‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’: A conference on the work of Stevie Smith (1902-1971)
For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.
The people who ‘come and go’ in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) are versions of her own friends and family, fictionalised with almost ostentatious thinness. The manuscript of the novel, typed on yellow office paper and held in the Hull History Centre, shows that she originally used her acquaintances’ real names and altered them afterwards in pen. Novel on Yellow Paper is so autobiographical that it poses real analytic and generic dilemmas for readers. Here, as in many of her poems, Smith’s boundary between life-writing and “imaginative” or “fictitious” work is strikingly porous.
The organisers of the first one-day conference on the work of Stevie Smith, held at Jesus College on 11 March 2016, were therefore very grateful for the support of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, recognising the value of considering Smith’s work as ‘life-writing’ as much as ‘fiction’ or ‘poetry’. Over 70 delegates gathered to explore and discuss this well-loved but critically understudied author from a variety of perspectives.
Many speakers took the opportunity to explore life-writing as a helpful critical lens. Hermione Lee, director of OCLW and editor of Stevie Smith: A Selection, and eminent biographer Frances Spalding, author of Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography, opened the conference with a panel on Smith and life-writing. Lee and Spalding discussed Smith’s short piece ‘The Story of a Story’, a lightly-fictionalised account of Smith’s conflict with friends who were offended by her literary renditions of their lives. The story, itself a piece of life-writing, traces the perils of life-writing as well as its irresistible lure for Smith.
‘Do you think it is immoral to write about people?’
‘No no, it is very difficult.’ (Stevie Smith, ‘The Story of a Story’)
Throughout the conference, life-writing continued to represent a significant part of the conversation. Often it was practised extempore: several delegates had known Smith in person and were eager to recount and re-interpret their memories of her life. Judith Woolf of the University of York gave a well-received account of interactions she had had with Stevie Smith, during an early panel on Stevie Smith’s ‘voices’. In another paper, Rachel Cooke, award-winning journalist and writer, discussed how Stevie Smith explored ideas about female independence by fictionalising aspects of her life as a spinster.
In an afternoon panel, Rachel Darling of the University of Goldsmiths delivered a paper called ‘Working it Out For Herself: The Writing Subject in Novel on Yellow Paper’.
Darling noted how Smith positions her protagonist Pompey in Novel on Yellow Paper as a writer, and has her imitate her own writing-process: Pompey remarks in passing, ‘I am typing this book on yellow paper’. Both Pompey and Smith type novels on yellow copy-paper, then, ‘copying’, as Darling suggested, from life. Early criticism of Smith’s work over-simplified the relationship between Smith and Pompey, however, and Darling ultimately concluded that the novel Pompey writes is not itself Novel on Yellow Paper.
In the final academic event of the day, Will May gave the keynote speech on Smith’s ‘untimeliness’. His paper moved between Smith’s offbeat or ‘untimely’ metrical rhythms, her marginal or ‘out-of-time’ position among her contemporaries, and moments in her poetry where events happen at wrong or inopportune times.
The conference closed with a performance of ‘River Gods’ in Jesus College Chapel. This piece is a setting of seven of Smith’s poems for viola and spoken voice, composed by Simon Rowland-Jones. Rowland-Jones provided the viola accompaniment as Hermione Lee read some of Smith’s most haunting poems, including ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘The River God’. Listen to a 2011 recording of ‘River Gods’ here.
Stevie Smith has experienced something of a revival in the last two years. ‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’ followed Virago’s reissue of Smith’s novels in 2014, and Will May’s new edition of Smith’s Collected Poems and Drawings in 2015. We hope that this conference will play a part in extending Smith’s own literary afterlife.
This guest post was written by Noreen Masud, DPhil student at the University of Oxford and co-organiser of the Stevie Smith conference. She blogs at Parrots Ate Them All. With thanks to OCLW, Virago, Faber, S H Jones, Manchester University Press, Oxford University Press, Edinburgh University Press, Oxford English Faculty, Oxfordshire History Centre and Blackwells. Photography courtesy of Mr Josey Photography. Poster drawing taken from Not Waving But Drowning © Estate of Stevie Smith and reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.