Crotchless-Pants-and-a-Machine-Gun Feminism

What is “crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun” feminism?

The term is inaugurated in Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young‘s new book, A Megaphone, which is a collection of three works by the avant-garde poetic duo.

A Megaphone highlights the work Spahr and Young have done recently in the avant-garde poetry world–which the authors describe as “weirdly aggressive towards anything that even suggests a contemporary feminism”–and reprints several essays which seek to describe how women writers are to proceed in literary communities that favor male writing.

The book’s central thrust is a wonderfully dizzying collection of 75 responses to Spahr and Young’s call for international woman poets to share their personal and professional experiences–an attempt to fill the gap where women poets belong.

The authors describe the collection,

… as a shout-out to the feminist work that writers are already doing and to work that they might do in the future. Maybe work that they do together, even if they do it at separate desks. It desires a big sticky, messy feminist web.

I spoke with Spahr and Young about their relationship to “crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun” feminism:

How do you see the “playful dogmatism” and “enactments of listening” of the crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun tradition functioning outside of the poetry world?

In many ways, the “playful dogmatism” of a sort of crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun feminism is used more frequently outside of the experimental/avant-garde/etc poetry world. Two quick shout outs: Related to literature, VIDA [an organization promoting women in the arts] has done some important work in the last year tracking [the number of literary women reviewing and being reviewed] in mainstream publications, and has gotten coverage in large media outlets that probably reach far more readers than our poetry puddle ever will. And there is that blog Being a Woman in Philosophy. These are both interesting, even if somewhat limited attempts to gather information or to expose [attitudes toward women in the field]. And yet, at the same time, we always feel it is important to remember that nothing short of a total transformation of economic and political conditions is going to result in the more equitable world we hope for–something more meaningful than the representation of women in magazines or in philosophy departments at 50 percent.

We’re not sure listening is a crucial tool. But we did it anyway. Maybe a better way to phrase this would be to say that listening might be one tool among many. And, like all tools, it might have its moments. And it might have its limitations. Or what we mean is that if feminism ended with listening, or was mainly about listening, it would be–as many feminists have pointed out–somewhat limited to stories of women’s personal experience. And perhaps might lack a more structural analysis.

When we started the project of asking writers in other locations, we were, we confess, hoping for more structural analysis. We sent [the authors] a version of “Numbers Trouble,” [an essay on the paucity of women poets included in A Megaphone] and one thing we hoped to get were some numbers on how many women show up in the anthologies and [win] the prizes and stuff like that in their area. What we got back was a mixture of this sort of information, and a lot of personal stories about negotiating, with varying degrees of success, the structures and distribution networks that support literary production. Our first reaction was, I don’t know, disappointment? But our next reaction was to begin to question our endless desire for more structural analysis.

I too often hear friends and colleagues advocating a kind of post-feminism as a means of actually getting to a post-feminist world, wherein the solution to all this “numbers trouble” is to just live as though the trouble really is over. What problems do you see with this kind of let’s just think it away solution?

Stephanie was just having a conversation with [poet] Eileen Myles about this very question, around some writing Eileen did in response to VIDA’s count, and then also in an interview with Brandon Brown. While acknowledging some ways in which the current moment is not actually post-feminist, Eileen also writes “I think the poetry world you’re describing in so many ways is women. It’s women-driven. Increasingly we’re actually seeing women including men in their things.” This felt so far from Stephanie’s experience of a shared poetry world that she thought perhaps Eileen was doing something performative, like Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s WAR IS OVER. In their conversation it became clear that poetry puddle conditions are probably slightly different, or feel differently, in New York as compared to the Bay Area where we live.

And how crucial the active presence of an organization like [feminist avant-garde collective] Belladonna is in constructing the values or focus of the scene differently. Maybe there is some value to living in a kind of healthy delusion where one focuses one’s attention on the writing one finds most dynamic, where one sees, and writes and talks about all the exciting work being done by women, [as opposed to caring] that magazine x or blog y has once again issued a totally homogenous list of “best of” books by mostly white guys that ignores this exciting work, or valorizes one woman out of 10. For whatever reasons, we find it hard to live in that healthy delusion. This is where it continues to feel incredibly important that we create and support organizations and publications and locations where a more various scene of literature is consistently visible and valued. And, again, it’s impossible to talk about this without also talking, as Stephanie and Eileen did, about activism in a much wider context, about defending Planned Parenthood, about transforming the economic conditions that impact women’s lives in such destructive ways.

I was particularly struck by [the artists-and-activists’ collaborative] Ultra-red quote in the book, regarding the need to channel “affective responses other than rage …” What sort of responses do you think we might all aim for as crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun feminists?

Artists could do much worse than to take up [Ultra-red’s] methods as a model. They are among our personal heroes. While there is no crotchless pants club, oh how lovely it would be if there was. What we like about that Valie Export piece [which inspired the “crotchless-pants-and-a-machine gun” philosophy] is how it combines being crotchless in public (exposing what it is often kept covered) with a machine gun. A reminder of how important it is to have both. So we guess we would say something here about wanting to have an art that is meaningful because of its complication, and yet at the same time doesn’t back down, is provocative, even a little scary, if also irreverent and funny.


Amanda is a writer and educator living in Los Angeles, where she earned her MFA in Critical Studies & Writing from California Institute of the Arts. She recently completed a memoir, and is now working on book of poems, as well as a series of essays exploring the dynamics of forgiveness, reconciliation and national recoveries from mass atrocities. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Explosion Proof Magazine, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press), Delirious Hem, Nanofiction, Night Train and others. She was a nominee for the 2010 Million Writer's Award.