Research Exchange Seminar

18th May 2010, 12:00pm - 2:00pm

Edge Hill University

The Research Exchange Seminars provide an informal forum for short presentations from staff and research students on various topics but usually focusing on their experiences of undertaking research.

The Department of English research exchange seminar on Tuesday 18th May 2010 takes place from 12pm-2pm in room JD13.


  • Mari Hughes-Edwards – ‘Too Lesbian for Laureate? (Re)reading the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy’
  • Ailsa Cox – ‘Tragic-Comic Encounters in Katherine Mansfield and Contemporary Women Writers’ 
  • Robert Sheppard – ‘Stefan Themerson and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry: the S.P. ‘translations’ in Bayamus (1944)’

‘Too Lesbian for Laureate? (Re)reading the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy’

by Mari Hughes-Edwards

This paper will argue that readers who come to Duffy’s work looking for lesbian activism or for an identifiably lesbian poetics, will be disappointed. Duffy famously distanced herself from lesbian sexuality as creative stance in a recent interview with the writer Jeanette Winterson, declaring:

Yet ironically she was, in 1999, famously decreed too lesbian to be laureate, passed over for the post in favour of Andrew Motion and pilloried by the tabloid press in part because of her gender and her sexuality. Whilst references to lesbian desire are there in Duffy’s writing, at a rate of around one poem per verse collection from 1985 to 1993, for the most part, her poetry keeps the gender of its lovers a closely-guarded secret. Even in tremblingly passionate poems like ‘Sleeping’ from her 1993 collection Mean Time [which surely implies female/female desire through its depiction of ‘hot fruit, wet, strange / night-fruit I taste with my opening mouth’ (MT, p. 35)], same-sex desire is inferable by implication alone.

The paper will focus particularly on one of Duffy’s most recent verse collections, Rapture (2005), which charts the trajectory of a passionate relationship from its glorious beginnings to its devastating conclusion. Of Rapture’s fifty-two poems, only ten contain direct lesbian references, compared to thirty-eight sexually indeterminate poems. The paper will argue that although it is possible to read this textually-constructed relationship as identifiably lesbian, it is not only reductive to do so; to do so is to miss the point. Duffy has deliberately written the sequence to resist sexual definition.

The paper will then discuss the implications of Duffy’s textual sexual ambiguity and ambivalence, and will theorise and problematise its revelation of desire. While the sexual indeterminacy of Duffy’s writing, and its resistance to categorisation, may be explored as a potential strength, (for it potentially strengthens the possibilities for the co-production of meaning enacted between reader and poet through the reading process, and facilitates the completion of meaning by a reader who can more easily bring her / his own interpretation of sexual identity and sexual preference to the text). Yet this freedom from definition will also be acknowledged as potentially frustrating for the reader, and the extent to which it may mean Duffy’s work is simply readable as heterosexist by default will be problematised.

‘Stefan Themerson and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry: the S.P. ‘translations’ in Bayamus (1944)’

by Robert Sheppard

Polish emigre Themerson wrote a series of ‘semantic translations’ – which replace key words in poems with their dictionary definitions – partly as a joke for his novel Bayamus (1944), but began to see potentialities in this method and in the opportunities thrown up by the typographical problems of rendering these structures on the page. In the process he wrote one of the most astonishing anti-war poems, but also demonstrated the resources of a visual practice that bears the influence of Apollinaire and Kurt Schwitters and presaged his most important poem Semantic Sonata (to be the subject of a future talk).

‘Tragi-Comic Encounters and Mansfield’s Legacy’

by Ailsa Cox

The comic dimensions of Mansfield’s work is often overlooked in critical discussions. Yet elements of satire, parody and comic incongruity are strongly pronounced in her stories. In this paper Ailsa shall begin by applying concepts of the ‘tragi-comic’ to Mansfield’s writing as a whole, showing how pastiche, grotesque humour and the evocation of human mortality generate comic ambiguity.

She will attempt a working definition of the ‘tragi-comic’; drawing on Bakhtinian theory to  explore how the representation of complex subjective states is subverted, yet not negated, in a brief discussion of ‘Je ne Parle pas Francais’. Focusing on ‘Psychology’ and ‘A Dill Pickle’, two examples which stage tragic-comic encounters between male and female, Ailsa will look in more detail at Mansfield’s use of direct speech, silence and subtext; and its relation to subject formation.

The paper ends with a discussion of Mansfield’s legacy to contemporary British short story writers including Helen Simpson and Tessa Hadley. Referring to examples from these writers, parallels will be drawn with both Mansfield’s tragic-comic sensibility and its potential to subvert gender expectations; and the specific narrative techniques used by a later generation in the representation of male / female encounters, notably their use of direct speech.

Further Information

This seminar is organised by the Department of Research and Knowledge Transfer. For further information, please contact Katherine Straker on 01695 584568 or email