Lyndall Gordon: Seminar on ‘Writing Family Memoir’, 19th May 2014

On a sunny afternoon last week Lyndall Gordon presented to OCLW the first ever reading for her forthcoming memoir, Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter (Virago hardback 2014; paperback: spring 2015).

Gordon’s talk dealt with the motivations for and creation of her latest memoir, which is primarily about the relationship between herself and her mother. Gordon grew up in South Africa, from a young age acting as a partial caretaker for her mother. Gordon’s mother suffered from a psychological illness which was not discussed in the family, but for which she eventually took medication. Her mother’s illness and reclusiveness was somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s in that it was bound up in the writing and reading of poems and greatly influenced Gordon’s love of literature.

Gordon summed up one of the major issues in family memoir: ‘To write about family is to take as subjects people who most intimately shape our lives’. Gordon opens the memoir with a passage about being four years old and feeling the privilege of being with her mother when she is ill. Illness and the ill mother is a powerful theme for a writer. Gordon quoted from Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘On Being Ill’, in which Woolf exclaims, ‘what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness’. Katherine Mansfield said of her own illness that it opened her eyes to her writing. In Gordon’s memoir, illness transforms their relationship, for the mother and daughter are alike as dreamers: the mother is a visionary – the daughter is to go on to explore what it means to be a woman.

Gordon’s generation explored women’s lib which she explained was a divergent path from the one her mother wished her to follow: to live in Israel. Gordon remembers being at Columbia University for her PhD and hearing Lionel Trilling speak about literature as being about the “hum and buzz of implication” just under the platform of history. This leads Gordon to question whether family narratives are predetermined – are they chosen from an array of narratives, a generated story familiar to history? A memoirist must attempt to avoid predetermined stories and challenge these popular narratives by plunging the subjects into a testing moment.

However, in writing a family memoir, Gordon warned us, family secrets arise, and it is these hidden things that are at the core of creativity (of the memoir and of the life). Each written life has a unique form – dictated by the life or the art. With memoir, we ask the question, might there be an underlying pattern to each life? This may be more obvious in great lives, but the practice of biography compels biographers to consider their own lives. It is important for the memoirist to distinguish between what is lively detail and what is digression. But the record itself still matters; we do need to know who we are. One secret Gordon discovered was a passionate but unconsummated affair between her mother and a charismatic Zionist man who inspired her mother’s wish that her daughter would go to live in Israel. This also regenerated the story of Gordon’s ancestors who had been Eastern European Jews who migrated to South Africa. This kind of information needs to be remembered and documented, Gordon said. This is only possible with access to family records, papers and letters which are so crucial to the family memoirist.

Continuing along these lines, Gordon asked, how do we turn papers and letters into the coherent narrative of memoir? Gordon’s answer reiterated her earlier thoughts about diverging from predetermined narratives to figure out which story you want to tell. Gordon found that writing the story of the mother and daughter’s shared love of literature was a wonderful experience but writing about the divide was difficult. She had to manage balancing truth from her own point of view alongside empathy for her mother’s.

Gordon has found her life is bound up with her mother’s even as it is and was divided. In a sense, both women’s stories are about thinking about migration and feminism. In her mother’s dedication to the unseen life, to being a poet as well as a mother, she paved the way for Gordon’s love of stories. Both women shared a commitment to literature, which led Gordon to the path of writing lives.

 

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Guest post: OCLW conference, ‘Genius for Sale! Artistic Production and Economic Context in the Long Nineteenth Century’ on 8th May 2014

Below is Diana Greenwald’s summary of “Genius for Sale!” an OCLW conference organized by Diana Greenwald and Jonathan Paine:

Most academic conferences are discipline-specific— historians meet with historians, economists with economists, etc. The goal of “Genius for Sale! Artistic Production and Economic Context in the Long Nineteenth Century” was to break this pattern. This conference aimed to bring together scholars from a wide-range of disciplines who share an interest in the intersection between economics and the arts. Making interdisciplinarity of this scope successful is difficult. Co-organizer (and Wolfson student) Jonathan Paine wrote in his instructions to participants, “The challenge will be to retain the interest of specialists within each discipline while making sure that papers are accessible to a broader audience of academics in other disciplines who will be looking for themes of more general relevance.” The excellent group of speakers and discussants who participated in the conference not only achieved this goal, but also surpassed the organizers’ highest expectations.

Throughout the conference—in the introductory remarks, in the presentation and during the panel discussions—several recurring themes emerged. The first was an emphasis on the necessity of understanding the economic context of artists’ lives. This was the argument made in the introductions by Prof. Dame Hermione Lee and Dr. Philip Ross Bullock’ and in Narve Fulsas’ presentation about Ibsen. They all demonstrated that money concerns were central to famous writers’ and composers’ lives. This financial reality challenges an entrenched image of the starving artist who exists beyond monetary distraction. Going beyond this romantic myth and into Tchaikovsky’s, Henry James’ and Ibsen’s account books, Dr Bullock, Dame Prof. Lee and Prof. Fulsas scrutinized the personas that famous figures publically cultivated or that have been retroactively imposed on them. Prof. Karol Borowiecki’s presentation on the letters of famous composers also sought to examine a common generalization made about creative geniuses—that they are emotionally volatile and sad, and that this sadness is crucial to their creative process. Using instrumental variable analysis and drawing on recent research in the economics of wellbeing, he confirmed the existence of a link between negative emotion and creative output.

Prof. Borowiecki’s project was also representative of another attribute common to many of the presentations: the application of quantitative methodologies to sources and research questions that are normally the domain of qualitative research. Prof. Borowiecki’s work, along with that of Prof. Kathryn Graddy and Oxford doctoral student Diana Greenwald quantified evidence that is traditionally qualitative—letters, art exhibition records and descriptions of the color, line and other qualities of certain artists’ work. Converting qualitative evidence to quantitative allowed not only for the use of statistical tests, but also for a “zoomed out” view of evidence that is often examined word-by-word or canvas-by-canvas. From this perspective, one can see general trends that would be invisible when looking at smaller samples of art, literature or music in meticulous detail.

Finally, a number of presenters demonstrated that economics not only provides empirical quantitative methods, but useful theoretical lenses for understanding the arts. Dr Richard Taws’ presentation was organized around an in depth visual analysis of a painting by the French genre painter Swebach-Desfontaines. He situated the painting in the context of reciprocal flows of money, information and resources throughout the modernizing 19th-century French economy. These economic flows were not only relevant historical context, but the concept of flow also became an organizing structure for understanding the numerous complex themes at play in a specific work of art. Jonathan Paine and Prof. William Todd used economic concepts to analyze Russian literature. Paine proposed a framework for understanding how narrative behaves as an economic commodity, while Prof. Todd explained the sometimes-inconsistent behaviors of Russian publishers, editors, authors and state censors by viewing their choices through the lens of moral hazard.

The most important conclusion of the conference came from attendees’ reactions to the research presented. Their questions and comments made it clear that there is not only space, but rather demand for collaboration between humanities scholars and social scientists. The nuanced knowledge of sources provided by art historians and literary scholars paired with the empirical approaches of economists and sociologists can create potent arguments poised to overturn decades of received knowledge in different fields. As historian and presenter Prof. Robert Gildea said in his response to the last question of the day: “Now, it’s all up for grabs.”

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For more information, please see the conference website: http://www.artsandecon.com/conference/

 

Guest Post: Oxford Dance Symposium, 15 and 16 April 2014

Jennifer Thorp, an organizer of the 16th Annual Oxford Dance Symposium, summarizes the very successful event below.

 ‘The dancer in celebrity culture in the long-eighteenth century:  reputations, images, portraits’

The 16th Annual Oxford Dance Symposium, held in association with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College on 15 & 16 April 2014, took as its subject dancer celebrity in all its forms: portraits, patronage, the nature of fame, and the practice and philosophy of dancing during the long-eighteenth century.

This well-attended and very successful two-day symposium attracted speakers and delegates from the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States, and Australia. We were privileged to welcome as our keynote speaker Dr Shearer West, of the Humanities Division of the University of Oxford, who gave a superb introduction to the programme by her paper on Portraiture and the birth of celebrity on the eighteenth-century stage. A wide range of papers from subsequent speakers included such topics as the role of the spectator, signification and the dancing body, print culture, portraiture and iconography of celebrity dancers (including studies of several new discoveries), patronage and performance, ballets at court, in the Jesuit colleges and on the commercial stage.  Studies of specific dance celebrities took us from the mid-seventeenth to the early-nineteenth centuries, in the dancing careers of James, Duke of York (the future King James II), Hester Santlow, Nancy Dawson, Giovanna Baccelli, Jean-Georges Noverre, Salvatore Vigano, and Marie Taglioni; and the symposium ended with a lively trio of papers on dance and showmanship in London during the 1780s, in the form of John Astley the equestrian dancer, the tumbler Carlo Delpini (see illustration), and the links between ballet, balloonmania and celebrity.

It was a great pleasure to return again to Wolfson College for the symposium, and to work again in association with the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. Yet again we were all most impressed by the efficiency and friendliness of all the Wolfson College staff, both before and during the event, and the excellent service they provided to ensure the success of the symposium.

For more details of the annual Oxford Dance Symposium, see http://www.new.ox.ac.uk/annual-oxford-dance-symposium

Guest post: An exploration of narratives from Gandhian women

Today we bring you a guest post from Dr. Supriya Kar, a writer and translator from Odisha, India. In this post, she explores several narratives from Indian women whose lives were impacted by the Indian independence movement.

Choosing Untrodden Paths: A Study of Personal Narratives by Gandhian Women from Odisha

Exposure to the education system introduced by the British rulers created conditions for women in India to liberate themselves partially from the traditional constraints which had confined them to the sphere of domesticity. However, the freedom movement, especially after its character was transformed by Gandhian techniques of non-cooperation, brought about far-reaching transformations in their lives. Women in Odisha, a backwater in British India, responded to these changes with great enthusiasm as elsewhere in India. It is, therefore, not surprising that some of these brave Odia women chronicled the story of their struggle against not only alien rule but also against the oppressive norms of a feudalistic, caste-ridden society.

The personal narratives by Gandhian women from Odisha tell the exciting story of women stepping into the public sphere which had remained out of bounds for them. Their narratives may be thought of as part of the revolution in self-awareness, ideas and aspirations, exemplified in Gandhi and the freedom movement. While reading them, one is struck by the liberating effect of his ideas upon them. Gandhi woke them out of the stupor of contented domesticity, revealed to them new horizons, and helped them towards the understanding of a nation.

Gandhi nowhere seemed so human as when Annapurna Maharana (1917-2003) remembered the moment she first set her eyes on the Mahatma in her autobiography, Amruta Anubhav (An Experience of Bliss). For those who concern themselves with the emotional impact of Gandhi upon a sensitive person, Annapurna moves to the centre of the scene. In her own words:

‘I was dashing out to control the crowd, when I heard an old man calling out affectionately from behind in Hindi—‘Hey girl! Where’re you running?’ I turned back and saw Gandhi resting under a tree. A lantern burnt feebly by his side. An English lady wearing khadi, and another person were busy doing something. I boastfully replied, ‘To control the crowd.’ He gave a toothless smile and said, ‘All right, go on.’ Isn’t there an expression in English—‘love at first sight’? This was precisely what happened to me at that instant. A few words and a smile—it seemed as though we had known each other for ages—Gandhi became my most intimate, special friend.'[1]

Women left their homes, went to jail, picketed in front of liquor shops, and engaged themselves in constructive programmes like abolition of untouchability, spinning, and revival of cottage industries. They also toured villages and towns mobilising support for the freedom movement. Sarala Devi (1904-1986) dwells on this aspect of the movement in her unpublished autobiographical fragment, ‘Mo Jeevanara Eka Smaraniya Ghatana,’ (A Memorable Incident in My Life):

‘When I led the Satyagraha movement in Ganjam, I often gave lectures in villages against the British rule. I had been working day and night for two years. I would collect donations from people for party work and prepare people for civil disobedience without being afraid of going to jail.I would travel from one village to another, and felt quite contented with life.'[2]

Women who hailed from upper-class educated families such as Sarala Devi and Ramadevi Choudhury (1889-1985) had the support of their families to join the freedom struggle. On the other hand, for Godavari Devi (1916-1993) who belonged to a poor family in a village, stepping outside of the home had been traumatic, as her narrative Punya Smrutiru Khiye (Sacred Memories) reveals:

‘I was dumb-struck and I kept myself to myself. However, I had not given up, though I had become an object of everyone’s contempt and ridicule. At the same time, I could not figure out how I would be able to go to Puri to attend the Congress camp. I found myself completely at a loss. But I had got to go. I was now pitted against my family and nearly the whole village.'[3]

In sharp contrast to what Godavari endured and resisted, Ramadevi’s account provides a unique record of the times, which is interesting in its own right. A housewife at a lawyer’s house, she was also a keen observer of the changing social and political scene of British India. She recalls in Jeevan Pathe (The Journey of Life):

‘I saw the dire poverty that prevailed in villages in that area…At mealtimes, children in large numbers, who were brought in by their parents, were made to sit in rows. The plantain and lotus leaves in the area, which were used as leaf plates, were exhausted long before the stock of rice ran out. People used all sorts of bamboo baskets covered with cloth to take food. They ate even from cement floors washed clean. None of us brought back the spare clothes that we had taken with us. This was the condition of people in villages in Odisha at the end of the First World War.'[4]

The autobiographies of Gandhian women such as Ramadevi Choudhury, Annapurna Maharana, and Sarala Devi display their awareness of the wider situation prevailing in India, and their actual observations of life and society in Odisha. In this context, a close analysis of Annapurna Das’ (1922-2005) memoir reminds us that her basic preoccupations always extended far beyond politics. Hers was a soul seeking harmony within itself as expressed in these lines:

‘When I was a child, I would become absentminded looking at the riot of colours at the sunset sky. I would experience a melancholy joy while gazing at the setting sun. No one had any share in the feelings that filled me in these moments. How would I get an opportunity to go through such experiences in Kuansa? We used to go to river Salandi to take bath. I saw the beds of kasatandi flowers stretching along the riverbank; a police station lay below the embankment…I would visit the riverbank every day, stand alone and watch the sunset. When darkness fell, I would come back home.’ [5]

For Annapurna Das, the Gandhian search for truth takes on a whole new dimension and transcends the political.

[1]Annapurna Maharana, Amruta Anubhav, Sikshasandhan, Bhubaneswar, 2003, p. 212.

[2] Selected from Sarala Devi’s unpublished autobiographical fragments.

[3]Godavari Devi, ‘Punya Smrutiru Khiye’, Punyabati Godavari, Biraj Mohan Das(ed.), Sudipta Prakashani, Bhubaneswar, 1997, p. 43.

[4]Ramadevi Choudhury, Jeevan Pathe, Grantha Mandir, Cuttack, 1984, p.40.

[5]Annapurna Das, ‘Mo Piladina Akhire Bhadrakh’, Sikha. June, 2004. p.61.

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Supriya Kar (Dr.) is a writer, editor and translator from Odisha, India. She has received the Charles Wallace Visiting Fellowship (2008); Junior fellowship (2008-2010) from Ministry of Culture, Government of India; SRTT Library fellowship (2009) from School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University; and Visiting Scholarship (2011) to Wolfson College, Cambridge University for her work on autobiography.

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

Funded Life Writing PhD scholarships at King’s College London

The Centre for Life-Writing Research and the Department of English at King’s College London is advertising for up to four funded PhD scholarships as part of the European Research Council funded interdisciplinary project ‘Ego-Media: The impact of new media on forms and practices of self-presentation’.

Please follow this link for further details, and please circulate to students it may interest:

http://www.jobs.ac.uk/enhanced/job/ait479.phtml

Closing date: 09-June-2014

Guest post: Part III of life-writing and poetry – on love and letters

Hello readers! Today we post the final part of Esther Rutter’s three guest posts reviewing the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry in April. Here Esther reviews presentations on the letters exchanged between the women of the Wordsworth and Coleridge clans.

Part III – Letters and reputations

The Wordsworth Trust’s collection of letters written by the women of the Wordsworth household and their circle provides a fascinating insight into their lives, relationships, and changing roles in this intricately connected family group. The first event of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry, Women’s Lives through Their Letters, examined some of that correspondence in detail, in particular those by Sarah Coleridge (wife of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Sara Coleridge (her daughter), and Maria Jane Jewsbury (great friend of Wordsworth’s daughter Dora). The talks were given by current trainees of the Wordsworth Trust, recent graduates who are on a year-long traineeship at the Trust to gain experience of working in museums and with literary archives.

Letters are a curious sub-genre of autobiography and a vital tool and resource for the biographer. As well as being the only means of communicating with someone who lived too far away to speak to in person, they were also a way of maintaining friendships and providing companionship, and to the biographer they are a huge help in deciphering the particulars of events and characters. In a time before telephones and the internet, before newspapers were affordable and widely available, letters were often the only source of information about the world outside your own house, village or town. Although a modern audience may assume that a letter is only for its addressee, letters were often written for whole households, to be read aloud to those family members who might be too blind, illiterate or busy to sit and read them alone. In the words of Maria Jane Jewsbury, whose letters to her sister were published in 1828 as Letters to the Young, ‘letters are a great deal.’

Maria Jane Jewsbury was a gifted writer who befriended both Wordsworth and his daughter Dora, who was almost four years younger than Jewsbury. Dora herself has recently been the subject of a fascinating dual biography with Sara Coleridge, The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave, but a solo Jewsbury biography remains unpublished. Trainee Jessie Petheram focused on the letters between Dora and Jewsbury, which show that the friendship has the intensity of a love affair, particularly for Jewsbury. Her handwriting changes as her words to Dora become more passionate, as she struggles to contain her feelings: Dora is ‘enshrined in my heart’ and Jewsbury writes the following when she announcesher engagement to the Reverend William Fletcher: ‘And now dear Dora, prepare for a surprise…I was called on to decide whether I would be married or not. I found it a harder matter than expected – because I was not in love’.

Some of the surviving fragments of their communication still bear the (fortunately unfollowed) legend to ‘burn after reading’, words that both thrill and guilt-trip the reader.

Trainee Adam Lines has been researching the letters of Sarah Fricker Coleridge, the long-suffering wife of the brilliant but opium-addicted Samuel Taylor, who has not been well represented in the surviving letters of those who wrote to and about her. Dorothy Wordsworth described her to Wordsworth’s soon-to-be wife Mary Hutchinson as ‘a sad fiddle-faddler’ and Mary added insult to injury by calling her ‘a stuffed turkey’. She therefore cuts a rather marginalised and unappealing figure, with none of the greatness gifted to her husband or his friends, none of the quickness of Dorothy or the supportive domesticity of Mary. Her biographer Molly Lefebure calls her ‘the most maligned of great men’s wives’, painted as an ‘ill-tempered, unloved ninny’ by biographers of Wordsworth and Coleridge (The Bondage of Love, 1986). As Lefebure notes, biographers have tended to use the published letters of William, Dorothy, Mary and Samuel Taylor when researching their relationships with Sarah Coleridge, as – rather obviously – those letters are published and therefore readily accessible. Sarah’s letters have had no chance to defend her. Those letters are far less easy to access (most of them remain unpublished) and far less numerous. This is not because she wrote any less than other people of her time, but because she enforced a type of self-censorship in an effort to protect her husband’s reputation, destroying many of the letters relating to the early years of their marriage. Of the 200 or so that survive, those that do are often heart-rending in their emotional honesty.

One particular period of Sarah and Samuel’s lives which was brought to light in this talk was the birth and death of their son Berkeley. Before he left for Germany, Sarah and her husband agreed that she would not ‘burden’ him by writing to him about matters which would distract him from the reason he went there – to improve his mind and develop his writing. With the support of their friend and neighbour Thomas Poole, Sarah struggled not to involve her husband in the increasingly serious domestic crisis that had developed – the illness of their second son Berkeley, who was not yet two years old. Following an as-yet imperfect smallpox inoculation, Berkeley became seriously ill and Sarah finally broke the censure of silence to write to her husband: in her own words ‘I am sorry I let my feelings escape me so’. But the mechanics of the 18th-century postal service worked against her (this was a time before the penny stamp and when postage was paid by the recipient of the letter, not the sender): the letter was sent back to Somerset from the port of Yarmouth as the correct fee for sending the letter abroad had not been paid. In the meantime her husband had written to Sarah asking why he had not heard from her. This letter is just one in a cycle of missed communications, and culminates in the sad fact that it was many months before Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew of the death of his son. Sarah Coleridge puts her finger on the problem: writing to her husband, a man whose vivid imagination had produced ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’, she says, “I pray to God that I may never live to behold the death of another child, for O my dear Samuel! it is a suffering beyond your conception!”

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Esther Rutter labours daily at the Wordsworth Trust in an effort to convince people of all ages that William Wordsworth is not only an interesting poet but also a relevant one. She has a soft spot for Coleridge, De Quincey and other literary ne’er-do-wells. When not in the company of dead poets she can be found fell walking, singing, and playing the violin. She also edits Discriminating Brevity, reviews events for Grasmere Poetry, and is a guest blogger for Oxford Dictionaries.

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

Guest post: Part II of life-writing and poetry – on motherhood

Hello again, dear readers! Here we have Esther Rutter’s second of three guest posts for you reviewing events and musing on themes from the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry this April in Grasmere. As always, do feel free to join the discussion in the comments section below!

Part II: Writing Motherhood: poetry and autobiography

Autobiographies are almost never written in verse, even those penned by poets. Yet poetry is often hugely and unapologetically autobiographical. Few English-language poets have even attempted to render their whole life story in verse, the notable exceptions being William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1881, with that title), John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells (1960) and Ian McMillan’s recent Talking Myself Home (2008). Even Samuel Taylor Coleridge chose to write his Biographia Literaria (1817) as prose. The fragile boundaries between fiction and autobiography in poetry are frequently blurred: Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was received as autobiography, although it is told as a fictional narrative, and indeed helped to create the idea of the ‘Byronic hero’, forever confusing the author with his creations.

Of course, almost all modern poets have drawn heavily on their own personal experiences to shape their poetry, but they tend to be individual events rather than life narratives. Wordsworth called these highly memorable events ‘Spots of Time’ – defining moments which change a person’s character forever. The Prelude could be read as a linked series of ‘Spots of Time’: the death of his father, ice skating on frozen Esthwaite Water, travelling to France on the brink of the Revolution, and so on. In this way, Wordsworth’s influence on subsequent writers was huge: there is not a contemporary poet alive who does not draw directly from their own life stories when developing their poems. In this way the recounting of individual instances are quite common in poetry, though not the large narrative scope of The Prelude. And what event could be more life-changing that than of producing another life, the act of becoming a parent? (Which, tellingly, Wordsworth never mentions, despite fathering six children.)

None of the autobiographical poets mentioned above are women. The Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry gave an eager audience the chance to hear three women poets talk about the relationship between poetic form and autobiographical subject through the lens of motherhood. Sinéad MorrisseyRebecca Goss and Carolyn Jess-Cooke  all draw inspiration from their experiences as mothers, collaborating on an on-going poetry project called ‘Writing Motherhood. ’ Jess-Cooke began by quoting the novelist Candia McWilliam’s epithet ‘every baby costs four books’ (just to help you win that esoteric pub quiz, McWilliam has three children and five books to date). The influence of motherhood on writing is clearly a two-way experience: for all three women, it has proved inspirational for their own poetry but also prevents them from writing as much or as often as they might otherwise like to do. It is the nature of this juxtaposition which forms the crux of their project.

The sheer intensity of the motherhood experience is, without doubt, the driving force behind ‘Writing Motherhood’, which aims to put those shared experiences of motherhood into the public sphere using poetry as the medium. As I said, poetry is not the preferred medium for autobiography; the popularity of programmes and books like ‘One Born Every Minute’ and ‘Call the Midwife’ attest to the obvious suitability and popularity of prose and the televised docu-drama for this subject matter. Jess-Cooke felt that the public discussion of motherhood was often very political and derogatory towards mothers, and felt that it called out for a new type of literary representation:

‘It completely and utterly blew me away, how much I could love another human being. It far surpassed all the negativity I had felt swamping around me. I urgently needed to find an art to express all of this, a language, a literary form. I thought first about writing a non-fiction book about motherhood, then a novel. Neither of them felt right (although motherhood is a prominent theme in ALL my novels) so I started writing poetry.’ (http://www.carolynjesscooke.com/2013/11/21/writing-motherhood/)

The need to use poetry as the medium for this experience is fascinating, as though the sheer emotions wrought by birth are not best-suited to the strongly narrative nature of prose. Jess-Cooke’s poetry focuses on the process of birth (‘scurf and residue of me on her scalp’) and the first few hours of life (‘the deflating dune of your first home’), the fears and overwhelming love that accompany the birth of a new baby (‘certain I could hold the life into you’), and the joyful struggle of choosing a suitable name for the new baby (‘ancestral honouring’).

Rebecca Goss’ experience as a mother who then lost her baby was particularly poignant because it was as much the poetry of loss as of motherhood. Her Birth, published in 2013, is intensely autobiographical, telling the story of the pregnancy, birth and short life of her first daughter Ella, who was born with a serious heart condition, and tragically died when she was a little over a year old. Goss spoke of the difficulties she had in talking about Ella after she died; well-meaning friends would ask ‘Are you going to have another baby?’, and she found it impossibly hard to tell them that no, she did not want another baby, she wanted the daughter she had lost. Something which, she said, she found it difficult to articulate in the post office queue! So she turned to poetry instead as a way to give voice to both her experience and her emotions, and from this came another sort of birth, the inception of what became Her Birth. This metaphor was made physical by Goss’s husband, who moved her writing desk into the space which had previously held her infant daughter’s crib: a ‘wise reclamation of the site’.

The overlap between the language of birth and the language of poetry is powerful and potent, not least because the two are symbolically linked yet rarely brought together. Sinéad Morrissey explores that relationship between creativity in language and creativity in birth: she looks back to the theory of spontaneous generation, plays with the nature of the word ‘eve’ (to capitalise or not ‘the breaking of E/eve’?), and ghosts her writing with the voices of her children: ‘in other noises I hear my children crying’. In a genre historically dominated by men it was hugely refreshing and inspiring to hear three women discuss the interplay between form and subject, bringing together poetry, autobiography and motherhood unashamedly together.

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Esther Rutter labours daily at the Wordsworth Trust in an effort to convince people of all ages that William Wordsworth is not only an interesting poet but also a relevant one. She has a soft spot for Coleridge, De Quincey and other literary ne’er-do-wells. When not in the company of dead poets she can be found fell walking, singing, and playing the violin. She also edits Discriminating Brevity, reviews events for Grasmere Poetry, and is a guest blogger for Oxford Dictionaries.

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.