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Poetics. When I began to study poetics, I did not fully appreciate what contemporary poetics examines. It’s not simply the “form” of poems. It’s critical theory.

Cruel optimism. When I read Sappho’s poetry in Early Modern Poets class last fall, I encountered the idea of “cruel optimism” in the Sapphic principles of the unattained attachment and the significance—or imperative of the absent “object of desire,” even before reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011). In her tenacious dissection of her term, “cruel optimism,” which she defines and illustrates by way of several expressions, for example, an attachment to a “cluster of promises” for an “impossible” identity, outcome, potentiality, ‘sheer fantasy,’ or ‘toxic’ situation, (Berlant, 2011) and examples as shown with poetry, e.g. John Ashbery’s poem, “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse,” (“We were warned about spiders, and the / occasional famine.” […] “He came up to me.”) in which the poetics of attachment play out before and after the critical action in the line, “He came up to me.” (For the full poem by John Ashbery, visit the Language Hat blog post here.)

Anyone hooked on the twenty-first century trend of “mindfulness” and “living in the moment” must read Berlant’s work on “cruel optimism,” as Berlant interrogates the notions of the “present” as found in lyric poetry; when we study lyric poetry, we take for granted that the present holds weight and meaning. Berlant challenges the present as it operates on other levels in the poetics of attachment: 1) She writes, “one must embark on an analysis of rhetorical indirection as a way of thinking about the strange temporalities of projection into an enabling object that is also disabling.” (Berlant, 2011) To this, I reflect on early modern poets including Queen Elizabeth I herself, and Sir Philip Sidney, whose lyric poems projected happiness onto the object of their desire whether it was a physical person, such as “Stella” in “Astrophil & Stella” or the queen’s youth in her sonnet, “When I was fair and young.”

Studying Sir Philip Sidney’s epic lyric poem, Astrophil and Stella, and envisioning them in my art journal

Secondly, Berlant asserts 2) that the poetics of attachment by way of “cruel optimism” create “a fake present moment of intersubjectivity” (Berlant, 2011) in which the object of desire, such as an ex-lover, a lost cause, a ghost—is absolutely absent. Thus, the “cruel optimism” is of a “potential occupation of the same psychic space” to allow an imaginary scenario to exist for the poet/writer. (Berlant, 2011) Thirdly, this functions as a projection onto 3) an “impossible identity,” open-ended meanings, “boundary-dissolving,” (Berlant, 2011) a myriad of poetic osmosis happening between the speaker and the addressee, whose identity may even be imaginary and unrecognizable to the real person or muse who inspired the poem.

  Holding the magnifying lens to Berlant’s work, we find an inverted focus on the “other” as this imaginary, affected attachment, nearly artifice. And we find the speaker, the “I” and the “self.” In Judith Butler’s work, “Giving an Account of Oneself,” (2001) the poetic accountability of these two bookend identities, or interpersonal perspectives, come into focus. The “self” and “the other” are constructions of the poem; these could be anything (as in Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century dialogue poems, in which she imagines a conversation between a man and a tree, for instance, or her own “self” interrogating her “barren” fertility problems and casting these as the “other”), not necessarily two individual human beings as subjects. Recognizing the ‘other’ is “subjected to that norm and agency of its use,” as Butler explains. (Butler, 2001) She writes, “I am compelled and comported outside myself,” and “the subject of recognition is one for whom a vacilliation between loss and ecstasy,” as it is the “possibility of the ‘I’ and the knowing of the ‘I.’” (Butler, 2001.)

In my work with the Gothic (or the EcoGothic, and Romantic-Gothic) women writers of the 1790s and early 19th century, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Shelley, I search for this very phenomenon: where does the writer recognize her own “I” and situate herself apart from the “other” or conversely, portray herself as the other? This is, as I understand Butler’s work, a kind of poetic accountability (or accountability of poetics). The functionality of the “I” (for example, the female Gothic “I” or the lyrical “I” in contemporary poetry, or in Millay’s sonnets, her “I”) transgresses the boundaries of the “I” and confronts the liminal space around the “other.” At times, when we are hunting for the “other,” we find a convergence of the “I” with the “other” in this liminal space, a dissolving of boundaries, much the way Lauren Berlant talks of attachment poetics. When the poet or speaker, (or poetics scholar) is held accountable, these confrontations and central questions around self and otherness act as a frame of reference to position the other in relation to the self (or vice versa).

Exploring the “female Gothic ‘I'” from Romantic-Gothic literature
(my “Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, on the Eve of her Wedding”) LCS Mixed Media watercolor in my art journal

Interiority, or interior subjects, then become dependent on this relationship, and in some cases, the self (as “I”) is relying on the conventional norms of the other (as “you”) so that the poem has some basis in a hypothetical singularity. “The notion of singularity is often bound up in existential romanticism and a claim of authenticity.” (Butler, 2001) What strikes me about Butler’s work is a call to authenticate the “self,” in relation to other living beings (mostly human), in a way that seems reminiscent of the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and other Romantics, especially women writers in Romanticism (and even dark Romanticism, e.g. Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley). I find myself making connections between the 18th century philosophical writings of literary critics and writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and J.J. Rousseau, and the literary critics and sociologists like Berlant and Butler—specifically on the subject of the “self” and the “other,” and the problem of attachment, a favorite subject of both J.J. Rousseau and M. Wollstonecraft! So, it would seem we are still troubled by attachment poetics, and still perplexed by the recognition of the “self” and the “other” two hundred years later.

            In short, as a poet, I am guilty of crafting poems on the fragile, filamented, fragmented scaffolding of “cruel optimism.” (See my poem, “Capes and Daggers,” Fish Anthology 2019) In fact, I confess it’s a favorite tactic. Berlant’s interrogation of “cruel optimism” further disrobes the idea of the “affective attachment,” and positions the poet (or speaker) as the ‘wearer’ of the thing, effectively “wearing of the subject” and being “worn.” I love this idea of wearing the attachment like a garment but also wearing it down, the way a spirit must wait until the affected speaker is weary, vulnerable, and ready to be possessed—by desire, by this cruel optimism to a “proximate location” to, as Berlant alludes, the “good life.” (Berlant, 2011) Possession, both as a state of being, and as affective attachment, and possessiveness, as a trait, or quality, seem like a fitting mode that suspend “the cruelty of the now,” (Berlant, 2011) by building a fantasy scaffolding on the promise of an imminent happiness (reconciliation, reunion, resolution, miracles, once was lost but now found, etc.) I would love the opportunity to examine specific poems and apply Berlant’s model of “cruel optimism” to analyze how poems given an imaginary voice to the voiceless (ie. an absent actor). What about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets (those she’s written as a widow grieving her husband’s death)? Or, as a parallel example, it would be useful to create case-studies on several poets from different periods.

Cruel optimism seems to champion a kind of identity theft and reclamation at the same time. Poetics of attachment don’t work to retain or retrieve that identity all at once, but incrementally, in fragments, almost like a reversed Petrarchan blazoning. The speaker, by analogy, throws pieces of that impossible identity at a moving target, like a blindfolded knife-thrower releases daggers at a costumed assistant, spinning around on the wheel of death/transformation. No one ever really knows much about the knife-thrower’s assistant; in Berlant’s work, this is the “faceless universal subject of self-referentiality” (Berlant, 2011) as the action of the poem is not necessarily real; it may be illusion, the illusion of attachment, ultimately, an illusion of the ‘American dream.’  

This coming Sunday, February 21st, the Farnsworth Museum in Maine is hosting a special event to honor Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s free and open to the public.

Come write flash nonfiction with me this winter (January 2021) in this unusual hybrid-genres workshop series hosted by Westbrook Adult Education (Maine). We’ll dip our toes in the literary works of the Lake Poets but we’ll really electrify our brains (and imaginations) looking at elements of dark Romanticism and life writing in the literary lives, loves, and works by Romantic women writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley.

Experiment with hybrid genre in this online workshop with Leah Stetson

Write by the flash of lightning–or candlelight, or the flicker of your woodstove fire, –or your desk lamp, and respond to writing prompts that come directly out of dark Romanticism. If you are the sort of person who likes to forage moss in the fall to make a moss garden (for the home and kitchen, or your writing room), why not think about moss as a writing prompt? Moss grows on the walls of castles in dark Romantic fiction that we’ll read in this workshop series.

Blarney Castle grounds, Co. Cork, Ireland. Stetson photo

There’s just something about Mary. But it’s not just about one writer. My love for all things darkly Romantic goes back to my childhood obsession with castles–medieval castles for the most part–and those are a distinctly Gothic element in dark Romanticism, especially in works like Ann Radcliffe’s novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho. (Click on the link at left to see a brief preview of the course content.) Have you ever seen a castle? I grew up next door to a castle in coastal Maine. But last summer, I traveled to Co. Cork, Ireland, where Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her first novel, Mary, A Fiction, one of the short novels we’ll read in this workshop–and I visited Blarney Castle. Personally, I loved the gardens, the grounds, and the mossy, secret tunnels and hiding places outside of the castle like in the photo I took (shown above) on the Blarney Castle grounds near its fern garden. This is the kind of thing that inspires my writing. What about you? Do you like castles? Gothic motifs? Then this workshop is right up your alley.

My Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster-themed jack-o-lantern (a previous Halloween) Stetson photo

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has captured my imagination since I first read her 1818 novel–a work of Dark Romanticism, the combined or hybrid genre of Gothic Romanticism, in high school. I’m not alone. Many other writers, like Kiersten White, who wrote the contemporary retelling of Frankenstein, the New York Times bestseller, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein (2015), which I really enjoyed. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of the heroine, Elizabeth Lavenza, for decades, the idea –which Mary Shelley’s various heroes–the Monster and Victor Frankenstein–discuss and debate–of a theoretical “mate” or “bride” for the Monster. My imagination twirled into the idea of “what ifs?” and I wrote the feminist tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (last year), “The Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, on the Eve of Her Wedding,” which was published in BONED Literary Magazine (and their editor, Nate Ragolia, included my poem in the 2019 Anthology — Boned Every Which Way. But what has truly electrified my imagination has been my research into the literary lives, loves and works of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and Ann Radcliffe. I’ve noticed elements of their “life writing” in their works–even “fictionalized memoir.” Could Frankenstein have been partly fictionalized memoir?

A sneak preview of this workshop

Did you know that Maine’s first novelist was a woman and that she wrote gothic novels? Yes! Sarah “Sally” Sayward Wood wrote works of dark Romanticism, too, and her first Gothic novel, Julia and the Illuminated Baron (1800) has been compared to Dan Brown novels. How unexpected! Sally Wood is my ancestor by way of marriage to my great-great-great-great grandfather, General Abiel Wood, who was her husband. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Sally Wood was a pioneer of early feminism in Maine at the turn of the century. She and a friend started the oldest women’s organization in the country–the Wiscasset Female Charitable Society (of Maine) of which I am a member. In fact, I grew up in the same house where she lived and wrote (for part of her life). She lived in Lincoln and York Counties, Maine (even before Maine became a state). I want us to look at her novel Julia and the Illuminated Baron, or her novel, Tales of the Night, in this workshop, if participants are interested. Wood’s sentimental Gothic style might very well be in alignment with themes and motifs we find in British Romantic-Gothic novels, like those by Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft, who pioneered early feminism in the 1790s.

A Scene from Mary Shelley’s novel, Mathilda. Watercolor painting by Leah Stetson

Currently, I am a graduate student in a tenacious pursuit of dark, Romantic ecology of water and wetlands at University of Maine. I’m studying remotely and that’s why I’d like to take this opportunity to offer this workshop online (for participants, who like me, have been practicing social distancing.) Additionally, I taught college-level English classes for Southern Maine Community College 2007-2017, and in that class, I taught literary analysis; some of the students chose to read Frankenstein, and so I can say that I’ve taught classes on elements of Romanticism in the past. I’ve also led creative nonfiction workshops at several public libraries including Walker Memorial (Westbrook, Maine) and Windham Public Library (Windham, Maine), and a blog-based writing workshop at Raymond Village Library (Raymond, Maine). I belong to the Lakes Region Writers Guild in the Sebago Lake Region of southern Maine. I’m really excited to offer this workshop and I hope you can join me to experiment with hybrid genres and read excerpts and works by Ann Radcliffe, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sally Wood, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This class starts in January 2021. Visit Westbrook Adult Education’s website to register.

In the meantime, please feel free to check out this short preview video in which I discuss Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel, Mary, A Fiction, which she wrote while living in Co. Cork, Ireland in the mid-to-late 1780s. (It was published in 1788.) I hope the short video gives you an idea of the kind of course content offered in this course.)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
painted by Samuel John Stump
oil on canvas, 1831 (National Portrait Gallery)
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I am “Lady of the Lake”

One of the few helpful aspects of social distancing and self-isolation during this horrible time of the COVID-19 has been taking the time, in solitude, to read, write, organize, create, sketch, and to revisit old favorite hobbies, and passions, like art. Back in March, when my university transitioned to online courses, and my state governor issued a Stay-at-Home order, I felt reasonably “ok” with that, since I felt it was a good time to focus on my graduate study, which requires a lot of reading and writing. Last fall, two of my faculty advisors asked me a difficult philosophical question about why researching the topics I’d proposed was important to me–personally--and my answers then seemed flaky, e.g. “I am Lady of the Lake!” So, I have been thinking about how to answer those questions. It seems like I should be prepared to answer thoughtfully.

In May, I received Honorable Mention for my poem, “My Glacial Erratic,” in the 2020 Fish Poetry Prize, judged and selected by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. My poem will appear in the 2020 Fish Anthology, coming out later this summer. (That’s with Fish Publishing, which holds a number of writing contests each year, based in Ireland.) Since then, I’ve written new poetry, and started drawing images that go with my poetry, and some of it is inspired by recent coursework. Selkies, mermaids, the Irish merrow, bog-women, the Lady of the Lake, and other supernatural female figures in literature (Romanticism as well as other periods, particularly Gothic literature and Arthurian lit) have captured my imagination.

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“Irish Merrow” – one of my watercolors

Enter art journaling. To work through some of my ideas, I’ve started art journaling. It’s now summer, and I’m still self-isolating, and spending a great deal of time at home, on my own, creating. I’ve started working in a blank canvas art journal (Jane Davenport’s supplies).

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Painting on my deck. This piece is one of my mermaid characters from my “Blue Dog and the Sea Fan” series.

It never occurred to me to use my art (and poetry) to think critically about my proposed research, or to answer philosophical questions about my interdisciplinary research. I’d been approaching it methodically, seriously–with critical annotations, a working bibliography, term papers as building blocks, outlines. Now I’m approaching it differently, and I’ve got images of mermaids, selkies, bog-women, and memories of Ireland in my head.

Painting in my art journal– a scene from my trip to Co. Cork, Ireland in 2019

Part of that’s influenced by the research I did on Traditional Ecological Knowledge of seaweed harvesting in Ireland for a term paper. Part of it’s inspired by a Celtic Studies class I’m taking led by Dr. Sharon Blackie. I read her book, Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women (September Publishing, 2019) which I loved.

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I loved this book by Sharon Blackie!

There’s something very liberating about making art. And it’s a good exercise to pick up a different tool–any tool–whether it’s a paint brush or fountain pen–but a physical tool, one that can be held in the hand to transmit ideas from the mind to the page. I love color. I’ve always responded emotionally to color. As a kid, the gift of a set of colored pens delighted me more than dolls or toys. I still love art supplies and colored pens. Recently, I’ve become quite smitten with art supplies by Jane Davenport, an Australian artist and designer, known as an “Artomologist,” a play on her nature photography, and particularly her love for ladybugs, and other insects. I’ve also really enjoyed her books, such as Marvelous Mermaids. Jane Davenport has a series of art tutorials on Youtube, and I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering my love for making art, partly inspired by her wonderful books, tutorials, and using some of her supplies. The “Mermaid Markers” are some of my favorite supplies, a water-reactive brush pen, like a watercolor alternative, that’s been fun to use. But my absolute favorite thing of hers is the fountain pen, an INKredible pen.

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Inkredible ink fountain pen by Jane Davenport and one of my journals

Twenty years ago, I took a watercolor painting class at College of the Atlantic. Prior to that, I was a writing-art double major (or English major, art minor) at St. Lawrence University. For at least ten years, from high school through college, at four different schools, I loved making art. I incorporated art visuals into my poetry projects and liked making books. Then, in 2004, while in grad school at COA, I was living in a small cottage with a 15-year-old water heater, which leaked badly, flooding my little home, and saturating all of my possessions. My draft master’s thesis, which I’d meticulously organized into piles and chapters, along with my notes and data on my living room floor, floated in ankle-deep water on a soggy shag carpet. Even my old Dell laptop was submerged. One of the fatal losses that really crushed me at the time, three full art portfolios containing all of my art from more than four years in studio art classes–drawings, paintings, photography, self-portraits, watercolors, some of which I’d planned to frame someday (when not working on my master’s thesis). All of my art disintegrated. It was so shocking and sad, I focused on other things, like completing my master’s degree, and moved forward with other projects, and left my ruined art and love for making art, in the past.

In recent years, I’ve rediscovered my love for Kettle Cove State Park (southern Maine), and I have been lucky enough to swim in that small cove over an eelgrass meadow, where I swam and toddled around as a baby more than thirty-five years ago.  Recently, I swam at high tide, in the wake of the New Moon Solar Eclipse in Cancer this June.

Kettle Cove State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Stetson photo

Every time I swim there, I am flooded with sensations, poems, ideas, and epiphanies. I’m rediscovering myself. I’m reinventing myself. Below is a weird “inner self-” portrait I painted, using watercolors and real Maine eelgrass, which coiled and wrapped around my neck and arms as I swam at Kettle Cove in June.

I collected a few blades of eelgrass, which was floating in the water, and coiled around my wrists as I swam to shore. It also washes ashore along with rockweed, so it’s easy to find there. I incorporated the eelgrass into my art journal.

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“Inner self-” portrait,  multimedia,  “Lass in the Eelgrass” LCS  June 2020

Now, twenty years after my watercolor class in spring 2000 at COA, I’ve picked up my paint brushes again. I’ve started making art again, almost on a daily basis, for the past month. At some point, during the process of social distancing, self-isolating at my home in the Lakes Region of Maine, I felt inspired to start sketching some drawings of symbols and seaweed as part of projects, like the one I did for Folklore and Environmental Policy class. Then, I started sketching ideas for other aspects (inspired by literary works by Romanticism-era writers like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft) while I organized a strategy for doing my graduate research. That led to the idea of starting an art journal that’s connected to the research I’ve been doing as a student in the Interdisciplinary PhD program. I’m a poet and “ecoheroine,” researching the Eco-Gothic and Arthurian lit in a tenacious pursuit of deep Romantic ecology of wetlands.

All of these images and photos are mine. Please don’t share my images. My art is work-in-progress. Thank you!

Romantic Women Class PostUpdate: Due to the pandemic and school closings and schools’ switch to online learning, this workshop was postponed. Hopefully I may be able to teach this in the fall of 2020, but it’s not definite yet.

I’m hoping to offer this in fall of 2020:  I have been asked to lead a workshop series for Westbrook Adult Education (Westbrook, ME) with the theme of women writers of the Romanticism period, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley.

Travel back in time 200 years to the Romanticism period (1780s-1820s) and explore the lives and literary works of at least three Romantic women writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley. Pioneers of early feminism, Gothic literature, and the inventor of the famous “Frankenstein’s Monster,” these women writers influenced the work of other writers of their time, and for two centuries—as we still have books today on the New York Times Bestseller list that are contemporary retellings of Frankenstein, or that invoke the spirit of the Gothic, or 1790s botany with storytelling.  “Life writing,” known today as creative nonfiction, grew in popularity among women of the Romantic period. We will read from a selection of their works, discuss aspects of their “life writing,” and ask why it was important for women to tell their stories.

In this class, students will have an opportunity to write short memoir pieces in the form of short ‘experiments’ in life writing. There will be at least one in-class writing activity, and several take-home writing prompts. Genres may range from first-person narrative creative nonfiction, travel narrative, or short fiction. We will experiment with hybrid genres, such as short-form nonfiction, otherwise known as “flash nonfiction.”

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The short-form nonfiction essay form has been around for two centuries but became more popular in the mid-19th century.  We will look at examples of short-form nonfiction essays that offer a new approach to memoir writing from contemporary sources. We will also look at some of Mary Wollstonecraft’s and Mary Shelley’s travel writing, which contained personal life history (memoir). I’ve developed a unique writing exercise that’s inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein–but we will also experiment with other in-class writing prompts on occasion (probably only once per class session), or there will be a take-home writing prompt as an optional experiment. For our last class in May, we will choose a nice place to sit and share our writing pieces, once everyone has had a chance to write a piece they feel comfortable sharing with the group. We may hold our last session at Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook, Maine. Times and dates TBD, but it will most likely be in fall 2020. Possibly online options.

Historically, classes focused on William Wordsworth and Percy B. Shelley, and this workshop won’t ignore the male Romantics; but we will focus our attention on the works by Romantic women writers from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We will read excerpts from Maine/New England women writers from the period, too, to notice how the works of the British writers influenced those living and writing here in the northeast.

This class is open to anyone who likes to read and is curious about these Romantic women writers; all genders and perspectives are welcome! This is ideal for those who have an interest in writing short creative nonfiction and/or short fiction in the theme of “life writing.” It is highly recommended that each participant bring a notebook, writing utensil(s), and if possible, a laptop. Participants, ideally, will have access to a computer to write and to read online materials, or to view the occasional short video. Dates: Thursdays, 6-745pm starting March 19th running through May 14th      

For more information and/or to register, please click here. Seating is limited to 8 participants. Please call to register, or register online.

 

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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