By Catherine Gander
In January of this year, I was awarded some money by the Irish Association for American Studies towards my travel to Austin, Texas, to present at the annual MLA convention. Funds are extremely limited at my institution for Arts and Humanities scholars to perform research, and without this bursary, I would not have been able to make the trip. I remain extremely grateful to the IAAS for its continuing support of scholars (established, early career, and graduate), and I owe particular debts of gratitude to the committee members for their enduring professionalism, kindness, and hard work. The IAAS is an association of which I am very proud to be a member (and to serve on a sub-committee), and I would urge people who may be considering membership to sign up. You won’t regret it!
I realise this report is rather late after the event. This is due to a number of reasons – not least the fact that, together with Philip McGowan and other staff at QUB, I was co-organising the IBAAS conference in April, and then organising a double panel at the biennial conference of the EAAS in Constanta, Rumania soon afterwards. Now, as the dust has settled from the conference trotting, the examining, the marking and board meetings, I am very happy to have some space to report not only on my experience at the MLA, but on the multiple benefits of the travel bursary.
My panel at the MLA was a roundtable discussion, organised and chaired by Dr Rowena Kennedy-Epstein (University of Bristol), on Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry (1949). Rukeyser’s remarkable book is difficult to describe succinctly because it refuses classification. A cross-disciplinary treatise on the importance of poetry to social and personal life (and an examination of the ongoing fear of poetry that inhibits them), it takes in and makes meet elements of philosophy, science, pragmatism, poetics, aesthetics, the arts (including music, painting, photography and theatre), politics, protest, history, and literary lineages – to name just a selection of topics that Rukeyser addresses. The panel was named ‘(Re)considering Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry’, and was selected as a ‘special panel’ under the convention’s Presidential Theme of ‘Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present and Future’. Alongside me were other eminent Rukeyser scholars: Rowena Kennedy-Epstein (Bristol) Elisabeth Däumer (Eastern Michigan), Eric Keenaghan (Albany, SUNY), Stefania Heim (Duke), Cecily Parks (Texas State), Hadji Bakara (Chicago). Among the topics discussed at the session and well into the delicious Mexican lunch that followed it (Austin is a wonderful city if you’re a foodie), were pragmatist aesthetics and word-image relations (the basis of my own paper), eco-poetics and an ethics of responsibility (subjects explored by Elisabeth Däumer and Cecily Parks), the refugee crisis and the poet as advocate for international human rights (the timeliness of which was highlighted by Hadji Bakara), feminism and form (two aspects unpicked by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein and Stefania Heim: the former in relation to a counter-canon of poetic and political ideologies related to gender; the latter from the perspective of a ‘feminine poetics of war’), and the process of composition and revision of Rukeyser’s lectures that eventually made up the Life of Poetry, in the context of a Cold War ‘power culture’ (unearthed and delineated by Eric Keenaghan). You will find more information on the panel, and on Rukeyser scholarship, here.
Apart from having the chance to network internationally, to disseminate my research in the US and beyond, to visit the Harry Ransom Centre after the convention to carry out some crucial research for a new project (the HRC is on campus at the University of Texas, Austin, and an invaluable resource for scholars of American literature) and to connect, and re-connect with my fellow Rukeyser scholars, I was finally able to meet Bill Rukeyser in person – Muriel’s son, who had been so kind and accommodating when I was publishing my monograph on Rukeyser. Bill and I talked animatedly and at length about his mother, our mutual friends and acquaintances (Muriel Rukeyser’s influence stretched far and wide), and about his love for Ireland. Bill was a photojournalist in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and lived in the street next to mine for a time (with Rukeyser, coincidences never cease – I didn’t subtitle my book ‘the poetics of connection’ for nothing). Some of his images can be found here.
I’m pleased to say that since the MLA session, I’ve been able to secure a special issue of the journal Textual Practice arising from the event. The collection of essays (publication date TBC), co-edited by myself and Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, will attend to the complexities and legacies of Rukeyser’s seminal and still essential text, offering a real intervention not only in Rukeyser studies, in American Studies, and in the study of American poetry, but also in scholarship addressing the role of the public intellectual, the place of poetry in times of crisis, and the shaping of a cultural consciousness. The featured scholars will bring The Life of Poetry into the present day, emphasising its continuing importance to current literary, cultural and political debates, and situating it as the forerunner of contemporary innovations by the likes of Claudia Rankine, Susan Howe and Jen Bervin, as well as the recent and controversial text The Hatred of Poetry (2016) by Ben Lerner (which annoyingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, fails to mention Rukeyser’s book).
A huge thanks again to the IAAS for making all this possible.