Event Retrospective: New Voices in Irish Criticism 2012, ‘Legitimate Ireland’

This was the mighty fourteenth conference in the ‘New Voices in Irish Criticism’ series, hosted by Queen’s University, Belfast. The theme was ‘Legitimate Ireland’, and there were papers on various aspects of legitimacy in the humanities.

I presented a paper which subverted readings of canonicity and exclusion in the work of Colette Bryce on day one. Thankfully, this timing left me free to enjoy the other postgraduate and early career papers, the various wine receptions, the conference dinner – and of course the keynotes.

Lots of the papers were stimulating, although the ones which I could link to my own work were most provoking. Joanna Etchart (Sorbonne) on Belfast’s ‘ambiguous desire to be a “boom” city’ reflected on the effects of flagship development programmes such as the Titanic Quarter and public sculpture. The ambiguity she identified resonated with representations of the post-Troubles city in poetry.

Belfast's new 'Signature Building' - boom town?

There were also an encouraging number of papers reflecting on masculinity, fatherhood and patriarchy in drama, fiction, poetry and film. I chaired a panel on which Michael Maguire (UCD) spoke about e-poetry and literary inheritance and David Delaney (NUIG) addressed docile bodies, Beckett and the digital age. These two papers raised a number of issues about digitization, e-literatures, and academia’s attitude to technological innovation.

Professor Elizabeth Butler Cullingford’s keynote addressed three novels of emigration – which tied in nicely with thoughts still swimming in my head following the ‘New Perspectives on Irish Women and the Diaspora‘ conference.  Butler Cullingford paralleled her readings of renewed interest in (historical) emigration to the U.S. in recent Irish novels with the statistical reality that relatively low numbers of Irish are going there (less than 5000, legally). The novels she addressed which I haven’t read (On Canaan’s Side and Let the Great World Spin) are on my holiday reading list.

There was plenty of time for networking too, and having often felt somewhat isolated by the relative obscurity of my very contemporary field, I was pleased to make contact with others working on modern Irish poetry. Continuing with the American theme from the keynote, and the idea of legitimacy, I sat with two American PhD students at dinner – who inform me that this is the most ‘authentic’ song of the American south.

The thing I should be settling down to is my thesis – so here goes.

Event Retrospective: New Perspectives on Irish Women and the Diaspora

This has rapidly become a more retro-retrospective than I intended. I attended ‘New Perspectives on Irish Women and the Diaspora’, a one day conference at Bath Spa University, on the 24th March 2012. I wasn’t presenting a paper (for my sins, I missed the CFP deadline), so I was free to relax and reflect on the other research. This topic of diaspora interests me not only because one of my thesis poets moved from Derry to England, but because I also moved from Northern Ireland at 18.

What was quite new for me at this event was a sociological approach to the topic. In many ways, it was a revelation that diaspora studies is an entirely autonomous field. I was familiar with the ‘Generation Emigration‘ series the Irish Times are running, but I hadn’t given much thought into provision for vulnerable Irish abroad, or how the cultural, economic and legal systems can impact on experiences of diaspora.

The event, organised by Dr Ellen McWilliams, was also an excellent model of how academic conferences can be both inter-disciplinary in focus and engage with community groups (dare I say ‘public impact’?).  There was an excellent round-table discussion with representatives of charitable organisations including the London Irish Women’s Centre, the Federation of Irish Societies, Justice for Magdalenes and the Abortion Support Network. There was also a reading from Moy McCrory, a talk about artistic practice from Rachael Flynn and an introduction to a community arts project at the London Irish Women’s Centre.

As regards the papers, I obviously particularly enjoyed the literary ones – and it was a pleasure to meet/catch up other academics working on poetry (Adam Hanna, Dr Deirdre O’Byrne and Dr. Tom Herron). All their papers were an intriguing mix of migration theory and gender theory. The ‘straight’ migration studies papers also introduced me to new debates and the case study practice common in that field – which I will try to consider at some stage in own academic work (thesis or conference paper based).

The conference was a great success – and I’m encouraged to see that the related Facebook group is still busy one month on. From that, I found a project based in my old city which recounts experiences of the Irish in Leicester. That website has an interactive Google map which marks locations important to the immigrant Irish there – and I’ve enjoyed reading the experiences 0f those who lived in my former neighbourhoods.

Sisters in Verse

I’ve been preparing over the past weeks for the half-day symposium I’m running tomorrow here in Oxford. The title is ‘Sisters in Verse: Contemporary Women’s Poetry’, which also seemed like a good title for a blog post on International Women’s Day.

With the notion of sisterhood in mind, I’d like to draw your attention to Tal al-Mallouhi, a Syrian blogger and poet who is two years younger than me. She was arrested in 2009 and has been in prison ever since. You can read more about her from English PEN, and I’m re-posting one of her poems here in the hope that you will take some form of action, like me.


You will remain an example

by Tal al-Mallouhi

I will walk with all walking people
And no
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by
This is my Homeland
In which
I have
A palm tree
A drop in a cloud
And a grave to protect me

This is more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise me
My master:
I would like to have power
Even for one day
To build the “republic of feelings.”

(Translated by Ghias al-Jundi)


I haven’t blogged in a few weeks, but I’ve been very busy writing up my third chapter (which is about half way there now). In other news, an interview I conducted with poet Alice Oswald in January has been published in the new issue of Mslexia. You can read a sample from it on their website. I’ve also started my work for the Great Writers Inspire project. I’m doing all sorts behind the scenes, but I did publish a blog post on Sylvia Plath which is provoking some discussion over there.

Writing for outputs that aren’t my thesis is something I’m getting more and more comfortable with. Initially, I struggled when moving from regular reviewing work to my thesis writing. The issue was not so much a difference in register, but a difference in critical rigour and brevity. I was reassured when I discussed this issue with a PhD student friend who is also an occasional poetry reviewer and he confessed to meeting the same issue. Now, I try to make a self-consciousness about my register, topic and intended audience into a positive. It forces me to think about the writing as a presentation, rather than as a way of dumping my thoughts. That said, my blog is for dumping my thoughts (sorry about that).


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

Conference Retrospective: Contemporary Women’s Gothic

Remember, remember the 5th of November – for it was the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association’s ‘Contemporary Women’s Gothic’ conference at the University of Brighton.

Many of the questions I’ve come away from this conference with are to do with poetry – mainly because there was so little of it. Of course, that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy papers on the gothic in contemporary women’s fiction – there was much to enjoy – but my paper was the only one which wasn’t about fiction, although there were a handful dealing with drama.

The keynotes were by Prof Andy Smith on Elizabeth Kostovo and Dr Paulina Palmer on Ali Smith. I’m more familiar with Ali Smith’s work, and found Palmer’s exploration of a lesbian/queer uncanny through apparational aspects in Smith’s work fascinating. She also circulated a recent Jeanette Winterson article from the Guardian which makes (a bit brashly) some interesting comments on the value of high literature.

Nobody blames maths for being difficult – and it isn’t difficult – but it is different, and demands some time and effort. It is another kind of language. Literature is also another kind of language. I don’t mean literature is obscure or rarefied or precious – that’s no test of a book – rather it is operating on a different level to our everyday exchanges of information and conversation.

That’s obvious in poetry and we welcome it. In fiction we seem to want a kind of printed television. Why?

Another highlight for me was Dr. Marie Mulvey Roberts paper on Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl – a hypertext fiction. I wasn’t familiar with this work at all, but I’m very keen to experiment with it now. Her descriptions of it reminded me in many ways of the poetic hypertext experiments at online poetry magazine Snakeskin’s website.

Overall, I’ve come away thinking about why Gothic seems to be a shorthand for fiction when there is so much dark and haunting poetry.  It could in fact be something to do with what Winterson says about the ‘difficulty’ of poetry; we simply aren’t accustomed to identifying themes beyond the most broad, or we aren’t looking for parallels in fiction. This is something I need to process more than these throwaway comments. Perhaps this could make a stimulating panel discussion for future Gothic conferences….

Form and the Gothic

This weekend I’m attending the CWWA’s ‘Contemporary Women’s Gothic’ conference at the University of Brighton. My abstract is…

‘Not “A Gothic”: Leontia Flynn’s Unstable Genre’

Hailed for her wry wit and original contemporary lyricism, the 29 poem sequence ‘A Gothic’ from Northern Irish poet Leontia Flynn’s most recent collection Profit and Loss (2011) seems to be a new direction. This paper will consider the conventional Gothic tropes being deployed in this sequence (including madness, doubling, screaming women and haunting) in order to interrogate what they reveal about Flynn’s attitude towards genre, poetics and selfhood.

The most unsettling aspect of Flynn’s Gothic is its deliberate fragility. ‘A Gothic’ is barely ‘A Gothic’ at all. While Fred Botting defined Gothic as ‘writing of excess’ (1996), Flynn’s approach subverts this. Her work is restrained; most poems barely exceed two stanzas and make scant reference to the Gothic tropes which supposedly bind them together. The sequence portends to demonstrate Flynn’s approach to legacy, yet family and literary inheritance seem half-achieved. This paper will suggest that a failure of genre (or failing genre) is the only way for a contemporary poet to explore poetic form and individual selfhood.

Further, while it seems that this new angle is tangential to her previous poems about screensavers, city redevelopment and computer programming, perhaps the ‘A Gothic’ sequence also highlights a darker side to her earlier collections which has been overlooked. Has ‘the legendary man in the back with the hatchet’ she notices in These Days (2004) been omnipresent, and if so, where? Re-reading Flynn’s psychoanalytic biographies from Drives (2008) and her student memoirs from These Days, I find evidence of an unstable, low-Gothic style, which Flynn has been suggesting is adequate to our times all along.’

I’m looking forward to papers on Kate Mosse, ‘Mickey Mouse Gothic’, Jackie Kay’s Trumpet and the keynote by Dr. Catherine Spooner.

This paper seems to be a million miles away from my usual work on tradition and influence, but writing it I found that some of my conclusions would fit quite happily in my thesis. Towards the end, too, I found I was making more general comments on contemporary poetics and the gothic themes which I’d love to expand into something more involved than a single author study at some stage. In fact, I’m really interested in taking something most readings (mostly fiction) find mainly thematic and seeing how it can relate to form in poetry.

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?

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.

The business of conferences

This week I have in mind the business of academic conferences. Prospectuses and assessment timetables don’t make any mention of the time you spend on them, but as a postgraduate they are a necessity not just to showcase research but to gain skills transferable to the mythical world of real-life/post-doctoral academia.


The problem with the two main outputs from a doctoral degree is that the thesis itself is too blooming long to effectively communicate it all to anyone aside from your supervisor and examiners. A conference paper, on the other hand, at around 3000 words is too short to deliver much more than a generalised observation of a topic with some loose connection to a wooly theme (that is the raison d’être for the whole gathering).


Today I’m writing a paper for which I feel like my use of theory is rather simplistic, and making statements that if questioned on I could talk about length about the reasons I could happily disagree with myself on that point. I’m also making meal choices for the outing and sending some biographical information for the programme which is a useful procrastination task. This evening I have a Skype meeting to delegate tasks for conference organisation. My inbox pings daily with calls for papers, registration reminders and calls of distress from peers also managing the business of conferences.  To tell the truth, almost every aspect of conference attendance seems to be some grand exercise in the administration of research and employability.



My birthday celebrations are well and truly over, with a bump back to reality and a manic inbox this morning. On another birthday related note, though, today is the first birthday of More Books, Please. Look how big she is growing!

On Friday, in between eating cake and opening presents, I was at the English graduate conference to give my paper on female absence in Northern Irish poetry pre-1995. There were many other papers too. I particularly enjoyed Stuck In A Book blogger Simon on middlebrow, and papers on JD Salinger and Long Meg. Thanks to Sophie and the rest of the conference committee for a great day and an excellent lunch!

One of my gifts was an Amazon Kindle, which I’m reserving judgement on until I’ve used it a bit more. So far I’m finding the electronic ink effect to be very convincing. I’ve downloaded Emma Donoghue’s Room and Wena Poon’s Alex Y Robert to test it.

I spent a relaxing long weekend in Brighton and managed to combine a little bit of culture with a restrained amount of amusement arcades. I got to see the only AIDS memorial in the UK (see below) and I had way too much to eat. I’m feeling refreshed and ready to tackle some more of this thesis business!

'Tay' - AIDS memorial

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