Rachel Blau DuPlessis
I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: This forum’s conversation around feminist poetics of the archives wouldn’t be the same without your intellectual and creative contributions to literature and thought. Your works of criticism have been pivotal, transforming the field of poetics, challenging received notions of whose writing matters, of what a reader might pay attention to, and of how such attention might be articulated. Reading The Pink Guitar, Writing Beyond the Ending, and Blue Studios not only taught me new things about writers I love but also were transformative experiences on an affective and intellectual level. I can still remember exact physical moments of engaging these books, of holding them in my hands.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: [interjecting]—Thank you; this comment means a lot to me.
Karla Kelsey: Your creative works equally challenge the boundaries of what can be written, of how one might write. For example Drafts, your series of 114 poems composed over two-and-a-half decades combine the epic and the ephemeral in an extensive, recursive long poem investigating the entwined processes of memory, history, and language. And your collage-poems Life in Handkerchiefs takes up these threads on a vivid, hand-worked scale, combining vintage handkerchiefs and text.
There are so many questions to be asked about your relationship to archives—official archives like the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where your papers are housed alongside H.D.’s, Mina Loy’s, Barbara Guest’s and other writers with whom you’ve been in conversation. Also unofficial archives, like your collection of hankies.
The question I choose to ask here is about generativity and detail. In an interview with C.A. Conrad you call Mina Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” a “generative document” and in your “Statement on Poetics” you discus the “social-sensuous generativity” of language and the “ungeneralized detail” that “changes everything because it speaks of the contingent, the intransigent, the odd, the potentially unaccounted, uncounted, unaccountable.” What is the relationship between the “generativity” of a document and its “detail,” and how do formal and/or informal archival settings play into this relationship?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: When I was thinking about how language and historical ideologies worked together –while figuring out my critical book about the early poetry of modernists, I found that the odd detail, the clashing word, the weird thing that rubbed me against the grain often was like a pinhole onto large-scale contradictions and social thinking. Those pinhole moments opened whole worlds of debates and ideologies current at the time (of the early modernist poets) and did so in in the condensed mode of poetic techniques. Things like the hanging “Klein” in a T.S. Eliot poem (when has a proper noun like that ever jumped both over a line break and stanza break?) or the visual-cultural compression of “Pig Cupid ...rooting” in a Mina Loy poem, or the words “besides” and “then” and “I am” in a Langston Hughes poem. If one stayed alert for those bumps and knots—a lot could be inferred and postulated and found. Word choice, semantic images, syntax and line break seemed to be a point of contact between poetic language and social world views in the poets without having the poems be polemical documents. I called this tactic of critical looking, or this lens for asking questions—“social philology.”(This all in Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry—and I actually do understand why Cambridge did NOT want it called “Entitled New” for the three new entitlements of modernism—New Woman, New Black [i.e. New Negro, in the contemporaneous word], New Jew—but it was a lovely title.) Responses inside the techniques of poetry to those formations are found all over in the poetry—not solely as content but deep in elements of form. So I wrote a critical book on that method of looking at poetry.
It’s as if the poems, seen in this lens, became their own archive of poetic detail that had large, social rationales, really, and were not just surface word play, or wit, or decoration. This was for me a very fruitful thought—this sense of crystallizations and condensations of gigantic nodules of thought within poetic representation. And, of course, representation (loosely art) is a kind of thinking via forms and tactics (using words and segmentivity in poems).
As the end of a poem (precisely “Draft 85: Hard Copy”) I wrote
being archive of feelings to come—
And of what else we don’t know.
It is really “quite curious...”
I think this is true, though it is hard to explain. Maybe the poem is a kind of prophecy of future feelings? or it stores feelings we did not know we had until we read them and then we are provoked by the poem to feel them? This is so much the opposite of the more banal “this poem expresses its feelings so beautifully” that I am almost giggling. Maybe the poem predicts feelings that you will have? Goodness—who knows, except I used the interesting word “archive” in the middle of all this speculation.
I actually think that art is some kind of archive as well as many other things. Maybe it is an archive of feelings to come?
Some art is a definite archive—a still life of your nicest objects painted with all the glisten and shininess and textures imitated (at the apogee of a certain kind of still life in the 17th century usually by Dutch painters)—what a strange pleasure to see the possessed quality of those possessions.
Or Life in Handkerchiefs, a project of collage poems that I have done between 2017-2018. I describe this as loosely a progress through a female life, told by page by page with poems, prose poems, aphorisms and other texts collaged together with vintage handkerchiefs as the main artistic medium, along with fabric, lace and trimmings, artificial flower notions, vintage handkerchiefs, string, paper, including tickets, origami paper, and a photograph. This work is not really my life only, not even only my handkerchiefs for all the collage-poems, but something between my life as a girl-and-woman at a time and place and a general plausible woman’s life of a certain class and social zone with all those negotiations of gender expectations and resistance, doubled self-consciousness and self-questioning. It draws on handkerchiefs that I really owned—and even really used until they were practically rags—and then got salvaged into this art. And as the medium as well uses handkerchiefs picked up by me at yard sales (more salvage of the oddity, the particular, other people’s stuff) and saved until I thought of this project. The use of hankies as a collage medium seemed the perfect—if unknown beforehand—culmination of my random collection of these pretty and sometimes cliched objects. And there were handkerchiefs donated to this project by other women, friends, acquaintances and relatives, who must have been struck in some way at the interest of cleaning their bureau drawers of an oddity that they too had saved for a very long time. And as Karla Kelsey suggested too, it was a chance to pass on an affective object. In fact, some of the notes about the origins of at least two handkerchiefs in the lives of my friends’ relatives were included. And now in my notes to the project. Luckily for me, these friends decided to contribute to this art project–my metaphoric archive of womanhood—there was something wonderful about that generosity. An archive of femaleness, femininity (all that lace and flowers), of blood (various) and snot, and tears, of gestures of dress-up, of living loosely through World War II and the post-war wars, the knowledge of the Shoah, US casual racism; atomic bomb fears, how women get to be in charge of holidays like Christmas and St. Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving—all memorialized in—handkerchiefs? (And now in their accompanying poems. . .) This too is, as you say, a work based on an archiving sensibility as well as a respect for and a playing with crafts. I hope that one day the book—or perhaps box—of these collage poems hankies might be published together.
II: Collective Entries—Extended versions of these original questions can be found here
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: My relationships with archives are several, long-lived and in some cases quite intimate. Before I even begin responding to Karla Kelsey’s list of topics, however, I want to recall a recent news story and an apology of sorts. The National Archives of the United States manipulated its own presentation of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington to efface from the exhibited photograph some of the signs carried by the many participants that had anti-Trump slogans or sentiments. Probably many of the thoughts, fears and wariness expressed by the marchers (aside from their being First Amendment protected protest) have actually come true—that is, in the few years since, people’s wariness and suspicion of this apparently new, but known-quantity figure, have proven correct. How to rewrite history—first erase it. This is a scandal should not go without mention although an apology was offered (three years later)—after the event, presumably when the exhibit on two women’s marches went up: The march from 1913 (before suffrage was won) and from 2017, comparing the marches. They say they did not change the photograph itself because they do not “own” it, but they did change its presentation in the exhibit where most people would have seen it. Hence, I begin here with a now-archived press release from the National Archives.
<<National Archives Apologizes for Alteration of Women’s March Image
Press Release ·Saturday, January 18, 2020 Washington, DC
We made a mistake.
As the National Archives of the United States, we are and have always been completely committed to preserving our archival holdings, without alteration.
In an elevator lobby promotional display for our current exhibit on the 19th Amendment, we obscured some words on protest signs in a photo of the 2017 Women’s March. This photo is not an archival record held by the National Archives, but one we licensed to use as a promotional graphic. Nonetheless, we were wrong to alter the image.
We have removed the current display and will replace it as soon as possible with one that uses the unaltered image.
We apologize, and will immediately start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again. [nr20-32]
For press information contact the National Archives Public and Media Communications Staff at 202-357-5300. >>
This is the end of a press release copied fully as my introduction. I do not know whether they replaced the image (as they said) or followed through with the review of their policies and procedures. I mean this incident or anecdote to hang here suggestively hovering over the following essay—with no full sense of resolution, mainly to show that archives are both a thing and a process. So too are collections.
Here are four activities that I have actually done in the archive mode. I have made a literary archive of my own work in poetry and essays/literary criticism as a real artifact for presentation. It is now housed at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. I am not going to talk about this, particularly. But I want to say that in constructing it, I was bound by certain categories that are standard and useful—real selection criteria forming an accepted institutional structure for literary archives, and one that makes things findable.
As for other archive work—first, I have collected, co-edited and published the personal-political memoirs of others, Second, I have helped to collect an archive of another person’s work and worked to get it published within a decade-long timeframe. And third, I have recently used my personal collection of material objects to make art from. I talk about that in the individual question that Karla Kelsey asked. These are three different activities all motivated by a sense that I did not want this writing, these thoughts and these objects to be lost. (The larger cosmic question of loss is unanswerable and may be undiscussable—except in and by art). These acts (described below) were motivated by specific desires to rescue and salvage materials from the possibility of loss (destruction, erasure, “undercounting,” discounting, and denial)—materials that I became convinced demanded to be saved. Some of these acts were really acts of collection.
At the risk is sounding like as escapee from a pedantic attic and drawing on the fact that I live with a historian (with thanks to him), I’m going to define terms as best I can. An archive is quite different from a collection. But “archive” is also a term that has recently gathered a lot of aura around itself and is often used as a metaphor, and a powerful one for a mix of collecting, responding, and fear of losing the past or even the present. I will try to tell you when it’s a metaphor and when it’s not, because in one way, archive is really a specific technical term for a set of defined items selected on certain principles, catalogued and presented in a searchable way. And on another level, archive is a richly evocative metaphor for touching memory, having a heightened experience of a lost presence, and emotional charge from the vagaries of salvage, and feelings about presence and absence.
Archives are always, at root, a social and political act, a gathering of records deemed important because of the people involved, their activities, their social or literary powers. Seeing the records and activities and powers of “outsiders” is also crucial, so archives are always in a state of historical flux –shifting definitions or expanding whatever is considered important enough to be archivable. There are also hidden archives—as of Stasi, the East German secret police that, when the Wall “fell,” became findable. They were extensive archives kept to spy on many citizens. This too was an archive of power—and it was powerful when it was found, too. However, all archives have hidden elements—certain concealments occur because of the timeframe (75 years, 50 years. . .) set by the archive of origin, by the figure collected, or by other rules, of how many years may elapse before some archives are opened. Who, what and whether something is archived is a judgment call. And another crucial question is—by whom is that choice made? what are the interests of the makers of the archive? Even—what are they trying to present to the future.
Definitions of importance can and do change in processes that can themselves be shifted, jump-started, addressed critically, found to have flaws. The power to define is not always bad, or good, but it is always a historical and interpretable force. And it simply is one of the conditions for archives, let’s say government records. They are supposed to be systematic (which of course adds another potential layer of ideological practices—but there is an infinite regression of such statements.). Archives are also a set of social choices, a crossing point between one set of practices/ systems/rules and a mass of material, a result of seeing things a certain way (with certain assumptions that are themselves historically produced). Archives also need openness, and real readers—desiring interpretation– to be legible.
Archives are curated. This is always true and is part of their intention. This is not necessarily a bad thing or a conspiracy—just a fact. It’s a fact that must be dealt with. Suppose there is a government archive that collects only directives from a certain office. It’s worth having, but say this archive does not collect the official or even unofficial responses coming back to that office, stating how responsible parties responded to the directives—how were they carried out? were they possible to achieve? what was the blowback? The point is –fully to tell a story, a historian may need other archives (or possibly news reports, documents from law courts, items from material culture) to complete the dialogue, trialogue, and interpretation begun by one set of records. Archives always need to be completed (be completed by people) to assess all the dialogues and loose ends implicit in them. They are not so much answers as the generators of more questions.
By “legible,” I don’t mean just that the words can be read—that is “easy” enough to manage (not really, but we can pretend), although one might have to know specialized vocabularies, historical shifts in word meaning, or tonal shifts and euphemisms used in that (hypothetical government) office. Many literary archives even in our century and certainly before the advent of the typewriter depend on handwriting. One must know how to read various historical scripts so errors don’t occur from reader ignorance. Even in modernities, people may have bad handwriting. And what about statistic gathering and interpreting ? (I am not discussing this at all.) I mean that someone from the future has to be prepared (in assumptions and perceptions and capacity for inference) to comprehend what part of the past is recorded in this or that particular archive. Hence Archives need more Archives.
Who would think that in “our” country such a blatant act of erasure (of political slogans) was possible in the National Archives—even if it was not (they say) “permanent” except presumably in exhibition catalogues? And—no naivete here, please, who would have thought that it is not possible. It is certainly not best practices for Archives—but it is one possible politically influenced practice. One sees from these examples that forgetting and erasing can be as assiduously curated as remembering, that what some groups silently remember and pass on in quiet ways may be of great import under the radar, that the under-stories are vital and that the historical record is by definition incomplete because some stories are not heard, some archives are not legible, some ideas are automatically discredited if the voices that speak do not have “credibility” and that sometimes credibility simply means power. Or various powers.
Archives and collections can also be destroyed. By bombing in wars—happened a certain amount in the European wars of the 20th century. Also people who revolt against an entrenched power by which they have been oppressed—in part by the keeping of records—have been known to burn government, debt collector, and manorial and plantation owner records. Or archives are destroyed by accidental fire—even now, in the (so-called) modern world. By poor storage tactics—too wet, too dry, wrong writing surface. By inadvertence. By accidents of one sort or another. By stupidity—parchment folios, thought useless, disappeared into a European country in the 20th century where they were found being used to wrap frites (fried potatoes). Not all those folios were recovered.
One needs to understand that what we have as a record (either Archive or Collection) is often a matter of sheer chance and that in certain cases no one knows, or can barely postulate, what is missing from the historical and literary –and human–record. I am haunted by the loss of the Library at Alexandria, of the full range of Sophocles’ plays, of Sappho’s poems, of the work of women poets who did not have a sister like Lavina Dickinson, of the poetry of a man whose relatives burned his manuscripts after his death for fear they might be found to be seditious, when the Russian army came calling. Think of the Denisovians, little bits of bone and a tooth in faraway caves and “suddenly” there is a whole branch of hominids whom we had not postulated. A little humility in the face of what we are missing is a good attitude to take while being grateful for what we do have. And trying to make a dialogue with it, knowing that what we have to infer from might well be incomplete. It is also true that in our brains not everything can be or is remembered. Or is played back “accurately.” This is just another quirk of things—it’s why we have inference, analysis, and imagination—at least those—to constitute thought.
Hence like everything in life, thinking about archives saturates a person with a rich set of conflicting elements—joy and sorrow, curiosity and anger, rage at what is missing and over-compensation if you find something present, over-reading some bits or under-reading others. Those are just a few plausible responses. The archive does not disgorge “the way the past really was”—it allows you to see a particular array and then try to interpret it—tender and delicate and often frustrating acts of reading/thinking/responding. And an archive, then, because interpretation is theoretically endless, offers possibilities for interpretive agreement that might get upset and unmade—by new questions and new interpretive lines of thought. The archive is also about the future.
Archives must always be interpreted because even an individual archive (or an archive from an individual writer) houses collectivities. There is never a single answer provided—the little splinters of difference, discussion, contradiction—the oddity of something lets an interpreter know this is not orderly even if it has been systematized. There’s always some little irritant. The not-what was expected. This is part of the call of the object. Or of a someone you never heard of. But it is also the call of the language which is never equal to itself. Feminist interpretation is one way to find the opening, but one must be “disponible”—ready to find goodness knows what. Something you think the writer “should not have thought”; something that scandalizes. Something that goes against your assumptions...
As for collections there are degrees of public, degrees of private, limbos of documents, desires, cross-purposes. And some of these are contingent—but become incredibly useful. The Blockson Collection at Temple University was begun by Charles L. Blockson (1933- ) a man who started buying up documents and books and memoranda related to African-Americans in Southeastern Pennsylvania—things of virtually “no value” to anyone, things coming out of attics, second-hand stores and marginal bookstores. His earliest memory of this need—a story from his Wikipedia entry— is worth remembering: “During a history lesson his fourth-grade teacher, a white woman, asserted that “Negroes have no history. They were born to serve white people.” Blockson went home and told his parents, who assured him that black people do have a history and taught him about prominent African-American men and women.”
Blockson had an urgent desire to see that history preserved. Those semi-forgotten people were important; they had real, historically active lives that were being pushed to erasure and submitted to vulgar discrediting. This collection is now a serious resource, and it has been enlarged to incorporate materials far beyond the Pennsylvania region where it began. From the description: “The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection is one of the nation’s leading research facilities for the study of the history and culture of people of African descent. This collection of over 500,000 items has materials on the global black experience in all formats: books, manuscripts, sheet music, pamphlets, journals, newspapers, broadsides, posters, photographs, and rare ephemera.”
Regarding “Individual Collectivities”: Definitionally, as I’ve just said, a collection is not an archive. An archive is formed on principles of collecting. These principles might be exclusive, inclusive, incomplete, criticizable—but they do exist. A collection is items of various amazing kinds—things that give you pleasure, that no one else wants necessarily but you think are vital. These are definitionally different, though a collection might contribute to an archive or have archiving (keeping, holding, remembering, analyzing) as one of its purposes.
I think the phrase used as Karla’s sub-title is very suggestive: “individual collectivities”—she does not say individual collections. This says something like saying the individual self is made of a very finely overlapped Venn diagram of its own collectivities of subjectivity, now and over time. And having objects reminds you that this set of multiple selves (individual collectivities) is what you are bonded to, what you are made of; you are a collect, a collection point, an assemblage. An individual is a “many.” We are all gatherings.
Reading and interpreting an archive needs to acknowledge this fact as does any human collection. Nothing is ever one. That’s why learning how to make things legible, and acknowledging the necessity to listen to possibilities that other voices may have information, and can be opened to your listening by acts of understanding—all this creates the necessity for art.
While I have made a good deal of poetry, and one of its themes and formal ideas is remembering, I have not made many archives, although I have visited a number. What I have done in several instances is made a collection, made a contribution to an archive, and drawn on a personal collection for art, as I will talk about in my individual question.
In collecting “individual collectivities,” I did put my oar in on that in my own quirky way—and there was “product” created, too—The Feminist Memoir Project (1998, a book coedited by Ann Snitow and myself). However, this text began with a deliberate collection and became an anthology, not an archive. Sometime around 1990, with my own link to the histories of contemporary feminism (mainly through Columbia University Women’s Liberation), I became very curious about how this movement developed, particularly the first experiences and activities (seemingly abrupt and sudden—of course never quite exactly like that), and fascinated by the short and long term outcomes of that generational uprising. I was then a member of the editorial collective of Feminist Studies, a still on-going feminist scholarly journal from the University of Maryland, College Park. (I was actually among the first set of those editors on our collective—still a volunteer Board but with an academic editor for most of its existence.) I proposed to the journal an open-ended call—the on-going creation of a collection of writing, a call to publication on a rolling basis on the personal histories and fecundating experiences of second-wave feminism. Well, anyone who knows anything about a publication and an archive (or collection—let’s wobble here) will understand why the Feminist Studies Board responded to their sister editor that they couldn’t possibly take this on (we were editing a journal! collecting memoirs is totally different set of activities, not in our “remit”!), and recommended that a grant of some sort for this work was the way to start this process. It was as if I was [re]inventing the wheel (of personal memoir about historical movements, of collecting documents of that movement, potentially making an “oral history” archive, but done in writing). Quixotic activities—I was not even a historian; oral history is an actual and subtle field; a set of memoirs are really a source for echt historians not written history itself –well, I actually knew some of this. But I did not want these stories to be lost! Their very quirks and oddities were informative! This feminism was a paradigm shifting moment!
The essay plan that Karla Kelsey has made for this symposium shows something extraordinary; these archives (now) do exist. Many have been created over the years of second-wave feminism and before. Each of these archives has its own history and rationale—and a probable date of founding. They may now have boards, sources of income from institutions (one hopes). But like Joan Nestle’s Lesbian Herstory Archives, I’d be willing to bet that many were intrepid foundings of small collectives or even individual actors that have grown in importance and solidity over the years.
At any rate, in 1990, I told this memoir-collection-archive plan to my friend, Ann Snitow (1943-2019), more of an active activist than I (and also, by field, in women’s studies /cultural studies, having migrated from a pure literature PhD), and it turned out she had been thinking about just that kind of book or record herself. We joined forces as co-editors, as in “well, let’s DO it.” And together we edited a book called The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation over a number of grim years, the long reverb of the Reagan presidency, the two Bush presidencies, War and more war, active efforts to destroy women’s gains, and our own individually busy careers. (Not to speak of no grant for it—no time even to apply. We did get an advance [I’d never seen one of those before] that we used totally to pay the contributors. Period.) AND, we did it with no email—that was just before its coming into wide use. Yes, readers, we did this book entirely over the telephone.
The book was first published by a division of Random House in 1998, and we assumed—actually in the introduction called for—the existence of one, two, three many such books to bloom. Nothing quite like this as yet exists though there are now some similar texts. It is still in print from Rutgers University Press, flaws, quirks and all, now usually used in courses on the history of the 1960s. We tried for serious “national” coverage of people and groups—at least touching some, not only one city or one group. We also asked for responses to some articles by others to publish debate and critique inside the book in an early foreshadowing of my idea of a nexus (networks operating through time, across generations, mutating while sticking to certain principles, making critiques that get absorbed). My only side remark here is—because of Ann’s level of public activism and because of my in-field studies (feminist and gender-oriented scholarship in literature), I have heard that people think it was Ann’s project and I “helped.” Well, that’s not true—we had both invented this idea simultaneously, and we were mutual laborers on it; we also saw it through to two printings with two presses.
Together Ann and I tried to save a bit of the great “archive” of second wave feminism by making a collection to be published as memoirs. She died just last year; I want to say these words together with her spirit. The women who participated in this movement often were going as fast as the times demanded with little critical distance on their actions, inventing analyses and even institutions on an as-needed basis; hence it was hard to develop the historical recognition of the work each individual and collectivity was doing, in becoming a vast movement. One could say we were simultaneously (re)inventing the public sphere of our social and institutional activities and inventing the activities to do so. It’s a little like the current idiom for the belated response of the US national government to the coronavirus emergency (2020—keyed to the inadequacy of Trump’s presidency): people are saying “We are trying to build the airplane as we are flying it.” Similarly, in the early years of the propulsions of the second wave women’s movement, we were inventing the public sphere that had to listen to our demands and at the same time making the demands. (And believe me, not everyone wanted to hear any of them, from “can’t you teach even one woman writer in your course in American poetry?” to “can we name and resist the in workplace category of sexual harassment” to “can we get men to stop making comments on our bodies when we walk past them on the street.”) Any category of life was under scrutiny, from the most intimate in sexual practices to things like major salary disparities by gender. And all threads were all intertwined in all of it. The time for reflection was rare, the time for action was clear. That you were there; you helped incite this action or analysis; that you had strategy struggles and coalitions with others; that you invented events (demonstrations, for instance, protest marches, counts of the number of women in this or that field. . ..) and what were called “actions”—all this mattered deeply. Even the half done and the partially successful mattered; the glass half-empty; the errors mattered. We both wanted a book that spoke about and tried to reflect on those experiences of making history on the ground, that, when one was involved, gave very little space for reflection.
The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Those objects might be items from yourself, or from another who, living long ago, chose to save them. But there are two principles to evoke—one is a yearning which is made by time, maybe absence, distance, rarity, and complicated feelings of nostalgia and fear. The aura of the object about which Susan Howe is so eloquent is a creation of your investment with infused feelings about the finding of some object decontextualized out of time, perhaps out of place—and who is to say that it does not bear the residue—in an atomic séance of mists!—of other people’s feelings about the object—a scrap of lace, a book from another, a story attached to a gift, a family palimpsest—these are compounded with your feelings and give rise to an aura that cannot be argued away—a disturbance in the atmosphere from things. I remember Alison Saar’s saying something like this about her assemblages of found object African-American materials into sculpture and collage: the materials she uses have aura.
For any individual object to generate such feelings in you—it must already speak to a latent paradigm: family talismans valued because of dynamics like “I want that and it reminds me of X” (often evoked by the death of a family member) or “I don’t know anything about that part of a family past, but I want its tokens”—need, or a sense of mystery that is not necessarily solved by possession the object (that is almost like a side product), but is the token of the existence of the need. The need has something to do with the passage of time and salvage of a few talismans. The depth of heart-broken feeling at such losses might make it the topic of some theories about mourning and melancholia. Or of the power of the talisman to generate thought. What we know is some scrap of matter can be a lightning bolt of feeling-thought.
Yes, of course I have experienced such moments. This is probably the lightning bolt event that may happen with the archive of a literary figure –an experience that I have had at the Beinecke Library, particularly using the archive of the poet H.D. (1886-1961). At the moment I “found” her in the early 1980s, she was still under-studied and under-read (if not actively disparaged) in serious accounts of modern poetry.
Find her!— this is an almost comic idiom because she was always there—it is we readers who were not “there.” But my mind had been pre-clouded by the (excuse me: “the”) canon. Finding her was dramatic but also a prepared discovery, curated by H.D. herself with the loyal support of her friend and Yale professor, Norman Homes Pearson. My reaction nonetheless: I felt like Keats as Cortez and his company when the view of the wide Pacific hit them—an awe and wild pleasure at what is still to know. First there is touch, the touch of presence of a figure exemplary to you, the discovery or uncovering of such private objects as letters, drafts of poem, little secrets—the touch in the air of the presence of that person as a worker in time. You really feel as if a ghost is speaking to you.
At the juncture when I first saw her archive (early 1980s) some of her work was at that point quite unpublished and quite un-regarded. And Susan Stanford Friedman and I from about 1983 on declared a partnership, not a rivalry as scholars. (Susan had already done path-breaking work on H.D. before almost all the rest of us [us=the cohort of feminists writing on H.D.]; I am indebted to her generosity at that beginning.) Together we helped to provoke the publication of HERmione by publishing an excerpt in the friendly-to-this-project literary journal Montemora, which also had strong ties to New Directions (and presumably showed there was some kind of a market for this book). Note that this work, as with Ann Snitow, was a deliberate act of feminist collaboration.
I still remember reading the typescript of HER (as H.D. titled it, then unpublished) and having my hair stand up, chills and all, at how good it was, how suggestive, how engaging. I had begun to ask the questions about the career of the woman poet that made this self-involved, witty, interior work legible to me. I was finally capable of asking the interpretive questions that made me able to read it (to begin to read it). There is a dialectic, a dialogue between readiness to see, readiness to listen and the object in front of one. (I wrote about that whole feeling of the call of the object in the archive in Blue Studios, too, the essay called “Haibun; Draw Your Draft.”)
As I say in that essay—it is vital not just to be able to read and respond but also not to insist forever on one finding or another as the Only Right Interpretation of, say, a female poetic career. The key is a state of curiosity and readiness to see, re-see and interpret, a committed intellectual emotion that I call “feminist reception” (DuPlessis, 2006: 228). In many ways, it draws on the sense of incipience and partial information—different experiences of desire–that one gets from the direct experience of an archive. You have become part of a chain of “signifiers” (meaning, in this case, people!)—a metonymic linkage of archival practitioners inspired by the eros generated by contact, and a medium for the work of another, propelling it with your buoyancy added to hers.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Hence emotional response is added to intellectual analysis—this is clear in a good deal of feminist work—not added after the fact, but suffused in the desire to discover from the start. So at first glance, I read the title for this section as The Essays and Aesthetics of Archival Work. There are some times when only the essay can adequately respond, its lambent suggestiveness, its provocative calling out, its rushing passion. There are also times when only pure analysis and some intellectual distance—all the dates and definitions clearly in place– can convince. There is room in feminist work for both kinds of responses. The essay is a site of pleasure—of quick associative linkings. Of desire for and the touch of ghosts. It is also a site of fear, of awe about the past and one’s need for telling a story as one sees it, not as everyone else sees it., with a “wild surmise.” (Again, the Keats sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”) A critical story, an enraptured response—both strategies have been part of feminist practice. I could say—I have written lyrical essays on H.D. and done scholarly work on H.D.; I have written emotionally invested essays on George Oppen and done scholarship on Oppen. Both strategies involve necessary work.
George Oppen (1908-1984) is one of my “archival stories” and the lesson here is I had to separate a possession precious to me from its potential general meaning. To fully do a task, I had to “de-personalize” while remaining personally involved. The balancing act was hard; I did not complete it always as I should have. Here’s the story. From 1965 I had been the recipient of letters from the poet George Oppen to whom I was introduced when just barely into graduate school (mine! emphatically not his! he did not admire the university particularly). For a number of years, he wrote to me (and to other people) just at the point of his return to what became a richly interesting second career in poetry, after a swift beginning and swift exit in the 1930s.
At a point when George was beginning his decline from Alzheimer’s disease, an academic colleague expressed wonder (and some jealousy?) that I had all these letters—did I have them in order, what was I going to do about them. I was amid a personal (basically mentor-baby poet) relationship with Oppen—squirmy with the up and down badness of my poetry and not yet doing anything like what I wanted to do. His austere and passionate poetry and advice (also oblique and hermetic) were difficult to listen to and discern. (This is not a story unique to me—he was in contact with some other interesting youngish people.) There was personal embarrassment—a sense of inadequacy. I had to separate from all those feelings to recognize that—if Oppen had written anything like these letters to others, it constituted quite an archive of thinking about poetry, poetics, and politics.
In 1980, I asked for and received the permission of George and Mary to do what I thought of as an homage, a small collection of his “insights in poetics” derived from a few letters. As a couple, the two were also at the same time preparing his archive for where it was (in 1983) later housed and catalogued by 1988 in Archive for New Poetry at UCSD [University of California, San Diego]. Without any archive except what I could see from their unorganized cartons, and—basically– what I could gather by casting as broad a net as I could, asking politely for photocopies of letters from likely people (quite a process, again without email) and then from some likely libraries, I discovered an astonishing set of letters to family, friends, acquaintances that had all the abrupt charm and intelligence of Oppen himself.
My concept had to change–drastically. Rather than a small “gift book” for a few friends of the poet, I suddenly was compelled by the interest of these materials to edit an annotated edition of letters of someone without a biography in print, without an archive as yet available, without barely one date except a few postmarks on the minority of these envelopes (yes—you read that correctly—and it means incredible inferential work) with only a few terms like ts. or copy text rattling around in my innocent head. Who cared about bibliographic/textual research! if there had been a course on it in graduate school—would I even have taken it? Well, turns out, establishing text and textual annotation, I found to be one of the most interesting and solemn responsibilities of literary scholarship. Again, I felt I was preserving things from getting lost (or misfiled, or not understood or discounted). This was not untrue.
Doing this edition was a ten-year challenge that issued in The Selected Letters of George Oppen (Duke University Press, 1990)—I had to do it right! who was ever going to redo it? Plus, few people in the then credible (rewarded) poetry world—except a few friends and some experimental rogue figures—had then heard of Oppen, anyway, or cared much about his austere work when they had. And so on. No grant support for this, though I did apply for the Big Ones in vain but did receive some travel money—and until the end, no contract –just frustrating flirty remarks from a press that did not come through and shall go nameless. Given Oppen’s slow-to-ignite reputation, finding a publisher was a (thank you, Duke) miracle. My choice to do this task in the first place was also a leap into the dark of a career of a figure to whom I was committed aesthetically. (It also as a leap in the dark for my “career”—, long sets of reasons could be listed.) Turns out, in the event, now more people have heard about Oppen’s work; he is in “the” anthologies; and some good very critics have written on his oeuvre—in part, and happily, enabled by my edition of Letters.
Thus during the same years that I was doing serious feminist scholarship on women writers, on H.D., and finally writing some of the poems I wanted to read without wincing, I was also participating in the cultural recovery of a—wait for it—male figure. I am an equal opportunity risk-taker, I guess. (Plus doing things with my own little hatchet—I cannot tell a lie—seems to be a trait—neither good or bad—it is what it is.)
Because of the women’s movement, Mary Oppen’s artistic career, and George’s age and politics, he was very curious about women in the world, but not always in cringe-free ways. From my own rather strained modesty (huh?) at separating me (the me of me) from this work (the me of editing something that included my letters), I actually did not publish all the interesting letters (what I called the “good” letters) of Oppen to me about my being a woman at the early stages of my career, leaving out a few that might have been better to put in. Even before completing the Selected Letters, I had published them to the side in a journal as George Oppen, “Letters to Rachel Blau DuPlessis,” Ironwood 24 (1984): 120-138. But I should have been bolder and included my own letters a little more. Ego involves (in my experience) a very strange set of events and judgment calls for women. Perhaps not everyone has had similar experiences with this fact—this business of seeing oneself as a real actor in the real world (here of poetry, and my literary profession). I am a child of my age and upbringing and gender. We know this all too well.
Self-effacement being what it is. . . one must develop a conviction (even an uneasy, also self-conscious conviction) that yes, somehow you and your cohort matter. In the current days of endless selfies and self-recording, the shyness I am alluding to does seem to be a remnant from some far-away time. Ladies—it was not so far away!
Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: The question is “if you could create an archive” that was meaningful—and even feminist. In one sense—it’s the work now at Beinecke through my career, In another sense, I have made a few collections toward archives– with both George Oppen’s letters and the Feminist Memoir Project.
III: Exchange Question
Danielle Dutton: I just started reading Valeria Luiselli’s The Lost Children Archive and one of its epigraphs reads, “An archive presupposes an archivist, a hand that collects and classifies” (Arlette Farge). Archival work (like editorial work, or care-taking, taking care of others or the work of others) often goes unseen and un-considered. I wonder if you can imagine someone in the future trying to study you through whatever archives you’ve created or tended. What sort of archivist do your archives presuppose?
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: You’ve asked several questions, because one asks about “the archivist”—a library professional with a degree in archiving, who has been trained in various ways. I’ll answer that one first. Often these people intimately know the archive they are in charge of (I know a fine set of literary archivists like this) and can help researchers wonderfully. That’s their job, but (as with teachers, or anyone in our general field) some do their jobs better than others. If you go to that archivist with a somewhat vague but earnest question, she might say, “Have you thought of looking at. . .[this file or that file]? It might be interesting to you.” So that’s the kind of archivist I hope my collection has! The one with useful, informed, pertinent suggestions. The other part of your question is asking about the researcher (“someone in the future trying to study you. . .”). I hope that person is empathetic but astute, understanding that with any document (a letter, a journal entry) one writes in a certain mood, tone, or with a certain purpose, and whatever the tone (etc.), the document reflects only a part of the full “you.” A person is also not self-consistent, and if I say something mean to one person about another, and then turn right around and write a butter-wouldn’t melt in my mouth epistle to that other person—a researcher might understand that I have many facets and so does the world. . ..and that you can’t call me a hypocrite until I have done this in more than 50% of all cases! In short (this is an extremely comic, not-really-me example), unless a subject leaves such an obvious train of stale breadcrumbs that it becomes clear she is showing only a carefully curated mask of the self even in an archive (this can happen), you have to take just about everything with wise, empathetic judgment and a nice big clichéd grain of salt. Further, I would like to hope that anyone who researches my work checks her citations four times or more (because citing poetry sometimes becomes rewriting that poetry), gets dates right, and doesn’t make funny errors (someone recently wrote I had taught at Buffalo, for example; nope). Also, thinking about the scholarship of other people, I always have that still vivid negative example of a researcher who published a whole book on H.D. with a highly over-wrought interest in H.D.’s [male] lovers and who ascribed the parentage of H.D.’s child (Perdita) to the wrong–and the more luridly interesting–partner. Do not be that researcher. As for “what archivist my archives presuppose”? In this world of woe, who knows? Perhaps what my archives could be useful for in a century is finding the butterfly wings or pressed flowers that I have occasionally put in my journals—because the future will need these to restart species.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis: An Online Gallery
Rachel Blau DuPlessis is a poet, a literary critic, an essayist, an editor, and in the past decade and a half, a collagist. She is known for her work on gender and poetics in modernist and contemporary poetries and her interests in the long poem. She lives in Philadelphia and taught at Temple University.