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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