An Interview with Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Rachel Blau DuPlessis is a feminist poet, critic, and essayist. Over a career spanning several decades DuPlessis has worked on the intersection of gender, poetry, and cultural poetics – few critics have best articulated the connections and tensions between them. She is known for her long poem, Drafts, written from 1986 until 2012. The final book-length instalment of the poem, Surge: Drafts 96-114, was published by Salt Publishing in 2013. Other books belonging to this project are Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan, 2001); DRAFTS. Drafts 39-57, Pledge with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis (Salt Publishing, 2004);Torques: Drafts 58-76 (Salt Publishing, 2007) and Pitch: Drafts 77-95 (Salt Publishing, 2010). Her books of criticism include the trilogy of works about gender and poetics, Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, and Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry, published in 2012. DuPlessis received a PhD from Columbia University and has been Professor Emerita of English at Temple University since June 2011.
I would like to start at the beginning. When did you decide to be a poet? How and why did you begin writing poetry?
I began writing poetry, as most literary kids do, in early adolescence, at 12 years old. Curiously, my first poem, called ‘Memory,’ commented on the phenomenon of consciousness in which you notice where you have just been, step by step, and see it instantly become a memory. (Many years later, I wrote about this moment in ‘Draft 33: Deixis.’) However, to “decide to be a poet,” that is, to declare that one is a poet, was a much more fraught issue. I had a lot of wariness on that point, mainly because (with modest immodesty) I saw “being a poet” as going up against, or into a complex literary tradition, not just writing poems. That is, simply writing poems and actually being a poet are acts and claims on very different scales. Being a poet is not only writing poems. It is an address to the whole apparatus of and the traditions of poetic practice.
Who were you reading during your early years? Has any of this reading stayed with you or remained influential?
Wallace Stevens was one of the first poets I read seriously, from the so-useful Louis Untermeyer Anthology of Modern Poetry. Stevens in high school and then again in college, where one poetry teacher (Robert Pack) had just written an M.A. on Stevens and communicated his enthusiasm. During college years, the New American Poetry anthology hit, ‘Howl’ included, Robert Duncan included, and I was suddenly in another, different world, one far more idiomatic to me than the contemporary mainstream work honored under normative poetic regimes. Soon after college, I met the poet George Oppen, someone whose work and whose sense of vocation had a great impact on me. All this remains influential. Remember too, that at that era women writers were more or less shrugged off, so I didn’t read any except (around 1963) Sylvia Plath.
In Blue Studios you wrote: “If I had not become a feminist, I probably would not have been able to write much or to think anything especially interesting in any original way.” I wonder if you could tell me more about that, about the role that feminism played in your development.
I have written a good deal about this insight in both Blue Studios and The Pink Guitar, so let me begin by recommending these books of essays. Even with my excellent education and no obvious barriers to thought and achievement, the prevailing ideologies of minority, niceness, second-class citizenship, and service unto servility were so culturally ingrained in young [white, middle-class] women like myself that it took a social movement to blast through the smug, yet painful and limiting walls of accomodationist consciousness so that we could begin to face what the psycho-social repression of women really involved. Will that suggest the force of things? I could cite any number of aphorisms on why feminism is crucial to women. One is from Maya Angelou—”I am a feminist. I’ve been female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” Aside from social norms and struggles with them, my career as a literary critic has also suggested why the intellectual struggles for literary analyses about sex-gender institutions and ideologies and about other socio-aesthetic materials are necessary in order to have a fully articulated culture.
Which feminist writers and poets have most influenced your work? Were there older, living feminists whom you visited and learned from?
We were the feminists then! There were no (that is, unbelievably few) feminist elders! Often those women were considered crazy or really “off” in some way, or they were virtually silent about gender. There were brave individual women in the 1940s and 1950s, some intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir, and organized women, often on the left and in the civil rights movement, working for international peace and social and racial justice in the 1960s, but, in the U.S., until NOW (a moderate organization) and then the explosion of younger, mainly college-age women on the left from about 1966-1973—yet you might just as well say that we were the “only” feminists we knew, and we were inventing it as we went along. The slightly older women—poet Adrienne Rich, for instance—were living the possibilities for feminism and the arousal to feminist thought simultaneously with us, not before our generation. We knew we were “the second wave,” but did not know—were literally bone ignorant of—the “first wave,” the incredibly hard, brave socio-political work of feminists and sex-gender activists from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. Such histories were sequestered as a wee side alley, virtually erased, thought of as derisory, thoroughly discounted. As a generation, we had read no women novelists or poets; we had seen the work of no women artists; we had learned no political histories with women included; we had uneven understandings of any critiques of sexuality; we had little sense that women had written manifestos and challenged laws and resisted social mores before us, or had been cultural innovators. All this changed drastically and happily—in good measure because of the intellectual, political and cultural work of our generation. By my own study and that of other critics, we began building a literary history of modernism, this time (speaking in shorthand) with the women in it —and some of those writers became important to my poetry.
In ‘Reader, I married me: Becoming a Feminist Critic’, the opening chapter of Blue Studios, you detail your intellectual and creative development and your experiences as a woman in academia. I can’t help but feel that this chapter is essential reading for women working in literary criticism, especially young women. How do you feel things have changed, if it all? What work, cultural and political, is still to be done?
Thanks for pointing to that essay as crucial; I’m glad that the useful genre of female Bildung in essay mode might be exemplary for others. One’s life is not just one’s own. Struggle is continuous, and any gender progress needs to be strategically defended. We have seen, ‘even’ in the West, levels of misogyny and resistance to simple gains (like the right to control one’s body; the right to not be subjected to punishing violence for one’s claims of decision-making agency; the right to have a salary not lowered by gender prejudice) that are shocking in the context of human rights. And in this period, too, right now, crucial struggles for female literacy, education and freedom of movement are fiercely contested. Some things have changed in some places, but forces of anti-female reaction are still staggering. I cannot give a list of the work still to be done—it would be too long–and in all zones of human endeavor: medicine, family policy and domestic arrangements, fairness of access to education and to social goods, legal rights, questions of sexuality and embodiment, negotiations among child-bearing, child caring, and professional development, economic justice and fairness…
Feminist thinking in this era really was a revolution of mind and spirit as well as of public policies, a paradigm-changing, conceptual revolution. Feminist knowledge production went on apace in field after field. No intellectual, political or cultural field was untouched.
For me feminism is sex-gender justice intertwined with social and economic justice, and it involves female co-equality with males amid female differences, the positions working in endless dialectical movement. Women’s gains in agency, co-equality, and legal redress should not come at the expense of others who endure social wrongs, although there is undoubtedly some cost to people’s claims of power-over-others and to their claims of interpretive hierarchies of importance where women rank as lesser.
Let’s turn toward your own poetic practice. You named your long poem Drafts—this implies a certain provisionality, perhaps even an intention to revisit or rewrite the poems. How provisional are the poems?
Each individual canto of my long poem is totally finished. I never had any intention to rewrite them once they were finished. However, the concept behind the poem depends on understanding that nothing is ever finished or complete. So by virtue of “beginning again and again” (to cite Gertrude Stein), I do indeed revisit the poems. That’s what the trope of Drafts means. The poem has a self-citation practice (along with its uses of other cited materials). One of my citation strategies is unmarked self-citation. This creates a recycling texture, where I will put lines from prior Drafts in a new context. I’ve written about that tactic, but perhaps never fully elaborating the mystery of such a practice, how it creates metamorphic reconsideration and shadowy senses of remembering. It offers a midrashic texture of gloss. It shows how the same statement can mean different things, or lead to different ruminations—which exhibits the mystery of words, of context and of genre/convention cues. And this strategy also proposes the idea that words and statements already made are the “muses” for future poems, rather than having male or female figures as inspiration.
How premeditated was Drafts? Did you know how long the poem would be, how many installments?
No, I did not know this at first. I only found out in the course of doing the work. And the titles around which individual poems formed were not pre-thought when I began the project, either. Those features (how long, and what titles, and whether to continue) offered occasions for a good deal of pulse-taking during the years devoted to the project. During that period, I often have notes to myself meditating on prospective titles and the order of those works. Seven years into the project (1993), I gave myself a final number of poems—114 (which is six times 19)—a total that seemed impossible and implausible, but actually was achieved. (No one could have been more surprised and grateful at this outcome than I was.) Later (between 2001 and 2003), I destabilized this number 114 by writing an “unnumbered” poem centered between Drafts 57 and 58—a poem consisting of 57 quasi-sonnets, each summarizing the 57 written drafts to date—that is, half the whole poem. Hence the final number of poems in Drafts is 114/115—depending on how you count. This proposes a generative instability around the question of “the final” that goes with Drafts as an idea. This strategy of the unnumbered poem, and the particular numerological play with even and odd numbers, along with the important strategy of “the fold” (of each unit of nineteen poems pleated over each other six times) are all features of the poem that developed heuristically in the course of writing it. I cannot emphasize this enough—I could not possibly or plausibly have written a long poem over 26 years based on a “plan” or scheme that I had drawn up at the poem’s inception! That would have been completely counter to my poetics of discovery. Drafts really is a work of poesis—or continuous “making.”
The interesting thing about the writing of a long poem is that it has a private temporality of doubling one’s life. It is also a bit like painting oneself into a corner by design, and then constructing more of the building out from that corner—and continuing to paint. What any given author might say about writing a life-long poem could seriously differ depending on what stage of the process s/he is in at the moment of response. But generally, the poetics of a long (life-long poem) is poesis itself. Further, the more one has of that poem, the more it seems as if that poem is your mission in life. It appears that a person doesn’t begin one without some intuition that this will be so.
I have commented a good deal on these heuristic and structuring features in Blue Studios, in a set of three essays that I will quietly recommend to anyone interested in my practice: ‘On Drafts: A Memorandum of Understanding’ (1992); ‘Haibun: “Draw Your Draft”‘ (1998, 2004); and ‘Inside the Middle of a Long Poem’ (2003).
How do you feel about the critical reception of your work? Is your relationship with your critics informed by your own double-life, as it were, as a poet and critic?
These are three separate issues. 1) No poet ever feels that she/he gets enough attention. Yet it is a curiosity to me that my work is not so much on the “book review” circuit, even within small press circles.
2) This said, I have been very lucky in my critics (both those I know and those I don’t), who are often writing overarching and synoptic studies, rather than reviews of single volumes.
3) My work as a literary critic has been often keyed to trying to preserve the work of women poets from neglect and ignorance, and to contextualize their work both looking at female difference and looking at their various contributions to general and shared culture. Of course this stance has bearing for the poets in my generation including myself.
What are you working on at the moment? Will there be more installments, or variations, of Interstices, or more interstitial work to come?
Despite closing Drafts after twenty-six years, I did not at all intend to finish my engagement with the scale and plethora of the long poem. I had to consider what my claim of not “finishing” or “completing” Drafts really betokened. It became clear from a signature poem, ‘Draft 104: The Book,’ that making books, constructing books within books, and negotiating with ideas of the book within poetry and culture were preoccupying concerns.
Hence, during the period 2012-2016, I chose to make single books of poetry in part to examine the book as a single item, in part because of the challenge of temporarily changing my practice–a curiosity about what would happen. So my general feeling of constant quest has taken shape during recent years in a set of books of poetry, each unique in mode and all connected, as if with extended warp and weft strings, to the gigantic tapestry of Drafts. Each of these books arose as extensions of some themes and practices in my work as a whole (some examples are betweenness; the tertium quid; torquing texts; collage), but also arose as a challenge: could I write self-contained books–as is relatively normative in poetic practice? I also wanted this set of works to be transitional (interstitial)–between one thing and another. Almost all these books are now either in print or accepted for publication. The full list of interstitial works is: Interstices (Subpress, 2014)–epistles to people, and Graphic Novella (Xexoxial Editions, 2015)–collage, poetry and glosses concerning the “news.” A shorter collage-poem chapbook (2014) quite cosmological is Churning the Ocean of Milk. Two books will come out in 2016—Eurydics from Further Other Book Works, Days and Works from Ahsahta Press. And finally there is Numbers (poems and matching collages in color)–no publisher as yet.
After these multiple experiences of making single books and after several years of considering some options, I seem to have chosen a generative word for a matching-and-continuing long poem—the new Drafts (so to speak). The word Traces and the general title Traces of Previous Formats emerged to satisfy the question of an endlessly plumb-able rubric for the one-multiple/multiple-one poem. I have now embarked on this third unit of what has become a triptych of works.
Which contemporary poets are you reading? Where do you feel avant-garde poetry is heading?
The first answer is—as many as I can with care, mainly on the innovative side of things—trying to read Canadian, British, New Zealand, and Australian poets as well as US poets, and also sometimes poets in other languages. The second question is always weird—”who knows?” is one answer. That said, I think the documentary, socially and ecologically engaged poetries, the poetry that sometimes overspills the understood modes of “poetry” into essay, hybridity, and visual text are most exciting to me now. Poetry is an ethical practice as well as an aesthetic one—just even thinking about what this means and how it is instantiated is a useful task.
Kristin Grogan is writing a thesis on poetry and labour at Exeter College, Oxford. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.