Scalapino, Leslie

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Nationality: American. Born: Santa Barbara, California, 25 July 1947. Education: Reed College, B.A.: University of California, Berkeley, M.A. Family: Married 1) Wesley St. John in 1968 (divorced 1975); 2) Tom White in 1987. Career: Member of English faculty, College of Marin, Kentfield, California, New College of California, San Francisco, 1982, 1983–84, San Francisco State University, 1984, University of California, San Diego, 1990, San Francisco Art Institute, 1994–2000, Mills College, Oakland, California, 1996–97, and summers since 1992 Bard College. Co-editor, Foot, 1979. Since 1986 publisher, O Books. Awards: Woodrow Wilson fellowship; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1976, 1986; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1988; San Francisco State University Poetry Center award, 1988; Lawrence Lipton award, 1988. Address: 5729 Clover Drive, Oakland, California 94618, U.S.A.



O and Other Poems. Berkeley, California, Sandollar Press, 1976.

The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs. Berkeley, California, Sandollar Press, 1976.

Instead of an Animal. Berkeley, California, Poltroon Press, 1977.

This Eating and Walking at the Same Time Is Associated Alright. Bolinas, California, Tombouctou, 1979.

Considering How Exaggerated Music Is. Berkeley, California North Point Press, 1982.

That They Were at the Beach. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1985.

Way. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1988.

Crowd and Not Evening or Light. Oakland, California, and Paris, France, O Books, 1990.

Green and Black, Selected Writings. Jersey City, New Jersey, Talisman, 1996.

New Time. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan University Press/ University Press of New England, 1999.


The Present (produced San Francisco, 1993).

The Weatherman Turns Himself In (produced San Francisco, 1993).

Goya's L.A., a play (produced San Francisco, 1995). Elmwood, Connecticut, Potes & Poets Press, 1994.

Stone Marmalade (The Dreamed Title), with Kevin Killian. N.p., Singing Horse Press, 1996.


The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion/A Trilogy. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1991.

Defoe. Los Angeles, Sun & Moon Press, 1994.

The Front Matter, Dead Souls. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1996.


How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (essays and plays). Elmwood, Connecticut, Potes & Poets Press, 1990.

Objects in the Terrifying Tense/Longing from Taking Place (essay). New York, Roof Books, 1994.

The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence. Hanover, New Hampshire, Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1999.


Critical Studies: The Leslie Scalapino issue of Talisman #8 (Hoboken, New Jersey), 1992; "Signifyin(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino" by Elisabeth A. Frost, in Postmodern Culture (Cary, North Carolina), 5 (3), May 1995; "Magic and Mystery in Poetic Language: A Response to the Writings of Leslie Scalapino" by Susan Smith Nash, in Talisman (Jersey City, New Jersey), 14, fall 1995; "Formalism, Feminism, and Genre Slipping in the Poetic Writings of Leslie Scalapino" by Laura Hinton, in Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering, edited by Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Cordelia Chavez Candelaria, Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Leslie Scalapino comments:

I write using numerous forms, wanting to track continual change. If there were one sentence written on my work, I would like it to be "Leslie Scalapino has made lots of changes and does not avoid reality."

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Leslie Scalapino is a situational poet. Like the language poets with whom she is associated, Scalapino focuses less on isolated events and heightened responses, including her own, than on the cultural matrices that produce them. To know why something happened or why she (re)acted the way she did, Scalapino looks not for the personal, mythical, symbolic, or historical "point of origin" but for patterned webs of circumstance. She writes series of poems or stanzas, for instance, rather than individual lyrics. Her work is elliptical like Emily Dickinson's, repetitive like Gertrude Stein's, minimally narrative like Ernest Hemingway's, and spatially exploratory like H.D.'s and Robert Duncan's. But Scalapino finds her own way to patch together her stories.

Consider these stanzas from Scalapino's prose piece "That They Were at the Beach-Aelotropic Series":

It'd have to be some time ago—I got cake on me, handed to me by my mother, we're in a taxi. Men in another car— beside me, I'm somewhat immature in age—whistled and called to me customary stemming from seeing me eating the cake

(so I'm embarrassed)

Such congested narrative spurts are more customary in a Hemingway or Raymond Carver story than in a prose poem. The past is made present not by ignoring the frame, the narrative commentary, but by foregrounding it. Stein's "continuous present" is the time of narration. Comparing one of her works to a comic book, Scalapino explains that "the writing does not have actual pictures. It 'functions' as does a comic book—in being read. And read aloud to someone the picture has to be described or seen and then what the figure it says read." The situation here is complex and unusual; the mother and child, eating in lurches, are not at home, and the men whistling are not neighbors. The embarrassment, both past and retroactive, is equally situational; to the men the child is a "piece of cake," along with her mother, who cannot protect the child from seeing herself in their eyes. The "customary" origin both of the men's and of her "reaction" is given in a series of participles and gerunds. These relational words and syntactical networks are privileged in Scalapino's work over isolated verbs or nouns. The word "that" in "That they were at the beach," like "considering" in "Considering How Exaggerated Music Is," constructs the societal loom of what is taken for granted for anything to happen.

In the series "Walking By," which opens her looming book-length poem Way, Scalapino plays her oral history off disjunctive, reflective Dickinsonian verse. The poem and book begin with a syntactical strand:

to have
med still—
though not
wanting to
be serene
I was in school; the bus driver seeing a girl crossing the
street hadn't stopped—she'd been hit—so the other
students—the boys—would hit the side of the bus everyday
when we went around that corner—our understanding the
driver—and clairvoyant
red to me

Again, we are thrown into a situation and a syntax that is bigger than we are, even with Scalapino's advantage of hindsight. The pattern is an intricate weave of seeing and being seen (compare "serene"), homicide and prank, man and boys and girls, and pluperfect with past perfect and present infinitive. The girl is as mute and "still" (silent, continuous) as the victim she witnesses; the accident has "occurred" and is still "occurring" ("run in the way," "happen," "think of") to her. The muted framing verses, which afford less perspective than the grim little story itself, mark an interior style in which the basic participants and grammatical elements are sorted out. These halting verses have displaced Scalapino's concluding parentheses—"(so I'm embarrassed)"—as hesitant conclusions to the "accident" and its aftermath.

Scalapino's fragmented webs of consciousness are quilts of social conscience. In "Bum Series," also from Way, Scalapino patches together the "bums" (to use their situational, political name) who have died from exposure on the docks, the new wave person in imported "bum-wear," the homelessness popular during the Reagan years, and the unloading freighters, adding to the trade imbalance that produces more bums:

to their
social struggle in their
whole setting, which is
abroad and its
relation to the freighter
to the person of
new wave attire—that
relation to the freighter
when the bums are not.
alive—at this time—though
were here, not abroad—and
not aware in being so of a
social struggle

These nonsequential, floating stanzas mime their apparently isolated incidents and individuals. But the syntactical loom, which would subordinate clauses, promotes its "main" subject and predicate and reveals deviations from proper word order, never surfaces. The class-bound global sentence remains a piece of resistance. The drama in Scalapino's vast, minimal poetry is its setting, and her settings are among the most engaging in contemporary poetry.

—John Shoptaw