Scalapino's work has made a significant contribution to the understanding of poetry as a process engaged with questions of perception. Her questioning of how "phenomena appear to unfold" aims to create "a perspective that is socially democratic, individual (in the sense of specific) and limitless" (119). She is often identified with the language school of writing, and her work's interest in the connections between gender and representation has affinities with that of such poets as Bernadette mayer, Lyn hejinian, Susan HOWE, and Joan RETALLACK. Her interest in the interconnections between knowledge and repetition has been more broadly influenced by the work of experimental such poets as Robert grenier, Gertrude stein, and Robert duncan.
Scalapino was born in Santa Barbara, California, but spent significant parts of her childhood traveling in Southeast Asia. She gained her B.A. from Reed College and her M.A. from the university of California, Berkeley. Her first book, The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs, was published in 1976, and 17 collections, which variously combine poetry, fiction, plays and essays, have followed. She has been the editor of
O Books and has also received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1976 and 1986), a Before Columbus Foundation Award (1988), and a Lawrence Lipton Award (1988).
The central aim of Scalapino's writing has been to make it as close to reality as possible, to do away with the separation of presentation and representation in language. In the recent book-length poem, The Front Matter Dead Souls (1996), she describes this aim as a desire, "to bring (actually to be) 'the American grain."' Scalapino seeks to integrate William Carlos Williams s desire for an American vernacular with an analysis of how we represent what we are able to understand and witness in public spaces. In another recent book-length poem, New Time (1999), this aim results in a detailed social choreography, an attention to who moves and how they move, that makes apparent the social processes by which action becomes meaning: "groups ridiculing for playing, their being outside playing. but / ridiculing the characteristic which is that, their not doing it." The poem challenges the distinctions between thought and appearance and uses this to suggest that "social existence" is comprised of both activity ("playing") and discourse ("ridiculing").
Scalapino's dense and elliptical style aims to disrupt the processes that allow racism, sexism, and poverty to appear natural. Her concern with producing the "real," with pointing out that language both constructs and disrupts social meaning, has been consistently motivated by a critique of social injustice.
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