How different are the times now for women writers, you ask. Woman anything. Woman scientists! Woman Buddhists! My mother suffered her creativity a scant generation ahead of me. She didn’t have a “room of her own.” Her children were her work. Only in her sixties did she have the confidence—with the support of a daughter & other women & poet-publisher Leandro Katz, to publish her translations from the French of Cesar Moro and Greek of Angelos Sikelianos. She died a decade later playing the “spirit of heroin” in an off-Broadway production of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. By then she was an embodiment for me of the “hag” who had thrown off shackles of mean expectation, could finally manifest beyond “girl,” “wife,” “mother.” To some extent she’d stopped measuring herself against a heterosexist world. She would say to me, young, don’t let men touch you until you “prove yourself.” What did that mean? Prove something to her? To “them”? An onus I still carry. That a woman’s sexuality and her work were diametrically at odds? That you couldn’t be “easy” & be respected for anything else you might do? That the work was hieractic, untouchable in some sense, but they, poor men, were confused and couldn’t abide a thinking woman. Or that I might be sidetracked, and have my true passions of writing & “religious” study sidelined? That love would be my downfall rather than Muse? And I wanted even then, young, to live the fantasy of scholar-nun in comfortable albeit modest ivory tower, away from secular and sexual temptations. The grinding care of husband (“the quickest way to his heart is through his stomach”) and children. She said when I first married “I swear if I see you pushing a baby carriage a few months from now, I swear I’ll come and shoot you.” She had a tall ambition for me and she was right to worry. For I was and still am, as they say—an incurable romantic. But little of that has to do with having a family. “A man needs a maid”? I never promised domestic bliss.
And yet my father was a kind of heroic figure, survived the war, returned home from Germany sobered by his experience bringing spoils—Nazi bayonets, medals, haunting images. He was sensitive, literate, former bohemian “piano player,” a frustrated novelist. As couple both had been married previously and my mother with one son—they were optimistic about building on some kind of ashes, shards of war, Depression, Prohibition. Things must have looked brighter. And he went to school on the G.I. Bill—all the way through a doctorate at Columbia University. My mother had been a college freshman year dropout wanting to study painting, went to Provincetown, a distinctly alternative artistic community, then married age 19 the son of the famous Greek poet Sikelianos and sailed off to Greece the next day for a decade. She was close to her mother-in-law, Eva Palmer, Maine stock, libertarian, who donned the garments she herself wove in classical Greek style and kept her red hair long. She had been close to Nathalie Barney in Paris and was part of that exotic cluster of lesbian and bisexual artists and poets who were dissatisfied with expectations back home and lived in a self-imposed ritualized exile. Gertrude Stein was another. My mother met Isadora Duncan in Greece. After a little more than a decade that chapter of her life was “closed.” Divorce, the war, back to Provincetown, matured, met my father at an Isamu Noguchi party. He was living next door to John Dos Passos. They fell in love. A second marriage. Not that he held her back exactly. It was a condition to be in of the times. And you merge with the man in an imitation of enlightenment. Joining the “other,” joining the “light.” How close can you get?
All my teachers in the formative years were male. I especially remember Mr. Grief at PS 8, our poetry teacher, who would hold female students by the scruff of their necks and bend them out the window. “Mr. Grief brings us Grief” was the common chant like “Rose is a rose is a rose.” He was clearly disdainful of the “girls”; they were lesser beings. High school teacher Jon Beck Shank was gay, a blessing, whose recitations of classic and modern poetry I will never forget, nor his sympathy with quote “the girls.” Because we were soft on poetry too? My male teachers in college thought us dilettantes. Always that persistent need to prove oneself. Get serious. Cut class. Write a poem. One of my mentors Howard Nemerov said to me “You are both a peasant and a queen.”
What did that mean? More categories of definition in a heterosexist world. And when I went to meet my first Buddhist teacher, Mongolian lama Geshe Wangyal, age 18, my boyfriend pleaded take off your lipstick please it’s disrespectful! And a husband could say with accusation You are just like all the male poets. Just like Robert Creeley! Traveling the globe leaving hearth & home, abandoning child, jawing with other poets til the wee hours, god knows, how can trust you? And how could he? For I wanted this other path, desperately. Poet, outrider, free woman. I could hold my own with he boys, I could “drink like a man”! I could “talk like a man”! Of course I’d always identified with the male protagonists in the novels I voraciously read as a kid. I was the constant reader. And was hungry for their adventure. I wanted to be right inside alzac’s monde, hang out with actresses & dandies, twist in fatal olitical & love intrigues. I would follow, I would “live” Siddhartha’s journey through the words of Herman Hesse. I had box of exotic costumes. Favored disguise: Robin Hood, Prince harming, Annie Oakley, priest. I played a character called Tommy Joe, and Shakespeare’s “merry wanderer of the night” Puck in ade school before I grew tender breasts. At a later age I would yearn to play first Hamlet, then King Lear. And I saw myself as Puer, picaresque adventurer, traveler in boy garb, entering the Hindu temple in Puri strictly forbidden to women, or making the long Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Do you have to be circumscribed? Do you really have to be circumcised? Women are considered “sebel,” unclean, in Bali. You are forbidden to enter temples if you are menstruating. You wear the chador which covers all but the eyes but even those must be lowered, averted in narrow Arab streets. Your power, your nakedness would cause men to go mad, commit terrible, unspeakable deeds. Would change the world! Would paint it scarlet. Would seize & restore the night, an old control. Check out the Levite laws in the Bible, the destruction of the Astoreth goddess temples. Your passion would run amok, make riot. Your multiple orgasms, your oceans of bliss, your “cum” would flood the world!
When I came into power as a writer— and I think also this had to do with becoming a mother as well—I could say outrageous things, could proclaim my “endometrium shedding.” Could manifest the “crack in the world.” I shouted “You men who came out of my belly, out of my world, BACK OFF!” I could literally stomp and “walk on the periphery of the world.” I could—as Sumerian Inanna did—get the male poets (my fathers) intoxicated on alcohol, methedrine, Ecstasy, charm them with my wit, my piety, then steal their secrets. I could name all the various women who have been, to be. Cast a discerning eye at the progressive anthologies of poetry. Are we still having to count the men versus women, and the canon is a lost cause or perhaps it is the battleground? Look at the scarcity of women in any institution, sacred or secular. Keep counting. How many pinks to so many blues? Is language phallogocentric? Is writing a political act? Do you women writers I’m speaking to feel marginalized? Do you agree, you’d almost have to, dear scholarly sisters, that the experiences of women in and with literature are different from those of men? Much feminist criticism has centered on the misogyny of literary practice—omen as angels or monsters, mothers or nuns, daughters or whores—harassment of women in classic and popular male literature and text. You know it: Kerouac, Mailer, Henry Miller, Homer, the Bible, the Koran, the Vinaya etcetera. But I’d like here to declare an enlightened poetics, an androgynous poetics, a poetics defined by your primal energy not by a heterosexist world that must measure every word, act against itself. Not by a norm that assumes a dominant note subordinating, mistreating, excluding any other possibility. In fact you could be a man with a “lesbian” consciousness in you, a woman with a “gay” consciousness inside. I propose a utopian creative field where we are defined by our energy not by gender. I propose a transsexual literature, a hermaphroditic literature, a transvestite literature, and finally a poetics of transformation beyond gender. That just sings its wisdom. That the body be an extension of energy, that we are not defined by our sexual positions as men or women in bed or on the page. That the page not be empty female awaiting penetration by dark phallic inkjuice. That masculine and feminine energies be perhaps comprehended in the Buddhist sense of Prajna and Upaya, wisdom and skillful means, which exist in all sentient beings. That these energies coexist and are essential one to the other. That poetry is perceived as a kind of siddhi or magical accomplishment that understands these fundamental energies.
Perhaps women have the advantage of producing a radically disruptive and subversive kind of writing right now because they are experiencing the current imbalances and contradictions that drive them to it. They are turning to skillful means figuring how to combat assaults on their intelligence and time. She—the practitioner—wishes to explore and dance with everything in the culture which is unsung, mute, and controversial so that she may subvert the existing systems that repress and misunderstand the feminine “difference.” She’ll take on subjects of censorship and abortion and sexual harassment. She’ll challenge her fathers, her husband, male companions, spiritual teachers. Turn the language body upside- down. What does it look like?