[Wgcp-whc] Willis minutes from 5/7 and tomorrow--Pizza!

Richard Deming richard.deming at yale.edu
Thu May 20 20:14:45 EDT 2010

Dear All—

I wanted to begin with a reminder that our end of the year pizza  
soiree is tomorrow.  We’ll provide the ‘za but it is BYOB.  Of course,  
all are welcome as we celebrate two new books (a new collection of  
poems by Nancy Kuhl and a new translation by jean-Jacques Poucel) and  
say bon voyage to 2009/10.  We'll be meeting from 3-5 in rm 116 of the  
Whitney Humanities Center. All are welcome!  It's okay if you didn't  
rsvp and yet still want to come!

The last time we met was Friday May 7th, when Elizabeth Willis joined  
the group to discuss her most recent collection, Meteoric Flowers.   
However, at the end of the session we were able to coax her into  
reading a few poems from her forthcoming collection Address.

We began our conversation by asking Willis about the ways that  
femininity and gender enter into Willis’ work.  Given that there is a  
focus on aesthetic pleasure and lyricism in the work and that there  
are recurrent tropes (such as flowers) throughout the work, the poems  
draw upon a form of femininity that risks the sentimental.  Willis  
discussed the ways that she is keenly aware of the risk of the lyric  
poem being “pretty.”  Her use of the lyric was at some level an  
attempt to unseat sentimentality by making the texture of the poems  
and in particular the form of the prose poem into a means of writing  
back at fixed ideas or conventions of gender. Inasmuch as the poems  
are reflective of her own identity as a woman who grew up informed by  
second-wave feminism.  She seeks to move away from poems as being  
merely instruments for social change and the revising of aesthetic  
possibilities offer change without polemics.  In the case of Meteoric  
Flowers, her identity as a woman poet writing through Erasmus Darwin  
allows for a way of unsettling the pursuit and conquest narrative of  
the lyric address because of the destabilizing of traditional  
conventions of gendered address. Moreover, E. Darwin saw flowers as  
polymorphously perverse and so by that inversion of gendered tropes  
Willis disrupts set fictions of gender. Also, this subversion of form  
and voice further enacts the complexities of the pastoral mode and  
gender ideology.  Ultimately, though, it is sound and musicality that  
directs her most immediate compositional choices.

At the very practical level, we had asked her about the tension  
between the titles and the poems, the titles having been drawn from E.  
Darwin’s text.  Willis indicated that very often she would write the  
poems first and that way the poems weren’t captions but were ways of  
writing back towards Darwin’s text. Sometimes, this produced a  
seamless connection and other times it made a complex tension between  
title and text that raises the questions of what that relationship  
might be. In that E. Darwin’s book is a poetic attempt at  
classification (taking somewhat seriously the Adamic injunction of the  
poet to be the namer), the tension between title and text interrupts  
the easy relationship between classified and classification.

Throughout our conversation, Willis would return to her thinking about  
the productive capacity of interruption.  The very paratactic nature  
of the sentences within the prose poems of Meteoric Flowers enact this  
disrupts of the ideas of a forward, progressive motion in order to  
foreground the ways that sentences are made to cohere.  Another way of  
approaching this would be to investigate at what point certain  
grammatical constructions can look like “sentences” and yet not quite  
cohere enough to be sentences or to convey meaning—though this  
fracture itself becomes their meaning, of course.

One of the reasons that Willis turned to the prose poem—beyond the  
formal inversion of E. Darwin’s use of verse to guide his taxonomy—is  
that verse can be a saturated space in the ways that the traditions  
and conventions of the lyric poem can be overdetermined.  This led to  
a very generative discussion about the sentence of the prose poem  
acting as a long line rather than a discrete sentence.  What shapes  
its structure are beats, rhythm, cadence and other musical concerns  
rather than grammar or information. In this way, the prose resists  
narrative dictates of closure or sequence as well as allowing for the  
exploitation of what we might call lyric intelligence. What then  
occurs is that the cohesion of the poem, and the prose poems within  
the entire collection based on voice rather than an absorptive  
narrative.  Without that consistent narrative, the “I” becomes what  
Willis called a form of “soft matter,” shifting from poem to poem,  
rather than creating a stable, autobiographical subject. We might then  
think of voice in terms of style, with style being a consistent  
vocabulary of specific textual concerns and compositional strategies  
shaped by a recurring set of references.  The idea that voice is a  
kind of style and style is a kind of voice, bring the ideas of  
representation and identity quite close together while still allowing  
for a destabilized, amorphous subjectivity.

As is evident, this was a an intense and far ranging discussion that  
delved deep not only in terms of the formal moves of Meteoric Flowers  
but went to the ways that poetics can bring us to discussing gender,  
aesthetics, ethics, and the very stuff of how we know ourselves in the  
world.  Certainly, this piques one’s appetite for Willis’ forthcoming  
Address.  Stay tuned, true believers! And of course, we are deeply  
appreciative to the luminescent Elizabeth Willis for her joining us  
and providing the grounds for such smart, dynamic, free ranging  

Until tomorrow,

Richard Deming, Co-coordinator
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