Dear Minor Americans, below is a reply to my post about the NY School from Ange Mlinko. She and I have talked and have decided that this blog will be a joint blog -- meaning you will be hearing both from me (Magdalena Zurawski or Maggie if you are in the know) and Ange. Sorry for the week break. I was having some trouble with the blogger account. Hopefully this afternoon I'll have Ange all set-up and it will be a true joint blog! Thanks for all the viewing we've gotten.
Dear Minor Americans,
Maggie gets it right that I have a strong liver, but the part where my apartment is “so clean” is a generous token of our friendship.
Many things impress me about My Life, but the part where Hejinian describes laying down a clean towel to walk across the freshly mopped floor really impresses me, because it says here is a woman who was fastidious about her mopping in addition to having kids and writing a mountain of books. It says to me, This is an efficient lady. I have only met her once, and two things about our encounter stay with me:
1) That when I mentioned The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters, LH claimed that those sentences were inimitable, and that she should know, because she spent some time trying to imitate them without success.
2) That the rumor that Ron Silliman said (way back when) that women stopped producing good writing when they had children, is true. He said it to her. Telling me this, I think, was a way of impressing on me the underlying bond that exists between the women of that generation of writers.
I bring up Hejinian because she serves as a useful reminder that risk-taking in poetry is definitely not dependent on drunkenness, poverty, and dirty domiciles. And it doesn’t require sacrificing family life (a superstition that afflicts more men than women). And it doesn’t even require choosing between the controlled sublime of My Life and the blowsy sublime of Desires.
So when I waxed ecstatic about Bernadette and “sacrificing everything to the work,” I don’t think I meant it the way Maggie thought I meant it, though it’s possible I wasn’t clear about exactly what I meant. What I did know was this: Bernadette’s example taught us that being a poet involved making unpopular choices. It translated for me, for example, as dawdling on the question of having any other profession until the possibilities dwindled to nothing. Now it’s too late for me to get a Ph.D. or go to law school, and poetry slowly became by default all I’ve got. What led me to have faith in this poetry for its own sake? Mayer’s example had an awful lot to do with it. She gives the middle finger to the middle class, middle voice, middlebrow. There’s a big Fuck You writ large across her work. I like that. It gives one courage.
She needed it, more than any of us girls born later and luckier. First she was the Designated Female Genius in the scene, the only XX in the Padgett/Shapiro anthology of skinny long-haired XY’s. Bucking the School of Ted Berrigan’s Charisma, she assigned Barthes to her workshop students, a.ka. Charles Bernstein et al., bringing post-structuralist theory to the table when everyone else was filching from Blonde on Blonde lyrics. Later she in fact had her very own Newport Folk Festival “Judas!” moment when she ditched all that to write poems about babies and rural life, drawing aspersions from men who had trumpeted her in her hip downtown babe phase. If, by the time Maggie and I got to NY, Mayer had drunk herself into an early stroke from which she never intended to recover, did that mean we either had to embrace or reject in toto this sad wreckage of genius?
I hope not. But with all due respect to the poets who seem to be holding it together very nicely with good careers and multiple kids and clean floors (and I am closer to this model than Bernadette’s) I can’t quite bring myself to believe it’s possible to be a great poet and not be giving the finger to the world at the same time. That’s what I mean by sacrificing everything to the work. You have to be able to squander your social capital.