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Poems “as good as rocks”: The Construction of Rebellious Community in Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses

Between noon and 1:15 p.m. on Thursday, January 4, 2018, I will be speaking about Alice Notley as part of the panel “Precariousness and Women’s Bodies” at the Modern Language Association convention, “#States of Insecurity,” in the Union Square Room of the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel, 811 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10019.

Given the problem of violence against women, what type of politics has the potential to address this issue? I probe the tension between feminism and the dreams of classlessness that circulated through Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses (1998). Women associated with the New York School often felt compelled to defy the masculinist queer bohemia that their male counterparts thrived within. Too often in the various nonbiological family configuration that Notley observes, responsibilities for domestic chores and childcare fell to women. Such circumstances lead Notley’s speaker to desire a more egalitarian distribution of responsibility across the sex divide, perhaps even in the unexpected form of the heteronormative nuclear family’s explicit division of labor wherein men worked as breadwinners while women tended home and children.

The dichotomies through which Notley organizes her resistance shift according to the current needs of her self-definition. So while she exposes the sexism often inherent in queer or sexually unconventional bohemias, she also fights a similar chauvinism in its more heteronormative instantiations. And when she does so, to render herself outside of the heteronormative expectations she critiques, Notley positions herself as an artistic, headstrong feminist who would belong to the sexually libertine communities she scoffs at elsewhere. Notley always condemns from the other side (the outside), and it is she who gets to call what the sides are and who is included on each side of the fighting line. A reconsideration of the interactions among the intersections of class and sexual mores circulating through the artistic communities depicted in Notley’s poetry is crucial to comprehending her often contradictory critiques.


Posted in Uncategorized.

Writing like a Witch: Experimental Procedures in Trance (Workshop)

I will be giving a workshop as part of the CUNY Graduate Center English Student Association‘s conference on Trance at 3:20 p.m. on March 6, 2015, in Room C203 of the GC.

This workshop will begin with a bit of entrancement under which participants will write prompts. In a continued trance state, participants will then trance-write brief pieces in response to one another’s prompts. At the close of this session, participants will share their trance-writing and the trance prompts that inspired them. Because this workshop will be following many panels and  performances both creatively and critically interpreting trance, participants will be preprepared with impetuses communally entrancing them.

This workshop will ask and seek to answer the question, how can we instigate, provoke, coerce, or manipulate writing in or from others in a nonbullshitty way? That is, how does one extract trance writing from others? Can trance writing yield more trance, or does trance ever reach a deadend? When is it actually dangerous to fuck up through language? What are the tipping points or points of diminishing returns in trance, in writing, in language? To what extent do these overlap? Is trance always embedded in words? Can trance, can creativity, can purposeful loss of control, be rendered political without losing integrity? That is, to what extent is trance purely aesthetic? Can all disciplines trance out equally? (One hopes! But one dares to doubt.) When is trance utopic? When is trance dystopic? When does trance refuse modes of social organization?

The above is rambly, but trance knows no bounds. Then again, even and especially Alice Notley, writer of trance manifestoes, edits her own writing. This workshop will seek to intertwine–to remix, to tape over–methods of digression and concision, expansion and condensation, creative outburst and (quasi?)critical review to better ask and answer the question, how do we produce interesting and unexpected writing? Is trance most efficaciously channeled in writing à la writing, or orally, perhaps through talk poetry such as that of David Antin? How can we manipulate a group’s intersubjective consciousness to produce surprising writing in communal situation? What’s Gertrude Stein got to do with it? What is trance? Can it involve bananagrams? Can it redeem mad libs? (Yes and maybe to those last two, respectively, but it leans too closely on tarot cards to ever involve magnetic poetry.) Can we write with our eyes closed and read it in the morning?

Posted in abstract, Alice Notley, automatic writing, Bananagrams, CAConrad, event, literature, poetry, trance, workshop.

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Gendered Flânerie in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

What follows is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at the 24th Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, “Writing the World,” to be held at the Mundelein Center on Loyola University Chicago, 1020 W. Sheridan Road, on June 5-8, 2014. Specifically, on Sunday, June 8, at 9 a.m. in Mundelein 603, I will be speaking alongside Candis Bond and Yike He as part of a Concurrent Session on Flânerie and City Spaces. I will also be giving a follow-up presentation entitled “‘Countless tiny deportations’ and Virginia Woolf’s Modernist ‘Street Haunter'” at Modernism Now!, the British Association for Modernist Studies (BAMS) international conference to be hosted by the Institute of English Studies, Senate House, London, on June 26-28, 2014, speaking alongside Elizabeth Pritchett, Tara S. Thomson, and Faye Harland as part of their Gender and Modernism panel at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 29 (location TBA).

In “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” Virginia Woolf lauds those taking the time to separate from daily life’s normal structuring forces and to fully absorb their surroundings, specifically, the urban space that houses their community. Her “street haunters” experience moments as opening with previously invisible surfaces evoking familial memory and ever-mobile cultural identity. Such astute passersby exercise not only incredible powers of perceptiveness but also empathetic creativity. Written in the shadow of World War I, Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway provides an interesting case study to examine the kinds of societies of passersby that street haunting can create as the novel portrays an ever-multiplying cast of flaneurs, few—if any—of whom feel full belonging in the place they call home. I examine this novel’s many different narrative perspectives to argue that, while, for Woolf, male flâneurs fall into the dandyish model depicted by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, her female characters demonstrate alternative points of view and resistant ways of being that suggest their gender has enforced their turn toward more creative modes of engagement with the world as they deploy what Michel de Certeau calls “tactics” and the capacious empathy Woolf describes in “Street Haunting.” Drawing on Deborah Parsons’s work, I suggest that the different circumstances grounding men’s and women’s interactions with the city manifest themselves in that the female flâneur must creatively reorganize local geography in any of a variety of ways to engage with her surroundings, while her male counterparts may leave the city as they find it.

Posted in abstract, cosmopolitanism, flanerie, literature, Michel de Certeau, modernism, theories of the city, Virginia Woolf.

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Translations and adaptations

I am returning to The Canterbury Tales these days, which led me to uncover some thoughts I wrote up on Chaucer a couple summers ago.  What follows originally appeared in slightly different form on a now-defunct blog for the Chicago Humanities Festival in July 2009:

Recently, I decided I should read The Canterbury Tales. I was feeling especially guilty a month or so ago for having earned a degree in English without ever having read any Chaucer.  I remembered that my parents, 2000 miles to the west, owned an ancient paperback edition of the book, and I thought I could implore upon them to lend it to me via mail.  A free book, no library deadlines–I was rolling.

But then, after I got over the excitement of my mother’s name scrawled across the title page in collegiate ballpoint (I’m really into the Benjaminian aura of artifacts from an archive), I realized I had a weird translation (circa 1955) on my hands.  The translator, R. M. Lumiansky, had changed Chaucer’s original poetry to prose in an effort to modernize the text for contemporary readers.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to think, or whether this is a legitimate practice.  But the more I thought about it, the sketchier it seemed.

Some friends had claimed that Chaucer’s Middle English is legible to the intelligent modern reader if one is willing to go a bit slowly, glean vocabulary from the surrounding context, sound out words, and so on.  However, this seems a little foolish if a reader untrained in Middle English is interested in Canterbury or other works of Middle English for purposes beyond a summary understanding.  I say so because it is hard to properly read, to gain the experience an author intended, or the experience of other readers fluent in the language, all while simultaneously learning to read, and seeking the genuine experience a fluent reader would find.

All of which is to say that a good reader definitely reads for the language, but that style (which is of course related) is very important, too.  I think a translated edition of Chaucer for the undereducated New English eyes of us philistines is highly useful.  But I also think that an author’s style must be retained.  Would you have Howl printed in a velvet-bound calligraphic edition with the lines broken differently?  Or–Pynchon.  Would you have Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) rewritten as an epic poem with the lines broken up differently than Pynchon has them?  Clearly, more than most novelists, Pynchon is highly interested in aesthetics, right?  See, for example, how he incorporates elements from different genres (songs, ditties, bits of dramatic-style dialog, writing descended from the Beats, writing descended from the Realists, etc.) many of which appear visually different on the page (symbols in mathematical formulas, abbreviations used for statistical evidence, wide margins for songs, ditties, dialog, and so on, titles for different episodes on occasion, etc.).  Wouldn’t it be wrong to translate Pynchon into some other language–say, French, but really it doesn’t matter and Urdu or Latin would do–and simultaneously spell out the abbreviations and the mathematical symbols, change the dramatic dialog to appear novelistic (e.g., ” ‘No’ she said” instead of “SHE: No”).  Instead, translating Pynchon into French, we should strive as desperately and as accurately as possible to maintain the excitement, the fanatic and frantic quality, of his (most often) prose.

So, authorial intent, I argue, is important.  So important, in fact, that it is awfully dangerous to tamper with.  Translations are necessary, because not every reader can be expected to know every language worth writing relevant and pivotal texts in.  But in translating Homer’s Latin to its English counterpart, we should end up with a translation by Alexander Pope or Robert Fitzgerald or Richard Lattimore or some other classics scholar (ideally, cum poet), not with Joyce’s Ulysses, even though many critics and literary historians claim that Joyce was trying to outdo Homer (hence, the schema from The Odyssey that sculpts Joyce’s chapters).  Similarly, they say sometimes that Gravity’s Rainbow attempts to top Joyce’s Ulysses, and I agree (from a perspective rooted purely within the text, obviously, and not from the viewpoint of any literary history, of which I know unfortunately little).

While I have barely started R. Lumiansky’s translation of Chaucer, it would seem impossible that it can avoid simultaneously adapting and translating his original starting text, the original Canterbury Tales.  I would say that Joyce does this (and more, certainly) with Ulysses, as does Pynchon with Gravity’s Rainbow, as do Charlie Kaufman and co. in transforming Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into the film Adaptation (2002).

A couple weeks ago, I emailed Christina von Nolcken, who teaches Old English in the English Department at the University of Chicago, and asked what translation of Canterbury she’d recommend to a monolinguist like me.  Interestingly, she writes, “Lumianski is fine, but  I’d recommend Norman Coghill’s translation for Penguin Classics–it is into verse, and quite close.”  Lumiansky doesn’t seem to have left much of an imprint on the cultural archive.  A Wikipedia search reveals very little about him.  His writing is sort of quaint and didactic in his preface, a little like his contemporary and fellow Columbia professor Lionel Trilling’s, I’d say.

I brought up these issues with my dad, a scientist who saves fiction for vacations.  He said, “Yes, it would seem that our Canterbury Tales isn’t right.  But does one read for the story or for the language?  If I recall properly, Early English is quite hard to read and, if not a translator, requires at least a gloss.  The best I can do is ‘sumer is a cumen in, loudly sing cuckoo.’  Which, as I remember it, is from our friend Chaucer.  Anyway, perhaps as long as the translation is true to the original intent, maybe prose isn’t important.”  But I disagree.

Posted in adapatation, literature, poetry, translation.

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Eating Words: How to Understand Misunderstandings at Hemingway’s Cafes

What follows is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at “Food! The Conference,” the English Student Association‘s interdisciplinary graduate conference at the CUNY Graduate Center on March 18, 2011. I will be speaking during the second session, at 10:30 in room 8400 of the GC (with the likes of Indiana University’s Andrew Hamilton on hand to discuss Luther and Hoffmansthal afterward):

“Are you trying to insult me?”

“No, hombre, only to make a joke.”

(Hemingway, Winner, 22)

This exchange between two waiters in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” exemplifies the kind of misunderstanding that continually resurfaces in Hemingway’s short fiction set during idle time spent drinking and lingering in cafes, circumstances that would seem to cater to rather than hamper effective communication. This raises the question, why do diners, drinkers, and other characters in Hemingway’s stories recurringly misinterpret their interlocutors’ intents?

In a 1927 review of Hemingway’s story collection Men Without Women, Virginia Woolf noted that Hemingway’s reader is faced with an unusually great responsibility due to “what [Woolf] regarded as an excessive use of dialogue” (Donaldson, 340), griping that the reader “has to hear, to see, to supply the right tone, and to fill in the background from what the characters say without any help from the author” (qtd. in Donaldson, 340). Such observations of Hemingway’s work have focused criticism on his characters’ dialogue in order to determine what work this oral mimesis does perform. But what can we learn by taking such investigations in new directions?

Specifically, I employ J. L. Austin’s speech act theory as a lens through which to reexamine Hemingway’s short stories set in cafes, reconsidering “Hills Like White Elephants” from the collection Men Without Women and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “The Sea Change,” and “Homage to Switzerland” from Winner Take Nothing. These works portray characters who not only exert oral output in the form of generally unsuccessful speech acts, but also drink and smoke or facilitate others’ oral ingestion of liquor and tobacco in their café environs, often using or allowing that oral intake to obfuscate the intake of other drinkers’ or bartenders’ conversational intents. Like Hemingway, Austin is interested in how conversations progress in relation to the goals of their speakers. In this paper, I find that Austin’s concern regarding how spoken language is used can illuminate the subtexts of Hemingway’s writing, delineating how misinterpretations and misrepresentations of one another’s intended meanings shift the possession of power among characters, upsetting social roles set by norms of setting, sexuality, gender, and nationality.

Hemingway in Paris

Ernest Hemingway, Harold Loeb, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, Lady Duff Twysden, Don Stewart, and Pat Guthrie.

Posted in abstract, CUNY, Ernest Hemingway, event, literature, modernism, speech act theory.

If This Is a Knowledge System: Thinking about Primo Levi and Martin Heidegger

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at “The Critical Blot: Opacity and Meaning in German Language, Literature, and Culture,” a conference at Indiana University, on February 26, 2011.

In “The Age of the World Picture,” Martin Heidegger writes, “Science as research is an absolutely necessary form of this establishing of self in the world” (135). Inhabitants of the modern era, according to Heidegger, finds the world ably categorizable, giving humankind the opportunity to assume an unprecedented degree of agency as they execute or perform this categorization across disciplines. How, though, can the notions expressed in Heidegger’s text illuminate the reportage by his contemporary Primo Levi, who depicts a science or compulsion for classification that has gone too far?

The very title of Levi’s memoir If This Is a Man indicates the distinct overlap of his interest in delineating or questioning man and his constitutive abilities with Heidegger’s own concerns, but Levi’s portrayal of Auschwitz is one in which the dominant class’s pursuit of extreme (social) order is constantly subverted. (if not necessarily in ways that always counter the continuation of the Nazis’ monopoly on power). Levi describes, for example, the eating equipment of a fellow inmate who “shows me his bowl. Where others have carved their numbers, and Alberto and I our names, Clausner has written: ‘Ne pas chercher a comprendre,’” the French for “Do not seek to understand” (109). In a perverted sense, Clausner maintains individual identity by the simultaneous effacement of his name, the signifier without which he cannot be easily differentiated from others—but these are others who have all kept some connection to the names given them at birth or the numbers given them by the SS upon their arrival at the camp.

Not only does Levi describe the Nazi horrors that so quelled any attempts at resistance on the part of the Jews and others persecuted by Nazi Germany, including those in the form of borderline survival, but, as if dramatizing these persecutions, If This Is a Man also portrays altered identities that resist the orderly taxonomies Heidegger (in many ways, a thinker of opposite beliefs than Levi) finds characteristic of modern science in “The Age of the World Picture.” This disagreement between the different systems of knowledge Levi and Heidegger describe is perhaps most noticeable in the dissolved relationships between signifiers and that which they originally signified in If This Is a Man, a slippage not allowed for in Heidegger’s conception of modern science. The physically altered human bodies that recur in Levi’s text further diminish the authority of a strict and unforgiving science. Interestingly, Levi also presents the reader with cultural tradition in the form of stories and inherited knowledge that is perhaps counterintuitively flexible as it alternately adapts or acquiesces to and subverts the insufferable circumstances of the camp.

Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man" {Se questo è un uomo)

Posted in abstract, Beyond Human Rights?, Holocaust, Indiana University, literature, Martin Heidegger, Primo Levi.

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