MC Hyland and Becca Klaver

Review of Linda Russo's To Think of Her Writing Awash in Light

(Subito Press, 2016)


Becca Klaver: We first came to the idea of writing this review because I recommended To Think of Her Writing Awash in Light to you. The book, selected by John D’Agata for the Subito Press Creative Nonfiction Prize, contains “lyrical essays on Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger and Anne Waldman,” as its subtitle says. I was mostly thinking of your interests in Dorothy Wordsworth and walking when I mentioned it to you, and then you sort of tossed the recommendation back to me, because of my interests in feminist ideas of the everyday, I think?

MC Hyland: Yes! This book seemed like it was calling out to both of us! I saw immediate resonances with your work (especially, but not only, your scholarly research on postwar women poets) in Russo’s insistence on embodied routines as central to—and not separable from—writing and thinking. This is a topic we’ve talked about often before: the strange way that embodied or material experiences often get left out of scholarship, and the urgency that we both feel to put the bodies, the things, and the social/economic realities back into the stories that get told about writing. To Think of Her does this work through its four essays: each, in a different way, tries to imaginatively enter the work of a significant poetic “foremother” through a reckoning with embodiment as it relates to both writing and reading.

BK: Why do you think Russo chose to group these particular essays? What holds them together, to me, is the way they show that women writers’ daily routines, bodily movements, and mundane labors are central to literary practices—and to literary history—and shouldn’t be cordoned off in the realm of biography. In the Dickinson essay, Russo offers the “working conclusion” that “scholarship is important not for the facts it disposes us to or the arguments it makes, but for the way it lets us experience human imagination, selfhood, and connectedness” (34). I would call this approach to scholarship not gendered but feminist: in other words, both men or women might take it up, but it’s through studying women’s writing that we especially come to understand the need to read texts alongside materials, bodies, movements, and qualities of light.

This approach is beautifully enacted in the final essay, in which Russo and others sit around Joanne Kyger’s table in Bolinas, California, eating and drinking and passing around Anne Waldman’s 1013–page epic poem Iovis. Russo realizes that her own attempts to read Iovis alone and silently have kept her from accessing the full power of the book, which Kyger insists demands to be read collectively. “It’s simply too much to take in alone,” Russo admits as she narrates a real–life fable about the critic’s role of cleaving open space for visionary communing with other writers and readers (53).

MCH: The question of “why these essays” is a good one, because their varied lengths and approaches can give the book a bit of a centrifugal feel, especially as the Emily Dickinson chapter, at 24 pages, is nearly as long as the other three essays put together. The essays are also noticeably formally different from one another—the Hettie Jones chapter’s Q and A and dialogue formats [“Q: And if you don’t have a writing room? // A: then what you do is not writing” (41)] move differently from the word–hoards gathered from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals [“Long     planted    mild    little    still / Excessively    seeds    trees    walked    watered / Mild    warm    morning    gleaming” (5)], which move differently from the way Russo tracks time and environments in the chapter on visiting Dickinson’s archives and home. But, as we’ve been saying with other parts of this book, the disparate character of the essays sort of feels like an invitation, doesn’t it? Like a statement that “these are some ways to be a critic and to read this work—take them and use them if you want to.”

BK: You’re right—maybe the better question is, “How are these essays different from one another?” If they all enacted the same experimental scholarly essay moves, the book as a whole wouldn’t be as permission-giving as it is. To Think of Her suggests a model for criticism that is nearly contagious, so that the reviewer finds herself wanting to write a response to the book that might be mimetic of, or otherwise do justice to, Russo’s methods.

MCH: This book is so much about modeling new forms for criticism. Which might be why it seemed so obvious that we should review it together instead of separately, and why our first thoughts about how to review it had to do with riffing on Russo’s concerns and formal experiments. Although we ultimately decided to stick with the dialogue format for our response, it seems worthwhile to think a bit about how these essays made us really think about how we could take in Russo’s formal experiments as reviewers. I’m sharing a longish excerpt from an email I wrote to you here, a month or so ago, when we were first trying to think about how best to respond to Russo, because I think the thing I love most about To Think of Her Writing Awash In Light is the way it allows the reader to think of criticism as a poetics, by which I mean a shaped and perhaps even (in the widest possible sense) a procedurally–driven way of being in language. Here’s the passage:

Ok, so: the thing we were talking about Wednesday was to sort of riff on the Joanne Kyger chapter by doing our “review” by getting together and just talking about the book (and also, maybe, about our own work/thinking/activism/etc.) But here’s a question: what if the Joanne Kyger chapter isn’t the only chapter that gives a model for what feminist reading/writing/thinking/making might look like? And what if we used our “review” (which might instead get dispersed into four short essays/conversation transcripts/etc.) to try to enact each of those models? Here’s how I’m parsing the chapters now/some ideas about how we might turn each of them into a critical response:

1. “(Dorothy Wordsworth) Weeding/Sowing/Stucking/Walking”: This feels to me like a chapter that’s about finding a feminist foremother/a feminist praxis through habit. Russo is digging up gestures in Dorothy's writing: the gestures of dailiness that Dorothy's journals and letters narrate. Something interesting about Dorothy’s experience of being “Home at Grasmere” is how much of it takes place outside, weeding and walking. What if we tried to think about this chapter either by visiting one another in our homes to talk through the chapter while we did our general domestic routine of tasks or (and this loses the element of repetition/home from Dorothy’s writing but gets us outside) by planning a morning and afternoon of walking, talking, and writing?

2. “(Emily Dickinson) The Light of This: An Itinerant Essay” seems to be to be about pilgrimage—about trying to learn about a foremother's material life by seeing the physical traces of it that remain, both as traces of the things she made (her writing) and the traces of the space she inhabited. I see the feminist element of this as being a sort of reimagining of the historical identification (for better and worse) of women with domestic rather than with public spaces. For this chapter, I wonder if we could discuss it while on a pilgrimage to a place or places that have historical resonance for writers that are important for us? (I was thinking maybe a tour of some of the sites where NY School women poets have lived? Or even a weekend road trip to Amherst?)

3. “(Hettie Jones) Tired Machines & Non-Visible Women” is, I think, about the complicated network of labors that make authorship, and the roles women have traditionally played in them. (It makes me think about the chronic complaint I’ve shared with a bunch of women writer/scholar friends—that our productivity is impeded by our lack of a wife! I mean, obviously, even women who have wives don’t have “wives” in the sense of “a person who makes the meals/cares for the children/provides the social life/takes care of the home,” because we all know that’s too much work for any one person!) I think it would be interestingly instructive to use this chapter as a launching point for a conversation between a bunch of women editors about what it means to take on these kinds of labor in the present vs. in the fifties, and what parts of the work and the uneven acknowledgment are still in force?

4. “(Joanne Kyger & Anne Waldman) Reading Iovis in Bolinas” is obviously about women writers making shared spaces for thinking and reading—maybe we could have a (G)IRL [a meeting of our writing group] where we talk about this chapter/maybe even read parts of it out loud at either your place or mine?

BK: I’m still so enamored of these ideas, which are sort of the shadow–reviews of this review we’re writing now, or maybe the horizon–review: we’re writing toward them. Even as ideas, they have a poetics of their own (I love the thought of “shape” and “procedure” being criteria for what makes a poetics): they’re textual objects as much as plans for future action. This seems Russoesque to me, too: that the imagining of writing practices might be just as valuable as the analysis of them.

Russo’s way of doing this is to imagine her way into the lived experience of women writers. So, for instance, we have the “embodied history” of Dorothy Wordsworth’s “weeding/sowing/stucking/walking,” these ordinary activities whose vocabulary filled her journals and provided poetic fodder for her brother William (5, 3). And in the next chapter, Russo “invent[s] ways to catch Dickinson in the act of writing” (29) as she imagines “hands tearing, folding, pressing pencil into linen, filing, brushing back a stray strand of auburn hair, reaching into, retrieving scraps from, her dress pocket” (26). Hettie Jones’s epigraph to the third chapter imagines a past writing life for herself in the form of a lament: “because I can see in my mind its sunny, dusty window, I can’t see why I didn’t put a desk of my own there, and at my back a door” (37). And the collective reading experience of Anne Waldman’s Iovis in the final chapter makes the case for the way the reader’s body enters into the poetic exchange, as the “communal, public voice” of the epic finds its proper place “on the breath of its readers” (54).

MCH: So, I notice you’ve made a note of a few quotations from the book in this shared document we’ve both been writing into—one is the phrase, from Russo’s essay on Dickinson, “hungry to encounter things–as–they–are” (15). This seems like an important phrase here—would you be willing to talk a bit about it?

BK: When you’re writing criticism about someone else’s life and work, you have to deal with the very real practical problem of how to ever really comprehend someone’s writing practices without being there in the room. In Russo’s Dickinson essay especially, she plays out the fantasy of being there: she goes to the reproduction of Dickinson’s room at Harvard and then to the Dickinson estate in Amherst and encounters “things–as–they–are,” but all she really discovers is that dear Emily’s writing desk was uncomfortably small! This detail actually becomes relevant to the project of that essay, which imagines some reasons why Dickinson would write all these lines on envelopes and scraps of paper.

For poets, getting at “things–as–they–are,” the problem of representation, is supposed to be outmoded after Language writing. But maybe the problem is different for critics: there were real bodies and rooms and scraps of paper involved; these aren’t fictions or figments! What’s your take on “things–as–they–are”?

MCH: Something I’ve been thinking a lot about in my scholarly writing is the problem of sitedness: that texts don’t just move seamlessly through the world, but instead both come from, and exist in, very specific actual places. I’ve been writing about John Clare lately, who is an extreme case of this problem. This spring, I was lucky enough to get a fellowship to study in London for a few months, which meant I got to visit Clare’s archives, housed at two underfunded regional libraries about an hour’s train ride away. In the Peterborough Library, where I spent a few days, the archives are only open for very limited hours, and only a few days out of the week. So first there’s the (institutional, rather than historic) struggle of actually getting to the original texts, and then there’s the astonishing moment of looking at the texts—seeing, for example, how Clare, a working class poet, wrote on every kind of paper he could get his hands on—ledgers and blue paper in which commodities like sugar were sold, and the unfolded paper “envelopes” in which his letters had arrived, as well as, occasionally, a stash of still–pristine stationery paper obviously given to him by his publisher or a patron.

Although I’ve been reading Clare’s work, and reading about him, for a while, nothing prepared me for the emotional jolt of those papers—for seeing the way the acidity of Clare’s ink (which he made himself—the recipe is there in the archive!) ate away at the papers or the way the form of the sonnet, in which he did some of his best work, fit so well on an unfolded envelope that the form almost seemed to have been suggested to him by the kind of paper he had on hand. I think that’s the element of “thing–as–they–are” that I’m always wanting to include—and that I always worry about losing in translation.

BK: I couldn’t help thinking, too, of Wittgenstein’s “The world is everything that is the case,” and Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Speaking of Stein, how did you interpret the epigraph to To Think of Her?

MCH: The epigraph, from Stein’s How To Write, is: “Analysis is a womanly word. It means they discover there are laws.” To me, these “laws” are, like you said, the “real bodies and rooms and scraps of paper”: what Russo wants us to do is bring those real bodies and rooms and scraps into the way we think about what we read.

MC Hyland is founding editor of DoubleCross Press, She is currently working on a dissertation on poets’ uses of the commons, as well as on an ongoing research project on poetics in regard to walking, friendship, and publishing. She is the author of the poetry collection Neveragainland and of several poetry chapbooks, most recently THE END PART ONE, forthcoming from Magic Helicopter Press.

Becca Klaver is a poet, teacher, scholar, and podcast host. She is the author of the poetry collections Empire Wasted (Bloof Books, 2016) and LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) as well as several chapbooks. In the spring of 2017, she will be the Arts & Sciences Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University.