A feminist Sulpicia

One of the themes that came out of writing my manuscript on the Sulpicia poems was the fear I have of being hated by other feminists for my stance on their authorship. Specifically, my questioning of the existence of a Roman poet named Sulpicia, and thus my potential/supposed ‘destruction’ of both a talented woman and all extant female-authored poetry from ancient Rome.

From 1979 until today, the poems have been praised for being female-authored, and for being good. The dialogue around the poems largely (and understandably) comes from feminist scholars. Anyone who has dared argue or merely suggest that they may not be female-authored has been accused of being a misogynist (note: until me, all such people have been men.)

But from their writing until 1838, the poems were either assumed to be male-authored, or were ignored completely. Then in 1838, the poems were decided to be female-authored, because they weren’t very good.

In other words, it is believed today – and vehemently argued by feminist scholars – that we have the poetry of a Roman woman, because a misogynist decided these poems weren’t good enough to have been written by a man.

Contrary to the pages devoted to this over the last 40 years, the topic at its core is not about feminism and feminists, who is and who isn’t. But the world that has been created around the topic – the spectator stands that surround the actual stage and from which come the only sanctioned commentating, the stage having been empty for hundreds of years – this world is controlled by (a small group of) feminists. Well-meaning feminists, yes, but:

All ages. No cameras allowed. No outside food.
You must be this feminist to enter.

Yep, I know the rules. Here’s my bag, feel free to search it. One ticket, please.

As far as I know, I am a feminist.

But, because I’m writing this, I’m not.

I’m not allowed in.*

The main reason I was drawn to this topic was my personal driving force of discovering why we believe what we believe. This topic had the metaphorical piscine odour. It didn’t make sense how a + b somehow = c. And, well, it was a topic I could write a large term paper out of to get my Honours BA in Classics, and still have words left over to write a graduate thesis and get my MA in Classics.

But to actually publish my research on the topic, to have feminist scholars read my work but not meet and talk with me to realize that I’m not some female misogynist, brainwashed little twit, that was a scary thought. It is a scary thought.

I’ve always had weird relationships with other females. I’ve had many close girlfriends, but they are nearly all gone, none by my active choice. Many probably due to growing up, changing schools, moving away, changing jobs. But some, I worry/suspect, because I’ve never been a very feminine person, or have at least always rejected the stereotypical things a feminine person is supposed to like/do/be. I wasn’t into makeup, wasn’t into boys, wasn’t into frilly pink things, wasn’t into Brad Pitt. And, as long as I can remember, I’ve never wanted kids, have never wanted to even hold a baby. That latter one, I think, has had a bigger role in ending some of my girlfriendships than was immediately obvious at the time. At any rate, I didn’t have much in common with other girls, and the little I did wasn’t enough, I guess, to continue our relationship.

I’ve also always found the definition of feminism to always be out of my grasp. I was raised in a patriarchal, religious environment where women had particular roles. I was encouraged to go to university, but was also expected to get married and have kids early. Feminism in that context was a bad word, and only referred to heathen bra burners. When I took Intro to Women’s Studies as an undergraduate student, my amazing prof, an African woman, tried to teach us that being a feminist means fighting for equal rights for everybody, regardless of sex, gender, or race. But my (white) classmates argued against her, citing their unshaven legs as evidence for hating men being the key skill she should be teaching. And then I started wearing makeup, I got married, I got into fashion, I understood the appeal of Brad Pitt, I shaved my legs. I believed in equal rights for everybody, I bought a copy of The Feminine Mystique, I sought out manual, physical jobs over administrative work, I still didn’t want kids. What did that make me?

So, I was/am used to being a bit of a loner in the world of women. Perhaps because of this, 10+ years ago I felt (kind of sort of) comfortable enough with the challenge of taking on an argument that would have me butt heads with other feminists. What did I have to lose, really?

And now, in 2018, in the era of female artists being bullied off of social media, tennis rulers vs. Serena, MeToo, the world becoming a huge dumpster fire…I don’t really want to butt heads with other women over a few silly poems. I am a woman, I am a feminist, I believe women, I look up to women, my favourite writers, artists, and researchers are women.

In my view, Sulpicia probably wasn’t a woman. And so, to me, I’m not actively working against the existence of a woman. But my theories happen to clash with those of women who believe in her existence, who think it’s a matter of being feminist or not. However that is viewed by the few women who have heard of or read my work, it has thus far largely gotten me the silent treatment.

But if I publish my thoughts on the poems, I’m not sure which would be worse from women readers, the silent treatment, or being called an anti-feminist. Either way, I don’t want to be closed out once again by other women, and for reasons I don’t actively choose. Sulpicia’s existence isn’t my choice, and neither are my conclusions to years of research, really. Publishing my conclusions, however, is my choice.

Is there ever a good time to publish research as a woman that argues against other women? Is there ever a bad time? I just don’t know.

What I do know is that a feminist Sulpicia might just possibly mean, well, no Sulpicia at all. What do I do with that?

*Quote from my manuscript, in its current form anyway.

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Evaporation

My copy of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar play came in, and the notes I transcribed in the last post were indeed paraphrasing from the play. Particularly, my notes referred to the last scene, in which Leonard (played by Alan Rickman), a once famous writer who supposedly doesn’t write anymore after a bit of a scandal, is found out by one of his seminar students (Martin, played by Hamish Linklater) – he does in fact still write, and simply doesn’t have any interest in publishing any of it. To quote (from p.68-9):

LEONARD. …I actually don’t like people scraping their eyeballs on my words.

MARTIN. Why not?

(He takes the pages from MARTIN, and goes to the desk. Picks up all the pages and dumps them in a drawer.)

LEONARD. (beat, simple) I have no skin anymore. Once it’s written I can’t – live with it. I can’t sit in offices and talk to people about it. I can’t look at “cover art.” I can’t talk to editors… It makes more sense to just put it out on the sidewalk and let it blow away. Not blow away, not – Jesus. I have no skin. After I write, I want to evaporate… It’s not the writing that’s the problem. It’s everything else.

When I saw the play, I hadn’t yet started my grad degree and was just there to see Alan Rickman in person, so I paid the most attention to Leonard’s words, rather than identifying with the students. Unbeknownst to me, I would soon after identify with the students, having a prof who was rather similar to the intimidating and harsh (if not somewhat cruel) character of Leonard. But now, after re-reading the play, I identify again much more with Leonard (at least when he’s actually being honest and not a complete a–hole), happier (or at least resigned) to work as an editor (my day job), helping others get their work published rather than my own.

As of yesterday, I’ve completed yet another draft of my manuscript on the Sulpicia poems, about three drafts removed from the first one I let someone see.* And now that I am actually happy with it (today, anyway), I can’t help but think it’d be better to just stick it in a drawer now, never to be seen by anyone else. For the current version, I revisited every single piece of criticism I got on my work while in grad school, and dealt with that all over again, along with all the self-doubt involved with my ideas and the right to share my ideas and the potential backlash I could receive for my ideas. For me, it’s my ideas that are the most important – that’s where all the work was, and I haven’t backed down on any of them, four years after arguing that those ideas warranted my getting an MA.

As for the writing? I’m not sure I want or need anyone’s approval or validation on my writing. I just want it to be over. Pace Sulpicia, non ego signatis quicquam mandare tabellis uelim. Or, I – the ‘I’ as a writer of all things Sulpicia – want to evaporate.

*Thanks again, Susan!

Doubts: A history

From 2010 to 2014, I visited New York 1-3 times a year. It became a second home to me.

For my first two trips, in September 2010 and February 2011, I brought a notebook along with me, and jotted down everything in point form. Everything I ate, every train I took, every movie I watched, every show I saw, every encounter I had with a local, everything.

My third trip, in December 2011, I brought the same notebook, but just have two entries, written this time in full but rambling sentences, one the day after I had seen Anne Carson in a Next Wave Festival talk (called “Grief in Greek Tragedy”), and the other a couple days later, jotted down while sitting on a stone bench in my favourite part of the Metropolitan Museum, the Leon Levy and Shelby White Court.

This latter entry captures where my mind was at prior to starting my MA (in September 2012), processing Anne Carson, New York, the magnificent Greek and Roman sculptures surrounding me, and the play I had seen the day before, Seminar (staring the very missed Alan Rickman), and somehow using it to form my thoughts about the Sulpicia poems and whether my interest in them was a good enough reason to do an MA, or if I should just be happy being an editor (which is what I do now for work).

Perhaps it will entertain no one other than myself, but below is the transcription of that entry. It’s fascinating to me that I had the same basic doubts about just starting the degree as I do now, almost 7 years later, about writing a book about the Sulpicia poems.

Dec 4, 2011 (In the Leon Levy + Shelby White Court again)

People seem more interested in watching people sketch the works (or throwing pennies into the fountain) than looking at the works themselves. More interested in creating than the created? (Same w/those sketching –> creating own version of the already created more relevant to them, capturing what has already been captured in another medium is the bane of the artist’s existence.) If poems are pseudo-Tibullus –> is this what was being done? Re-capturing?


Why are sculptures displayed on larger non-sculpted pieces of rock? To show where they came from? To highlight the differences + work? To reinforce that it is just rock? Was Sulpician poems appended to illustrate their raw form, and what they could’ve been if worked on more? Or other way around re: Book 1 + 2?


Why did they place the Hercules wearing the lion skin across from the Hercules holding the skin, when there appears to be no other parallel placements?


What if minimalism has existed for centuries, and we just don’t know it because it would leave no artifacts behind as evidence?


Why did I pick up On the Road at the airport? If I hadn’t, would I have enjoyed Seminar as much, not being able to enjoy the references to Kerouac? The play largely didn’t have many allusions to it, other than Alan Rickman basically being a well-travelled Mackay*-as-fiction-author. And to James Frey (? – faux autobiography + Oprah). So many things/decisions based on short/small experiences that inform the next. Perhaps coming to the Met and the sense of being home in the Gk + Roman wing is why I want to pursue an MA in Classics and not something else. Or perhaps it’s just b/c I don’t have it in me to pursue a degree that requires me to be whoreish.** I might be like Alan Rickman’s character and find it hard to live after writing b/c I don’t want anyone’s eyeballs to scrape over my words.*** I have no skin to be criticized after writing down all my words, would rather lock it away in a drawer, and help/criticize others. But also, who’s going to care? No one will care if I decide not to do the degree. Though my directed study did inform Selina’s Lt elegy class.**** Does it matter if people care? Will I be happy w/editing b/c at least I’m working w/words? Why do some relate more to words than to stone/music/paint/etc.?

Unfortunately, I didn’t continue the habit of bringing this notebook with me or jotting down random thoughts while sitting in random places in New York, people-watching and whatnot. I’m sure I had some more thoughts that inspired parts of my thesis, or the manuscript. Methinks I will pick up this habit again…particularly if it means getting to go back to New York again.

*An intimidating, very learned, very blunt professor, who I found similar to Alan Rickman’s character in Seminar, of a writer-turned-writing seminar instructor who is, well, mean.

**I think this refers to the fact that I live in a province where oil is the main industry, and I have a lot of personal issues with being part of that economic machine.

***I believe this was a line from Seminar – will be ordering a copy of the play (written by Theresa Rebeck) to double-check.

****As previously mentioned, I had written a large term paper in my BA on the poems. My second reader for the paper (who later became my thesis advisor) tweaked a course she was teaching after I graduated based on my paper, though I don’t remember to what degree.

Sulpicia is(n’t)

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. An author of novels, specifically.

In elementary school, I wrote two ‘books’, which were both put in my school’s library. Both were silly kid stories, really based on books/comics I was reading at the time, both ‘bound’ between pieces of construction paper. I.e., literature at its finest.

The next piece of writing I produced was in junior high, a brutal poem based on nothing but my imagination. When I read it out loud in class, it sort of horrified my classmates. I don’t think I wrote anything for public consumption after that, nothing fictional anyways. I also kind of sort of avoided poetry after that too. And public speaking, for that matter.

I still wanted to be a writer though, and started numerous stories, each never going beyond a couple pages, nearly all now lost on dead laptops.

Then when I started studying Classics, I needed a topic that I could get a hefty term paper out of in order to do a so-called ‘Honours’ degree. A favourite professor of mine suggested the Sulpicia poems. Poetry of any sort wouldn’t have been my first choice (see above), but I was interested. Quite interested.

I think the department’s idea of a ‘hefty’ term paper was something like 25 pages. I wrote over 60. And I wasn’t done with these poems.

A few years later, I returned to do my MA, and wrote another 90+ pages on the poems. And a 25ish-page journal article. And I still wasn’t done.

But I knew that I didn’t want to continue on to a PhD. And I also knew that no one except maybe obsessive graduate students like me read other students’ theses, so all that work would go largely unread, unless I turned my thesis into a book. A serious, scholarly book.

So I tried to write a serious, scholarly book. I really did.

But for three years, as has sort of been documented in this blog, I struggled with who I should write the book for. For other scholars? (But I only have a MA, no one will listen to me.) For other people interested in Sulpicia? (But no one wants to hear my theories because they don’t want them to be true.) For people dealing with similar issues in their research? (The Sulpicia poems have been so oddly treated, I don’t know if there is even a similar case.)

Over and over, I kept writing short pieces on why my book should exist, why different types of people should read it, without actually writing the book itself.

The book instead became an entire volume of, basically, apologies, just preface after preface, each addressing a different angle of why the book – if we ever got to the actual book – was important…But we never did get to the actual book.

The more I wrote, the more fictional it got. The more poetic it got.

I kind of sort of wrote something that was part novel, part poetry, and part serious scholarly something. Experimental fiction. Something that could proudly have a real cover and spine and everything, no staples and construction paper needed.

I submitted the manuscript, entitled Sulpicia is…, to a publishing house, and was happy about it, even if I was to hear nothing back. I felt like what I had come up with was the best way to finally finish my work on the Sulpicia poems. I could now leave them be.

I then sent the manuscript to a former professor, and hoped to hear something back. I haven’t.

Now I regret all of it. The manuscript is horrible. Why would I think otherwise? If it were a physical mound of paper, I would burn it.

Just a few days ago, I was lamenting that I was done with the topic, that I didn’t know what I could now write about, after over a decade of writing about just this one thing. Now, I’m lamenting about having to return to it, to make the manuscript worthy of Sulpicia.

Sigh.

(Note: This post has been cross-posted from my other, non-Sulpicia blog, and amended slightly.)

Preface (to a goodbye)

Yesterday, I submitted the manuscript for my Sulpicia book. I’m not sure I was ready for that, but over the last few weeks I had done a ton of work on it, so I think that it, at least, was ready.

 cum digno digna fuisse ferar

I don’t actually have too much hope for it being accepted the first time I submit it. That would be too easy.

But, for the next eight weeks anyway, it is out of my hands. It is (kinda sorta) finished.

So.

Now what?

I’ve written about Sulpicia for over a decade. At first I thought my BA thesis was the end point. Then I thought my MA thesis was the end point. Then I thought my Mouseion journal article was the end point. Then I thought this blog was the end point.

But a book, a published book, that would definitely be the end point.

The end of my journey with Sulpicia.

Because no one trusts the person who only writes about a single thing.

You have to move on.

She was really my only specific interest in the Ancient World though. The only subject I really had a chance to dig into before I forgot too many Latin rules and Greek vocabulary. And, I never did learn German, the main stumbling block in my research, past and potential.

So, if now is the time to move on from Sulpicia, I think it is then also time to move on from Classics.

I knew it had to happen at some point. I only have a Masters. I can’t go any further in the field with just that.

Only having a Masters already puts my manuscript at risk of never being published.

And the longer it takes to get published, the farther I am away from the hallowed halls of education, and the larger that risk grows.

I’m not entirely sure who I am without Sulpicia. And if I have nothing to show for it after our time together?

hic animum sensusque meos abducta relinquo / arbitrio quamuis non sinis esse meo