SERIOUSLY VIVACIOUS READING: A FEMINIST POETICS OF LITERARY INQUIRY

by Linda Russo

I wrote To Think of her Writing Awash in Light as a way to investigate aspects of literary women’s lives that tend to be overlooked. The questions that interested me – how do lived spaces (domestic, urban, or natural spaces or environments) effect women’s relationships to their materials and ideas and language? How do women navigate these spaces and their various prescriptions for what women should or can do? – suggested a geographic inquiry, one that required leaving my desk and books behind to wander about and write in various environments, literal and imaginary.

I went to Grasmere and walked the paths near the Wordsworths’ homes there, then sat with my own edited editions of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals in a back yard garden when I returned home to U.S. America. I went to the Houghton Library in Cambridge Massachusetts to examine Emily Dickinson’s writing desk and then to the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst to watch the solstice sunlight illuminate the spaces of her bedroom where she wrote. I imagined living with the printing press that took up the spare room in Hettie Jones’ Lower East Side New York flat where, with her poet husband, she helped publish an avant-garde poetry magazine; I imagined a sort of cross-examination of her body’s relationship to poetry.

a geographic inquiry, one that required leaving my desk and books behind to wander about and write in various environments, literal and imaginary

On a visit to poet Joanne Kyger at her home in northern California, Joanne happened to pull out Anne Waldman’s epic poem Iovis and suggest we read it aloud together, creating a social context for comprehending the book at time when I was struggling, alone, to write a review of it. In all these ways I was given to think about writing and reading as lived, embodied, contextualized, spatial practices. I thought about the fact that literary scholarship largely ignores this fact. I thought about the facets of institutions that can determine, and claim great authority upon, how we encounter and read texts, from archives to museums to presses and their editors. I was inspired by Susan Howe and Marta Werner and their radical readings of Emily Dickinson, and wrote “the lack of an ‘authoritative’ reading frets no one involved in this occasion.”

I took as an epigraph for these essays a quote from Gertrude Stein: “Analysis is a womanly word. It means discover there are laws.” This was true of my own experience as a graduate student, and I found evidence of this discovery in the work of the experimental women writers I was drawn to. I write about these women as poets even though they didn’t write poetry as such, or didn’t publish it in their lifetime, or came late to poetry because “women didn’t write poetry” or “women weren’t good writers,” or because their lives weren’t set up to accommodate creative space to nurture their writing. I take these to be different aspects of the “laws” women have had to subvert, and still do. As a series of essays, they illuminate a history of women’s shifting relationship to the unwritten “laws” of literary production over two centuries.

( © Subito Press )

( © Subito Press )

At the same time as these essays think about the situations of specific literary women, they investigate my own relationship to my subjects and their social and material geographies. These are hybrid, lyrical essays, and the form of each essay is fused with the shape my thoughts were taking on each occasion. In all they contain stanzas and fragments, visual poetry, an exchange between dramatis personae, absent photographs, an imaginary interview, argument and critique, personal experience, and documentation. prescriptions to get the thought and experience down.

Critical and creative inquiry proceeds through as series of occasions, and these are the same occasions that comprise living a life. In my wildest desire for this book, it will provide an experience of, and an inspiration for pursuing, seriously vivacious reading. By which I mean, compellingly ‘lively and animated’; by this I mean feminist/feminine (some dictionaries assert that vivacious is said ‘especially of a girl or woman’); by this I mean to take this feminist mode of inquiry seriously, though it avoids many hallmarks of ;serious; critique.

Linda Russo will be reading alongside Frances Leviston this Tuesday 1st March, at Take 5, Norwich – as part of the UEA Poetics Project. More information can be found at the event page here.

Featured image © Linda Russo; Delirious Hem

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