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Week 12 -- Feminist (Lesbian?) Poetry

Anne Dalke's picture
This week we'll be tasting a range of poems (or poetry-like forms) by American feminists Gertrude Stein, Marilyn Hacker, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich and Sandra Cisneros. Post here your reactions to these new forms...perhaps using as a stepping off point smigliori's observation that our topic is "The Lesbian Poet: To Conform or Not to Conform? (Okay, so that's not actually the title for the class, but it totally should be).... "?
Pemwrez2009's picture

Warning: this is pretty hostile

I think poetry is often frustrating, I think that when we read poetry we often try to “get it”. We try to understand what the author is getting at and in doing so, we emphasize their language, punctuation, breaths. When I first read “Lifting Belly” I really didn’t like how I couldn’t understand anything. I wanted there to be a continuous narrative throughout the poem because, it reads like a narrative should read. “Lifting Belly” almost sounds like a word association poem. Every line flows from its preceding line as if the previous line is an incomplete sentence and is being finished by what follows. What is great about “Lifting Belly” is how it sounds when yo read it out loud. It sounds like a children’s story.  


Ok, so enough about GStein, as much as I love her. So, all of this talk about the misrepresentation of the “heterosexual love” For those heterosexuals who are feeling neglected. Let me just start out by saying, “lesbianism” (and that is a very medical and essentialist terminology) is not away of “escaping the subjugating bonds that have bound heterosexual love in the past”. By inferring that heterosexuality is something you can escape makes homosexuality an alternative choice. Also, I have a hard time talking about heterosexuality and homosexuality as alternatives, because, really we all know that the two are just ways of “othering”. These pages we’ve been reading that have been talking about the  “lesbian love” are only one part of feminism. If what we want to read are narratives around the perfect heterosexual equal opportunity relationship, all we have to do is go to Barns and Noble, there you will find book cases upon book cases. There will be no limits, because there isn’t a small little section marked off “heterosexual” literature as there is the “gay/lesbian” section--forget trans, or genderqueer, or language about communities that are inclusive to different cultural identifications. 


I get so frustrated with ideas like this because Bryn Mawr, may be the only time in a “straight” person’s life where queer culture is considered and treated as of equal importance. And a note to the Bryn Mawr queers, this is NOT what life is like in all places. Don’t take how safe this space is for granted. Sometimes I think double standards are okay if they are used to empower groups of people that have been marked invisible, neglected, or that have been subjugated. 


Also, assuming that this “lesbianism” is escaping heteronormative bounds is a fallacy. Anyone can engage in a relationship that is subjugating to one of it’s parts. 


Ok, enough of my rant. 

hslavitt's picture

I wonder if poetry about

I wonder if poetry about lesbian love and sex is inherently feminist because it is giving voice to a marginilized narrative. I don't really think so...The Book of Salt/Gertrude Stein are perfect examples of lesbian content removed from feminism. Gertrude Stein perpetuated the gender roles that feminism works to overthrow. This makes me wonder why we read The Book of Salt and Lifting Belly in a feminist class. i feel like we're back to that issue of automatically equating a woman writer with a feminist one. We also see feminism being rejected by women, which, in and of itself is troubling, but also tells us about the ocassionally ugly history between women's movements and gay rights movements.
Ann Dixon's picture

the connection with the porn problem

ndegeorge's picture

Lavender is to Purple...

This recent discussion has reminded me of the earlier conversation we had on womanism and the issues of exclusion. I think it was Emily who said that she loved womanism even though she felt excluded because she was white. I think we can draw a similar comparison when we have straight women connecting with lesbian poetry. That brings us down to the core of questioning what "the feminist project" is. I think what we've all realized in the past semester is that we all have different ideals and goals of feminism that may directly conflict with another's vision of feminism. We may even find contradictions in our own ideas which is totally frustrating. I'm disappointed to hear that Rich would condemn straight women for reading her poems to their husbands/boyfriends. I too found womanism appealing (I didn't even realize initially I wasn't supposed to be a part of it) until I saw that it shouldn't apply to me. I don't know, maybe I was looking for some vague idea of "sisterhood," instead I find divisions, within groups, within ourselves. It's disheartening some how. I really liked the quote "womanism is to feminism as lavender is to purple" I like the idea that they are different but that they can still complement each other. I would like to think that race and sexual orientation could color different shades of feminism, rather than separate themselves from it.
Ann Dixon's picture

from Kindred to The Age of Arousal

I need to jump in with a few comments here.

Jessy, I did not read jrizzo's comment as meaning that she believes women choose to be lesbian to not deal with  the "subjugating bonds." Rather, I took it to mean that if you're looking at different models of  relationships, lesbians, perhaps, have different issues than straight women, and that lesbians are not, in fact, dealing with subjugating bonds within their own homes and private lives. Only in their public lives.

Jrizzo,  your assertion that "it is the heterosexual relationship that has been projected with the most misleading fiction in the past" -- well, it's not so. Until relatively recent times, fictions portraying lesbian relationships have universally had dominant  themes of self-hatred to the point of suicide or some other serious self-violence, and/or the myth that their inverted ways can be corrected with the right male influence. See, for example, Radclyffe-Hall's The Well of Loneliness, to get an idea of how devastating these fictions can be.

Lvasco, I think you are Monday morning quarterbacking, and that it's not very fair to the class. But that said,  there's no stopping us from talking about Kindred, which I think was given short shrift. I thought it  was a novel about the unconscious storytelling that occurs within the context of a (hetero) relationship, where  the partners interact in ways that are both conscious and unconscious.  Was it about hetero sex? Yes and no.  It was about the eros of a real relationship, though. 

There's plenty of opportunity to talk, here, about Kindred and about The Age of Arousal. The play that we're  going to see has this synopsis posted online:

Dare to enter the boldly uncensored world of loosened corsets as five Victorian women pursue a new age where erotic and economic freedom reign supreme. It’s 1885, and a population imbalance leaves England flooded with half a million more women than men. The Women’s Suffrage Movement is invigorated by the rise in numbers as non-married ”Odd Women” fight with passion, clarity, and confusion for sexual and financial independence. Determined to make women rich, a former militant Suffragette battles for equal opportunity and enlists female students to master the technology of the male-dominated workplace. But when a charismatic man with new ideas is thrust amongst the women, their most passionately held beliefs are thrown into question. Can women remain friends when a man comes between them? Is it possible for two people to love as equals? Sexy, fresh, and vibrantly funny, Age of Arousal is a modern look at forbidden Victorian desires on the brink of explosion.

And my last reaction is that you really don't find any universality in the lesbian poems that we have read?  and yet, social norms clearly expect lesbians to find universality in ... An Officer and a  Gentleman, and other hetero narratives. Even if you don't find this universality, since maybe the divide  is too wide, you could approach these lesbian fictions and their social impact as a canary in a coal mine.  One typical backlash methodology that has been used against (all) feminists is to label them lesbians. So  this could be someone else's story about your life, even if you don't want to claim it since you are straight.  


One Student's picture

"lesbianism is one way to

"lesbianism is one way to escape the subjugating bonds that have bound heterosexual love in the past"

I don't identify as queer (sexual orientation) and genderqueer (gender identity) in order escape any subjugating bonds, and in fact my being queer places bonds of subjugation on me which a straight woman would not bear. Radical lesbian feminism is just one highly politicized thread of lesbianism, but it seems like you're taking it as representative of lesbian thought. I'm not a lesbian, and I don't pretend to speak for lesbians, all of them or any part of them, but you do seem to be evoking a notion that while still around is kind of old school and most of all you seem to be simplifying what lesbianism is and why people identify as lesbians. (Admittedly, I am always biased against simplifications and prefer complications, fragmentations, complexities, ambiguities.)

Though I do understand your need for models that are both heterosexual and feminist, and would myself be extremely interested in Actually, from what I recall from The Heidi Chronicles from when it was performed at my high school, that play might provide you with that kind of model. At any rate, Heidi is straight. I think. It's been a while ...

But I think that the most feminist thing a person can do is to figure out what ze wants, and then to do it (without interfering too much with others' attempts to do the same). Alright, so maybe sometimes I do make things simpler ; ) Which proves my point?

jrizzo's picture

Straight girls are people too

I completely agree with lvasko.  In class we've mentioned the feminists who believe women are done in by their willingness to buy into traditional representations of male-dominant heterosexual love.  I've been reading The Second Sex for my final project and listening to Simone de Beavoir rant for hundreds of pages about authors like D.H. Lawrence who manipulate the myths of woman and heterosexual love in literature, perpetuating the unbalanced power dynamic.  Certainly, lesbianism is one way to escape the subjugating bonds that have bound heterosexual love in the past, but as it is the heterosexual relationship that has been projected with the most misleading fiction in the past, I feel it is now in desperate need of new representations and interpretations.  Based on our course syllabus, there aren't any.  So, lvasko, although I thought it was, apparently your statement is not old news.
lvasko's picture

PS- Feminist (Lesbian?) Poetry

I would have liked to read some feminist perpectives on heterosexual sex.

If feminism is about, for many of us I think, attaining equality of body/choice/opportunity with men, wouldn't it make sense to read some love poetry about man and woman together?

What do feminists have to say about making love to the oppressor, subjugator?

Its not that I haven't appreciated the scintillating and erotic lesbian love poetry that we have read.... but I feel that we have yet to really discuss the interesting perpective/dichotomy of the feminist who loves the "enemy".

The closest we could have come, I think, is in Kindred, but it wasn't actually discussed nor do I think that specific novel could have produced a particularly fruitful discussion.

I know this is an obvious statement, but not all feminists are lesbians. So, how do these non-lesbian feminists resolve the dichotomy between their love and thier political ideals of privilege and lack thereof?

Am I the only one interested in this discussion or do others in the class feel bored/jaded by it? Perhaps it is old news/thoughts for some or just of no interest to others... but I think it is a perspective  and discussion our class has been missing. 

lvasko's picture

Does Voice equate Privilege?

I am still struggling with ideas of voice and privilege, as in- it is a privilege that Emily Dickinson was able to spend as much time as she did writing poetry, a feat she was able to accomplish because of, and perhaps at the expense of, the swedish (?) maid she had cleaning the house, doing the chores for which Dickinson would otherwise be responsible.

I agree. I think this is a privilege.

Like Dickinson, anyone who goes to Bryn Mawr is privileged in their ability and opportunity to develop their intellect and their own voice. Cisneros, too, is privileged in the education she received and the grants she earned that enabled her to travel and write her perpective, her "voice."

I guess my main point of contention is that anyone who is able/has the opportunity to pursue their own interests/voice/expression is privileged. It is a wonderful privilege to the able to do this. To be a college student, to be a writer, an actress, a poet, an artist, even to be a professor is a privilege. The chance to develop the self through your occupation is, to me, a privilege.

This often means that your privilege is happening at the expense of other's privilege. The people who are working to support your privilege are often unable to attain the same level of privilege as you because they have had to spend time where you have not. They have given you freedom.

With that said, what does that mean for "voice"? Does privilege mean voice? Does having the opportunity to develop your 'self' mean that you also have a voice? Does not having the opportunity to develop the 'self' mean that you do not have a voice? Does voice mean political agency? Or the ability to be heard in the public sphere? Does having a voice mean being published?

Even if we forget the definition/or lack thereof, of "voice", I keep coming back to the same point: Yes, the ability to pursue one's own thought, vocation, "voice" is a privilege. But I also believe that everybody is born with a voice and a choice to voice. For some the choice is undeniably easier to see, but I still think that, even if the choice is voice or death, there is a choice.

Emily Dickinson chose to exclude herself from the world and focus on her self, on the development of her thoughts and her brain. She was privileged in her ability to do so... but she also made a choice to do so.

Sandra Cisneros chose to become a writer. Her choice is a privilege that came at the expense, literally and figuratively, of her mother and her boyfriend (supported her while she was writing).

I feel that everyone has a choice to voice. That that choice comes with a certain privilege and at the same time a certain lack of privilege for those around you who support you in your privilege is undeniable... but it is a choice that anyone can make nonetheless.

Flora's picture

finding a commonality between truong, stein and bao

In this part of the Book of Salt, Bao is reflecting on the fact that his employers have always complained that their servants do not learn to speak better French. They often view this failure as a lack of ability. Bao rejects their theory, saying

"I now suspect that this is a topic of discussion for the ruling class everywhere. So enamored of their differences, language and otherwise, they have lost the instinctual ability to detect the defiance of those who serve them."

Here Bao claims that he and his peers consciously misuse the language of their employers as a form of resistance. Stein uses language in a similar way. By disrupting the structures of english, she hopes to make a new space in a social system. So, perhaps truong's response to stein is more complex than a rejection of literary style. Their purposes may be aligned despite their differences in social criticisms.

matos's picture

I seem to be part of a

I seem to be part of a majority when I say I could not begin to crack Lifting Belly. I read all sixty two pages, and I thought I felt that I could not understand it because I was out of the loop, like I was missing something. Lifting Belly felt really personal to me and I was not able to break throught that barrier.

Which is why I thought it was interesting to read Adrienne Rich's analysis of Dickinson. I know I should probably be writing about the gendering or ungendering of the subjects of Dickinson's poetry (by the way this is the first time I've read Dickinson) but I think Rich's insistince on making a connection with Dickinson most interesting. I loved this line:"For months, for years, for most of my life, I have been hovering like an insect against the screens of an existence which inhabited Amherst, Massachusets, between 1830 and 1886". We've come across this line before in our reading (I don't remember where) and it stuck with me. It reminds me of a line from my favorite Allen Ginsberg poem "A Supermarket in California". The paranthetical line goes: I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd. I know I've felt this inadequacy when trying to reach back to an artist that's touched me and it's interesting to her it from two artists point of view.


One Student's picture

A Girl Who Didn't Want To Belong

"I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong." -Cisneros (emphasis mine)

It's not usually useful to compare marginalized statuses. And I think that the way in which you compare the marginalizations of Dickinson and Cisneros assumes that socioeconomic status negates other marginalizations or in any event makes them *non*-defining experiences. You've got a hierarchy of marginalizations going, and I don't like it. You're suggesting that to be poor is to be utterly wretched, and that to have material comforts is to feel a lessening of all other hardships. By all means, let's correct for classist racist oblivious feminisms, but let's not overcorrect, because money doesn't buy happiness. Let's refine those oblivious feminisms, acknowledge the complexities which they don't see. But let's not substitute one simplicity for another.

Furthermore: choice. Dickinson didn't choose to be a female and a poet. And it wasn't easy to be a female poet then. And it's never easy to be different.

I don't know much about Cisneros, so I don't know quite what she means in the line from The House on Mango Street which I quote above. But to suggest that Dickinson had more choices than Cisneros ... too simple. Too either/or: either privileged or not. Dickinson was economically privileged, and perhaps privileged in her relationships, in that she did find some people with whom she cared to correspond, but in a way she was incredibly socially deprived: somewhere, sometime, there might have been a community for her, a female poet genius, where she would be recognized and lauded as a female poet genius, in her lifetime and in her presence and in public. Not there, not that time.

Some choices aren't choices at all: she had nowhere to go but her room. Maybe she wasn't as grateful for the space as her hypothetically genius Irish maid would have been. Maybe it never occurred to her to look for community in her Irish maid. But that doesn't change the factors which limited Dickinson, as surely as another set of factors limited Cisneros. The factors limiting Dickinson are more difficult to understand, perhaps, because of the particular varieties of marginalization which feminism is currently coming to grips with.

I suspect that Emily Dickinson would have written anyway, somehow, no matter what her socioeconomic status. She would have gotten enough of what she needed (time, space, paper, solitude), somehow. If she was never taught to write, she would have done something else. Been a mystic, I don't know. She would have done what she did anyway, just in a different form. I think the main thing about a) her literacy and b) her socioeconomic status is that that's why her work has *survived*. But those externalities didn't make the difference between her [I don't know what verb to use!] and her not doing so.

YJ's picture

In Dialgue with Rich, Cisneros, and Dickinson.

While I enjoyed Rich's piece on Emily Dickinson, I enjoyed even more Cisneros' response that perhaps Dickinson, though considered by many feminists as a shining example of a feminist poet, could only accomplish writing thousands of poems because she was supported by an "Irish maid." And perhaps this maid was a poet herself. For me, it was the missing piece from Rich's essay. While Dickinson was undoubtedly subversive, strange, and nonconformist (to the utmost degree-even today she eludes any attempt to "explain" her), she was still privileged. She was white. She had money. She could afford to write for a living, to be reclusive, to choose to live on the margins of society.

Cisneros' account of her own life, is a stark contrast to this-she was forced into lonliness by her circumstances. She didn't choose to become an outsider, she already was one by virtue of her socioeconomic status and her status as the only girl in a large male-dominated family. I think in that way then, Cisneros really complicates (at least for me) how I now understand and "read" Dickinson's work. I do think there's a difference (though I couldn't say to what degree) between appropriating a marginialized status and being born into one.

However, Rich's criticism of the scholars and biographers who have attempted to "explain" Dickinson, especially in thier quest to find the (male) lover who apparently broke her heart, reminds me of the historical treatment of Queen Elizabeth I. Historians have speculated widely as to who her (male) lovers were. In both cases, it seems like the historians and scholars are attempting to explain the "strageness" of both women by looking to the role men played in their lives. It is quite annoying because 1) it seems this is not the case with men, and 2) why make the assumption that men had anything to do with it? Maybe these women were simply who they were-intelligent, powerful and nonconformist-because this is who they were. In other words, it almost seems like these scholars want to credit men for the genius of these women. As for the first point, I actually can't think of a really great example of this at the moment. Maybe someone else can?

Anyway, my point is simply this-Dickinson and Queen Elizabeth I have been the subjects of intense subject precisely because they refuse the male/female dichotomy. Of course, the Queen had to in order to retain her power, but in a way Dickinson too was constrained. If she had chosen to marry, she would have been bound to wifely duties that would probably have left little time to write (and here I'm assuming she was straight b/c if she wasn't then she wouldn't have been able to marry anyway and that might also explain her aloofness). In the end, it seems both women deserve much better historical and analytical treatment than this.

sarahcollins's picture

One little thing

After the sperm/egg comment, I meant to add that that just means there were real biological differences between humans, not anything about what it means to be a "woman" or "man"
sarahcollins's picture

gender/sex difference

Totally agree with jrizzo on the identity thing. And sorry if this post gets a little reiterative and is off-topic from feminist poetry. I'm glad we're finally asking questions about this! I was confused at first too, by the objection by many members of the class had to discussing Woolf and 2nd wavers that gender doesn't exist. I didn't know if they meant it literally and physically, or in a theoretical sense. Then once I thought I had it all straightened out, I was a little confused after reading smigliori's explanation.

I agree with smigliori's ultimate aim (to not have people judged according to their gender and its stereotypes, but also not to make everyone the same), but I don't think it's feasible or desirable socially or biologically to ignore all divisions of gender/sex completely. I don't mean to tell anyone how to speak or what to do at all, by the way, sorry if it comes off that way. Two things are necessary for making a baby: sperm and an egg. I don't think this is in dispute, since the question seems to be less about biological criteria for labels and more about identity related issues (I don't agree that "There are no inherent biological differences" between "females" and "males") Biologically speaking, there is a spectrum in which intersex people fall, and I looked around the Intersex Society of North America's homepage and found a FAQ which answered the question: "Why doesn't ISNA want to eradicate gender?" at, which is interesting, but responds for people happy "doing their gender", and not third gender-ers or gender queer-ers. Anyway, I think smigliori's ideal of a gender-blind society (at least as it was written in the above posts) is taking the concept of ambiguating and un-heteronormal-izing the world's categories a little too far. I might have misinterpreted it, so tell me if I have, but I gather that it involves no separation whatsoever between public/private spaces/rights/treatment/everything for "fe-/males", and basically no check boxes (so to speak) at all (?)

I don't have any real argument for this, but I don't believe men and women are that "separate" now. Separate but equal was the same rhetoric used to justify racial segregation. Is that what you meant by "Seperate but equal is not equal"? Or maybe just any sort of difference between how they're treated? One thing I'm also not clear on is how the parathesized "men" and "women" are to be defined.

It's natural, once segregation and other such oppressive and dehumanizing institutions have been discarded, to assume another arbitrary difference-barrier ought to be taken down as well. I guess it comes back to the same question: will being gender- race-blind help society? Also, lefties may have been demonized once, but there is still a difference (left-handed products etc) in their lives today, and they're probably happier for it.

Like jrizzo and anonymous, I think there are fundamental, not strictly socialized reasons why the fe-/male dichotomy has been so pernicious in human history. It doesn't have to be one or the other, gender-blind or gender-determinate. I feel like I'm living in a pretty gender-blind society right now. And I don't believe it necessarily follows that all women are inherently irrational and emotional and men emotionally impartial and logical.

kwheeler's picture

"Seperate but equal is not equal"?

I think the point Jessica and Sarah raise is important and should have been discussed more in class. Whereas Steph suggests that we cannot be equal until we are genderblind, I would argue that ignoring the current gender binaries would be detrimental to the feminist cause -to deny that the categories of men and women exist is to neglect to address gender issues and inequalities. Maybe at some point in the future when men and women are treated equally we can begin to think about being genderblind, but certainly not before. To try and be genderblind now would not be productive at all in the same way that denying that social class exists and failing to talk about it does not solve class issues.

Rhapsodica's picture

My initial reaction to

My initial reaction to Lifting Belly was similar to many that have been shared so far. As I was reading it the night before class, I was frustrated and annoyed with my inability to understand what Gertrude Stein was talking about. I took several breaks and eventually got up and did laundry about halfway through. As I walked down the hallway, I talked to a friend about how I totally didn't understand the poem I was reading at all. "It's poetry... isn't it supposed to be hard to understand?" she asked me, laughing. it?

As difficult as it may have been to grasp what Stein was talking about from line to line, I feel like that's... well... the whole point. The part that YJ and I looked at, where she says that "lifting belly names it" (“it” being lesbian sexuality, we figured), sums up how she's taken this one term and given it so many different meanings. She doesn't even have to say what "it" is. "It" is everything she's spent the previous 30 or so pages describing. "It" doesn't need a concrete definition. "It," to her, doesn't have a single, concrete definition.

So, I found it especially interesting to juxtapose Stein's poem against Hacker's. While Stein's descriptions are complex, seemingly coming from an almost unconscious place, Hacker's are simple, immediate, conscious. Sometimes, this kind of directness is good. Hey, I agree... her poem is hot. But it feels so... overt. Stein's poem initially frustrated me because it was so difficult to comprehend, but Hacker's frustrates me because it is so obvious.

It makes me think about how sex is viewed in general... how, often, the stereotype is that men just want to get straight to the point, while women want to be more slow, sensual, and loving. Which isn't to say that Hacker's poem doesn't have a certain air of sensuality... just that, the experience she describes seems to be driven more by that stereotypically masculine mentality (very objective-driven), even though she's describing sex between two women. Which seems interesting to me, since as Steph pointed out, Hacker is using a very traditional, masculine form in writing her poem. Is she saying something about how sex between two women doesn't have to be flowery and sensual in the way someone might stereotypically assume? That it can fit into that masculine form, even though there is no masculine figure involved?

"Can you mention her brother.


Her father.


A married couple.


Lifting belly names it. "

Stein doesn't seem to think so, at least. And while she certainly alludes to pleasure and orgasm, it is not the main focus of the action in her poem. In her poem, lifting belly has so many definitions, so many descriptions... many of which do not make sense to us, even though they make sense to her. Hacker's poem automatically makes sense to us, if only because the language is so clear and direct. No simple, pre-existing language seems to do it for Gertrude Stein.

… sorry this is sort of all over the place. Lots of thoughts all at once.

gail's picture


Mother Earth with Menstrual PowerMother Earth with Menstrual Power


Dear Nora,

I never seem to know where to post.

Everyone, please excuse this inconvenience.

Nora's project is on menstruation.

I chose a single red strip of metal as the symbol  of menstruation

The first part of my visual exploration was to add this strip to CURRENT sculpture.

I found that the addition of menstruation to the image increased its power and significance.

Please link to:

Choose Menstruation 1 on the top of the page.

Perhaps Tamarinda could review these images too and see if there is anything she can use.

My next step was the creation of NEW sculptures of menstrual flow.

I will post these in the next few days. Is posting here OK????

ndegeorge's picture

Gail,Maybe you want to


Maybe you want to post at the end of my proposal? I've left you a response there.


gail's picture

Feminism must have no ethnicity, gender, or age


Feminism-a communityFeminism-a community

This is another sculpture created in response to Tamarinda’s project.

However, I thought that it fit with the lesbian/feminism we have been discussing.

My work has no ethnicity, no gender/ no age. It is an inclusive response to “feminism”.  We must be a community accepting differences.


Here is a link to further images/explanation


A couple of 22 second videos may give you more of a “feel” of the sculpture



I truly feel that, as in the sculpture, we cannot stand alone individually, but need others.


Nora, I have been working on Menstruation and will post these images ASAP.

gail's picture

Just a note

A woman is now president of the Unversity of Iowa.

What you are studying/discussing is important as you will continue to change our future.


One Student's picture

thankyou gstein

It turns out that I had to encounter Gertrude Stein, ancestral queer, before I could really write those six pages. I had a piece of A4 paper, snatched from a printer in Canaday one inspired though-full moment, covered on both sides with notes in pen and pencil in many thought-full moments, and it only took me an hour once I actually started transcribing those notes into the skeletal Word document I already had.

Part of my project (part) is to break out of the academic tradition of writing: I already know my way around that place, but it doesn't take a person everywhere ze might want to go. It certainly wasn't taking me anywhere in this endeavour for a new writing style. I was looking to Cixous and Stryker for inspiration, and I've been reading Zami: A New Spelling of My Name a biomythography by Audre Lorde for another class but none of them fuck up language on purpose the way Stein does. Cixous fucks around with her reader, but not as much as Stein. "The reader, like the writer, has to work ..." Damn straight! or queer! whichever! That's just how it is, JeannetteWinterson! That's just how it ought to be. You're a consumer, not a reader unless you work, or you do that thing between 'work' and 'play' ...

I've barely written any poetry at all in years: no encouragement, couldn't find any reason to, didn't know if it was good or not and I guess I don't do things if I can't do them well, except out of necessity by which I mean that it hurts too much not to do it which is how I started journal-writing in the first place which is why I am who I am.

And so a lot of see minotaur is poetry, and maybe maybe the whole thing will be capital-less punctuation-less poetry by the time I'm done with it. manohman but I'm enjoying it. There needs to be a word between work and play, to describe this sort of endeavor, which is pleasure, and easy because it's harder not to ("Maybe that is all any bravery is, a stronger fear of not being brave." -Zami, Audre Lorde) and easy because of pleasure and easy because it would be uncomfortable not to and easy because sometimes putting things into words is a natural function of the body and don't you just hate pins and needles?

My sense of insecurity (which I suspect didn't bother gertrudestein at all) comes from the fact that it's UnFrank and writing is supposed to have clarity. And ...

Ok, the thing with Lifting Belly is that it doesn't make sense if you don't figure out that the phrase 'lifting belly' basically means sex, lesbian sex. And when I first heard it I somehow (great minds, ha) knew it meant sex, not necessarily lesbian, but in my mind penis-in-vagina sex is hardly the default anyway and if it's by GertrudeStein then, well, if she talks about sex it'll be gstein'n'atoklas sex, surely. And the thing with a certain section of see minotaur is that you can't make sense of it unless you know what a certain phrase means, and it's just as sexual as Lifting Belly, just as secretly (not the writewrightright word) sexual which is why I ... not encode, but found my own words for it (Humpty Dumpty Gertrude Stein style, a bit I admit). It would be nice to talk about it Frankly, and in some spaces I could, though awkwardly and with the taste of shame at the back of my throat. But here I would be silent in Frank straightforward memoir prose. I had to make it hard to read, because it made me feel hidden, the seventh veil and the lights going out, rather than not dancing at all.

Part of it is still Frank. I think I'm going to translate all of it into UnFrank labyrinth words. This response is in labyrinth words a little, which means I'm not working as hard as I might and I'm getting more pleasure out of it. Which means you might be working harder. And that's fine by me. Except that I worry that it's just a Mess and not really anything clever at all. To be Frank.


-"Can sexuality even remain sexuality once it submits to a criterion of transparency and disclosure, or does it perhaps cease to be sexuality precisely when the semblance of full explicitness is achieved?....I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign [the word lesbian] signifies....[to establish] the instability of the very category that it constitutes." (Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 1993)

Yes, but Judithbutler, having a sign at all is a bit of a luxury which you don't appreciate until you realize you lack a sign-therightone-foryou, and also when you find a sign-therightone-foryou and you didn't realize how desperately you were hoping for onejustlikeit without even knowing enough to look for it. 'Queer' is useful for me because it's constantly integrally unstable, it means Other, that 'I' is Other. But it's not a name for me, it's just a word that can encompass me. I'm walking around naked in a mansion with many rooms, and it's a little chilly. But I'd catch my death outside (remember what Styker said about the impossibility of being unmarked), and here I can move.

And now I don't have time for a shower if I want to get breakfast. Ohdecisions.

jrizzo's picture

Stein the antifeminist and smigliori's "feminism"

I very much enjoyed today's discussion of Gertrude Stein's writing, not that I don't sympathize with those that feel they are simply beating their heads against a brick wall trying to read her.  I felt the same way for weeks working on her play.  Now I do enjoy engaging with her writings in a way that allows the reader to stop "decoding" (or only decoding when we feel like it?)  What was more iffy for me today was when we began discussing Stein's poem as a sort of call to action (albeit a very well hidden one), a desire or demand for a space in which women could be free to love the way she and Alice B. Toklas loved.  Because of her lifestyle, Stein seems like a handy hero for the feminist and gay rights causes, but in reality, Stein was anything but an advocate for women or homosexuals.  She was largely apathetic, politically, and lived a shockingly ordinary bourgeois life, the one incongruous detail being that she was part of a lesbian partnership.  Otherwise, she behaved like a man of her times, complete with prejudices.  She was a odd one indeed, an antifeminist woman and homophobic lesbian.  How else could she have been so chummy with Hemingway?  He would come over to the apartment with that year's wife, who would immediately be banished to the kitchen with Alice so that the "men" could talk of important things, like belittling Fitzgerald for being too effeminate. 

 I don't feel that any of this cancels the progressive stylistic and social ideas that unquestionably exist in Stein's writing, but it may call into question the notion of authorial intent, or at least a fascinating contradiction. 

 Now, smigliori, since you object to a "feminine" form of writing for "obvious reasons," I'd like to bring to your attention several points that are not perfectly obvious to me. 

I am not the scientist that would be able to provide you with a comprehensive description of the biological differences between men and women.  I do know that women are able to become pregnant and have children, and that women are (in general) smaller and physically weaker. These things alone have an enormous impact on the way a woman's life will differ from a man's.  I understand the evils of gender socialization, but do you give any credence to the idea that some (certainly not all) of the socialization has occured in response to real biological difference?   Even if you were to reject outright the uniform socialization of individuals born with female genitalia as feminine, and male genitalia as masculine, why must you oppose the labels of male and female?  You go on to say, "I suppose what I am advocating is not a stripping bare of gender, a making of everyone the same, but an awareness that what is important is not a biological form, but the way we use that form." I'm not sure, but this seems to me a claim that differs in a very significant way from your rejection of man, woman, masculine, feminine entirely.  Here you seem to be advocating a spectrum on which all are allowed to slide about as they please.  But the concession of a linear spectrum does not seem consistent with what you mention earlier.  Which is your utopia and why are "labels" the death of either?

 You also mention that you prefer Hacker's appropriation of the masculine writing style to Stein's innovation.  I think you are correct to cite the generation gap as an obstacle to your understanding of the Stein; Stein would have been stoned for having written such an explicit poem about lesbian sex in her time, as would any male writer writing about heterosexual sex so openly (bordering on tastelessly, really.  "I want to make you come/ in my mouth like a storm."  Hmm)  I don't know how much I trust this kind of feminism, as it seems to champion a perpetual game of one-upping, the kind of intellectual sterility Sosnoski dreads, and closed to the sort of radical social change I'd expect from a theory as radical in other areas as yours.  Not that one's femininity need be the thing that spurs a writer on towards experimentation, but are you saying that there's one way to do things, and we should just keep doing them the right way, just take the signs off of the restroom doors?

In general, I feel we cannot begin to discuss this gender-blind society untill men and women are actually equal.  As we've discussed in class, to ignore gender in the world as it currently exists would be like ordering all people of color to pull themselves up by their bootstraps because we are no longer taking into account the ways in which their race may have set them back.  Your admiration for the poet who appropriates a masculine style, rather than forging her own proves that you accept the need for disadvantaged "women" to take back from "men."  This difference in control over the language is, socialized or not, a difference, and one of many that must be addressed before even considering what might be fixed and unchangeable, like biology perhaps.  So why is it worth talking about?  


smigliori's picture

I don't think the

I don't think the characterization of Stein as anti-feminist is quite as contradictory as you propose it to be. There's a good reason the lesbian-feminists of the second wave (like Adrienne Rich in Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence) criticized the lives of gstein and atoklas for being too heternormative.

My rejection is not just of the gender binary, but also of the very categories "male" and "female". Biological sex is a spectrum. Those people in whom the combinations of sexual characteristics is so great as to make classification into one category or the other may be rare, but there is plenty of variation within the categories of "male" and "female" as well. What I mean by not making everyone the same, having gender markers continue to exist but not have this importance and this identification based off of them, is something along the lines of looking at someone and seeing eye-color or left- or right-handedness. Of course those are characteristics for categorization, but they aren't required on every single document, no matter how formal or informal. Certainly at one point, the Catholic church considered left-handed people to be even more evil than women, so it's clear that "important" categories don't need to continue to be important.

I protest your statement that "we cannot begin to discuss this gender-blind society untill men and women are actually equal." Seperate but equal is not equal. "Men" and "women" will not be equal until we do have a gender-blind society.

Also, my point was not that it was necessary for a "woman" to appropriate a "masculine" form in some sort of second-wave notion, the way derogatory words are reclaimed by the oppressed minorities which they signify, but the fact that this use seemed so effortless suggests that perhaps it is not necessary for women to write in some "feminine" form.

jrizzo's picture

Questions: "Biological


"Biological sex is a spectrum"  I would be curious to hear more about what you mean by this, and how you feel it is compatible with the roomy or otherwise categories of masculine and feminine, even if they are only eye-color genre categories.  Why are you attracted to the abolition of categories rather than expanding the room to move around within categories, and the freedom to jump from one category to the other if you are so inclined?  Why your insistence on the primacy of our own use of gender markers?  What are we indicating with these markers if there is no masculine or feminine to indicate towards.  In your utopia, would a traditional marker like, say, a dress be read as feminine, or would it be meaningless piece of fabric?  Does self expression mean anything in this world if there is no discernible relationship/conversation between the self and the society in which one exists. I think it is more than a little naive to imagine ourselves as independent individuals that sculpt ourselves with a steady hand out of nothing, our ideas about who we are and who we want to be springing from some perennially fecund primordial void that we carry within us?  What about those of us who hope to spend our lives preoccupied with something other than this wearisome identity-making process.  Active identity building is a very important, certainly interesting project, but we cannot be one hundred percent original all of the time.  When do you stop, and say, "This is what I am, now let me do something with it?"

llauher's picture

Losing my Temper

This is clearly becoming a recurring theme for me. I blew up when we were analyzing Kindred, and now Gertrude Stein? Is this a good thing? It sure is an interesting reversal from my prior nerves surrounding speaking in class. Maybe I operate best when angry.

I have to say, rather proudly, that my horrible analysis of the first stanza of Lifting Belly may have been the first time I haven't been embarrassed about being wrong. I still absolutely do not grasp what is going on in that piece. I can't even really wrap my mind around our class discussion about dimensions and definitions and placeholders and grammatical markers... Maybe Gstein (as smigliori would call her) and I are just not meant to be friends.

I myself was disappointed when I learned that Hacker was a transition into the Stein piece. The Canzone we read was one that I analyzed for another English class last semester, and I was looking forward to seeing how the class would dive into it. Alas, it was not to be. To a certain degree I respond to Hacker's "bluntness," although not necessarily to the poem smigliori posted, and I think that reading further poetry from authors that I have some familiarity with might help (Cisneros, for example, is an old friend).


Anonymous's picture

I surprisingly liked Stein

I surprisingly liked Stein more than I liked Hacker. Okay, I'll explain, I promise! Although I couldn't exactly tell you what the entire point of Lifting Belly was, I almost enjoyed the sort of non-structure craziness of it for some reason. It made me think of the inner dialogs that we all have...the arguments thats we all have with ourselves and perhaps what our mothers or cultures may think. When reading it, I didn't once think that she was talking to someone else, really. I had totally forgot about Tolkas being in the picture to be perfectly honest. But yes, I was quite frustrated at some points when it just got to be so nonsensical...

As for Hacker, the poem that smigliori's shared with us was...ok, yeah, it was quite sexual, but I felt that it was too obvious. "First, I want to make you come in my hand while I watch you and kiss you" was so explicit to me that it wasn't as entertaining. As someone said in class, the words and phrases were 'flat'. Hmmm.

Anyways, in response to smigliori's ideas for today's class about gender categories...I just am so confused. I am not sure if I am completely comfortable with the idea that, "there are no biological differences which result in a difference between the way "men" and "women" think, act, or feel; any such differences are completely an effect of socialization. I find an insistence of these differences to be profoundly anti-feminist because it buys into the notions that “women” are inherently less logical, less capable of reasoning than “men”." Yes, I do feel like a lot of the differences between men and women are results of socialization, however, I think that it's impossible to exactly prove that women and men either are different or aren't different unless we look at not just the BIOLOGICAL differences, but the psychological and chemical and physiological differences as well.

smigliori's picture

Form: What Is Feminist?

Many of the essays we read earlier in the class required a "feminine" form - a renunciation of the "masculine" which is seen as inherently oppressive of "women". I object to this on obvious grounds - the categories of "women" and "men" are culturally constructed. There are no biological differences which result in a difference between the way "men" and "women" think, act, or feel; any such differences are completely an effect of socialization. I find an insistence of these differences to be profoundly anti-feminist because it buys into the notions that “women” are inherently less logical, less capable of reasoning than “men”. It goes back to the idea that “women” are too emotional (for example, the word hysterical comes from the Greek word for the womb). Therefore, the juxtaposition of Gertrude Stein's poetry with Marilyn Hacker's creates an interesting contrast. Stein creates a new form, apparently ignoring the literary tradition to create hir own poetry, defying grammatical conventions. Hacker, on the other hand, uses the form of the sonnet to express hir own experiences.

I pointed out in an earlier post that these poets were both "lesbians" - people possessing female genitalia who engage in sexual intercourse with like-bodied people. I find that I dislike Stein's poetry. I am unable to process and understand it on even a basic level. On the other hand, I find Hacker's moving, erotic, filled with imagery and symbolism that speaks to me. Perhaps this has something to do with the generational gap - Stein is one of the foremost writers of the early 20th century, Hacker one of the most well-known sonneteers of the late 20th and early 21st century.

I suppose what I really find interesting is a comparison of their descriptions of sex. Googling “Lifting Belly” (I couldn’t access the link and tried finding it online before giving in and going to Canaday) makes it clear that Stein’s poem is apparently a description of sex. What I would like to do for comparison is present one of Hacker’s poems from Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons. I don’t believe it’s on the online list, so I’m going to post it in full here.


First, I want to make you come in my hand

while I watch you and kiss you, and if you cry,

I’ll drink your tears while, with my whole hand, I

hold your drenched loveliness contracting. And

after a breath, I want to make you full

again, and wet. I want to make you come

in my mouth like a storm. No tears now. The sum

of your parts is my whole most beautiful

chart of the constellations—your left breast

in my mouth again. You know you’ll have to be

your age. As I lie beside you, cover me

like a gold cloud, hands everywhere, at last

inside me where I trust you, then your tongue

where I need you. I want you to make me come.[1]


Now that is a lesbian sex poem. It’s a Petrarchan sonnet, just in case anyone isn’t aware. If we take as true the idea that “masculine” forms are limiting, then how is it possible that something which would seem to completely exclude the masculine – two lesbians having sex which is clearly not mimicking the heterosexual – can be expressed so clearly and so fully in a form even older than Shakespeare?


I can’t help but consider the question raised in Tuesday’s class of the way Stein’s conscious lack of grammatical markers relates to gender markers. I suppose what I am advocating is not a stripping bare of gender, a making of everyone the same, but an awareness that what is important is not a biological form, but the way we use that form. There are no inherent biological differences; gender does not necessarily follow from sex. There was a lot of backlash when my proposal of a “gender-blind” future was brought up, especially when compared to being color-blind. I find this a much more useful way to discuss form. The color of someone’s skin doesn’t matter – that alone does not tell me anything about an individual. Culture cannot be determined by skin-color alone, and gender cannot be determined by biological sex – it may be connected, but the true marks of culture are the ways an individual marks hir body, the way it is used to show hir thoughts and beliefs. The way an individual dresses, speaks, carries hirself – these are markers of an individual. Stein’s removal of grammatical markers simply makes hir poetry difficult to comprehend. This isn’t the same as mixed markers, “masculine” and “feminine” inscribed on the same body. Hacker takes a basic form and makes it hir own. Ze uses a form which is “traditional” to describe an act which has been consistently erased from history. Hacker’s poetry fits in better with my own feminist stance – an appropriation of a form considered to be gendered for hir own purposes, which therefore undermines the notion of two fixed genders altogether.


Besides, Hacker’s poem is hot.

[1] Hacker, Marilyn. Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 21.

Anne Dalke's picture

accessing the link to Stein's "Lifting Belly"

kwheeler's picture

Class Summary 11/27/07

We started out discussion by hearing our classmate’s initial reactions to Stein and Hacker’s poetry. The response from the class on Stein’s Lifting Belly was overwhelmingly negative; many of us felt that her style is annoying and confusing. When asked why we had such an adverse reaction we discovered that a lot of us struggled with her language, lack of any discernable structure and felt like our attempts at “understanding” the poem were “fruitless”. Jessy said that she immediately associated the title with sex (an interpretation that stuck with us for the remainder of the class), and therefore as she read the poem she was in a sense trying to prove her “hypothesis”. She suggested that maybe the poem was supposed to be interpreted as the reader comprehends it and that Stein didn’t want us to read it in a specific way…

We were even undecided on a very basic level as to who Stein was actually addressing in the poem, if anyone. Was Lifting Belly a conversation with Alice B. Toklas? Stein’s internal conversation with herself? Or perhaps a stream of thoughts, representative of her subconscious? Dalke suggested that this might account for the poem’s explicability and lack of structure… and that we should stop digging for meaning in the poem! Perhaps it was meant to enjoyed for its aesthetic qualities rather than its meaning.

If Stein’s poems were incomprehensible, we thought that Hacker’s were the complete opposite. A couple of us commented on how obvious and explicit the intent of her poems are. The poem we read in class was criticized for not using much (if any) metaphor or imagery. Lydia identified the descriptive words used by Hacker to be very tactile as opposed to Truong’s writing which includes more sensory diversity. Hacker succeeds in ironically inserting lesbian erotica into a traditional style of poetry but fails (according to some) to include any of the metaphor or deeper meaning that we like to see in poetry.

After hearing our initial reactions the poems, Dalke asked us to focus our attention on Stein’s Lifting Belly in what seemed like a conscious attempt to instill in us some appreciation for Mark Lord’s favorite American poet. We split into pairs and were assigned parts of the poem to discuss. A few of us felt that we had deciphered GertrudeStein’s “code”, but when we discussed our “findings” with the whole class, we were informed that we were going about readings Stein’s work in the wrong way. Dalke said trying to decode Stein’s work misses the point. However, this is not to say that we aren’t supposed to find meaning in the poem.

Some interesting interpretations of the text were:

(65) The stanza beginning “Sometimes we readily decide upon…”

We thought that this stanza was evoking a clichéd scene of sex and that Stein was writing about conventionality.

· (68) “Lifting belly is amiss” amiss ~ a miss ~ a Miss

· (68-9) “Lifting belly is so erroneous.

I don’t like to be teased and worried.

Lifting belly is so accurate.”

Assuming that lifting belly is a metaphor for lesbian sexuality, we thought that this section could be representative of it not being socially acceptable; it is erroneous or wrong when to Stein it feels right or “accurate”.

· (91) “I say lifting belly and I say lifting belly and Caesars.” Caesars ~ seize hers ~ seizures, alluding to sex

· (95) “Can you mention her brother.


Her father.


A married couple.


We thought this contributed to her commentary on the heteronormative.

So the overarching ideas that we were able to draw out from Stein’s poem were that she was making a commentary about the conventionality and the hetero-normative. This explains her decision not to use fluency of the language given to her and not to have a linear, logical plot. She wanted us to read/be in the moment when we are reading her poem, to appreciate the aesthetic nature of it and understand her overall message without trying to “wring out” a literal translation of her text. By defying grammatical and structural norms she was defying normative rules and institutions and was therefore maybe trying to create a space in the world for lesbian sexuality.

We ended with a thought-provoking quote from Jeanette Winterson which challenged us to move beyond the questions “Do I like this?” Many of us initially did not like Stein’s poem, Winterson suggests that this is because the poem falls “outside of the safety of your own experience”. A poem (such as Stein’s) requires that the reader struggles and works with the text in order understand it; we should not reject Stein’s poetry just because her meaning is not immediately accessible!