Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Putting the "Sister" in the Sister Arts

The Portland Rose, from Henry Charles Andrews, Roses, Or, A Monograph of the Genus Rosa (London: Printed by R. Taylor and Company and published by the author, 1805-28). As a leading botanist, the Duchess of Portland had many plants named for her, including this rose, which Mary Delany called an "emblem of Friendship's sacred tie." Courtesy of the University of Illinois Libraries.

Associate professor of English and women's and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Lanscapes

I always dreamed of writing a book that looked like this.

From the moment I first sent my query letter to editor Richard Morrison (asking, “Would you like to read a lush, sexy book about lesbian gardens?”), University of Minnesota Press has been making my dreams come true. Richard’s own interest in gardens and poetry (did you know he has an MFA and is an accomplished garden photographer?) as well as Minnesota’s distinguished queer studies and landscape architecture lines appealed to me when I was choosing a publisher. Now, holding the finished book in my hands, everything from the texture of the paper to the eye-popping design to the typeface does justice to that first description, and to the stories I tell in the book of bold women artists expressing desire and creating relationships with one another through landscape art.

I grew up hiking, trail-riding and skiing in the foothills of Southern Alberta, where my father is a retired horse vet and rancher and my mother is a nature writer. I ventured East for college in search of culture, not nature, studying English literature and art history and working for a couple of years as an art writer for a Canadian magazine. I became a feminist, came out as a lesbian, and got my PhD at Cornell at the crest of the poststructuralist theory wave in 1991. My first book was on love between women in the early novel (think Emma and Harriet in Jane Austen’s Emma), and I was hired by the University of Texas English department to teach feminist theory, gay and lesbian studies, and eighteenth-century literature. These disparate interests all came gloriously together when I began the research that led to the publication this month of my new book, Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes.

As British imperial power grew over the eighteenth century, English artists were no longer content to take second place to the trend-setting French and Italians. Perhaps the French were the best painters and the Italians the best poets, the two elite art forms that Leonardo da Vinci and others placed in competition in a revival of the classical debate known as the paragone. But the emerging masterpieces of English landscape design, critics argued, deserved pride of place in this pantheon. Paintings could be poetic, poetry could be picturesque, landscapes could be painterly: “poetry, painting and gardening,” decreed the influential tastemaker Horace Walpole, “will forever by men of taste be deemed Three Sisters.”

“Men of taste” turned out to be no mere anachronism, however. Standard accounts suggested that women had not participated nor influenced the English landscape arts, and that the well-known tradition of the bawdy or erotic garden (for example, designing lakes and hillocks to resemble the body of a reclining nude) was always designed by and intended for men. Skeptical of the completeness of these accounts, I set out to research women in the English landscape arts, to put “sisters” into the Sister Arts.

To do so, I had to find and even create new archives. I spent weeks in England, Ireland, Wales and Connecticut (for a chapter on an early American landscape poet named Sarah Pierce), unearthing correspondence, manuscripts, drawings, budgets, plans and crafted objects that would help me tell my story. I eventually settled on four protagonists: bluestocking wit, botanical illustrator and garden designer Mary Granville Pendarves Delany; her beloved friend, the famous naturalist Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Bulstrode, who opened the first public museum in England to showcase her collection; Romantic poet Anna Seward, an early conservationist famous for her elegies to a lost love named Honora; and Pierce, who wrote what is often considered the first lesbian poem in American literature in the form of the georgic, or farmer’s poem. I was delighted to discover not just that these women had created works of landscape art—including botanical illustrations, landscape designs, natural history collections, and nature poetry—but that they had known of and been influenced by one another’s work in a tradition that stretched across the eighteenth century and across the Atlantic. In the final chapter of the book, I describe how this alternative sister arts tradition, in which women use the inspiration of the natural world to create works of art that celebrate (and sometimes critique) love between women, persists to the present day.

One of the joys of doing this work has been my immersion in the world of garden writing. I’m not willing to give that up, so I’m continuing in blog form, which allows me to write about local gardens as well as English ones, popular music, the politics of the poetry business, and much more. Check it out — it's called (what else?) Sister Arts: Gardens, Poems, Art, Community.


Find out more about Sister Arts.

"As its lyrical title suggests, Sister Arts, Lisa Moore's loving account of the unusual and haunting works produced by her four subjects—elegiac friendship poems, picturesque landscape designs, leaf collages and scrapbooks, collections of flowers, shells, and butterflies—at once illuminates and charms, deepening our understanding both of female-female intimacy and the elegantly subversive means women in past centuries found to express such devotion."
—Terry Castle

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Eric Dregni: Swedish egg coffee and "traitorous" gossip

Author of several books, including Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, and assistant professor of English at Concordia University in St. Paul.

It all begins with coffee. Especially egg coffee.

Whenever I’d visit my great aunts, they’d have the pot brewing and little pastries or cookies to eat as they’d chatter away. As soon as they switched to Swedish, I knew they were talking about some sordid affair that the younger generation couldn’t hear. The men would come in for a coffee break and never say much—mostly just “Yup.”

Every morning, my grandmother made her Swedish egg coffee: a quarter cup of Folger’s—that’s what Mrs. Olson recommended—mixed with an egg white and the shell thrown in for a little calcium. The egg clings to the grounds, so when her concoction was poured through a simple strainer, the result was a perfectly clear cup of coffee. Swedes like her further diluted it with thick cream, whereas Norwegians always wanted it black.

In the above video, I show the basics of making Swedish egg coffee and even use my grandmother’s coffee-making tools, although the videographer wouldn’t let the coffee steep long enough to get dark. Scandinavians drink the most coffee of anyone in the world, at least 18 pounds per person per year—and my family was no exception.

In writing Vikings in the Attic, I had to dig back into my own past and that of my great-grandparents, who came over from Scandinavia. I always thought that Scandinavians were normal. Growing up with mostly Swedish and Norwegian grandparents (and a bit of Danish thrown in for good measure), I assumed our family and the Midwest was the apex of rational thought and our culture simply the way people must live, if they had any sense. Doesn’t everyone endure Jell-O-like fish soaked in butter and gut-wrenching meatballs at Christmas time? (Speaking of Jell-O, what makes it “salad” when mixed with marshmallows and Cool Whip?)

When I asked about some of these strange habits to a Norwegian-American woman in Burnsville, she feigned surprise: “What do you mean that we’re strange? It’s everyone else that’s weird!”


Or as my grandmother Evie, who made the Swedish egg coffee, used to say, “They’re all queer ducks except for you and me…but I kind of wonder about you.”

While not intended to be outrageous, this is the book I wished I had read while growing up to shine some light on that dark corner of the closet where we stash our secrets. The topics—from curing a cough with turpentine to “lice cover” sweaters—are not standard textbook fare and hardly a complete view of Scandinavian influence. Instead, they are the stories that my relatives didn’t pass on to me. This is partly because when I was a vain punk rock teenager I thought I had little to learn from my Swedish-American grandmother who collected silver spoons. Or perhaps there are stories my elderly relatives didn’t want the younger generation to know.

To honor our Scandinavian roots, my dad used to make "Norwegian dinner,” a bi-monthly excuse to espouse our glorious Norwegian roots to his captive family. Considering that Norway is a country with a culinary delicacy of fish soaked in lye, we weren't thrilled by my dad's newfound enthusiasm. He would make a special trip to Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Market in south Minneapolis to shop for food that most grocery stores deemed unfit for human consumption. My dad lovingly set the table with a blue-and-red printed tablecloth, candles, and wooden knives and breadboards he bought in Norway. But the mood lighting still couldn't hide the food: boiled potatoes, cauliflower, and some sort of bland white fish were covered with an even blander white sauce, all on a white plate. Pickled herring added the only flavor to the meal.

Apart from the questionable cuisine, the most surprising aspect of my Scandinavian family’s experience in the Midwest was why they learned English. The only time my grandparents spoke Swedish was when they wanted an unintelligible language to keep secrets from the grandkids. How I wished they had passed on Swedish to all of us! Being second-generation Scandinavians, they wanted to keep their distance from their immigrant parents, their thick accents, and their Old World ways.

I used to believe this. Then I discovered that during World War I the state government set up the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety to root out Scandinavians with mixed loyalty who could be considered traitors. About 300,000 Minnesotans spoke or at least understood Swedish—not to mention Norwegian or other Scandinavian languages—and they had little desire to learn English, which they often considered inferior. I found posters proclaiming “Don’t be Suspicious! Speak American!” (Not English, mind you.) They learned English out of fear. Still, one Lutheran questioned, “I have nothing against the English language. I use it myself every day. But if we don’t teach our children Norwegian, what will they do when they get to heaven?”

Mostly, I learned how Scandinavians, more than any other ethnic group, shaped the Midwest into their vision of the promised land. After abject poverty in Scandinavia and a grueling ocean voyage, these hardy immigrants had to band together to survive. They formed cooperatives to stave off the brutal capitalist robber barons. They withstood accusations of unholy rituals with their devilish black books and gathered naked in sweaty saunas. Most importantly, they kept their humor and passed the Jell-O salad.


Eric Dregni is author of several books, including Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, In Cod We Trust, and Never Trust a Thin Cook and Other Lessons from Italy's Culinary Capital, among others.

"While reading Vikings in the Attic, I solved two family mysteries and added at least ten new jokes to my act."
—Louie Anderson

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Freedom, Feminism, and Rock 'n' Roll: Ellen Willis's Out of the Vinyl Deeps

"At a time when rock clichés were still being invented, [Ellen] Willis was already leaving them behind."
—Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone

Please check out our new video for Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz, with a foreword by Sasha Frere-Jones and afterword by Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy. The video features the voice of Ellen Willis and interviews with editor-in-chief Nick Catucci, popular essayist and rock critic Robert Christgau, author and sociologist Donna Gaines, and author and teacher Courtney E. Martin.

* Publishers Weekly (starred review).
* The New Yorker, Q&A with Frere-Jones on Willis.
* NPR's All Things Considered: Ann Powers discusses Ellen Willis. Link includes excerpt from Willis's very popular essay on Bob Dylan.
* Entertainment Weekly. (Grade: A)
* AlterNet asks: Was Ellen Willis the best rock critic of all time?
* Inside Higher Ed.
* Slate.
* New York Press.
* Boston Globe: Her Mom Rocked and Wrote/Q&A with Nona Willis Aronowitz.
* Flavorwire compiles a list of 10 vital albums from Out of the Vinyl Deeps.
* Jezebel: Irin Carmon discusses the April 30th, 2011, Ellen Willis conference at NYU.
* Bitch magazine.


Read more in Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

From the often-unnecessarily-shunned performer Henry Wood to the now-impossible Charlie Sheen: My, how times have changed.

A circa-1900 image of Grand Theatre in Buffalo, New York. While vaudeville as an art form peaked around 1928, Wisconsin's Henry Wood, who began his life in traveling medicine and tent shows around 1910, continued to promote small-town films, shows, and carnivals almost to the end of his days. He passed away in October 1983. Image from Creative Commons.

Who would have thought that a poorly educated meat cutter's son from Viroqua, Wisconsin, might one day stand on the threshold of stardom in one of the world's most glamorous professions?
—Henry Wood

Author and grandson-in-law of Henry Wood

If he were alive today, Henry Wood wouldn’t comprehend the recent antics and rants by Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan and other wealthy, pampered celebrities. Henry spent more than three decades in show business himself, and couldn’t relate to prima donna behavior. He’d have had no patience with ego-driven tantrums. Henry always maintained that entertaining audiences was a high privilege and an entertainer was beholden to his or her audience who didn’t care a whit about whether an actor loathed his director or producer, or that a car-parking valet didn’t genuflect in his presence. Henry viewed his show business tenure as almost a sacred calling, and he would have never dreamed of defaming the profession he so deeply cherished.

While it seems as though practically everyone on the planet is aware of Charlie Sheen and other troubled luminaries who grace the covers of supermarket tabloids, you’re excused if you’ve never heard of Henry Jarvis Wood. Henry never made a movie, and never appeared on television, never had his picture in a newspaper, nor was he interviewed by reporters. But he was show business through and through. He performed in medicine and tent shows from 1910 into the early 1940s.

In 1910 when he was only 12 years old Henry ran away from his Viroqua, Wisconsin, home and joined a traveling medicine show in La Crosse. His first job was to brew supposed "cure-all" elixirs, but his career evolved into performing. In turn he was a song and dance man, a virtuoso on the musical saw, and an actor, whose specialty was portraying villains in the clichéd melodramas that were the stock in trade for those old touring tent companies that crisscrossed rural America from the 1880s until the advent of World War II.

But playing the “heavy” in the days before radio and television came at a cost. The mostly rural audiences for touring tent shows were unsophisticated and often couldn’t distinguish between Henry’s onstage characters and Henry himself. Those old-time villains endured more than boos and hisses; Henry was frequently refused service in restaurants, evicted from hotels and boarding houses. He was sometimes threatened with physical violence when audiences thought the malefactor had gone too far as in one play where he evicted his widowed mother from her home and sent her to the poor house. That role brought embarrassment to Henry’s own mother, who wept after seeing this performance. “We never taught you to behave like that,” she told him, and his future father-in-law called Henry a monster and warned him to stay away from his daughter.

Sign for an annual opening of the Orpheum
vaudeville at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, WA,
circa 1916-1923. The Orpheum circuit operated
principally in the Midwest and West. The Minneapolis
Orpheum, which opened in 1921, was one of the
largest vaudeville houses in the country.
In the small heartland communities of the Midwest where most of the stock companies Henry worked for performed, he really did have to watch his back. In Pine City, Minnesota, an outraged woman struck him with her umbrella when she encountered him on the street. But Henry never went ballistic; instead he demanded—and got—pay raises. He stayed the course, certain of his calling to bring entertainment to people removed from the urban culture that was emerging in America.

The old medicine and tent shows of that era were regarded as déclassé by true vaudevillians who performed in theaters, not tents. Many vaudevillians ascended to icon status, playing the Orpheum circuit or New York’s famed Palace Theater. Scores of them graduated into radio, television and films. A number of these performers also amassed great personal wealth.

Tent show actors and musicians, on the other hand, rarely advanced beyond those venues, laboring in relative obscurity. Neither wealth nor fame was in the cards for Henry Wood, but performing was in his blood. And he did attain a touch of celebrity whenever a fan requested an autograph. Henry told me he felt honored to sign his name, and couldn’t conceive of any performer refusing so simple a request.

Henry’s career predates Sheen’s and Lohan’s by decades. There was no room for narcissistic behavior. How times have changed.

Henry’s time is recounted in his book, A Sawdust Heart, My Vaudeville Life in Medicine and Tent Shows. Henry articulates the hardscrabble existence of marginal performers who, unlike the megastars of today, never captured the attention of media, and whenever audience attendance slackened, they often wondered if the boss would meet that week’s payroll.

But Henry and his fellow performers from that era took satisfaction in knowing they brought pleasure to citizens in hinterland backwaters—places New York and Hollywood never knew existed.


Read more about the life of Henry Wood in A Sawdust Heart: My Vaudeville Life in Medicine and Tent Shows, by Henry Wood, as told to Michael Fedo.

"Those old trails and dried-out creek beds that served as roads and highways for long-ago touring troupes are gone, but the memories of the travels and the thickly carpeted sawdust floors are forever vivid in my mind. Though it all began more than sixty years ago, it was really only yesterday in the history of theater. For my part, I'm proud to have played a small role in it."
—Henry Wood, May 1974

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How motion, relationships, and productive tension help build better cities across the world

Barcelona has been hailed for its ability to inform future strategies for world cities in urban planning and regeneration. In the new book Mobile Urbanism, multiple contributors argue for a theorizing of both urban policymaking and place-making that understands them as groups of territorial and relational geographies. Image from Creative Commons.

Ward is professor of human geography at the University of Manchester.
McCann is associate professor of geography at Simon Fraser University.

The urban policy world is in constant motion. In a figurative sense, policymakers seem to be under increasing pressure to get a move on, to keep up with the latest trends and ‘hot’ ideas, to convert them into locally appropriate ‘solutions,’ and to ‘roll them out,’ to make the most of them before they become unfashionable. As waves of innovation arrive more frequently, a concordant ‘churning’ appears to characterize much of urban policy.

Contemporary policymaking, at all scales, appears to involve the constant ‘scanning’ of the policy landscape via professional publications and reports, the media, websites, blogs, professional contacts and word of mouth for ready-made, off the shelf policies and best practices.

It is in this context that figurative motion in the policy world becomes literal motion. Policy actors (a broadly defined category including politicians, policy professionals, practitioners, activists, and consultants) shuttle policies and knowledge about policies around the world through attendance at conferences, fact-finding study trips, consultancy work, and so on. These travels involve the transfer of policies from place to place, involving local, regional, national and supranational policymakers in networks that extend globally, bringing certain cities into conversation with each other (while pushing others further apart). They create mental maps of ‘best cities’ for policy that inform future strategies: Austin for quality of life and creativity, Barcelona and Manchester for urban planning and regeneration, Curitiba for environmental planning, Freiburg for sustainable living, Portland for growth management, and Porto Alegre for participatory budgeting and direct democracy. In a policy sense (as in other ways) cities are constituted through their relations with other places and scales.

While motion and relationships define contemporary policymaking, this is, of course, only half of the picture. Policies and policymaking are also intensely and fundamentally local. The examples we've listed confirm this point since our ability to refer to complex approaches to vexing problems through the use of a shorthand of city names indicates how tied certain policies are to specific places. For example, there is a Barcelona model of urban regeneration that rests on the historical-geographical circumstances of that city and its relationship with other regional and national forms of decision-making. While other cities might be encouraged to adopt the model, it is generally understood that adjustments will need to be made in order for it to work in those other locales. Similarly, it is understood that the success of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, for example, will not necessarily guarantee its successful adoption elsewhere. Furthermore, policy is fundamentally territorial in that it is tied up with a whole set of locally dependent interests. As such, policymaking must be understood as relational and territorial; as both in motion and simultaneously fixed, or embedded in place. The contradictory nature of policy should not, however, be seen as detrimental to its operation. Rather, the tension is a productive one.

This tension lies at the heart of Mobile Urbanism and is considered in each essay. While the essays are distinct, they are nevertheless united by their attention to the productive tension between territoriality and relationality in urban policymaking, governance, and politics. This manifests itself in three issues that appear and reappear in many essays. First, all of the contributors show that cities are assembled (literally put together) by what policy actors do and how they imagine the futures of their cities. These actors are continually attracting, managing, promoting, and resisting flows of information and knowledge while reaching out to make connections to places elsewhere. This is evident in Doreen Massey’s discussion of the London-Caracas agreement that offered material and political benefits to each city, at least until a new regime in London reoriented the city’s global outlook. Jamie Peck, for his part, compares two policymaking ‘moments’ in UK urban cultural policy. He argues that in each case local actors managed all kinds of ‘flows’ but he notes that the differences in how they managed these flows says as much about the wider systems in which the cities were embedded as about the cities themselves.

Second, most of the contributors offer more or less explicit critiques of the existing academic literature on policy transfer. The notion of ‘transfer’ is jettisoned and replace with the notion of mobility. This change reflects the concern of the authors to emphasize how polices change and mutate as they are moved from one place to another. Nowhere is that clearer that in the chapters by Kevin Ward on business improvement districts and Jennifer Robinson on city strategies. In the first of these the policy that emerged in 1970 in Toronto, Canada, is not the same as that introduced into the UK in 2001. As the model of downtown governance moved in and through various Canadian and
A model of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)
has been produced in certain New York districts
and came to be appropriated by UK policymakers.
US cities, most noticeably New York, it morphed and mutated. Regarding city strategies for participatory decision-making in governance and planning, Robinson highlights their emancipatory potential. The model’s progressive potential seems to depend as much on the politics of the cities it passes through as much as the model itself.

Third, the essays offer varied insights into how best to study the movement of policies. There is value in paying attention to how various spaces are brought into being during the journey of a policy/program or in attempts to manage the movement of global flows in and through cities. This is clear in Roger Keil and Harris Ali’s discussion of the SARS outbreak, its flow through key cities, and the rapidly shifting geographies of medical knowledge that were involved in stemming its movement. Key to the spread of SARS were airports, and Donald McNeill’s chapter highlights how these are spaces and infrastructures that are managed globally in their own right. His analysis shows that the study of mobility is, necessarily, also the study of fixed infrastructures.

Finally, we can see the relationship between studying and following policies in Eugene McCann’s essay, which traces Vancouver’s drug policy, its origins elsewhere, and its ongoing connections to other cities. He uses a range of qualitative techniques to trace the inter-connections between places and argues that there is always a local politics of policy mobility that extends local debates out beyond the city limits and that lingers on after new policies have been ‘imported.’ Policy mobilities reflect and enforce urban ‘globalness.’

Mobile Urbanism
ultimately, to quote Cochrane in the preface, ‘makes it possible to explore the ways in which apparently distant phenomena can be drawn in by political actors to reinforce their position, to develop political initiatives, resolve or generate political controversy and build political power and authority.’ After Mobile Urbanism, the study of ‘urban’ governance and politics should never be the same again.


Find out more in Mobile Urbanism: Cities and Policymaking in the Global Age, edited by Eugene McCann and Kevin Ward.

The authors invite you to check out the Imagining Urban Futures Program of the University of Manchester, a program in which they are both involved.