Five Questions: Kate Singer on Romantic Vacancy

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Kate Singer is Associate Professor of English and Chair of Critical Social Thought at Mount Holyoke College. Her wide-ranging research engages with fields including gender, philosophy, mediation, virtuality and digitality. She edits the Pedagogies section of Romantic Circles and is Secretary of the Keats-Shelley Association of America; with Ashley Cross and Suzanne L Barnett, she has recently published a new edited collection entitled Material Transgressions: Beyond Romantic Bodies, Genders, Things (Liverpool University Press, 2020). Her first monograph, Romantic Vacancy: The Poetics of Gender, Affect and Radical Speculation, which we discuss below, was published in August 2019 by SUNY Press.

1) How did you first become interested in exploring the ways that Romantic writers use vacancy?

When I was reading for my PhD comprehensive exams, I kept getting pulled toward moments in Charlotte Smith’s and Mary Robinson’s poems that seemed pretty deconstructive, particularly where very luxurious statements about sensibility were then negated via the form of the sonnet (Charlotte Smith’s voltas about tasting the Lethean cup that negates the very sensations that initiate the poetic voice), the allegory of the poem (such as sentimental Sappho’s suicidal leap into the Leucadian deep in Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon that destroys the poet and her voice), or a figural movement (such as the vanishing of the hermit at the end of Beachy Head, but not before alluding to his not-yet-written epitaph). These moments seemed oddly similar to Percy Shelley’s shadowy articulations of “vacancy” in his essay fragment “On Life” and in “Mont Blanc.” It took me a while to figure out how these moments were working as more than deconstructive or textual involutions that signaled the failures of sensibility, or its tendency to burn out into a clichéd emo numbness. But the more I felt these moments weren’t entirely empty, but often working through edgy, nebulous, or chaotic remainders of wispy language or materiality (the hinted-at hermit’s epitaph, the motion of drinking a metaphor like the Lethean cup), the more these moments seemed to offer a kind of dialectical movement, one that went further than further than negating the clichés of sensibility, but so far as fomenting new forms of affect and materiality outside the embodied emotion of sensibility. It was a lot of reading and rereading and a lot of failed attempts to talk gropingly about women’s poetry for its philosophic, poetic, and speculative dynamism.

2) As you conducted this research, what qualities came to define the poetics of vacancy you delineate?

These were figural moments in poems (and sometimes in other kinds of writing) that marked a resistance to strict forms of gendered embodiment and that attempted to raze empirical materiality via a figural movement that would then allow other forms of floating, iterative feelings (or affects) and materiality to be born. (I chose Sonia Gechtoff’s abstract expressionist painting “The Beginning” for the cover because it seemed visually to represent the material affect that came into being through figuration, which so many Romantic authors seemed to be after.) To be less abstract in terms of poetics, Mary Robinson’s sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon moves to ironize certain forms of repetition in sonnets of sensibility, then turns to figure Sappho’s leap in to the Leucadian deep as a form of evanishment of that repetitive language tied to the feminine feeling body. Yet, the end of that poem with its oceanic depths has intimations of another figural move, an immersion, a becoming awash in a more oceanic materiality of language and embodiment that we then see at the end of “To the Poet Coleridge,” with its echoing caverns and streams and various trilling voices of humans and nonhumans ululating all around in a kind of Deleuzian or Baradian stew. It was striking to see, too, how Wordsworth and Shelley were likewise worrying over similar problems for feminine poetics in poems from “The Solitary Reaper” to “Alastor” to “Epipsychidion” and so on.

3) How did you come to select the principal subjects of your chapters (Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Felicia Hemans, Maria Jane Jewsbury, William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley)?

When I started really reading Hemans seriously, thanks in no small part to Susan Wolfson’s Princeton edition, I realized not only how much she was taking from Percy Shelley (as Susan Wolfson and others have noted), but also how her poetry opened up some of the concerns of Charlotte Smith about the edges of the national body (a.k.a., Beachy Head) to a more global purview. Maria Jane Jewsbury was similarly working through some of Wordsworth (through her friendship with his daughter and her rereading of his work) to think about Anglo-Indian tensions. (My reading of Jewsbury was also in no small part due to becoming the technical editor of Judith Pascoe’s edition of The Oceanides while a Site Manager at Romantic Circles.) So, I began to conceptualize Smith and Robinson opening certain concerns about feminine poetics, sensibility, and the national body/landscape that then became shot through with concerns of empire and imperialism in Hemans and Jewsbury.

Then, early in my time at Mount Holyoke, I had to give a brief, entertainy lunchtime introduction to my scholarship to other colleagues across the college. I thought to use bits of Wordsworth and Shelley as pieces of Romantic-era poetry to represent that “naive Romanticism” that wasn’t hip to vacancy. I got reprimanded by a curmudgeonly older professor (in my department) for reading a line from Wordsworth’s Prelude about the brooding imagination as feminine, and I was so irritated and embarrassed that I eventually decided to write a chapter on Wordsworth and Shelley. This reinvestment in “male poets” helped me rethink the gender binarization I was actually still holding onto, vis-à-vis “women writers” and “male writers,” particularly when figures of the imagination and of thinking itself in both their works, to varying degrees, often invoke and then shirk gender binaries. Thinking about “The Solitary Reaper” one summer while I was wandering around Germany and Switzerland for NASSR and DH conferences, listening to languages and looking at different landscapes through the window of the Eurorail was pretty helpful for thinking about what’s happening in that poem as something more than the colonizing imagination, as Alan Richardson argues. The movements of the train and of languages I half knew and half created in my mind seemed an apt figure for a Wordsworthian feminist resistance to the assumption that the lass is singing a song of sensibility, or a recognizable version of women’s writing—a suspension of the presumption that we even know what she’s singing, which paradoxically opens a field of possibility, however narrow, for other voices not defined by their attachment to a sexed or gendered body but rather expressed through a nonbinary and ever-moving, ever-sung rolling landscape.

4) In your introduction, you argue that a strong investment in ‘the lens of sensibility’ has led to criticism that is ‘overwhelmingly unmindful of women poets’ play with other forms of knowledge and being’.  How might attending to the ‘serious, speculative poetics’ that your book uncovers help us rewrite our gender-inflected expectations regarding Romantic poetry, and how might this feed into the curricula we build?

I’m hoping that we can start from a place of openness to women’s and men’s poetry in new ways—that we don’t begin reading women’s writing of the period by assuming that they are writing about embodied emotion related to childrearing, domestic entanglements, or personal suffering—or when they do, they might also be writing incisively about questions of epistemology and ontology. Like many Romantic writers, women are interminably interested in how language can iteratively reflect and create structures of thought. I also believe that there is a strong sense of the nonbinary in writing from the period that we haven’t completely come to terms with. I don’t just mean nonbinary gender in terms of cross-dressing, or Blakean opposition as true friendship, or even formations of transgender in The Last Man, “The Forest Sanctuary,” or Frankenstein. I think there are other formulations that skirt either the two-sex or one-sex models, which are much more nebulous and that explore more shifting senses of gender identity and sexuality grounded in an equally shifting sense of materiality. (You can see some of this work others have done on this area in Material Transgressions: Beyond Romantic Genders, Bodies, Things (LUP 2020), and I think there’s more to do.) I had the opportunity this past year at Mount Holyoke to put together a two-semester series of courses on “The Queer Eighteenth Century” and “Nonbinary Romanticism” to help explore how notions of materiality might be quite different from the standard narrative of the shift from the one-sex to the two-sex model. This was my way of doing some extra reading on the early eighteenth century leading into a reconceptualization of the way I (try to) teach Romanticism, so that rather than, say, the idea of revolution, the idea of the nonbinary became the organizing idea. It was pretty incredible to read Olaudah Equiano, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Shelleys, and others, after reading things like Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall. Earlier eighteenth-century women’s communes offer other possibilities for non-phallic sexuality and rearrangements of gender that follow into the gothic spaces of the asylum (in Wollstonecraft’s Maria) and the ship (in Equiano’s Interesting Narrative) and the historical syncopes in Mary Shelley’s back-to-the-future stories such as “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman.”

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently in the guts of an essay about Jane Austen and ontology, trying to understand Fanny Price in Mansfield Park as alternately a withdrawn object (in Tim Morton’s sense) and a new material actant (in Jane Bennett’s sense), as Austen’s way of thinking through questions of the human/nonhuman/inhuman via the double questions that haunt that novel, as Patricia Matthew has written—women’s ontological status as objects and moral actants and slaves’ ontologies as nonbeing, chattel, and undercommon disavowal. While we usually think of Fanny as a frustratingly static character who holds her puritanical ground against the footloose exploits of her cousins’ play-acting and Henry Crawford’s inconstancy (his “oops I did it again” moments with Maria Bertram), I think she actually does revolve through a number of ontological positions as human, inhuman, and nonhuman, and I’m interested in how and why she does—and how that articulates possibilities for ontological change. I’m also starting research on a book on shapeshifting that attempts to understand the confluence of BIPOC ontology, climate change, disability, and transgender in the Romantic period and how it speaks to the entanglements of those concerns now. It’s been a way for me to try to understand better how different pieces of Romantic-era culture conceptualize change, particularly ontological change that allows for (or causes) changes in being, to rethink questions about how we change, why, and what happens if we can’t change when we’d like to (e.g., the American political disaster). A final piece I’m looking forward to writing is on Anne Lister’s diaries and the ideas of coding—coding as a way to talk about both early computing and gender identity. Lister used mathematical symbols and Greek letters to code the very sex-in-the-suburbs queer content in her diaries, and, after reading these with my students, I’m really interested in how they might help us think about the way we code, decode, and recode gender identities—as a measure of the nonbinary nature of Romantic-era texts that has gone under the gaydar, as it were.