Conference Report: PhiloSOPHIA’s Poetry, Politics & Feminist Theory

On  PhiloSOPHIA’s Poetry, Politics and Feminist Theory Conference
Hosted by the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Colorado at Denver

Organized by Julie Carr and Sarah Tyson 
March 9-12, 2016


What a pleasure it was to be part of this conference bringing together scholars and writers from the worlds of philosophy, poetry, feminist theory, and literature.  The conference offered a rich set of readings, talks, panels, workshops and a closing dance party. 

On Thursday evening Lisa Robertson and Cathy Park Hong read in Boulder, sadly an event I missed though both Lisa and Cathy, along with Laura Moriarty, Dawn Lundy Martin and Lyn Hejinian read Saturday night at CounterPath Gallery in Denver and I had a chance to hear them then.  People read from old and new work, mesmerizing the audience. Then, the chairs were moved and the music and our bodies thrummed.

Leading up to this grand finale, there were a host of panels. On Friday I attended one that was supposed to include Mary Hickman presenting “‘Thigh to thigh’: Trans-Life and the Arena in Anne Carson’s ‘Antigo-Nick’ and the Paintings of Jenny Saville,” though Mary’s plane was delayed, leaving Bryan Kimoto from the University of Memphis to fly solo. And fly Bryan did! Thrillingly unfolding “Trans* Poetics, Erotic Embodiment, and Self-Love: A Response to Talia Bettcher’s ‘When Selves Have Sex,’” Bryan’s talk was a critical engagement with Bettcher’s piece (which I haven’t read but am eager to) and traversed a number of arenas including, erotic structuralism, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Gabe Moses’s poem “How to Make Love to a Trans Person,” and more.
Friday afternoon I was part of a collaborative panel organized by Karen Lepri and Andrea Quaid which also included Madhu Kaza, Margaret Rhee, and Sueyeun Juliette Lee.  For our panel, “Alarming Logics: Feminist Poetics as Discursive/Pedagogic Intervention”:

We return to Rosmarie Waldrop’s “Alarms and Excursions,” published in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy (1990).  We ask: how does the form of Waldrop’s essay invite us to reframe our approach to the thesis-based college essay that we teach as scholars and poets working in academia. Waldrop’s form occasions a feminist critique of ensconced methodologies based in rationalism, logic, evidence, and single-stance argumentation (Lepri & Quaid).

Based on Waldrop’s essay, we provided panel attendees with note-cards with the headings “alarm,”  “excursion,” “thesis,” and “counter-alarm,” and invited participants to write on these note-cards and to interrupt our performance with their own alarms, excursions, theses. At various points, we moved around the room, improvising with our bodies in the space. This was one of the most enjoyable and engaging presentations I’ve ever participated in. People seemed to take to it and entered into the conversation while it was happening. Their contributions added to the fabric of our work, deepening it. It was exciting and generative.

Later that afternoon Lyn Hejinian gave a wonderfully absorbing plenary talk entitled “The Intimate Excess of Philosophy: Dear Sophie,” in which she discussed the epistolary in the work of Margaret Cavendish and Virginia Woolf. Cavendish’s letters are a philosophic project while Woolf’s, interestingly, are not. Lyn pointed out that Woolf uses her diaries to work out intellectual and literary concerns but her letters are a kind of phenomenology of the sociability of everyday life. Hejinian noted that Woolf is interested in not only the stuff of life but also the life of stuff.

Saturday morning I speed read through three papers—Ella Longpre’s “The Wanting of Disaster: A New Erotics of Writing and Performance”;  Katherine Davies’ “The Poetry of Gender; Anne Carson, Sound, and Language”; and Beata Stawarska’s “Language as Poeisis, Linguistic Productivity in Kristeva and Saussure,” so I could attend this workshop on poetry and philosophy moderated by Lisa Robertson. Rather than read through their conference papers, these writers presented a brief sketch of their work and Lisa established some contextualizing and initial observations and comments. Robertson noted the historical tension between poetry and philosophy, the current global state of crisis around borders, refugees, and race, and then urged us to nuance and keep complex some of the terms that get taken for granted or remain uninterrogated—the political, the social, eros.

As Lisa parsed the three papers, I scribbled this:

Ella Longpre
Beata Stawarska
Katherine Davies











S  P  A  C  E/

S  P  A  C  I A L




There was a rich conversation during this panel which it is impossible to render effectively, but I will say Stawarska’s paper generated interest around a new understanding of Saussure’s work based on materials from his Nachlass, “some of them recently discovered and published in Writings in General Linguistics (2006)” (Stawarska 1). Based on these materials, this version of Saussure attests to the importance of speakers, asserting, “a speaking collectivity [masse parlante] is part of the ‘very definition’ of language itself” (Saussure qtd in Stawarska 5). Stawarska went on to explore Kristeva’s work and to argue that "linguistic productivity....offers a strategy of resistance and revolt against normalization within individual and social life" (2).

Longpre’s interest in the disaster and diagrammatic representations of the circuitry of erotics and disaster was thought-provoking as was Katherine Davies’ fascinating thinking about sophrosyne (Greek virtue of self-control), logos, and ololyga “a ritual shout peculiar to females. It is a high pitched piercing cry uttered at certain climactic moments in ritual practice [e.g., at the moment when a victim’s throat is slashed during sacrifice] or at climactic moments in real life [e.g., at the birth of a child] and also a common feature of women’s festivals” (Carson qtd in Davies).

Later Saturday afternoon another plenary session included talks by Dawn Lundy Martin, Elena Ruiz, and Rachel Jones.  Dawn’s awesome talk was entitled “Discomfort as Feminist Poetic: 7 Short Lectures.” In it she proposed, via Kathleen Fraser, a “laboratory,” a reaching toward “ragged bits” as she thought about race, discomfort, silence on the internet, the accident and failure as swerves which, with respect to Kara Walker’s 2014 Domino Sugar Factory installation, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” reveal violence. Lundy Martin proposed mobilizing discomfort rather than silence and began to ask what might be possible regarding re-conceptualizing feminist poetics outside of the sphere of the female body; she also opened up the possibility of re-consideration of the term "feminist."

Rachel Jones’s talk, “The Relational Poetics of Barbara Köhler: Weaving a Grammar of Singularity, Solidarity and Difference” was engaging. She presented the work of Köhler, a German writer who reworks the Odyssey and whose writing mobilizes some interesting properties of German grammar which make it possible to read “sie” as [she-they-you].

Last but not least, Elena Ruiz presented a talk “The Aesthetics of Resistance: Poetic Language, Trauma and Feminist Narratives of Selfhood.” Her sharp and incisive paper focused on Latin America, state-sponsored violence, the challenges of history and memory in a totalitarian state and the problematic of European philosophical concepts  and methodological strategies emerging out of them as a basis for praxis in Latin America. She reminded us of the erasure of Mesoamerican scripts, of the violence of the alphabet, of the fact that when there are more than 30,000 people disappeared, there is no time for syntax, that European ontology and epistemology articulates a historical horizon of continuity, continues to construe universality and presumes a baseline stability of experience. Thus, disciplinary paradigms emerge out of, reflect, and re-enact various violences and oppressions.

In short, I attended just a few of many provocative and wide-ranging panels and workshops that left us with a lot to think and write about and much to reflect on.   

One challenge that emerges out of this conference is thinking about how we work with materials from multiple disciplines. Sometimes philosophy uses poetry as an illustration, seeming to simplify what poetry and the poetic is or can be and what its work and other possibilities are. I am sure philosophers probably find the use of philosophy by poets and others to be similarly odd angled. I don’t think there are rules for how one can make use of materials across disciplines and life worlds, but it is certainly worth endeavoring to continually seek the complex and nuanced for the most capacious, or to use a Lisa Robertson term—the most commodious--investigations; simultaneously, as Elena Ruiz argues, we need to consider the historical, political, and ideological foundations of the concepts and practices we use and engage.

As always, these reports are my renderings of presentations based on scanty notes. Of course, for the real thing, you will want to contact these writers and/or look for the publication of these papers elsewhere.

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