Guest Blog: Open Waters IV

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Photo courtesy of Micaela Maftei and Laura Tansley.

This is the fourth and final guest blog in our fortnightly series by collaborative authors Micaela Maftei, based in Victoria, British Columbia, and Laura Tansley, based in Glasgow, UK. Both writers completed Creative Writing PhDs at the University of Glasgow, where they met. They have gone on to co-author short stories and continue to do so from opposite sides of the Atlantic, with their forthcoming short story collection soon to be published by Vagabond Voices. They are truly contemporary transatlantic literary women. Read on to find out more about their process!

Open Waters IV: Anchoring ourselves

As we enter the final editorial stages of producing a collection of collaborative short stories we inevitably begin to look beyond this project, imagining what our relationship, writing and ambition might look like in the future. We wonder: will our co-writing be more or less fixed after this experience?

What’s perhaps increasingly clear is how reliant we’ll be on embracing the transatlantic and exploring this as an interesting and unique aspect of our work. Will the collection strike a more Canadian chord somehow if Micaela presents it solo at an event in Victoria? Will its hybridity be emphasised if we launch the collection together in Glasgow? If Laura takes copies to an event in London will readers recognise, blurry and unfixed as they are, like the authorial voice itself, the different landscapes in our stories? When place and displacement are features of both the process and the practice, it seems fair to anticipate a response from readers that engages with these themes; our separation and separateness becoming both a feature and an anxiety of the publishing process and perhaps our ongoing collaborations.

But an important part of publishing a collection for us will be the opportunity to extend the conversation that we’ve been having with each other about how stories are made and told, both directly and indirectly through our collaborative writing and our process, with a wider audience that might share or query our concerns. There are the stories themselves, little floating islands that build and erode as they travel between readers, but underneath them is a collaborative current which provides context. This water is as deep as any person is willing to travel if they are intrigued enough, and we are interested by the possibility of how any reading might contribute to our understanding of ourselves as co-writers.

This project, begun years ago, moving from experiment to habit to deadline-driven task, has been sustained for the better part of a decade. So what comes next? Co-writing isn’t something we want to leave behind, but maybe we need a pause, a breather. Moving on to a new project is always something of a wrench once a piece of work is completed. Now, after all of our discussion and analysis and probing and questioning, we won’t be approaching a new project with anything like our original level of uncertainty but we can’t imagine working together on something that doesn’t, at the very least, inspire the same amount of curiosity. Hopefully, when we’re ready and energized, it’ll be with a different kind of confidence to approach a new challenge; one which continues to resonate with our ideas on writing, as well as insisting that we expand and explore this understanding. We’d like to return to that space where ripples met and confused the concentric self-centredness of our individual voices, finding new ways to launch words towards each other, creating waves that exhilarate and engulf us. This puts us in mind of the classic primary school wet-break-time game ‘consequences’, where a story is started, the paper is folded and a partner continues the narrative. We like the mystery of this as well as the slowing down into detail.

In the meantime we’re excited to plan an event that will celebrate this collection and explore collaboration. The planning is transatlantic, and the delivery will (hopefully) not be. At the moment we’re busy thinking of ways to create a space to discuss the nature of this project’s creation while also launching a finished product: a book we’re proud of and ready to let go of. We look forward to collaborating with Vagabond Voices for this; please keep an eye on their website and Twitter for information as and when it comes, we’d love to talk and explore collaborative short fiction with anyone and everyone that’s interested.

By Laura Tansley and Micaela Maftei

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Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Marguerite Yourcenar

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

By Margarida Sao Bento Cadima (University of Glasgow)
Remember to join our online book club on #ForgottenTLW on Wednesday 28th February, 7pm – 8pm, on Twitter.

Marguerite Yourcenar was a Belgian-born French writer who was the first woman to be elected to the Académie française in 1980. While she is not exactly a forgotten writer, she is very much overlooked as a transatlantic writer. She was born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour on 8th June 1903 in Brussels to a bourgeois family of French origin. During her childhood, Yourcenar travelled through Europe with her father. She visited London, France, Switzerland and Italy. Some places would have more of an impact on her than others, such as visiting the Villa Adriana in Tivoli, which was to be the setting of her most famous novel Memoirs of Hadrien.

In 1921 she published her first poem Le Jardin des chimères under the name Yourcenar, an anagram of her family name that she would adopt as her legal name in 1947, the year she became an American citizen. Her first novel entitled Alexis was published in 1929, and its style is heavily influenced by André Gide’s prose. Traveling had a great impact on Yourcenar, in 1938 she published a collection of short stories entitled Oriental Tales.

The year World War II broke out, Yourcenar moved to the United States with her partner Grace Frick. They met in 1937 when Frick was in Paris doing research work for her thesis, which she started at Yale University and completed at the University of Kansas. Frick and Yourcenar were partners in every sense of the word, with Frick being also a literary scholar and the translator of Yourcenar’s texts to English. For the next forty years they would make the northeast of the United States their home. Yourcenar took a place teaching comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence College and later they bought a house together (which they called “Petite Plaisance”) on Mount Desert Island which is in Northeast Harbor, Maine. If you are ever in the area you can visit it! There, Yourcenar passed away on 17th December 1987 and was buried beside her beloved Grace Frick, who died 8 years prior.

Despite having spent almost five decades living in the United States, Yourcenar never made it a subject of her fiction. In fact, from the shores of the New World, Yourcenar was writing about the Old World. In this light, it is interesting to think what kind of impact that transatlantic experience had on her literary production. Her best-known novel is entitled Memoirs of Hadrian and it was published in 1951 This novel was written entirely in her home in Maine. Yourcenar hesitated about who would be the protagonist of her novel: the choice came down to the Roman emperor Hadrian or the Persian mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam. The title makes it clear with who she went for in the end.

Memoirs of Hadrian is a historical novel recounting the life of Roman emperor Hadrian, in the form of a letter to his successor Marcus Aurelius. In this long letter, the emperor discusses his love for Antinous, life, death, and philosophy. These meditations were not only crossing time, but also crossing place. Writing from a country that was not her birthplace, Yourcenar was concerned with the question of homeland and where does one belong. Through Hadrian she writes that: “The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself; my first homelands have been books.” Ultimately, Yourcenar was a universal writer, more than a European writer, who deserves to be thought of through the perspective of her transatlantic existence.

Have any Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women you want to tell us about? Remember to join our online book club on #ForgottenTLW on Wednesday 28th February 7pm – 8pm. Follow us on twitter @atlantlitwomen

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Hollywood novels by women

So far in our blog series on Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women we have covered a wide range of fascinating and talented writers, including Clarice Lispector, Anzia Yezierska, Lorine Niedecker, and Toni Cade Bambara. Rather than focusing on a specific figure, today I will be looking at two works within a larger genre, the Hollywood novel.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Hollywood novel genre: it began in the 1910’s, continues today, and is made up of novels written about Hollywood and the film industry. At a glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that the genre has predominantly male contributors, as it is a genre in which women’s contributions are frequently overlooked. Most critical studies focus on the most well-known Hollywood novels like Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon (1941), and Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941). One rare female work which is repeatedly recognised is Joan Didion’s first novel Play It as It Lays (1970). Despite the frequent focus on male writing within criticism, bibliographies of the Hollywood novel reveal a surprising amount of works by women. The two examples which I will be discussing today are Frances Marion’s Minnie Flynn (1925), and Katherine Albert’s Remember Valerie March? (1939).

At the beginning of Minnie Flynn, Minnie is a teenage factory girl living with her family in New York. When Minnie becomes romantically involved with a minor actor, she manages to get a foothold in an East Coast film studio. After a rocky start as a struggling extra, Minnie succeeds in ‘making it’ as an actress, and her career takes her to Hollywood. Success doesn’t last, however, and in a tale which is now a familiar Hollywood story, we witness both Minnie’s rise and her fall. Throughout her success, Minnie is consistently reckless with money, worshipping material possessions over all else. She is also taken advantage financially by her friends, family and romantic partners. Though it is difficult to feel sorry for a character who is often arrogant and greedy, Marion still manages to successfully evoke our sympathy in depicting how difficult it can be to distinguish genuine from artificial affection when you are in a position of power, wealth, and celebrity. In Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998), Cari Beauchamp tells us that Marion intended for Minnie Flynn to be ‘a warning to the thousands of women she saw pouring into Hollywood full of optimism and without the slightest idea of what lay ahead’ (154). In addition to depicting the pitfalls of fame, Minnie Flynn acts as a valuable account of the film industry in New York and Hollywood. It also explores the practice of acting, and the relationship between an actress and director.

Frances Marion was a director and screenwriter in early Hollywood, and her own life story is as revealing about early Hollywood as her novel is. Beauchamp tells us that by 1930 Marion had been ‘the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood – male or female,’ since 1917 (9). Marion was also the winner of two Academy Awards. In 1931 she won the Writing award for The Big House (1930), and two years later the Best Story award for The Champ (1931). Details like these can hardly be lost on a modern audience, given the recent attention on gender pay-gaps in the film industry, and in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent #MeToo movement.

The relationship between an actress and her director is a theme which is taken up again in Remember Valerie March? (1939). Katherine Albert’s novel is another rise-and-fall tale of a Hollywood actress, only this time it is narrated from the perspective of her director, Conrad Powers. Powers claims to have both started and ended the acting career of the ‘first lady of film,’ Valerie March. The novel is his own personal account of Valerie’s professional career and personal life, and often takes the form of a Hollywood exposé. Through the character of Powers, Albert explores the way in which a director manipulates the emotions and life-choices of an actress to get the desired performance from her, for the benefit of the film. At one point in the novel, Powers encourages the married Valerie to have an affair with her co-star, with the justification that this will add a more convincing dimension to the film. Albert is not alone in her portrayal of this unhealthy relationship. In the popular 2017 television series Feud: Bette and Joan, this theme is taken up. Feud is about the rivalry between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and takes place largely during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). We see the film’s director, Robert Aldrich, pitting the actresses against each other for the sake of authenticity. Hollywood fan-magazines and gossip columns latch on to the story, and fuel the fire between the two women to increase readership. Though Feud is a dramatized series, there is no doubt that these practices were in play in the industry, as many Hollywood histories depict.

Both Marion and Albert’s novels explore a number of similar themes. For example, both spark interesting questions on different forms of acting, particularly method acting, and what exactly makes a successful and convincing performance. Albert delves further, however, into topics such as the cult of celebrity in America, the role of the press in Hollywood, and work of publicity departments within film studios. It comes as no surprise then, that Albert was also a Hollywood insider. She worked as an actress, a studio publicist for MGM, and a feature and fiction writer for Photoplay, one of the first film fan magazines in America.

The ongoing current debates and discussions over male control within the film-industry have emphasised the unacceptable positions that both men and women have been forced into as a result of an extreme power imbalance. The relevance of Hollywood novels such as Minnie Flynn and Remember Valerie March can’t be underestimated in depicting how people in positions of power can abuse this power, and their employees. Considering Frances Marion and Katherine Albert’s active and varied careers in the film industry, they can also help to represent the achievements of women in that industry. In an era where women are increasingly viewed as under-appreciated in the industry (through both salary and award recognition) this recognition is much needed.

Thanks for reading!

Kari Sund

 

Notes and References

Sadly, these novels are difficult to obtain, particularly Remember Valerie March? I was, however, lucky enough to obtain a beautiful new copy of Minnie Flynn thanks to the fantastic work of The Hollywood Novel Project, run by Ben Smith. You can view the project’s Kickstarter, and the journey of how the first edition of Minnie Flynn in 90 years came into being, through the following link. We eagerly await the next Hollywood novel to be published by this project:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1133736285/frances-marions-lost-novel-minnie-flynn-a-new-edit.

Information on Albert’s role as a Hollywood insider comes from Anthony Slide’s Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazines. A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers. University Press of Mississippi, 2010, pp 77-78.

Information on Frances Marion is taken from Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998), a great source for anyone who wants to learn more about women’s achievements in early Hollywood.

 

 

Guest Blog: Open Waters III

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Courtesy of Laura Tansley and Micaela Maftei

This is the third of four fortnightly guest blogs by collaborative authors Micaela Maftei, based in Victoria, British Columbia, and Laura Tansley, based in Glasgow, UK. Both writers completed Creative Writing PhDs at the University of Glasgow, where they met. They have gone on to co-author short stories and continue to do so from opposite sides of the Atlantic, with their forthcoming short story collection soon to be published by Vagabond Voices. They are truly contemporary transatlantic literary women. Read on to find out more about their process!

 

The particular and shared time, space and place of collaborative writing

Many writers, deliberately or not, consciously or not, write what they know, and write of where they know – this is often especially true when a writer leaves a place and subsequently sees it from a new vantage point. For all that we believe our co-written work features a voice that is distinct from our individual voices, when we each sit with a piece, the triggers and images that come to mind are often influenced by the myriad experiences, memories and associations that come from our personal past.

In The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham writes that “men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they are born, the city apartment or farm where they learned to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read…these are things that you can’t come to know by hearsay”. If the self is a great mix of ingredients, many rooted in early life, it’s a certainty that as co-authors what we imagine as we create a story, and the associations connected with it, will not always, and perhaps will never, be exactly the same.

What we imagine in our minds when we write (the places and people and images that we, with or without awareness, have in mind when we create the fictional), is not necessarily something we share with each other as part of our creative process. But it becomes apparent when we consider our understandings of these stories that we often have very different spaces in mind as we write. The geography of the sleepover setting in ‘The Reach of a Root’ is both specifically an old friend’s house from Toronto, and simultaneously a second cousin’s from Malvern. And even when the space we imagine is similar, the ways in which it’s encountered can be different. In ‘A Change is as Good as a Rest’, when the character Jess tries on underwear in a pretentious clothing store, one of us imagined the wooden-panelled cubicles of mid-Twenties experiences of the Buchanan Street Urban Outfitters, while the other mentally returned to hundreds of teenaged trips to the Urban Outfitters next to Toronto’s Eaton Centre. Even ubiquity has contextual specificity. These differences don’t seem to affect a reading of the story because the stories retain a narrative and spatial logic, but what these examples highlight is that despite our creation of a third voice, and even though we would agree that we know and can relate to each other very well, having developed an understanding of what we think and imagine and how we each see the world around us, that even in collaboration, the worlds we create as writers can remain specific, precise, fixed in the past and often, therefore, unknowable.

Our shared experiences are sure to influence our process, although it’s impossible to know at this stage, or perhaps ever, to what extent they have impacted on our work. The spaces we shared in Glasgow (a flat, a PhD cohort, friends and trips around Scotland), may have played a significant part in terms of our compulsion to explore collaborative writing, and perhaps influence and inform the third voice we produce in our co-written short stories. And these four years together will remain incredibly significant to us, but in the course of our respective tenures as writers, these experiences represent an increasingly small amount of time and a more and more distant part of our shared history. As we come to the end of one creative project together, the prospect of a new endeavour emerges, as does the question of how our writing will develop together when we now spend so much time apart. One of us will shortly join the other in parenthood, and we wonder if this experience will bring new opportunities to explore what we share, and what separates us.

What we do have are creative touchstones; a growing mixtape of stories we have shared with each other when either of us comes across something that might be pertinent to our collaborations, or just in general as part of our shared interest in craft. These include, amongst others, ‘An Abduction’ by Tessa Hadley, ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’ by Joyce Carol Oates, Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity and recently, the impossible to ignore (for a hot second) ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian. These pieces swim around us as we write, informing us and bringing us closer to an understanding of what we hope to achieve in our writing together; even while we know that how one of us sees a story – as in how we visualize the events, but also how we understand its significance and meaning – will almost certainly never fully match the other’s. The same is true for our own collaborative writing. But we hope this conflict gives our writing a striated edge that at times tessellates and at others makes for an uncomfortable fit, highlighting the contradictory and conflicting experiences of women’s experiences, as well as drawing attention to our collaborative craft, which feels both singular and plural, thrilling and unnerving, routine and constantly developing.

By Laura Tansley and Micaela Maftei

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Anzia Yezierska

**Remember to join our #TLWBookChat on #ForgottenTLW on the 28th of February**

In the lead up to our online book club on the 28th of February, we’re posting about overlooked transatlantic woman writers, and today I’m going to talk about Anzia Yezierska. She was born around 1880 in Russian Poland and emigrated to the United States in 1890. She grew up in poverty in the Jewish immigrant community of Manhattan’s lower East Side, one of nine children.* She left home at seventeen, rejecting the expectations of her deeply religious father about the ‘appropriate’ roles for women in society. She held down a series of manual jobs while studying, and eventually gained a degree and pursued a career as a writer.

Issues of gender, identity and poverty permeate Yezierska’s writing. Her first book, a collection of short stories titled Hungry Hearts (1920), was well-received. It was quickly turned into a Hollywood film, boosting Yezierska’s reputation as a writer and earning her a significant sum of money. She published prolifically throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, but her work became less popular and fell out of fashion in the 1940s and 1950s. She died in 1970 in relative obscurity, having published just one book in the last forty years of her life (Red Ribbon on a White Horse, 1950).

Shortly after Yezierska’s death, Alice Kessler-Harris arranged the first reprinted edition of Bread Givers (1925) in 1975, and Persea Books went on to reprint copies of many of Yezierska’s other works over the coming years. Public and scholarly interest in Yezierska has grown steadily, as new generations find inspiration in her words.

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Sketch of Yezierska, 1921 [image from Wikimedia Commons]
While much of Yezierska’s work is autobiographical, this is arguably most true of Bread Givers. Yezierska’s protagonist Sara Smolinsky is fiercely independent, and ready to take advantage of all the opportunities available to her in the so-called ‘New World’:

“Thank God, I’m not living in olden times. Thank God, I’m living in America! You made the lives of the other children! I’m going to make my own life!

[…]

“My will is as strong as yours. I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I’m not from the old country. I’m American!”

Bread Givers, ch.VIII

The presence of such a strong-willed female protagonist is refreshing, especially for a novel of this period. It skilfully questions the realities of the American Dream, while simultaneously raising issues concerning identity and cultural assimilation. The tension between the old and new is drawn out through the relationship between Sara and her parents, who prevent her from truly escaping from the restrictions imposed by her religious and cultural background. And, while the novel was once criticised for its use of vernacular and colloquialisms, the value of such rhetorical techniques is now lauded by scholars and the public alike, for adding to the novel’s realism.

Given recent discussions about gender and women’s roles in society, Bread Givers remains astonishingly relevant to a modern reader. Indeed, perhaps Yezierska’s greatest talent is presenting such a vivid and accurate portrayal of a very specific community, yet enabling readers from diverse cultures and backgrounds to find value in her writing.

Yezierska’s first collection of short stories, Hungry Hearts, is available to read online. It’s well worth dipping into if you want to get a feel for her writing style and the themes she engages with in her writing.

 

By Sarah Thomson

 

*Biographical detail taken from Alice Kessler Harris’s foreword and introduction to Bread Givers (New York: Persea Books, Inc. 2003).

Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women: Lorine Niedecker

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Photo courtesy of The Operating System

Remember to join our online book club on #ForgottenTLW on Wednesday 28th February, 7pm – 8pm, on Twitter.

This week’s Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women blog focuses on the North-American modernist poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-70) who, towards the end of her life, established a number of vital creative connections with British-based writers and publishers.

It is worth pointing out, first of all, that although Niedecker’s poetry was little published during her lifetime, and often undervalued by her peers, it has since been the subject of extensive critical reassessment, and has been exhaustively excavated and collated, most notably by Jenny Penberthy for her authoritative Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002). In this sense, Niedecker is perhaps more of a famously forgotten writer than a forgotten one, but the story of her life and work remains fascinating, as does that of her long-term struggle to find an audience for her work, and of its late but enthusiastic reception amongst poets and publishers based in Britain: Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press, Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Society, and Roy Fisher’s Fulcrum Press.

As Jenny Penberthy notes of Niedecker’s biography, “[h]er life by water could not have been further removed from the avant-garde poetry scene where she also made herself a home” (1). Born and brought up in Black Hawk Island, a marshy area of rural Wisconsin where she remained for most of her adult life, Niedecker described her childhood as filled with “twittering and squawking noises” (Penberthy, 2). The sensitive musicality of her work – comparable to that of two of her British friends, Basil Bunting and Ian Hamilton Finlay – may channel the sound-world of her upbringing:

I rose from marsh mud,

algae, equisetum, willows,

sweet green, noisy

birds and frogs

 

(Penberthy, 170)

After dropping out of a literature course to tend to her sick mother, Niedecker married in 1928 and became a librarian, publishing a small number of poems during the late 1920s informed by the imagism of writers like H.D. (a fellow transatlantic woman writer), and early Ezra Pound. From the early 1930s onwards – the depression having cost her both her job and her marriage – she was inspired by Objectivism, beginning an intense correspondence with Louis Zukofsky from the parental home to which she had returned. In 1933, Niedecker visited Zukofsky in New York and they became lovers. She fell pregnant with twins, but Zukofsky pressured her to abort. Niedecker’s long poem-sequence “For Paul”, written mainly across the 1950s, is addressed to the son whom Zukofsky went on to have with Celia Thaew, and seems shot through with a subdued grief to any reader familiar with Niedecker’s life (she died childless):

Paul

now six years old:

this book of birds I loved

I give to you.

I thought now maybe Paul

growing taller than cattails

around Duck Pond

between the river and the Sound

will keep this book intact,

fly back to it each summer

 

maybe Paul

 

(“For Paul”, Penberthy 137)

Niedecker’s first collection, The New Goose, had been published semi-privately in 1946. Contra her reputation during her life as a naïve, rural savant, it incorporates pithy responses to national and international politics. However, these are filtered through a modernist-folk idiom owing as much to the vernacular speech-rhythms of her local community and the anonymous proletarian poetry of the “Mother Goose” songbook as the modernist literary collage of Pound, Zukofsky and Marianne Moore; it is also acutely sensitive to local as well as global events:

The brown muskrat, noiseless

swims the white stream,

stretched out as if already

a woman’s neck-piece.

 

In Red Russia the Russians

at a mile a minute

pitch back Nazi wildmen

wearing women.

 

(Penberthy, 109)

Expanding on these forms and motifs, by the end of the 1950s “For Paul” had grown into a projected second collection, “For Paul and Other Poems”. But Niedecker struggled to find a publisher, perhaps because her most regular creative advisor Louis Zukofsky was deeply uncomfortable with some of the content, perhaps simply because of the pressures of the various day-jobs – including hospital cleaning – through which Niedecker was forced to support herself. A marked note of solitude and frustration creeps into these poems:

What horror to awake at night

And in the dimness see the light.

                             Time is white

                             Mosquitoes bite

I’ve spent my life on nothing.

 

(Penberthy, 147)

At the same time, the poet Hannah Brooks-Motl suggests that in its formal ambition, “For Paul” represents “a turning point for Niedecker”, taking her from the minute, incidental poems of The New Goose to “the open-ended sequences such as Lake Superior that mark her late period.”

At this point, Niedecker’s biography starts to intersect with those of various poet-publishers based across the Atlantic, and we sense the emergence of what Peter Middleton calls “the British Niedecker.” Her most significant contacts in this regard were the Edinburgh-based poet Ian Hamilton Finlay and Jonathan Williams, a native of North Carolina whose Jargon Society imprint operated, as Ross Hair states, “from two remote locations: Highlands, North Carolina and Dentdale in England’s Yorkshire Dales” (2). Both Williams and Finlay operated at the geographical and artistic fringes of what is now called the British Poetry Revival, a period during the 1950s-70s when younger British poets turned against the conservatism of the Movement poets (Philip Larkin et al) and embraced early twentieth-century literary modernism, emulating its development by their North-American contemporaries, poets of the neo-objectivist, Black Mountain College and New York schools.

This transatlantic dynamic has often been described with reference to the esoteric, high-modernist aesthetics of poets such as J.H. Prynne. But it was the vernacular, folksy aspects of Niedecker’s idiom that appealed to Finlay and Williams, both of whom thought of themselves, in certain ways, as outsiders in this new modernist poetry scene. Niedecker’s My Friend Tree (1961), illustrated with faux-naïve woodcuts, was one of the first publications of Finlay and Jessie McGuffie’s Wild Hawthorn Press, Finlay having been enraptured by The New Goose after receiving a copy in 1961. Though My Friend Tree was a different and far smaller publication than the one Niedecker had envisaged, she was buoyed by the attention, and embraced her status as ‘folk poet’ with a newfound confidence. She seems to pay homage to her new friend and correspondent in “Letter from Ian”:

Aye sure

a castle on the rock

in the middle of Edinburgh

 

They floodlight it—

big show up there

with pipe bands

and all

 

Down here along the road

open your door

to a posse of poets.

 

(Penberthy, 207)

Across the remainder of the 1960s, interest in Niedecker’s work finally grew. In 1965, Williams offered to publish the manuscript of “collected poems” that Niedecker had prepared, although the chaotic state of Jargon Society finances held back the publication of T&G: The Collected Poems until 1969. In the meantime, the London-based press Fulcrum, operated by the South-African poet Stuart Montgomery, and the most financially solvent and ambitious of the new British modernist poetry presses, published another collection, North Central (1968); in 1970, Montgomery would bring out an expanded collected poems, My Life by Water: Collected Poems, 1936-1968.

In 1963 Niedecker had married again, moving with her new husband to Milwaukee. Her financial security allowed her to dedicate the last seven years of her life to writing full-time, and to travelling more widely. Her work began to appear in magazines with increasing frequency, and to take on more expansive and ambitious forms. Late, extended sequences such as “Lake Superior”, “Wintergreen Ridge”, and “Paean to Place” enfold biographical detail with precisely conveyed botanical, geological, and cultural awareness of place and landscape, all with Niedecker’s distinctive, lithe musicality. It would be wrong to depict the last ten years of her life as a period of final, unmitigated success. She remained, as her poems suggest, on the outside of things during the 1960s: “I see no space-rocket/ launched here/ no mind-changing// acids eaten” (“Wintergreen Ridge”, Penberthy 255). But she did develop a network of intense creative friendships, becoming the benign matriarch of what Ross Hair calls an “avant-folk” community, linking up the rural peripheries of North America and Britain. By the time of her death – of a cerebral haemorrhage, on New Year’s Eve 1970 – Niedecker was just beginning to establish herself as one of the most original poets of the late-modernist era.

By Greg Thomas. His forthcoming book on Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland is being published by Liverpool University Press.

References

Hannah Brooks-Motl, “The Lives of Lorine Niedecker.” Poetrysociety.org, originally published 2013.

Ross Hair, Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present. Liverpool University Press, 2017.

Peter Middleton, “The British Niedecker.” In Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, edited by Elizabeth Willis, University of Iowa Press, 2008.

Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy, University of California Press, 2002.