Owens, Rochelle

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OWENS, Rochelle

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 2 April 1936. Education: Lafayette High School, Brooklyn, graduated 1953. Family: Married George Economou, q.v., in 1962. Career: Worked as a clerk, typist, telephone operator; founding member, New York Theatre Strategy; visiting lecturer, University of California, San Diego, 1982; adjunct professor, and host of radio program The Writer's Mind, University of Oklahoma, Norman, 1984; distinguished writer-in-residence, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, and University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1997. Awards: Rockefeller grant, 1965, 1975; Ford grant, 1965; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1966, 1973; Yale University School of Drama fellowship, 1968; Obie award, 1968, 1971, 1982; Guggenheim fellowship, 1971; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; Villager award, 1982; New York Drama Critics Circle award, 1983; Fellowship, Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Stucy Center, Italy. Agent: Dramatists Guild, 1501 Broadway, New York, New York 10036. Address: 1401 Magnolia, Norman, Oklahoma 73072, U.S.A.



Not Be Essence That Cannot Be. New York, Trobar Press, 1961.

Four Young Lady Poets, with others, edited by LeRoi Jones. New York, Totem-Corinth, 1962.

Salt and Core. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1968.

I Am the Babe of Joseph Stalin's Daughter. New York, Kulchur, 1972.

Poems from Joe's Garage. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1973.

The Joe 82 Creation Poems. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1974.

The Joe Chronicles 2. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1979.

Shemuel. St. Paul, New Rivers Press, 1979.

French Light. Norman, Oklahoma Press with the Flexible Voice, 1984.

Constructs. Norman, Oklahoma, Poetry Around, 1985.

Anthropologists at a Dinner Party. Tucson, Arizona, Chax Press, 1985.

W.C. Fields in French Light. New York, Contact II, 1986.

How Much Paint Does the Painting Need? New York, Kulchur, 1988.

Black Chalk. Norman, Oklahoma, Texture Press, 1992.

New and Selected Poems 1961–1988. New York, Contact, 1994.

Rubbed Stones: Poems from 1960–1992. Norman, Oklahoma, Texture Press, 1994.

New and Selected Poems: 1961–1996. San Diego, California, Junction Press, 1997.

LUCA: Discourse on Life & Death. San Diego, California, Junction Press, 2000.

Recordings: A Reading of Primitive and Archaic Poetry, with others, Broadside; From a Shaman's Notebook, with others, Broadside; The Karl Marx Play, Kilmarnock, 1975; Totally Corrupt, Giorno, 1976; Black Box 17, Watershed Foundation, 1979.


Futz (produced Minneapolis, 1965; New York, Edinburgh, and London, 1967). New York, Hawk's Well Press, 1961; revised version in Futz and What Came After, 1968, in New Short Plays 2, London, Methuen, 1969.

The String Game (produced New York, 1965). Included in Futz and What Came After, 1968.

Istanboul (produced New York, 1965; London, 1982). Included in Futz and What Came After, 1968.

Homo (produced Stockholm and New York, 1966; London, 1969).Included in Futz and What Came After, 1968.

Beclch (produced Philadelphia and New York, 1968). Included in Futz and What Came After, 1968.

Futz and What Came After. New York, Random House, 1968.

The Karl Marx Play, music by Galt MacDermot, lyrics by Owens(produced New York, 1973). Included in The Karl Marx Play and Others, 1974.

The Karl Marx Play and Others (includes Kontraption, He Wants Shih!, Farmer's Almanac, Coconut Folksinger, O.K. Certaldo). New York, Dutton, 1974.

He Wants Shih! (produced New York, 1975). Included in The Karl Marx Play and Others, 1974.

Coconut Folksinger (broadcast 1976). Included in The Karl Marx Play and Others, 1974.

Kontraption (produced New York, 1978). Included in The Karl Marx Play and Others, 1974.

Emma Instigated Me, published in Performing Arts Journal I (New York), Spring 1976.

The Widow, and The Colonel, in The Best Short Plays 1977, edited by Stanley Richards. Radnor, Pennsylvania, Chilton, 1977.

Mountain Rites, in The Best Short Plays 1978, edited by Stanley Richards. Radnor, Pennsylvania, Chilton, 1978.

Chucky's Hunch (produced New York, 1981). Published in Wordplays 2, New York, Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982.

Who Do You Want, Peire Vidal? (produced New York, 1982). With Futz, New York, Broadway Play Publishing, 1986.

Plays by Rochelle Owens. New York, Broadway Play Publishing, 2000.

Screenplay: Futz (additional dialogue), 1969.

Radio Plays: Coconut Folksinger, 1976 (Germany); Sweet Potatoes,1977; Three Front, 1994 (France).Television Plays: (video): Oklahoma Too: Rabbits and Nuggets,1987; How Much Paint Does The Painting Need?, 1992; Black Chalk, 1994.

Short Stories

The Girl on the Garage Wall. Mexico City, El Corno Emplumado, 1962.

The Obscenities of Reva Cigarnik. Mexico City, El Corno Emplumado, 1963.


Editor, Spontaneous Combustion: Eight New American Plays. New York, Winter House, 1972.

Translator, The Passersby, by Liliane Atlan. New York, Holt, 1993.


Manuscript Collections: Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University; University of California, Davis; University of Oklahoma, Norman; Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts, New York; Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theatre Collection; Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library, New York.

Critical Studies: In World 29 (New York), April 1974; "Rochelle Owens Symposium," in Margins 24–26 (Milwaukee), 1975; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Detroit, Gale, 1985; in Parnassus (New York), 12(2), 1985; in Talisman (Hoboken, New Jersey), 12, spring 1994.

Theatrical Activities: Director and actress: several of her own plays.

Rochelle Owens comments:

As a poet I want to suggest that one must go beyond static notions of consciousness and come to terms with the fact that there are writers, creative people, who always need to seek a redefinition of aesthetic possibilities. For me the process of writing is a continuing effort to expand my resources, to participate in the act of finding new reverberations in a sensory/metaphysical language. My poetry has much to do with my personal and social identity as a woman in patriarchal culture and resists both in form and idea the absolute power of organized doctrine, principles, and procedure. My writing challenges traditional notions about the universality of expressive modes and has created new definitions of how I as a woman poet use language, create language, and subvert it. Many of these dynamics have much in common with the avant-garde in general. LUCA: Discourse on Life & Death, a long book-length poem that I began in 1988 and completed in 1998, creates the dynamic of process and is a continual assembly and reassembly of the subject matter—a loose personal narrative around the theme of Leonardo and the Mona Lisa. Portions of the text became the framework of a video that I made titled Black Chalk. It is my third video. As a young writer I was part of the early off-Broadway experimental theater movement in New York City. Concerning my poetry, I want the reader and listener to pay attention; the more knowledge, education, intuition, and savvy they possess, the more they will reap from the writing. It will paint dimensions and new boundaries. It is for an audience who seeks a new poetic idiom, a language of breath, image, sound, space, symbol, and time represented by the white pages. Poetry is an act of creation that manifests a radical engagement with language, a model of my mind shaping itself. It very well might be an essential document to the condition of our time.

*  *  *

Rochelle Owens is better known as a playwright than as a poet, but her poems enact her theatrical imagination and provide an essential stimulus to it. In poetry (as distinct from drama) she can concentrate exclusively on verbal invention, coining words and splashing them disjunctively on the page, disrupting grammar, and free-associating with maximum tonal contrast:


Of Jewish background and married to a Greek, Owens relishes the interplay of deviant personae and images stolen from both "high" and "low" culture that serve as metaphors for polar conflicts—Jew versus Christian, Turk versus Greek, white versus black, male versus female, the sacred versus the secular, the powerful versus the helpless. In The Joe 82 Creation Poems, through the voices of the primal couple Wild-Man and Wild-Woman, Owens redesigns the myths of creation to reflect both the internal artistic energy of every mind and the external feminist struggle of women to escape the prevalent male-dominant ideas that have led to an insane and polluted world. Wild-Woman, Lilith-like and joyous, expresses the disordering that is needed to re-create a new order on the planet, "mother" earth. Wild-Woman's energy is defeated, however, in morally bankrupt American society, as the poet dolefully makes clear in a tone of protest and deep hopelessness through the acid portraits of "Anthropologists at a Dinner Party." This double-column diatribe, to be read "across and down and up," describes a racist, sexist "round-haunched anthropologist / of Pict descent" (the Picts being a mix of Scottish aborigines and Aryan invaders) who studies American Indians and is "worried that people of mixed / races were opportunists."

Owens presents an antidote to this male hegemony in W.C. Fields in French Light, poems meditating on the Cathedral of Sacré Coeur in Paris in "the voice of W.C. Fields" and expressing a humorous, androgynous, multinational vision. The woman artist becomes the conduit of the universal unconscious as her subjective journey to the "sacred heart" of all things has her walk "up the hill to Sacré Coeur." There, holding nothing back, "I hurl the javelin to the top." The poem ends without a period, leaving the poet in continuous upward trajectory.

French culture also influences How Much Paint Does the Painting Need, another formally innovative book in which color forms from cubist and modernist paintings are "translated" onto the page in rectangular blocks as if framed on canvas, thus equating poetry and painting. As in abstract expressionism, these forms are seen "tearing into the yellow rhythms into the emergency / of blue between the bubbles … the pigment forged / into the base of the skull the territory breaking / out of the paint between the spaces tearing through."

The paradoxes of "tearing through"—the acts of violence that create culture—are explored in Owens's series poem LUCA: Discourse on Life & Death and in her selected Rubbed Stones: Poems from 1960–1992. Here three major themes intertwine, and they are presented through three characters: the artist, represented by Leonardo da Vinci (Lenny) and his anatomy notebooks—"we murder to dissect"; the artist's object, Mona Lisa (Mona), who is also the female model anatomized; and Freud (Sigmund, Siggy), the analyst of the psyche, or soul. The overall premise is that the analytic Western mode of "rational" thought destroys, whereas unconscious thought creates, symbolized here by the Ur-mind of pre-Columbian cultures whose dug-up remains are not understood by "the anthropologists at the dinner party." These men also destroy the living culture, so that the poem ends with the grim image of a crucified Osage woman.

Owens's New and Selected Poems: 1961–1996 continues the observations of Luca, who historically was Leonardo da Vinci's close friend. Owens stands in for Luca, a fellow painter in the studio who can register and comment on the artist's life. Through this device she constructs a surreal drama that plays riffs on eternal conflicts between art and science, creation and dissection, and the dominant male artist and the submissive female model. Owens's formal structure, mostly three-line stanzas all printed flush left, holds in place the staccato, highly disjunctive phrases that mimic Luca's deracinated thoughts with their contemporary overtones:

all mental disciplines have
been rewritten since something
alien extent on deviations which

A feminist undercurrent is revealed by a fragmentary phrase:

...in the end
of the author's century in the middle
of this middle herstory
from the child to the cultural woman

Mona Lisa, the pictorial enigma, is the "cultural woman," the woman artist, Owens herself. Shifting personae permit her free associations, thrust up from the unconscious to mix with conscious thought.

Owens's poetry continues to display her intelligence and accomplishment in far-reaching inventiveness that bursts boundaries to make it postmodernly new.

—Jane Augustine

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