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

Writing to imagined friends: pseudonyms redux · 20 June 06

Dear Miriam,

Once again, first a picture:

Anne Stevenson

I was very glad to hear from you.

For me school has started up again, and at an intense pace. I just returned from teaching nearly 6 hours in a row. Now that all those who don’t or can’t do the serious work I expect have dropped, I am left with a preponderance of genuinely idealistic and thoughtful students. The sight of a supposed long novel (Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener is some 500 odd pages) may have blown away half the original number of people who showed up the first night. So it goes very well. Indeed they keep me there too long. I’m even hopeful the papers will be good. They are writing on topics of real interest which take information. One young man is going to write about the "great firewall of China," how the Chinese government is preventing its people from using the Net to find information, meet people, break into cliques that the exclusionary tactics of most organizations and publishers work to prevent, beat space (reach people beyond the local). Another is going to explain how global positioning devices work. How 3D movies cast their illusion. The history of wine. Perfume. Persian rugs. Guitars. And so it goes. I’ll have 26.

I imagine it’s even hotter in Texas than here. I came across a weather report on the Net from the south west which declared it would be 100 Fahrenheit in early morning and then warm up. We were in the mid-90s at the height of the afternoon today. Even with air-conditioning everywhere I go inside (and I mostly stay inside until at least 10 o’clock at night), the heat exhausts me. I see you walk in the late evening too. In Alexandria, the light at night is richer somehow; it has to do with the sensual quality of the air. You’ll be away then? San Francisco. I’ve never been there. Edward has once, and he told me how hilly it is. I’d love to hear more.

I know nothing about South Park. I realize the pictures have a subtext but remain sublimely ignorant of whatever it is, and simply enjoy the witty pictures. Haydn is a favorite of mine. I used to listen to a tape of his music on the way back from teaching to calm myself down. Now I listen to a CD of cello music I bought off one of the street musicians whose playing sometimes makes me cry. I find it so plangent.

What makes me happy in the house? I too nowadays enjoy seeing all the fresh produce Edward brings home from Wegman’s and Whole Foods. It seems I am surrounded by luxuries when I see fresh red tomatoes in the basket, cheeses in the fridge, a delicious garlic light bread in one of the tupperwares. I love my room: filled with books and pictures and my computer at the center of my desk. After Edward, my lifeline.

We’re not getting many people on WWTTA talking about Woolf as yet. However, we’ve just begun and I remain hopeful. Fran and Nick have begun to post with me, and I’ve hopes (from comments off list) others will join in yet. The more I read Woolf, the more I’m drawn to her. I’m thinking I might send along a few of the postings I and others write to WWTTA in a letter here or place them all on my website. It remains to be seen if and how the conversation develops. We talked so wonderfully on Margaret Oliphant and I never put that one up. Although it’s a long way off (after Frances Sheridan’s Sidney Biddulph), I look forward to Buchan’s Crowded With Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind. I’m fascinated by and drawn to Scottish literature and history (Oliphant was Scottish as is "my" latest Anne, Anne Halkett). On Trollope-l I listen to The Small House at Allington with great intensity though it must be the umpteenth time through for me.

I hope I won’t try your patience or seem absurd if I recur to the topic of pseudonyms once again. I know I’ve explained and justified my use of these more than once. I want to talk of it because I’m often aware of how inconsistent is my use of the pseudonyms, how there is no difference in style or attitude between the supposed selves I use, and how transparent the device. I continue because they enable me to write.

The first three times I started a blogspace I stopped quickly. As far as I could tell I was communicating with no one, reaching no one. I had no sense of an audience whatsoever and found I couldn’t carry on without some sense of who I was writing to or someone reached. Writing is a social act, even a diary is (I think) finally intended to reach an imagined presence. This blog has a board where I can see ISP addresses coming to the blog (a very few are personal email addresses) and what they come to and where they come from. The blog gets hits every few minutes at this point. Still hardly anyone ever writes so I have no sense of writing to anyone most of the time. (So few people have any urge to write at all, to reveal themselves to anyone, so it’s as if they don’t exist.) On lists I have a sense of the active participants who while few are real enough.

So I use pseudonyms because they given me someone to write to. Even if the interlocutor may be vague (an imagined character or historical person, with no biography except from a book or some information about the choice name from the person who has chosen it), she is there. I remember the characters as they are felt in their books, and if a real person is behind it, the real person I’ve met on the Net. The presence in the book I’ve chosen, or imagined many-angled relationships seem to enable me to function. I can manage. I go back and forth between pseudonyms in accordance with my mood and some tenuous distinctions I make in my mind about what is appropriate for each and who she should write to. Miriam is a name appropriate to Chava to write to (as they come from both our maternal ancesters) and also Elinor. I like using Elinor in and through her (as I imagine and feel her in Austen’s books) I first had the confidence to live firmly on behalf of my innermost thoughts and feelings (which includes a love for good taste, elegance, art, books) and self-respect. Elinor is also usually serious. I wish I had her acid wit, wryness, and self-control. Things still to emulate.

Another angle: the structuring through not just one but a set of interlocutors gives me the experience of an imagined community. It helps against the loneliness that brings me to the Net in the first place. And then when several real people write (a few using pseudonyms in play), what might be frustration and facing isolation, becomes pleasant. I read other people’s blogs. And then every once in a long while I met someone I talk to through these letters in real physical space; we do something together.

So the pseudonyms are not silly to me but essential in enabling me to write these letters as blog and keep this journal of doings and thoughts. I so love writing and need to. Hmmm. I should connect this to earlier women writers’ uses of pseudonyms and their needs for friends and imagined community.

You liked Frances Thynne Seymour, Lady Hertford’s friendship poem to Henrietta Jeffrey Fermour, Lady Pomfret, and we seem often to share a taste. So I thought I’d end by confiding that today there arrived in my house my latest splurge on poetry (not so much, $11.98, but then not nothing at all), a nearly complete poems of Anne Stevenson between 1955 and 2005. It’s over 400 pages and every time I turn a new page I find another poem I am so drawn to.

Now you know why I began this letter with a recent photograph of Stevenson. I just never tire of her. I prefer her to Plath and many a poet praised far more. She’s one of the major poets of the 20th century. I place her with Fleur Adcock and Judith Wright.

Here’s the cover illustration:

Gwm Nantcol by Dave Newbould

It brings together motifs I love in women’s work. Solitude, the lanscape, a house. The mood reminds me of Isobel Colegate’s A Winter Journey. Landscape is a central motif for American literature, bare and wild, but that it’s Wales makes visible Stevenson’s roots in both the US and UK. Probably another reason I like her. I am so drawn also to how so many of her poems are to other poets (e.g. "Re-reading Jane", and set up intertextually. Imagined relationships with others becomes real. Her "Waving to Elizabeth, " a poem to Elizabeth Bishop initiated her friendship with Bishop.

I’d like to share one by Stevenson tonight. The problem is her best often seem to be longish and I’m too tired to type much more. (It’s 12:28 am). One she wrote to Sylvia Plath I’ll put on WWTTA next Tuesday.

Here’s how the volume begins:

Making Poetry

‘You have to inhabit poetry
if you want to make it.’

And what’s ‘to inhabit’?

To be in the habit of, to wear
words, sitting in the plainest light,
in the silk of the morning, in the shoe of the night;
a feeling, bare and frondish in surprising air;
familiar … rare.

And what’s ‘to make?’

To be and to become words’ passing
weather; to serve a girl on terrible
terms, embark on voyages over voices,
evade the ego-hill, the misery-well,
the siren hiss of publish, success, publish,
success, success, success.

And why inhabit, make, inherit poetry?

Oh, it’s the shared comedy of the worst
blessed; the sound leading the hand;
a wordlife running from mind to mind
through the washed rooms of the simple senses;
one of those haunted, undefendable, unpoetic
crosses we have to find.

The wordlife running from mind to mind. That terrible siren hiss of the publication fetish and also the need to do it to reach people, be with them, be respected.

Later this week I’ll see if I can write about the circles of intelligent reading and writing women friends in the 18th century who came to be mocked as "bluestockings; the nature of their poems and oblivion into which anthologies of women’s poetry fall; and the postings on Women’s Studies about how for women there’s a disconnect between acheiving a fulfilling well-paid career and higher education. All related.

A Girl Reading by a Window, by Sandby, 18th century print & drawing

I should probably put some of what we say about Virginia Woolf here too. how much poetry there is in Woolf, how eloquent she is, how moving and lucid and radical still in A Room of One’s Own. She concludes Chapter 1: "I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out." Yes.

I must to bed. Tomorrow morning Edward, Yvette and I go to the gym and pool to exercise and swim. Very early. We aim to get there by 8:30 am so as to return before the worst of the noon heat begins to creep in.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Nick this morning:

    "The blog was excellent as usual … you did make me laugh in your post to Trollope-l when you wrote:

    'My younger daughter [Yvette] has taught me a trick or outlook which I find she persists in. She will characteristically pick a minor or secondary heroine in a film or book whom most people look upon as a cypher in the story or two-dimensional, and become indignant on this secondary woman's behalf.'

    I immediately thought of my posts on Griselda [Trollope-l, character in Barsetshire novels] and Mrs Belfield [ECW, character in Fanny Burney's Cecilia]!"

    Elinor    Jun 22, 11:56am    #
  2. That’s hot. The temperature here is between the mid 60s and the mid 70s.

    You said that people write to someone when they write in a diary. Lots of people write Dear Diary. When I wrote in a diary in elementary school, I wrote to my future self, because I intended to go back later in my life and read what I wrote in elementary school. I haven’t reread my diary from elementary school, or my diary from 9th grade. I was planning to continue writing in a diary in 10th grade, but I didn’t get past the first few entries.

    A few people have told me that I should write in a diary now, but I don’t write in a diary. I would rather e-mail people. So, that makes sense because you said people need someone to write to. And I’m a very social person, so that’s probably another reason I would rather write to someone than write in a diary.

    I make lots of lists in microsoft word, and that’s kind of like a diary, but diaries are more narrative, and not lists.
    Jennica    Jun 25, 1:01am    #
  3. Dear Jennica,

    My feeling is people writing diaries do want to talk to someone, and since cyberspace now many more keep diaries (aka blogs) because we can reach others.

    If you research earlier diaries, you often discover evidence of the writing trying to preserve the diary or journal and meaning it for someone else’s eyes (even if the someone else is but one person or a small group of peoople). And does the person treat the diary as a space where she can be herself, think her own thoughts and write openly. I suggest not entirely.

    Yes in diaries we tell stories of our lives.

    Elinor    Jun 26, 12:34am    #

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