We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The MLA: "I began to excavate and dig" · 4 January 06

Dear Marianne,

I have not had time to write about the nearly 4 days I spent going to sessions at the MLA conference which met in DC last week. While I was too nervous and anxious about going to do much planning before, once Edward got me to pay attention to the book ("when is the Victorian luncheon?"), and gently pushed me into going with contradictions ("Of course you have the time"), sturdy offers of help over obstacles ("I’ll drive you to the station") and reminders towards self-organization ("Remember to take the fare"), and plans to come interrupt the time there for me ("we’re have dinner on Tuesday night together"), and I actually went and broke the psychological barrier—as usual I enjoyed myself very much. When it was over, I relived the details by writing long happy and excited postings to the three lists I own or moderate telling everyone far more than they wanted to know or could probably take in (as I was not particularly coherent), and then sent partial messages to yet further lists where a session was about their terrain.

Two of the sessions I went to were about early modern women poets. In one, I listened to 4 papers (one in French which I partly understood!) on Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron. With variations the argument of all four was to show how Marguerite presents women trying to survive and negotiating to find space and time to create some sort of pleasure or fulfillment for themselves in a society structured to exploit and repress them sexually and keep them silent and obedient to men and family aggrandizement through religious doctrine. In this one I sat next to a woman who told me she had just gotten her degree and was working on Marguerite de Navarre. She had children at home and had come back for the degree later in life.

The other was the second of 2 sessions on early modern women poets in translation and heard a paper by Victoria Kirkham on the coming final product (a published book) of her more than 15 years work on an edition of Laura Battiferra’s poetry. Unknown to anyone until Kirkham found the manuscripts (quite by chance), Battiferra left something like 500 poems (mostly sonnets). Only 2 slender collections of her poetry were published in her lifetime. For me it was stirring to hear her talk about her work—as I spent around 20 years reading about the lives, writing notes, and translating the poetry of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara. A man (who shall go unnamed) talked who is bringing out a translation and edition of a long poem by Tullia d’Aragona. He was coldly condescending towards D’Aragona’s poem, and seemed to think his "job" was merely to present an accurate crib for the text, and since it was an inferior text (just filled with uneven prosody and inadequate rhymes, grammar and spelling errors for all of which sort of thing he evidenced a strong distaste), he was bound to present something nearly as bad. No ideas about translation being a creative living art, of making a translated poem speak to a modern audience had reached him. One woman in the audience asked him why he was translating the poem since he thought so little of it. He didn’t answer. Perhaps the answer was he had been promised a published book and was willing to condescend to a whore’s poetry (?).

This second session left me with a terrible pain in my stomach which didn’t go away for a time: at the back of the room, sitting in a corner but clearly the "big" man in the place was the man who publishes these University of Chicago books of translated poetry by Renaissance women and with whom I had some then painful but now (I feel were) frustrating, vexing dealings earlier this year. The room mostly filled with women who were embarrassingly (obviously) beholden to him, some trying to please him, others apologizing (one woman kept saying she would not be finished for another year or maybe two at least and she hoped Al wouldn’t mind or would get used to this). He was like a sultan with his harem—the only voice in another tune was the man doing the Tullia D’Aragona translation.

I did get myself to introduce myself to this man briefly and walked away. Had I not done this I would’ve berated myself. It took me quite a time to calm down afterwards. I left my sweater behind and had to come back to retrieve it. Kirkham was still there, and so I told her how much I admired what she had done and she looked at me as if I were odd. She asked my name and when I showed her the tag, she said, ‘Ah" and "hadn’t she heard ithat name?," and then asked if I had poetry on the Net. My guess is she has been to my Colonna and Gambara sites, perhaps more than once, but would not condescend so far as to acknowledge this explicitly.

Still, I roused my spirits and went to the Exhibit Hall where there were many books for sale. I put aside my hurt pride (as a no body no one who counts will ever publish my poems) and bought the University of Chicago editions of mostly thin selections (with facing translations) of poetry by Colonna, Veronica Franco, Gabrielle Coignard, and prose by Marie le Jars de Gournay. I met a friend from the Eastern Region 18th century group and Wompo (Women Poets list). The next day I did come back to hear the most entertaining session of all—on the Booker Prize and the prestige prize culture in the literary marketplace of our time. So I was not all together disheartened.

Sylvia wrote Harriet about the assignment that (quite by happenstance) she’s doing to evaluate a paper about half of which is about the sonnets I argued were possibly rightly attributed to Anne Cecil de Vere, Countess of Oxford, by George Steevens, the great 18th century Shakespearean scholar. I first found them reprinted by Steevens in a 1788 issue of The European Magazine and London Review where Steevens attributes them to Anne Cecil. I was probably looking for something else having to do with my 18th century research.

As a result today’s been an exciting day as all this has led me to reading the work (very little but some) that has been done on these sonnets since I first published them, and into reading a good book on women’s poetry in Renaissance England (Louise Schleiner, Tudor and Stuart Women Poets). I went to GMU and for the first time in a long time read articles and got out learned books, and have been so much cheered me, I described and wrote about it in a note which now prefaces Sylvia’s online paper about Anne Cecil. (I can never say just Anne, since in my mind I might then be talking about Anne Finch.) When I read the "caveat" on my argument (which was nonetheless respectful of my work) and then a later cavalier dismissal ("false"), I reminded myself that when I found these poems under the dull light of the microfilm reader in that cold room in the Library of Congress and thought up a daring scheme (for me) to publish them I never dreamed that years from then the poems would be taken seriously, I would be asked to evaluate a paper on them, and be going to the MLA conference where I meet and talk women who (even if my work is not recognized the way it ought to be) are doing the same work I do.

I want to conclude tonight with the opening epigraph to Schleiner’s book and one of the 39 plates of Judy Chicago’s famous Dinner Party (1974-79). On Women Poets one of the published supposedly better known women poets of that list posted an argument where she argued that there is no good poetry by women (or hardly any to speak of that one can take seriously or compares with men) before 1912. The listowner took issue with her (as did others). I wanted to ask on which day in 1912 did this transformation in women as a group happen. It would be important to know that. I refrained. She had trotted out Dante as what can’t be beat by any woman. Dante. However powerful his lines, a narrow-minded strongly religious man seething with partisan rage. I much prefer Christine de Pisan I told her, and it’s Christine who opens Schleiner’s book:

Then Lady Reason … said, ‘Get up, daughter! Without waiting any longer, let us go to the Field of Letters. There the City of Ladies will be founded on a flat and fertile plain, where all fruits and freshwater rivers are found and where the earth abounds in all good things. Take the pick of your understanding and dig and clear out a great ditch wherever you se the marks of my ruler, and I will help you carry away the earth on my own shoulders.’

I immediately stood up to obey her commands … I felt stronger and lighter than before. She went ahead, and I followed behind, and after we had arrived at this field I began to excavate and dig, following her marks with the pick of cross-examination (Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies, early 15th century).

The Dinner Party was an immense art installation exhibit by Judy Chicago. It was first created and displayed in museums in the 1970s. Originally it consisted of a heritage floor of some 900 women of achievement, the high point of which was a table on which 39 place settings were put, each for a particular well-known woman, whether through the arts, through war, or
though having a great deal of public power. The plates are all beautifully, strikingly designed, and they are, sometimes strongly and graphically and sometimes more subtly, all also vaginas. You can see the structure of parts of the vagina through the design in some way or other. She celebrates women: their power, their achievements, their pleasures.

Who made the cut? Some of the choices may puzzle: Isabella d’Este is there but not the women poets (like Vittoria Colonna, Lady Mary Wroth); Marguerite de Navarre is omitted but Elizabeth I is there. Isabella d’Este was a powerful woman in her state, and supported art. Sappho is there, Artemisia Gentileschi (painter), Anna von Schurman (philosopher, wrote about women’s bodies, learned generally scentifically too, 17th century), Anne Hutchinson (English civil war historian, [auto]biographer), Mary Wollstonecraft and Caroline Herschel (18th century scientist), Sojourner Truth, Emily Dickinson, George Sand, Susan B. Antony (hers is one of those where the image of the vagina dominates very strongly), Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe. She has goddesses, archetypes and named powerful women from Egyptian and pre-history too.

And Christine de Pisan:

Plate for Christine de Pisan, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party (1974-79)

The women on the floor are interesting too: there are so many and they are varied, well chosen, again from very early times up to the present. Aphra Behn is there; Marie Gournay (Montaigne’s literary daughter of book of whose writing I bought at the MLA), Victoria Woodhull, Barbara Bodichon (19th century watercolorist and politician, fighter for the vote for women) are the names that I come across as I look through a book I have about this exhibit. Eighteenth-century women letter writers. Jane Austen and George Eliot. Germaine de Staël. Margaret Oliphant. Margaret Fuller. Salonières in all eras. Women remembered partly because they were so badly damaged—many of those in the medieval European era. It has some (not all) of the plates reproduced in color. I love my battered old book from which I took the above image and hope to put more on this blog.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. How very satisfying all of this is!
    R J Keefe    Jan 4, 1:29pm    #

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