The Poetry of Joanna Russ, Part I: An Introduction
by Brit Mandelo
Joanna Russ, uncredited obituary photo
Joanna Russ (1937-2011) is well-known for her incisive, transformative work in science fiction, feminist theory, and literary criticismoften, all three at oncebut her early works, which include a considerable amount of poetry, are rarely discussed. While her first publication in the SF field was a short story, "Nor Custom Stale," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959, it was not her first magazine appearance by far: she had already been published several times as a poet, from the age of seventeen onwards, and much of that poetry was what we would now deem speculative in that it dealt with apparitions, fantasies, and myths.
Of course, Joanna Russ isn't remembered today as a poet in addition to her other achievements because she was not one; she did not continue to publish poems beyond her young adult years, and she showed no inclination toward the poetry that she had previously published. That, however, does not mean that her early poetic work should be ignored in the greater critical conversationthe fact remains that these poems were written, published, and read, and that they are a part of the career trajectory of one of SF's most astounding writers. Their significance as poetry is tied inextricably to their significance as early works of a major writer, and this short study will discuss them in both contexts: first as a part of the larger bibliography, and second as individual pieces.
Russ's poetry publications, as I was able to uncover them, span the years 1954 to 1957, for the most part in The Cornell Writer and Epoch, both Cornell University-run literary magazines. Copies of these publications, as well as annotated manuscripts of published and unpublished poetry alike, are archived at the Browne Popular Culture Library, who were generous in their provision of materials for this research, but the poems themselves remain uncollected and entirely out of print. It is likely that many contemporary readers of Russ are unaware that she ever penned a poem, let alone published several. The poems make no appearances in her books, even those which otherwise gather early critical work and letters, such as The Country You Have Never Seen. (Ditto her dramas, but that's a task for another day.) Having already read the entirety of Russ's accessible published works, I was curious about the content of this obscure material, especially considering the mode in which it was written: poetry, a form that Russ for all intents and purposes abandoned before her twenty-first birthday, though it is a form that many writers she was in conversation with continued to use throughout the political, social, and literary movements of the late sixties through the early eighties.
Reading and researching Russ's poetry prompts two questions: why is this work effaced so thoroughly from contemporary perception of Russ as a writer, when she is otherwise widely recognized as multifarious and complex in her engagements with form and genre, and why does poetry seem to disappear from her creative repertoire so completely after 1957? Both of these questions involve issues of publicity and perception, and both can be answered, at best, speculativelybut I will endeavor to do so in this introduction to provide a framework with which to examine the poems.
If juveniliafascinating and intimate though it may beis discounted from a discussion of Russ's poetry, narrowing the window to the years in which she was published, then there are approximately twenty-six separate poems that I will be considering. Five of these were performed at the 11th Festival of Contemporary Arts Poetry Reading II, as Russ's handwritten notes on the manuscripts attest; it seems that around five others were never published (or if they were, the published copy was not part of her papers at the BPCL). I will attest that it is entirely possible there are further poems published between 1954 and 1957 which were either not included in the BPCL collection or were not available to me at the time of this research. These twenty-six poems represent a reasonably diverse spectrum of the work Joanna Russ was producing as a poet in her years at Cornell University, and so despite the possibility of missing poems, conclusions can still be reached in a consideration of the work.
A minimum of twenty-six poems is a reasonably large sample of published work that is accessible via open archivesand yet, this early work is absent from popular discourse on Russ's writing. It has also remained unresearched, uncollected, and out of print. There are two reasons that I would suggest for this contemporary invisibility: Russ's own construction of her identity as a writer, and the nature of the poetry in question.
The fact that Russ did not take into account her early work as a poet and did not identify herself as a writer of poetry is perhaps the most salient point in this discussion. None of her collections include a single one of her previously published poems, or, in fact, any pieces written/published prior to 1959. The right to construct a career and an image of work in that career is indubitably Russ's; I would venture to say that a history of teenage work, good enough to publish but not good enough to embrace, hangs behind many writers who began their careers young. Russ seems to be no different. Her dismissal of her own early work is natural and common, but goes a long way toward explaining why her poetry was not collected and republished. Presses do not simply come along and wrest old manuscripts from a writer's hands; without the impetus of interest on Russ's part, the poetry's obscurity is somewhat inevitable.
The second explanation for the obscurity of Russ's poetry, which I would suspect has quite a lot to do with the first, is its uneven quality. These poems, while they offer glimpses of the brilliance one would expect from Russ, do not have the precision and polish of the prose that would kick off her career a few short years later. For the most part they are written well but are unadventurous; they display none of the experimental, extrapolative, fierce nature of Russ's later prose work. There are an abundance of descriptions of seasons, most especially autumn, which is the direct or indirect subject of several pieces. These poems are intimate, engaging, and fascinating to me not for their contentthough, the best of them is quite good; we'll get to that next timebut for what they reveal of Russ as a developing writer who had not yet hit her stride. Considering her age and relative life experience at the time of their drafting, this is not unexpected. Poetry was, it seems, a stage in Russ's career for mimicry and learningand while these are useful to a growing writer, they are perhaps not what she would prefer to present to the world later in her career. Therefore, their effacement from Russ's popular body of work is unremarkable. The why of it would seem to me very simple: Russ did not feel that they were representative of her best efforts, and because of her abandonment of the poetic form, there were no later works to replace them. That scholars and publishers have also left these poems unexamined is likely a function of these interconnected reasons. Russ did not draw attention to the poems, and the poems were not staggering enough to draw attention on their own.
The disappearance of poetry from Russ's creative landscape after 1957 is more troublesome, and the answers I would put forward more uncertain and based in speculation (terribly unprofessional!). It is this disappearance that cements the invisibility of Joanna Russ's poetryperhaps if her work as a poet had continued into the sixties, improving as the rest of her writing improved, I would have a collection on my bookshelf entitled The Poetry of Joanna Russ instead of the binder full of photocopies and scribbled notes from which I have pieced together this short study. That Russ did not continue her work as a poeta speculative poet, at thatis an unfortunate fact, though, and one that raises many questions that will by necessity remain unanswered.
After age twenty, Russ appears to have ceased writing poems for publication, shifting her attention instead to drama for a short time, and then finally to speculative fiction, where she would make her career. The cut-off in poetry publications is concurrent with her graduation from Cornell University in 1957, after which she sought her MFA from the Yale Drama School, but there are other factors which may have contributed to the shift in her literary focus. In his introduction to We Who Are About to , Samuel Delany notes that in her last year at Cornell she studied under Vladimir Nabokov, a fiction writer for whom she had a great deal of respect. The shift in focus from poetry to fiction could well be attributed to this course of studynot with certainty, but with a measure of common sense; studying under Nabokov would likely introduce most young writers to new and stranger tastes, and also to pressing their creative boundaries. Additionally, there is likely some measure of explanation in Russ's changing engagements in the field of culture as she graduated into the wider world of both academia and the science fiction community; there was less room for speculative poetry as a part of SF in the 1960s than there is today. A career as a poet would not have placed her in the community that she loved and treasureda career as an SF writer most definitely would, and did. The putting away of youthful hobbies and interests for those of adulthood, too, might have come into play, though that is pure conjecture.
Regardless of the reasons, personal or professional alike, writers grow, and writers change. That Russ's development as a writer involved the dropping of poetry as a field of interest is clear, but what poetry might have done to hone her skills, to allow her to explore the construction of a line in ways which would later provide the most stunning aspects of her fiction, is endlessly fascinating. Poetry is a concise artform in a way that prose aspires to but cannot matchthat Russ, a writer for whom precision was a weapon and a hallmark, began as a poet in her early years is both wonderful and sensible.
Her leaving the field of poetry for prose does not erase the poems that she did produce, though, and they themselves are worth a closer look for what they have to say and for their resonance with Russ's later concerns. In the second installment of this study, I will discuss the actual poems that are the subject of the preceding histories and speculations, the poems that are so generally invisible in the critical conversation about Russ-the-artist.