Friday, August 31, 2012

READING POETRY IRL: Michael Field: The Poet (Broadview Press, 2009)


Here’s a late 19th-century poem by Michael Field that we’re reading IRL:

A Girl,
     Her soul a deep-wave pearl
Dim, lucent of all lovely mysteries;
     A face flowered for heart’s ease,
     A brow’s grace soft as seas
     Seen through faint forest-trees:
     A mouth, the lips apart,
Like aspen-leaflets trembling in the breeze
     From her tempestuous heart.
     Such: and our souls so knit,
     I leave a page half-writ —
        The work begun
Will be to heaven’s conception done,
        If she come to it.

IRL means a lot of things right now.  First of all it means in a shared Google doc where we can co-author in real time but, unfortunately, without the immediate comfort of Garamond (our favorite font).  IRL means while boiling tea for water with the whistle off & glancing over our shoulders to make sure the kitchen hasn’t caught fire.  While discussing other things also.  While packing boxes.  While unpacking boxes.  (We’re both moving but we’re on opposite ends of the project.)  While also looking at a weird tax form.  & the dog runs over.

But then, the poem.  How many girls are in it?  It’s a poem of divisions & obfuscations.  The soul both dim & lucent & then only of mysteries.  The ease seas seen trees...the progress of syllables, the doubling of words (sea/see) & the doubling, the conflation of different elements of the body (like an old Renaissance blazon & have you seen The Tudors?)...the brow, not the eye, sees, or seas.  And then the body fractures in two—the lips part, the heart is in tempest, and suddenly the souls are two, two souls knit together.  “I leave a page half-writ —/The work begun/Will be to heaven’s conception done,/If she come to it.”  Is this a romanticized emblem of a woman, or a scene of two women writing together?

Onycha, Isla Leigh, Arran Leigh, Henny, Henry, Heinrich, Sim, Puss, All Wise Fowl, Erinna, Messalina Garden, and my Love were only a few of the names that Michael Field had for himself. It wasn’t that he had multiple personalities or a bad case of narcissism; it’s just that the grammar here gets a bit tricky. “Michael Field” was the pseudonym of two English poets and dramatists: Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) & Edith Cooper (1862-1913) but, more than this, he was a third entity: an expression of their unity as artists, lovers, & friends. Cooper was the daughter of Bradley’s elder sister Emma. When, after the birth of a second daughter, Emma Cooper became an invalid, Bradley took legal responsibility for the young Edith. As Edith grew up, Bradley encouraged her interests in poetry & ancient languages. By the 1870s, maternal affection had turned to desire, to which poetry sequences like Long Ago (1889; inspired by recently translated fragments of Sappho) and Sight & Song (1892; poems about paintings) would later attest. After attending University College, Bristol together, they decided to set up house (they came from a wealthy family, which gave them an unusual degree of financial freedom). The arrangement would last until Cooper’s death in 1913.

The name “Michael Field” was a way of figuratively combining their artistic identities by literally combining their nicknames. Out of their galaxy of endearments, they picked two—Edith was often called “Field,” & Katherine “Michael”—& smushed them together. Their early collaborative work as Michael Field, a verse tragedy called Callirrhöe and Fair Rosamund, made quite an impression upon its publication in 1884. (Up ’til then, their only published work, a volume of poetry, had appeared under the names “Arran & Isla Leigh,” possibly a hat tip to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a verse novel.) The critics—who included Victorian luminaries like Robert Browning & Walter Pater—loved it—until Browning carelessly outed Bradley & Cooper as Field’s creators.

Suddenly, Michael Field’s reviewers started to argue about the overheated imaginations of aging spinsters & to worry about things like whether it was Cooper or Bradley—or someone else—who was “really” responsible for Field’s work. Bradley & Cooper continued to compose dramas, poems, and letters—& to circulate among the voluble & volatile members of the Aesthetic set. (Their acquaintance included Oscar Wilde ((yes, we know!)), the poet George Meredith, the critic Bernard Berenson & a bunch of other famous-in-the-nineteenth-century types.) Arguably, their greatest collaborative accomplishment was the joint diary they kept from 1888 until Edith’s death from cancer in 1913 (though Bradley continued to write journal entries until her own cancer-induced death in 1914). The way Bradley’s handwriting gives way to Cooper’s—or Cooper’s to Bradley’s—within the space of a line or a paragraph is a physical testament to the intensity & complexity of their relationship. Something we find particularly fascinating is the way they use the first person, switching from the singular subject “I” to the plural “we” within the space of a single paragraph. Take this entry from 1888:   


On Wednesday May 9th we were asked to visit Mr. [Robert] Browning . . . Ardently . . . he spoke of the Sapphics, expressing special interest in Tiresias wh. he had once himself thought of treating. When I remarked I wished he had treated it—he said “No: it ought to be treated by a woman.[”] He said to Edith he liked the 2nd series of poems even better than the first, & prophesied they would make their mark. But he refuses to write a preface. We must remember we are Michael Field. Again he said:—Wait fifty years.  

The diaries have a lot of moods: sometimes they’re psychological drama, other times they’re more like a travelogue (Cooper & Bradley did a lot of traveling, particularly in Europe) or a social calendar. Often they’re a little tedious in the way daily writing can be. But they are always, always intensely social, not merely in the way they speak to the relationship between Cooper & Bradley but in the way they situate that relationship among the complicated networks of late Victorian society. (Cooper & Bradley aren’t without precedent as a high-profile same-sex literary couple: the Ladies of Llangollen, frex, a pair of Irish spinsters who ran away together & settled in Wales, where they would play host to scandalous poets like Byron, Shelley, & Wordsworth before he got terminally respectable.) Because they are so concerned with the social—who visited whom, who thinks what about so-and-so’s new poems—Michael Field’s journals are one of the best records we have of women performing personal & artistic intimacy within a community. & the way intimacy between women gets performed in a social space is maybe what’s most interesting here—not, of course, to discount the power of the erotic relationship from which much of that intimacy no doubt derives. Bradley & Cooper were uniquely close, it’s true, but their work as Michael Field (although irreducible) makes a great starting point for considering how women—queer and otherwise—perform intimacy right now, especially as artistic collaborators, especially in the overwhelming social noise of the information age. (Did we mention we’re on Twitter?)  

In the first episode of HBO’s Girls (created by Lena Dunham) we get Hannah & Marnie in a bathtub debating who gets to see whom naked. It’s a way of establishing intimacy among female friends that seems to play with that weird Hollywood trope of pathologizing friendships between women or maybe pathologizing lesbian desire (we’re not sure which) by showing girls bathing together (See: Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. See: Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You.).  & Dunham’s characters are intimate, even if they’re not always kind or even very good friends to one another. We’re interested in this bathtub scene for two reasons: 1) it shows just what a limited vocabulary TV & film have for talking about intimacy between women & 2) it tells us something really discomfiting about how ill at ease we are when watching other people’s displays of intimacy.

Let’s talk about that second point. This is the first of many scenes in Girls that shows us that, though intimacy may not be awkward for the ones involved, it’s almost always awkward to witness. In fact, one rubric for measuring the success of representations of intimacy may be to ask how awkward they are for the viewer, how well they walk the line between inviting observation &, at the same time, making an external audience aware of its exclusion. This may explain why it feels somehow voyeuristic to read Michael Field’s journals: they’re a performance, sure, but it’s not necessarily a performance meant for you, the reader. Cooper & Bradley were performing primarily (though maybe not solely) for each other there, whereas their plays & poetry were explicitly written to be read by others.

(& by the way we should ask you--do you love Girls or love to hate Girls because as far as we can tell those are the only two options.  & if you hate it did you watch it in spite of hating it or because you hated it?  & when is season two coming out? We, in general, hated to love it, or just loved it, you know, for what it’s worth.)  

This brings us to another point about cliques & coteries & why they interest us so much. They have a dark side: at first they seem to be about inclusion, people banding together to handle something or do something or think about something. But, at some point, & often from their inception, cliques are about who they exclude, who gets to sit at the table with the popular kids. & when the stakes are higher than that—when they’re about who gets to speak & how often & what counts as art in the first place—that’s where the ethics of clique-making & breaking get really complicated. Which speaks to the passionate critiques of Girls as exclusive, narrow, racist, anti-sex, & even misogynist. True, Girls is attempting, on some levels, to satirize the economic privilege of its cast, particularly in the character of Hannah Horvath; many have pointed out, however, that the cast is made up of the wealthy, white daughters of celebrities, which somewhat lessens the bite. It’s a fair complaint, especially in light of the title: do you have to be white & well off in order to count as a girl &, when you finally grow up, a woman? As the Michael Field example shows, money can buy women the space for artistry but maybe only specific kinds of women. &, in any case, Bradley & Cooper took a male pseudonym in part because they wanted critical approval—that is, the approval of their privileged, male audience. “Michael Field” was, in some ways, a subversive performance of intimacy, but it was also an attempt to gain access to the boys’ club. (Even the in-group has in-groups.) The case of Girls—both the show & the conversation surrounding it—highlights our cultural insecurities about watching others be intimate, whether it’s the “good” intimacy of affection or the “bad” intimacy of cronyism. It embarrasses us or it makes us jealous or else (often rightly) angry about the injustices of exclusion. & this is why artistic cliques & coteries are something we really need to think about in a larger context—they tell us both about how we make communities through art & also how those communities have failed to be inclusive enough or honest enough or wise enough & also how we might be able to do better. In short, we have intimacy issues.

Interviewed in Marie Claire (we read it on the plane), Caitlin Moran alludes to the loose narrative structure of Girls, which seems to stress, formally, the show’s reliance on creating a sense of intimacy observed: “It doesn’t see women as massive makeover projects.”  We keep hoping to encounter representations of intimacy—& especially intimacy between women—that withhold their prescriptions & their judgments about how an intimate relationship should look. In an essay called The Rejection of Closure (1985), American poet Lyn Hejinian (we love her) quotes Hélène Cixous: “A feminine textual body is recognized by the fact that it is always endless, without ending [...] There’s no closure, it doesn’t stop.” Maybe the problem with representations of intimacy between women is that they haven’t been specific enough, generous enough, capacious enough, inviting enough, & daring enough to show an intimacy that doesn’t rely on bathtub clichés or easy moral judgments, an intimacy without boundaries, as strange & profound & difficult as it is IRL.

This is our kind of girl talk.

Works Consulted Besides HBO’s Girls:

Katherine Bradley & Edith Cooper (ed. Marion Thain & Ana Vadillo). Michael Field: The Poet. Broadview Press (2009) [A Girl-125; Journal excerpt-233].

Martha Vicinus. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press (2006) [98-108].

Caitlin Moran interviewed by Roberta Bernstein.  “How to Be a Woman,” Marie Claire (August 2012) [106].

Hélène Cixous. “Castration or Decapitation?” in Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981), 53.  Quoted by Lyn Hejinian in “The Rejection of Closure” (1985), published many places including The Poetry Foundation website. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Of place & panic

For you, two beautiful things:

1) Bob Hicok's A poem of place in AGNI online ["I'm tired of trying to say things about stars"]


2) Rusty Morrison's essay, Poetry & Panic, in the current issue of Pleiades ["The leap, the deep step, that the reader is taking with the poet into the poem may seem dizzying, but the process of following such steps may be wonderfully instructive, even if the arresting interfaces between ideas may initially induce in the reader what I am calling panic" (123)].

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why write body?

Back in January we reviewed Angela Hume's Second Story of Your Body, & now we're pointing your browser towards her statement of poetics/exploration of poetry & bio/politics in the August issue of Evening Will Come.  We're keen on lyric theory here in the oonaverse, & so always interested to see the l-word reimagined/recontextualized/reinvented by contemporary poets.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sleep is Dangerous: An IInterview with Kelli Anne Noftle

Dear (r),

I have recently movedhomes, states, time zones.  Many of my books, by accident or impulse, have changed residence as well.  You see, I shipped my library to my new address via media mail.  The boxes were searched, and then hastily repacked.

When I opened the boxes, I found about half of my original books, mixed in with a number of books belonging to other people.  Gone was Lyn Hejinians The Book of a Thousand Eyes; in its place was a tome extolling the powers of a praying wife.  (As if to prove this point, aforementioned prayerful wife has telephoned, having discovered my Hejinian.)  Ive acquired several analyses of business ethics and a romance novel.  Kelli Anne Noftles I Was There For Your Somniloquy is nowhere to be found.  The postal servant suggested I call the dead letter office.  I was unaware such a place existed outside of a Spicer poem.

Tracing this literal movement and loss of text has been a near-perfect exercise in the normal paranormal, a concept that has obsessed us for the past several months, a phrase we coined while discussing Noftles poetics of (now literal) disappearance.  Thus, for oonas very first iinterview, it seemed fitting that we ask the luminous Kelli Anne Noftle to join us in a virtual salon to chat about cheesecake, surrealism, & sleep.  I do hope someone will listen in.



(r): Hello!

Kelli Anne Noftle: Hi!

R:  Greets!  K.A.N., we are just star-struck & pleased as punch to have you here.

(r): This we are!

R: We thought we'd start with a round of introductions...what should we know about you?

KAN:  You should know that interviews intimidate me and that I'm currently in bed with my laptop and a bowl of cheesecake!

(r):  A woman after our own hearts.

R:  I was just choosing my snack in fact...chamomile tea & dark chocolate are the order of the day.

KAN:  Wow that sounds delightful.  (r)...Where are you?  What are you snacking on?

(r):  Currently in a cozy apartment in Brooklyn, New York. In front of me are a cracked blue & white bowl filled with Ranier cherries & a postcard with a photo of Nina Simone. (& my laptop of course!)

KAN: Holy wow.  That is poetry.

Someone just gave me a postcard of a hologram of a jellyfish...probably my favorite thing in the whole world right now. All I need is some Nina Simone and cherries on my cheesecake

(r):  I'm imagining all three of us in a virtual salon in which are all of these things (chamomile tea & dark chocolate as well).

R:  It seems quite fitting to begin by chatting about the normal, since we're hoping that you may be able to help us think about the paranormal, or the normal paranormal.

KAN:  Yes, I was thinking about your "normal paranormality" and this idea of "domestic science fiction" - maybe you could explain that idea to me.

(r):  I'm going to honor the charms of the ordinary by talking a little bit about where these terms began.  Normal paranormality, is, of course, R's coinage but it comes out of the same matrix as domestic science fiction, which is something we've been thinking about for a while. The first time I can remember our throwing that term around was late at night after watching a very slight but appealing movie that took the search for romantic love & imposed this wonderful & ridiculous science fiction premise on that very tired old quest. The movie wasn't really concerned with being scientifically plausible but it was very concerned with being emotionally & socially plausible, which is why (I think) we both liked it so much. The science fiction conceit elevated the clichés of the romance; the best of the character stuff made you forget entirely about how ridiculous the "science" was.  Normal paranormality takes the surreal, the startling, the uncanny as its premise--but it inverts it.  It draws you always back to what is ordinary, usual, ingrained in habit.
One of the things that so struck us about your poetry, K, was how you managed to make the normal reveal itself to the paranormal (& yes, I think that's the right order of things).

KAN:  Yes, okay, I recall you using the phrase "naturalization of mystery" which pleased me greatly.

R:  The normal is the surprise.  I think we were talking about coverings & un-coverings, obfuscations & revelations.

KAN:  And of course, specifically, in relation to sleep.

(r):  Absolutely.


R:  Let's talk about sleep...I mean, it's the ultimate normal paranormal experience, right? It's a paranormal experience that happens every day.

KAN:  Yes and it's also a loss of control...where we allow the subconscious to take over...Sleeping with both eyes shut is something relatively new (in evolutionary terms)- something only terrestrial mammals do, right? Most reptiles and birds sleep with half of their brain still fully conscious.

R:  So sleep = vulnerability, an adaptation.

(r):  But weirdly an adaptation that makes us, in some ways, MORE vulnerable.

KAN: Oh yes definitely - like I said, it's a loss of control and that's quite frightening...I'm obsessed with sleep - like you mentioned in your review I regard it as an observer rather than active participant.  I feel like my reptile brain is still active during sleep - that split brain behavior you see in somnambulists - and I suppose this relates to how I approach poetry too - my writing process.

(r): Say a little about that, your process.

KAN:  I think the minds are in dialogue.  A friend and I were at a bar last night discussing what he calls "parallel poetics" - is that a real term?  I'm writing about sea slugs and also describing my relationship with a lover but not drawing overt connections or metaphors.  Not saying that one thing stands for the other, simply discussing them at the same time.
(r):  I love this. The yolking together of one thing & another without over-determining the relationship.

R:  It makes perfect sense...remember what Freud said about dreams...Something can be multiple things at the same time.  It's a poetics of mutual inclusion.  A sort of dreamworks.
KAN:  Yes, I love that you mention Freud - I thought of his essay on the uncanny when you spoke of the reverse uncanny earlier and also in your review.

(r): He haunts us.

KAN:  Back to your domestic sci-fi...I did live with a somnambulist many years ago and some of the parasomnias I observed inspired me to write most of the poems in my collection.

(r): Really? That's so fascinating.

KAN:  His worst parasomnia was sleep eating.  He would devour my Ben & Jerry’s and totally forget about it the next day.

R:  How terrifying, not to remember.  But at the same time, eating late night ice cream out of the carton--such a normal, almost banal crime.

KAN:  Yes, and many people do it apparently.  Waking up in a pile of candy wrappers with no recollection is pure paranormality.

(r):  There's an element of terror there...

KAN:  Speaking of, his night terrors were no fun either...enacting a nightmare, screaming, pointing to the window, all completely in his sleep.

R:  It seems to me that we're categorizing the ways in which sleep terrifies--there's the vulnerability of the sleeper to the outside world, to the inside world, and to the possibility of one realm permeating the other.

KAN:  I started researching somnambulism and parasomnia and the poems evolved from there.

(r):  So you consciously thought about them as existing in some sort of constellation, as a sequence, I mean.

KAN:  Yes and always with that element of fear - of the outside world but also of the internal, perhaps more so.

R:  Can we talk about slugs for a moment?

KAN:  I went to a lecture on the mating habits of sea slugs back in 2008.  Basically, Nudibranchs know how to party.

(r):  May we all have so satisfactory an epitaph.

R:  Why slugs & sleep? I ask because we've talked a little bit about sleep & how different beasts sleep differently, & you referenced your "reptile mind."

KAN:  That was actually something i struggled with - how do the slug poems fit with the sleep poems - how would it all become a collection?  I believed I had at least 3 different books here, not 1...but I think readers make the connections necessary - like the "parallel poetics" - these 2 separate subjects working side by side but also in a dialogue together - under the umbrella of sleepwalking? I'm sleeping but a the same time I'm watering the plants and making pancakes - it's all happening in one poem or one collection...the mutual inclusions as you mentioned before...and there is the ocean - the ocean & the unconscious & sleep & when I wrote the slug poems I was also dating two people at the same time and believed I had fallen in love with both of them simultaneously, I was interested in a dialogue about the otherness of other creatures, this kind of complexity and multiplicity and polyamorous behavior seen in slug life (slugz4life) but coupled with intimacy and longing - how to navigate between these.
(r):  The topics of sleep & slug life (not to be confused with thug life) might seem, at first, to diverge pretty widely. But what seems to me to link them is the way you've founded your poetics on these questions of process.

What is the experience of observation like? What do you do when the distance it seems to require collapses? What kind of processes (biological or otherwise) are left?

These all seem to me questions that persist throughout the collection. It makes me wonder if these are the same kinds of questions that animate your songwriting. Is there a continuum there or do you feel that your music takes place (parallel poetics style) in a separate sphere which ought not to be directly compared?

KAN:  Observation is how it all happens ("exiled from the self" as I believe you put it so perfectly in your review)- the distance collapsing is just too frightening, like letting go of the control necessary to allow sleep (I'm an insomniac if you haven't guessed by now).
R:  You mentioned your album-in-process, which is sleep-related. Can you tell us more about that?

KAN:  This new album is more ethereal and ambient experimental stuff veering away from the verse chorus verse structure.  There is a white noise (sleep machine) next to my bed with settings such as "waterfall" "rain" "summer night" "ocean" "rainforest"...currently I'm writing songs around the sounds, layered under and over those white noise sounds (or pink or brown noise, what have you) my sleep obsession continues in the form of music.

R:  A wise teacher once told me, "honor your obsessions."  I think it's a good artistic credo to have.

KAN: Agreed!

R:  Thank you, KAN!  This has been illuminating.  I'd been thinking about the normal paranormal as a question of perspective, when perhaps it's a question of process--of organic processes, even.  Now let's all go get some sleep, if we can face it...

Perhaps someday our virtual salon will be a real salon, complete with requisite cheesecake.

(r):  Let us make this a life goal.

KAN:  That would be grand.  I'll bring wine too.  And lavender for the chamomile.  And sleep machines for the sleepless.