The conversation below addresses the work of one of the major European poets of this century, Amelia Rosselli (1930–1996), whose writing has been brilliantly edited and translated by Jennifer Scappettone in Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose by Amelia Rosselli (U. Chicago, 2012). The thinking of Rosselli’s contemporaries in the Italian neo-avant-garde, autonomist and feminist movements of the 1960s–1970s, has been an important resource for the contemporary left, including those involved in the Oakland avant-garde. We thought invoking and investigating Rosselli’s work, especially the poem “Document,” written over the course of the hottest period of Italian anticapitalist resistance, might give us new perspectives on our blurry conceptions of whatever a contemporary avant-garde might be or become. Rosselli composed “Document” from 1966–1973, years marked by Italy’s student uprisings of 1968, by organized labor struggles such as the dramatic Fiat strike during the “hot autumn” of 1969, and by the growth of the Italian autonomist feminist movement Lotta Femminista, which expanded Marxist theory by re-inserting the obscured reproductive labor usually done by women into the relationship between labor and capital. Rosselli was exposed early to Marxist ideas. Her parents were both activists. Her father, a hero of the Italian anti-fascist resistance, was assassinated alongside his brother in 1937. The event was front-page news across Europe. Rosselli grew up a political refugee in France and Massachusetts and later studied in England, becoming a skilled musician. Settling permanently in Italy, she authored eight volumes of poetry in Italian, English and French and wrote a critical study on harmonic structures in folk music. In 1996, on the anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, she jumped from the window of her Rome apartment to her death. A native speaker of several languages, Rosselli committed herself to writing mostly in her father’s tongue while working against its formal and cognitive limitations. Some of her poems critique the interdependence of aesthetic and capitalist formations, and in this they resemble the writing of Eduardo Sanguineti and his fellows in the neo-avant-garde, though Rosselli and other women remained “a tiny and marginalized minority” in the movement  (Re). Suspicious of avant-gardism and its tendency to reify hierarchical and exclusionary practices in its efforts to resist, even more suspicious of mainstream confessionalism’s “self-exceptionalizing” gestures, Rosselli wrote a radically anti-egoistic poetry, “choral” and macaronic, that integrates rigorous formal invention with a irreverent and strategic melding of her several native languages in order to “address afflictions shared” (Scappettone). 

 

SS: Reading Jen Scappettone’s introduction to Rosselli (it’s so rich and smart), I was struck that Amelia Rosselli viewed confessionalism as “a great defect of feminine or slightly feminist literature.” That’s provocative. There’s disdain for the “private,” and the private is in some sense synonymous with the feminine. Yet she admired Plath, which seems odd since her poetic is so different.

 

CW: She spoke of her resistance to writing as an “I” in a conversation about her early poem “The Libellula: Panegyric to Liberty.” Maybe we could relate this to her resistance to confessionalism?:

 

I try to collapse the division between a writing I and an imagined you. I wanted to create a full identification of the writing I, which is also a you that I address . . . who becomes another I. The sharp difference between an I and a you, present in Montale as it is in other poets, is perhaps a typical feature of masculine language. . . . My passion for [Montale] was so strong in a certain moment of my life that I sought in every way to contradict him. . . . It was a way of discovering myself.

 

In her work a passage might look like a love lyric but refuse to settle on a love object or stay consistent in its pronomial references — she’s playing with the convention. She wants to “express problems and solutions to problems that are collective,” even when the I is present, rather than to focus on the self; “the I is the public, the I is thing . . . the I is the things that happen.”

 

SS: She identified with Montale to oppose him, so that the collapse of the I-you is a political/feminist move.

 

CW: It’s interesting to compare her with Ashbery (who was the first to publish her poems in English): he similarly shifts pronouns, but his pronouns are more passive. Rosselli’s poetry is accusatory toward both “I” and “you.”

 

SS: Reading Rosselli made me think of Laura Riding, whom Ashbery’s written about—another often-overlooked brilliant woman modernist who tried to kill herself by jumping out a window! and who has aesthetic similarities to Rosselli, a similar urge to rigor. Anyway, in “Document,” Rosselli is saying “I am not like [you],” the other writer, the male writer—she’s “not able to go along with the others / in any way”—yet there’s a sense that there must be “solidarity” with other writers and workers. There’s a struggle not to become  an object. 

 

CW: I think in “Document” (which is maybe my favorite poem in this amazing book) she’s pretty pessimistic about that prospect, and utopic prospects in general. 

 

SS: There’s a melancholy that’s cut off or disjointed from the narrative of the larger political situation—I felt over and over that it was intimacy that could not attach itself to any material thing. It existed, but almost as a ghost. I love the line “like an old sadness the piazza / at two a.m. was deserted and distant / parasentiments.” It captures a sense of a lack of agency, alienation, in the public/political situation. 

 

CW: She speaks of her discouragement in an interview about “Document”:

 

The title is ironic. Poetry has never been a precise document of what is lived, but instead a sublimation; poetry attempts not to be sublimated. Because of this I can lose control; my life has taken a turn toward discouragement, I therefore document what happens, in life and in poetry: I have no choice. . . . I record what happens to me: poetry is not, as some think, pure spirit, but records unexpected events, the exhaustion of quotidian life.

 

In “Document” there’s sex and intimacy and it seems to fail, and there’s political protest and revolt and it fails. And poetry seems to fail too—or it’s this paradoxical embattled thing:

 

…I battle unarmed for a

clarity that has no permit to exist

so long as you play with this providence

which stamped our faces with that anxiety

of existing outside of commercial

 

clinging to the basest wishes . . .

 

SS: “Dear life who has gone astray from me / with you I would have made sparks fly.”

 

CW: Yes, and there’s so much in “Document” about the power of capitalism and the market to affect quotidian reality:

 

unacceptable reality

manipulates reality so well

each

thing around or within while with things . . .

 

Which might not seem like it’s about capitalism, except this comes right before it:

 

they have soft mantles, those kids

imprisoned in their substances: dyed

thick tresses. They pour water into that emporium

good for everything: the libido. It has

changeful dusky colors and yellows profitably

reduced to an imaginary level of

its private satisfaction.

 

 

This seems to be about how capitalism uses libido, organizes “private” life for profit. A continuum of ideas and images concerning libido, objects, market, and reality keeps coming up.

 

SS: When I see the word “libido” and the adjective “enervated”—she uses the phrase “enervated platform”—I think of Mina Loy. Or Joyce Mansour. There’s a Loy-like ironic disappointment that’s pretty obvious when she says “shattered penis and cracked conduit are / there to be your guides.” Loy’s poem “Human Cylinders” begins:

 

The human cylinders

Revolving in the enervating dusk

That wraps each closer in the mystery…

 

“Human Cylinders” is a poem about modernity, about the mechanization of human emotion, about the difficulty of forming human intimacy in a mechanized and dehumanized world. Rosselli’s poems discuss these very issues—the body that is broken by the broken world.

 

CW: Ha yes, these structures that seem phallic, that don’t work, and that harm men and women. And the war machine in which human bodies participate—

 

They have fused the war device with

my fingers overly occupied in helping themselves to

cannibalistic foods and all the world

has run to see. 

 

SS: There are many images of war—bombs, airplanes (a futurist go-to)–which come back into the poem. The “life” with which you could have made sparks “strays away,” and then you get a bomb. 

 

CW: Could we talk about the poem in “Document” that starts “I try one market—then I try another”? It seems like the one that might help us build connections to contemporary avant-garde(s). 

 

I try one market, then I try another

I soar over difficulties yet remain

bogged in them: it’s like saying, sure if you want me

I’ll be like you: the same pap to your 

ventriloquist affects!

 

Poetically one dodges, tries one’s best

even more ambiguous: the research of those who are well

has no end.

 

Ten shillings a year ensure

survival, if well ensnared,

manipulated to serve you all as if I worked.

 

Money situated within the minimum manageable

to comment upon the situation you’ve

thrown open, on these abysses that are

a howling at the verge of death so as not to die

of starvation or discouragement: no one

 

wants your dirty verse: as you write

the line to Fidel, or to some other choice

to heroize your faintly traced existence.

You try other heroes, other sacrifices until

you realize they don’t want you and the revolution 

doesn’t even exist, it’s all to be done, not

 

certainly by us. So you decide instead to separate yourself

between two that are ludicrous the first is preexistent

between two oddities to choose the least attractive one

 

and explain yourself thus, as if they asked you to 

(and indeed these days everything’s a market). But

if everything has been and will always be a market?

If wanting the market you find yourself revolutionary 

and wanting to be head revolutionary you find yourself

a market? Will willed nothing but

shifted from one channel to another, mysteriously

your honor’s will was done, to change the other

(the whole world does as you do, if it can) because

certainly what it had decided was that

(as if by chance). Hesitant you rewrite or reinscribe yourself

into the aristocracy-elite of 

artistic minds: no account in the bank

but that minimum ensured predestines you

to the forging of revolutions of content

and attempts at revolution within content.

 

There’s something about the desire of an avant-garde to make change (as Peter Bürger says, more or less: to break down the institution of art in order to fuse art and life) that tends to be accompanied by a reproduction of problematic power structures within that avant-garde. In the first stanza of this poem, Rosselli is trying to get her work published but feels that to do so she’s got to “ventriloquize” more powerful poets’ affects.

 

SS: She’s talking about having to be a poetry player. Hahaha. And how there’s no solution to it.

 

CW: She just gives up on it I think. And if you put it in the context of Lucia Re’s article about women’s exclusion from the neo-avant-garde, it’s really horrible to imagine the “market” she’d be trying to work herself into. “Shattered penis” as guide—who wants any part of that?

 

SS: I think we are in a similar position. 

 

CW: What do you mean?

 

SS: I’m thinking about Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s excellent essay “Numbers Trouble.”  

 

CW: Yes, I remember that very well; their response to Jennifer Ashton’s “Our Bodies, Our Poems” essay.

 

SS: They looked closely at the leftist magazines and saw that the numbers of women published in those magazines was less, percentage-wise, than in the mainstream ones. That was pretty eye-opening for me. Because the left is supposed to be fighting against this kind of oppressive shit and yet.

 

CW: Yes! that resistant formations can reproduce these structures and imbalances and then some. That sort of thing is palpable on the British avant-garde/experimental poetry scene, but maybe somewhat less so here these days? though it feels like such a misogynist period all over the place right now, a backlash phase. I love these Rosselli lines that I think must be directed at her experience of avant-gardes, historical and contemporary:

 

To lead the employees with oneself

to confront the unforeseen

impossible attitudes

discoveries of discovered avant-gardes

confined within the night of an aged

knowledge; within the treeing

of a quotidian conscience.

 

What sort of hubbub you assemble

in the mountains vacuous

yet hushed. You have tampered with frontiers

 

never did I get anything from you all but jails.

 

I want to speculate about something I got from the Griselda Pollock article we read that helped me think about avant-garde exclusionary/hierarchical tendencies. She describes Kristeva’s account of how certain symbolic associations with femininity (and I want to add, queerness, versions of nonwhiteness, any oppressed and charged category) get appropriated by white masculine avant-gardes; they’re signaling resistance to dominant culture by employing feminine tropes. Or by borrowing dialect, musical references, etc., as Michael North observes in The Dialect of Modernism. Anyway, maybe when real women, real people of color show up on the scene, their presence disrupts the symbolic system that is enabling avant-gardists’ sense of their poetry as resistance. Possibly the Oakland scene we’re interested in is an example of an avant-garde that is less exclusionary? I don’t know it well enough but I hope so.

 

SS: I think Pollock’s work is extremely important in understanding the ways in which women have challenged men in the avant-garde. Women show up and they have pregnancies and babies, and need childcare. Another way to say this is that women have demands and make demands on men. They tell men that the men also have to change a diaper and then the masculine narratives are immediately threatened. Even this exchange that we are having now is a kind of feminist intervention in how to look at the avant-garde because we are discussing a not-very-well-known avant-garde female poet who felt a profound ambivalence in her relationship to the avant-garde. I can only speak for myself, but, as a poet, I related very much to this ambivalence. 

 

CW: I think I had the idea to contact you about this partly because we’re both sort of peripheral to anything that might be called a contemporary avant-garde. Because I sympathize so much with their resistant efforts I have concerns about the way avant-gardes try to gather power. Also I can’t help wanting to be accepted by the ones I sympathize with—which is related partly to aesthetic and political affinities, but also, frankly, to a sense that that’s where the cool kids are, and that sense has to do with suspicions, valid or not, that there are exclusionary activities going on, hierarchies and strategic alliances and power plays, and, in the form of manifestoes and attacks and social network debacles, something that resembles marketing. 

 

SS: Of course we want to be accepted, but as women we are in this very problematic position. Such groups have a solid idea of themselves and then someone shows up who isn’t exactly like the others and they don’t know what to do; it changes the narrative.

 

CW: It’s easy to look on from outside at, for instance, Oakland, and say they’re exclusionary—but I am not sure—they have to process change and new people all the time and the scene does change. Or disperses as its moment recedes and later another one begins to form. And the Oakland and UK scenes are rife with interesting women poets, some of the more powerful people on those scenes. Which isn’t to say there isn’t sexism, and those scenes are so white, in general.

 

SS:  Do you feel deliberately excluded from them?

 

CW: The Oakland poets have an identity as a group inflected by their recent history, and I can’t be part of that at all—I don’t live there and I can’t go to those protests.

 

 SS: One of the traditional conditions of the avant-garde is physical proximity to other poets. I would move to Oakland in a heartbeat, but of course there’s that whole thing about having to support a family, so moving is impossible.  Which gets back to being a woman, a mother, having to live where one doesn’t necessarily want to live because of capitalism and gender and class, etc.

 

CW: Yes—which takes me back to “I try one market. . . .” In these lines

 

no ACcount in the bank

but that minimum ensured predestines you

to the forging of revolutions of content . . .

 

I think she’s saying—though I might be reading too literally—that you have to have money to be a revolutionary poet (I hope she’s wrong but money does make it easier). But she then implies that that contains you, limits you or puts boundaries on what you can think and do. Anyway poets need community, totally. I get obsessed with Oakland because of craving community and also someone to take action alongside.

 

SS: Oh me too! But I think that the avant-garde does flourish when people are in the same space. The romantic idea of the poet as one living in pained isolation is bad for art—I don’t want “compensation in that heroic doom which Baudelaire called both his curse and his blessing” (Poggioli).

 

CW: There’s Eigner and Niedecker who had their social lives through correspondence, which I try to remember; but yes, you can be “experimental” on your own but to be “avant-garde” you need a group in a specific place. So we can’t be avant-garde by definition? Caveat: not all avant-gardes are white or masculine. But if we can’t be avant-garde, separated off, as we are, what do we do—a question not about joining an avant-garde, who gives a shit, but about building a way of being that is not shitty, in our tiny shopping-plaza towns, alongside people different from us. It seems to me that is our problem.

 

SS: Hell, yes, we can be avant-garde. As feminists/leftists we have to continue to 1. challenge traditional masculine notions of the avant-garde 2. fight really hard for our voices to be heard (which I think is exactly what we are doing now) 3. not give into the downward spiral/cycle of psychologically negative emotions that stem from a (very real) sense of alienation, loneliness, and despair. I think these emotions are real and come from real problems that we face as women avant-garde poets living in capitalism. I feel profound sorrow and compassion for Rosselli because of her alienation, her suicide. But I also feel joy at, for example, this exchange with you (a poet I respect and admire), making connections with other avant-garde poets. This is so important and should not be overlooked. 

     I want to mention something about Rosselli that I think is interesting—when she says she is interested in “that which is obscured.” It made me think of the trobar clus. Do you know this reference?

 

CW: I don’t! (Sidenote: I am entirely with you on #1 and #3, and also #2 assuming it’s “our” voices in a broadly feminist sense.)

 

SS: Trobar clus was a complex and obscure style of poetry used by troubadours for their more discerning audiences, and it was only truly appreciated by an elite few. I really wonder whether she read these troubadours. But the poets of the medieval, it was to signify to the aristocracy . . .

 

CW: Obscure/contradictory style—yes I see how you’d connect it to Rosselli, that is interesting. The way that style is associated with signaling participation in a group or class. I am remembering a great talk by Lorenzo Thomas that is on the Naropa site. Some students have complained about poetry’s limited audience, and he explains to them that they’re not working in a “public poetry” tradition. He says they’re in the tradition of court poetry, which is marked by stylistic signalings of mastery that are in part exclusionary and are a way of showing a group that you belong there. “Public” poetry, which he associates with an African American (and African) poetry tradition, has to do with talking to your community, advising, rousing, etc. (though it might have various elaborately developed styles and forms).

 

 SS: Oh, I need to listen to that . . . then Rosselli would sort of be almost turning this around . . . from the court to the street (so to speak).

 

CW: Rosselli says she wants to speak with “a grammar of the poor,” and there’s that piece where she says she doesn’t want to look upward to a relationship with god, but to be on earth (horizontal relationships, equality) with workers. It’s maybe the most hopeful poem in “Document”:

 

General Strike 1969

 

to find yourself there, acting with seriousness:

taking risks! May this apparent

childishness shatter even my own

power not to care.

 

A deep inner God could have sufficed

my egotism did not suffice for me

 

the taste of riches in a revenge

nonetheless smothered did not suffice

 

for these people. We had to

express something better: allow ourselves

 

this rhetoric that was a howl

of protest against undaunted

 

destruction in our frightened

houses. (I lost on my own that vertical

love of solitary god

revolutionizing myself in the people

removing myself from heaven.)

 

SS: The “grammar of the poor” is similar to Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous.” Like Oppen, though, she’s not a particularly populist poet. Don’t you agree? I think her aesthetics resist that very much.

 

CW: I agree—she’s for sure not a “public” poet in Thomas’s definition though she might want to be. She says in that sad sad poem that breaks itself

 

this ballad

does not disturb your gasping I

does not turn into forceful song

 

“[My] poetry accomplishes nothing.” She needs to work deep in the language(s), be “choral,” register the complicated world she grew up in and lives in, and this connects her to the avant-garde and its tendency to propose (certain kinds of) difficulty as resistance. But she also really wants to connect to “the people,” and her extraordinary ultraliteracy might prevent her:

 

...Hesitant you rewrite or reinscribe yourself

into the aristocracy-elite of

artistic minds: no account in the bank

but that minimum ensured predestines you

to the forging of revolutions of content

and attempts at revolutions within content.

 

(I quoted that last part before.) Are these “revolutions” in content restricted to the literary and is that partly what she means to damn? Is this about how class divides and contains us? Though she herself doesn’t have much money, there is a strong class barrier between her and the “people,” the workers, even if she feels happy joining the General Strike. It’s as though when she writes she reinscribes herself into a class that separates her. So if she and the avant-garde are revolutionary, they’re only revolutionary within “content,” within the writing, but not beyond?

 

SS: Hmm. “Revolutions of content” vs. “revolutions within content.” What’s the difference, do you think?

 

CW: Well, “contenuti” can mean “the contained”—and throughout the poem there’s all this containedness, being stuck inside, stuck in a sack, etc. Maybe “within” emphasizes the play between content and contained, as if you can’t “get out” to the people in another class?

 

SS: It has to do with the intersection of class and poetry, that class is contained and replicated in poetry. And how depressing that is.

 

CW: Yes. In the phrase “forging revolutions of content” there’s something about changing content, changing what’s under discussion. But it’s also about making change in “the 

contained,” which could apply to oppression, class division. And then there’s the implication that this change fails, because there you are, working within the contained, and how do you get out?

 

SS: Exactly. “Content” as the limit of the poem. It’s an interesting thing for her to fix on because she’s testing the form/content binary, and form is such an avant-garde concern.

 

CW: Yes, you can see why she would insist on working with content! If there’s a chance of “revolution within the contained,” there’s potential for change. So, in all, I think the tone is ambiguous—pretty negative but with a hint of hope.

 

SS: The meaning can fork in different directions, but the passage “If everything has been and will always be a market” is saying that there is no escape. You want to be a revolutionary, you become a market. And it’s that exact desire that becomes what can sell in a co-opting of  all revolutionary impulses.

 

CW: She says that class reproduces itself even when individuals will differently: “your honor’s will was done, to change the other / (the whole world does as you do, if it can) because certainly what it had decided was that  / (as if by chance).” I think the “you” here is the ruling classes. The world keeps on doing what the rich want, “as if by chance.” No wonder she is “hesitant” to involve herself in the game!

 

SS: There’s a recognition of the wishful thinking when we imagine that the individual will can intervene, and I think that is the depressing part . . . she sees that so clearly in her poems. She is not writing out of delusion. 

 

CW: Yes, exciting that she is undeluded, but omg I want a little more hope, and she was so depressed, and committed suicide! on Plath’s deathday! I mean come on.

 

SS: Right. That makes me so sad. There’s this passage that I love:

 

Just the facts, repress the sentiments

then recover a “person” that’s yoked

steadfastly to the floor

 

Again we encounter the personal/private. “Just the facts” sounds like legal language, perhaps gendered masculine, and recovering a “person” (subjectivity) sounds feminine.

 

CW: Yes! great passage—there is play with facts vs. affect/emotion all over the poem.

 

SS: “Obliterating each passage of your sentimental life.” I thought she was telling herself to write a certain way. I see this as the “male authority” voice, an internalized idea that to have feelings/sentiment in avant-garde poetry is a weakness, because sentimentality is feminine and aesthetically off-limits. Plath was similarly conflicted in her diaries, she goes on about how to make poems that are “unsentimental,” yet she never desired to be in any avant-garde scene and had all sorts of conservative reservations about the avant-garde. So in this way Plath and Rosselli are markedly different and yet they both hear that authoritarian/paternal voice that tells them that good poetry is unsentimental, and, for lack of a better term, “muscular.”

 

CW: She has moments that seem to reject traditional associations with the feminine. Somewhere there’s a maiden without a dove, and Scappettone’s note explains that this is gendered, that the dove is maidenly. And what about “I did not come forward with my flowers”?

 

SS: It sounds like we’re putting the blame/responsibility on these avant-garde groups . . . like saying that their exclusiveness is their problem. But I also wonder how fair that is. These problems are structural. 

 

CW: I wonder whether we could think about our own wish to be part of an avant-garde, this problem of place, and see what it would mean to self-consciously create an avant-garde that we would want to be—to fake one up, experimentally. I am imagining defeating geography online in some unsurveilled net-neutral paradise (as we edit our conversation on Google Drive). I think it’s funny that in order to feel OK diving into a discussion of avant-gardism (which tends to be so macho), I felt the need to hold hands with a woman. 

 

SS: Oh and I’m so glad that you asked me to take part in this exchange. It’s always that weird thing for me because I think that if we had a utopic community, there might not be any need for avant-garde poetry practices. We would literally obliterate our own work, the need for it (that’s Bürger’s take on what avant-gardes want, isn’t it? Like the “self-abolition” of poets Commune Editions blogged about). And that would be fine, I think. I doubt we would have to “send out our poems” or “submit poems” to anyone. Or maybe in this community someone would just get up from a communal living space and sing a song if he/she felt like it and that would be a new poetry? I’d like to go surfing once in a while too! I have all sorts of romantic ideas. I always joke about how great it would be to start a poetry love commune in Malibu but then probably we would just replicate all the problems of society.  I’m definitely more of a proponent of love communes than of committing suicide on Plath’s deathday . . . and of course, I am always wondering why on earth we became (was it a choice?) experimental poets? as women? It does seem so crazy.

 

CW: Sing cuckoo. 

~

 

 

Bernes, Jasper, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr. “The Self-Abolition of the Poet.” Jacket 2 (January 2, 2014). http://jacket2.org/commentary/self-abolition-poet.

 

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-garde. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

 

Poggioli, Renato. The Theory of the Avant-garde. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968. 

 

Pollock, Griselda. “Moments and Temporalities of the Avant-Garde ‘in, of, and from the feminine.’” New Literary History, 2010, 41: 795–820

 

Re, Lucia. “Language, Gender and Sexuality in the Italian Neo-Avant-Garde.” MLN, 119 (2004): 135–173.

 

Rosselli, Amelia. Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli. Ed. and tr. by Jennifer Scappettone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 

 

Spahr, Juliana and Stephanie Young. “Numbers Trouble,” Chicago Review, 53 (2007): 88–111.

 

Thomas, Lorenzo. “Poetics of the Blues, Part I.” July 24, 1989. Archive Project, Naropa University. https://archive.org/details/naropa_lorenzo_thomas_lecture_the

 
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