To feel and think and know:
An interview with Miranda Dunham-Hickman
July 4, 2023
In the years that I’ve known her, one of the things I’ve most treasured about Miranda is something that, if you don’t yet know her, will become evident from this interview: she takes people, ideas, and assignments seriously. In big ways and in small — and, ultimately, in more ways than I can count — I have benefited enormously from the fact that she took me seriously all those years ago. It is as a result of her characteristic generosity that this series, too, is now benefitting from her having taken it seriously even in its most nascent iterations.
She is a force of nature, an energizing presence, a rare soul, and a remarkable mind. I am immensely grateful for the extraordinary gift of this conversation.
Jana M. Perkins, Founder and Editorial Director
Miranda Dunham-Hickman specializes in modernist literature at McGill University, where she is Associate Professor of English and current director of the Poetry Matters initiative. She is recipient of the Noel Fieldhouse Award for Distinguished Teaching for the Faculty of Arts and McGill’s Carrie M. Derick Award for Graduate Supervision and Teaching. New work engages the film criticism of Iris Barry and modernist poet H. D.’s feminist translations of Euripides; a coauthored essay on H. D. and Euripides appears in the Classical Receptions Journal (2018). The Classics in Modernist Translation, coedited with Lynn Kozak, appeared through Bloomsbury in 2019. Other recent work includes essays on critic Q. D. Leavis and archives, Ezra Pound’s late Cantos, Wyndham Lewis’s Self Condemned and Vorticist painters Jessie Dismorr and Helen Saunders. She is author of The Geometry of Modernism (2005), editor and author of One Must Not Go Altogether with the Tide: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Stanley Nott (2011); and co-editor of Rereading the New Criticism (2012). One project in progress addresses “deep literacy,” and another engages “culture trouble” and the female public intellectual in interwar Britain.
How did your childhood shape your ideas about what work looked like and what was possible for you?
Miranda Dunham-Hickman: This takes me back to a specific site and environment that, at that time, had nothing to do with the worklife ahead — I wasn’t thinking in those terms at all. It’s a community playhouse that I was very much a part of when I was small. My family was attached to this community playhouse in Schenectady, New York, that was a kind of lifeline or lifeblood for us. My parents had met in theatre, and theatre represented for them something magical and sustaining and transformative. It was an arena in which people could become other than they normally are, and enter that world of imaginative fictions and play.
I was constantly around the playhouse when I was a kid. It was a “little theatre,” of about maybe two hundred and fifty seats. It’s one of the oldest running little theatres in the United States — I think it actually may be the oldest continuously running little theatre in the United States, the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, and it still exists. I was often in the theatre, hanging out on cold weekends, rehearsals. I was often the prompter, when I was little — they would give me the scripts, the book, and I would help the actors as they were rehearsing, because you needed somebody to feed you your lines. And that’s often what I did.
When I wasn’t up in the theatre per se I was downstairs in what was called the Green Room, where you could hang out on benches, and I would often spread out my work or in some way assist my mother with productions that she was directing. I would help with costume design from books at the library, and I would help her with notes, or I would be part of auditions. I was often there at auditions, and I would often read for parts, even when I was little, and people would get a kick out of it. It was just practice. There was no thought of casting me until later. Anyway, that was one of my worlds, and it’s a place that’s still at the heart of my imagination.
When I go back occasionally to Schenectady, where I grew up, I try to visit the area where the playhouse still is. It’s in what’s called the Stockade area, the core historic district, where some of the houses date back to the early eighteenth century. The Playhouse is ensconced there, and when I go back, there’s a particular site in the playhouse that I try to go back to. It’s not the Green Room and not the stage area — it’s the kitchen where we often hung out. It actually looks a lot like the scene that you see in The Muppets! [laughs]. When Kermit is backstage, the background there is the spitting image of the kitchen area, and that’s where the dressing rooms are. It was an area that branded itself on my imagination when I was very young, and I think I still have a tendency to think in terms of working with people in the mode that we did when we were working on shows together.
That was a big part of my formation, and, probably one of the reasons I went into literature — unconsciously — was as a way of entering, with others, a world of imaginative fictions which often holds a greater reality, for me, than anything in the everyday world. It has a kind of ontological primacy for me. So when I need to go back to some kind of core of the imagination, it’s really the kitchen in the backstage of that theatre where I am.
Jana M. Perkins: Wow. I just had no idea about any of that — that the theatre was such an important aspect of your upbringing, or that it informed your move into literary scholarship.
MDH: Well, I’m not sure it directly informed my move into literary scholarship. But it informed who I am as a being. And I guess that being, at some point, made a choice — took a decision — to move in that direction.
Fast-forward to today. How did the path to what you’re doing now unfold?
MDH: I wouldn’t use the word “unfold.” No — it zigzagged, and there were lightning strikes, even literal tornadoes which I came within a whisker of when I was first teaching out in Oklahoma. It’s felt more like a series of diagonals along the way, drama, uncomfortable transitions. Nothing in the nature of a gradually unfolding pathway.
There were lucky chances, when, shortly after the doctorate, I was able to get my first gig through a colleague who recommended my work. They needed somebody to substitute in a position — a faculty member was on leave for a couple of years, at the University of Tulsa, which actually ended up being one of the best places in the States for work in literary modernism — because people like Holly Laird and Bob Spoo and Sean Latham were there, all amazing colleagues in the field of modernist studies. And so the time there was excellent training, when I was just out of doctoral work. And then, subsequently, a few possibilities opened up, just as my mother was dying, and I had to make a choice whether I would go back to try to support — and then, subsequently, after she passed, help with the family — when I was interviewing for other positions. And my father wouldn’t hear of it. “Nonsense — you’re obviously going to go ahead with what you’re doing. It’s not going to bring her back.” And so, I had a few possibilities, and then took the opportunity at McGill.
There there was a cross-country trek, packing up my whole life in a car, on my own, and [laughing] driving from Oklahoma to Quebec on Route 66 — the old 66 — and calling my father from time to time on the very large cell phones we had at that point. I was passing through the areas of the American Midwest where he’d been raised. I’d had to drive really fast out of Oklahoma, because we had just weathered the enormous tornado of 1998. It actually skirted right by Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then pummelled Oklahoma City. And then, in the days that I was preparing to leave for Quebec, there was word that there was another tornado en route, and it was headed for the Tulsa area, and I thought, “I have to get out of here.” I remember driving out that morning and seeing the dark sky to the side, and realizing that there was more weather coming.
So that’s really what many of the transitions have been like. When first in Montreal, I zigzagged down to subletting a place in Vermont, for my own peace of mind, for reasons that were largely unfathomable to others, and sometimes even to me. But I ended up essentially kind of getting down there just about every weekend to try to find space and time to think and feel, away from the rather frantic pace of the university. In Vermont, I was actually in some ways looking for another set of values. And to some degree, I found them. Not altogether what I was looking for — I suppose I still haven’t found what I’m looking for — but some of it. That was one of those choices that didn’t entirely make sense when one thought in terms of the decisions of a career.
I’ve often tried to maintain distance on thinking in terms of the careerist framework. At one time, one that affected my training, many of the neighbourhoods in which I moved were even committedly anti-careerist. It felt as if people were anchored in different values. It was even somewhat negatively valenced, when you called somebody a careerist, because, ideally — idealistically — what you cared about was different. Yet I increasingly realized that, as times were changing, it was sort of a variety of naïveté to continue to hold that line. I think my going to Vermont to preserve my sanity, my intellectual equilibrium, I suppose, was one of those choices made out of that wish to maintain distance on the dominant logic of academic spaces.
What also brought me to Vermont was interest in what was emerging in the States around the civil unions controversy in Vermont. At that time, the U.S. was really behind on same-sex marriage or union of any kind. And yet Vermont was at the vanguard. And I was interested — when I went down there to visit acquaintances, I realized that there was a lot happening, politically, that I wanted to find out about, and that I wanted to get behind. I thought, “There’s really something to learn from there.” What was happening in leftist Vermont at that point was very much sort of the after reverb of the countercultural work that had been the heartbeat of the place in the late sixties, and into the seventies. I found that there was a lot to learn there about activism, about organizing, about community values.
I wasn’t thinking all that consciously about it. I was sort of more doing what I had to do. I had to do the equivalent of maintaining two separate sites that I was living between — in order to keep my mind.
JMP: I’m really glad you articulated that the way you did, because this narrative — or this idea — of the smooth career path, I think, trips a lot of people up. They imagine, “If I’m not getting it right away, or if it’s not happening for me in the way I think it should, then it’s not going to.” So I appreciate your outlining all of the steps along the way that could have gone one way or the other.
MDH: They weren’t steps! They were, usually, “I have to go here, or I have to get out of here.” One thinks of them in other ways.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
MDH: I had some, many, whom I valued highly. I really can’t do justice to even a fraction of them. But I also think that there’s a distinction between the people who are the obvious mentors, and then the people who helped me to cast my mind and thought further. Often the latter weren’t people who connected with me in a vein of mentorship at all. They were people who might have interacted with me only slightly, but who gave me something that took me to what felt like a further, wider horizon. These were people whose minds helped with that venture — what Wallace Stevens called that introspective voyage.
The mentors that I think of, people who were inspirational, include a high school teacher, Karen Ludwig, who’s no longer living, the spouse of a professor at Union College in Schenectady; she was my twelfth grade English teacher. It was her style of mind that caught my interest. I remember her saying one time — I don’t know why she confided in a few of us students, but — she said that, for her, it had always been the classroom that was most real. We always go on and on about trying to get outside of the classroom and the artificiality of the classroom and the constraints of the classroom. But as she told it, she always felt that it was within the confines of the classroom that there was a zone that had magic, in some ways, because there, you were free to play with ideas. It was that realm of disinterestedness that we think in terms of Matthew Arnold and Kant. For her, that had the greatest reality.
I could see what she meant. I think on some level I must have made a connection. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but between this world of fictions, with vividness and iridescence, that I associated with the world of theatre, and what for her was essentially theatre of the mind. I guess, I felt without entirely knowing it at the time, that the kind of mind play, intellectual practice that she was involved in, was different from what we were usually getting in high school. There was real play with ideas rather than just what you were getting command of to pass your state exams. And when it came time to decide on where to go to university, it was she who interviewed for Brown, which was where I decided to go. I had a range of options at that time, Princeton, Chicago, I think Yale, but Brown was where I wanted to be, in part because I’d understood Brown to be a space for freethinking.
On mentors, there was also one person with whom I connected while pursuing doctoral work whom I’ve never forgotten, Vincent Sherry. He was a colleague of the person who was my formal mentor in my doctoral program, whom I will always appreciate, John Whittier-Ferguson, with his generosity — he’d taught at a Quaker school before going into academia, and I appreciated the way that shaped his approach. John knew Vincent Sherry, who at the time had a book out on Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, where my thinking and writing was at the time. Sherry was at Villanova, a Catholic University, associated with the Jesuits, which shows in his intellectual practice. I didn’t know very much about his intellectual profile when John suggested that he would probably be a person to read one of the chapters.
When we spoke by phone, Vince told me that he had done his doctoral work in Canada. This was long before I ever imagined that I would have my worklife in Canada, but perhaps it was a kind of foreshadowing. He was one of the first people to tell me about the University of Toronto, and then I remember this really good conversation with him when he had read the chapter. He was interested by it, or at least he signalled that he was interested by it. That kind of mentorship was scarce — it was somewhat hard to get people’s attention for your work beyond one’s immediate circle — and yet we spent a couple of hours talking things through, because he took pleasure in talking about ideas that had to do with Pound and Lewis. I remember laughter and a sense of discovery, learning a great deal through exchange, and through tone. Here I was finally back to the space of intellectual practice as play, which I could get to only seldom, with a few colleagues there in the doctoral program. So I do remember that gesture on his part, that intellectual attention and kindness, and I appreciated that very much.
I also remember another strange moment — I suppose these are the forms in which mentorship arrives — that, when I was in graduate school, I received an acceptance from a journal called Paideuma, at the time focused on Pound studies. Most of us weren’t publishing, at that time, during doctoral work. You just generally didn’t; graduate students just weren’t expected to publish — the assumption was that one would wait until later. I still remember just deciding that I was going to send in an article because something had been going right with one of the papers that I’d been writing on Ezra Pound and his connection to deluxe editions. I found Paideuma, and I decided to send in the essay. And the senior editor — who was a grand figure of Pound studies, Carroll Terrell, who did the companion to Ezra Pound’s Cantos — wrote back; it was he himself who wrote back, with a typewritten letter. He had written something terse to the effect of, “You have a point. This is very interesting. We will publish this.” I think I may even have spoken to him by phone. At the time, we weren’t so elaborate in our professionalization. Quite otherwise. It was quite exciting to get an honest letter back, from Carroll Terrell directly. So those were a few of the moments of mentorship. Often there was very little about it that was formal or formalized.
And I remember being touched, years later, when I was on a panel at a conference for which Vince Sherry was the chair — it was the Modernist Studies Association. He actually took the time, in his inimitable style, to go through the work that those of us on the panel had done. He had taken the time to research our work, and he took more than the two minutes that one does. He brought out what he had enjoyed. He did that for people. Here was somebody who really wasn’t looking for the badges and prizes and all those trappings that Virginia Woolf talks about in Three Guineas, but had remembered something about the work.
JMP: I can just briefly add that I remember you doing the same for me, and for the other panelists, at one of the McGill conferences — what you just described Vince as doing. And I remember being so moved by the fact that you took the time to do that.
How would you describe what you do to a general audience?
MDH: If called upon to do so, I describe what I do as teaching something about one dimension of our cultural heritage, as the development of commentary on the imaginative fictions of the culture, and as scholarship in the archives that helps us develop as rich a store as we can of cultural memory about those aspects of the cultural heritage from which we might be able to think and work forward.
What was one of the first big aha moments of your career?
MDH: There have been many, though I didn’t always recognize them as such at the time, and I don’t know why exactly they happened. One I remember most keenly is from when I wasn’t yet involved in the career, from undergraduate days when I was doing a research project, and it had taken me to the archives. I was doing a project on the Chrysler Building in New York, and I was learning something from a cultural-historical perspective on Art Deco and the skyscraper culture that had flourished in the twenties that had come to a sudden halt in the early thirties with the Depression. At that point I was able to immerse in periodicals of that time to get a sense of what people had been talking about when the Chrysler Building was under construction, and then when it was built and fêted, and when it became a kind of symbol of Art Deco splendour and the new — the dazzling new. There was that sense of epiphany — I realized that I wanted to spend my life doing that kind of work, if I had the chance, traveling the cultural archives. It made sense that my métier would be literature, given what I had of training, and so that was a moment of consciousness that I would probably go on for advanced work in the field. Of course there were misgivings and backtrackings after that — it wasn’t as if it was a kind of clean moment of realization that led me indubitably into the next pathway. But I do remember the moment of illumination.
And I think there were subsequent rhymes with that, for instance when I was first at Girton College at Cambridge, doing research. I was with the papers of Q. D. Leavis, and I had to search around for places to stay on the campus of Girton, because it’s a bit away from the rest of Cambridge. And the people I was in touch with, the archivists, told me that apart from inns and B&Bs, there was one small space that was on site at the College, where sometimes visiting researchers stayed — this tiny bedroom on campus, where I was glad to stay. I subsequently learned that another mentor, the Victorianist Martha Vicinus, had been there a few years before, and had stayed there. When I thought about it, I thought, “Well, of course the nature of her work took her to Girton.” But it felt as though there was this kind of confirmation or corroboration that I’d come to the right place. Also fortunate was that I was able to gain access while there, not only to the papers formally catalogued on Q. D. Leavis, but also to other materials on Q. D. Leavis from the Cambridge University archives — which the archivist was kind enough to bring forward. For example, it was there that I learned that E. M. Forster had been one of the readers on her dissertation, keenly interesting — not information that was readily available in anything that I was reading on her work.
So I suppose those were moments of recognition of a kind that I was in the right place at the right time — to learn something and to come to know something that I otherwise wouldn’t have.
Outside of your work, what’s something you feel you’ve thought about a lot more deeply than most other people?
MDH: Gender and sexuality. I’ve developed a kind of theoretical vocabulary of my own making, over time, and it’s not always, I realize, intelligible to others now, in part because the field has moved on and elsewhere. I often find that what was a given theoretically in the late 1980s and into the 1990s about, for example, femininities and masculinities, just doesn’t register with people anymore. Yet I still find most cogent the nexus of thought that emerged in the early to late 1990s. It’s not an accident, for example, that I was interested in the work of Judith Butler, and I still find that vein and period of queer theory and queer studies probably most persuasive.
I received a note a few years ago, a handwritten note from a colleague out west — Ted Bishop, a wonderful modernist out at University of Alberta. He’s done a lot of really interesting work on little magazines and Virginia Woolf, and he’s collaborated with Michael O’Driscoll on archives, and then he decided to do a non-academic book called Riding with Rilke about his adventures on his motorbike, which was shortlisted for the GG Award in Canada. I remember that there was one time that he sent me a postcard because he’d had occasion to engage some of my work on the Vorticist painters, Jessie Dismorr and Helen Saunders, which drew in some of my work in gender studies. He’d finally read my couple of articles on these painters, for something he was doing, and I was framing them from the standpoint of masculinity studies. And what he indicated in the note was that he finally got it — the way that work on them had been informed by my approach to gender studies. I haven’t written directly on gender theory, but it’s informed a good deal of the work along the way.
Tell us about a time when you had to take a big risk in order to move forward. What did that experience teach you about how to navigate difficult circumstances?
MDH: There was a moment when I was asked to step into the directorship of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at McGill. There was a decision that had been taken that I became aware of about the graduate option in gender and women’s studies, and I found that a choice had been made, in essence, to do away with it, somewhat suddenly, at the level of the Faculty of Arts. Although not knowing very much about how such decisions are made, I imagined that such a decision couldn’t be taken without consultation of the stakeholders. So I decided it was time to get in touch with people elsewhere at the university to ask some questions about whether such a decision as this could be taken on the basis of a supposition that there wasn’t enough interest in this graduate option in women and gender studies, in numerical terms, to warrant its continuation. But I thought, “No, this isn’t right. There’s something that has not been examined sufficiently about this situation.” Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with people who likewise were interested in going forward with looking into this — and we found that indeed it wasn’t possible to eliminate a program without further consultation. My strong sense at the time was that it was important to be careful and respectful of everyone concerned. There’s always a tendency in the moment to demonize the forces that have brought this to pass, and I thought, “No, it’s really important not to do that.” Because the people who took this decision were working in good faith well-intentioned — I knew that there just wasn’t a full awareness of the situation. At that point, the people to whom I was talking were often saying, “Aren’t they the ones who are either in the wrong, or made the mistake, or both?” And my thought was — “No, I believe that they thought that they were doing the right thing or the sensible thing — I think it’s time to go back and have a conversation with them.”
There was a risk of alienating people in what became a complex situation, involving people from different perspectives — but ultimately it worked, and it worked, actually, in more ways than one, because there were some changes after that, I think, that made a difference. In the end, that particular graduate option retained, and people ended up having active conversations about why it should be sustained. And in part thanks to some of the momentum gained through those discussions, there’s now considerable work underway to develop an M.A. option, as well, in gender and women’s studies.
What question(s) are you currently wrestling with?
MDH: Well, as you know, I’m wrestling with the question of what constitutes deep literacy. I’m trying to figure out, I think, why I am convinced on that point, that something that has belonged to a time that feels like a “before time” — why I’m convinced that something is slipping away from us that is affecting our very modes of cognition. Often it’s really largely inarticulate, and often opaque to me, but when I walk into cultural spaces like old book stores, or record stores — like the record store by McGill, “Cheap Thrills,” where they sell lots of vinyl — I know that there is this fund of not only cultural knowledge, but even ways of being, like modalities of being, that we’re just not inhabiting anymore. And I don’t feel nostalgic for it. I’m just concerned that it’s sort of flashing up to us as a moment of Benjaminian danger.
Of course, there’s a great deal to be gained by sort of moving to these new modes and adapting. Actually, my children asked me this past week, “Well, if we only use ten percent of our brains, how could we get to a point where we could use more of our brains than that?” And I said, “Well, it all depends on the communities that you’re living in, and what they demand of you, and what your life and work demands of you.” I’m convinced that, after COVID, there’s a lot more that’s being asked of our minds. I think we’re actually getting to a point where people, at least around me, are using more of their brains than I’ve ever seen people do. There’s a way in which it’s clicked in, or notched up, or something, but whatever it is, it’s quite impressive. I can feel it, in colleagues and students. So I don’t think of what we’ve moved toward, or what has changed, as altogether unfortunate or bad. Not at all.
But I am concerned about states of mind and states of awareness — and, again, states of being — that are not with us anymore, that potentially have greater depths to them, in that they’re drawing upon some stuff of existence that is in layers or planes beyond the digital. And I’d like to find out more about how we keep, retain some of that as we move into something else. That’s why the archival matters so much to me — research in the archives among older cultural materials, that evoke and help us reconstruct the feel of other times. I think very much in terms of what Sven Birkerts brings across in The Gutenberg Elegies, which I discovered after starting with this line of thought and research.
Even though we don’t want to stay there, in the past — no. I don’t want to live in 1973 or 1934, either. Yet I think it’s really important to keep something about the modalities that we have worked with in the past, paradigms, because I do think that often, in many ways, they bring us to deeper levels of awareness. There is something slower, deeper, and more profound about those modes of being that we may not be able to get to if we’re not careful. So that’s a question that I’m reckoning with, wrestling with, at the present time.
What book have you most often gifted to others?
MDH: Oh, it changes every year. But there’s one that I’ve been gifting a lot recently, in part because it captivates me even as it really irritates me, and then there’s one that I was gifting to people a lot maybe five years ago.
The one that I was gifting to people a few years ago is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935), because that is the heart of one of the things that I do — and I often have given women that as a gift, because it’s a book in which she really conspicuously transcended the limits of the genre of detective fiction. Sayers was wrestling in the 1930s with the question of what was happening with women at that time — as they were increasingly independent women, as Martha Vicinus puts it. And the mystery that unfolds is that at a women’s college, which is modelled on Somerville College at Oxford, where Dorothy Sayers herself was, there’s a poltergeist that haunts the college. They don’t know who’s committing these attacks on the college, vandalism and various acts of really weird and insulting mischief, and the women of the college have to draw together and decide what to do. Women Talking, I suppose. And Harriet Vane, the detective that Dorothy Sayers invents, is brought in as a former member of the college to investigate the situation tactfully. Then, as the narrative unfolds, unfortunately, Harriet Vane doesn’t get to do this on her own. Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers’ other character, comes in and saves the day, which always rubs me the wrong way. But the construction of that narrative — and the struggle that Dorothy Sayers was evidently involved in in making that narrative — has always interested me. So I used to recommend and gift that book to people quite a lot, but especially when I was first working on it.
Today, I tend to gift the Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Ghost in the Throat, because I’m interested in what she unwinds about the concept of “female text,” with which it opens. I think one of the things that I’m searching for in my thinking right now is sort of the will-o’-the-wisp of femininities of other times that are being lost to us now. So I’m interested in what Ní Ghríofa does in that regard, and she writes beautifully. As you may know — because I think you’ve read this book — she goes after, in a kind of archival A. S. Byatt Possession quest, an eighteenth-century Irish poet and tries to find, from the records, what she can about her, although there are very few traces left of what she was and what she was like. And that kind of work is one that interests me deeply as an avenue to deeper knowledge, perhaps deeper literacy than that to which we ordinarily have access.
Yet there’s also a moment in Ghost in the Throat which, as a feminist, I find unsettling — where she suggests that she finds “joy” in subsuming herself in the “needs of others.” I think that’s something that women these days need to be careful about slipping back into — that role as “angel in the house,” as Woolf puts it, that involves predicating one’s identity on self-sacrifice and responding to the needs of others.
What advice would you give to someone who was just starting out in your field?
MDH: To the extent that you can, keep your eye on the work.
One of the people who was a mentor of a kind — with whom I had a fraught relationship, for various reasons — said, at one point, in a very sort of old-school way, “What you have to do is keep your eye on the prize.” And yet I actually don’t think that’s the way to stay with the heart of things. My sense is that it’s a recipe for hollowness. If you’re able to keep your eye on the heart of the work, then I think that’s what can keep you going. It’s not easy to maintain that connection, because everybody always wants you to be doing glamorous things, and prizewinning things. But if you can keep your eye on the work that you want to do, then you can stay the course.
When you think of women who have inspired or influenced you, who comes to mind?
MDH: Well, I’ll mention my mother. There have been many, many impressive women in my life, of course, and in my awareness more generally. And then all these women writers and thinkers I seek out in the cultural archives — Woolf, H. D., Mina Loy, Anne Spencer, Iris Barry, Muriel Rukeyser. And the many amazing women I’ve been privileged to know and work with in my life. But none of them had that weird magic. She died quite young, of cancer. Not so young, but 68. At one point, I decided that I’ve had this sort of sensory, primal connection with my mother that has lasted over the years, because I have a few scarves of hers in the drawer. These scarves were part of a kit for women of her type in the fifties, because my mother was a bit older when she had me, and so she was very much a woman of the forties, fifties, and early sixties — she had the gloves, and she had the handkerchiefs. And you didn’t do this only when you were upper-crust — everybody did this. All women of that milieu wore gloves, and they had their handkerchiefs, and she always would use her fragrance on them, “Blue Grass,” which still exists — the handkerchiefs would give off the fragrance of Blue Grass. It’s still perceptible in the drawer after all these years.
So not too long ago, I decided I was going to order some Blue Grass — to get at the essence of my mother, right? So I did, and so I have this glass bottle, now way up on a high shelf in the bath, where you can hardly see it, out of reach and eyeshot. Yet one evening, a few weeks ago, my daughter found it. I don’t know how she found it — I mean, it’s way up there, and my daughter is a small person. But she saw it, and she actually got it down, and she came into the room, and she said, “What is this?” It was as though she was meant to find it. It’s become a kind of line back in time, and that’s the sensory understanding I needed, I think, as a kind of portal to the past. There’s something in there about “archival time” known through the sensory, but that’s for another time.
My mother’s brilliance had nothing to do with success in professional terms, or maternal nurture, or homemaking. She was a working class, Italian girl from an immigrant family who learned English at age 7 and somehow managed to transcend her background, in part through theatre, and went to night school to get her degree. There was something of that weird, glittering magic in her that I’ve never found in anybody else — irreverent and strange, often ardent and lyric, not at all powerful in any conventional sense. She was also a superb actor, and that example of artistry from her I won’t forget.
Where do you feel the most scarcity in your life? Where do you feel the most abundance?
MDH: What a good question. Scarcity: time. And connection with other people.
Abundance… No, not abundance. I’m not sure that I would ever think of it in terms of abundance, because it doesn’t seem right qualitatively to me. That’s never what I know. But I guess what I’m grateful for are the occasional unusual moments of enchantment, I suppose. And, no, they don’t come in abundance, but they do come, and those are the connections and moments that I think matter to me probably more than anything else.
What keeps you going?
MDH: The wonder of my children, their magic, which has often taken me by surprise, taken my breath away. And a memory of another time, when I think things were clearer, more lucid, and often it is to do with years spent at the theatre and years exploring ideas with people I knew in a community that was, I guess, one that carried its own enchantment around, in that area of New York, the Capital District, which was a place of not only keen, but interesting minds — it probably had something to do with the influx of people through General Electric in that area, for a long time, and it changed and enriched the culture, the language. I do think that there was a moment of a kind of cultural heyday, whose ethos and tone I remember, with an emphasis on ideas, the arts, wit, and enjoyment — and that, I think, does keep me going. It’s like a rose under the snow or something. I don’t find it very much around me now. I think that probably does keep me going, the hope that it will be possible to find that again.
The immediate reason this feels true — you know, like Hemingway, you always try to get to your sentences so that you find something that is true — is that a dear friend of mine from high school days just died the other day. I was shocked to find this just yesterday, actually, and I’ve lost touch with many of the people I knew at that time, because a lot of what I did subsequently has involved putting behind me what had been and moving onward. But I remember this person who just passed away, and it was sudden — he was young, he was my age — and I realized that the sadness that I feel has to do not only with the loss of a person who was a dear friend at one time — of course it’s that — but also the loss of what Dylan Thomas calls the “apple towns.” There were those moments that were shining, and maiden, and I suppose that’s what keeps me going, because occasionally that’s what’s possible with students as well.
JMP: There’s a great quote I often think about, and it’s something along the lines of, “The world we want, or the world we’re working towards, already exists — we just have to look for it.”
MDH: Or it did once, at one time. We need to get to it again, on another level.
How do you show kindness to the people you care about?
MDH: Oh, I hope I do. I don’t know if I do. I’m not very good at it. I usually send them articles, send them links.
JMP: That’s beautiful.
MDH: And I guess I send them flowers. I send people flowers.
JMP: I find myself doing something similar these days. As I move through life, it feels like the people I’m connected to tend, geographically, to scatter a bit more, the older I get, and something like sending flowers is one of the few ways I can be present in people’s lives even when they’re far away.
MDH: It’s true. And for me, too, flowers I always think in terms of floriography from [modernist poet] H. D. So for me it means something additional.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
MDH: I will be fortunate if I leave anything in the way of a legacy. I think it’s probably too early and ambitious to think in terms of that! But I guess eventually I hope to pass on something to a few people. Is it possible to transmit a sense of intellectual adventure? I’d like to think so. I’d also like to convey to people the capacity for findings. You go to the culture, and you find things that speak to you because they’re formed language or formed art that achieves a brilliance. And if you can provide people the space with which to cultivate their ability to recognize that, that’s everything.
That’s criticism, right? I’m constantly doing that when listening to music. I find that, as I get older, I work less and less in my head in the medium of words, and I’m much more interested in music. Often I’ll point things out to my kids about a certain tune. I say, “Okay, listen to this, this, this,” and I guess the counterpart in imaginative fiction or poetry would be phrases. When my son comes to me with his small, carefully chosen collection of vinyl, and wants to play me one song from Fleetwood Mac — an instrumental that he’s found really cool — that’s when it happens; he’s begun to do that.
So I hope eventually that maybe I will have helped a few people to develop more muscles with which to recognize something in the cultural findings that will help them feel and think and know, and that will help them to furnish their minds and know their hearts — what Yeats called the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Is there a project, initiative, or cause you’d like to highlight?
MDH: Oh, there have been many over the years. For many years, I was involved in queer activism, in quiet and probably unnoticed ways. Now, I think, given the moment, I have to go back to women, because the fact that women in certain parts of the world are not able to go to school is appalling. The fact that girls in Iran are being poisoned with gas in schools, and the fact that young women in Afghanistan can’t go to school — no. I mean, that’s just an atrocity. So that’s a cause to which I would like to draw attention.
I would also draw attention to the question of what we’re going to do about people who are unhoused in Canada. When we were in Ottawa the other day, it was just— blisteringly incredible, so hard. And what is the culture going to do about that? There are superb organizations like Dans La Rue in Montreal, and so on. We’re doing marvellous work in that area. But obviously, and as a culture, we need to do more.
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Miranda and I spoke over Zoom one afternoon in April. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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