Introduction to a reading by poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis

Kerry Sherin Wright, Director of the Kelly Writers House
December 3, 2002

Hello, and welcome to the Writers House. Thank you all for coming to tonight's reading and book party in celebration of Rachel Blau DuPlessis and her most recent book of poetry, Drafts 1-38, Toll. I am Kerry Sherin Wright, Director of the House, and as one of Rachel's many students and a longtime reader of her work, I am delighted to have this chance to introduce her tonight.

Just a few weeks ago at Temple, minutes before my dissertation defense, Rachel entered the room where the defense would be held, where the rest of the committee had already gathered, and saw the fifty chairs and the conference table and wondered aloud whether or not we might want to reorder the furniture. She relinquished the idea, but not before noting that it was typical of her to enter, then immediately want to reorder, her environment.

Resistant, Rachel has called herself, and it is that resistance, as well as her commitment to enacting it on paper, felicitously showing the labor of one woman/person writing and being written, that together have been so important to so many writers, especially women writers, over the past thirty or so years.

Certainly this resistance and the commitment to enact it in writing arise from Rachel's powerful and informing feminism. In the essay "Blue Studio: Gender Arcades," - an essay written in response to questions about "feminism today" posed by another former student, Barbara Cole — Rachel describes where that feminism began for her:

"I remember sitting, lonely and isolated, in approximately 1971 or 1972, in Lille, France, where I was teaching. It washed over me (such was the force of One of the Great Books of the early cultural-social feminist movement - Kate Millet's Sexual Politics) that all of culture would have to be reseen with feminist eyes from the very beginning. Everything would have to be remade - the Greeks, the Bible, the histories of literature and poetry, all cultural products, all-name them!....Everything! Remade! Ever since, I have been doing what I could."

She adds: "It's not euphoria or fashionableness-those could never motivate 30 years of work. It's more like Conviction."

So, for the past thirty years, Rachel has been working to reorder, reconsider, refacet, the cultural environment, many genres and pieces at a time. Her essays literally create space for other women writers to write into by mapping the margins of the mostly male-authored, ideologically patriarchal, literary "tradition," that Stonehenge of monuments, and exploring intimately, ironically, as manifesto and performance, how a "she" might find and write into those vast and tiny spaces. Her scholarship models in model ways how to recast modernism with an ear for its authors' ideological investments and redresses.

And Rachel's poetry, which we will hear tonight, remakes literary tradition. Like her essays, her poetry is characterized by the way it archives the labor of thinking and re-thinking, remembering and membering - how it forges a subjectivity of unfixability that is also always relentlessly material and delightfully specific. It is analytical and lyrical and the opposite of illustrative. From Draft 38: "Writing goes recto to verso, memory the other way. Poetry the wobbling pivot." From Blue Studio: "Watch out-I just somewhat contradicted myself. Look at the oscillation, the dialogic shimmer, the wobbling, the wavering, the fluidity."

After reading Rachel's most recent book, Drafts 1-38, Toll, the long lifework in canto-like sections that she has been producing since 1985, now published by Wesleyan, I am struck by how much her own poetry has itself become a kind of monument-if one remembers, as she reminds us in the endless play, the stretching out and doubling back, the push me pull you dialectic of words and their branching meanings, answers that are always also questions, that even the hardest stone is actually infinite bits in motion, if one listens right.

One of the central tenets of Rachel's writing practice is to take nothing for granted, especially not a woman writer who has produced so much excellent work, who has cleared so many paths for other writers, whose commitment to gender justice in the context of social justice - her phrase - is such a lived practice. And so it is Rachel's work that gives us license especially to celebrate her. Please welcome Rachel Blau DuPlessis.