Thursday, June 12, 2008
Due to neoliberal exhaustion I skipped out on the first big panel, the Black Arts panel, even though it seemed like there would be tons of good papers there. Instead I had a good lie down on one of the big benches outside Little Hall, curled up underneath the stone while the day wore around me. Little Hall is an odd, almost indescribable building which seemed to combine the functions of meeting place, operating theater, and ironing board all in one. You could never tell where it was until you had passed it, and it seemed nearly impossible to avoid, like one of those nightmares where you’re fleeing the dark mansion in your rearview mirror, then you look ahead, it’s smack in front of you ready for collision. Oh dear, this is where my own panel was going to take place! I woke in a panic and tried to find the bookstore that was said to be on the third floor of Neville Hall. I’d been to Neville on every trip I had taken to Maine, why was it so completely new to me—while, for example, the “Staar Club” still glistened with the warmth of a touchstone? I was so lost, and the hallways of Neville so tiny and mouselike, that I crept up the stairs expecting at any moment to find myself on the roof, rather than in the walls of a bookstore. It was a bookstore only in the sense that hundreds if not thousands of books had been hauled into the space, I can only imagine how many volunteer hours it took to accomplish this, and ordinarily it is used (perhaps) as a classroom? Or commons area for the English Department? It was the sort of classroom I can imagine Raymond Carver passing out in, but as a bookstore it was terrific, newly stocked with all the latest and greatest of all the conference attendees—even those who cancelled at the very last minute.
I embarrassed myself not only by buying many more books than I could ever read, but also by darting on one fellow there who seemed utterly cowed by my enthusiasm—this was Jeremy Green, who I recognized by his name tag—I’m sure he took care afterwards to ditch the name tag and bring it out only when absolutely necessary. He is the British born Denver-based scholar whose book Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) gives a close and flattering reading to Dodie’s novel The Letters of Mina Harker (1998), in conjunction with William Gibson’s 2003 book Pattern Recognition. If only, I thought, Dodie were here right now, I’m sure she would love meeting the man who had given her so much respectful attention and, consequently, the awe of all who had read Late Postmodernism. What a succinct title, isn’t it? Anyway I blathered on and on about his work and after a bit, another writer nudged me, I was tying up the whole bookstore line trying to talk Green’s ear off. He is a charming man in whose face I can imagine seeing the future of Ron Weasley, once the young actor grows up and moves to the high Rockies to pursue an intellectual career far from the world of Harry Potter.
With my armful of books I joined Dodie at the second plenary panel, this one celebrating the influential anthology No More Masks, organized around the editor, the legendary Florence Howe, who was there in person. I don’t know about you, but ever since it came out I’ve had No More Masks on my book shelf. There were three big anthologies of women’s poetry around that time--another was called The World Split Open. Both titles, it turned out, are taken from apothegms by Muriel Rukeyser, who must have been alive at the time to give them her imprimatur. And probably feeling pretty good about herself by that time, or I would be! The plenary session was designed as a showcase for Howe and her editorial work, and also to honor the achievement of the book itself—still in print after 30 plus years. Jennifer Moxley was speaking to a woman I could only assume was Florence Howe. She was quite extraordinary looking, let me get this right, with sleek silver jewelry at her ears, on her fingers, around her neck; jewelry that gleamed like mercury running across her body.
She wore 50s looking glasses, each lens like the severe rhomboids of 60s TVs, so she seemed to be looking everywhere at once. Her hair was dark, black as the night, black as her glasses’ frames, except a huge streak of white sprung from her brow, allowing itself to cascade down the left side of her face in a dashing corona. You thought Margy Sloan has a streak in her hair? Or Susan Sontag? Small potatoes they compared to the cool duotone, like a 1958 Lincoln convertible, of Florence Howe’s coiffure. All week long we saw her, never a hair out of place, moving serenely through talks, readings, receptions. We tried to work it out, but she had got to be seventy something or eighty something. She wore a white shell-like blouse and over it, a thin jacket of a russet weave—this same dark red that for me characterized my week in Orono, for so many wore it for their big events. Later on in fact Bruce Andrews and Jayne Cortez, who must have dressed independently, though one never knows, wound up sharing the platform together, keynote readers both, in variations of this same splendid shiny rust color.
Jennifer Moxley stood at the lectern table, making Florence Howe feel at home—though she seemed, with her slightly crooked smile, like a personage who could feel at home anywhere, on the streets of Singapore or Moscow; so I saw my chance and tugging at Jennifer’s sleeve begged her for an introduction to Florence Howe. Regally Howe assented to pose for a portrait shot with my Japanese camera which took this juncture to throw a little hissy fit, while I tried to keep smiling. “Are you ready?” asked Florence Howe, while I begged for time. She claimed that she has never taken a good photo in her life, it is amazing how people always say this, even the most photogenic among us. Finally the camera snapped back to life and I was able to take her this way—poof!—and that way—oh! The tortures of the paparazzi.
I spoke with one young man who thought that Florence Howe was the mother or older sister of the poets Fanny Howe, and Susan Howe. It seemed preposterous that anyone would think this, but after a beat my compassion kicked in and I remembered all the times I had thought this, that or the other, my mistaken notions if laid end to end would curl around Neptune. So we had a happy hew minutes speculating on how, if she hadn’t had a mother like Florence Howe, could Susan Howe possibly have reached the feminist insights of My Emily Dickinson, nor would Fanny Howe have attained the mystical heights that animate her own poetry. The organizer of this panel was a young woman from Pittsburgh called Ellen McMath Smith, who spoke to the urgency of the No More Masks project, and sketched in something of Florence Howe’s fabulous life. Alas, Annie Finch did not appear, maybe something came up for her! Shame too, for my old New York friend would be perfect to address No More Masks! from the point of view of a fellow editor. We heard from Judith Johnson, who rehearsed the shock with which No More Masks! exploded on the literary horizons of the dreary 1970s, an era in which second wave feminism had to work uphill to reinvent an earlier American modernism, to bring back the names, works, and legends of women once acclaimed, then dismissed by New Criticism into the status of jokes, or poetesses , so that a poem like “The Sisters,” by Amy Lowell, or something like Elinor Wylie’s “Little Eclogues,” had practically to be rescued from decades of deliberate neglect, near ruin. So it was a thrilling time and yet, warned Johnson, one we might easily slide right back into unless constant vigilance was made. And there was still more rescue work to be done! In recent times we have heard about Alan Lomax, Jaime de Angulo, Jonathan Williams, Harry Smith, heroic folklorists and collectors who scoured the land for native survivals of one kind or another, and yet, asked Johnson, who now remembered the very early work of the writer and actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, who published her own translations of—now I’m forgetting what Native American tribe—her transliterations of this tribal poetry from a language that literally nobody speaks today, so that Skinner’s heroic work, through nearly forgotten, has become our only souvenir of an entire literature? “Sounds like Jonathan Skinner,” I said to Dodie, replicating, I guess, the Florence Howe/Fanny Howe/Susan Howe confusion of my young scholar boy friend.
But she only shook her head and made some notes in her diary.