The Women of the Avant-Garde: An Introduction Featuring Audio by Gertrude Stein, Kathy Acker, Patti Smith & More

stein avant garde

The sto­ry of the avant-garde is nev­er just one sto­ry. But it tends to get told that way, and we tend to think we know how mod­ernist and post-mod­ern lit­er­a­ture and music have tak­en shape: through a series of great men who thwart­ed con­ven­tion and remade lan­guage and sound in ways their pre­de­ces­sors nev­er dreamed. Arthur Rim­baud, Claude Debussy, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Arnold Schoen­berg, John Cage… We could make many such lists, and we do, all the time, occa­sion­al­ly includ­ing the names of a few women—Yoko Ono, for exam­ple, Gertrude Stein, Vir­ginia Woolf….

But we might write it dif­fer­ent­ly, indeed, for the sim­ple rea­son that women have shaped the avant-garde just as much as men have, as promi­nent poets and com­posers, not sim­ply spous­es of famous men or guest stars in a most­ly male revue. You can hear one ver­sion of such a sto­ry here, thanks to Ubuweb, “the learned and vari­etous online repos­i­to­ry” of “all things avant-garde.” Their pod­cast Avant-Garde All the Time offers us two episodes called “The Women of the Avant-Garde,” host­ed by poet Ken­neth Gold­smith, who admits the sur­vey is a cor­rec­tive for the podcast’s own blind spots. Through a small but select num­ber of poets and musi­cians, Gold­smith aims “to show that there are dozens and dozens of great women artists on Ubuweb”—and every­where else art lives.

Instead of a his­to­ry, Gold­smith gives us some­thing of a con­stel­la­tion of artists, many of them clus­tered tight­ly togeth­er in time and space. New York poets, writ­ers, and musi­cians who came of age in the 70s and 80s—Kathy Ack­er, Lydia Lunch, Lau­rie Ander­son, Pat­ti Smith, Eileen Myles—all fea­ture in Goldsmith’s account. Theirs was a time and place the poet Myles has described as “a moment” that was “very uncen­sored and real­ly excit­ed and it just made you feel like there was room for more.”

It’s a moment that saw a revival in the 90s, when riot grrrl arose to chal­lenge the patri­ar­chal estab­lish­ment. Around this time, artists work­ing in a more aca­d­e­m­ic con­text direct­ly and indi­rect­ly engaged with lit­er­ary his­to­ry ancient and mod­ern. Schol­ar and poet Anne Car­son has twist­ed and trans­lat­ed the texts of Ovid, Aeschy­lus, Sopho­cles, and the writ­ers (and trans­la­tors) of the King James Bible. And Ger­man-Nor­we­gian-French exper­i­men­tal poet Car­o­line Bergvall, whom Gold­smith dis­cuss­es in episode one above, rewrote Chaucer and rearranged Dante.

In episode two, Gold­smith reach­es some­what fur­ther back—to Yoko Ono and Denise Lev­er­tov—and far­ther away from New York, with work from Iran­ian poet and film­mak­er Forugh Far­rokhzad. Promi­nent­ly fea­tured in this sec­ond part of the series, and for good rea­son, is fierce patroness of ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry avant-garde art and writ­ing, Gertrude Stein. Stein’s own poet­ry rad­i­cal­ly dis­rupt­ed the accept­ed, and accept­able, codes of speech and writing—setting a prece­dent for sev­er­al decades of fem­i­nist writ­ers and artists whose appear­ance in archives like Ubuweb, Gold­smith notes, increas­ing­ly come to match or out­weigh those of their male coun­ter­parts. Hear Stein read from her own work at anoth­er such archive, PennSound, and vis­it the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion to stream and down­load more episodes of Ubuweb’s Avant-Garde all the Time, includ­ing an episode devot­ed to Stein called “Almost Com­plete­ly Under­stand­ing.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

74 Essen­tial Books for Your Per­son­al Library: A List Curat­ed by Female Cre­atives

Watch Pat­ti Smith Read from Vir­ginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Sur­viv­ing Record­ing of Woolf’s Voice

Yoko Ono Lets Audi­ence Cut Up Her Clothes in Con­cep­tu­al Art Per­for­mance (Carnegie Hall, 1965)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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