winning playwright as well as a poet, Rochelle Owens was one of the few women writers to achieve recognition within the male-dominated circles surrounding beat poetry. In the late 1950s, her idiosyncratic poems caught the attention of the poets George economou and Imamu Amiri baraka (then LeRoi Jones), whose enthusiasm led to the publication of her work in the influential underground magazines Trobar and Yugen. Soon afterward she received widespread notice for iconoclastic, Off-Off Broadway plays, such as Futz (1968) and Istanboul (1968). In its subversive themes and linguistic experimentation, her work anticipated the products of the language school that would emerge several decades later. Acknowledging the connection, the critic
Marjorie Perloff nevertheless asserts that Owens's writing "is sui generis" and that "Owens is angrier, more energetic, and more assertive than most of her Language counterparts" (12).
Owens was born in Brooklyn, New York. She attended public schools and the New School for Social Research. She has taught at the University of California, San Diego, Brown University, and the University of Oklahoma. Among her 16 volumes of poetry are Rubbed Stones (1994), New and Selected Poems, 1961-1996 (1997), and Luca: Discourse on Life and Death (2001).
owens's early poems demonstrate the tangibility and volatility of language, employing phonetic misspellings, disjunctive syntax, typographical variations, and unusual juxtapositions to create the sense of the poem as an object wholly separate from other forms of expression and resistant to traditional modes of interpretation. The opening line of "Called Also the Instant" (1961) illustrates the sonorous quality of these experiments: "Become limulus sounded minuted Gradual the silent lumps." Fueled by feminism and radical politics since the mid-1960s, Owens's work explores themes of violence and corrupt authority, as well as "the agonies of living in the 20th century world, and the pain of awareness of apocalypse impending," according to Susan Smith Nash (131). Owens's use of polyphony—
multiple voices of historical and archetypal figures conveyed through the speakers bitter tongue—creates dramatic tension and works to expose the hypocrisy of male-dominated Western culture. Her book-length poem, Luca, intersperses narration by Leonardo da Vinci, the model for his Mona Lisa, Sigmund Freud, and Freud's patient Flora in order to weave a shifting, disjunctive tapestry in which the myth of exclusively male creative genius ("Sigmund lip-synced") is undermined by the inspirational dynamism of the women.
Owens's poems seem improvisational but, in fact, are carefully orchestrated critiques that strike at the heart of society's conventional wisdom. Nash points out that Owens "constructs poetry that analyzes, dissects, reorders, and recasts underlying beliefs about the nature and goals of poetry" (131).
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