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Report: Ciarán O’Rourke, recipient of an EBAAS Conference Bursary

Thanks to the financial support and generosity of the IAAS, I had the privilege of travelling to this year’s EBAAS conference in King’s College London – the largest UK-based conference of its kind to date. As a PhD student and early-career scholar with budding Americanist aspirations, being able to attend the conference with IAAS support proved an invaluable opportunity for me to contextualise my own research interests (concerning the cultural politics of William Carlos Williams, and other mid-century American poets) and to gain an insight into the diverse and stimulating field that is American Studies today. Certainly, the conference programme reflected the remarkable range and depth of research being conducted by scholars of the Americas (mainly on this side of the Atlantic divide); indeed, with over a dozen parallel panels per discussion slot, and 3-5 such slots per day, one of the happy challenges facing conference participants like myself was that of having to choose between panels of easily equal interest and promise – “Filmic Framings of Environmental Space” vying with “American Literary Naturalism and Social Protest” for the attention of at least this movie-buff-cum-poetry-addict with an ecological bent…

Suffice it to say, then, that more than one tough decision had to be made as the conference took its course! Highlights of the discussions I did attend and enjoy, however, included: a politically exhilarating and historically illuminating discussion of “Prisons, Protest Culture & Radical Politics”, a sobering examination of American culture in the nuclear age (which of course continues to this day), an engaged appreciation of “Identity as Protest in US Women’s Writing”, as well as a trail-blazing survey of “American Poetry in the Jet Age” by plenary speaker Professor Jo Gill,  whose survey made the hardly obvious, but nonetheless culturally revealing links between ​Better Homes and Gardens,Carl Sandburg, Georgia O’Keefe, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Updike effortlessly apparent. Attending these and other talks – which, once again, was enabled by my being awarded an IAAS bursary – was a pleasure and privilege.

I also had the opportunity to present a paper of my own, as part of a panel concerning “Illness and the Environment in American Literature and Cinema”, chaired by Dr. Pascale Antolin. My presentation examined the relationship between the natural environment and ideas of artistic production in both Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson (2016) and the book-length poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams, with a particular focus on the contrasting imaginations of the Passaic river’s Great Falls presented in each work. While Jarmusch’s film is often cited by scholars and enthusiasts as a means of reminding readers of the contemporaneity and resonance of Williams’s poem in the 21st century, I attempted to show how, when viewed through a social, eco-critical, and comparative lens, Williams’s poem in fact emerges as the more historically probing and politically pertinent of the two works. I argued moreover that the distinguishing environmental ethics of Williams’s poem is directly linked to his medical training and outlook. As a PhD student still acclimatising to the regimen of conference presentations and research papers, being able to present these arguments and discuss them with fellow scholars was of immense benefit to me, and indeed has helped me to clarify some of the contexts and emphases of my PhD thesis (which examines Williams’s poetry as a whole). For this, and much besides, I am grateful to the IAAS and its committee members; without the travel bursary I was awarded, my attendance and participation would not have been possible.

 

Ciarán O’Rourke is a Ph.D student at Trinity College Dublin