Make Room For Me: Organising a Literary Conference

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Written by Noreen Masud

‘The times will just have to enlarge themselves to make room for me, won’t they, and for everybody else.’ (Stevie Smith, in interview with Peter Orr)

When someone asks me what I’m writing my doctoral thesis on, we often have the following conversation:

Stevie Smith

‘I work on Stevie Smith.’
‘She was a poet and novelist, from the early-to-mid twentieth century?’
‘Not Waving But Drowning?’

You’ve probably read ‘Not Waving But Drowning’. If you haven’t read the poem, you’ve probably heard the phrase. Smith’s poem has burrowed deeply into the public consciousness. Sadly, her name hasn’t. Though Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was well-loved during her life, she hasn’t quite entered the academic canon.

So working on Smith’s writing can be a little lonely. There aren’t many academic books on her poems and novels, and there’s no Stevie Smith society. So when I found out in May 2015 that a conference had never been held on her work, I decided to run one myself.

The timing was good. Will May was bringing out a new collection of Smith’s poems (left) and Virago had just re-released her novels. Hordes of new and old readers, then, re-invigorated and excited to talk about her work. The idea of filling a room with Stevie Smith lovers – of enlarging the times to make a bit of space for her – was irresistible.

First, I needed a co-organiser. I posted an appeal in the Facebook group ‘Undervalued British Women Writers 1930-1960’, an active and enthusiastic community which quickly put me in touch with Frances White. Frances is a passionate scholar of Iris Murdoch; she and I have been working together since.

Virginia Woolf famously remarked that to write fiction, women needed money and a room of their own. Money, certainly, proved the hardest thing to get hold of. The Arts Council of England turned down our funding application in November, and it looked for a while as though the conference might not be able to go ahead. So, optimistically, we wrote to Lord Saatchi asking if he would give us four thousand pounds. I like to think that he’s still considering our application.

In the meantime, we emailed people. Lots and lots of people. Gradually, the money trickled in. We received small contributions from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Faber, Virago and several university presses. Best of all, a local wine company agreed to donate five bottles of sweet sherry for the closing drinks reception. Stevie Smith was very fond of a mid-morning glass of sherry, and on 11th March we will all be raising a glass in her honour.

Papers on Stevie Smith’s writing were much less difficult to find. Organizing this conference showed to me just how many people love Stevie Smith’s work: they are out there quietly relishing her novels, giving her Selected Poems to friends. I spoke to doctors, journalists, graduate students, academics, poets and tour guides who were delighted to hear that a conference was being organised on their favourite writer. We have lined up some fantastic papers on Smith’s drawings, her politics, her ‘voices’ and her allusions to other authors.

But not everyone responds to Smith’s work in critical, academic terms. Over the years, poets, painters and composers have been inspired by her writing to produce extraordinary art. It seemed to me that a conference on Stevie Smith would not be complete without accommodating some of these very different (and in many ways equally critically valuable) responses. I emailed a number of artists, asking them if they would like to come and talk about their work, and was humbled by people’s generosity in agreeing to come and present. Sarah Pickstone, Simon Rowland-Jones and Suzie Hanna, among others, will be showcasing their art and music on the day.

Organising a literary conference can be consuming. I have had anxious dreams. The mildest dream involved discovering that the conference programmes were too big to fit into the paper folders. In the worst dream, none of the venue doors would open, and we were all left standing outside in the rain. But there is something really fun, and above all nourishing, about trying to bring artists and academics and lovers of Smith together.

Me, delighted, with our exhibition of Stevie Smith manuscript reproductions

I think that establishing an official space to talk about a particular poet – which is really what a conference is – can give people a sense of permission to be vocal about their love for that poet. Smith is so funny and wry, with her sketchy drawings and nonsensical rhymes, that she can feel like a guilty pleasure. But her work is brilliant – fiendishly clever – and can bear a lot of critical/creative investigation. I hope the conference encourages people to love Smith and to talk about her work. In the meantime, with one eye on those venue doors, I’ll be laying in some big umbrellas.

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Noreen Masud is a DPhil student at Oxford, investigating aphorism in the writing of Stevie Smith. She blogs at Parrots Ate Them All.