Peering across the Atlantic

When, back in the primordial mists of the 90s, I was hired to teach 20th century poetry in English, I well-prepared to construct U.S.-based syllabi. British and Irish poetries, however, were visible to me only as hills and treetops peeking above a general fog. I knew the international modernists and a few later border-crossers, especially Plath and Hughes; I had historical context for debates about Britishness, empire, language, and identity. Otherwise, I had to worked up the field like any grad student of the era, beginning with Norton anthologies and reference essays. A familiar landscape soon took shape: Hardy, the poets of the Great War, Auden, Larkin. Mina Loy sauntered into place among my modernists, and I explored Stevie Smith’s work with delight. Thinking more white women and some, a few, ANY people of color had to be out there, I found Bloodaxe Books and then Moniza Alvi and Jackie Kay, and eventually news of a Black British scene (Jahan Ramazani’s scholarship became increasingly helpful). On the Irish side, my map was similarly faulty. I’d met Muldoon and heard Heaney while at Princeton, so Muldoon’s Faber Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry was the obvious place to start, but it included only ONE woman. The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry appeared soon, by way of remedy. The internet happened. Traveling and listening to readings has helped, too (cheers to Carrie Etter and Zayneb Allak, most recently). I still feel, however, that if I were asked to teach a course on post-1900 British women poets, I wouldn’t be confident about how to shape the story–whereas on the U.S. side, I’ve done it, and the only problem is how to give time to all the overlapping narratives, choosing among riches.

historybritwomenWhich is why I’m grateful to have just found the series The History of British Women’s Writing, and in particular, Vol. 10, 1970-Present, edited by Mary Eagleton and Emma Parker. The ten-page opening chronology, interweaving international politics with developments in literary culture, is a tremendous gift in itself. Indeed, the essays collected here are particularly useful on what often seems like the ephemera of literary history: presses, prizes, laureates, and all the other little recognitions that eventually add up to canons and master narratives. Another great strength of the book is its head-on address to disputes over Britishness: Parker and Eagleton invoke a literary world that’s diverse along every axis, while also analyzing the forces that hamper inclusion.

Fiction receives more attention than other genres, with Jeannette King on historical fiction, Sue Zlosnik on the gothic, Ruvani Ranasinha on British Asian fiction, Suzanne Scafe on Black British fiction, and more. Other pieces are multigenre, however, such as Hywel Dix’s essay on Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish literature. And the editors devote discrete chapters to poetry, drama, memoir, and media-crossing literary modes.

The introduction and other elements of the editorial apparatus are wonderful, but the chapter that will be most useful to me is Jane Dowson’s “Poetry on Page and Stage.” Her overview of game-changing anthologies and magazine special issues, as well as their often mixed receptions, is pure gold. She tracks laureateships, Oxford poetry chairs, the shifting status of lyric and experiment, and the importance of poetry performance as a mode of innovation that shapes who gets heard. My reading/ listening list is now twice as long.

In other news, I couldn’t be more grateful for the kind notes I’ve been receiving all week for my own essay, “Women Stay Put,” but I am deeply tired. My three classes, now heading into midterms, are terrific–I’ve never had better groups of students–but with all the extra department work and other service that’s been on our plates lately, I am about as ready as I’ve ever been for February Break. I’m planning to escape next weekend and spend a couple of days gazing at a sunnier bit of the Atlantic, and if the waves don’t sound like poetry, for once, that will be just fine.

 

Imaginary journals with real poems in them

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If you’re not enjoying what you’re grading, maybe the problem lies in the assignment. I think I’m right in attributing this provocation to Paul Hanstedt, either during a faculty development talk he gave here or on a long-ago Facebook post, but at any rate, it was electrifying, and resulted in real changes in my course design. I still teach writing genres that any English professor would recognize: close-reading, motif-tracing, proposal, annotated bibliography, research essay, response paper, etc. Those genres are part of what my students need to learn and practice to succeed in their coursework, and, in some cases, their graduate school applications.

But underlying those genres are much more important skills people need for the rest of their lives: how to analyze nuances of language in a poem, a piece of legislation, or a comedian’s unconvincing apology; how to make evidence-based arguments in Philosophy papers, op-eds, or grant proposals; how to explore unfamiliar intellectual terrain through research, then cite reliable sources when mapping it. Another set of goals that may be more idiosyncratic to poet-scholars like me: I want my students to think hard about what they like in literature, versus accepting what they’re told is admirable. I certainly have my own tastes to advocate for in the classroom and elsewhere, but in an ongoing way, we all ought to accept challenges to our literary prejudices and keep trying to articulate what’s great about books we love. This is what passionate readers do, and I want my former students to remain passionate readers, no matter their day jobs.

So with all this in mind, I set up three writing assignments for my seminar this term on British and Irish Poetry since 1900 (not including response papers and a scansion or two). The October essay, on modernism, was of a conventional variety, requiring close-reading of poetry in service of a literary argument. The December essay, on twenty-first-century poetry, will be a review of a single contemporary collection–another important academic genre, but requiring evaluative as well as analytic moves.

The November assignment was the weird one, cooked up in part by W&L Associate University Librarian Jeff Barry, who has been working on a variety of Special Collections materials related to Shenandoah at mid-century, including correspondence with Ezra Pound from one of the magazine’s earliest editors, Tom Carter. In between seminar meetings on Auden, Larkin, Thomas, Smith, Heaney, Bennett, and other wonderful poets, we brought the students in to examine an array of rare old mid-century magazines. They also read old issues of Shenandoah, not yet digitized but in the stacks.

Then they had to cook up a mid-century literary journal of their own–perhaps with a transatlantic reach, but based in England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. They produced eight folio pages of their imaginary magazine, including title, mission, masthead, table of contents, and the first few pages of poetry. Finally, a reflective essay about the process was required, including bibliographical information on at least three journals they had studied for inspiration. Most of them read other materials, too, to learn about corners of the literary scene and locate poets from beyond the syllabus.

I’m convinced, as I read the products, that my students did illuminating research and learned a few things about periodicals, mid-century British history and culture, and even about fonts. They collected work from writers whom they and I had never read before. They also remedied my syllabus, finding materials of pressing interest to each of them that I had not included: more women writers, more poets of the African diaspora, more verse about war and cities and animals and the Welsh landscape.

I have to say, they’re really fun to grade.

Onto reading applications for the Shenandoah editorship, thinking about a real magazine’s possible new directions, which, though time-consuming, is fun, too. I also hope to post in coming weeks about some digital storytelling students are doing in my other class. Meanwhile, here‘s a guest blog from me that StoryCenter just posted, about how and why I took a workshop in digital storytelling last summer. I’ve got a hankering to try making another videopoem, but first: cranberry sauce.

Women on the radio

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Broadcast, by Zayneb Allak

It’s about loneliness.
A woman from Birmingham tells us
about the time she was lonely.

When I left Birmingham
the Bull Ring was still ashen.
I remember it in the slush:

a lady in a pink and gold sari
with a grey anorak over the top
dragged blue and white plastic bags.

Nothing sounds more hangdog
than a lonely Brummie, I think,
no vowels could be droopier.

My dad used to mimic them,
I’m from Birmingham I am.
We’d tell him he was way off.

The woman on the radio says
the time she was lonely was bad,
she actually literally wilted.

Her cadences announce
what I least expect: home
how I might miss it.

The Rialto 82, Winter’s End 2015, page 50, reprinted by the author’s permission

I’ve been meaning to post this lovely poem for a while. When in England this past June and July, I picked up a bunch of books and magazines–Carrie Etter, Sarah Jackson, Rory Waterman, and other poets publishing there now are pretty great. I’ve also put myself on a catch-up reading course in 21st century verse from the British Isles, although in the haphazard way of a curious person rather than in the urgent way of a professor preparing a syllabus (I’m on sabbatical–have I gloated enough about that yet? Of course not!). I took out the few recent volumes our little library owns that I’d never read (how is Selima Hill new to me?). I also ordered books based on selections I liked in a couple of anthologies (Niall Campbell’s Moontide is magical–there’s a podcast by him here). And the new Irish-themed issue of Poetry just arrived, so more self-education awaits. Even on an endless sabbatical I couldn’t read all the published contemporary poetry in English, of course, but it’s fun to try.

Zayneb Allak doesn’t have a book yet–she’s finishing a creative dissertation at Nottingham Trent University. One of her critical chapters concerns my book Heterotopiaa Liverpool-themed collection she found by accident but that resonated with her own complicated experiences of place. She grew up partly in Liverpool, partly in Iran, and her family now lives in Birmingham, as “Broadcast” suggests. I love the lines “Nothing sounds more more hangdog/ than a lonely Brummie,” and I also love that her home-longing is triggered by sound, an accent heard over the radio. Given that my next book, Radioland, uses broadcast as a motif, it sounds like our obsessions continue to harmonize.

New Jersey and New York accents, hated as they are by many, sound homey enough to make my heart skip a beat. So do Liverpudlian voices. My mom doesn’t have a strong Liverpool accent; she grew up in that city but was mostly schooled out of scouse intonations, which carry strong negative connotations over there (but not in the U.S., where everyone thinks “Beatles!”). I had assumed this prejudice was past-tense until I sat with an English couple while traveling a couple of years ago; they were very friendly until they found out where my mother was from, after which they shut up firmly and kept their eyes downcast. I know the bias concerns class and probably politics. I’m too much of an outsider to understand the nuances, but I think of Liverpool when I hear people express prejudice against the varieties of drawl associated with the southeast U.S. The unfair cliche is that a southern accent sounds stupid, uneducated. I know many southerners who code-switch, dialing up the twang for local friends and muting it in, say, academic circles. I personally mourn the loss to the soundscape, but I’m sure I would code-switch too–and probably did alter my own accent unconsciously at some early age. My sister, for example, sounds more New Jersey than I do. And my mother says I had a British accent before I started school.

Zayneb, a generous, capable sort of person, arranged some events for me in Nottingham and Liverpool. It was wonderful to meet her and I’m rooting for lots more poems with complicated accents under her byline in future. For the moment, here’s a picture of her near Nottingham Castle–I wish I could post a recording!english zayneb

And hey, speaking of little magazines doing good work in amplifying poetry’s signal: thanks to One for featuring my eccentrically-titled “Postlapsarian Salsa Verde” in their new issue. They’re looking for submissions for the next one…