On Poetry & Why Write the Body? / For Rickey Laurentiis's blog Cayenne, 2010
Thank you for your question, such a good one, which has provoked a much longer answer than you asked for, forgive me. As I’ve thought about what you asked and tried to answer, I’ve walked back and forth in my studio between the keyboard and the kitchen: cutting garlic and a purple onion, into a skillet with butter and salt, four sliced red potatoes, soon the wet broccoli rabe waiting on the cutting board. I’m cooking for one and I’m waiting for someone, someone who comes sometimes but won’t tonight. So I’m answering your question at least two kinds of hungry.
Back in the olden days, at the end of the revolution, when popular movements against colonialism and racial segregation, against patriarchy, and against war had changed what it meant to be a human being on this earth—in this country and all over the world—when there was less talk about marriage and more about liberation—when the liberations that had already been fought for and won seemed a prelude for more to come—there were brilliant French feminists writing about ‘writing the body,’ in ways that fascinated me as writer and as a woman, and also gave me pause. Their inquiry did make me think for the first time about the vast silences in literature where the particulars of a woman’s physical existence might be–but “écriture féminine” was never a phrase that corresponded with my thinking or experience, as vastly various as even then I understood what the world called “men” and what the world called “women” to be. My comrades sometimes sorted into the anti-racist organizers I worked with and the people we teasingly called ‘the gynuflectors’; sometimes the teasing turned to something else, as on the occasion of one Take Back the Night march which fell apart over some wanting only women to march and some wanting men of color to be included. In more intimate terms—between me and my clothes, between me and the page—I never fit any social definition of gender I encountered. Sometimes I still hesitate in front of gendered bathroom signs, forgetting which door I’m supposed to be assigned to. But while I wasn’t sure my ‘écriture’ would be especially ‘feminine,’ I did and do remember and value radical parts of those French feminists’ thinking–like that of Hélène Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” writing, “Écris-toi: il faut que ton corps se fasse entendre.” (“Write you”—the intimate you—”your body must make itself understood.”) (It sounds like the end of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso,” doesn’t it: “You must change your life.”)
It seems to me that the body is important to women writers, to queer writers, to writers of color, because in the systems of oppression in which we live, the parts of human life a dominant group finds frightening are projected onto the subordinate group—as if women writers have bodies and men writers do not, as if queer writers are made of our sexuality and unqueer writers are not, as if writers of color have a skin and ‘white’ writers do not. So those of us who possess the privileges of this system possess both power and emptiness—what James Baldwin called “a terrifying sterility”—and those of us dispossessed possess the richness of human life as it is, without the power to live it that liberation might bring.
And now these ways of living, or ways of not living, have brought us to this time some people are calling The Great Dying—because of course the splitting and denying of the body is a move toward death, a move that we as a human species may, in the time of our great-grands even, complete. So for me this is why write the body—the individual body, the sexual body, the body politic, the assailed body of the earth—in this time. To make a possibility for human survival on this planet. To listen to hunger, one’s own and that of others: for food, for touch, for liberation. To feed and to eat.