MLA Convention dispatch #1: “Get this housewife out of here!”

An anonymous MLA convention-goer is sending dispatches from the convention while Maud is otherwise engaged this week. Her first report centers on hero Grace Paley. Unfamiliar with the Modern Language Association? Consult this quick primer.

An elderly female professor of my acquaintance often has to deflect importuning undergraduates because, well, if the Pillsbury Doughboy had a grandmother, she’d be the model. She looks like something out of a fairy tale, all soft round envelopingness and deep belly laughs. But she’s no cuddly pushover; she’s a leading scholar in her field and tough as nails. More than once, she’s had to set the kiddies straight: “I may be somebody’s grandmother, but I’m not your grandmother.”

I was reminded of this story tonight because Grace Paley looks like my grandmother. And she continues to set us all straight. Tonight I heard her speak in Philadelphia.

Paley ventured to Philly from her home in Thetford, VT, to take part in an MLA panel, “Feminist Activism inside and outside the Academy,” examining the legacy of deceased professor, author, and feminist Carolyn Heilbrun. It was a high-powered assemblage on the podium. A madwoman in the attic, Susan Gubar, presided, and Sara Paretsky winged in from Chicago to discuss her partner in crime. The audience in the Liberty Ballroom of the Marriott was just as high-powered and fabulous. Even the toughest butch professors laughed easily, in open delight.

Because your correspondent had to contend with stop-and-go traffic between the many storied rest areas of the New Jersey Turnpike, I was only able to catch the luminous and salty Paley, midway through a story about her six-day stint in the now-demolished women’s jail on 10th and 6th Avenue for sitting down in protest in front of a mounted police officer. [“Six days? What the fuck for?” exclaimed a woman looking at three years.] In her braying echt-Noo Yawk accent, she wryly observed that, “despite the great history of prison literature,” she found herself in stir with nothing to read, no pen, no paper. Even under privation conditions, she managed to remember and recreate the voices of the other women there: the junkies, the high-end hookers and the street whores, their voices contiguous with the women that peopled Paley’s Village neighborhood and her short stories, just on the other side of the bars. I just wish I knew how this tale tied in to Heilbrun’s legacy.

A connection was easier to discern in the poem Paley chose to close with, “Responsibility,” which concludes, “It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman, to keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.”

For the next three days, I promise to follow the example of Paley and Heilbrun and keep an eye on the world of the MLA. If past experiences are any guide, you can expect a great deal of crying out.


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