"A way to think about women and language" -Harryette Mullen

Oct 17th.jpg

I founded Tender Buttons press in 1989, naming it after Stein’s Tender Buttons. Tender Buttons aims to publish the best in experimental women's writing. The poetics of all Tender Buttons books gives rise to an extraordinary range of innovative forms and modes including conceptual projects, cut-up, the boundary between life and art, documenting consciousness, refrigeration of poetic form, radical intertextuality, the question of generations and generativity and how to write against, out of, and around another’s writing. “Write in as many ways as you can imagine” Bernadette Mayer said and the parallel projects of my press and my poetry writing “attempt to write in a way that’s never been written before.” (My first book Polyverse which was awarded the 1996 New American Poetry Series Award and published by Sun & Moon in 1999 pursues these aims as well).

-Poet & Founding Editrix, Lee Ann Brown



BEING A POET-PUBLISHER IS MAKING A NEST for the work we love and completely intertwined with the poems we write. I want to publish the work I most love so it will be in the world, and for those like me who want this work and need this work (which I believe to be everyone) to be able to walk into a bookstore or library and find it in the right place in the alphabet on the shelf and be able to pull it out and read it and then write in new ways like I want to do. After brain-storming a list of over fifty names, I chose Tender Buttons in tribute to Gertrude Stein’s radical poem of everyday life, now beyond its 100th anniversary year of publication. To “Tend Her Buttons” is to me to nurture and publish experimental women’s poetry, to tend the buttons of books, each book to be born a complex object forever folding outwards. I think of the books as multi-faceted objects, written from many angles, and unfolding in different ways, like Stein's “cubist” writings.

When I found that Bernadette was in search of a publisher for her Sonnets I realized I had the perfect first book for my new press. And then Anne Waldman presented me with a love poem to Bernadette so I had my second book ready-made. Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings was a wonderful third book, extending the main thrust of the press, as she begins her afternote to the book,“Off the Top,” Trimmings was a way for me “to think about women and language.” She uses the language of women’s clothing to playfully skewer interlocking notions of race and gender, touching many nerves and further opening the flower of Tender Buttons, both the press and the poem, working and playing to change the way people perceive the world. 

Fourth in the series was a very different book, a memoir written in short series of narratives by my maternal grandmother, Agnes Lee. It was written, often late at night upon waking in her eightieth decade and published for her ninetieth birthday. 

It belongs to the vast underground genre of family histories, often written by women and published in small editions for immediate circles, yet has elements that link to such great innovations as Joe Brainard’s “I Remember” when she writes a list of “100 Things I’d Like to Do Again.” Women’s histories are our histories, often untold. 

I was becoming surprised by how much poetry-using-prose forms I was publishing. Rosmarie Waldrop, (another major poet-publisher figure in my life), wrote Lawn of Excluded Middle which to me reverberates with Harryette’s threads of subverting and playing directly with another’s text: this time Wittgentstein’s sentences, to create “(p)oetry: an alternate, less linear logic” specifically dealing with “women as the excluded middle,” or “the empty center from which we write.”  And that continued to be so with most of Hannah Weiner’s silent teachers   remembered sequel and Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt-Ups inhabiting and remaking the prose poem form (and later Laynie Browne’s Pollen Memory, and today Katy Bohinc’s Dear Alain.) In different ways, all of these works play with echo, intertextual appropriation and interpenetration from other disciplines: philosophy, science, porn…“Poetry as a theory of everything” said Maria Damon recently in her stitchery. Hannah’s work contains a radical take on the anxiety of influence and the “silent teachers” we all have within us start to speak as we read the map of her mind moving. Dodie’s Cunt-Ups asks us “Is the cut-up a male form?” Who owns the language? How is poetry perhaps the only way to chart various stages of vast sexualities? 

A radically refigured lyric sensibility arose with Jennifer Moxley (the poet-publisher of The Impercipient whose subtitle was “A Silent Pillow of a Generation”) when she addressed Imagination Verses “To My Contemporaries” and remade the Ode in a mod-Keatsian kind of material language. That book was a landmark for a new generation of  younger poets eager to engage with poetic permissions past and present. Then, in Laynie Browne’s alternation of intricate biospheres of words with condensed genes of single lines prefigured today’s engagement with “ecopoetics” and what the sciences and poetry have necessarily to say to each other. Pollen Memory’s question “what are my thoughts during sleep” and India Radfar’s “sleep is my way of thinking” and dreamwork show kinship with Bernadette’s hypnogogia, and both India and Harryette Mullen gesture toward Sappho in very different ways. Trimmings begins with “Don’t ask me what to wear” and India writes “girls who like water / swim at the foot of / another time.” Her book, written in Greece is double in structure, as Hannah’s is, but in a vastly different landscape of sun and lyric. 

During the double production of Browne & Radfar’s books a new wave of creation happened in my life: the birth of my daughter, Miranda!  I was also becoming increasingly concerned with poetry in performance, and how poetry interacts with the other arts. (In 2003 my own book, The Sleep That Changed Everything contained eight rewritten ballads and hymns that formed the heart of the Song Cycle The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time). It was at this time that Michelle Rollman’s  collaborative book, The Book of Practical Pussies was brought to light in collaboration with Krupskaya Press. Michelle’s erotic drawings of cat-splice-women were interwoven with “pussy writing” solicited from some of her favorite writers, a very different book from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. 

The Book of Practical Pussies was designed by Wayne Smith who I met through Dodie Bellamy and who designed Cunt- Ups and many other books after that. I‘ve had many adventures in collaboration and shared labor with many people passing through my sphere: Laynie Browne heroically typed Hannah Weiner’s and other manuscripts, Steven Taylor and Lisa Jarnot helped with early graphic design, Greg Masters provided me with real laser prints from my Pagemaker print-outs before the days of digital printing. Frank Murphy, who I worked with on the NYC Poetry Calendar, told me where to go to make plates and helped me print Not A Male Pseudonym on an offset press in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The list goes on as you can imagine! A new generation of poets has come forth, further proliferating the multiple states of the art. I am so grateful to the dreams and energies of Katy Bohinc and Cassandra Gillig who have manifested the Tender Buttons vision on all levels from the aesthetic to the worldly- so excited for the future!


More of the gender issue: I remember talking to a poet whom I greatly admire but who made me feel kind of tongue-tied when I was first in NYC. He asked me about Tender Buttons and the concept behind it. I tried to explain the association I had from Luce Irigaray's concept of multiplicity in "The Sex Which Is Not One" to the visual link I saw between Joe Brainard's beautiful logo—double pansies clothed in dress and coat —and the vulva of which Irigaray writes so wonderfully. Tender Buttons are “the two lips,” nipples, clits, skin, multiplicitous sites of pleasure, both physical and conceptual.


"A woman touches herself constantly without anyone being able to forbid her to do so, for her sex is composed of two lips which embrace continually. Hints, within herself she is already twobut not divisible into oneswho stimulate each other."


(the night time activity the erotics of writing after and before the other kind of button tending as in Tender tender tending her nether double buttons and again writing. So connections were surfacing with a new way of writing I saw as multiple and expressing my monde I mean my mind which was an other way women used writing, how women used writing to say all sides of a thing of a feeling all sides of the ways to approach like a flock of birds like an accordion form which rejects closure)

He asked if and why I would publish only women. I said I didn't know yet, and that it wasn’t absolute. I later realized I had been talking to an editor of the otherwise wonderful Anthology of New York Poets that had included Bernadette at age 25 but as the only woman in it. What was that all about? What about Barbara Guest? Alice Notley? Who else? (And The NewAmerican Poetry 1945-1960? Only Helen Adam and Denise Levertov. And racially how fucked up.)

On at least two occasions, both by male independent publishers who had done no more than one woman’s book in their whole historic run, it was said of me: "O, she's the one who does women’s books." First I was insulted that I would be characterized that way one of the main reasons I am doing only women’s books is because you guys did only men–it’s necessary! But then later I thought, well I’ll just take it as a compliment! It’s complicated, because there are plenty of contemporary male poets who need books published, who are neglected, and who I love dearly for inspiring me also. To quote the Breeders, “I just want to get along.” But as long as presses who publish only or mostly men are thought of as “normal” and called “presses,” and presses who happen to publish only women are labeled “that one who does women’s books,” we have a problem. This is also where the economic issue comes into play since money makes one need to be clear about priorities. When I started, Tender Buttons and Kelsey St. Press, were the only presses that published mainly experimental poetry by women. I published work by men in broadsides, pamphlets or in magazine issues or anthologies I edit, schedule men to read in poetry series, and teach work by men in my classes, but since books are such a primary commodity in this culture, I choose to invest my time, energy and money for women.

And today: the generation of generations. This website points to a dream from where I began. Books on the floor, a cover made from a drawing by Bernadette’s 9 year old daughter at a poetry reading. A quarter century later, my 11 year old is now sleeping in the next room. New means of dissemination miraculous in their accessible multiples. We continue to make the good fight for works new and old to make them available, to make space and to pass this good grace to the coming generations, for many works that went on to be great works and future new ones in the making. We remount again the horse of “working and sleeping and working on our non-paying work.”

All the books I’ve published have in common the question, “Can poetry change the world?” Someday I’ll have time to write the secret history of Tender Buttons Press.  I hope you all can help me write it.



Poet & Founding Editrix

Lee Ann Brown

New Moon, July 26, 2014