The following quotes from Telling Sexual Stories by Ken Plummer (1995) were chosen because they struck me immediately as being particularly applicable for this project (and Gottlieb’s work), although truthfully the entire book is quite relevant:

1.   Somehow the truth of our sexual lives lies in better communication: in telling all. There should be no ‘sexual secrets’. Tell your partner exactly what you desire. Tell your children every nook and cranny of the erotic world. Come out to your parents if you are gay, tell your teacher if you’ve been sexually abused, tell your therapist if your husband is a sex addict. Stand in the public square and shout through a microphone the story of your rape, or your abortion or your gayness. Go on television to announce your impotency, to demonstrate your sadomasochism, to reveal the innermost secrets of your heart, to get a ‘Blind Date’ or to find a ‘Hunk’. Tell, tell, tell. An intimate experience, once hardly noticed, now has to be slotted into the ceaseless narrating of life. If once, and not so long ago, our sexualities were shrouded in silence, for some they have now crescendoed into a cacaphonous din. We have become the sexual story tellers in a sexual story telling society (4).

I could not possibly agree more with this quote; I feel very lucky to be surrounded by many people who are comfortable (/brave/silly) enough to divulge intimate sexual details. I’ve talked about oral sex with my mom, sat for hours in my favorite cafe discussing orgasms with girl friends, swapped fantasies and experiences with partners, and just recently had an awesomely personal conversation with a teacher. It’s so incredibly refreshing and liberating to be open and honest in Real Live Conversations with people, often unexpectedly, and to feel a genuine connection through sexuality using words rather than touch.

2.   Power is a process that weaves its way through embodied, passionate social life and everything in its wake. Sexual stories live in this flow of power. The power to tell a story, or indeed not to tell a story, under the conditions of one’s own choosing, is part of the political process. (26, Emphasis original)

Reading Plummer’s connection between power and sexual stories made me instantly think of Daphne Gottlieb’s poetry. The way she paints pictures of her own sexuality and experiences – intensely highlighting some details while obviously omitting others – seems to be the embodiment of this particular quote. Plummer also states that power “flows into lives making some abundant in capacity… and others diminished” (26). This is particularly evident in poems such as “you never forget your first,” which I will be analyzing in detail in a later post. She recalls her “first” as an incredibly raw, abusive experience. I will come back to this quote and adjectives Plummer uses to describe these “abundant” and “diminished” situations.

I admit to having struggles already with the blogging format in this assignment.  I feel so connected to the linear style of writing and so comfortable with the relatively rigid academic formatting guidelines (Limit usage of personal “I!” Don’t interject “I think/feel” sentences! Follow citation rules! Keep everything neat and tidy!) that subverting or queering them for the purpose of this little textperiment/sexperiment (har) seems off. Don’t get me wrong, I adore blogging and love using it as a medium for my personal and poetic writing, but combining it with academic text (which is the point of this) is like writing with the wrong hand (or, to tie in some Cixous, masturbating with it.)

My main concern is that this will be confusing or too jumpy, or on the other hand, that it’ll end up too rigid and conventional… it’s a damned if I do/damned if I don’t situation that only I am creating for myself. Perhaps this is one of the mental roadblocks that queer or progressive writers face: how do we balance? how do we avoid being “too extreme” AND “too boring”?

I feel like both Gottlieb and Cixous would be shaking their heads and saying “Fuck ’em, just go for it.”

Daphne Gottlieb’s poem “haircut” reminded me of a discussion we had in class yesterday about gendered appearance and stereotypes about butch/femme. (I’m including the entire poem this time)

My baby keeps her hair
short.
Number 2 guard, 1/4 inch white oster clippers short
short hair.

Not I’m-depressed-and-I’m-going-to-shave-my-head short,
just short.

She’s got beautiful baby-short hair.
Baby short, not basketball-player short
or concentration camp short or
or military short or militant short:
not monk short
or cancer short.
Just
short.

Her gray hairs shine like
flashbulb filaments,
one for each brilliant
idea she has.

She’s getting more and more
gray. She says it’s my
fault.

My baby keeps her hair
short:
Nothing to cling to desperately,
nothing to get tangled up in.
My baby keeps her hair short–
she likes it that way
and so
do I.

I feel like Gottlieb is using hair, an aspect of the body, as a marker of an identity. She makes sure to distance her lover’s hair from both “military short” and “militant short,” images often tied to women with short hair, but does not create a hierarchy between the concepts; she just points out what Is (reminding me of the reading Safe Trip in which calling the narrator’s lover a bull dyke is like yelling “Trees!” at a forest).

Because hair (specifically long hair) is so closely tied to what could be considered hegemonic femininity, rejecting the ideal is a way of subverting gender norms. Although Daphne herself has long hair (from any pictures I’ve seen), which could lend itself at first glance to the butch/femme sexual stereotype, Daphne rejects that as well with her language usage. In other poems in which she is the first-person narrator, she uses strong and sometimes masculine language, which would tend to conflict with her outward appearance. Likewise, she refers to her short-haired lover as “my baby” repeatedly, calling her hair “beautiful” and “Baby short,” also conflicting with norms relating to such short of hair.

On a personal level, I love this poem because it deals with short hair as an identity marker. Although this may seem silly, as soon as I chopped my own hair off (which seems slightly longer than the subject’s in this poem) I immediately felt more connected to the “queer” label that I claim as an act of moving outside of the gender binary.

Sexuality  as a separate yet connected element of the personal self is a theme that spans both Cixous and Gottlieb’s work and is particularly important to analyze in terms of language because it is often less apparent than others (or at least less acknowledged, due to historical/social taboos). Helene Cixous places a heavy emphasis on this concept in her theories of the self, stating that writing is:

[An] act which will not only ‘realize’ the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories which have been kept under seal… (880).

Cixous continues to cite sexuality and the honest recording thereof as a means to reject the hushed and limited nature of societal views on female sexual practices (as well as societal views on sexuality in general), a way to tear women away from the “superegoized structure” of androcentric society (880).

Likewise, in Telling Sexual Stories, Ken Plummer states, “Sexual stories live in [the] flow of power. The power to tell a story, or indeed to not tell a story, under the conditions of one’s own choosing is part of the political process” (26). The weight of telling sexual stories, especially ones dealing with concepts such as victimization, being queer, or having “explicit” sexual desires – all of which are often seen as even deeper taboos – can be a source of empowerment for both the writer/speaker and her audience (27).

Daphne Gottlieb’s work deals with all three of these more “risqué” topics, and her telling of her sexual stories and sexual self is simultaneously uninhibited and carefully calculated. By writing about past sexual abuse experiences as well as current forms of reclaiming sexuality using fluidity in her lexicon and imagery, the poems embody the power that sexual writing can hold according to both Cixous and Plummer.

Just wanted to insert this little footnote from my original paper proposal:

The word “woman” is used in Cixous’s The Laugh of the Medusa (1976) inclusively to mean both woman-as-woman and woman-as-person. She states that man must write him self as well: “it’s up to him to say where his masculinity and femininity are at,” which in turn will cause them to “[open] their eyes and see themselves clearly” (877).  Cixous sees men as victims of the oppressive patriarchal state just as women are: “the way man has of getting out of himself and into her whom he takes not for the other but for his own, deprives him, he knows, of his own bodily territory” (877). However, because language and speech are explained and seen to be “governed by the phallus,” the concept of femininity remains the default in her essay as well as my own (881).

Also: In class, we discussed the gendering of pronouns and using gender-neutral language, and while I can recognize that using woman-as-person (with the disclaimer about men) excludes individuals who do not subscribe to or fit into the neat little boy/girl gender boxes that we have socially constructed, I do appreciate her early use of the female pronoun as opposed to the typical male default.

In this poem on pages 73 and 74 of Why Things Burn, Daphne Gottlieb describes how she chose writing poetry as a teenager:

“forgetful, I spent a year writing poems
feverish, as if each was the first
about girls, me, and all
the things that happened to those girls, me
and all those poems, monsters the way
adolescence is monstrous”

Using writing as a sanctuary from a “monstrous” adolescence, she reconnects with her self despite, “the isolation of the unfamiliar body / that no longer even remembers itself.” However, as the poem progresses the reader learns that she accidentally left her notebook out, which her father finds and reads. In describing her father’s response, she says that he witnessed puberty like a disease invading his daughter, and she was “a 14-year old host vulnerable to foreign bodies / the enemy, the trembling, the bodies”

By using the metaphor of an illness, a “wild, unchecked growth,” young Daphne takes on the role of the plagued and disease-ridden, being preyed on and used by the “foreign bodies,” both hers and – more importantly – others’.  However, the lack of symbiosis/healthiness in the relationship Daphne had with these invasive bodies escapes her father, the doctor, who responds to her confessional poetry by saying: “you know who / that girl is / don’t you? / that girl’s / a whore.”

In he language her father chose (“that girl” and “whore”) he distances himself from her, furthering her feelings of being misunderstood and preyed upon. Now, Daphne has not only been betrayed by a multitude of things: the invasive bodies of others, her own body during the turmoils of adolescence, her father, as well, in part, by her poetry. In an attempt to be honest and confessional, she is outcasted once again, which clearly has emotionally scarring effects on young women. Although she does not recall in this particular poem the specifics about her sexual encounters with other boys (or men), I assume they are intense and difficult for her to process at a young age. This sexuality seems to be placed opon her by Other Bodies and is now labeled as deviant by an outsider, her father.

As a woman, I could think back to the invasiveness of not only puberty but also young men who attempt to test their limits and take advantage of our “unfamiliar bod[ies],”  could remember feeling disconnected and unsure about my own sexual impulses and those of others. This sexual ostracization was difficult for me to read because it felt so real and personal, which is only one of the many reasons why Daphne’s poetry has such an impact on me each time.

I found out about Helene Cixous in my feminist theory class during the fall semester of 2007. Diana Tigerlily introduced us to Cixous during a section on – appropriately enough – French feminism. Cixous resonated with me rather intensely and I remember finishing “The Laugh of the Medusa” feeling immensely satisfied with what I’d absorbed. I went to class the next week ready to discuss and was more talkative in that class than I had been in any other, which was a personal accomplishment in itself.

The phrase “Write your self. Your body must be heard” has echoed in my brain since the very beginning, and it has become one of my mantras in both my writing and general navigating of the world. She continues:

To write. An act which will not only “realize” the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving  her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories which have been kept under seal (880).

Although Cixous does not discourage men from writing and expressing their selves, her focus on women’s writing is obvious from a feminist perspective; as many of our foremothers have pointed out, the very language (both written and spoken) in which we participate is birthed from patriarchal and racist mindsets or  “governed by the phallus” (881). This reclamation of linguistics and text is as important – if not more so – than the reclamation of our bodies, and Cixous argues that the two are inseparable. Aside from the literal bodily connection between the mind and the pen (the keyboard, the typewriter), writing provides a distinct voice to each person, a voice that had not been – and, indeed is still not always – given to women of any color or creed.

I have used “write your self” as a tagline inside notebooks that I have designed and either given to friends or listed for sale because I also find the act of writing to be tied so closely to the body. In my own writing, whether poetry or blog entries (which I feel are becoming an essential form of expression) I try to let my voice be heard through specific words (chosen of fabricated), punctuation, use of asides, etc. because it gives me a sense of purpose and selfhood.

Indeed, Cixous talks about the individuality of each woman that can be found through her body and through the expression of her essential self (emphasis original):

What strikes me is the infinite richness of [women’s] individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes – any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another. Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their stream of phantasms is incredible (876).

Cixous tells of imaginary worlds within each woman, a place where she has had ultimate rule all of her life but often chooses not to express. She urges us to hone in on this world and exclaim “I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs” (876). These lines fill me with so much hope and encouragement that I tear up each time I read them. To think that it is possible to completely let go of societal pressures, guilt complexes placed upon our sex (referred to by Cixous on page 878 as an “antinarcissism” or “the infamous logic of antilove”) is just awe-inspiring.