Monday, December 08, 2008

PhD Reflections #5

The collaborative paper for WMST 601 is now complete with the particular sense of relief, though it’s effects, perhaps unanticipated, linger in my mind. When I enrolled in graduate school for the MFA, the thing that I wanted most of all was time alone. This resulted from a disjunction for me in the year prior to graduate school. My work life had always involved being extroverted and gregarious and working not only with a team of people, but also with a large community of people. I excelled at this and external reports were that I thrived in such circumstances. In fact, all I hungered for was quiet time alone. The solitude of a room of my own and ample time to putter around, sort things out, clean when necessary, and write. The MFA program offered an opportunity to reorganize my life to focus more on this solitary act and less on the social of work. I consciously didn’t join any groups and had little interest in building a social life at school, particularly in the first year. Yes, I found new friends and invested in new relationships, but my focus was almost unifocal on my time for solitude, especially during the period where I worried that my two or three years in the MFA would be my only time in school, my only time to really have the solitude to write.
Moving into the PhD program has lessened some of my generalized anxiety of time limitations. I worry less that if I don’t have my required 5-6 hours of solitary time per day I will never get them back – or have them in the future. Though, still, even with four or five years stretching in front of me, I am protective of my solitude. This is why the dissonance of the desire for collaboration has been filling my mind.
As undergraduates, we all yearned for collaboration, though we didn’t label it that; it was, more accurately, the desire for a long-term intellectual, sexual, emotional, and lifetime partnership. We wanted to have sustaining primary relationships. It was the confirmation that there is something significant about social activity for human beings. As I and my friends from undergraduate school have gone out to the world, we’ve either built such partnerships or built and lost and rebuilt or found other, less traditional methods of securing such partnerships. In short, we’ve learned to satisfy our social and human needs in a variety of ways. I thought coming into graduate school, that those desires of human connection had been attended and would not be present. In some ways, I was right; I just didn’t realize how they would resonate on a different register.
I think that the desire for collaboration is related to this undergraduate experience, though it is different: less urgent, more focused on intellect and less on the social or carnal desires of post-adolescence. Still, it is present. I read the poems of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, all written collaboratively, and I imagine what would it be like to work with someone in such an intensive way to create poems? I think about the work that Martha Nell Smith has done with Ellen Hart on the Dickinson correspondence. How does one build such collaborations that now span decades? I think of Stan Plumly lifetime of study of Keats. Is that in some ways a collaboration even though Keats is a collaborator limited by what he can say to what has already been written? These things are on my mind about collaboration. On one hand, there is the persistent desire to simply be alone in a room, reading books, writing, thinking, and in that reflective solitude have the opportunity to create. On the other hand, there is that desire for social connection, for working in a meaningful way with someone to produce more than what one might imagine alone.
New directions for my thinking come this week from post-colonial theory which I find myself drawn to again as a useful location for dialogue with contemporary queer theory. The level of complexity that post-colonial theory offers for thinking about identity development in relationship to subjects is far greater than much of what I read in contemporary queer theory. I find myself returning to it and continuing to mull over the ways in which these two theoretical locations speak to one another. I’m particularly thinking about how each speak to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Bishop, who eschewed any association with the lesbian community and who lived a large part of her adult life abroad, not in a colony, but in a location alienated from her own nation, seems to me to present some interesting opportunities for reading these theoretical positions in dialogue with one another. I’m also knee-deep in reading Derrida’s Archive Fever and contemplating what that means for my own project of building a Lesbian Poetry Archive. It’s a beautiful, provocative book that I find much more accessible than other Derrida work that I’ve encountered.
I’m still mulling through the dilemma of ensuring that I develop my mind to think critically from multiple locations and not simply rest where I am comfortable. It comes with the recurrent fear that I become an intellectual like Daphne Patai or Camille Paglia or Charles Murray, but I continue to circle around this intellectual discipline.

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