Why Contemporary? – Part 2, or, Get ’em While They’re Hot

A quote from Tessa Hadley in yesterday’s Guardian caught my eye as summing up quite succinctly some of the reasons I find the study of contemporary literature so fascinating and poignant.

‘A reader’s relationship is quite different to a living writer. Because you’re alive in the same moment, breathing the same air in the same world, reading a great contemporary feels like finding yourself inside the forge where the book is being made. The writer in working at the edge of what’s understood, shaping the inchoate present into sentences, revealing it for the first time’.

Tessa Hadley, ‘My Hero: Nadine Gordimer’, Guardian, 28 January 2012, Review, p. 5.

This issue of ‘why contemporary’ – which I also thought about in an earlier blog post – continues to fascinate me, as it rightly should. It constantly comes up in conversation with other literary students as a key point of difference in our work and the challenges we face. I’m thinking about it especially this weekend as I’m preparing to interview a living poet for a magazine on Tuesday (bit hard to interview the dead ones, I find). It seems strange to me that many literature scholars are so keen to emphasize that texts are living and open to new interpretations, yet they much prefer the author to be dead (thanks, Roland). If old, older and ancient texts still hold a potential to help us interpret our present and go some way to aiding our understanding of the past, then is it any wonder that new texts with their genesis in our present and potential in our future are so exciting?

I’ll never say that non-contemporary texts are in any way unworthy of literary study. However, to borrow Hadley’s forge metaphor, I like to get ’em while they’re hot.

Pavlov’s Inbox and Other Social Experiments

Some days, I feel like the opposite of ‘thesis’ is ‘admin’. Today is definitely one of those days. Among the many things they don’t tell you about PhD research is that there is a bewilderingly high level of admin involved in academic life. Research? What research?

There is the stereotype of graduate students working away alone, barely speaking to anyone and barely able to if the scenario arose. I do work alone, most of the time, and sometimes I like to be away from distractions (and possibly in my PJs, maybe eating instant noodles). However, alone does not equal lonely.

Research networks and associations, mailing lists, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, emails about faculty admin, training and teaching, emails about conferences and seminars, emails about organising your own conference or seminar, notes from your supervisor, emails about university club/society updates, college emails. We are definitely not alone in the universe. In fact, it is sometimes impossible to get a little bit of quiet over here.

I can ignore things if I really need to, but most days I’m like Pavlov’s dog – a slave to the ping my inbox makes. I discovered recently when I listen to music I sometimes hear a similar noise and without even noticing flick to my inbox. The sad truth is that I do quite like all the admin and communication because it breaks up the day and gives me short term goals. Every time I tap out a response and click send I feel like I’ve achieved something else on my to do list. Only, that email wasn’t on my to do list at the start of the day, and when the reply comes back it’ll add something *else* to the list. Somehow it doesn’t compute with me that short term pleasure will result in more work whenever a response arrives.

It is all very well to argue that if I need to get my thesis done I should just ignore emails, but it doesn’t take a theoretical mathematician to work out that that just exacerbates the problem in the long(er) term. It seem a key part of balancing research and other academic requirements is email management. And possibly turning the email ping off.

The Artist as Pavlov's Dog by Timothy Ralph

Creativity and Wellbeing

Way back in November I attended an afternoon of discussion in Nottingham facilitated by my old funders Ignite!. Everyone there shared an interest in exploring the links between creativity and wellbeing, although our backgrounds were quite different; arts professionals, students, scientists, designers and people with an interest in social media. I meant to blog about this after the discussion since there was loads of ground covered which I found relevant to the role of the researcher.

I’m pleased to say that Rick Hall has kindly summarized points from our discussion at Play’s The Thing. Some points that stick with me are the links between creative thinking and genius/madness, thoughts on working alone and resilience.

I increasingly view academic research as a highly creative endeavor in its own right – especially so in literary studies where conclusions are based on an understanding of the process of creativity involved in the production. And, criticism is not just a response to art, but a way of creating a discourse from these works. ‘Studying’ at all levels is not (and should not) be about repeating or reporting but understanding and engaging with – and there is a parallel between ‘getting’ it and the feeling of ‘creating’ it in the first place.

And, like academia, our discussion didn’t give any ultimate answer on the links between creativity and well-being. It just opened up lots more questions and proved that the area is more complex than we might ever have imagined. This is a perfectly good conclusion for this stage.

CFP: Sisters in Verse: Contemporary Women’s Poetry

Sisters in Verse
Sisters in Verse: Contemporary Women’s Poetry

A half day symposium at the University of Oxford

Friday 9th March 2012

Keynote Panel Discussion: Kate Clanchy, Sophie Mayer & Jane Yeh

Adrienne Rich once stated that ‘the connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet’. This symposium aims to interrogate what these connections between women make possible in contemporary poetry. Given that a woman currently holds the British laureateship, we have clearly come some distance from deriding the ‘poetess’; this event seeks to evaluate recent transformations. From sisterhood and solidarity between recent generations of poets, to flat refusals to call one’s self a ‘woman poet’, there are many themes to discuss at this half day symposium.

Topics may include (but are not limited to):

  •  Feminist poetics and écriture féminine
  • Protest poetry
  • Generational influence and anxiety
  • The development of twentieth century and post- millennial women’s poetry
  • The women of the ‘Next Generation Poets’ promotion
  • All-female anthologies and accusations of self- ghettoization
  • Relations between poets from different backgrounds
  •  Female laureateships; the journey from ‘poetess’ to poet laureate

Abstracts should be sent to women@pgcwwn.org by 17th February 2012. Full details at www.pgcwwn.org

Resolution 2012 (and a look back at 2011)

2012 has now rolled into view, and my diary is filling up with conferences, symposiums, meetings and more. I haven’t properly returned to work yet, but I’ve got a slight knot forming in my chest which means I sense deadlines and I must get cracking soon. For now though, I thought I’d take one last quick glance back at 2011. Sorry, I know I’m a bit late.

In 2011 I wrote something like 35,000 words towards my thesis. I passed my transfer of status, did a course on academic teaching, planned 1 conference, attended 3 and presented 3 papers. I published 1 feature article and several book reviews. I also kept up 4 regular freelance contracts with poetry organisations on top of my study, along with some other commitments in the arts. As the year came to an end I must admit I felt exhausted.

Much of what I learned last year, and what I talked about on this blog, was to do with how varied the process of thesis writing is. When I describe it to people who don’t know about research degrees, they assume I spend my time in calm contemplation in a library, or scribbling in a notebook under a tree in a park, or tapping thoughtfully on a laptop in a coffee shop.

In fact, most of the time I feel quite manic. I go to libraries, parks and coffee shops, but I also send and reply to countless emails, I blog, I tweet, I try to draw out ‘to do’ lists to see how I can fit in a conference paper and a book review on two different subjects and still have time for a social life. I feel out of my depth sometimes, and other times I feel like I would rather do nothing else.

I’d like to say my new year’s resolution is to write more, faster, better, hand in quicker and be some sort of graduate student super hero. I do believe in resolutions, but not necessarily for new year. In fact, sitting at the desk and doing something is a resolution in itself when the eventual deadline and achievement still seems so far away (not to mention the job market so bleak on the other side). So, my graduate student resolution is to just keep going.* As they keep saying, it is a marathon and not a sprint… (I will try to keep Olympic puns to a minimum in 2012).


*Ok, so my other resolutions are to eat more fruit and exercise more.

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