THE “POETESS” IRL: The World, Work, and Performances of Nineteenth-Century Women Poets
What was the nineteenth-century woman poet like in real life? This panel seeks to unsettle current definitions by attending to her performing/reforming body and the work she did in the material world.
Women’s studies, transatlantic scholarship, and “poetess” studies agree that women poets are central to, and mediators of, transnational literary and cultural exchange in the nineteenth century. Indeed, attending to the circulation of nineteenth-century poetry by women requires a transnational critical frame that in turn has made it possible to unsettle national canons that tend to privilege male poets, as well as the aesthetic values that such canons presuppose. Tracking women poets has brought “the shifting currents of cultural exchange” into sharper focus for recent critics (McGill, The Traffic in Poems 4), but the woman poet herself continues to elude critical analysis even as we better understand her sometimes-namesake, “the poetess.” If our mistake as feminist critics and readers has been to take the “poetess” as a “a lyric subject to be reclaimed as an identity” rather than “an increasingly empty figure” throughout the nineteenth century, as Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins have argued, then what, as they ask, “are we hoping to uncover by exhuming dead poetesses from a dusty century?” (“Lyrical Studies” 521-3)
Keeping in mind that the “poetess” is an abstraction of but not ultimately commensurate with women poets and their many historical roles, we consider in this panel how one might more accurately historicize the material situations of nineteenth-century women poets. What would it mean to “recover” the body of the poetess not as the corpse of a forgotten lyric subject, but as a figure and a presence that circulated in the material spaces of nineteenth-century performance culture and reform movements? How and where did nineteenth-century audiences locate poetesses in the material world? Taking inspiration from Shannon Jackson’s writing on performance and women’s reform work, we propose to extend to women’s poetry the suggestively compact term “reformance,” containing the intimately related words “performance,” “reform,” and “form.” “Sharing an etymological root that means ‘to bring into being’ or ‘to furnish,’” Jackson argues, “performance underscores the material acts of construction implicit in the term reform” (Lines of Activity 8). Not only is performance a useful concept for critics defining women’s work, but women poets negotiated their increasingly public roles in the nineteenth century through performance traditions, from embarking on reading and lecture tours, to depicting performance or drawing on theatrical metaphors in their writing, to actually acting in amateur or professional dramatic productions.
With this in mind, we welcome proposals for papers that investigate the materiality—in work, performance, embodiment, print matter, costume, properties—generated by women poets as performing, working, and socializing forces. What did it mean for her to occupy a stage? a house? a factory? a dress? a body? the imaginations of multiple publics? How do race, class, nationality—all abstractions, but abstractions associated with identifiable physical and material conditions that affected performance, travel, and textual production—further settle or unsettle our understanding of nineteenth-century women poets?
Keywords and possible topics for this panel:
– poetry, women, poetess
– transatlantic, transnational, travel, mobility, liminality, cosmopolitanism
– vocation, touring, acting, reform, work, labor
– performance, theatricality, persona, figure, abstraction, unsettling, passing, embodiment, (dis)appearance, gender, race
– speech, address, orality, dramatic, lyric, sentiment/pathos, genre, generic
– stage, theater, domestic spaces, public and private spaces, textuality, materiality
Please submit 300-500 word abstracts to Lauren Kimball and Caolan Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org by August 25.
The biennial C19 conference will take place on March 17-20, 2016 at Penn State University. For more information on the conference theme of “Unsettling,” visit: http://www.c19conference.org/