Julie Enszer‘s poetry, riddled with the juxtapositions and contradictions facing feminists and LGBTQ activists today, reads like Â the author is throwing questions against the side of her skull to break them open. Her collection Handmade Love isn’t a road trip of a book; more of an amble down a street that has changed much through the years.
In section one of the book, questions are posed and left hanging. What does a feminist do? How do she and her partner go about their day to day lives and at the same time stay on message? Although there’s more to relationships than sex, shouldn’t the sex still be celebrated? The way these questions grate and jostle show a mind that is never still, but I never quite got the impression that Enszer was happy with how the questions she wanted to pose related to the poetry she wanted to write. My sole issue with this collection is that, especially in section one, the poetry on occasions cannot quite do the work that Esnzer asks it to.
The question at the heart of this collection is one I identify with, because it’s one I am grappling with in my own work: What now? In the heady days Â of opposition, feminism — like all revolutions — seems like a moment. But in reality it is lived, messily, confusedly, in the lives and experiences of millions, and it is the shape of those lives that interest Enszer. She evokes the question with some wonderful vignettes, such as ‘Absolutely No Car Repairs in the Parking Lot’, in which a transgender man proudly sports his new body but is unable to find wiper blades for his car. There is a hagiographic feel to the several poems for and about the dead — Ensze has a wistfulness in talking about lives cut short, lives free from worry about how to embody questions and positions over the full course of time.
But I was never quite sure where she was going with these questions, and I couldn’t tell whether that was deliberate or not. Nowhere was this more the case than in ‘Handmade Love’, whose title frames itself as the central poem of this collection. It starts with an incredibly powerful, understated description of the everyday handmade objects of her childhood and those of her grown-up life:
In my carefully buttoned bag I carried books, rocks, pencils,
And other childhood treasures–
I carry [my briefcase] around the house filled with special objects:
Papers, pens, stones and books
These lines crystallise everything she has to say about the passage of time, about the value of the everyday. And then the poem veers on a tangent into a rhetoric that loses the intimacy and subtlety of the earlier lines:
I believe that there are two kinds of love in this world:
Inherited and handmade. Yes, we inherit love
But my people, my people make love by hand
And this, in a nutshell, is my one problem with the book. Three or four times I felt the last line betraying what had gone before, as in ‘First Kiss’, and most disappointing of all, in ‘Seeing Annie Liebovitz’s “A Photographer’s Life 1990-2006″‘, which ends with the somewhat melodramatic “which now she will never do.”Â These moments made me momentarily lose confidence in the poems as poetry, and this slightly undermined for me what she was doing in this collection, because I was never quite certain that her footing was sure. That said, having spoken to Enszer, whilst the point about the last line of the Liebovitz poem remains, my confidence in her vision was utterly restored, and I can see completely what she has done in “Handmade Love”.
That minor quibble aside, as the collection concludes in a series of poems dealing with middle age and memory, the writing feels freer (I want to say the emotional guard of youth has come down, but the caveat above makes me doubt the intention), and there is a greater clarity and completeness to each poem. I wonder if this is because Enszer feels more comfortable dealing with reminiscence than the uncertainty of a blank future. I hope not; that would undermine the strength of the earlier poems. I think what she is trying to do is make us realise how much easier we find it to deal with the past than the future. If that’s what she is doing, then she’s pointing us at one of the most important pieces of self-knowledge we will ever reach. This is a collection that promises greatnesss, and might have achieved it. I think. Almost.
Dan: For me Handmade Love feels like a reflection on the nature of time, on what it does to people and what it does to ideas. Does that make any sense at all?
Julie: Absolutely! I am as concerned with the lyric as the narrative in my poetry. The lyric moment is one that is timeless and transcendent, but the narrative orients itself in time, what happened first, then what, and then what? I like the tension between the lyric and narrative in poetry. Sometimes I feel I am successful at managing this tension and still crafting poetry, other times, less so, though I try to keep those failures tucked away in my computer files.
This question reminds me of Adorno’s essay, “On Lyric Poetry and Society.”Â Adorno writes, “[W]e are concerned not with the poet as a private person, not with his [sic] psychology or his [sic] so-called social perspective, but with the poem as a philosophical sundial telling the time of history.”Â Of course, as a poet, as a person, I’m concerned with my private personhood and my psychology and social perspective, but I want my work to respond to Adorno’s final image. I want it to be “a philosophical sundial telling the time of history.”Â
Dan: Coming back to this answer after what you say later is really interesting. It’s clear you have an ambivalent relation to narrative, both within your poems and as an organizing force on general. I get the sense that whilst you don’t want to let it go and leave the floor totally open, it’s important to you to have a counterforce with which to temper it.
Julie: Yes, I really like how you have stated that.
Dan: Â If I can explain that first question a little, I felt the central question you were asking at the start was “what next?” in the sense of how you take this idea, Feminism – full of dynamism and excitement and revolution – and give it content, not ideological content but real, specific, lived content. It felt as though, looking back, you were asking one of those incredibly important questions that revolutions always need to ask (the same question those old romantic novels that ended at the altar needed to ask): what now?
Julie: Â Yes, the question, what now?, is especially potent in the first poem, “When We Were Feminists.”Â The poem is about what happens when we have ideas and theories that exist in our minds and our hearts and then we apply them to our lives. My history with feminism and generations of feminism is part of what compels that question for me. At college, I was a Women’s Studies major and I worked with a feminist collective, The Women’s Crisis Center in Ann Arbor, MI (USA). Although it was the late 1980s, my thinking about feminism was really formed by ideas about feminism in the United States the 1970s and early 1980s; I was never a “third wave”Â feminist in my thinking and experiences. So the what now? question is partially about how to be a feminist in the conservative milieu of the United States from Reagan and beyond. Interestingly, other work of mine (some in Handmade Love and some in other journal publications) is interested in the question, what now?, in relationship to the LGBT movement. I envisioned an LGBT movement that reconceptualized and reorganized families, but now we are in a moment where LGBT people are entrenched in struggles to marry and model heterosexual coupledom. I have conflicted feelings about this situation that I try to work through in my poetry.
Dan: I found this answer incredibly illuminating coming as I do from a background that’s steeped in European feminism (my background is largely in French-speaking feminism). This is very much involved in meta-arguments and analysis, and I get the sense reading your experience that this may possibly be because historically there has not been such a conservative context for feminism here, which has given it a breathing space away from some of the practical urgencies you describe.
Julie: The contexts for feminism in the U.S. and Europe are very different as you note. While French-speaking Feminism has affected U.S. feminists in many profound ways, I do think that the conservative context in the U.S. has affected it more as well as our own “practical urgencies”Â as you aptly describe them.
Dan: I was particularly struck by what you say at the end. It seems that maybe one can trace — to use that awful word — a narrative through which things pass. What I mean is it is absolutely necessary to have the struggle for the “heterosexual coupledom”Â model, but only so that, once taken for granted it can be transcended, and the LGBT community can once again turn its focus on claiming and celebrating its uniqueness, but from a very different starting point. This is what I’ve seen happening a lot in the queer theory I’ve encountered at conferences in the last year or two. There’s a sense that “we’ve had that debate, and now we can move on and look at our own community without worrying about ‘the outside’ or feeling the need for apologetics in that analysis.”Â There’s what I can only call a confidence that maybe hasn’t been reached yet in the US?
Julie: Absolutely! The confidence hasn’t been reached here in the US and I love your vision of transcending the current debates and claiming and celebrating uniqueness in the future. I’m looking forward to that.
Dan: That question “how do you live an idea?” seems to me to be one of the very oldest questions thinkers have asked. From Diogenes living in a barrel because he didn’t accept society’s norms, through early Christians suddenly realising that if Christ wasn’t coming back straightaway they couldn’t spend their lives waiting on a mountainside, it seems we’ve been wrestling with the issue. And it seems to me the same tensions have always arisen out of it: people who prioritise the idea are seen by others as too exacting, and people who prioritise everyday life are seen by others as selling out. How do you think Feminism’s own introspection on this has moved things forward?
Julie: Â That’s a difficult question! For me one of the real strengths of feminism is introspection and self-reflexivity. I think feminism asks, even demands, that we think about our lives in the most personal and most political ways and examine how we put our principles and values into practice. For me, this is a part of the liberatory process. As you know I’m in a graduate program in Women’s Studies and the value of self-reflexivity is inculcated into us as a strategy for all of our intellectual work. Even as I value self-reflexivity, I am uncertain about how introspection and self-reflexivity move things (political agenda, social change) forward. The danger is that introspection becomes navel gazing and while I don’t think that has happened in feminism writ large it does happen at times. It’s a dynamic balance between ideas, values, and principles and the quotidian. I don’t have the answers to that dynamic tension. What Handmade Love represents is my working through some of the struggles of finding balance and honoring all parts of that tension. For me, the engagement is still a work in progress, and I anticipate that it will be throughout my life. Mostly, I relish that engagement.
Dan: Â By the time I’d finished reading, I felt rather differently about what you were doing. The second half has a totally different tone from the first. I guess if I had to summarise, I’d say the first section feels self-conscious, rather anxious, whereas the second feels much freer, happier with itself, as though you’d reached a peace. Albeit one borne out of sadness. It felt as though life experience had ironed out the self-doubt, at the expense of optimism but leaving a possibly deeper contentment, albeit not without its anger, in its place. Does that relate at all to how you feel about the two sections?
Julie: Part of what I think you capture in this description of the book is my secret desire to be a positivist, even as I embrace postmodern theory. Not consciously, because I try to consciously undo or work against positivism, but unconsciously, I think that I want there to be a life trajectory that brings more freedom and happiness with age and maturity. It is one of my secret fantasies, even as I know it is just that, a fantasy. I think that my ordering of this collection reflected my desire for positivism, again more in an unconscious way than a conscious way.
Dan: I love the way you put this. Having just put together a collection of my own poetry, I am really struck by how much curatorship adds to a selection of works.
I came away in the end feeling the question you’d put to us as readers was possibly an even more important one than “what now?” I felt a real sense that you – and by that I mean I THINK you were intending for us to feel it as we reflect on our own lives – were more comfortable talking about the past than the future. For me that’s an incredibly profound observation on human nature, and on ideas and belief systems. I can’t really think of a question that isn’t leading, but I’d love your thoughts.
Julie: Â Well, talking about the past for me is easier than talking about the future, because I have access to the “facts”Â — to the events, people, situations, and circumstances — and can craft a narrative that brings some type of sense, order, or meaning to them. This project of making meaning is, of course, as much of a fantasy as the positivist vision of life, of a progressive, upward life trajectory. My poetry is very concerned with the past, though, with documenting what was, with creating a record of queer lives, feminist lives, and the ideas and concerns of queers and feminists. This concern with the past is in part a result of my personal desire for retrospective understanding.
In my more recent work, however, including my forthcoming chapbook, Sisterhood (scheduled to be published on June 30th by Seven Kitchens Press), I work at making the past be more in the present. I want the past to continue to become in the current moment and in imaginings of the future. I want the past to be more active in the present. I think (hope!) that this is strengthening my work by making it more immediate, more of the present moment.
The other part of this — thinking and writing about the future — is more fraught for me. Projecting the future is a scary prospect. There is much unknown and uncertain in the future. There are contingencies that we cannot understand or anticipate. Then at a more basic level, in thinking, talking, or writing about the future, there is the risk of being wrong, of incorrect prognostications. I, for one, don’t like to be wrong! I hold my dreams and aspirations close because I don’t want people telling me when I am eighty, see you didn’t do any of those things! Or you didn’t put those beliefs or values into action! So writing about the past is, in some ways, a safer enterprise.
Dan: This ties in with the sense I get that for you feminism is about engagement and not a project (or narrative). I get the feeling that it’s always self-conscious, and always anxious, but that it is precisely this that keeps it alive, always in conversation with the present rather than reflective or mired in (or rather as well as, maybe in a friendly tug of war with) nostalgia.
Julie: Â Oh, I really like these different ways of thinking about feminisms — engagement, project, narrative — and especially how they map to different geographies of feminism. Your description of how I experience feminism and reflect that experience in Handmade Love seems right on point to me.
Dan: Finally, a question about the poetry itself. “Handmade Love”Â feels as though it’s the central poem, largely owing to the title, but also because it has this then and now structure that’s a bit like a crystallising of Blake’s Innocence & Experience. I had three real thoughts about the poem – again, I’d be interested to know how you feel. First, I thought bag and briefcase images were very powerful and effective, largely because they were so understated they gave us space to think. Second, there’s such a lot going on there I’m intrigued by the actual process you went through to keep a lid on it and stop it spilling everywhere. Finally, I’m intrigued by the last three lines. They mark a complete change of tone, almost as though you’ve looked up from the page to address the crowd. The rhetorical repetition of my people in particular was totally unlike the first part of the poem.
Julie: “Handmade Love”Â is an interesting poem in the collection because it is one of the oldest poems in the collection. It was one of the first poems that I ever published — on a great website, Technodyke.com that was active in the early part of 2000. In retrospect, I really didn’t know what I was doing as a poet or with poetry then. I revised the poem for this collection from a space where I felt I had more control and internal vision for what I was doing as a poet. I returned to the poem, though, because it felt like an important poem to me. The central idea — which you correlate with Blake’s Innocence & Experience — still feels very present to me. I’m glad you found the images powerful and effective. I’m always interested in reminding myself that I have been the same person throughout my life. That there are strands that connect me to the six-year-old girl I was, the nineteen-year-old young woman I was, etc. I find great solace in these reminders. Containing the emotions and packing them into images and language that is spare is always my challenge. I do a lot of free writing in the early part of my poetry writing. Then I let that simmer and work to pare back the language. I try to capture the emotion in the images and contain it with form — “Handmade Love”Â is in couplets and finding that structure really helped. I love your observation about the last three lines! Yes, they are a change in tone — and when I read it in public, I always look up from the book and directly address the audience with those lines. It’s often the last poem of my readings. I like how the change in tone, the repetition, and the pun, are arresting.
Dan: I must confess when I read this I slapped my hand to my head and said “doh”Â. I commented that the last three lines felt like rhetoric, but what I had entirely missed, and you have brought us back to, is the importance of poetry as something that is communicated in different forms, as something read aloud. I was particularly uncertain about that pun at the end. It felt like a bit of an authorial wink at the audience that took me out of the rest of the poem, but the way you describe performing it makes total sense — in a way that’s what it is — it’s a perfect way to close a reading and leave the audience thinking. Which shows just how dynamic a poetry collection this is!