Update #1: I’ll add audio and video of the sessions as they become available.
Update #2: Plus three Storify stories from the eagle-eyed Kim Hall
Taken together, our shared experience of #shakeass17 in Atlanta included storm-caused rupture. Despite much erudition, innovation, rage, and love, the impersonal hand of the tornado-razor that sheared away nearly a fifth of our swelling number defined our time together and punctuated most of our conversations. So many were missed, throughout the whirlwind. Usually in storms, I’m with the Boatswain: “Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!” But too often this year there wasn’t room at the airport.
As a member of the Program Committee who helped assemble this year’s paper sessions and seminars, I felt a little nervous that the good ship SAA would ride out the storm. I was anxious to see the success of the Friday morning plenaries, Queer Natures, which I had a small hand in instigating though Karen Raber did the hard work, and also the first iteration of #shaxfutures17, a three-year initiative that is the brainchild of the awesome Erika Lin, and which all of us on the Program Committee – chair Natasha Korda, Lucy Munro, Barbara Fuchs, Erika, and me – are hoping to see flourish now and in the future.
Not everything went right this stormy weekend, but those two panels did.
What I loved about the two-plen morning – the most exhilarating morning I’ve spent in 20+ years of SAAs – wasn’t just the individual brilliance of the nine papers, or the sinuous entanglements among and between the two panels. It wasn’t just the passion of Arthur Little’s exfoliation of academic culture’s racism or the deftness of Laurie Shannon’s reorienting of the most familiar lyric in the language.
The best part was the blaze of possibility that I felt in the room, and in my imagination, and compiling itself rapidly through the #shaxfutures17 hashtag.
Thinking about the panels now, on little sleep and with SAA pixie dust still between my toes, I’m trying to extend and understand that brief gap of time, to codify and prosify it, which inevitably means to falsify and dampen it, perhaps also to mansplain it. Apologies in advance for all that I garble or misremember. I speak only for myself, as I’m trying to make sense of the past few days. To push forward in experiment, I’ll entangle the two panels, pairing the speakers from Queer Natures with those from The Color of Membership.
Joe Campana; Dennis Britton (read by David Sterling Brown)
The opening papers plunged us into uncomfortable modes of communal identity: swarms that dominate and control, and white traditions of Shakespeare scholarship that exclude geniuses such as Nikki Giovanni.
Dennis explored Giovanni’s desire for Shakespeare and to be a Shakespearean, which motived her publication of an essay in Upstart Crow in 1990. The great African-American poet wanted to get through her art what the dead white Bardfather gets every day from us and from our mainstream culture. Giovanni sings out a poet’s ambition, the motivating fire that makes art and perhaps all writing. “All we have,” she concludes, “is constant change.”
The bees of Joe’s swarms re-hived our pretty fantasies of community, making us into something both alien and (sometimes) sticky-sweet. Stings and honey!
Arthur Little; Vin Nardizzi
The necessary anger and precision of Arthur’s already-legendary talk (see responses on the official twitter hashtag #shaxfutures17) picked up where Giovanni left off, pushing hard against exclusion and the legacy of genteel whiteness that disfigures our profession. His words won’t be soon forgotten, I hope.
What response does such eloquence and exposed injustice make possible? What can we build or rebuild atop this past? Its ugliness shocks, whether in G.K. Hunter’s words fifty years ago as quoted by Arthur or, as Mike Witmore reminded us at the start of the panel, in the anti-immigrant racism that animated the first Director of the Folger in the 1932.
The #shaxfutures initiative seeks to incubate some answers, or at least to provide a forum for new possibilities. On Friday morning I was also thinking about the intimate pluralities that Vin’s paper on “Fruits and Vegetables and Flowers” unfurled in Queer Natures. It’s not easy to connect a paper on posthuman hybrid bodies with one on racial injustice, since the desire to move past the merely human is not a straightforward match for the urgent need to recognize the full humanity of all the people in the room, and the people excluded from it.
The fruit-bodies of Pyramus, Bottom, and Archimboldi surface plurality alongside dreams of solidarity and community. It may be, or perhaps it can sometimes be imagined, that bodies are not only what they seem to be and have been. They and we can become other things.
Jyotsna Singh; Karen Raber
Humans crave difference, as the scrolling sideshow of images of Renaissance horse-art behind Karen’s brilliant talk showed us with visual abandon and gorgeous excess. The “equeer” desire she unraveled was marked by differences to which our bodies are inadequate and also desiring.
Might the theatrical stages and cross-cultural productions of Shakespeare of which Jyotsna spoke represent, in ideal if nearly always not in actuality, venues for engaging difference without asking it to resolve into sameness? Can we ask the SAA to open itself or indeed to become such a venue?
Karen’s semi-defense of the Dauphin’s horse-love in Henry V imagines utopian pluralism as a dream of embodied flight and extension of the human capacity to embrace difference, even at the risk of having it all crash back to bare forked earth when the rider leaves the saddle.
Laurie Shannon; Jean Howard (read by Patricia Cahill)
At the heart of our profession, the best things we do involve ethics and generosity with that most precious educational commodity, attention. Jean in absentia gave a master class is how a teacher continues to learn and change and extend herself into the futures we want to create. To be (in her phrase) “productively self-conscious” as an old white guy teaching Othello and Audre Lorde and Spenser to students of all colors in Queens: Jean has given me an apt language to describe what I need to keep trying to do better.
Laurie’s achingly suggestive talk closed Queer Natures by repurposing “nature’s changing course” in Sonnet 18 to gesture toward the queer and painful rain that wets Lear to the skin. The love poem’s capacity to entangle human emotion and natural sensations becomes — inevitably? — a scene of ecological extremity. Why do we want to compare our love to a summer’s day? Reason not the need!
I also can’t help mentioning, though I know I’ve already gone on too long, that amid so many stunning papers, I was deeply impressed by and grateful for the nearly-invisible labor of David Sterling Brown and Patricia Cahill, who read papers for Dennis and Jean, both absent-by-tornado. It’s not an easy thing to voice a paper you’ve not written and probably only seen for the first time that same day. These two readers – I’m reminded that we often call many things that we do as professors “readings” – carried us through the storm.
The concluding paper of The Color of Membership, which as the fifth doesn’t have a partner from Queer Natures, returned to the ethical and emotional audience to which we communicate our profession, our students, only some of whom join us at SAA. Joyce reminded us that we owe them love and truth, including disturbing truths and a love that challenges them to be open to things neither we nor they (yet) know. That’s the Futures part of #shaxfutures, which is the important part.
I could say more about these papers, the questions that followed, and the overflowing bowl of the rest of #shakeass17. I’ll write something separate about Craig Dionne and Lowell Duckert’s great #shaxanthropocene seminar, to which I was respondent Friday afternoon. The NextGenPlen was sizzling and plural, employing a dizzying range of methodologies and archives including book history, nonsense verse, and a polytemporal theorizing of racial difference. I could say more about an excess of cocktails and deficit of sleep, predictable accompaniments to every SAA. I could talk about the furries next door at the Marriot, though Andy Kesson has already written eloquently about them. I might make a note to myself that when Jeffrey Cohen finds the location of a 24-hour diner at 3 am, things are only going in one direction.
More later, but first I want to take time to express my hope about the possibilities that blazed across Friday morning. I sat in the front row like a fanboy for both plenary sessions, next to Natasha and Erika, not far from Heather and Ayanna and Lena and many others whose work and imagination make the SAA go. As the second plenary finished, the line from Shakespeare that came to mind as we stood and ovated – a line from Shakespeare always comes to mind, right? – was from Coriolanus:
Ladies, you deserve / To have a temple built you (5.3)
That temple, I imagine and hope, will be an SAA that, following Nikki Giovanni’s maxim, continually changes and gets better.
The theatrical context of that Rome-hasn’t-been-burned moment in Coriolanus might not bear too much scrutiny, but my comfort on it is that I hope that at this historical moment the SAA is not at the exhausted end of a violent tragedy but plowing through storms onto changing seas.
Thanks to all who were there, all who were stormed out, and everyone who made #shakeass17 and #shaxfutures17 possible
Next year in LA!