Abstracts 2018

Michael Allen (Harvard University)

Poets with Passports: Transatlantic Encounters in the Postwar Moment

How did the youthful transatlantic sojourns of American poets affect their development? How, in turn, did contact with American poets affect postwar British poetry?

In the early 1950s, young American writers continued to retrace the European pilgrimage memorably described by Henry James. The increasing predominance of the United States in the postwar moment, however, set new terms for these literary pilgrims’ progress in Britain. Unlike most of the expatriate writers of a previous generation, young Americans like Adrienne Rich and Donald Hall drew support from powerful midcentury institutions like foundations and universities. They arrived in a Britain still reeling from the cultural and material double shock of modernism and world war. Austerity Britain was not only materially worse off than the United States, its poets had yet to develop a satisfactory response to the takeover of the commanding heights of English poetry by the American modernists T.S. Eliot (b. St. Louis, MO) and Ezra Pound (b. Hailey, ID).

When Adrienne Rich and Donald Hall arrived in England in 1952, they did so with the backing of midcentury literary institutions. Rich’s first book, A Change of World, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize (awarded by W.H. Auden) in 1950. Hall, who came on a Henry fellowship, became the founding poetry editor of ​The Paris Review. ​In contrast, young British poets like Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill had little opportunity to travel or publish (due to paper rationing). In sum, the unequal literary balance of power in the Anglo-American “special relationship” mirrored that the geopolitical one.

In this paper, I read the early poems of Donald Hall and Adrienne Rich alongside those of Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill. Drawing on the recent work of Bonnie Costello and others, I will show that the generic pronouns of English poetry—the lyric I and lyric we—take on a detectable American accent. This contact with Americans and Americanness, I argue, accounts for the inward- and backward-looking tendencies of British poetry in the 1950s: “our national wish to be a tight little island unto ourselves,” as Donald Davie put it. The insular Englishness of postwar British poetry, I conclude, is less a spontaneous yearning for the past than as an imaginative response to a constrained itinerary.


Diana Arterian (University of Southern California)

Poetics of Relation and the Reader’s Role in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

NourbeSe Philip’s poetry collection Zong! draws upon a document that should, for all intents and purposes, give us direct information regarding a thoroughly disturbing event: the 1781 Zong slave ship captain’s decision to throw 143 Atlantic Africans overboard in order to claim insurance for lost “goods.” Drawing on the two-page court holding concerning this incident, Gregson v. Gilbert, Philip creates increasingly unreadable erasures and collage from a legal text regarding the Zong tragedy. For many, when first encountering Zong!, the impulse is to snap it shut. It is visually overwhelming, fighting the common conventions of literature we often see today, setting it apart from the usual sphere of contemporary poetic production. This is a thoughtful creative act by Philip for, ultimately, Zong! is a book that requires readerly participation beyond what one often encounters with a text. Philip explains her intention is for the reader to become a “cocreator” along with her: “The form accomplishes that by allowing the reader certain options on how to read, and it is in the process of making choices to read that the reader becomes cocreator.” This is not a painless experience. Philip struggled in creating the text in the first place, owning a kind of complicated complicity in engaging with Gregson v. Gilbert. In the “Notada” section of the book, she writes, “In the discomfort and disturbance created by the poetic text, I am forced to make meaning from apparently disparate elements—in so doing I implicate myself. The risk—contamination—lies in piecing together the story that cannot be told.” Thus the human impulse to comprehend, to make meaning or sense from something entirely senseless, to create narrative in an untellable story, Philip “implicates herself.” Yet this bleeds into her readers, too. She continues, “[S]ince we have to work to complete the events, we all become implicated in, if not contaminated by, this activity.” The desire for completion of narrative where it must be “untold” leaves us all guilty, or at the very least tainted.

Philip’s challenging poetic form is Édouard Glissant’s Relational poetics writ large: “This is not a passive participation. Passivity plays no part in Relation,” Glissant writes. Zong! embodies chaotic expression, but also the requirement of deep connectivity—even if you are connecting to a trauma outside your heritage or ancestral experience. This chaotic connectivity of Relation is perhaps most fully realized during some of Philip’s public presentations of Zong!, taking the work off the page entirely. She engages her audience to connect with the text through performance alongside herself. With handouts, Philip assigns the audience different roles, turns off lights and has them shout the lines in the dark holding candles or flashlights to their pages. In this paper, I will consider Philip’s many methods of connection between her work and her readers through the lens of “relayed trauma.” A concept of my creation, relayed trauma describes traumatic experiences which are not encountered primarily but rather relayed by another party, be it by speech, text, or haunting.


Cam Chiappe Bejar (University College London)

Extraterritorial Literature in America: History, Language, and Identity in Selected Works by Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz

This paper argues for a reassessment of the concept of extraterritorial literature – a term coined by George Steiner in the late nineteen sixties to highlight the cosmopolitan approach of nomad authors who refused to belong to a single national tradition by means of linguistic experimentation. It does so by examining a variety of examples from the work of Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz, two authors born in separate nations within the same island (Hispaniola) who live in the United States and who write in a language strange yet adjacent to their countries of origin. Danticat and Díaz express their extraterritoriality through three different approaches: By reframing the ‘official’ historical discourse of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the 20th century perpetuated by the US-backed military regimes of the Duvaliers and Trujillo; by diversifying theories of identity creation and the immigrant’s role within and outside of his or her diaspora; and by reconfiguring the elocution of a new extraterritorial language which challenges established parameters through the subversion of core languages (in their case English, Spanish and French).

On a larger scale, this paper contends that, in an increasingly fluid contemporary world, extraterritorial literature can serve as a counterpoint to the insular concerns of canonical systems of classification and standardised concepts of national literature. As such, extraterritorial literature also asks us to reconsider labels such as post-nationalism and cosmopolitanism as flights of fancy detached from the harsh realities instilled by the many levels of economic and cultural inequality between nation-states. Unlike Goethe’s dictum of comparative literature as a practice founded upon dialogues between national literatures, extraterritorial literature transcends frontiers by embracing its own complexities and inherent incompleteness, ultimately helping to construct liminal scopes and a framework for the constant critique of literary terminology itself.


Zak Breckenridge (University of Utah)

Submerged Empire: Didion and the Iran-Contra Affair

“The center cannot hold,” says the Yeats epigraph attached to Joan Didion’s first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). In that book, and in her second collection, The White Album (1979), the endangered center seems to be an image of traditional American normalcy, and that which threatens it seems to be the specter of the 1960s counter-culture. All of Didion’s work has been concerned with the threats of emptiness and incoherence, and, in these early works, the threat of incoherence seems to come from progressive social movements. However, during the 1980s and 1990s Didion produced a series of novels and essays that take as their subjects the peripheries of twentieth-century American empire. These later works, which demonstrate the systemic violence and metastasizing incoherence emanating from Washington, portray a center wreaking havoc on its periphery. Her subject is no longer a center under threat, but rather a center that is itself a threat.

This paper uses the geography of American empire to reassess Didion’s politics, and an examination of Didion’s journalistic and novelistic style to examine the endangered status of meaning and reference in Cold War-era American discourse. In particular, I examine her novel The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) and her book-length essay Miami (1987), which both treat, through different narrative and descriptive techniques, the “submerged narrative” of the Iran-Contra affair. These books show that, for Didion, the threat to coherence was less a result of progressive politics than an explicit program undertaken by Washington to erase meaning and attack coherence. Didion said of Miami that it was, “its title notwithstanding…mainly about what I think is wrong with Washington.” Through the journalistic and narrative techniques she used to critique Californian culture in the 1960s and 1970s, Didion examines the rampant doublespeak and epistemological obfuscation cultivated by U.S. government agencies to carry out the Iran-Contra scheme. These texts are representative of both a geographical and an ideological shift in Didion’s work. Didion never became a writer of the Left, but the process of documenting and narrating the strife at the imperial periphery allowed her to develop a far-reaching critique of the collusion of politicians and intelligence agencies with capitalists and war criminals. Despite some of her better-known ideological commitments, then, Didion is an important figure for understanding the epistemological and geographical structure of the Cold War imperial state.


Margarita Castromán (Rutgers, State University of New Jersey)

Archives That Lie, or “New Fields of Study” from Erna Brodber’s Louisiana

“Here in Louisiana is a mixture of social history and out of body experiences, perhaps a new field of study” (Brodber 4). 

E.R. Anderson’s Editor’s Note introducing Erna Brodber’s 1994 Louisiana assures readers that Ella Townsend “did exist” (4). Employed by the WPA and awarded a fellowship in Anthropology to prepare her for fieldwork in Louisiana, Townsend, however, inexplicably disappeared while on assignment, leaving the project incomplete and her findings unpublished. Fortunately, Anderson claims, Townsend’s missing manuscript has resurfaced, and so we are privy to this missing archive of African American history and folklore. Or, at least we would be, if the novel’s introductory note were not a sham. For Louisiana’s protagonist, Ella Townsend, is about as real an anthropologist as E.R. Anderson is editor.

Louisiana’s faux authentication sets up the preemptive challenge to empirical positions on evidence and truth at the heart of this paper’s questions about the status of the “archive” for Black diasporic subjects. Complicating the distinction between archivist as subject and the archived as objects, I examine the intersection of alternative epistemologies and racialized subjects’ relation to the discursive system that enunciates them. One the one hand, the paper considers how the novel interrogates the archive’s emphasis on singularity as well as its notion of singular subjectivity by reframing the process as collective and anachronistic.  After all, Ella Townsend, WPA-sponsored African-American anthropology graduate student, who is loaned a recorder or “black box” through Columbia University in order to research Louisiana folk life discovers messages recorded posthumously from one of her central subjects: Mammy. Not only that, but Mammy’s friend Lowly, whom Ella never meets “in person” and who remains far removed from the recording machine itself also somehow contributes to the budding archive of the black box. Such is the case with a series of other women, in fact, spanning centuries. So surprising is the revelation and so exciting the possibilities of radical archival knowledge that Ella eventually dives into the supernatural, and she leaves academia in order to become a medium. She doesn’t abandon the archival impulse; she just opts to channel and embody it differently. Removing “the black box” from the institutional center, Ella instead accumulates assemblage in the skin, thereby tracing “a larger, looser, more contextually varied set of coordinates.”

The second section of the paper moves from destabilizing the archive’s ontological principles to how Louisiana challenges its situatedness, especially in the context of the Federal Writers Project’s efforts to archive for the sake of national history. Thus while the novel is primarily set in the institutionally-sanctioned site of Ella Townsend’s fieldwork, New Mary, Louisiana, the recording machine and, eventually, Ella herself inevitably channel voices from St. Mary, Jamaica. To the idea, therefore, that the “the US and the world are part of the “same analytic fabric,”” I would add, that Louisiana shows us how their archives are imbricated and always, already inextricable. For in asking what constitutes a true archive of the Black diaspora, we run inevitably into archives that “lie”—Zora Neale Hurston’s term from her own WPA fieldwork (the inspiration, if not source material for Brodber’s novel)—in this case in the guise of a novel that not only imagines alternative archival and epistemological possibilities but performs their methodologies.


Gabrielle Everett (Rutgers, State University of New Jersey)

“In All Lands Whatsoever”: Alternative Belonging in Pauline Hopkins and Sutton Griggs

This paper explores how obstructed kinship serves as metaphor for the limits of citizenship and national belonging in early twentieth-century African American novels. Using Pauline E. Hopkins’ Of One Blood, Or, the Hidden Self (1903-1904) and Sutton E. Griggs’ Overshadowed: A Novel (1901) as case studies, I argue that national belonging shapes the affective conditions of racialized collectivity. While in the nation, relationships would always be infected by the material and affective afterlife of slavery. For this reason, the black subject began to look outside the borders of US. In both of these novels, black belonging in the US manifests as sexual and racial violence to the family. This constant and tragic threat to family and racial collectivity itself forces its protagonists to look for belonging elsewhere. Hopkins, for example, demonstrates how gendered violence during slavery has resulted in the proliferation of incestuous relations that then blocks romantic love, thus leading her novel’s hero to reject the United States in favor of a return to a mythic Africa, where, because the “Self” has not been compelled into “hiding” by the pressure of racial politics, a truer sense of embodied belonging becomes possible.

Of One Blood’s Ethiopianism seems to offer an alternative to the affective consequences of corrupted kinship and to promise that Reuel Briggs can lead the world into a new era of interracial equality by spreading the word that God has made all nations “Of one blood.” Yet the retreat to Africa is not entirely an escape from the US. Interracial collectivity, or kinship, is permanently contaminated by US race ideologies and its attendant sexual violence. In addition to suggesting that the history of slavery has made it neither possible nor desirable to mold oneself into a US citizen, Hopkins suggests that the nation continues to assert its power even when attempting to form a transnational interracial collective. As Reuel Briggs sits on his throne overlooking his kingdom, he contemplates “with serious apprehension, the advance of mighty nations penetrating the dark, mysterious forces of his native land.” The “advance of mighty nations,” like the history of racial violence, carries with it the affective history that endangers the production of collectivity even outside US borders.

Overshadowed, “a tragedy—a story of sorrow and suffering,” moves from the nation to collectives that exceed such spatially-bounded notions of belonging. At the novel’s end its protagonist, Astral Herndon, takes the body of his dead wife out to sea, for he cannot bury her in the American soil that has foreordained her early death. Because there is no other nation to which he can declare his own citizenship with the assurance that its racial politics will not destroy his kin—either in body or spirit—it is in the ocean itself that he lays his wife to rest. There, he declares that “I hereby and forever renounce all citizenship in all lands whatsoever.” Although Griggs states that the novel “does not point the way out of the dungeon which it describes,” Astral Herndon’s renunciation of “all citizenship in all lands whatsoever” asks for a reconsideration of the boundaries of affective collectivity without national belonging as its model. In doing so, he seems to be pointing towards a “way out” that we must take seriously. If family and romantic love, and even the body itself, cannot be safeguarded within a nation, and within the United States in particular, then where and how else can collectivity be created and maintained? What would it mean to take boundarylessnes as the starting point for a collective belonging that can escape the damage wrought on kinship by the history of race in the US?


Matthew Liberti (University of Michigan)

Recursive Citizenships: The Virtual Politics of Novel Photographs in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project

Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (2008) manifests a concern that just writing no longer sufficiently engages with contemporary readers and transnational histories of violence. In order to make those histories visible to readers in the twenty-first century, Hemon’s novel reimagines contemporary reading practices through its integration of archival photographs, his collaborator Velibor Božović’s new photographs, a historical narrative, and a present-day research narrative. As the novel’s interventions with multiple media and temporalities construct relationships between writer and photographer, past and present, and citizen and non-citizen, the protagonist becomes obliged to not only perform research of Lazarus Averbuch’s transnational history, but to also examine the politics of current immigration narratives. Hemon’s novel thus demonstrates what photography theorist Ariella Azoulay calls the civic duty of photographic watching, an explicitly political act of engaging with photographic instances of violence. This practice of photographic watching remediates the archival Lazarus images through the narrative and formal work of the novel, producing a contemporary literary project that engages with recursive histories of political hostility and disregard. Furthermore, Hemon’s extension of his novel to interactive online platforms highlights a transnational, multimedial projection of a contemporary narrative that traces violent acts committed in the US through longer trajectories of transnational migrations.

This paper reads Hemon’s novel alongside Azoulay’s photographic process in order to explore the possibilities of extranational citizenship for various twentieth and twenty-first century narratives of migration. The stakes of this project are both the novel’s diegetic call to action that violent images impose on the writer and also the extradiegetic charges that the advent of new media levies on the contemporary US novel. The intermedial work of The Lazarus Project demands readers to reconceptualize, through a recursive reading practice, what it means to be a citizen, a category never in fact stable enough to exist without constant revisiting and redefining.


Jake McGinnis (University of Notre Dame)

The Limits of Eco-Materialism: Affect and Environment in Jonathan Edwards

Musing on the composition of bodies and the nature of God in the material world, Jonathan Edwards writes that “as great and as wonderful power is every moment exerted in the upholding of the world, as at first was exerted in its creation.”[1]  God is thus continually present in the very substance of the world, and, as Edwards concludes, “the universe is created out of nothing every moment.”[2]

This essay explores Edwards’s engagement with transatlantic science, Puritan theology, and the material world to advance a radical claim—in his explorations of God’s creative and sustaining faculties on Earth, Edwards theorizes the affective agency of nonhuman matter.  In Edwards’s natural philosophy papers, and especially in his conversion narrative and his characteristic “sweet sense” of God, I identify a mode of perception that blends strict, empirical study with a more idiosyncratic affective response.  The result for Edwards is a material world generated, upheld, and animated by the creative force of God.  This suggests that his theological project anticipates Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann’s claim that what Edwards recognized as material creation is, even by his rigidly Calvinist thinking, “a material ‘mesh’ of meanings, properties, and processes, in which human and nonhuman players are interlocked in networks that produce undeniable signifying forces.”[3]  In other words, if Edwards could identify the hand of God in a late summer thundershower, we might read in his theology the critical limits of a material ecocriticism—the line between heretical materialism, as Edwards understood it, and an ecological theology which is manifest in Edward’s divine affects.

[1] Edwards, Jonathan.  Works of Jonathan Edwards.  Vol. 6. Scientific Writings.  Edited by Wallace E. Anderson.  Yale UP, 1980, p. 241.

[2] Ibid, pp. 241-42.

[3] Iovino, Serenella and Serpil Oppermann.  “Introduction: Stories Come to Matter.”  Material Ecocriticism.  Edited by Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann.  Indiana UP, 2014, pp. 1-2.


Isaac Ginsberg Miller (Northwestern University)

“This Thing of Separation”: Mapping Transnational Black Feminist Poetics

This paper takes as its entry point the work of African American and African Caribbean women poets including June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and Lorna Goodison, who participated in the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, held in London between 1982-1995. The internationalist Black feminist politics and aesthetics of these and other Black American and Caribbean women authors have influenced subsequent generations of Black British women poets including Warsan Shire, Malika Booker, Dorothea Smartt, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Khadijah Ibrahim, and Momtaza Mehri, whose work is finding a growing readership on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, Warsan Shire’s much-discussed poetic contribution to Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade demonstrates the full-circle movement of these transnational Black feminist poetic linkages. As such, in this paper I read the work of contemporary African American, African Caribbean, Black African, and Black British women poets in conversation across the African diaspora (following Samantha Pinto’s crucial attempts to think beyond national identity in Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic). In doing so, I draw on personal interviews with poets conducted in the United Kingdom and archival research at the George Padmore Institute in London (home to the archives of The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books).

Black British poet Khadijah Ibrahim (whose parents migrated to the UK from Jamaica), when speaking of the idea of diaspora, states: “the thing that connects us is this thing of separation.” Following Brent Hayes Edwards’ explication of décalage in The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism, we find that geographic, cultural, and linguistic separation enables diasporic conversations, since “in the body it is only difference—the separation between bones or members—that allows movement.” In this way, the writings and lived experiences of many contemporary Black women writers calls into question the stability of a nation-state bounded conception of Blackness. For example, Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali British poet who moved to the UK at the age of one and now lives in Los Angeles (where she contributed to Lemonade, one of the most influential pieces of American—and global—popular culture in recent memory). Shire’s life bridges the Black Indian Ocean, the Black Atlantic, the Black Pacific, and beyond, speaking to a necessary expansion of Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic conceptual frame, precisely as Yogita Goyal suggests in her introduction to the Research in African Literatures special issue on “Africa and The Black Atlantic.” Similarly, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (subtitled “An American Lyric”) is largely read as a commentary on antiblack racism in the United States. However, in the text Rankine references the 2011 England riots that took place in response to the police killing of Mark Duggan. Rankine describes her conversation with an English novelist who asks, “Will you write about Duggan?” “Why don’t you? you ask. Me? he asks, looking slightly irritated.” This moment in the text (and others) calls into question a US-centric theorization of antiblack racism and Black identity. Notably, Rankine was born in Jamaica in 1963, the year after Jamaica’s independence from England, and Citizen won both the US’ National Book Critics Circle Award and the UK’s Forward Prize for Best Collection. How might an attention to the longer histories of transnational Black feminist poetics sharpen our capacity to understand Rankine, Shire, and other Black women poets’ participation in an ongoing diasporic conversation where poetry is used to theorize both commonality and specificity, as well as multiple, intersecting forms of difference?


Claire Nashar (State University of New York at Buffalo)

Translating War: Charles Olson’s Politics

When he resigned as assistant chief of the Foreign Language Division of the Office of War Information (OWI) in May of 1944, Charles Olson did not go quietly. He and his supervisor, the journalist Constantine Poulos, spoke to the New York Times of having been “hamstrung” by the “interference” of the domestic director of the organization, George W. Healy Jr. Mr. Healy, the Times reported, denied these accusations. This paper will explore Olson’s seldom-acknowledged political career, focusing on the poet’s participation in the linguistic and political enterprises of the OWI, including the philosophical differences that lead to his resignation. It will provide a reading of Olson’s most significant publication from his OWI years, an anonymously published pamphlet with photomontages by Ben Shahn, entitled Spanish Speaking Americans in the War: the Southwest (1943).

Written bilingually in Spanish and English, Spanish Speaking Americans in the War was in fact Olson’s first stand-alone publication (Call Me Ishmael would not be published until 1947). According to Alan Gilbert, the pamphlet had three primary purposes: “to rally support for the war among ‘Spanish speaking Americans’—primarily Mexican and Mexican-Americans—in the American Southwest; to commemorate their deaths during the Battle of Bataan and subsequent ‘Bataan Death March’; and, more subtly, to disseminate a New Deal agenda.” Against the backdrop of these political ends, I propose to re-examine Spanish Speaking Americans in the War by attending to the translational mechanics of Olson’s text. I argue that this pamphlet is a uniquely explicit object of analysis for understanding Olson’s evolving conception of the relationship between language, power, and identity. Further, I contend that Olson’s increasing consciousness of the role of translation in the brokering of political power—domestically as well as internationally—is reflected in the development of his poetic ideals, as expressed in such credos and poems as “Projective Verse” (1950) and “The Kingfishers” (1949).


Jeff Peer (Graduate Center of the City University of New York)

Two Americas: The Temperature of Our Spirits

A pair of North Americans made intellectual and literary journeys south of the border into Mexico during the first decades of the twentieth century. The books they produced would capture the cultural, social and racial discourses of their day. They offer a vivid snapshot of cultural encounter and reveal a history of cultural misunderstanding, which can be considered in the light of literary and postcolonial theory (González Echeverria; Said) and interdisciplinary anthropology (Crapanzano).

Waldo Frank and John Reed were contemporaries; Frank graduated from Yale one year after Reed graduated from Harvard. Both began their writing careers in the bohemia of Greenwich Village before World War I, and both felt their country and world was ripe for social and cultural change.

Frank was part of a group of New York intellectuals called the “Lyrical Left,” or “Resurgents,” who envisioned an intellectual, spiritual and artistic renaissance sweeping America. In 1919, he wrote Our America, a book purporting to explain the American spirit to counterparts in the European avant-garde. In it, Frank decried American materialism, Puritanism and North American spiritual vapidity; but he praised the Southwest as a “land of buried cultures,” where, with an extremely racialist perspective, he eulogized the buried remnants of “the Indian” that he claimed to see in Mexican-American culture.

Reed traveled to Mexico in 1914 to write about the revolution for Metropolitan magazine. While other reporters sat in El Paso, he snuck across the border and joined Pancho Villa’s Army of the North, eventually participating in the Battle of Torreon. His dispatches made him famous, and were eventually published as Insurgent Mexico. But, like Frank, Reed could not resist projecting “symbols” onto the people he found on the other side of cultural and literal borders: where Frank saw the traces of a buried “Indian” past, Reed saw a revolutionary Socialist proletariat on the verge of liberation, “courteous, loving, patient, poor, so long slaves, so full of dreams, so soon to be free.”


Clare Spaulding (University of Colorado—Boulder)

Strangers in Longing: Disidentification in Les Cenelles

The 1845 publication of Les Cenelles: Choix de poésies indigènes marked a shift in creole literary production. Prior to this collection, writers in Louisiana appeared to define themselves in relation to their transatlantic contemporaries in terms of both style and subject. They emulated a primarily French literary tradition in an attempt to convince a global audience that they, too, were worthy of note, and their poetry employed revolutionary ideals imported from France and Haiti, where many of these writers originated. But Les Cenelles, a collection of short-form, francophone poetry edited by Armand Lanusse, illustrates a deviation in voice and tone from the previous work published by its seventeen free, black authors and, as the title would suggest, offers a uniquely louisianais perspective. Infused with subtlety and and a carefully constructed voice that is both collective and intimate, the predominantly amorous poems in the collection communicate a desire to connect with a space that is simultaneously foreign and their own.

The past decade has seen a remarkable attentiveness to Les Cenelles, primarily concerned with revising the claims made in the preface to the 1979 translation by Régine Latortue and Gleason R. W. Adams. The pair conceived of the collection as merely a failure of Romanticism, that the poetry’s preoccupation with plaçage and lack of depth in comparison to the French poets they emulated gave it a “hollow ring.”[1]  They deemed the work deserving of study for the purpose of discerning “the peculiar position of the Creole in New Orleans society,” but not necessarily worthy of substantive analysis without comparison.2 Recent scholarship has placed Les Cenelles within a growing body of African-American and/or Creole canons. However, it was plucked out of the backdrop because it was the first collection of poetry released by African-American authors, and because those authors published widely in New Orleans outside of the collection. These critics have routinely employed the term “apolitical” to describe the work, just as Latortue, Adams, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. have before them, reinscribing an assumption of what defines the political.

I contend that, as the United States attempted to formulate a definition of free black people as citizens-akin-to-slaves through a legal framework in the early nineteenth century, the poets of Les Cenelles resisted this move with work that transformed a traditionally white, hegemonic form into a means of asserting their personhood as a disidentificatory work. While not explicitly queer, the collection itself performs a politics of disidentification that allow for a more complete elucidation of the multiplicity of meaning contained within the work.

[1] Régine Latortue and Gleason R. W. Adams, “Preface” to Les Cenelles: Choix de poésies indigènes (Boston, MA: G.K. Hall & Co., 1979) xiii.

[2] Ibid., xi.


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