17. Running On The Spot

Anna Keir [1980?] Untitled [Anna Keir, Marian Evans, Allie Eagle] pencil & ink drawing 26x33cm

Anna Keir [1980?] Untitled drawing l to r Anna Keir, Marian Evans, Allie Eagle  26x33cm

When I get excited – by fear, grief, delight, anger, worry – adrenalin itches under and around my tongue. My pupils dilate. Multiple stimuli pour in. I lose my capacity to frame a sentence. To recognise an unnecessary parenthesis. And I run at the mouth: multiple blurts. It’s not pretty.

Intimates know to wait. Sit it out. Sometimes they smile. Put an arm around me. Ask a considered question or two. Ask me to PAUSE. Sigh. Laugh and roll their eyes. Tell me off. Etc.

Fortunately, I’ve learned to be calm. Most of the time. But not at the beginning of Prue Hyman’s interview for Wellington’s Lesbian Radio Show, a Radio Access programme I love.

I’m not sure what did it. I know I was worried about reading a Muriel Rukeyser poem. Prue had suggested Rukeyser’s Looking at Each Other, which seems to be about two women. It starts:

Yes, we were looking at each other
Yes, we knew each other very well
Yes, we had made love with each other many times

I’m not a poet. I don’t read poems in public. But I’d practised, and practised a little bit of The Speed of Darkness, too, because that’s where Throat of These Hours started.

And it was earlyish Sunday morning, when I’m usually carrying home vegetables and fruit from the waterfront market. And I’d had a solitary week, not speaking much. And there was concern that the Radio Access transmitter was down, affected by one of the 800 lightning strikes that hit Wellington a couple of days earlier; we learned that the show was going out only to computers. And the studio we were in was the model for some of the scenes in Throat of These Hours. It was the space where we’d filmed Tinkerbell, the 48Hours film that explores one of the Throat of These Hours themes. It was the studio where I record Wellywood Woman podcasts, where I was used to being the interviewer. And then, at the beginning of the interview, for a while everything I’d said seven seconds ago played softly through my headphones.

Who knows which combination of these reasons – not excuses – tipped me into run-at-the-mouth mode and kept me there for the first third of the interview (the other two-thirds was a lot of fun). It doesn’t matter. Prue is a lovely, well-prepared interviewer and her first question about Throat of These Hours, was easy to answer, or should have been. All I had to say was ‘Throat of These Hours is my play about two women working in a Wellington radio station, and the renowned American poet Muriel Rukeyser who lived between 1913 and 1980. It’s in the third draft of two versions, one for stage and one for radio. I aim to (re)introduce Muriel’s life and work to a wide audience, especially to women. And I aim to entertain – I’m thrilled when readers laugh and hope that audiences will laugh, too. Throat of These Hours includes some of Muriel’s poems set to music and I’m blessed to be working with Christine White, an ace composer, whose work plays with the viscerality of the poems; the compositions extend and enhance my understanding of Muriel Rukeyser’s life and work.’

I could have talked about how Catherine Downes’ classic play The Case of Katherine Mansfield influenced the choices I made: to have my fictional characters speak and sing Muriel Rukeyser’s poems and prose; and not to make Muriel Rukeyser a character herself, but to create an idea of her powerful presence in the world, from verifiable facts and from deep care with what is unverifiable.

I could have added that the project’s part of my ongoing quest for unimpeded access to a coherent tradition of women writers whose work nourishes me and whose lives inspire me, that it’s part of my resistance to default engagement with the master narrative, with the golden boys and with the ways their lives and work have conditioned me. I could have talked about my recent days with two other writers and a painter, each of them also engaged with women artists and writers from the past, for similar reasons.

I could have said that I believe that in New Zealand the women writers for the page are published and reviewed equally with men and that this is globally unique. We could then have had a little discussion about how New Zealand’s writer heritage is dominated by two women: Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame. We could have noted that of our living writers, only two so far – both Maori women – have won major international awards: Patricia Grace the Neudstadt Prize and Keri Hulme the Booker Prize. We could have celebrated Eleanor Catton’s place on the short-list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, with The Luminaries and delighted in her awareness of herself as a woman writer, as evidenced in this interview particularly (many thanks for the headsup, P2!); and enjoyed her statement that ‘The woman who wakes up to herself is always fated to die [in fiction]. Because we can’t countenance a world with wide-awake women in it.’ We could have talked about Jane Campion’s global position as a filmmaker. We could have referred to Pikiteora ‘Pixie’ Williams (1928-2013), the singer of Ruru Karaitiana’s Blue Smoke, who died recently.

We could also have celebrated Lorde – storming a glorious trajectory across the world with her Pure Heroine album. A few weeks back, Eleanor Catton said in an interview, referring to herself and to some other local writers

We are on the cusp of a new change in New Zealand…. A new guard is coming in. The face of New Zealand literature is about to change radically [in the context of this article, where she also refers to cultural cringe, I infer that she refers only to Pakeha New Zealand literature].

Lorde, who describes herself as a singer, a performer, a popstar and a writer, is an integral part of that radical change. Thanks to the qualities of Lorde’s lyrics and her engagement with other writing – she’s been placed in a national short fiction competition – and to her global reach through publication and performance, she’s arguably transformed the face of ‘New Zealand literature’ all on her own, partly because of her contribution to the wealth and diversity of Aotearoa New Zealand’s impressive oral literature traditions. Her achievement ’s extraordinary. Astonishing.

We could have discussed similarities in reports of the familial circumstances that nourish Lorde and Eleanor Catton; and noted the men who support their work, as equals. I could have rejoiced in Lorde’s self-publishing history. I could have referred to the remarkably creative symbiosis between the International Institute of Modern Letters (where Eleanor Catton studied) and Victoria University Press (her publisher), both led by men, because I believe it’s profoundly reinforced the strong position of New Zealand women writers.

We could have discussed why I need more than this vibrant local tradition of women writers. I could have said that to feel free to refuse my personal default setting – a reversion to men’s stories about the world and about women – I need a larger group of inspiring women writers. I could have referenced Pip Adam’s video about her new book, I’m Working on A Building where she  – another New Zealander – refers to being conditioned to be more interested in men in literature than in women (here, from 4:27, couldn’t embed). I need diversity, I might have said. I love all these New Zealand women’s works, but they don’t speak to Pakeha me the way Muriel Rukeyser speaks to me, maybe because she was a single mother, bisexual, worked in many mediums, was an activist.

But no. I think  – can’t bear to listen again – that I began three unrelated paragraphs that made little sense. One after the other.

I hated my clumsiness – beyond deep embarrassment – because I didn’t do justice to Muriel Rukeyser. And started to think again about how to retain an appropriate frame under all circumstances.

And then a mate posted advice from Buddhist monk Ajahn Jayasaro, about how to develop Right Speech. Ajahn Jayasaro advises constant inquiry, asking about Content: Are these words true?; Purpose: Are these words beneficial?; Context: Is this the right time and place to speak these words?; Mental State: Is my mind free of defilement, do I speak with goodwill?; Expression: Are my words clear, polite, appropriately expressed? Oh, I thought, yay, here’s a structure I can use.

My comprehensive Right Speech Fail on the Lesbian Radio Show – encompassing Content, Purpose, Context, Mental State and Expression – did one good thing. (Eventually) it took me back to an ongoing concern: what is ‘Right Speech’ when engaging with the life and work of a real person like Muriel Rukeyser?

There are so many possible approaches to this. But my first reference point tends to be the long tradition of practices that undermine women storytellers and our stories about women and affect our access to vital information about the lives and works of significant writers like Muriel Rukeyser, about whom there’s no full biography, no film, no play.

Purpose and Goodwill are particularly important because in story-telling women have been underrepresented and misrepresented for a long long time. Jonathan Gotschall’s comprehensive and cross-cultural statistics-based investigation into folk-tales is a straightforward example. It shows that female folk-tale characters are underrepresented (1:3) among prominent characters, that the percentage of active male protagonists significantly exceeds that of active female protagonists, and that there are almost always more references to female ‘beauty’ than to male ‘beauty’.

In the back of my mind, as I consider this kind of thing, always, there’s Tillie Olsen’s Silences, where she writes about the effects of underrepresentation and misrepresentation and the pressures they place on women:

[P]ressures towards censorship, self-censorship; toward accepting, abiding by entrenched attitudes, thus falsifying one’s own reality, range, vision, truth, voice, are extreme for women writers (indeed have much to do with the fear, the sense of powerlessness that pervades certain of our books, the ‘above all, amuse’ tone of others). Not to be able to come to one’s truth or not to use it in one’s writing, even in telling the truth having to ‘tell it slant’, robs one of drive, of conviction; limits potential stature; results in loss to literature and the comprehensions we seek in it.

Muriel Rukeyser utterly refused these pressures, which I imagine is one reason that fellow Anne Sexton (who also resisted them) called Muriel ‘beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’.

In How To Suppress Women’s Writing Joanna Russ describes mechanisms used to maintain the pressures Tillie Olsen refers to – abusive patterns of behaviour that harm women, well known to all who are familiar with the psychological violence inherent in domestic abuse. One mechanism is to ignore women writers completely. Others are to dismiss our work because we write about the ‘wrong’ things; to condemn us for writing in the wrong genre; to blame us for what others have deleted from our work; to mock us and misrepresent us. In other words, these mechanisms are used to deny and belittle our realities instead of respecting them. ‘Are used’, because decades after Tillie Olsen and Joanna Russ published their analyses, these and other mechanisms still flourish.

No, you say. Surely not. But yes, the mechanisms are alive and well. VIDA and other groups, like The Stella Prize in Australia, record and analyse reviews of women’s writing and find that women writers’ work is ignored in many significant publications. The scriptwriting world, too, is riddled with expectations about what women can and should write, expectations that limit women writers’ opportunities.

And The Place of Women in Art and Culture: The Time Has Come to Move to Action, a recent French governmental report, also refers to unrelenting difficulties that reflect the Jonathan Gotschall findings and Tillie Olsen’s and Joanna Russ’s ideas. The report identifies three problem areas: the maintenance of stereotypes in cultural contexts; the comparative invisibility of women artists in those contexts – their absence from retrospectives, major prizes, festivals; and male dominance in strategic places in major institutions. The report even stated that it was legitimate to explore the possibility of creating places and programmes entirely dedicated to women writers, choreographers, film directors and painters. Amazingly, action has begun, within months: this week, a Charte de l’Egalité for the French film industry came into existence. Its first signatories were powerful government and industry bodies,as well as Le Deuxième Regard, the activist group that initiated and drafted the charter.

Even in New Zealand’s women-rich literary community, Joanna Russ mechanisms are persistent. Thirty years after the bone people won the Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton’s achievement has inspired people to email me about my involvement with the Spiral Collective that published the bone people. Someone sent a link to C.K. Stead’s long-ago review of it, a classic example of an attempt to belittle a woman’s work through assertions that she writes about the wrong things in the wrong way. (Most of what he writes about the Spiral Collective is absolutely true – there’s just one chapter in the original edition of the bone people that’s immaculately proofed – and I stand by our decision not to ask Keri to edit her manuscript, except for one short passage for clarification.) A current New Zealand example of misrepresentation seems to be Gifted, a play about Janet Frame whose author Patrick Evans (no relation) has – among other things – refused to accept that Frame was wrongly diagnosed as having a mental disorder. What Purpose or Kaupapa – as film editor Annie Collins describes it – justifies the problematic elements in these two pieces of writing (and their echoes in C K Stead’s review of The Luminaries and fellow reviewer Simon Sweetman’s piece on Lorde)? What was the Mental State of these men? Is there evidence in their writing of the kind of respect that Catherine Downes showed to Katherine Mansfield?

But, you may say, that Janet Frame play is ‘fiction’. And Janet Frame’s dead, as is Muriel Rukeyser. As I think about this, an email comes from an acquaintance, who writes: ‘This is something I believe in very strongly, the use of fiction to draw out inner realities. It’s why we use clown noses and masks in our practice – to say the things we can’t say otherwise, because we don’t realise we feel them, or are too scared to say them.’ And I go, ‘Ah. I get that.’ But because of the history that Joanathan Gottschall documents, the behaviours that Tillie Olsen and Joanna Russ describe and the French government’s findings, I think that whenever writers bring the life or work of a woman writer into a fiction after her death we have to be very very careful. We have to verify the ‘facts’ we present and justify the inferences we make from the facts and from the writer’s work. Just as we would if she still lived, just as if we would if we were creating a biography – for page, stage or screen – instead of a hybrid work.

Poet Kate Daniels says in Searching/Not Searching: Writing the Biography of Muriel Rukeyser, a 1985 essay about her (never published) biography of Muriel Rukeyser:

The process of biography writing calls for the biographer to stand back, ego firmly in check, to let the life unfold, to flower (or to wither), to reveal itself in all its complexities, contradictions, irrationalities, in short to reveal the full experiential range of any human life.

I hope that my fictional characters say some things I can’t say otherwise, draw out some of my unknown/unrecognised inner realities. But when they refer to or quote Muriel Rukeyser I sometimes feel fear, about the qualities of what I’m doing. Because of my own inner realities, it’s such a short distance from celebration to colonization. Do my characters use Muriel Rukeyser’s words in a context that appropriately echoes the facts and the complexities of her work and of her life? And I don’t want to idealise her. As Kate Daniels wrote in her journal, she herself wanted:

To celebrate the beauty in the lives of others. The conventional beauty, and the less obvious, harder beauty: the beauty of being human in trying circumstances, overcoming ugliness in oneself, admitting one’s uglinesses and despairing of them: yes, that is beauty.

Those Right Speech principles, especially Purpose, will help my necessary juggling act, I hope.

It’s not simple. But as an autoethnographer from way back, I find that my own experience helps me to be careful and not to be paralysed by the fear. Of course, people have applied Joanna Russ mechanisms to my work. Many times. Not necessarily in writing, but New Zealand is so small that there are few secrets, although some things are rarely said in public. One of my favorites is a report that an influential public servant dismissed my rigorous academic work because I am ‘an ageing hippy’. That was a shock, until I recognized the strategy and laughed.

I’ve also perceived issues around language, how it conveys different meanings at different times. A few weeks ago, one of those the bone people correspondents sent me a link to a transcript of a 1991 phone interview with Keri Hulme, who has always been kind and generous to me; I love it that she called me ‘dream-maker’. Here’s an excerpt from the transcript:

INT: One of the things that had been commented on in an article by Elizabeth Webby, a professor in Australia, was that you had originally had trouble publishing the novel because they didn’t think that it depicted women favorably enough. Is that right?
KH: Oh, yes. Yes it is. …There were three women in the Spiral Collective, Spiral number five — that formed to publish three books, not just mine specifically, but also a collection of poetry by a lesbian writer called Heather McPherson, and a collection of short stories by the first Maori writer ever to have a short story published, Jackie St[urm]. One of the women, Marian Evans — all three of them are feminists, two of them are Maori and one is Pakeha — … carries her feminism to a degree of fervency and militancy that, you know, would put most people who like myself call themselves feminists to shame. Marian approached a large number of women’s organizations in New Zealand, ranging from the radical to the very conservative and sedate, and was unable to get support from any of them as an entity. There were numerous private offers of contributions and support, but nobody was going to back it because Kerewin, they thought, was a little bit odd and didn’t make the right noises, certainly not as a stereotypic New Zealand woman but also — she wasn’t sort of like a proper feminist either. She drank too much, for a kickoff.

I read ‘Marian carries her feminism to a degree of fervency and militancy’ and thought ‘NO! that feeds into a myth about me as a scary radical!’ Because I’ve always seen myself as predominantly gentle and persistent, a bunny, though sometimes an angry bunny who runs at the mouth (a clip to prove both these things, from the week in 1980 when I first met Keri, is below). And then I realized, after a chat with mates, that in 1991 ‘fervency and militancy’ had different shades of meaning than they have now, in the post 9/11 world. And that Keri was complimenting me. (I still wonder about the ongoing reach and effect of ‘fervency and militancy’ though, which is one reason I include it here, with the clip.)

There’s every chance that however I contextualise Muriel Rukeyser’s words, I will make mistakes because this is a different time. But I intend that the discipline of close attention to each of the Right Speech elements: Content, Purpose, Context, Mental State and Expression (a script is not an interview: there’s time to edit and re-edit) will help to overcome my limitations. Because Muriel Rukeyser’s been given a hard time, in her life and after her death.

Writers’ lives always, I believe, include failure and disappointment. Muriel Rukeyser had her share. For instance, her hybrid work Savage Coast, based on her own brief experience of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, was published for the first time this year. It’s a novel, a documentary, a poem, and an extraordinary read. I don’t have the book to hand to check the editor’s introduction, but according to one review:

In 1937, after she’d won acclaim for her first book of poems, Theory of Flight, her publisher rejected the Savage Coast manuscript, calling Rukeyser’s autobiographical protagonist ‘too abnormal for us to respect’ and the novel ‘a waste of time’. Rukeyser continued to work on it during the Second World War, but it eventually turned up misfiled in an unmarked folder in the Library of Congress, readied for publication that never happened.

Recognize that ‘too abnormal’, ‘a waste of time’? Followed by a wait of 75 years for Savage Coast to reach the world?

In an interview for the New York Quarterly (1974) Muriel Rukeyser describes another hurtful episode, more explicitly gendered.

One of the attacks on me for writing that Hariot book [a biography of Thomas Hariot] spoke of me as a she-poet – that I had no business to be doing this and I was broken for a while and looked out the window for a while. And then I thought, yes, I am a she-poet. Anything I bring to this is because I am a woman. And this is the thing that was left out of the Elizabethan world, the element that did not exist. Maybe, maybe, maybe that is what one can bring to life.

From this, I surmise that although the use of a Joanna Russ-type mechanism ‘broke’ Muriel, the brokenness may have transformed her and her work. And this reminds me that often the very difficult can generate the very beautiful.

But after her death men continued to use similar mechanisms, which may explain why more than Savage Coast was lost, and many of us lost access to Muriel’s life and work, part of our literary heritage. Kate Daniels again:

In some sense, I am ‘restoring’ Muriel Rukeyser’s life just as surely as I am retrieving and reassembling it from the dusty boxes and cartons, the manuscript collections, the published books, the interviews with her friends and family. Sometimes I worry about Muriel being laughed at or dismissed or received cruelly by those who will read the book I am writing. This often happened in her life. Why should it be different now? It is so easy to laugh at a woman, easier still to laugh at a large woman. I think of all the people I’ve interviewed, men and women, whose first comments have so often been on Muriel’s appearance. ‘She was very obese,’ a famous critic said immediately to me, and waved his hand dismissively. ‘I didn’t really know her well.’ And the Frost scholar from Israel sat on my couch lighting his pipe, and saying conspiratorially, ‘She was very unattractive, you know,’ as if this were the primary fact of a woman’s life story, of a poet’s life story.

After her death, knowing all this, I have to step up to her work and life with deep respect, all the elements of Right Speech to hand. Again and Again.

Back to Lorde now. She’s been explicit about being a feminist. The other day she published an essay that I read as a landmark manifesto from a woman artist. She writes about her intention to build a good name for herself and her resistance to brutal behaviours that fit into the Joanna Russ paradigm. The essay took my breath away and I hope you’ll read it all (maybe alongside the recent Sinead O’Connor, Miley Cyrus and Amanda Palmer open letters, especially Amanda Palmer’s).

At the beginning, Lorde writes about performing in New York for the first time and then hearing from a New Yorker journalist that ‘he’d overheard something in the VIP section’ of that show:

A silver-haired record company guy had pointed at me, up there onstage, and said slowly to his friend, ‘Lots of zeroes.’ The journalist said, kind of rueful: ‘Nothing but a spreadsheet with hair.’

She then punches her way to a powerful conclusion:

I knew it would never be about zeroes. I’m not a spreadsheet with hair; will never be. I am an artist, an author, with a hunger for showing people what I can do and a talent for making people turn my name into a call while they’re waiting front row. It’s me. I’m here.

And, on the way to that conclusion, she discusses the misrepresentation of women artists’ drive to excellence, something that happens in film as well as music.

For instance, when Women & Hollywood asked Dana Rotberg, the writer/director of White Lies| Tuakiri Huna, New Zealand’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Academy Award, ‘What advice do you have for other female directors?’, Dana replied:

Honor your wisdom. Tell the stories that matter to you and never, ever pay any attention to whoever may judge your expectations of excellence and preciseness in your work as ‘outbursts of a neurotic and demanding PMS bitch.’

And Amy Pascal, chairman of Sony Pictures, said this week, in reference to director Kimberly Peirce, that the movie industry is ‘institutionalized not to support women, even if a lot of us are trying to change it.’ And she continued, ‘If female directors are driven and single-minded and want to protect their actors as Kim does, they’re problematic. If it’s a man, he’s passionate.’

Referring to William S Burroughs’ statement to Patti Smith: ‘Build a good name for yourself, because eventually that will become your currency,’ Lorde writes:

Every step I’ve taken since I signed my development deal has been to ensure I am exactly who I want to be, perceived how I’d like to be perceived. Like I said, this isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I’m a teenager, and I’m a girl, and those are factors that can stand in the way of maintaining control… Lots of people ask me if being a female in the music industry is difficult. I think it is in some ways. Nicki Minaj spoke… about sexism in the industry. [She] complained about the poor quality of a photo-shoot and received this wave of aggression and insult. ‘If I am assertive, I’m a bitch. If a man is assertive, he’s a boss. No negative connotation behind bossed up!’ Truth is, if Nicki doesn’t complain about a bad photo-shoot, people working with her assume those low standards are acceptable, but if she does complain it’s very hard for her not to be pegged as a diva, which I think is one of those industry double standards that has hung around far too long. I identified with her so strongly…I know what it’s like to walk on set and demand something of quality, and feel people thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve got such a piece of work here.’ That’s just me trying to protect my image and my name. I sometimes think if I were a male musician, the reaction to such a request would be different.

Lorde’s essay gives me hope. Hope that as she helps to revolutionise the way ‘literature’ is perceived globally and revolutionises ideas about ‘New Zealand literature’, she will also help revolutionise attitudes to women artists who insist on excellence. And along the way encourage us all to value Right Speech.

Later in that radio interview, when I moved (mostly) from run-at-the-mouth mode to normal, Prue and I had an off-air and on-air conversation about whether only lesbians should make films about lesbians. I had complained about the small numbers of lesbian films in the local OutTakes Festival and that a man’s film about lesbians opened the festival this year. This is such a tricky question. Of course, all writers and filmmakers must be free to make work about whatever subject they choose. BUT the reality is that white men almost always find it much easier than anyone else to access the resources to make the film of their choice. And historically they often use their resources to under- and mis-represent women, in the grand tradition described by Jonathan Gottschall and reported by the French government, as well as to misrepresent many other ‘others’, some of whom are also women. How to redress the imbalances when colonized peoples of various kinds don’t get to tell their own stories in public? Kate Daniels was publicly challenged about writing Muriel Rukeyser’s biography as someone who is not a ‘northeastern, leftist Jew’. In this Context, is Throat of These Hours the right time and place for me to speak of Muriel Rukeyser and use her words? My next post is about ownership of stories.

But for now, back to that radio play.


15 October CODA Emails in response to this that confirm that the Joanna Russ mechanisms are alive and well in New Zealand today. The emails come from women writers I respect. And some of the content shocks me.

22 October And then Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize and Jane Campion offered free masterclasses in Wellington, so I wrote Sharing The Love as a sequel to this post.

Anna Keir, Marian Evans and Nancy Peterson from Auckland Women’s Community Video, Women’s Gallery 26 Harris Street Wellington, January 1980. (‘Kidsarus’ is a collective that published children’s picture books, among them Patricia Grace and Robyn Kahukiwa’s award-winning classic The Kuia & The Spider/ Te Kuia Me Te Pungawerere, in dual editions, the Maori translation by Syd Melbourne and Keri Kaa.)

Niki Minaj (now – 15 October – blocked, alas!)


2 thoughts on “17. Running On The Spot

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