Dr. Marta L. Werner: “Dearchivizing Dickinson’s Birds” and Textual Studies

Since beginning to teach as a faculty member in LUC’s Department of English, what projects have you begun? What are your current research interests? Do you think living in Chicago will give you access to new research materials?

I’m working on three projects—all at quite different stages of development. First, I’m finishing a new edition of Emily Dickinson’s “Master” documents that I’ve been working on for a little over two years. It started out as a small project and then took on a life of its own…as editions so often do! In this work I’m trying to tell a different story about these documents, and one that runs counter to the story about them that has become part of literary history. At once a new edition of these writings and a new reading of them in and for our time, my edition, The Master Hours, challenges the prevailing understanding of these documents as “letters,” re-draws the boundaries of the constellation by adding two verse works to the three more epistolary works designated the “Master Letters” by earlier editors, offers new images and typographic facsimiles of the documents, and provides individual commentaries for each of Dickinson’s five “Master” texts. Two large aims of the present edition are to re-enter the “Master” documents as far as possible in the flow of time and to re-world them by imagining them again as they may have once lain on the ever-changing surface of Dickinson’s desk. To these ends, rather than presenting the “Master” documents as quarantined from Dickinson’s larger scene of textual production, this edition proposes reading them next to Dickinson’s other major textual experiment in the years between c. 1858–1861: the Fascicles. In both of these at times parallel — always adjacent — writing experiments Dickinson can be seen testing the limits of address and genre in order to escape bibliographical determination and the very coordinates of “mastery” itself. While the opening materials of the edition ground the presentation of the documents historically and textually, the closing meditations approach each of the documents as a singular, complex “organized world of meaning” and a “deep map” of experience, emotion, and memory.

From the “Master” Documents

I’m also working on a very different Dickinson project – one that intersects with my interests in archive studies, sound studies, eco-studies, and digital humanities. I’m really at the beginning stages of this work, so it’s likely that it will undergo some re-description over the next year! Briefly, though, I’m imagining “De-Archivizing Dickinson’s Birds: Sound-Notes From the Shores of the Anthropocene” as a community-based listening and archival project designed to help readers and dwellers of the 21st century to re-imagine one thin bandwidth of Dickinson’s lost sound-world of the 19th century while also taking a measure of the ecological distances, both actual and perceived, between Dickinson’s 19th c. world and our 21st c. world. By constellating the poems and other writings from Dickinson’s oeuvre alluding to birds and pairing them with the sounds of the birds that fly in and out of them, new archives of poems and birds — summer and winter archives, morning and evening archives — will come into being, while the archive itself will be reconceived as a living, mutable environment rather than a storage space for dead letters or ornithological specimens. Although there are many components to this DH project, I’m currently working on creating a prototype for a time-sound-line for Dickinson’s bird writings.

“De-Archivizing Dickinson’s Birds” is very much a project about our sense of emplacement, and the significance of bird sounds to our experience of place and time. And inevitably, it’s also about the diminishment of bird sounds in our time and how that changes our experience of—our sense of inhabiting—the world.

Finally, I’m also planning a small edition / exhibition catalog of Dickinson’s “pinned” writings—literally poems made by pinning and unpinning manuscripts. There are lots of challenges involved in representing these beautifully mutable works. And it brings me back into contact with Dickinson’s late work, which is an abiding interest of mine.

One of Emily Dickinson’s “pinned” documents

Chicago is Library-Land! I’m especially grateful to live in easy proximity to the Newberry Library – the collections seem to go on for miles – but I’ll also be searching for more out-of-the-way archives in and around Chicago. I like the feeling of not knowing what I’ll find yet….

Describe your understanding of what textual studies can accomplish. What new meanings have your own researches helped you uncover? What remains to be discovered?

Wow. This is a vast question, and my response will be necessarily very fragmentary. In A New Republic of Letters, Jerome McGann proposes that the question “Why does textual scholarship matter?” is not a “technical” question, as many people think, but an absolutely foundational question for our time; and in our first seminar meeting in the Textual Studies course we discussed the role of textual studies in translating—literally “carrying over”—the cultural record into the future. The stakes in our field are very high because we are working at a hinge-moment in history, at the moment when literally the entirety of our cultural archive is migrating into new digital forms. And how we perform this migration matters. The stakes are very high. Writing about this challenge, the great textual scholar Thomas Tanselle recently observed, “The misconception that texts are easily extractable from books has contributed to policy decisions — all the more shocking for being deliberate — that will mark the present as an age of destruction on a scale beyond even that of the book burnings of the past.” At its best, work in textual studies encourages us to see texts complexly and to find ways of representing that complexity, of carrying it over into a new age in new forms.

I think it’s salutary to have think about the aims of the discipline as a whole, to circle back to them periodically because the work textual scholars do on a daily basis—identifying all the witnesses of a given text and their relations to one another, transcribing these texts in a way that accurately and deeply represents their layered composition and reception histories, following textual variants, etc.–can feel almost myopic at times. But this kind of close attention to any one work advances the larger project of textual scholarship and, I think, literary studies more generally. In my own case, working with Dickinson’s manuscripts transformed my thinking about her work. Since my initial foray into the archives, I’ve been experimenting with different structures for representing Dickinson’s late works—first binding some of them into a codex book titled Open Folios; then summoning others—or, rather, their digital surrogates—into an electronic archive fueled by millennial energies and called Radical Scatters; and then collecting the poems Dickinson wrote on envelopes to give them new homes, and new readers in The Gorgeous Nothings. This last, collaborative work with the artist Jen Bervin itself appears in two different iterations: first, in the form of an archival box filled with loose, full-scale facsimiles and transcriptions of the works; and later, in an oversize volume that preserves to some extent the sui generis nature of the poems by arranging them not in a chronological order but on the basis of their visual correspondences and singular routes. Most recently, I’ve been working on Dickinson’s “Master” documents. Each of these editions (or exhibitions) represents my repeated attempt to map the topos of Dickinson’s unbound, untitled and ultimately unhouseable writings.

I think all textual scholars know that the work they do will be carried on but also transformed in the future, if only because each new generation of textual scholars will approach the work informed by the ideas of their times. Discovery is perennial.

Are there any particular themes or research focuses you are itching to pursue in a future graduate course at LUC?

Yes. Definitely! I love to teach Textual Studies because the field is so vast and constantly changing, evolving. At the moment, my seminar covers a lot of ground – and takes many different paths toward thinking about manuscripts, books, and born-digital works as material and cultural objects that have much to say about their makers (and all of the other agents involved in their production, dissemination and reception) and the values of the culture in which they arise. But so many different iterations of this seminar are possible. For a long time I’ve been thinking about a textual studies seminar called “The Seasons of Dickinson’s Desk,” where participants will be drawn into the material, social and literary structures of Dickinson’s poetry, letters and fragments by first exploring the scope and trajectory of her writings and then engaging these writings by intellectually imagining and digitally re-creating Dickinson’s desk and the trajectories of its activities in and across time. I’d also like to collaborate with folks in the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities to teach a seminar on “Living Texts: Editing & Curating in the 21st Century.” And since I’m interested in the non-human turn in literary studies, I’d love to have the opportunity to explore this turn, perhaps through the work of Dickinson and Thoreau, in seminar. Finally, I’ve always been interested in late work – and in “lateness” as a phenomenon – and I’d welcome to chance to structure a seminar around expressions of late style.

In your professional career so far, what do you think were the best opportunities for graduate students or young instructors in your field? Are there specific activities or projects that you felt to be particularly useful in building your own skill set?

This is a great question. And a timely one. Although we all know the job market is, well, abysmal, there are still many opportunities for professional development for graduate students and new faculty. I know that many of you are involved in conference planning, which is a great way to get a sense of the larger coordinates of the field you’re working in and to see how your own work contributes to it. If you have the chance to collaborate with a professor whose working on a project that interests you, do it! And if you have the chance to work as part of the team on a scholarly journal (say, a journal like Textual Cultures, hint, hint!), that’s also a wonderful way to get professional experience.

In the last years, we’ve seen a shift in the kinds of skills academic departments are looking for in new faculty. A background in DH is often highly marketable. Grad students who are thinking about the job market should also look for post-doc opportunities in their field.

The structure of graduate study has changed a lot since I was a graduate student. Thirty years ago it was still the Age of Innocence! We simply weren’t as professionalized as grad students today are—and have to be. I worked as a TA and an RA—both great experiences and essential ones. I was very lucky in my mentors. They were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. But perhaps the most formative experience I ever had was going to the archives. It changed the direction of my work. And it changed my life.

Everyone has to find his/her/their own way. And there are so many different ways.

Dr. Marta L. Werner is the new Martin J. Svaglic Chair of Textual Studies in Loyola University Chicago’s Department of English.

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