Saturday, September 6, 2008

Primer for Participating in an Academic Literary Conference

What every writer dreams about is a quiet place in the country where s-he can think, imagine, dream, create and as a bonus get an appreciative and helpful audience. Maria van Beuren, has invited this writer for a third year to Toad Hall in North Haverhill, New Hampshire.

This year this writer used her ten days to work on her paper “On To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays—Gertrude Stein: Medievalist, Futurist or Both?” To Do is an A-B-C primer for children that Stein wrote in the spring of 1940. Her publisher didn’t think it was appropriate for children and Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas said it was “too old for children and too young for adults.”


The talk will be presented at “Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900,” which is taking place September 11-14 at Duquesne University. It’s the first time this writer has participated in an academic conference. She is an “independent scholar” and she doesn’t know what to expect, so she was hopelessly bogged down in the underbelly of what one needs to know to write a paper with such an audacious thesis. After all, Stein was intensely focused on the present moment. Luckily, the assembled group at Toad Hall, who was starving and waiting for a lobster feast, had no choice but to listen and comment. Would those lobster pots ever boil? Would the speaker ever get to the point?


Writing about Gertrude Stein requires a lot of chutzpah, especially if a writer intends to seek an audience of academics. One assumes that whomever is up early enough to hear this writer talk (I am scheduled to speak at 8 am on a Saturday morning) and chooses my panel session (my paper gets presented with two others also writing on Stein) probably knows a good deal about Stein. I am shaking in my shoes, but I keep thinking—will there be anyone in the room besides the panelists?

Those familiar with academic conferences know that there are numerous other panels running concurrently with the panel you are on. In the case of the Lifting Belly High conference, there are six concurrent panels in the first session of the day and for two days in a row, there are three sessions of six concurrent panels or roundtable discussions except for the last session which has seven. This involves 118 speakers not including moderators. What’s the possibility that there will be more than four people in the room where this writer will present her talk, a talk she has fretted over since early June when she received an email message saying she was selected and therefore invited to present a paper? Is it possible for someone not registered at the conference to come hear my talk? Yes, for one panel session, anyone can steal in and not have to worry about being bounced at the door. Building and room designations are posted on the conference schedule.

Also, I should confess that besides having identified an exciting subject for an academic paper this past January and published a preliminary essay in Scene4 Magazine, this writer was influenced to apply for this conference by two other factors. The first is that the conference name is taken from Gertrude Stein’s long erotic poem entitled Lifting Belly. The second factor is that for several years, this writer Karren Alenier has been talking to the head of opera programs at Duquesne University about her opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On. So the poet-librettist recently called Guenko Guechev, Director of the Duquesne Opera Workshop, to set up a meeting with him. While he isn’t doing any jazz operas this year, in past years, he has had the voices for this kind of theater and hopes to again in the future. So yes, this conference appeals to my investment in Gertrude Stein and I look forward to hearing my co-panelists Kimberly Lamm and Liz Vine talk about Stein. We are three of only four talks mentioning Stein by name in this conference.


So back to the question of who will attend my talk? One thing I know is that the speakers are a fluid group of participants. How many people actually come for the entire conference? This question has gravitas. To play, you have to pay—cost of a hotel, transportation to Pittsburgh, food not covered by the conference (you get lunch), and the conference fee. As soon as the conference schedule went up, I started contacting people I knew to see if anyone wanted to share a room. One person said she was bringing someone who was not speaking. Wow! There will be at least one person who is purely there to listen. Another person I contacted said she was flying in, giving her talk, and flying back to DC on the same day. I posted a message on the Women in Poetry listserv (WOMPO) and about eight weeks later someone emailed asking if it was too late for her to share a room with me. Luckily, I had reserved a room before the price went up and so with a number of phone calls to the hotel, I got the room sorted out and the reservation to show there were two people in a room with two beds.

Another thing that is a shock to someone who has never participated in an academic conference is that one has to pay a conference fee. For some academics, the fee, as well as their travel and board, is paid by their college or university. I asked about the fee, reminding the conference governors that I was an independent scholar with no organization behind me that might pick up the tab. They kindly cut the fee in half for the two independents, which one might think was no big deal for either side. However, I have limited funds for expenses beyond my usual day-to-day costs and the conference board is paying for food and other things not covered by Duquesne University. As any who handles money knows, small amounts add up.


On a panel of three, each presenter at this conference has 20 minutes to dazzle or bore her audience. (Here, I prefer the feminine adjectival pronoun because there are very few men.) If the presentation order is alphabetic than Alenier goes first, meaning Ms. Lamm and Ms. Vine will divinely follow and therefore won’t sneak out. I already heard from one possible listener who may drop in, but not for too long because a friend of hers is presenting on a different panel during the same session.

What I wanted to do was create a video where my Second Life avatar Kaala Ragu chases Mr. and Mrs. Quiet’s big bad rabbit away from the little rabbit warren. In Stein’s To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, the letter Q is predominantly the allegorical story of a couple who love a big rabbit so much that they allow him for many years to get away with evil behavior—he always eats a little rabbit on his birthday. My belief is virtual worlds like Second Life would be a great place to teach Gertrude Stein. There her cubism would be fully realized in the present moment. However, my time is short and at my last practice session, the talk was 21 minutes. I need to cut it by a few minutes to be on the safe side. So, video moves to the back burner.

Now this writer will go back to creating slides to talk from instead of reading her paper. She’ll also be biting her fingernails and wishing that she had the attentive audience at Toad Hall who could teleport to her panel session at Lifting Belly High.
This time around to honor her Toad Hall friends, her pot boils rapidly on the front burner. Lobster or rabbit?

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