Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Pointed Out Like the Stars: Women and the Avant-Garde

I was 21 when I entered graduate school for the first time, and while it was mostly a psychological and academic disaster for me, one very important thing happened that affected me for the rest of my life. I discovered Dada. I can’t remember what precipitated my discovery of Dada. Something in my memory tells me that it was just an accident of “surfing” the library stacks. What I do remember is my first book of Dada that I came across and checked out: 7 Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries by Tristan Tzara . I remember being hooked the first time I opened the book. A little bit later, I came across of one Tzara’s poems, “Le printemps,” or “Springtime,” of which I can still, 30 years later, recite the first line or two in French. I could not tell you what about the work attracted me, but it made me happy, then, as now. It was delightful in its esoteric non-sense and at the same time, made me feel liberated. To a very young graduate student in English, an artistic and literary movement that could inspire playfulness in literature, as opposed to weighed down with assignments that felt oppressive, made me rediscover and remember my love for literature. Even now, 30 years later, picking up a book about Dada or Surrealism, going to an exhibit, still has the same ecstatic effect on me.

At that time, I wasn’t thinking about women in the avant-garde. I didn’t think about the fact that women were not highly visible among avant-garde movements. Frankly, women were not highly visible in most literary movements. The women involved in literary movements were anomalies. That was what made them special—a woman among so many male writers. Moreover, this was the middle 1980s. Growing up female in the 1970s, in the midst of second wave feminism, which I was also oblivious to at the time, I was raised to believe that I could do anything, participate in anything. When, years later, I did enter the fray of discussions about women in the avant-garde, I would initially assume that, sure, women were not represented, but that was then and this is now. Moreover, criticism of the lack of (visible) women that were made, either historically or in the present, did not apply to me. I did not see myself as frivolous, I was not a “girly-girl.” I was a young woman who could hold her own with any boy or man, especially when it came to intellect. I was special, like those other women. If there were not very many women historically in the avant-garde, that did not affect the women of today who could do whatever they chose to do. It would not be until years later that I would question where the women of the avant-garde were and why no one seemed to be talking about them. It seemed some of them had to become visible to me before I could ask where the rest of them were.

Fast forward to November 2016. I attend a 100th anniversary of Dada celebration at a small gallery in Chicago, where I meet Penelope Rosemont herself, the legendary American Surrealist from Chicago who had, by all accounts, met Andre Breton and received, along with her husband Franklin, Breton’s blessing to start a Surrealist group in the United States. As this is the last weekend of the exhibition, attendance is slight. The four people in the room at the time, myself included, look and comment on the irony that 100 years later, it is a group of women exclusively that are celebrating Dada. The tide has turned.

The Avant-Garde: A Man’s World?

When you think of Dada and Surrealism, the “first” major avant-gardes, what names come to mind? Number one is probably Andre Breton. Marcel Duchamp. Tristan Tzara. Man Ray. Salvador Dali. It is only once we have used up most of the male names that we might remember Leonora Carrington, or Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, Frida Kahlo, Mary Laban, Sophie Tauber, Baroness Elsa, or Mina Loy. When we think about contemporary scholarship on women in the avant-garde or any literary movement, we can look at the numbers and who gets published in major anthologies, how the women get counted and talked about in that movement, and who the scholars are that are “writing women back into the canon.”

Surrealist Women by the numbers

In 1998, Penelope Rosemont published a very influential volume entitled Surrealist Women. The anthology includes a total of just under 100 women, although she drew from a much higher number. Many of them are the most prominent names in Surrealism, Nancy Cunard, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, etc. Rosemont describes her method in detail:

I consulted a vast number of surrealist journals, exhibition catalogues, and other publications. Whenever I came across the name of a woman, I noted it on a file card. According to these cards, some three hundred women—at one time or another, to one degree or another—have taken part in the international Surrealist Movement. (xxxvi).

Three hundred women, and yet at best, most people even in the know could probably only name about 25 women from Dada and Surrealism combined, maybe 50 if they are really knowledgeable.

In that volume, organized chronologically, there are 11 women from the 1920s and 24 different women published in the 1930s, (vii-x) the period when according to Mary Ann Caws, women began to become more visible within Surrealism (Surrealism and Woman, 2). There were 17 unique women in the section before the end of WWII, and 27 unique women listed as post-War, from the end of the WWII to 1960. In period of the 1960s and 70s there are 24 unique women published, and 16 in the final chapter, that goes up to the 1990s (Surrealist Women, x-xx).

Contrast this with Willard Bohn’s 1993 anthology, The Dada Market: An Anthology of Poetry, which contains only 4 women out of 42 poets: Celine Arnauld, Baroness Elsa von Freitag-Loringhoven, Emmy Hennings, and Mina Loy (vii). Arsenal: Surrealist Subversions, a journal which was edited by Rosemont’s own Chicago Surrealist Group and was published sporadically in the 1970s and 80s had approximately 15 different women writers and artists in the issue I examined, as well as statements from a number of Surrealist groups worldwide which no doubt (or hopefully) included women, out of roughly 70 entries (1).

Today, there are also any number of Facebook pages devoted to contemporary Surrealist practices. As of February 15th, looking at two different FB pages, Surrealist Revolution and Surrealism and Esotericism, there were 155 women out of 532 members of Surrealist Revolution and 67 women out of 211 total members of Surrealism and Esotericism, which comes to roughly 1/3 in each group (and there is some overlap between the two lists, but there are also some discrete names a well). There were a few cases where the names were ambiguous and not obviously women, and which further had no identifying pictures, so I counted those as men. However, it is the men who are more visible on these lists, whereas the women tend to “lurk” on these particular lists, mostly posting when they have something to share, as opposed to getting involved in discussions. Is this because they have been discouraged in the past? Is it because they are busy being artists and moms and wives and employees—maybe being teachers of art and/or students--all in varying proportions and simply don’t have time? Are they doing Surrealism as opposed to talking about it? Is it something else altogether for some of them?

In fact, when I posted something to these two lists , telling a little bit about my project and asking them to respond to my gmail account, lists which I regularly participate in and which were selected for that very reason, I got no responses at all and only one man “liked” my comment. Is it possible that no women got word of my call to participate? Is it that women don’t want to think about their participation in avant-garde movements or assume, like I did, that the issue is one of history and not a current concern? Are they tired of talking about it? I will never know, of course, why my call failed to generate a single response, but those questions are interesting to speculate on, in and of themselves. I was disappointed. I wanted to know if other women’s experiences were the same as mine were, what their paths were to the avant-garde. For the moment, I will have to defer this knowledge.

There is also the issue of women not wanting to be featured in women-only anthologies. Rosemont talks about this in the introduction to Surrealist Women when she talks about Anne Ethuin, who “declined to participate in one such ‘No Men Allowed’ collection” (xxx). Ethuin responded by writing:

I have never thought that art and poetry could have a sex. On days when I feel the urge to write or create images, I do not decide before I begin that I am going to make ‘a woman’s work. I have lived and worked for forty-seven years in a perfectly mixed milieu and I have no intention of changing now. (qtd in Rosemont, Surrealist Women, xxxi).

Rosemont’s response to a statement like this is that she sees Surrealist Women as being about “reintegration . . . to make it impossible—or at least inexcusable—for student of surrealism to continue to ignore” these women and their writings. This is what Royce and Kirsch would call the work of “historical rescue, recovery, and (re)inscription” that feminist scholars engage in (20).

Men in the Avant-Garde: Oppressors or Champions of Women?

There is some disagreement among scholars about how complicit the Dada and Surrealist men were in suppressing the history of that/those movement(s) . Some, like Penelope Rosemont, say that the men deeply respected the women in the movement and supported women’s rights. Others say that the men used the women as sexual beings (or objects) to show how sexually liberated the male artists were, while still not affording the women their own independence and sexuality. In the introduction to Women in Dada, Naomi Sawelson-Gorse has some fairly biting things to say about the male attitudes towards women, as expressed in their own writings and manifestos. Sawelson-Gorse discusses New York Dadaist Paul Haviland, who talked about machines as female in not-so-flattering terms:

Man made machine in his own image. She has limbs which act . . . a nervous system through which runs electricity . . . The machine is his ‘daughter born without a mother.’ This is why he loves her. (xi).

She also cites Francis Picabia, who, writing in a similar vein, that “the machine is yet at a dependent stage . . . she submits to his will but he must direct her activities. Sawelson-Gorse sees the irony here, declaring that “this movement of absolute rebellion was also one of oppression” (xii). She also cites a manifesto by Tzara (my man!) as embedded in binary difference: female concerns are superficial, bound in commodifications of bodily vanity (such as skin creams and nail polish) in direct opposition to those of the male in the innovative sphere, particularly the innovative. (xi)

There are a number of books and articles that detail and debate the Dada’s and Surrealists’ attitudes toward women, and so my intention here is not to write the “definitive” account of those attitudes by any means, nor do I intend to significantly rehash those debates. And if feminist scholars have taught us anything, it is to pay attention to the particulars, rather than the broad brushes that movements are painted with. No doubt, there were men who truly championed women, those who saw women as frivolous and not worth their attention, and those men who thought they were being liberatory and open-minded, but who missed the mark. My intention here is simply to bring up those issues as a part of the reason that women have been excluded from the canon of the avant-garde for many years. The lack of support and champions of women’s work, either consciously or unconsciously must be mentioned.

And yet, there were still a number of women who chose to be a part of Dada around the world, in New York, France, Zurich, and Berlin. Perhaps like me, they assumed that the men who wrote things like Tzara, Picabia, and Haviland had written were not writing about them. They were different, liberated, artistic. Many were suffragists . These women deserved the liberation that Dada and similar movements promised. Perhaps these women, faced with no real alternative in men’s perceptions of them, decided to cast their lot with Dadaism, which was at least politically and artistically liberating.

In the 1970s, French feminist and Surrealist Helene Cixous wrote that she “has no right to write within your logic: nowhere to write from.” Because she is a woman, she has “no fatherland, no legitimate history. No certainties, no property. ” With no “fatherland,” no history or tradition, a woman has no “genre,” she feels an allegiance to. It is all up for grabs for her to make her own history, her own traditions. What better place, then, for women in the early 20th century than in the Dada movement, even if the men didn’t totally support them. The women in and affiliated or associated with Dada were liberated, despite these male attitudes, including Baroness Elsa, Mina Loy, Sophie Tauber, Emmy Hennings, and many more. Being liberated does not always equal visibility or acceptance. I was told by someone online, for instance, that Emmy Hennings, girlfriend and later wife of Hugo Ball, who wrote poetry and participated in the Cabaret Voltaire, was not an artist and was simply a prostitute. This despite the fact that she appeared in plenty of anthologies and wrote the introduction to Ball’s memoir Flight Out of Time.

Another aspect that the Hennings story brings to light and that also threatens to obscure women’s recognition within these movements is the fact that very often the women participants were the wives or girlfriends of the men involved in the movement. Thus seen as “appendages” of the men, their participation is subsumed into the man’s artistic participation, at least in the eyes of critics, if we are to accept Rosemont’s story. Elise Breton, Suzanne Duchamp, Jeanette Tanguy, Nadja, and Gala Dali are just a few of the women who are often noted as wives and girlfriends, as “muses,” but rarely recognized as artists in their own right.

Mary Ann Caws contends that this is part of the problematic history of Surrealism itself, when she says that “although the work is praised, the woman is not granted autonomous artist powers” (2). Caws also notes that women “joined Surrealism through personal relationships with male members” (2). Was it that the women actually participated because their husbands or partners were Surrealists, or was it that the men were attracted to the women because they shared similar interests in art and attitudes toward creativity?

By the numbers: contemporary redux

The erasure of women from avant-garde and experimental histories continues with contemporary movements of today, feminism notwithstanding. I remember reading a quote by Gregory Corso of the “Beat Generation” who said (and I paraphrase) “sure there were women there [among the Beats] and someday people will write about them.” I had talked to Maria Damon, professor at the University of Minnesota and a beat generation scholar/apologist about that quote and she told me “Gregory Corso is such a mess. He is not one to be responsible for that kind of scholarship.” The point is not that Gregory Corso himself should be responsible for bringing those writers to light, but as Angela Davis famously said, “Lift as you climb.” In other words, male authors could or should stop allowing the story of the “holy trinity” of the Beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs—from being the only history of the Beat movement and take greater pains to mention some of the women writers, besides Dianne DiPrima, who were there and worked with them, read by their sides, and did much more than sleep with them, cook their dinners, etc. As the men are lifted up, they should also be mentioning and lifting up the women with whom they built the movement, not waiting for someone else to “discover” those writers, who should have already been “discovered” by virtue of their participation.

The Language Poets, inheritors of the Dada tradition, do a slightly better job, with about a dozen women writers out of a 280 page anthology, The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, in which most articles, poetry, and fiction run from 1-3 pages (v-viii). Being generous, this means that there is approximately 36 pages worth of women’s writing in this book. At a Conceptual Poetics conference that I attended in 2007, which featured many prominent Language Poets, nearly half of the attendees were women, yet we were still having discussions about gender, since the then-upcoming Conceptual Poetics anthology, which ended up being published in 2011 under the name Against Expression and was edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, was not going to reflect women’s participation and the nearly equal participation of women to men at the conference. And as usual with discussions like this, most of the men got defensive . Marjorie Perloff sided with the men, saying something to the effect that it wasn’t their job to ensure equal participation of men and women. The finished anthology has approximately 100-110 pages of women’s writing, representing approximately 25 women, out of a total of 593 pages (vii-xvi).

Women as Scholars of the Avant-Garde

Many women have been written back into the histories of the avant-garde, and this is, no doubt, due to women becoming scholars of the avant-garde as well. One of the most prominent and prolific of these is Mary Ann Caws, who has edited and translated dozens of books by and about avant-garde writers, has edited or contributed to more than a dozen books specifically about women in and around the avant-garde, including the 1991 critical edition of Surrealism and Women. In addition to Caws, there are a number of other women scholars of the avant-garde, including Whitney Chadwick, who has written about Frida Kahlo and other women of the avant-garde, or scholar Patricia Allmer, who is almost as prolific a writer on the avant-garde as Caws is. As more women not only enter the academy, but show an interest in the avant-garde, we learn more about women of the avant-garde. Thus, it is important to know the names of the scholars who are unearthing women buried under the mounds of male artists that have obscured their own contributions. After all, if, as Comte L’autremont is endlessly quoted in Surrealist book after Surrealist book, “poetry must be made by all,” then that must include women, as part of that “all.”

Echoing Cixous’ comments about how women have “no fatherland” and no stable place from which to write, Jacquline Jones Royster and Gesa Kirsch argue in Feminist Rhetorical Practices that women “need to claim a space for research at the edges (rather than the center) of the field, to claim an interdisciplinary space in the field” (6). Thus, it seems that to be female is to be inherently avant-garde, whether you are an artist or a scholar. What we are doing is inherently revolutionary and liberatory.

In addition to publishing the anthology Surrealist Women in 1998, Penelope Rosemont, a member of the Chicago Surrealists, has brought women like Toyen to light in her own memoirs and manifestos, as well as casually mentioning other women, as if to say that their participation in Surrealism should not be seen as shocking or separate, but to simply be recognized as being in the room. Of course, another way that women make themselves known, both in and outside of avant-garde movements is to write their own memoirs. Penelope Rosemont has written several autobiographical books, including Dreams and Everyday Life and Surrealist Experiences: 1001 Dawns, 221 Midnights and a co-authored a book entitled The Forecast is Hot! Tracts and Other Declarations of the Surrealist Movement in the United States, all of which talk about Rosemont’s own experiences with the Surrealists in Paris in the late 1960s and beyond. Yet Rosemont’s own participation in Surrealism has been questioned in the behind-the-scene discussions of her Wikipedia page, in which one person kept taking down references to her having met Andre Breton and having Breton's blessing for a Surrealist Group in Chicago, claiming there is no evidence that she and her husband Franklin had ever met Breton. I, personally, have never heard of someone’s memoirs being questioned in such a manner, unless it is proven that the memoir is false. This incident is emblematic of the struggles that women face to be included in the canon of the avant-garde. There is no such discussion on Franklin Rosemont’s page.

Scholarship of Women in the Avant-Garde: Who “Counts”

Even now, in 2017, when I went to the Documenting Dada Exhibit at the University of Iowa, there were two pages from the Dadaist journal 391 that had artwork done by women. It was mentioned in the program, but the women’s names were omitted. This despite the fact they were clearly visible on the pages and that someone could have investigated further and written about them. (The names were not as visible/legible through the class that contained the pages.) Were they anomalies in the Dada movement, only published or participating once or for a very short period of time? Or were they actively involved? As of 2017, apparently we do not know the answers to that question.

Rosemont contends that “until very recently most of the literature on women surrealists was written by other surrealists, male and female.” She goes on to note that “if these women remain little known to the larger reading public it is because critics and scholars have been shirking their responsibilities” (xxx). In fact, canon development is and remains a significant issue for women writers of all kinds, as has been documented by feminist scholars for approximately 50 years. Who is left in the canon are usually the “founders” of movements and the most visible, through the writing of their memoirs. Those are often men, as well. That said, even Andre Breton’s 1966 volume Surrealism and Painting has 52 discrete chapters on painters, of which 5 are about women (Breton, np). In a book entitled Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism by leading Surrealist Philip Souppault, translated from the French and published in the US in 2016, there is not a single chapter on any woman. Despite that, it was hailed by many, including Paul Auster, Pierre Joris, and Andrei Codrescu who has taken up the modern cause of Surrealism and published the literary journal called Exquisite Corpse. It would seem, then, that omission is not just errors on the part of critics. The men of Surrealism have failed to mention the women who worked beside them. It is up to female scholars to look back for their heroes and bring them into the light of day.


As more women enter academia, more women get showcased and added to various canons of writing. There is no “one canon,” but rather many. There is an avant-garde canon, and because that canon is so new, it is also easily expanded to include women. However, we cannot count on men, as seemingly sympathetic as they may be, to include women—their writings, their biographies, their existence. Even recent history shows us that despite improvements over the past century, there are still blind spots that will be largely corrected by women scholars in the foreseeable future, unearthing these women.

Post-Script: Note on Method

I have chosen to use my own memories and knowledge in places and often to use that to compare what other women’s experience of the avant-garde might have been or might be. There are several places where I talk about my memories of conversations I have had with scholars, with people through Facebook, etc., as back up information, as another way of talking about what I have experienced or have talked about or have known about the avant-garde over the years.

I have also conflated Dada and Surrealism. I could add to this Italian Futurism and Russian Formalism, but I am not as familiar with the latter two movements. Dada led directly into Surrealism and a number of Surrealists, including Breton and Dali, among many many others, started off in Dada. If the transition was not seamless, it was relatively smooth and in many ways, the goals of the two movements were similar. These two movements are also considered among the first avant-gardes, from which later avant-garde and experimental literary movements would take inspiration.

Finally, I used Wikipedia here to show attitudes towards the people and subjects that I am talking about. There is a time and a place for traditional scholarship, and there is also a time and a place to talk about what is commonly known or understood in the popular imagination. I can think of no better place to trace the history of those attitudes combined with scholarship than Wikipedia.

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce, and Charles Bernstein. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Poetics of the New. Carbondale Ill.: Southern Illinois University P, 1984.
Bohn, Willard. The Dada Market: An Anthology of Poetry. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University P, 1993.
Breton, Andre. Surrealism and Painting. Simon Watson Taylor, trans. New York, NY: Icon Editions, Harper & Row P, 1966.
Caws, Mary Ann, et al, editors. Surrealism and Women. MIT P, 1991.
Cixous, Helene. Coming to Writing and Other Essays. Translated by Deborah Jensen. Harvard UP, 1991.
Dworkin, Craig and Goldsmith, Kenneth. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2011.
Facebook. “Member List,” Surrealism and Esotericism.
Facebook. “Member List,” La Revolution Surrealiste.
Rosemont, Penelope. Dreams and Everyday Life: Andre Breton, Surrealism, Rebel Worker, SDS, and the Seven Cities of Cibala, a Sixties Journal. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr. 2008.
---. Surrealist Experiences: 1001 Dawns, 221 Midnights. Surrealist Editions, Black Swan P, 2000.
---. Surrealist Women. Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1998.
Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesha E. Kirsch. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literary Studies. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University P, 2012.
Sawselson-Gorse, Naomi, editor. Women in Dada. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1998.
Shipe, Timothy. Documenting Dada//Disseminating Dada. Exhibition Guide. Iowa City: University of Iowa Libraries, 2017.
Souppault, Phillipe. Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. Alan Bernheimer, trans. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2016.
Wikipedia. Penelope Rosemont, Talk Tab.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dentists I Have Known (and maybe inspired?)

I love my dentist. My mother was terrified of dentists and she usually had to be dragged to the dentist in pain and be knocked out in order to survive the trip. I love all dentists because, for the most part, a dentist can't kill you accidentally. They have to try. As far as doctors go, I tell people four words: Andy Warhol. Routine appendectomy.

My current dentist reminds me of George Takei, for his sense of humor as well as his looks. George Takei's witty posts on Facebook are now legendary and my dentist keeps me laughing as well. Even when I am sitting in the chair with him working on my teeth.

I recently gave him and his assistant a bunch of my postcards with my artwork, photography, and my poetry on them. While I was waiting for the novocaine to kick in, he started looking at my Surrealistic drawings trying to find recognizable shapes and faces in them, and reading my poetry, Then he started "riffing" himself, coming up with dental-inspired lines I could use in my poetry. This is exactly what Helena Lewis describes in the book Dada Turns Red, which I often reference, and what I am trying to do with my poetry every single day of my life.

The Surrealists, she writes, held the "belief that talent is irrelevant and that everyone has creative potential in their unconscious" (173). I don't want anyone to see that writing is something mysterious that only some people have a talent for. I think that my dentist is very creative, whether he has been encouraged to express that or not.

I have also regaled him with stories of previous dentists, including a discount dentist that I went to in the Quad Cities about 25 years ago. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and sang very loudly to his muzak. "I just called/to say/I love YOOOUUU." When he came at me to pull my back tooth with a giant pair of what looked to be pliers, I remember thinking, "Is that axle grease on those pliers?" He also -- and as Dave Barry would say, we are not making this up -- he put his foot on the chair for leverage to yank out my tooth. Later, the chair became my face as I told the story. That part I made up.

Needless to say, it was a while before I ever went back to the dentist. But that could also be because you almost never used to get dental insurance unless you had a pretty good job, which I rarely did. At least not the kind of job that provided me with ANY kind of insurance at all.

I still think insurance is a poor reason to work a job that you don't really want to work. I will carry that to my grave with me, bad teeth and all.

I had another dentist, which I haven't talked about with my current dentist (let's call him Dr. Sulu, after George Takei's character on Star Trek), but whom I think about every time I sit in THE CHAIR (again, with props to my mom). This dentist was chosen because his office was not even a block from my apartment in Minneapolis. He was 70 if he was a day. And although it might be perfectly innocent dentist banter, he would often talk about my tongue. "You have a good strong tongue there," and "tongue wants to see what is going on." It was creepy. And frankly, none of my other dentists have ever talked that way.

After that, I would just go to the free clinic to get my teeth pulled. (Until the dreaded Obamacare, which fascistically provided me with both medical and dental insurance. How dare he!)

I had another dentist in Minneapolis who was really nice to me, didn't rag me about the condition of my teeth, and fixed them up before I left town, although there are visible seems where the fillings are. Dr. Sulu will need to repair those, hopefully.

Dr. Sulu has been quite interested in what I do, the readings that I go to in Chicago, the open mic that I hold at the laundromat, about my thesis topic, etc. I hope that in some small way I have inspired him, made him smile, with both my stories/tales and with my poetry and art work, just as he has contributed to my life by giving me back my smile.

(Come on, you saw that ending coming, didn't you!?)

Democracy, anti-intellectualism, and "proletariat" art

I am watching the Surrealist documentary Europe After the Rain. They are talking about Breton’s argument with the Soviet Union about whether or not Surrealism could be a good representation of the proletariat, being bourgeois art and all. Breton says that to the extent that culture is proletariat, it is not yet culture and to the extent that art is bourgeois it cannot be proletariat.

Now, nearly 100 years later, the irony is that there are entire generations, starting with the Beat generation and those who returned from the war under the GI Bill that allowed them to get college educations, of “proletarian” artists, of artists who have been influenced by Dada and Surrealism, who founded Fluxus and Conceptualism and all manners of avant-garde movements. This is Republicans’ worst nightmare and the reason that they are working so hard to defund education, to stop the teaching of critical thinking, to provide only STEM, not STEAM, to education, so that they can grow generations of educated drones who will do the technical work of society without trying to transform it. What once drove this country was not technical proficiency, but the imagination required to innovate. But that imagination comes at a cost.

Free-thinking people who can imagine other possibilities, will not accept attempts to control them. That’s why intellectuals must be attacked as elitists and made into the “enemies of the people,” much like what was done in the former Soviet Union to the dissidents: artistic, scientific, and political. We now have a “proletarian” art, even if we don’t have much of a proletariat, or working class, left in the United States. All people need to see artists, avant-garde or not, as being on their side, not being “elitists” opposed to their goals, but as allies, working side by side with them to achieve their goals.

The physicist Andrei Sakharov said, "Everyone wants to have a job, be married, have children, be happy, but dissidents must be prepared to see their lives destroyed and those dear to them hurt. When I look at my situation and my family's situation and that of my country, I realize that things are getting steadily worse."

We denounce any attempt to divide and conquer those of us who are not part of the ruling elite. We must stand together against the real enemy, not allow ourselves to be pitted against one another. The “first wave” of this coming together is art, is the avant-garde, those who will prepare the way of imagination so that we can return to creating, innovating, and evolving.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

New Dada-inspired poetry

Here are some new poems I have been working on recently.

Glossolalic Angel Dada won the Midwest Writing Center's Iron Poem contest.

These poems are all saved as graphics due to their enjambment. I didn't want them to lose their spacing.

Hope you like them. Leave me a message and tell me what you think.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Axes of Evil (A Gothic Political Fable)

I entered this into the Quad Cities' Iron Pen Contest, sponsored by the Midwest Writing Center.

Axes of (Good and) Evil
A gothic political fable

Carrie sped through the tv channels trying desperately to find something to watch without having to witness the nightly parade of horrors that now greeted her with evening news. Satellite TV wasn’t much better. Kardashians. Cartoons. CNN. CNN Global. CNN Entertainment – more Kardashians. CNN Sports with Caitlyn Jenner. Then there was the biggest horror of them all, the actual CNN, which featured a menacing orange guy every night talking about how he was going to fire everyone in the country and send them all to Mexico. The media. The comedians. The cabinet. This was ridiculous. Someone had to do something about this. Congress or John Gotti or the Virgen of Guadalupe. Or the media before they all became fearful for their very lives, the way dissidents in Soviet Union lived. Or live. She had lost track of Soviet politics, er, Russian politics, but she was pretty sure it was just as bad under Putin as it had been in the Soviet Seventies.

Carrie went to her closet and pulled out something heavy. She put it in a golf club bag and drove off. She drove for miles and miles and then she drove some more. Until she found herself half a continent away, pulling up alongside the house where the people stood night and day holding signs and chanting, some angrily, some hopeful, some with beads in their hands and others with clenched fists. She went some blocks away to park her trendy but old Nissan and struggled to take the bag out of the trunk. She went and joined a tour of the house that inspired so much protest. Naturally, she wouldn’t be able to get to the orange faced menace in chief, but if she could . . . “I’ll teach him some new golf swings,” she muttered under her breath.

She very quickly broke away from the tour, just like they did on television shows. She didn’t think it would be so easy. But since he had dispatched every possible available police and army-related personnel to make sure that Canadians were not climbing the wall from Mexico or wherever, and since they didn’t really care about someone so . . . . so . . . orange, the Secret Service were nowhere to be found. She crept around, looking over her shoulder, and peeked inside rooms of the large white mansion. Eventually she stumbled into what looked like the control room of a tv show. There were monitors everywhere. The orange person was looking at himself in a full-length mirror saying things like “Mr. Lincoln, you’re fired.” Suddenly, he spun around and saw Carrie at the door. He was about to demand to know what she was doing there when she reached into the golf bag and took out an axe.

The faithful civil servant that he was, the orange menace ran from the room. Surprised by her own strength, as well as the continuing lack of Secret Service, or anyone, for that matter, she swung the axe as she went down the hallway. Chopping at every door like Jack Nicholson meets Carrie Bradshaw, yelling “Where’s Donnie?” and checking herself in the glass. She chopped and chopped down all of the doors of the mansion that had seemed so large from the outside but now was growing ever smaller. She felt like Alice in Wonderland at some points, having eaten the mushroom or whatever it was and growing larger. But it truth, she was much more like her namesake, Carrie Nation, taking an axe to anything and everything that represented a threat to her freedom. Anything that made men drunk and a threat to her and her “fellow” women, whether it was Jack Daniels or their own sense of power and entitlement. She chopped and she swung and then she came to the Lincoln Bedroom.

There was a white-haired man with a square face standing at the edge of the bed, where Donnie the Menace lay, stabbed through the heart, panting out his last words and pointing at the square-faced man. “Lock . . him . . . up.” Meanwhile, she couldn’t be sure, but Carrie thought she saw the square faced man making mental notes, measuring for drapes and carpet, a gray-haired transgendered Jacquelyn Kennedy.

Then the square man spotted Carrie carrying the axe and a twinkle appeared in his eye. He lunged at Carrie, but she had already anticipated his move. They struggled for the axe. “Come on,” he screamed. “You know you wanted it.” As he reached down to try to grab her, saying “Donnie says you bitches like this” she reached for a can of mace and yelling at the nameless white-haired man she screamed “No means no!” With one quick movement, the axe fell on his neck. Repeatedly. The man’s square head kept talking for a few moments, calling her every vulgar name in the book, including the worst epithet he could think of. “FEMINIST!”

Carrie felt briefly like panicking. It seemed the thing to do in this situation. But Carrie had watched a lot of SNAPPED in her day, and she wasn’t about to make any rookie mistakes that would cause her to get caught. She quickly hatched a plan to dismember both bodies and dispose of them in a way that would not be traced back to her. It wasn’t like anyone was really going to look that hard for her. It could have been any one of 62,523,126 or more people. She stopped briefly to imagine the huge parade that might be thrown for her. Maybe there would even be a worker’s holiday in her honor. Carrie SNAPPED! out of her daydream and methodically went back to work. When she was done, she took the golf bag with her (no time to be sloppy now) and slipped into the tour again, this time joining a different group of tourists. She smiled slyly when thought she saw one of them wriggle out of the tour group.

When Carrie awoke, she heard the sound of workers with chain saws taking down old trees that had been blown down from last night’s windstorm. What a cliché. It was all a dream. Or maybe a tornado, like in the Wizard of Oz. And you were there, Ivanka. And you were there, Mike Pence. She grimaced. How stupid she had been. She looked under the bed and found her axe next to a bag of golf clubs that had been put there for some reason. Suddenly, she saw a large orange hairball drift across the room like a tumbleweed.

She turned on the television and gasped.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017


So I am looking at some of my older poetry that I didn't really think was very good. And now I just don't know what to think one way or another.

Tell me what you think of this one.


I fall in love with every poet I meet.
I don't know how to say no
when your words know me that way.
I am set in motion
by the strong legs your verses give me,
on the feet of your iambs and trochees,
like a music box ballerina wound up,
moving with no intent of my own.

I do not know how to speak to you
in your own language. I am
a novice--I still pronounce all my syllables.
But I listen, as if I could absorb
each beat, each word
--shed this body of matter and
become a note, a timbre in your voice,
enter into your song --
as if knowing the made me someone other
than who I was born as if
through your words
we could become one new
person in our two separate bodies.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Three Women Full Video

Here is a video I did with two other artists at Patrick's Cabaret in Minneapolis in 2013.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Ecriture Feminine and the Petit Mort of Writing

Where one of my classmates was talking about dying little deaths, small deaths along the way of writing, this made me think of the petit mort, which is French for orgasm. And as I read Cixous and think about her ecstasy in writing, talking about the flesh at work in a labor of love, I think more and more about the petit mort as a form of women's writing . This is all over Cixous. Her writing is full of ecstatic phrases about what it is to write. She does not fear the death of the author, either actual or metaphorical. Nor does writing, for Cixous, promise immortality. It is an in the moment activity. In “The Author in Truth,” Cixous writes about “striking out for the unknown, to make our way in the dark. To see the world with the fingers: isn't this the act of writing par excellence? ” In her manifesto “Coming to Writing,” there are extended passages that are about losing yourself in mad love (amour fou, as Andre Breton wrote of), to writing, to a feminine writing. This is not a nihilistic death, as might be seen in Foucault or Barthes, but a joyous celebration of what it is to write. “The text, already the lover who savors the wait and the promise,” she explains in “The Author in Truth .”

“Text: not a detour, but the flesh at work in a labor of love” . As if she were taking the death of the author literally, then, she says “in the beginning, there can be only dying, the abyss, the first laugh. ” In Cixous' definition of the text, I do not feel the need to repudiate stupid Derrida. I can accept that there is nothing outside of this text, this ecriture feminine in which all things live as long as they live. It is not a hedge against death . . . . . . . . . . . . . . nor
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . a headlong dive into death.
. . . . . . . . . .It is not about immortality and “what survives.”
. . . . . . . . Writing is its own joy, . . . . . . . its own reward . . . . .its own pleasure.
. . . . . . . It is a petit mort that is meant to be shared.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . It is a revolution in language that is meant to liberate.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . It is a private moment, expressivist and confessional.
. . . . . . . It . . . . . . . . . is . . . . . . . . everything.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Death of the Author: God and Mother, A Parable

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the text, the word, is sacred. We cannot seem to get out of the tradition. For all of their post-modernism and the agnosticism that frequently comes with that, Barthes (and Derrida) also come out of a French tradition which was very very Catholic. Thus, I am going to make the story of the death of the author, male and female, into a comparative parable.

In Christianity, Jesus (the author) must die and be resurrected so that believers (readers) can have safe passage to heaven (the text). This is the male-centered conception of the author as the all-knowing keeper of the text and of meaning. And in fact, Barthes speaks of “the ‘message’ of the Author-God” and says that “to refuse to fix its meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law."

Women, however, have historically had a different relationship to birth and death, with many medieval women dying in childbirth. In this model, the woman (author) dies so that her child (the reader) may be born, but that child will be orphaned, with no one to guide her through life (the text). There is a “death/not death,” a voluntary withdrawal that happens here that can be seen as Cixous’ metaphor for the author. Cixous also talks about the (female) author as continuing “to have what she has eternally, to not lose having, to be pregnant with having is . . . the text, already in the child, in the woman . . . ” The woman is birthing the text, bringing it into being, and like giving birth, some of herself with leave her along with the text. But that text will not necessitate a death for the author. If the reader is a co-creator in meaning, as with Barthes, the author-mother will do so in conjunction with, not opposed to, the reader and the text.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

1984: Liberal Politics in a Post-Human World

Many professionals in other fields feel that literature has much to teach us about ourselves and about the society we live in. In Black Sun, Lacanian psychotherapist and linguist Julia Kristeva utilizes literature by Gerard de Nerval, Dostoyevky, and Marguerite Duras, among others, to talk about female melancholia. Political writer and literary critic Irving Howe writes about Solzhenitsyn, Andre Malraux, and George Orwell to talk about politics and the novel. Philosopher Richard Rorty also discusses the writings of Orwell in addition to Proust and Nabokov as well as a number of literary theoreticians such as Derrida and Nietzsche. By looking at a writer like George Orwell through the eyes of Richard Rorty and Irving Howe, we can see just how necessary literature is in its ability to show us aspects of where our society and government may go if we are not careful. Orwell's 1984 is a cautionary tale about what it means to lose our humanity and how stripping away our language contributes to that loss of humanity.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, books like Pamela by Samuel Richardson or Julie by Jean-Jacques Rousseau were said to strengthen our ability for truly inclusive democracy by teaching us to empathize with people different from us, in these cases, men empathizing with women. Literature has changed, however, in the 20th and 21st centuries. With mechanized warfare and now with technology that could not have even been imagined in earlier centuries, novels have changed to reflect a very different social reality. The early 20th century saw the perversion of the revolutions in Russia followed by what we now commonly refer to as the “horrors of World War II” and many writers in the post-war era were rightfully disheartened and cynical. Theodor Adorno asked if it was even possible, ethically, to write poetry after Auschwitz, saying ultimately that it was, indeed, barbaric that poetry was still necessary. Adorno says that suffering, “demands the continued existence of art while it prohibits it; it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it” (8). In the midst of all of these discussions about what had happened and what might happen, came George Orwell's most famous novels, Animal Farm and
1984, a fable and a cautionary tale, both focused on democracy betrayed.

One of the major aspects of democracy is the concept of the self. Literary and political critic Irving Howe wrote that ”the idea of a personal self, which for us has become an indispensable assumption of existence . . . [is] a cultural idea” (178). Growing as it did out of the liberal era, “it is susceptible to historical growth and decline and may also be susceptible to historical destruction” (178). Arthur Mizener describes

Orwell himself as a result of the cultural/liberal idea(1) of the human, saying that Orwell represents

“the great liberal tradition of western civilization at its best, the informed, sceptical [sic], compassionate mind, able to use the insights of any doctrine without fanaticism, completely unaffected by the lure of submission to cheap creeds . . .” (687)

At least one strain of literature was emerging, that of science fiction and dystopian fiction, focusing not on the positive, on empathy for other humans as an important part of the democratic mindset. In dystopian novels the focus was on cautionary tales of ways that we might end up losing our selves and our humanity. Rorty further echoes this when he says that while Orwell “was not the first to suggest that small groups of criminals might get control of modern states and thanks to modern technology, stay in control forever” that he was the first to ask how intellectuals would deal with a situation where “it had become clear that liberal ideals had no relation to a possible human future”(171). Howe takes it a step further, saying that “Orwell is trying to present the kind of world in which individuality has become obsolete and personality a crime [emphasis mine]” (189). “The whole idea of the self as something precious and inviolable is a cultural idea and as we understand it, a product of the liberal era,” which presumably, in the world of 1984, is now over.

Richard Rorty talks about Orwell as being “of his time” and in fact quotes Howe as well, saying that “Orwell is one of those writers 'who live most significantly for their own age'” (169). But ask anyone who has read 1984 for the first time, and they will tell you it is as true now as it was in 1948. 1984 was one of those novels on the cutting edge of what we now call “dystopian” literature, which abounds plentifully in science fiction. There are a number of novels that are not read much anymore except for their historical significance, but I think it is wrong to place 1984 among those just yet. And in fact, Rorty himself is quick to say that “his description of our political situation remains as useful as any we possess” (170). Rorty talks about Orwell's “earlier warnings against the greedy and stupid conservatives together with his warnings against the communist oligarchs” (170), but what makes 1984 such an enduring model is the stranglehold that both technology and language hold over our society now more than ever. We are closer to the Orwell's world with our 24/7 news media, with media outlets that cannot be trusted, and with advertising language that tells us what is hot is cold, what is up is down, ignorance is strength, war is peace, freedom is slavery.

Orwell's “Politics and the English Language” is frequently seen as the essay in which Orwell was working on a theory of language that would influence, if not become, Newspeak in 1984 . Philip Rahv says that “Newspeak is nothing less than a plot against human consciousness . . . to reduce the range of thought through the destruction of words” (182). In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell talks about the way the language becomes dull and flat and in doing so, makes us not only duller and flatter ourselves, but makes us indifference to the actual perversion of language. This is a form of contracting the language, as in Newspeak, and limiting our own range of language and therefore thought. He writes, for example, about dead metaphors that cease to have any meaning, pretentious diction, abstract words, which he calls meaningless words, like democracy, patriotic, realistic, justice. These are words that have no objective referent (146). Orwell is against what he calls “ready-made phrases” (147) suggesting instead that an ethical writer will ask himself “is this image fresh enough to have an effect” (148). If it can't have an effect, it can't produce thought in either the writer or the reader. Orwell then uses these examples to talk specifically about political speech, saying, for example, that “a comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism cannot say outright ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results in doing so.’” He must instead say:

While freely conceding that the soviet regime exhibits certain features with the humanitarian may be inclined to deport, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavaoidable concomitant of transnational periods and . . . “

By inuring ourselves to ugly language that says nothing, we will be that much desensitized to ugly convoluted language that actually says horrible things, justifies cruelty. Collateral damage and acceptable losses come to mind.

George Kateb describes the way in which all of this can be rationalized in the name of group identity (8), which in 1984 must be preserved at all costs. “The group is a we [emphasis his]” Kateb says, “an incorporated self that is oneself enlarged to include everyone else or that is oneself and everyone else diminished” (8). We can think, here, of the “two-minute hate” that occurs everyday in Oceania against one of the other two countries in the world of 1984. It doesn't matter which country they are currently fighting against and thus currently hating. What is important is to maintain the group identity by having an enemy to hate. Kateb talks about “the preservation of group identity through group pride and xenophobia” (8). Kateb is concerned with morality and the world of 1984 is decidedly immoral. Rahv reminds us that “‘Doublethink’ is drilled into the Party members, which consists of the willingness to assert that black is white when the Party demands it and een to believe that black is white, while at the same time knowing very well that nothing of the sort can be true” (182). Few of the workers in 1984 have the conscience or consciousness, let alone the language, to express any kind of disagreement with the official policies that they live under. Kateb tells us that “aesthetic motives help to animate the pursuit of ideals . . . that are loved more than morality of are so loved that the moral const does not break into consciousness with any force” (11). The “two minutes hate” is an aesthetic practice that leads to group identity, much like cheerleading to urge on your team. To challenge the “two minutes hate” would not only damage moral, but would also constitute a thoughtcrime. As Rahv says, the goal of restricting language is make “thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it” (qtd in Rahv, 182). It is literally unthinkable.

Rorty further echoes this when he says that while Orwell “was not the first to suggest that small groups of criminals might get control of modern states and thanks to modern technology, stay in control forever” that he was the first to ask how intellectuals would deal with a situation where “it had become clear that liberal ideals had no relation to a possible human future”(171). Howe takes it a step further, saying that “ Orwell is trying to present the kind of world in which individuality has become obsolete and personality a crime [emphasis mine]” (189). “The whole idea of the self as something precious and inviolable is a cultural idea and as we understand it, a product of the liberal era,” which presumably, in the world of 1984, is now over.

So what role does the novel have to play if we are indeed at the end of a liberal era where we are not talking about the individual self anymore, but instead are talking about being “post-human?” Does being post-human mean that we have lost empathy, lost our humanity? In “History as Nightmare,” Irving Howe talks about the way that “Orwell has imagined a world in which the self . . . is no longer a significant value, not even a value to be violated.” Like 18th century novels, Rorty contends that Orwell, among other things, means to create or at least remind us of, our humanity, of our ability to empathize with others.

Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor. “On Commitment.” Trans. Francis McDonagh. Acessed April 10, 2009.
Howe, Irving. “The Fiction of Anti-Utopia,” The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Howe, Irving. “Orwell: History as Nightmare.” The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Kateb, George. “Aestheticism and Morality: Their Cooperation and Hostility,” Political Theory, vol 28, no 1, Feb. 2000, pp. 5-37.
Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press,1989.
Mizener, Arthur. “Truth Maybe, Not Fiction.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 11, no. 4, 1949, pp. 685–688.
Orwell, George. 1984. The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language,” The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Rahv, Philip. “The Un-future of Utopia,” The Orwell Reader: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1963.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, Solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.