Kathleen Fraser
Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity
Tuscaloosa & London: University of Alabama Press, 2000

I was a little intimidated by writing this review.

Kathleen Fraser told me I could say that.

She didn't actually tell me, but her recent collection of essays, Translating the Unspeakable, more or less permitted me to admit my anxiety over writing this review. In eighteen pieces of writing that span twenty years, Fraser freely discusses the fears and difficulties she has faced as an innovative woman poet -- while tackling the important aesthetic issues one would hope to find in such a collection. Her style is utterly refreshing: a hybrid of formal and informal, memoir and criticism. The result feels completely necessary.

Fraser is the author of fourteen poetry collections and former professor at San Francisco State, where she directed The Poetry Center and founded the American Poetry Archives. She is probably best known for editing and publishing HOW(ever), a journal dedicated to innovative women's poetry, which presently exists in a second incarnation, HOW2, online. Another disclosure: I work on HOW2, because after meeting Fraser last summer at a conference, she took me under her wing, informing me about the poetry world at large and mentioning HOW2's need for involvement by young women poets. It is clear to me both from experience and from reading these essays that Kathleen Fraser is serious about nurturing and participating in a community of women writers.

Community is central to this book, and while some pieces describe actual friendships that propelled Fraser forward -- she tells a moving story about receiving a note from Barbara Guest in the 1960s, when Guest was a major New York School figure and Fraser was starting out: "I think it is time we meet each other, don't you? It seems we must have a good deal to talk about" -- others discuss the virtual communities that occur across time when a young poet is fueled by the work that has come before her. Whether rewriting overlooked poets (Frances Jaffer, Beverly Dahlen, Ntozake Shange) back into the avant-garde canon or considering the work of recent women poets as descendents of Olson in their full use of the page, Translating the Unspeakable serves as testament to the secret/secreted history of women innovators. Fraser deftly illustrates sexism at work in one story about dinner with a male poetry critic who dismisses all poetry books written by women from the 1960s to 1990s right in front of the two women poets dining with him. Elsewhere, Fraser's discussion of Lorine Niedecker's contribution to modernism are particularly astute and, for this reader, served as an awakening to the brilliance of Niedecker's work.

A question which permeates the collection, suggested by the title, is why do women experiment? Or, as Fraser asks, "why this imperative to find provocative word orders?" She offers some startling and informative theories: rebellion against the patriarchy, but also lack of free time, the need for a female language, a way of making the personal public. The most compelling ideas come from Fraser boldly sharing her own experiences -- as reluctant public speaker, single mom, editor, professor -- as a means of illustrating the necessity women feel to create innovative work. And while many of the anecdotes come from what we'd like to view as eras past, the importance of recognizing women's roles in the continuous reshaping of poetry is utterly crucial and relevant to the 21st century. Translating the Unspeakable is a delightful, provocative document of -- and active struggle for -- women's innovation and inclusion.

--Arielle Greenberg