past August. What is beyond those lived experiences, and this specific poetics inquiry, is an embodied confrontation of feelings. It is a requirement of authentic participation in any relationship – from self to the project of a just society.
“…personal has become a very negative word for a lot of people…but how do you feel? Do you feel objectively? How is it possible to feel other than personally? You can feel personally about things that are very large and outside of yourself, but is it possible to feel objectively? There’s nothing wrong with the personal but I want to tell you, yes poetry is personal, it must be. It is the first place you start but it does not remain there. We [poets] take what is personal, we take what is experienced and we make a bridge, hopefully, to your experience that is different. That is the magical and wonderful quality of poetry. That it can arc across differences. It’s one of the few ways we have dealing with what is genuinely different between us. One of the key ways of making something creative out of that.” — Audre Lorde, 1984, Black Women Poetry, Frein Universität Berlin (Audre Lorde Archives)
“It is part of my work that I came to do and I don’t have 300 years any more than you have. I am interested in doing my work because it satisfies me on a lot of different levels, and part of my work is coming here saying to you – how are you doing yours? What is this work we are dealing with have to do with your work as a white woman, as a white German woman, as in who you are. … I am not an angel. I cannot descend upon you with a magic wand. I cannot transform you. I can throw out those things I know and invite you to make some connections. I invite you to use them for your life.” — Audre Lorde, 1984, Black Women Poetry, Frein Universität Berlin (Audre Lorde Archives)
The weight of that investment by way of personal invitation is strategic. Her liberation, theirs, and mine cannot be separated. Other class conversations have pivoted on global tensions of climate change, gender-based violence, and nuclear escalation. It is remarkable that our shared reality has us waking up to and living under the same violence today.
Thirty-three years have slipped through us.
What dreams, or as Lorde calls them “emotional blueprints,” must we encourage beyond political formations?
How might you use the weapon of active examination – and poetry specifically – to not only envision what is possible but also perform your and my liberation?
I am resisting the temptation to neatly capture this first week in Berlin. I confess my vulnerability by way of distance. I am unwilling to decouple place (Berlin by way of California) from the messiness of culture (as a white American woman engaged with a slice of time: West Berlin in spring and summer of 1984).
What follows is an early reflection of my first week of poetics inquiry at the Audre Lorde Archive.
Most of my assumptions of German culture are from a bias of chosen childhood memories. Specifically, my formative connections to Germany were through my step-grandmother. She sprinkled German phrases into her conversations as often as she baked us strudel and kuchen. From what region or context she drew from, I will never know. When I was 7, my grandfather died. My connection to her after that was denied for reasons unclear as a child but strongly enforced. It was a loss of relationship I was not allowed to question.
My perspective is also informed by way of being a temporary guest in Berlin. I own that the edges of this synopsis are both mutable and, at times, concrete.
It is familiar to write from this place of confliction and tension. With discipline, I have weaved disparate experiences and their connections for over a decade. In this way, my writing practice feels as ordinary as a Sunday morning.
Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is a way of life.” I know the intimate truths in her declaration. She continues: the first lesson of being a poet is that you have survived.
Bruised, battered, bent, you have survived. It is now your right to use what you have survived, to learn from, to communicate with, to move beyond. You cannot do that unless you bring it to consciousness, to usefulness. We have survived so much more than we can admit. — Audre Lorde, May 6, 1984, Creative Writing Workshop, Frein Universität Berlin (Audre Lorde Archives)
It is an unapologetic position that requires a method of dealing with difference in a creative way. A way that moves us beyond what we have been taught is possible.
Lorde believed that poets must “evoke past the particular experience [in the poem] to make connection across difference.” An emotional response is an integral purpose of a poem.
The dignity around that exchange is dangerous territory depending on one’s position in patriarchal, racist, heteronormative, and classed cultural systems. As Lorde often said, “Poetry is one of the most subversive uses of language there is.”
The emotional teeth of poetry is, according to Lorde, “to move us to action and living.”
To explore experiences poetically is inherently political. Lorde spoke often of how “socialization robs us of our language.” How the poet makes meaning of their lived experience and that active translation to the reader is the transformative power of poetry. It is why Lorde chose to use poetry as a weapon.
I do not believe either in poetry or in the actual fact of our living..that change occurs externally. I think that it occurs both poetically as well as socially slowly and internally from the inside out so that in fact any larger movement and larger change must happen first of all within the people who are involved.” — Audre Lorde, May 10, 1984, The Poet as Outsider, Frein Universität Berlin (Audre Lorde Archives)
This collectived and creative organizing is now ours to envision and evoke. This is our mutual survival.
[A]s my mother used to say, if wishes were horses, women would ride.
— Elspeth Probyn, Outside Belongings (62)
The prompt was bold: how do you embody whiteness? My heart froze knowing that some of my truth has no accessible language.
So I thought about how we grew up nowhere, or more accurately, we lived around no one. A place where you learn orthodox norms, where conformity was practiced as integration. A place where we conversed in churches or homes, and almost never on the long road in between.
The days take flight and return again.
My writing practice captures moments, and contain all kinds of shadowed referents, insurrections, and commitments. There’s a way this claiming expands space to repurpose perfection. A response to how surviving trauma from decades past seeps into what I believe is real and how I frame what is just. I’m not afraid to tell you why my fears are justified. I have a story to let you know why this is true.
I am left wanting. I know dissonance can also be harmonic despite its agreed upon definition. There’s room in that idea to breathe. To release orchestrations that dance around forgone conclusions.
Weeks ago, I wrote: don’t let me forget where I came from and the day before that: resistance to belong a furious understanding. I read these reminders, now, as culturally weighted influences. Next week, I will be in Berlin. A city that embodies trauma and healing’s relentless journey. A city where Audre Lorde taught, organized, and loved. A place of intentional inquiry.
cache culture is a collectivized monograph of intentional inquiry. A place to find my way in contemporary American culture. A place to expose how my gendered body has historically been named as white. I post curated moments that reflect culture and place because that’s where belonging takes root. My roots grew deepest in South Dakota, Ohio, Washington, and now California.
Berlin’s calling and its collective response is another cache.
I will be carrying William Stafford’s advice with me, but one of many influential guides on this poetics inquiry.
“We all share, in art. And to be worthy artists we must be ready to look around, give credit where we feel it belongs, help each other maintain that sense of community that will maximize whatever vision we are able to find and share.”
drawn from the month of August 2017: the dramas of poetry
Internal struggles are creative escape. A quiet move to form a space where survival can be shown joyful. Today this emanates as imagination externalized into poetry, an archaic organizing structure. I find active comfort in writing. A motion that has desperation as its wings. I write because it feels good. Not from a place of fear, but from a deep place of longing that has expansive connections. I write because I love.
I could try to name all the details, get them just so, while also aligning them to a truth I’ve silently cultivated. Yet dear reader you will bring yourself, whole and fractured, to my exposed interpretations. When I write about light, darkness, or a combination (such as stars) I may try to steer you in a direction that makes sense—to me—but you will pull yourself along freely, or not. All I know is how much you desire days that open themselves.
I believe that kind of desired stillness can be found in a “good” poem. A temporary place of collaborative movement where desire meets an experience that shows effort.
I witnessed the sea lion lay still and bloated. A murder of crows took fur and the wettest pieces of its eyes. Obscenely exposed, tender in its inability to no longer defend itself from harm, there was both stillness and flurry of excavation to what the crows found most useful.
The truth from that image is not mine to tell. My privilege as a writer is to show. May I be so fortunate to connect you dear reader on another experiential plane. Not forcing but gently holding together a moment of stillness, an honoring. And I may tell you one thing as I adeptly show another disparate possession. That gap is not mine to control. I owe myself only the structure and integrity around the truth of this moment.
I evolve. I decompose. I exist here.
*** *** ***
*** *** ***
curated from the near past: self-immolation
Fixing fences is a full-time job and a hard way to make a living. Those edges form a territory where scarcity implies there is something to want. It is not absence or loss. There is a lack but it’s expansive, wide and open.
This lineage has been stored as power taken—a binding agent of trauma and songs shared in darkness. Fear becomes us like the secret textures of a thousand trees.
If it’s true that perfection is a scarcity never to be fully actualized, my life was first performed where sin delighted to now wanting love when wrong. This claiming is mine and its purpose is to make meaning.
It’s been said that god is in the details; the devil is too. There can be tension in revealing the obvious and intentions, despite having benevolent origins, should be read with discretion.
Finding oneself alone with language that pushes and pulls with an exactness of familiarity is why I can reread Robert Hass’s Praise, cover to cover, repetitively and with perverse discovery at each angle of detail he so eloquently and simply lays before the reader. Revelations breed epiphanies which begets clarity.
There is glory in those details.
Meditation at Lagunitas
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remember how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy place where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
Santa Lucia: eyes jellied on a plate.
The thrust of serpentine was almost green
all through the mountains where the rock cropped out.
I liked sundowns, dusks smelling of madrone,
the wildflowers, which were not beautiful,
fierce little wills rooting in the yellow
grass year after year, thirst in the roots,
mineral. They have intelligence
of hunger. Poppies lean to the morning sun,
lupine grows thick in the rockface, self-heal
at creekside. He wants to fuck. Sweet word.
All suction. I want less. Not that I fear
the huge dark of sex, the sharp sweet light,
light if it were water raveling, rancor,
tenderness like rain. What I want happens
not when the deer freezes in the shade
and looks at you and you hold very still
and meet her graze but in the moment after
when she flicks her ears & starts to feed again.
original publish date: April 24, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)
One of the reasons why I identify as someone who reads poetry boils down to valuing perspective.
Poetry can illuminate the beauty of ugly, exhume shadowy forces of trauma, and distill the essence of struggle in one sentence or one metaphor. Poetry can just as easily pivot to elevate the joy of mundane routines or capture moments of secret pleasure; it does not discriminate. Through this demonstration of language and precision, the reader can embody a practice of being open to having those previously defined private moments become moments of public definition.
Ai (which means love in Japanese) is one such poet whose voice dominates those quiet spaces between private moments. With each aptly named collection (Sin, Cruelty, Greed, Vice) Ai weaves narratives that embrace life’s complexity. She provides perspectives that you can follow through darkness and visions that bend toward brilliance.
Coming home, I find you in bed,
but when I pull back the blanket,
I see your stomach is flat as an iron.
You’d done it, as you warned me you would
and left the fetus wrapped in wax paper
for me to look at. My son.
Woman, loving you no matter what you do,
what can I say, except that I’ve heard
the poor have no children, just small people
and there is room only for one man in this house.
from Cruelty, 1973
The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981
I lift the boy’s body
from the trunk,
set it down,
then push it over the embankment
with my foot.
I watch it roll
down into the river
and feel I’m rolling with it,
feel the first cold slap of the water,
wheeze and fall down on one knee.
So tired, so cold.
Lord, I need a new coat,
not polyester, but wool,
new and pure,
like the little lamb
I killed tonight.
With my right hand,
that same hand that hits
with such force,
I push myself up gently.
I know what I’d like–
some hot cocoa by the heater.
Once home, I stand at the kitchen sink,
letting the water run
till it overflows the pot,
then I remember the blood
in the bathroom
and so upstairs
I take the cleanser,
begin to scrub
the tub, tiles, the toilet bowl,
then the bathroom.
Mop, vacuum, and dust rag.
Work, work for the joy of it,
for the black boys
who know too much,
but not enough to stay away,
and sometimes a girl, the girls too.
How their hands
grab at my ankles, my knees.
And don’t I lead them
like a good shepherd?
I stand at the sink,
where the water is still
overflowing the pot,
turn off the faucet,
then heat the water and sit down.
After the last sweet mouthful of chocolate
burns its way down my throat,
I open the library book,
the one on mythology,
and begin to read.
Saturn, it says, devours his children.
Yes, it’s true, I know it.
An ordinary man, though, a man like me
eats and is full.
Only God is never satisfied.
from Sin, 1986
original publish date: April 17, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)
the struggle of living fully
I first learned about Minnie Bruce Pratt via Bitch Magazine’s excellently curated Bitch List. The list highlighted Pratt’s newest poetry collection, Inside the Money Machine with Nothing to Lose. In Inside the Money Machine, her poems vacillate between the struggles of surviving in a 21st century capitalist system while looking for joy beyond the obvious circumstances of the working poor.
“I returned to poetry not because I had ‘become a lesbian’—but because I had returned to my own body after years of alienation. The sensual details of life are the raw materials of a poet—and with that falling-in-love I was able to return to living fully in my own fleshly self.”
Below are two poems from the critically acclaimed We Say We Love Each Other that, in my opinion, distill the essence of her power to transform the obvious.
Love, I know you well: how you look, desiring,
upper lip lengthened when you look at what you
want: some wet fat blueberries heaped in bowls, or
me, at times, wet too.
New Year’s, 1984
I avoid the stalled elevator, walk up five flights,
down a long green hall smelling of cooked food
(not cabbage) to have, in my apartment, a night view of
monuments, and public buildings with windows gunslitted
Even though officially War Is Peace,
MX missiles and Marines with guns are Peacekeepers,
and the enemy is a devil with a name not like ours;
even when occasionally a helicopter spotlight
chops through my window, silver-white cuts across
my hands at the typewriter, the nightmare of caught
at the truth, naked as with a lover;
a trapped voice shouts on the other side of my bedroom wall:
They control us like robots;
I do not agree
with my neighbor, I do not agree with my government.
I agree with you, mother-naked on the year’s first night.
I agree with your hand in my cunt. Your fingers explain
the future by scrawling lines of exquisite pleasure
on the walls of my vagina, urgent graffiti.
that comes, as it will, when a neighbor or casual laughing
hating mouth offers to let me pass, if I say Her
not me, if I agree to rat-tooth jaws closing
on you as enemy, Jew, dyke:
then I will remember
your hand has written your name inside me forever.
For anyone who cares about reproductive justice, reproductive health, and reproductive rights or for that matter freedom, agency, and empowerment, I highly recommend downloading the updated Defending Reproductive Justice: An Activist Resource Kit by Political Research Associates (PRA). PRA first disseminated their activist resource kit in 2000 to expose the anti-abortion movement’s strategies and analyze its rhetoric so that reproductive justice activists could proactively calibrate their resistance. The resource kit was updated in 2009 after Dr. George Tiller was murdered.
On the heels of Roe v. Wade’s 40th anniversary, this current version demonstrates the depth and long-term strategic vision of a movement that wants desperately to “capitalize on negative societal attitudes about anyone who does not conform to narrow definition [sic] of ‘true’ Americans, including immigrants, low-income women, prisoners, and LGBT people.”
To say there has been a steady and calculated erosion of access to reproductive health services in the United States, and especially for low-income women of color and LGBTQ people, is an understatement. According to a Guttmacher Institute report released in April, in the first three months of 2013 there were 694 provisions at the state level that sought to restrict reproductive rights and health, 47% of which were directly related to abortion.
Defending Reproductive Justice is an incredible resource to understand the strategies behind anti-choice ideologies that can be illogical and confusing. How can one be against contraception and against abortion? What’s really behind the idea of “reducing the need for abortions?” By appropriating feminist rhetoric and incorporating language that appears to be “woman-centered,” anti-abortion (and let’s be clear anti-sexuality) advocates have been extremely effective. The end result is clear:
By focusing only on cutting the number of abortions performed, some conservative advocates of abortion reduction hope to appeal to moderates, including some communities of faith, while studiously avoiding consideration of the factors that contribute to the need for abortions. Such factors include inadequate sexuality education or health care, economic distress, lack of a supportive partner, and the dismissal of the ability of a woman to make her own decisions. Not addressing these factors through better family planning and more economic support, while accepting the logic of “abortion reduction,” could strengthen the argument for further limiting access to the procedure – a clear antichoice strategy.
Exposing the racialized, classist, and misogynistic underpinnings of arguments for rape exemptions, abortion as holocaust/genocide, sex for procreation only, abstinence-only-until-marriage, and “right to conscience” clauses demonstrates a strong argument for embracing a reproductive justice approach to this incredibly complex issue. We need to assure that all have sexual freedom and access to quality affordable health care. By understanding the systemic origins behind why some have “choices” and others do not, we are better able to call out those historical and culturally constructed oppressive structures of power. We are also better able to see how anti-abortion advocates are highjacking racial justice to further their agenda. This is the holistic and interconnected vision of reproductive justice.
The activist kit concludes with practical tips for resisting and strategies to move beyond the fear-based rhetoric to create a society where those who are able to reproduce decide for themselves when they want such a revolutionary change in their lives.
#FemFuture: Online Revolution, like all good apocalyptic narratives, describes a fragile world of deprivation, struggle, and impending catastrophe. The protagonists are “online feminists” building virtual communities and producing content that is prized for its authenticity. The antagonists are “traditional feminist organizations” who hoard limited resources and control the tools that amplify voices which create influence, a highly sought after form of power.
The report, written by Courtney E. Martin and Vanessa Valenti of Feministing.com, published by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and funded by a number of family foundations and individual donors, is a provocative call to reflect and assess a critical moment in time. They rightly point out the positive impact of employing today’s online tools and strategic social media strategies used within an intentional feminist practice. “Online feminism has the capacity to be like the nervous system of this modern day feminist body politic.” The capacity for connection through building community and the speed to mobilize formerly isolated individuals has changed the way business is done; there is no debate about that.
Except there has been a lot of debate and whole lot more critique. I recommend reading #FemFuture, History & Loving Each Other Harder for one of the most comprehensive and balanced critiques of the report. Jessica Marie Johnson echoes valid sentiment that communities of color’s voices are sanitized and appropriated into a history that itself isn’t new. “There is nothing new about bloggers attempting to create digital media and activate online networks to challenge interlocking oppressions while agitating on the ground for social change.” Neither are the numerous efforts, mostly failed, to build bridges to predominately white women-led feminist organizations.
It is precisely this attempt to originate and center this new-ish revolution within a milquetoast framework of unchecked privilege and access to power that made the proposed “solutions” so disappointing. Johnson lays it down in full view with the following:
This power, at play in the space, conveners, and even among the participants, is precisely what allows the long history of black feminist and WOC online activity to be erased. We are not all in this together. Some feminists are able to write the story down, tell it, and have it be seen as the gospel truth. Power and privilege are invisible and insidious and difficult to face, but only power and privilege explain why such a well-documented past (and thriving present!) is not explored. As a historian of slavery, I’m well familiar with what happens when certain stories are told and others are dismissed. It was never the case slaves weren’t telling their own stories or philosophizing their own experiences. But it was always the case that the means through which they spoke–from the languages they used to the technology they chose–were seen as illegitimate.
I also agree that “differentiating the labor of creating ‘citizen-produced media’ from the labor of organizing online and on the ground (re)creates unnecessary fault lines, privileges certain kinds of organizing over others, certain kinds of knowledge over others, and further gnarls issues of compensation, attribution, citation, and recognition that are the heart of black feminist and rwoc [radical women of color] critique of the report.”
The recommendation for women’s funding organizations and networks to financially support feminist infrastructures that can effectively coordinate and set agendas is important to state. It’s also equally important that feminists – all of us who claim that identity – be vigilant about setting agendas that don’t reinforce hierarchies or power dynamics. The common ground is recognizing that strategic and proactive use of social media tools to change culture, if only for that news cycle, demonstrates a power of collective action.
It’s within these opportunities, moments that more often than not are meticulously planned and not randomly spontaneously generated, where feminists across the spectrum can reflect an authentic reality of systemic problem(s) and intersectional solutions. Those are the first steps in the implementation of a revolution and a fully realized feminist politic.
Riot grrls, from the isolated Pacific Northwest to the shores of the Atlantic and the prairies in between, catalyzed a cynical nation through confessional rants and powerful critiques of a system that objectified and perpetuated violence against them. Radical “third-wave” feminist theories on the body, race, sexuality, class, privilege, and gender were captured on xeroxed paper or pressed into 7″ vinyl records. The riot grrl culture was dynamic in disruption yet static in reflecting much of the status quo. It was a predominately female identified youth-led movement born from the simple premise that they had every right to be on stage, have opinions, and fully participate in their communities. It was radical accountability and influenced a generation of feminist thought and action.
That’s one version of riot grrl’s influence distilled from the dissonance of fractured underground cultures and personal experience.
The history of the riot grrl revolution, as evidenced by the considerable press surrounding the recent release of The Riot Grrl Collection and franchising of Bikini Kill’s fashion for sale, seems to have landed on the contentious opinion of whether or not riot grrl as a movement had any validity (as any classic punk argument is want to do). This current project of framing a specific time in U.S. history (approximately 1990-1997) within localized cultures and individual agents has produced a firestorm of commentary from those who participated or not. As is the case with most underground movements that have been pushed into the harsh above-ground light, a major sticking point revolves around authenticity.
It is revolutionary practice for individuals in a community to openly question, and more importantly vocalize, against constructed realities that do not represent them. The history of riot grrl is situated within the intersections of punk and DIY culture and their respective, mostly white, middle to upper class, straight and male, communities. It was riot grrl’s unique sound created by and for female-identified folks and a familiarity of independence and anger that seduced me the summer of 1996.
Riot grrl music and the subsequent theories that resulted were significant catalysts to my understanding the risks of practicing feminism.
Ultimately, riot grrls’ confessions of resistance were commodified into an exchangeable end product. It became more about the production and distribution of zines or albums which often required capital, both social and financial, than the politics of liberation. It was this narrow understanding of sharing that dominated the scene. Speaking only for myself, this commodification led me to question identifying as a riot grrl. When the message and actions moved from demanding to be heard to a watered down copy of itself to such a degree that the concept of “girl power” signified the Spice Girls, I moved forward as a free agent. I was not the only one who became disillusioned when the politics became a lifestyle.
The manifestation into consumable goods helps to explain the very valid critique that riot grrl was exclusive territory to those who were mostly white, upper to middle class, and straight. As a result, many believe that the narrator of this specific history is in fact that particular dominant voice. Who is being asked to provide testimony matters deeply. Who is asking the questions? What is being asked and, more importantly, not asked? Who’s voices are not being heard? Should it be a surprise that once again those same stories, and to some extent the music, are being commodified into an aesthetic to be consumed?
It is important to be conscious of the following factor: the fidelity of the narrator, and ultimately riot grrl’s comprehensive history, rests on the assumption that we should listen critically to those who were members of those communities. It’s also important to simultaneously remember that communities are messy as are the blissful memories of youth. Qualifying the impact of embodying radical thought that exposes privilege as oppression is a political act.
When we resist hearing only one point of view, one voice, we honor the original revolutionary tenets of riot grrl. There is power in knowing it is not a history that can easily be bought and sold.
There is a spectrum of menstruation experiences rarely represented in the public discourse. For some, menstruation is a sacred feminine process and a cause for celebration. For others, it’s a curse and should be obsolete. For most menstruators, it just happens. It should be no surprise that the dominant and traditional menstruation narratives have been centered around shame, surveillance, and strategies of avoidance. However, there are occasional disruptions to this storyline.
Hello Flo an incredibly popular (over 5 million views on YouTube) and dissonantly optimistic story is about a young girl who embraces her menses power. Her “red badge of courage” affords her great power until she is dethroned by a business model that undercuts her authority as expert.
Unfortunately, Hello Flo isn’t an alternative narrative. It’s a well-produced ad for monthly deliveries of menstruation needs: Always pads, Tampax Pearl tampons, and “treats.” Hello Flo draws from classic marketing strategies of false empowerment, nostalgia, and humor which tap into a conversation that has been constructed as private so it’s tagged as innovative.
That the process of menstruation management can still be deemed provocative can be found by reading the comments of another trending conversation, “Still Using Tampons Or Pads? You Should Read This,” which has been liked by over 68,000 on Facebook. One could assume by the over 600 unique comments, in two separate postings, that the way we think about menstruation is still stalled at the intersection of a disposable consumer culture and hegemonic ideals about hygiene and menstruating bodies. The discussion of alternative methods and the subsequent disposal of menstrual blood continues to reinforce a plot line of control and tension between those who have hard limits on managing their menstruation cycle (you’re putting what where!?) to those who essentialize a biological process.
Looking at products like the Feby, a “female empowerment bracelet” that uses different shades of pink to signify when you are “most prime for procreation” in case there is any lurking sperm around, it’s pretty clear that the dominant menstrual narrative hasn’t changed since the first wave of menstrual product advertisements in the 1920s. There was a spotty sign of resistance in 2011 when we were witness to an Always ad that was the first to show menstrual blood as red and not the classic blue; however, these visions of a less-traditional menstruator still present a white, feminine body whose function is to produce human life. The public sexual politics of menstruation are quickly absorbed into private tactics around management and control.
The fact remains that this narrow category of a what makes a proper menstruating body is intimately connected to heterosexist, capitalist, and cisgendered norms. It’s no wonder that so many menstruators across the spectrum feel moody when their periods arrive.
As I witness access to abortion clinics disappear and internalize legal justifications for “legitimate rape,” I am conscious of how I embody the traumatic, anxiety-provoking illogical contradictions of an implied truth like “she asked for it.”
If asked, or provoked, I can adequately testify to how “she wanted it” is a distraction of semantics for those who will never have that phrase used against them. I can just as easily and eloquently pivot to subversion by quoting Dorothy Allison, “Revolutions begin when people look each other in the eyes, say ‘I want,’ and mean it.” I hold both extremes delicately and with intention. Like twilight’s influence on developing shadows, conscious expression has illuminating power.
I am a consumer of consent culture. I am not alone.
Resisting narrow, out-dated, and false ideas about the worth, and therefore perceived value, of my female body is not easy. Through a slow burning recognition, I learned that my dissonant curiosity was a pattern formed from perceived isolation and a survivor’s imagination. I found fierce language that named this struggle, brilliant manifestos that unapologetically sang a chorus of survival, and the healing salve of validation by participating in online feminist communities.
All those intimate stories and images we share help contextualize the complexity of our prismatic identities. It is an act of positive resistance to confess that your body is beautiful and your feelings legitimate.
However, these performances can also oversimplify “choice” which hides class. Depending on your location on the spectrum of marginality and your ability to effectively upload your expressions, these curations can lull the audience into believing that agency is subjective and consistent which conceals a passive privilege. The process of “asking for it” (hopefully enthusiastically) warps in ironic ways. This revolution of saying what we want starts to look and feel homogenized.
What are the economics of consent in a system designed to sustain unequal power? As Chris Bobel in the anthology, Embodied Resistance, states, “Because relations of power are social, it follows that they are constantly under deliberation, a perpetual give-and-take. These processes of negotiation effectively draw and redraw the lines that separate or unite people and the symbolic meanings they ascribe to their material realities.”
In a culture of mass objectification, criminalization, and commodification, there are still too many of us who have learned that our desires are dangerous. There are legitimate reasons why we are not taught how to ask for it (consensual sex, a living wage, birth control on demand, authentic representation). It’s a privileged position to know what you need and get what you asked for.
I want a world where I am not afraid to ask for it.
Even if you haven’t heard of Sheryl Sandberg or bell hooks or the amorphous concept of “leaning in,” you likely have fallen victim to a particular brand of feminism; a siren call of empowerment that very few are able to ignore.
Mainstream feminism, an ideology that frames equality of the sexes within comfortable gender norms and ignores difficult topics like race, provides a steady rhythm of easy-listening soundbites that lull the masses into complicit consciousness. This complacency is fashionable and exceptional in its ability to promote itself; this brand of feminism has always attracted big business and uses a shallow critique of the very system from which it is born. It’s the soundtrack that sells us “men’s lotion” and anything pink.
In a recent post by bell hooks, Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In, she dives into a measured call and response to Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book, Lean In. As only bell hooks can do, she lays bare the real agenda of Sandberg’s rising feminist star power.
Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.
hooks goes on to describe obvious flaws of appropriating a feminist theory that does not intend to change anything. In fact, this is the reason you are to “hate the player, not the game.” Sandberg’s method and practice of “faux feminism” is not real feminism. By setting up this predictable dichotomy, a divide that ironically perpetuates exclusive solidarity politics, hooks maintains a rigid status quo. hooks concludes, “Sandberg uses feminist rhetoric as a front to cover her commitment to western cultural imperialism, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
I wish it were this simple. It’s easy to think that Sandberg is plotting world domination inside an audacious mansion, or, more likely, from her corner office at Facebook. With the launch of LeanIn.org, it certainly appears that some thought was put into taking this faux feminism global. By “changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do,” Sandberg and her army of ambitious empowered women have the potential to inspire ordinary women to question how they themselves are perpetuating stereotypes and supporting those who have erected barriers to their success.
If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
Both Sandberg and hooks espouse solidarity, community, and a vision for a more equitable world. It’s unfortunate that they have to come out fighting from opposite ends of the feminist spectrum.
There are many threads of feminism but the most common understanding is mainstream feminism, otherwise known as liberal feminism. Liberal feminism is best summed up by failing to recognize that lived experiences are not the same for all. This is a critical blind spot when one is in a position of power and has a web of privileges that benefit rather than block access to making decisions, which often leads to epic failures to recognize how this influences the way one speaks on behalf of “women” or minorities and other terribly relevant policy implications.
Recent mainstream feminist battles have been interesting to observe because the debate appears to pivot on practice. There was a time not that long ago where the shouting matches were over the very existence of a thing called feminism. Now the politics seems to be about who’s doing feminism “right” and who is doing it “wrong.”
Using the example of GoldieBlox taking the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls” without their permission, we can explore this idea of who is practicing feminism “right” (specifically liberal feminism). GoldieBlox’s social venture for-profit mission is to sell toys that empower “girls” to pursue math and science-based careers through inspired yet gender segregated learning concepts like girls inclination to have strong verbal skills. Their theory of change seeks to “disrupt the pink aisle” which will eventually narrow the gender gap in male-dominated engineering fields. It’s a worthy endeavor if you don’t question the larger root causes that maintain this limited career access.
On the other side, we have the Beastie Boys with their checkered past of blatant sexism that was transformed by feminist consciousness, public apologies, and practicing “good” feminism. The Beastie Boys evolution from sexist to feminist was a disruption in its own right.
GoldieBlox’s defensive stance was that they were simply using the song “Girls” to demonstrate parody through a critique that proclaimed “Girls” is sexist. They banked on parody to protect them under the umbrella of fair use, which means they could use the song without permission or compensation. GoldieBlox, by contrast, are not sexist because their mission is to sell empowerment only to girls. It’s a thin argument that GoldieBlox has the authority to determine what is sexist and what is not.
There is no doubt that GoldieBlox wants to “change the equation” but the gender paradox they’ve constructed actually perpetuates a hierarchical system they allegedly wish to see equalized. The real politics are that it’s not good feminist practice to brand empowerment, especially in the form of a disposable, ephemeral product. The lesson learned is that good intentions are not a shield to protect you from being called out and that, like the Beastie Boys, one always has room to grow into being better feminists.
“We’ve got to take it back. We sleep to sew the seams that we oppose. We shrink to fit in our pre-assigned roles. Resist with each stitch. Split the seams and start all over again. Cut the pattern that fits. Ready-made rarely means ready to fit. A bleached white tightness to bind and gag and scold … The lines we fought to fit have now become our own. … We cannot be tied down by roughly cut threads from the patterns of the CEOS. … They need no spokesman if you have no voice.”
In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was appointed to the United States Supreme Court. It was also the year that newly elected President Bill Clinton signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The year ended with the Barbie Liberation (BLO) effectively jamming our over-saturated binary gender culture by switching the voice boxes on over 300 talking G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls. Instead of Barbie saying, “Math is hard,” we heard “Vengeance is mine.”
Over 20 years have passed since the murder of Doctor David Gunn, the first documented murder of an abortion doctor. The World Trade Center had its first bombing so we bombed Iraq and have not left since. We have lived with the greedy consequences of NAFTA, bore witness to the repeal of DADT, and now understand the strategic appropriation of the religious right to use RFFA as a master’s tool to keep the master’s house intact.
RFRA is the federal law that the Supreme Court used to rule in favor of Hobby Lobby and now sets the precedent to allow private for-profit corporations to “exercise religious freedom” equating corporate entities ever closer to breathing conscious “persons.”
According to Hobby Lobby’s attorney Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “Today’s victory against this unjust mandate is important for… all Americans who seek to live according to their consciousness.” She then declared that women’s voices have been heard.
Much has already been written about the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision – its potential impact on people who receive contraception benefits from their employer’s insurance plans and the relentless chipping away of reproductive health and justice access for low-income communities of color (See RH Reality Check for the most comprehensive analysis on this unprecedented ruling).
But beyond the immediate, we face a terrifyingly near future where Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is no longer a science fiction fantasy. The dystopic reality we face today is a false sense of private choice. Sadly, for those of us who personally experience the daily struggle of living in poverty, this ruling isn’t likely going to change the way we go about our business. We have history on our side and have embodied our oppressions.
When we push aside the illogical and scientifically wrong argument that the four contraceptives in dispute, which were incorrectly institutionalized as abortifacients (IUDs, two forms of emergency contraception, and contraceptive implants), the underlying issue reveals itself as the control of sexuality, which has always been a matter of public discourse and policy. And that discourse is abilist, racialized, classist, cisgendered, and heteronormative.
In an ironic statement after the ruling, Randall Wenger who is part of the Conestoga Wood legal team (the other now infamous private for-profit corporation) noted, “The announcement provides what we had hoped. There are limits on government power.”
It is true that Hobby Lobby does not object to their employees receiving vasectomies, condoms, or Viagra. The pivotal point where they felt a “sincere” threat to their religious liberties rested on the concept of who controls the implantation of a fertilized egg, the subsequent hospitality of the host’s uterus, and the hopeful birth of a human (not to be confused with a corporation) that should only result from legally sanctioned heterosexual coupling.
It is equally true that our legal system, founded and maintained to uphold the ruling class, would publicly reinforce who really controls the miracle of life.
It’s too soon to know if this stain will wash out or give birth to new categories of corporate life. So instead of shrinking to fit, we will reimagine a culture where power empowers instead of dominates. We will continue to violate norms and resist the lines that divide and conquer us. We will embrace our contradictions and support the collective public struggle of the matters of our private lives.
In a previous post, I coupled the early essays of The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure as “academic stimulation with real-world sensations.” The chorus of voices throughout the remainder of the book continue on that path and give more support for using an erotic economic analysis. The production of porn is about selling pleasure, consuming (queer) desire, and fucking loving yourself.
Ingrid Ryberg in Every Time We Fuck, We Win pushes you to understand watching porn is witness to intimacy. It is telling that we have to learn to repress so much to fit into assumed historic preferences. Keiko Lane’s Imag(in)ing Possibilities spreads your psyche out with respect. Experiencing “fantasies made conscious” is a particular arousal of “embodied subjectivity.” That point of view, a corporeal validation, is useful. Porn can heal us if we experience it without shame or remorse. If you want to get the deepest and quickest purpose of this book, read Constance Penley’s A Feminist Teaching Pornography? She gives you the permission to study porn as film. We are the audience to a multi-dimensional experience from performer to director to public tastes.
Presentation matters: angles and agency. Lorelei Lee demonstrates that to the fullest. “Sexual desire and sexual identity are absolutely essential to the freely defined self.” Feminist porn performs power which is why it deserves its current patriarchal reputation. Own that what you feel from seeing is pleasurable. This feminist entertainment project is political. That’s no-fucks-given explicit from the begging to the end The Feminist Porn Book. As is Ariane Cruz’s call to “take up a politics of perversion, a disruptive shift in black feminist studies, to critically analyze the engagements of pleasure and power through pornography consumption, performance, and production.”
All anthologies straddle numerous opinions and I agree with Nina Hartley that “porn houses our sexual dreams, which are vitally important to our happiness.” The how – worker centered – is what makes feminist porn feminist. It is what mutual satisfaction looks like – good enough to share. Tristan Aormino knows both sides of the camera. I’ll watch sex that is “presented as joyful, fun, safe, mutual, and satisfying.” Sexual expressions of joy! Who would be against such imagery?
That was a larger question that was often left out of the frame. We hear and see enough of the anti-porn position. It was a nice reprieve from that way of thinking. The Feminist Porn Book repeatedly and gently reminds you to consume critically and honor consent always. Sexual expressions are exchanged as erotic capital and culturally produced whether we agree with it or not. That’s why having more porn that thinks and fucks like me is where I’ll be putting my hard-earned feminist dollars.
Sex! It’s a provocative subject that has been analyzed for centuries and often reflects more about the author’s tastes, deviance, and experience than any scandalous title may suggest. The subjectivity inherent in this undertaking creates a scene where perversity and contradiction thrive. This quest to distill ourselves – how we come to understand our sexual identities and how we perform those norms (which can result in panics) – has coupled sexuality with body politics for as long as flawed history books have been written.
The what you want and all those sticky enshrouded and repressed reasons why you want are complicated. It’s biological and it isn’t. It’s fixed and it’s dynamic. You could focus on visibility, accessibility, the mechanics, or anything from economics (think about all those ways we feel pleasure from consuming) to culture and still not completely satisfy your curiosities. And we aren’t even covering the erotic. A lush landscape that could lead you to play with the tension of what can be imagined to the exploitation of deeply held desires.
There’s something about all the ways we talk about sex that attracts the most attention. Sexual testimonies that have been passed down, a legacy we measure ourselves against, as the origins of our understanding about sex and sexuality – yours, mine, our neighbors. These narratives are situated in specific cultural, racial, historical, gendered rituals of age, geographical locations, and within very real systems of power. It’s the dominant stories, the ones that are replicated to the point where they are assumed to be truth, that get mythologized. Our destiny is to then decide to perform or reject.
This metaphysical project of measuring perceived reality in proportion to these mythologies, is what The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies andReality attempts to unravel.” And it is this link between sex and self that sits at the root of how sex is regulated in our culture, more than any individual rule or whim of cultural fashion.” A contemporary ritual of self-worth we must all fulfill.
The interviews that thread The Sex Myth chapters are specific histories woven around a frame that is supported by a strong economic influence. “To be sexually ‘free’ is not just a question of doing as you please but a public display of self: an identity that is contemporary, cultured, and financially secure.” This is all within what Hills calls an “attention economy” – any form of recognition is a form of validation. The Sex Myth also pulls apart performance from judgement and normalized expectations.
The chapters on masculinity challenged me for personal reasons and so did the one dedicated to femininity (narrowly constructed around “learning heterosexuality”). I saw my angsty former self expressed in the confessions that got to the root of religion’s control over your autonomy and self-worth. I’m still learning how to undo that damage.
I learned just how extensive the heterosexual agenda is for all of us.
“The primary account of heterosexuality in these films [G-rated] is one of heteroromantic love and its exceptional, magical, transformative power,” the researchers wrote – Martin, Karin, and Emily Kazyak. “Hetero-romantic love and heterosexiness in children’s G-rated films.” Gender & Society 23 (June 2009), 315-36.
I was reminded of just how far beyond those prescriptive expectations I have wandered.
In the end, The Sex Myth is a tale centered on the “tension between control and freedom,” and the price we pay in that constantly fluctuating exchange rate. I appreciated the implicit action to destroy the instinct to question the body first and the system that defines us second. “The Sex Myth is palpable not only in the what we cannot do without fear of stigma or harm, but in what we feel we must do in order to avoid feelings of shame and inadequacy.” It’s critical to deconstruct our feelings about sex and their potential connection to how we embody shame and inadequacy.
My hope is that the conversations started in The Sex Myth agitate and provoke its audience into questioning their own stories and assumptions about what is normal or “true.” Another hope is that we destroy the myth that sexuality is a determined process bound by binary thinking. That’s one way to bridge this gap between our fantasies for more – more freedom, more pleasure, less repression – and envision a reality where our politics and how we express ourselves is ours to tell.