The Poet-Scholar

by Julie Carr


(Julie Carr originally presented this text as a talk for the MLA panel “The Poet-Scholar,” which convened in Boston on January 3, 2013, with Heather Dubrow, Hillary Gravendyk, Rachel Hadas, Margaret Ronda, Jennifer Scappettone, Juliana Spahr and Barrett Watten as fellow panelists.)

As I am a person who reads and a person who writes, a person who researches and a person who invents – a person who teaches and a person who edits – I can only consider the question of the poet-scholar from the inside – and so what follows is a subjective and gendered account of the position of the poet-scholar in the form of a list 1-10.

1.  I entered the academy in order to become a poet. I never saw the two activities – scholarship and poetry – as divided, rather as woven. Though I also thought of art or art-making as belonging to the street, the kitchen, the church, the performance space, the hallway, the subway, the bar, I never imagined that by entering the academy, by becoming a scholar in whatever limited way I would, I would be moving away from poetry. Quite the opposite. 

2. In our culture at this time, a scholar generally has a place, a home, a position, a job, an acknowledged societal role. A poet has none of these things and must either forego them or find them through other activities. I was a mother. And I needed a job. Or there were these children, and they needed a mother. Or, I took a job, one might say, in order to address the situation in which “a woman seeks a writerly life in a society still concerned with guarding and protecting the gendering of literary production.” Or I became a scholar because I was a poet and pregnant.

3. I was pregnant in the library, falling asleep with my face on the table.

4. The poet-scholar makes her materials, her sources, evident in her poems. She also, in her scholarship makes her pleasures (the pleasures she takes in language) evident. In this way, she places an emphasis on her own body as a material object to be considered, as a source of pleasure to be considered, if not by others (for who knows?) then by her self.

5. The poet might “play,” but her vector aims toward grief. To acknowledge, justify, and make available to others the essential experience of grieving in and through and perhaps for language. The scholar might “work,” but her vector aims toward joy. To acknowledge, justify and make available to others the essential experience of joy in and through and of language and knowledge, the language of knowledge.

6. And yet the job of the poet is pleasure. The job of the scholar is pain. We could say we bring these two beings together in one body, thus neutralizing or balancing them.

7. The poem constructed of research situates the poet in a library – out of the bedroom, the field, the kitchen, the office, and into the library where she finds materials in order to transform them. We could call this the “integration of power as an interiorized constraint.”

8. I fell asleep in the library to the ongoing autobiography of the male body. A chronology of labor, sex, violence, and accident –

I took this archive as a truth and I took it as a fiction.

9. If I am a poet-scholar, this means I can renovate my kitchen. I can “meet the Dean,” I can carry a gun to class. I can lock my office door. This means I can shit in the faculty bathroom. I can name the Shakespearian heroines, I can chair the Salary Committee, I can listen to boys and girls as they cry on adderall. I can order a laptop to be delivered. I can consider King Solomon and Markolf the Fool. I can try to read French but not German. I can drink at night.

10. I am a poet-scholar, that means I read the archive. I read the archive and then I make an archive of daily activities and moods. Or I make an archive of the letter T, made to stand for “tree, telephone, tensile, trail and trial.” I read an archive of the male body, and then I write an archive of breasts: the ancient breasts of the swimming women, the new breasts of the dancing girls. I read the archive of shooting deaths and labor theory and I write an archive of imagined installations and letters to the women I’ve envied. I read the archive of male desire and I write an archive of the spit in my mouth. An archive of my mother’s mouth, opening for the spoon. Of my daughter’s mouth calling from the bed. I entered “the academy” pregnant. 

Julie Carr’s study of late Victorian poetry and poetics and its legacy in contemporary experimental poetry, Surface Tension, is now available from Dalkey Archive. Carr is also the author of four books of poetry and the co-publisher of Counterpath Press. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder.