Booksmart: National Book Award winner, feminist writer at Conference

Feb 19, 2008 at 7:37 pm

There’s a veritable army of cultural academics and artists in town this week for a literary conference that’s now in its 36th year. The public’s invited along and, considering the magnitude of variety among the covered topics, those who read widely or want to see where the status and direction of the humanities today might think about stopping by.

The official name for the event, being held at U of L Thursday through Saturday (Feb. 21-23) is the “Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900.” If that seems like a fistful of verbiage, you’re right — but do keep reading. Otherwise, you might blink right past nuggets like the presentation “Star Wars Aliens: Reagan-Era Class Abductions.” And who could pass up “From Anal Probes to Red Rockets: ‘South Park’ as America’s New Social Compass”?

The press release from the official organizers say they expect 600 scholars to show up at the university. But one veteran presenter, Dr. Susan Gubar of IU, told LEO that the conference has taken on a more global focus in recent years, and it prides itself on non-academic keynote presentations. Gubar, a Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies, has one of those slots herself this year. At 5 p.m. on Thursday, she’s going multimedia to show how Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” has been subject to interpretations over the years by the publishers’ cover artists for the many editions of that classic. That’ll dovetail with how Gubar considered the legacy of Woolf’s piece and riffed on its style in her recent book “Rooms of Our Own.”

Gubar is enthusiastic about conference participation from beyond ivory-tower institutions, noting that artists and authors of all sorts join in. Two concerns that she raises — a developing insularity in feminist criticism, and an anemic response to reduced funding for the humanities — can only be helped by fresh voices.

Nathaniel Mackey, another of the keynote presenters, is getting what amounts to “star treatment” for this type of event. The University of California-Santa Cruz professor of literature, who won a National Book Award for his poetry volume “Splay Anthem,” will read from his “Recent Poetry and Prose” Friday at 5 p.m. But others will be discussing his work during multiple panel sessions — including a presenter from Australia to talk Saturday on “Postbop Jazz in the Poetry of Nathaniel Mackey and Amiri Baraka.”

It’s no surprise that a literary conference will have special groups setting up a room to discuss icons like Joyce or Flannery O’Connor (whose panel goes by the wonderful name “Divert the Reader’s Attention, then Clobber Him”). But, as Gubar notes, U of L, compared with other conferences, gets very active participation in the smaller sessions. When the academic community and informed readership get together for something like “Tim LaHaye and Left Behind: ‘Anti-Postmodern’ Dogmatism and the Rise of Evangelicalism,” it’s not so surprising.

The keynote sessions also include Columbia professor Maryse Conde (on “Itinerary of a Caribbean Writer”), Phyllis Zatlin of Rutgers (“In Theatrical Translation, There is No Lack of Conflict,” the Spanish keynote) and a closing presentation by Aldon Lynn Nielsen, poet and professor at Penn State. All of these are given at the Chao Auditorium of the Ekstrom Library on campus, and they’re free to the general public. Anyone who’d like to attend other sessions is asked to register ($10 per day) in Room 300, Bingham Humanities Building. Note that if you register Thursday, you get into a 6:15 p.m. wine and beer reception with jazz entertainment by the Jamey Aebersold Quartet. For more information, go browsing at
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