Book Review

More often than not, as I recall some twenty years ago, an initial reaction to poet Lee Ann Brown’s Tender Buttons Press was a rather dismissive “oh, an experimental poetry press that publishes only women.” To which I respond, hell yes! An experimental poetry press dedicated to work by women is exactly what’s required to ensure kick-ass work gets out into the world. As poet Katy Bohinc, “Star Arkestress, Tender Buttons Press” recalls, “I heard Mei-mei Berssenbrugge say once, ‘All the best poets are women.’” And as New York City poet John Godfrey remarks in a 1997 Poetry Project newsletter interview with poet Lisa Jarnot, “most of the interesting poets writing are women exploring the language in an exciting, fresh way.”

I couldn’t agree more and have always felt exactly the same. Without a doubt, female poets continue to lead the way forward. Gender lines (what lines?) are, after all, much more fluidly meshed today as poets, coming after the groundbreaking work originally accomplished by women—including some key texts published by Tender Buttons—have felt the impact within their own poetry. This includes a great many straight, cisgender men as well as remarkable work by gender-defying figures such as Julian Talamantez Brolaski. However, the influence of women’s writing is a historically recent phenomenon. In terms of publication, and accompanying critical notice, women—particularly those who are poets of experimental leaning—only began to make inroads en masse during the latter half of the twentieth century.

There is every reason to believe this is not due to some happy accident or sudden change in women’s writing habits, as Bohinc asserts:

I believe women writers have existed at every moment throughout history. We can’t see them in the historical record because of (a lack of) “documentation”—the process of publishing and critical reviews and writing of histories: the process of canonization. I think it’s absolutely about process and nothing to do with existence or excellence.

The serious lack of suitable models for writing based on women’s experience has been distinctly felt by many. Alice Notley’s Doctor Williams’ Heiresses (Tuumba Press 1980, now available online at the Eclipse archive) is but one such early marker inventively spry in drawing attention to the situation. This presentation of the isolated position in which Notley found herself when, as a young woman writing poetry, she looked around for peers and predecessors, remains remarkably engaging.

Obviously notable to this genealogy is the overabundance of men. With a stated mission to change such state of affairs, Tender Buttons Press is most suitably named for/after a text by that great poetry momma of modernism: Gertrude Stein. The Press’s “Founding Editrix” Lee Ann Brown describes how she “created Tender Buttons press in 1989 to publish the work I love and am inspired by and need to see in the world.” Her vision for the press embraces the same radical writing path of openness to language’s experiential wonder as Notley’s own:

If I had to choose one word that points to the trajectory of the press, it would be “multiplicity.” Multiplicity is here how language can bloom into meanings that express multiple realities, sexualities, genders, racial identities and all kinds of subject positions.

Tender Omnibus fully upholds Brown’s vision, indisputably offering substantial evidence of “how language can bloom,” producing challengingly wonderful and diverse poetry. Without skimping on any of its offerings, all twelve titles—the complete catalog of the press so far—are presented in full, including Bernadette Mayer’s instantly canonical Sonnets; Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings; Anne Waldman’s Not a Male Pseudonym, unpublished for fourteen years until Brown came along; and the irrepressibly charming poet-math love letters to the philosopher Alain Badiou which comprise Bohinc’s own Dear Alain.

This is not to mention the explicit sexual jaunts of Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups, which she recently delightfully revisited in the literary smut send-off Cunt Norton (Les Figues 2013) (a must-read for undergrads stuck in boring Norton-powered poetry survey courses) and the hilarious sexy fun of Michelle Rollman’s quite literal visual pun drawings in The Book of Practical Pussies. Also included are sneak peeks at two upcoming Tender Buttons projects, the daunting Truck Darling’s Hunger Notebooks (“I love autonomy, but ALL THAT RISES / MUST CONVERGE. I am an amber Rx bottle, I hunt / For a rosehearty fuckproof world. My microcock, / A salmon skin roll”), and the drawing-text hybrid bliss of Julie Ezelle Patton’s B.

Hannah Weiner’s Silent Teachers  Remembered Sequel is as demonstrative as any Tender Buttons title of the press’s experimental core. The work at once challenges, obfuscates, excites, and finally obliterates reader expectations. Weiner is most widely known for composing her 1978 Clairvoyant Journal, written in part from words which she saw manifest spontaneously on her forehead and other surfaces. Her Tender Buttons volume “published in honor of the author’s 65th birthday, November 4, 1993” extends her earlier poetry practice with hints of entering the realm of the memoir while refusing the constrictive nature of a prose narrative:

passages are remembered and infinite    repeated often
say next sentence so is this permissible without
never forget permissible that you are without sentence
identified when you walk clear often like streets
next sentence so many lies tell stories that are obliterated
nevertheless  sometimes we sentence handle  sis next page
hannah it takes time make clear to read silence without
I continue read at the church without combining
make it clear that I said I was indifferent to silent
make a sentence structure like in the picture without

Weiner’s work provides adamant testament of the direction women’s experimental poetry has pursued since the 1960s. Tender Buttons has had the luck and good merit to publish work that falls within this lineage. It is work that addresses its place and time, alert to the ramifications of context. As Jennifer Moxley’s Imagination Verses dedicates itself “To my contemporaries,” this too is the banner under which Tender Buttons might be said to operate as a whole. The intent is to have an impact on the current climate of poetry publishing.

Moxley’s 1996 preface to her book poses a central question confronting the reception of any published work, that is, its relationship to the reader: “where literature is found has less to do with its force than who we are when we find it. Are we ready to receive it?” While it certainly did not feel as if much of the poetry world were ready for many of these texts the first time around, now times seem to have shifted in their favor. Although, yes, Tender Buttons’s focus is on experimental women’s poetry, if anything the books they have published demonstrate how broad and endlessly variable a field of work is covered by that term. There appear to be no applicable limiters, and that is an exciting prospect for the future of all poetry and all readers of poetry.

About the Reviewer

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His essays and book reviews appear frequently with a wide number of both online and print publications. His recent books include “There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn’t Talk”: A Gustonbook (Post-Apollo), Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling), from Book of Kings (Bird & Beckett Books), and Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil).