Oxford: One Year On

Today marks one year since I moved to Oxford from my previous university in Leicester. I remember quite vividly driving down with two cars full and moving into the college flats in Summertown. Moving to a new institution and city was exciting and more than a little stressful. I’m glad I made the move for my work, but I also miss Leicester and the many great times I had there as a student. I miss the city in particular in Autumn, because the changing trees and falling leaves remind me of walking to campus through Victoria Park or into the city centre down New Walk.

Here, the trees are slowly turning and while the weather is a bit tropical right now – I’m typing this in shorts and sandals – the new term is tangible. Sunday marks the start of 0th week, with the arrival of new students and undergraduates.

The new school year provides the excuse to buy new stationary, and to reflect on my work in the last 12 months and my aims for the coming year. The DPhil experience has taught me lots about my working practices, my needs and how to manage myself. I’ve obviously also learned plenty about my specific topic and how to make observations on poetry more widely. I’m pleased to say I’m still very enthusiastic about my topic.

Victoria Park - with the University of Leicester campus on the horizon.


Audio/Visual Requirements?

As I was cracking on with my paper for the Contemporary Women’s Gothic conference in Brighton, the registration form arrived in my inbox and prompted me to think again about how to present the paper when it asked if speakers have any technical requirements. Every time I write a paper I think on this, and from my experience of both listening to and giving papers, it seems there are three options which each have their own pros and cons.

Supplement your paper with a PowerPoint presentation.

This has a number of benefits. You can show wow with techno-wizardry such as images! and audio! and video! – all of which offer welcome relief to the weary conference attendee. For poetry papers, I particularly like it when PowerPoint is used not just to show quotes from poems, but to highlight particular features and technical aspects. I prefer using Prezi if I am making a presentation since its relative obscurity piques the interest too. If you are shy, you might use this to draw the audience’s eyes from your red face.

The cons to using PowerPoint are sadly numerous. Death by PowerPoint is not unknown, and sitting through slide after slide of meaningless quotes is boring and detracts from the paper. Some people simply do not know how to use a slideshow. Common errors include putting in so many slides that you haven’t read the title before skipping forward three slides to another far too long quote. Similarly, if all you are going to display is the title of your paper, why waste time putting in your memory stick and loading powerpoint just so we can stare at it?

For the presenter, too, PowerPoint is full of danger. If your paper relies heavily on it  – and your panel happens to be in the one room with no projector or the computer is password protected or your file is magically corrupted – all your hard work is sunk. Aside from that, for some, clicking to the next slide proves far too great a technical feat while reading from sheets of paper.

Give them a handout.

Ah, paper. I actually find this the best solution because aside from fire, little much can go wrong. Your audience can cheerfully follow any long-winded quotations, or look at specific lines from a poem while still preserving the overall context. It is a handy place to stick your email address too, if networking is your thing.

However, reader beware. Calculating how many copies you will need is a tricky art. Inevitably your printer will run out of ink. That picture you included will probably be too grainy. Put too much text on and it is bewildering. Also, those poor trees.

Just deliver your paper unaided.

With no prepared material, what can go wrong?

Just beware of their yawns and bewildered faces and you skip over your perfectly polished paper which makes sense to you and no-one else.



Which option do you prefer?

Why Contemporary?

I’m often asked why I work on contemporary writing rather than something that has already stood the test of time. I think many people, particularly academics, have this fear of contemporary writing as something fleeting, or are of the opinion that somehow modernity means mediocrity. I’ve always disagreed strongly with either of these views – and I have plenty of reasons for working on poetry post-1990.

Contemporary work speaks directly to my own experience (and probably yours too) because it comes out of how we live. It also offers me challenging new ways of viewing my surroundings. I’m also not much of a historian, and put simply I’d have a fresh new slim volume over a cracking manuscript any day.

And so, the arrival of Leontia Flynn’s latest collection Profit and Loss (Cape, 2011) caused much excitement. Fresh material like the poems in this collection have already sent my research off in new directions, and studying these poems for all they are worth is very invigorating. I had already seen a proof copy, and from that I’d put together a tentative abstract for the Contemporary Women’s Gothic conference in November (another positive – my paper will probably be the first ever consideration of this work in academic circles).

I’ve returned from a long weekend in Northern Ireland, and I can almost see the new term on the horizon since Oxford Brookes are already welcoming their freshers. Now is the time to reflect on the new bounty my poet seems to have thrown my way. I’m beginning my paper with this quote in mind:

‘The poems themselves aren’t hugely influenced by gothic literature, as such, it is more the notion of being aware that gothic literature is a specifically female genre, often about madness and ghosts’

Leontia Flynn, ‘Leontia Flynn’s Profit and Loss’, Culture Northern Ireland website.

Event Retrospective: Ignite! Creative Sparks Celebration Day

I mentioned last week that I was looking forward to a celebration day with an organisation that previously funded me in some poetry and creative projects. The event happened last Sunday, so I thought I’d gather some thoughts on it here (prompted by Hasmita’s reflections elsewhere).

In some ways, I was a fish out of water since the recent direction of Ignite! has been focused on STEM subjects. I don’t usually have ghost particles, brown’s gas or sustainable business models explained to me on a Sunday morning. The Sparks, old and new, are an inspirational bunch with so much to offer. It is a somewhat overwhelming privilege to share and learn with them. I spoke at some length with Jake from We Movement about his burgeoning campaign to bring together climate change organisations. In the afternoon Sian Prime from Goldsmiths gave some proactive advice about getting projects underway which is just the kick I need as Michaelmas approaches fast.

It became more clear to me as the day went on that as ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’ become more central concerns for the Arts and Humanities, our field could take some direction from how scientists are communicating their research. In some ways it seems easier for scientists to communicate – after all their research generally gets more news headlines and potentially makes more of a difference to people’s lives. However, with fresh calls for the public to get something back from public funding in research in the past few weeks, it seems important to think about how my research could have ‘impact’ for people other than myself, my supervisor and my examiners!

Conference Retrospective: Time and Space in Contemporary Women’s Writing

I feel like I have lots to catch up on after ‘Time & Space in Contemporary Women’s Writing’ at the University of Hull last week. As part of my role on the Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network (PG CWWN) Steering Group, I certainly had plenty to be getting on with.

Around 50 delegates joined us for the packed programme. It kicked off on Thursday morning with Professor Ann Heilmann’s keynote on representations of 19th-century science in 21st-century women’s writing. Particularly striking for me from this keynote was the comparison between one of Darwin’s diary entries on the pros and cons of marriage with ‘The Balance Sheet’, Ruth Padel’s 21st century poetic rendering of that entry from Darwin: A Life in Poems (2009).

The second keynote from Welsh poet and writer Gwyneth Lewis followed on Friday morning. Followers of More Books, Please will note that this is the writer whose work I completed my MA dissertation on, so hearing her speak was always going to be a highlight for me. It turned out that her thoughts recently have been focusing on tradition and influence in women’s writing, which also happens to be one of the key elements of my thesis. Lewis set out the patrilinear model of tradition involving tribute to precursory poets through metrical imitation, and then suggested that such a model is increasingly flawed for women’s writing.

Other papers I chaired and particularly enjoyed included Emily Blewitt from Cardiff University on the ultrasound poem (something I’ve been thinking about myself in my second chapter), Mair Rees from Cardiff University on the female body as cultural space in welsh-language fiction and Sebastian Owen from York on Jorie Graham’s Overlord. There were other papers too, which I wish I’d been able to attend simultaneously.

My own paper “Where is she?”: Anthologies, Binaries and Northern Irish Poetry’ was on Friday morning. For the first time I brought some more sociological considerations into the mix, and provided photographs of paramilitary murals on a handout alongside short extracts of two poems central to my argument.

Just as valuable as the experience of presenting was the opportunity to attend Professor Mark Llewellyn’s career development workshop. Professor Llewellyn was frank about the challenges of the current and future higher education climate. His explanation of the REF process was encouraging in that he believes the end of the current phase in late 2013 may open up more jobs. His tips have been well noted.

Overall, more delegates were concerned with space than time. This perhaps suggests that critics still feel it necessary to consider contemporary women’s writing as carving a path through patriarchal canons. On a more practical level, perhaps, the term ‘space’ can simply be read in many more ways than ‘time’.

Just as one conference experience ends, another begins. I heard over the weekend that my abstract has been accepted for the CWWA’s Contemporary Women’s Gothic conference at the University of Brighton in November.

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