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Anne Waldman Changing the Frequency
During the 1993 holiday season, hundreds of children excitedly unwrapped presents containing Teen Talk Barbie and Talking Duke G.I. Joe, only to discover that the dolls in question uttered surprising sentiments. In a deep voice, Barbie growled, “Eat lead, Cobra!” and, “Vengeance is mine!” while Joe declared in a high-pitched voice, “Let’s go shopping!” and, “Will we ever have enough clothes?” It turns out that a group of East Village-based artists and activists calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization had switched the voice boxes in approximately 300 talking Barbies and G.I. Joes, causing stereotyped proclamations to issue forth from the wrong stereotyped body — and gender. Soon after, a southern California offshoot of the group performed the same delicate surgery on hundreds of dolls in the area (Dubin 1999: 33-34; Dery 1994: n.p.).
The Barbie Liberation Organization was funded by a shadowy project that has since become fairly famous as ®™ark. At ®™ark’s website, “investors” can buy “stock” in similar culture-jamming projects (http://www.rtmark.com). A cashier’s check for $10,000 given to the Barbie Liberation Organization by ®™ark investors helped the group purchase the Barbies and G.I. Joes they used to swap the voice boxes before returning the dolls to store shelves, later to be bought by unwitting customers (Frauenfelder 1997: n.p.). A copy of “official” “Home Surgery Instructions” exists on the web, and describes an 18-step procedure for making Barbie talk like Joe and Joe talk like Barbie: “To open Barbie, insert a screwdriver firmly into the joint at the base of the spine. With a quick jerk, snap the screwdriver down toward the buttocks. Pry the backplate off, working up from the waist....To open G.I. Joe, remove batteries and pop off head. Using saw, make incision across abdomen from seam to seam. Be careful not to cut wires underneath” (Barbie Liberation Organization n.d.: n.p.; emphasis in original). With these basic instructions and a few simple tools, Barbies and G.I. Joes across the United States — and in Canada, England, and France — have since been “liberated,” some of them mailed out by the East Village contingent.
After their initial shock, many children, as well as their parents, were pleased with the altered results. A kid in San Diego named Zachariah Zelin received attention from the press when he said he loved his new G.I. Joe, even though it squeaked things like: “Let’s sing with the band tonight!” His parents, who never wanted him to have a G.I. Joe in the first place (his grandparents ended up giving it to him instead), are pleased with Joe’s less militaristic rhetoric. Mattel, Inc., the company that manufactures the dolls, was slightly amused, if only because it knew it could produce many more dolls than could ever be modified (Greenberg n.d.: n.p.; Barbie Liberation Organization 2000: n.p.). And the storeowners weren’t too upset either, because almost every altered Barbie and G.I. Joe was purchased twice: first by the Barbie Liberation Organization, and then again by unsuspecting consumers. Dateline NBC even broadcast a segment on the whole affair, complete with hidden identities.
Between the Barbie Liberation Organization, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the globalization protests in Seattle, and countless other interventions, the 1990s were a very good decade for creative dissent. Excepting ACT UP in the ’80s, it was perhaps the best decade for creative dissent since the ’60s, or at least for creative dissent in its more publicized versions, because creative dissent is happening everywhere, all the time. However, unlike during the ’60s, in the ’90s, poetry had difficulty matching this level of creative dissent, though with a number of obvious — and not so obvious — exceptions. One such example is the work of Anne Waldman, whose published writings — at this point in time, at least — are fittingly bookended by the imaginative countercultural strategies of the ’60s and ’90s.
As is the case with the Barbie Liberation Organization, Waldman’s work does more than just scramble dominant ideological messages; it seeks to fundamentally change them. In this sense, it represents an approach that differs from the linguistic transparency/ opacity debate still being waged in certain circles in contemporary poetry, whereby nonreferentiality and disjunctive narrative techniques are seen as political ends in themselves. Similarly, and contrary to her own claims for the magical and even shamanic power of language, Waldman’s work as a writer, teacher, editor, translator, activist, and organizer casts doubt on the notion that language in itself, avant-garde formal methods in themselves, and discourse theory by itself are sufficient for providing the alternative ideologies and alternative institutions necessary to instigate change. Because as the Barbie Liberation Organization’s “Home Surgery Instructions” indicate, carelessness with the wiring undermines the transmission of contesting messages.
These alternative ideologies and institutions, along with the instructions and tools for producing them, constitute three inextricably connected components of Waldman’s cultural practice. For this reason, it’s difficult to separate Waldman’s poetry from her activities as a cultural worker. To say this is to partially frame a reading of Waldman’s writing within a contextual poetics that has one of its many roots in the politicized, or radical, or revolutionary, or proletarian literature of the 1930s, a literary movement that, as Robert Shulman writes, “...was regarded as the most influential movement of the decade”; although, “By 1948 the movement had been erased from the official record” (2000: 305). Within the political and literary climate of McCarthyism, ’30s radical literature was deleted from history books in the form of anthologies and literary journals, and writers such as Langston Hughes, who during the ’30s published hundreds of pages of sophisticated, fiercely political poetry inspired by leftist and communist ideals, were forced to recant their earlier work, in Hughes’ case before a Joseph McCarthy Senate subcommittee on subversive activities (Shulman 2000: 39; Rampersad and Roessel 1994: 15).
As a result of this historical negation, “a left avant-garde... has been obscured by the prestige of high modernism” (Shulman 2000: 6), an erasure that successive generations of the avant-garde and their scholarly supporters — left-leaning or not — have perpetuated, as evidenced recently in Marjorie Perloff’s study of the relationship between Modernist and postmodernist poetics, entitled 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (2002). Waldman’s connections with this frequently forgotten “left avant-garde” are as complicated as they would be for anyone writing politically informed non-mainstream poetry decades later. Nevertheless, it’s clear that while Allen Ginsberg may have been much more influenced by Blaise Cendrars than Muriel Rukeyser, or that William Burroughs may have been much more inspired by Louis-Ferdinand Céline than John Steinbeck, the most immediate political-literary genealogy for certain elements of the Beat movement is both ’30s radical literature and ’50s anti-McCarthyism.
This isn’t to argue that Waldman is a direct descendant of the Beats, any more than her current work could be considered directly descended from the New York School of poetry. Her work draws on both of these movements. It also derives from a broader democratic-populist cultural tradition, one strand of which is represented by a ’30s “left avant-garde,” as well as being located within the tradition of “high modernism,” with its trickle-down approach to politics and aesthetics. Hence, the need when reading Waldman’s work of always thinking contextually. Her epic poem Iovis, born in the wake of 20th-century Modernist epic poetry, demands this of its readers, with its wide range of references to historical, literary, and sacred texts, and the connections it makes between public spaces and private, frequently domestic, ones (1993 & 1997). But a contextualizing mode of reading is also necessary for any nuanced understanding of her more explicitly political poetry, as, for example, the series of forceful political chants that appear near the middle of Kill or Cure: “Curse,” “Insurrection,” “Abortion,” “Environmental Event,” “Paean: May I Speak Thus?” (1994: 110-119)
As Maria Damon points out in her book The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry, a contextualizing approach applies to both writers and texts. She describes it as: “[T]he need to understand individual poets and texts as nonautonomous, interdependent with and implicated in vast and specific social matrices” (1993: 29). This is obviously not a call for biographical readings of either writers or texts; in some ways, it’s the very opposite of this type of reading. Instead of biography and autobiography, which admittedly are tempting guides when reading Waldman’s work, it might be more useful to think in terms of modes of address: who speaks what to whom — literally and metaphorically. How are subjects — in the sense of both individual human beings and the subject matter of poetic texts — interpellated? This is always a political question, or at least a social and contextual one. Waldman herself specifically links it to a feminist project: “A feminist critique of language calls into question our assumptions about who is speaking? And for whom? And to what purpose?” (2001: 18) This takes on additional urgency when in a so-called democracy it turns out that not every vote actually counts.
The possibilities that reside within this gap between addresser and addressee, between subject position and subject matter, and between all of these and the “vast and specific social matrices” Damon mentions may be more rewarding to investigate than the gap between signifier and signified, and between formal devices and readers. This is one lesson an archive teaches, with its constant movement between world and text, as well as the idea that a contextual poetics relies on archival research. However, an archive is only the most literal example of context. In other words, context isn’t a one-to-one connection between referent and event, as if the cultural or political significance of a poem is exhausted once its references have been deciphered and duly annotated. Context is neither a catalog nor a list. Rather, it plays a crucial role in the struggle over the ideological capacity of signs, a struggle that fluctuates over time. This temporal dimension keeps the ideological infusion of signs from occurring in a vacuum, and helps constitute language as a system of addressing and being addressed, i.e., the content of signs is dependent upon social interactions as they change with time.
It’s easy to see why for Waldman and many other writers this is a feminist project, and why debates within feminism have an ongoing relevance for contemporary poetry. Second-wave feminism arose partially in reaction to the male-dominated structure of the New Left. Its increasing strength also coincided with the collapse of the New Left at the end of the ’60s in the face of competing political claims, especially from the women’s liberation movement and black nationalism, but also within the New Left itself, which led to the formation of groups such as the Yippies and the Weathermen. Despite this birth in diversity, feminism was soon forced to confront its own social homogeneity and exclusionary rhetoric. This was stated quite explicitly by Audre Lorde in 1979: “By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (1984: 116; emphasis in original). As Ann Brooks argues in Postfeminisms, this was feminism caught on a cusp between a Modernist discourse of equality and rights and a postmodern discourse of diversity and difference (1997: 13-14).
Waldman’s poem Fast Speaking Woman from the mid-’70s teeters on this same cusp. With its litany of subject positions, Fast Speaking Woman introduces notions of identity politics and difference, while its frequent use of non-gender-specific language and imagery destabilizes conventional ideas of gender. The very repetition of the word “woman” serves to explode essential — and universalized — senses of meaning it might have. At the same time, the poem’s single, Whitman-esque unifying voice endeavors to speak for these differences: “all the world fits in my mouth / I’m the multiple-universes woman” (1996: 34). This voice, and all the other voices it contains, contests the use of the word “woman.” What’s important to note is that this contesting occurs within a field of social utterance — a speaking woman performing identity and gender. It’s not a contesting circumscribed by textual play, nor is it reduced to the level of biography and autobiography.
The exuberant and near-utopic quality to Waldman’s use of language in Fast Speaking Woman is very much in keeping with late-’60s and early-’70s feminism’s belief in language’s ability to remake cultural and social relations (Echols 2002: 85). As the ’70s unfolded, cultural feminism transformed this impetus into: “...an antileft strain of feminism that reformulated the central task of feminism as the construction of a women’s culture where female values would be nurtured and celebrated” (Echols 2002: 242-243). This, in turn, led to the concept of universal sisterhood that Audre Lorde so strongly critiqued. As Waldman’s work has developed, it has resisted cultural feminism’s tendency to abstract difference from relations of power. This resistance appears concretely in her work as the incorporation of documentary evidence and original source materials in order to expose power relations. It takes the large scope of a poem such as Iovis to detail the complexity of these relations.
The importance of her experiences protesting outside the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Boulder, Colorado, shouldn’t be underestimated in thinking about how these documentary materials function in her work. Neither should the example of Ginsberg, who sifted through government reports and related secondary materials looking for the unguarded moments when power was exposed in both its absurdity and brutality. Also key is the role of travel in her work, particularly her trips to Southeast Asia to study Tibetan Buddhism. These influences came together in the late ’70s at Rocky Flats, and again indicate the necessity of positioning Waldman’s poetry within a wide cultural, social, and political matrix. Until a few years ago, Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant manufactured all of the plutonium triggers for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It also recycled outmoded nuclear weapons. Along with occupying a central axis of the U.S. Cold War machine, it was an environmental nightmare. In her essay “Warring God Charnel Ground (Rocky Flats Chronicles),” recently reprinted in her collection of “essays, interviews, & manifestos” entitled Vow to Poetry, Waldman describes these issues in much more detail, and also talks about her own involvement in the protests (2001c: 229-237).
The precise and strategic use of information was central to the protests and later to the court cases of those arrested. Ginsberg and Daniel Ellsberg were significant figures in this regard, the latter in particular as a defendant for some of the arrested participants. While providing court testimony under oath, Ellsberg outlined the history of the U.S. nuclear arms program, as understood by someone who — while working for the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization contracted by the U.S. government to help formulate war strategy, and then for the Secretary of Defense, and who, of course, was later instrumental in the release of the Pentagon Papers — at one point had access to materials that were classified by the U.S. government as higher than top secret (leading to the discovery, among other finds, that in 1961 the Soviet Union had all of four Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, to which Ellsberg replied: so much for the early Cold War philosophy of deterrence [Ellsberg 1979: 8-9], a response that should be kept in mind amid the current talk of “rogue states” possessing weapons of mass destruction). Ellsberg’s testimony placed within a broader historical framework the specific act of sitting on a set of railroad tracks leading into Rocky Flats in order to stop the shipment of nuclear materials, and embedded this literal act of protest in archival material.
The epic tradition in poetry has functioned as a way for writers to situate specific experiences, perceptions, and observations within a much vaster set of material conditions. Similarly, Waldman’s referential range in Iovis spans from small, shared domestic spaces (where she records her son watching basketball on TV or playing video games) to Balinese cosmology (1993: 335, 238, 154-176). It’s a movement from the domestic outward that has existed in the epic at least since Homer described the Achaean warriors caressing each other in their tents near the walls of Troy, and told of Penelope weaving her never-quite-completed tapestry back in Ithaca. What partially distinguishes Iovis, and may make it a postmodern epic, is its fluid disruption of fixed categories of knowledge, particularly those associated with gender and sexuality, such as female, mother, daughter, lover, wife, or Jove himself. It’s an approach that also informs another of her major published poetic projects written during the ’90s: Marriage: A Sentence (2000).
The resultant contradictions are embraced as an ongoing, fought-for wisdom. They are also the same contradictions the epic oftentimes seeks to banish, although unsuccessfully, as epistemological, social, and cultural categories have always been unstable in epic literature — think of Milton’s Satan. One of the distinctive features of Iovis as epic is Waldman’s rooting of the relations between female and male forces in a feminist cultural politics. As Ann Brooks writes: “[I]t is not ‘experience’ itself, but thinking from a contradictory position, that produces feminist knowledge” (1997: 19). This is echoed in Iovis’ formal structure, with its collage of various materials, the sharp turns it makes from section to section, and the way experience is always mediated through a language “owned by Jove,” as Waldman says in her introduction to the first volume (1993: 2; emphasis in original), and where in opposition to this ownership, and in upsetting rigid categories, and in living with contradictions, she declares: “All the life I want to make things happen” (1993: 2).
In an earlier version of his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” Michel Foucault defines philosophically informed critical analysis as: “...the art of not being governed or again the art of not being governed like that, or at that price” (quoted in Gordon 2000: xxxix). Waldman’s poetry in books I’ve mentioned, especially those published in the ’90s such as Iovis, Marriage: A Sentence, and Kill or Cure, is concerned with this “art of not being governed like that, or at that price.” As the current Bush/ Cheney/ Ashcroft administration attempts to unilaterally impose its global system on an inherently multilateral and unsystematic world, this “art” is needed more than ever. Waldman’s work in the ’90s in particular focuses on governmentality as it functions on both a personal and a collective level. Her recent poem “Rogue State” — with its repeated lines, “I’m in a rogue state” and, “I’m the lady of misrule” — in many ways exemplifies this approach (2003: 388). So, too, does her work’s refusal to be categorized, either formally or in terms of recent literary and cultural phenomena. Her writing readily incorporates both traditional sestinas and chance operations. It makes alliances with various avant-garde group formal methodologies, while never becoming formulaic in its adoption of any of them.
“Power relations are rooted in the whole network of the social,” Foucault reminds the reader in his essay “The Subject and Power” (2000: 345). Iovis’ subtitle All Is Full of Jove engenders Foucault’s thoughts on power at the same time that Foucault’s thoughts on power allegorize Waldman’s subtitle. Waldman describes her epic poem as a confrontation with male and patriarchal power; but ultimately, the poem is a depiction of the direct results of power on the subject in general, though represented by the subject of the poem in specific. One form this relationship takes is between citizens and government, which is why Iovis contains so many letters written to government officials. In much of the work I’ve been discussing, both Waldman and Foucault are more concerned with the affects of power on subjects than with power as an abstract entity or concrete institution (Foucault 2000: 327). Iovis, for instance, is not an analysis of Jove, but of Jove’s effects. Hence, Foucault’s call for “a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression” in the final version of “What Is Enlightenment?” (1984: 45) Yet it is the combination of both the subject and power in Foucault’s work that has made him such a significant — and contested — figure for feminist theory. And obviously, Waldman’s work isn’t simply about a mode of libertarian transgressive subjectivity, either.
As Waldman states in an interview included in Vow to Poetry: “You have a task quite apart from who you think you are” (2001a: 288), an idea that echoes Foucault’s proposition: “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are” (2000: 336). For both writers, this is closely connected to notions of resistance, a resistance that arises spontaneously — and necessarily — where power relations impose themselves. It’s also a mode of resistance dependent upon what Foucault calls “practical critique,” and what Waldman terms at one point, in a way very much applicable to her own work, “the shock of news” (2001b: 92). Because for the poetry world, the opposite of dogma, absolutism, truth as power, and even closure isn’t indeterminacy and play, but critical analysis. In fact, for most worlds, the opposite of dogma, absolutism, truth as power, and closure isn’t indeterminacy and play, but critical analysis. This is an idea that certain developments within experimental poetry seem to have forgotten during the ’90s, as symptomized by academic postmodernism, half-digested poststructuralism, and cookie-cutter workshop experimental verse.
This isn’t at all to deny the necessity of indeterminacy and play when confronting power and repression, even if postmodernism itself has become a meta-narrative in serious need of epistemological dismantling. But indeterminacy as formal practice is currently more successfully employed by advertisers to sell soft drinks and sneakers than by poets and artists to present alternatives to the status quo. The Barbie Liberation Front certainly created a splendid sense of confusion when their doctored dolls greeted their new owners with initially bewildering expressions, and I was tickled when a group of protesters dressed as clowns at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia chanted, “The pizza united will never be defeated,” in an effort to undermine exhausted political slogans; but the effectiveness of these strategies was also dependent upon an accompanying critical analysis. Waldman’s work argues for the articulation of resistant ideologies; for utilizing contextualizing methods of reading with which to analyze a wide range of texts, not only poetry; and, just as importantly, for the need to build alternative pedagogical environments and cultural institutions to accompany a radical poetic practice that’s opened-ended in form so as to allow for flexible responses to changing historical conditions.
Barbie Liberation Organization (2000) “B.L.O. ‘Operation NewSpeak’ Script.” At ®™ark website. http://www.rtmark.com/bloscript.html.
——— (n.d.) “Official Barbie Liberation Organization Barbie/G.I. Joe Home Surgery Instructions.” Flyer archived at http://users.lmi.net/~eve/barbie.html.
Brooks, Ann (1997) Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms. Routledge, London and New York.
Damon, Maria (1993) The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London.
Dery, Mark (1994) “Hacking Barbie’s Voice Box: ‘Vengeance Is Mine!’” In New Media (May 1994). Archived at http://www.levity.com/markdery/barbie.html.
Dubin, Steven C. (1999) “Who’s That Girl?: The World of Barbie Deconstructed.” In The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough. Touchstone Books, New York. 19-38.
Echols, Alice (2002) Shaky Ground: The Sixties and Its Aftershocks. Columbia University Press, New York.
Ellsberg, Daniel (1979) “Preface.” In A Year of Disobedience: A Photo-Documentary on the Demonstrations, Civil Disobedience, Arrests and Trials of Thousands of People Against the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, ed. Joseph Daniel. Daniel Productions, Boulder, CO. 5-19.
Foucault, Michel (2000) “The Subject and Power.” In Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984: Volume 3, ed. James D. Faubion. Trans. Robert Hurley and others. The New Press, New York. 326-348.
——— (1984) “What Is Enlightenment?” Trans. Catherine Porter. In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. Pantheon Books, New York. 32–50.
Frauenfelder, Mark (1997) “Secret Prankster Fund Goes Public.” In Wired News (April 8, 1997): http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,2997,00.html.
Gordon, Colin (2000) “Introduction.” In Power: Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984: Volume 3, ed. James D. Faubion. The New Press, New York. xi-xli.
Greenberg, Brigitte (n.d.) “The BLO — Barbie Liberation Organization — Strikes.” In Unit Circle. No. 3: http://www.etext.org/Zines/UnitCircle/uc3/page10.html.
Lorde, Audre, (1984) “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. The Crossing Press, Freedom, CA. 114-123.
Perloff, Marjorie (2002) 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics. Blackwell Publishers, Malden, MA and Oxford.
Rampersad, Arnold and Roessel, David (1994) “A Chronology of the Life of Langston Hughes.” In The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel. Vintage Books, New York. 8-20.
Shulman, Robert (2000) The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London.
Waldman, Anne (2003) “Rogue State.” In In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems, 1985-2003. Coffee House Press, Minneapolis. 388.
——— (2001) “Sisters Arise & Vocalize! (Is There Anyone Under That Chador?)” In Manifestos (Two & Threnody). Elik Press, Salt Lake City. 17-19.
——— (2001a) “Grasping the Broom More Tightly Now: Interview with Eric Lorberer, for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Boulder, Colorado, June, 1998.” In Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos. Coffee House Press, Minneapolis. 281-296.
——— (2001b) “Loom Down the Thorough Narrow.” In Vow to Poetry. 89-99.
——— (2001c) “Warring God Charnel Ground (Rocky Flats Chronicles). In Vow to Poetry. 229-237.
——— (2000) Marriage: A Sentence. Penguin Books, New York and London.
——— (1997) Iovis: All Is Full of Jove, Book II. Coffee House Press, Minneapolis.
——— (1996) Fast Speaking Woman: Chants & Essays. City Lights Books, San Francisco.
——— (1994) Kill or Cure. Penguin Books, New York and London.
——— (1993) Iovis: All Is Full of Jove. Coffee House Press, Minneapolis.
Alan Gilbert’s writings on poetry, art, culture, and politics have appeared in a variety of publications, including Artforum, Bomb, Boston Review, and online in Jacket 15. A collection of critical writings entitled Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight will be published next spring by Wesleyan University Press. He lives in New York City. Poems have appeared in The Baffler, Chicago Review, Shiny, and online at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church website:
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