Dreaming of a Joycean Summer

It’s only natural for a person stuck in a hazy shade of winter to daydream of the summer that follows it.  This year, it’s not even Christmas yet, and I’m ready for June 2017 to just get here already.  In large part, it’s because we’ve already had three shovel-worthy snowstorms in the first 20 days of December, which can’t be a good sign for what’s ahead.

Add to that a Christmas holiday full of administrative work and class prep and an early 2017 dominated by the largest enrollments I’ve ever had in every course I’m teaching, and you can see why I’m ready for summer six months in advance.

But there’s another reason why I’m excited for June 2017.  On June 21-25, the North American James Joyce Conference returns, this time taking place at Victoria College of the University of Toronto.  Now that my Fall semester is officially over, I can turn my attention towards writing my conference abstract that’s due in a few weeks.  So of course, on the morning of the day allotted to getting that done, I’m sitting at my computer, not yet writing the actual abstract, but writing about writing the abstract (meta-abstraction?).  This may seem like just a distraction technique to put off the hardest part of the conference paper writing process, but this post actually arises more out of excitement than procrastination.  Simply put, I’m really looking forward to this conference, and I just need an opportunity to get that excitement out before I take the first plunge towards preparing for it.

This will be the first time I’m able to attend a Joyce conference in 4 years.  I have thus far presented at 4 Joyce conferences, the last being the 2013 North American meeting at the College of Charleston.  Sadly, financial constraints have kept me away from the last two symposiums.  I had intended to go to the 2016 Anniversary Joyce conference in London, but the plane ticket price alone was too rich for my blood.  While the rest of the Joycean community was celebrating Bloomsday in England, I was partaking in the more economy-priced solo celebration.  So I am quite excited about the North American conference’s return, and the fact that it is taking place a relative stone’s throw away from family in Detroit makes it  even more of a can’t miss event.

I have always found the Joyce conferences I’ve attended to be tremendously valuable experiences.  Two journal publications have come about from papers I’ve presented at these conferences.  I also found them to be valuable workshopping opportunities while I was completing my book.  I mentioned in a previous post that on the last day of the 2011 Joyce conference in Pasadena, I learned that I would need to add chapters on Finnegans Wake to my manuscript.  Over the course of the next year, I wrote three chapter drafts on the Wake and was then able to present one of them at the 2012 International James Joyce Symposium in Dublin.  Especially since this was my first scholarly experience with Joyce’s notorious final novel, the 2012 Joyce symposium was invaluable.  I gained insightful feedback from my panel’s Q&A session and an overall positive reception to the paper, which convinced me that my first scholarly Wakean footstep was on the right path.  A lot of my scholarly success has thus come out of the work I’ve done for Joyce conferences, so I’m delighted that my 4-year hiatus seems to be coming to an end.

But the presentation experience itself is only part of the value I’ve gained from these Joycean meetings.  I’ve also found the panels I’ve attended to be enormously helpful in my always evolving understanding of Joyce’s works.  As a rule, I try to attend conference panels on areas outside of my scholarly comfort zone so that I can further develop my understanding of my field (which is why, for example, my time at last year’s international meeting of the American Conference on Irish Studies was mostly spent in the history panels rather than the literature ones).  I’ve always found the Joyce conferences I’ve attended to be invaluable in expanding the scope of what I know about the author I chose to specialize in.

The 2011 Pasadena conference is an excellent case in point.  As I’ve previously noted, my Joycean knowledge up to that point had always ended at Ulysses, with a quick nod towards the ALP soliloquy that “concludes” Finnegans Wake being my only glance past the rhododendrons on Howth Head towards its castle and environs.    For that reason, I used the Pasadena Joyce conference as a Wake-up call, attending every Finnegans Wake panel I could to begin creating some form of Wakean knowledge bank that I could use for when I finally mustered up the courage to tackle the novel.  Thankfully, there were a variety of fabulous Wake panels to help me begin building that knowledge base.  Bonnie Kime Scott’s ecofeminist paper on the “river as woman” motif got me thinking about the ways we should (and shouldn’t) represent ALP.  Cheryl Herr’s examination of nightsoil and Heather Ryan Kelley’s artistic renderings of Shem’s midden heap helped me understand the productivity of Wakean shit and trash respectively.  And Adam Harvey’s riotous performance of the “Mookse and the Gripes” taught me to appreciate the Wake‘s humor and pathos even if I didn’t grasp its language.  Especially since I would learn at that conference that Finnegans Wake was the next thing I needed to read if I wanted my book published, the timing of this conference couldn’t have been more appropriate.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the 2011 Pasadena Joyce conference helped me through the Wake and put me on the path needed to complete my greatest scholarly accomplishment.

And that’s something I’ve always found valuable about Joyce conferences: I’ve always come away learning something new about Joyce studies that I could immediately apply to my own work going forward.  Vincent Cheng’s fabulous plenary on Joyce, Ireland, and the American South at the 2013 Charleston conference shaped how I approached Civil War texts in subsequent classes.  The “Body and Mind” panel at that Charleston conference introduced me to disability studies and thus later helped me advise three undergraduate senior capstone theses.  Time and time again, I’ve left Joyce conferences reinvigorated about my chosen field of study and ready to apply what I’ve learned to both my teaching and research.

But I’ve not only found these conferences meaningful for scholarly  and pedagogical reasons.  The entertainment events hosted by these meetings have been enormously valuable as well.  2011’s program was particularly noteworthy, featuring an all-star poetry reading by Eavan Boland, Sinead Morrissey, and Paul Muldoon. (Muldoon’s exaggerated pointing at his copy of “Anseo” after reading its mention of an ashplant, as if to say, “there’s your Joycean reference right there!”, was worth the conference price of admission alone.)  That was followed by a wonderful reading of “Counterparts” by Fionnula Flanagan that highlighted a humor in Farrington’s early office fumblings that I had never noticed before and altered the way I encountered the story.  The 2012 Dublin conference featured a similarly impressive entertainment program.  Anne Enright, Patrick McCabe, and Colm Toibin read from and discussed their iconic novels, with Toibin offering a sneak peek what would shortly become his Booker-prize-shortlisted book The Testament of Mary.  In hindsight, it’s amazing to consider how attending that conference allowed me a front row seat to watch one of the literary fields I teach further evolve without even knowing it at the time.

Then there are the incidental moments from these conferences that have enhanced their value in my memories.  Holding the door open for Fionnula Flanagan on her way to give that “Counterparts” reading in Pasadena and having her turn to me and say, “Thank you very much” (which, combined with walking past Joe Jonas encircled by paparazzi in the LAX ground transportation area, made that the celebrity Joyce conference for me).  Turning into the stereotypical Joycean fanboy the second my plane touched down in Dublin for the 2012 conference, and choosing to immediately hit the Joycean sites rather than recovering from the international flight (which in turn made me too exhausted to attend the conference welcome reception).

Bolding resolving not to let my cancelled conference outing to Howth prevent me from taking the picture for my book cover and (in a rare moment of adventurousness in my otherwise overly cautious life) spontaneously deciding to make the tram ride to Howth myself, braving the wind and the risk of falling off Howth Head for a glimpse of the famous setting of Ulysses‘s final pages.

And of course, I’ve been consistently benefited by the opportunities these conferences have provided me to meet the numerous scholars in my field.  As I noted in a previous post, it’s easy for academic scholarship to become an isolating experience.  For a lot of the time, the face you encounter most often is your own reflection obliquely glancing back at you through the blank Word document on your computer screen.  And while it’s always thrilling to publish your work, too often the contributor’s copy becomes the conclusion of that process, and you inevitably wonder who (if anyone) read your study and what they thought of it.  For that reason, I’ve been grateful for the opportunities to not only meet fellow Joyceans, but to engage with scholars working on similar topics as I am.  Regardless of whether I receive positive or critical feedback, I always come away from Joyce conferences feeling like I’ve been heard, which goes a long way towards reaffirming my sense of belonging within the community.

The panel I presented on at the 2012 Dublin conference was particularly helpful in that regard.  By presenting on the “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” panel, I got to share the floor with three Joyceans presenting engaging, distinct examinations of the importance of love in Joyce’s works.  That opportunity helped me better understand and contextualize my specific approach to the topic.  It’s always great to find people engaged in similar work as you; it broadens your knowledge of what you’ve been writing and makes you feel more like an active part of the community rather than a solo scholar in a huge Joycean world.  Some of the most meaningful connections I’ve made in the Joyce community came from that Dublin panel, and I’m always excited for every opportunity I have to reenter the conversation at these conferences.

So here I am, four years removed from my last Joyce conference, excitedly fretting over how to get started on the next one.  This year’s conference theme is “Diasporic Joyce,” and it focuses on “the implications of Diaspora and its broad themes: Home, Identity, Boundaries, Place, Dislocation, Dispersal, Memory, Mourning, Translation.”  At this point, I’m interested in using my presentation to continue my scholarly work on the ethics of mourning in Joyce’s writings.  This scholarly focus actually began at the last Joyce conference I attended, with a presentation on Stephen Dedalus’s mourning in Ulysses. This time around, I’m staying with that novel, but I’m thinking of considering the mournful implications of the work as a whole.  In this approach, I’m taking inspiration from another conference presentation I heard in Pasadena, where Timothy Martin argued that Ulysses should be read as an elegy to a 1904 Dublin that had not yet experienced the violent trauma and upheaval of Ireland’s turbulent road to independence.  Professor Martin’s paper has been in the back of my mind ever since I heard it, and at this point, I’m curious about the transnational implications of Ulysses‘s role as an elegy.  Since Joyce wrote this Dublin novel while on the European continent (and the novel’s last words are famously “Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921” [U, p. 644; 18.1610-11), I wonder how our understanding of Ulysses as a work of mourning is impacted by acknowledging Joyce’s explicit European glance towards his homeland while writing it.

At this point in the process, the idea is still at the “wonder” stage.  That’s the somewhat annoying, somewhat exhilarating nature of a conference abstract.  You come up with the germ of an idea, and then you hope the paper you end up writing sufficiently lines up with what you initially proposed.  In this way, the beginning of the conference paper process echoes the frustrations of my composition students when writing their introductions, anxious about having to introduce an essay they haven’t written yet and worried that the paper that follows it will in no way fulfill the promises of that initial paragraph.  I share this frustration every time I sit down to write an abstract.  This is yet another reason why I’m looking past the next few months and anxiously awaiting June 2017: I’d love to see if the idea I have now comes to fruition as a completed project.  I’m cautiously optimistic about the topic, excited about the opportunity to potentially present on Joyce again, and eager to get started.

Now all I have to do is write that pesky introduction.

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Author: postsonthepenman

An English professor in Iowa who has taken James Joyce up on his request that I devote my entire life to understanding his works.

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