A poem a day

April 16th, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

When April comes around, two things are for sure: poetry and taxes (I’m advocating for this order of the universe).  We find ourselves inundated with poets we’ve never heard of, poems we might or might not like, and more readings than we can manage to attend in one day.  Just last week, here at the Collection, we hosted two talks on the same day!  We had a noon reading by Betsy Sholl from her wonderful new book Otherwise Unseeable followed by a generous discussion of poetry and Betsy’s poetic practice.  At 6pm, we hosted Dr. Alexandra Socarides, who wrote a book on Emily Dickinson’s poetic process entitled Dickinson Unbound.  If you know much about Dickinson, you will appreciate how hard it is to write something fresh–that’s just how smart a scholar Alexandra Socarides is.  Her talk on the research she conducted here in the summer of 2012 blew us away.  She discussed 19th century American women’s poetry and poetic conventions and how her work in our small archives led her to explore larger hypotheses about women’s poetry of that time.  Her newest book is one I will be very excited to read when it comes out.

Of course, swimming in poetic language these last few weeks has me thinking about the poets in our collection.  I have been tweeting lines from poems every day I can (follow me on twitter for a sampler of poems: @MEWomenWriters), which has had me dipping into books I have never before read.  Our book collection contains a wide range of poetic voices from the ordinary to the downright stunning, and represents the many types of writing that women have done over the past several centuries in Maine.  I started to wonder about common threads in Maine women’s writing and considered the question of place.  While no convention is applicable across the board, it does feel like place gets into our bodies and weaves itself into images and sounds in the poems we make.  I spent some time examining poems that speak from this place and capture a specific moment in time, and I thought I would share a sampling with you.

from Riverstones by Patricia White
(Seemed fitting for today, when we woke up to find snow on the ground after a lovely weekend.)
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from Prayers, Poems, and Pathways by Ssipsis
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from Where the Deer Were  by Kate Barnes
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from Hibernaculum & other North-Natured Poems by Patricia Smith Ranzoni
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from Four Corners of the Circle by Jean Webster
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from Corn Dance by Jeri Theriault
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The Ant Girls

March 17th, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

My day began on Friday with the pleasure of looking, following the lines and textures of ant-marks, and listening to stories of making.  Rebecca Goodale (one of the Ant Girls) brought tiny books, pamphlet and coptic-bound books, books that came tumbling out of their boxes, books with wings and pieces of leaves, books that spoke of the collaboration created by their colony of four.


The books and all of the other components of this two-year work-in-progress are on their way to the USM Atrium Gallery in Lewiston for the show “Ant Farm: At the Nexus of Art and Science” opening April 11.  The “Ant Girls” (Rebecca Goodale, Colleen Kinsella, Vivien Russe and Dorothy Schwartz) have been working as a group, passing paper and books between them, all members making marks on every piece of work.  The collaboration formed a strong bond among the four women, making the recent passing of Dorothy Schwartz all the more poignant as they prepared for the opening of their show and worked to finish pieces.  You can follow their process on their blog “Ant Girls”.

I am looking forward to the show on April 11, and am especially excited to see the installations of fungus farms and nuptial swarms.

One of the best parts of my job is getting to see fresh work that is still filled with the energy of the creators.  I enjoy hearing the stories of creation, too–the conceptualization of an idea that finds its fruition in something we can hold or look at close up.  It is a deep thrill for me, and an honor, to witness the creative process and its products.  I look forward to housing some of these beautiful creations in our collection to educate and excite students, researchers, and others interested in the intersection between art and science.

Sorting out traces of our history

February 21st, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

For a number of years now, I’ve been meaning to get to fully processing our administrative files, which document the past 50+ years of collecting at the Maine Women Writers Collection.  In some ways, though, it is good that I have waited.  Now I understand how I use the collection, what kinds of documents we need to find easily, and how best it might serve us to organize it.  It’s a bit daunting, but the time has come.

 

For several days this week, I have taken advantage of the slow, snowy energy and put our focus on these papers.  Laura and I have been pulling out all the boxes, looking through all of the folders, and stacking everything in rough series to be more thoroughly organized later.  I have enjoyed the opportunity to look through the incredible correspondence that Grace Dow and Dorothy Healy carried on with numerous authors, donors, and other friends of the Collection.  I have been confused and dismayed by some of the odd things we’ve saved–the question “Why?” often hanging in the air between Laura and I throughout the process.  But the real “Why?” is the reason we are doing this at all–so that we can find the gems amidst the invoices and randomness; so that we can trace provenance and answer questions of how we acquired each collection.

 

It is an interesting process to look through the eyes of people who were not trained to think in terms of subject headings and organizational schema.  Grace and Dorothy built an amazing collection with little experience to guide them.  They were pioneers–warm, generous women who believed in the power of women’s words and women’s ordinary realities.  As I read through the letters that fill many a box, I feel an incredible sense of gratitude for these two thoughtful, determined women.

The tenderness and friendship that existed between the former curators and their correspondents always reminds me to write more thoughtful emails, to devote more attention to the ways that I portray our work in words, and subsequently causes me to lament the fact that volume has replaced quality in our communications.

I pulled this letter from one folder and the first line grabbed me right away.  “The trouble is, before starting a letter to you everything has to be just right, sun shining, outlook relaxed and still with it,” Florence Burrill Jacobs writes to Dorothy Healy in 1973.  She continues, “And that happy conjunction doesn’t often come about!”  Imagine if we waited for a sunny day to write an email to a friend!  (Well, this winter, we’d never write at all — let’s be honest here!)  Later in the letter, the conversational tone pulled me in further, making me just love Mrs. Jacobs’ style of corresponding. “And the stars!  Have you been where you could see the evening sky since September?  Hour after hour we have stood out back where no street lights intrude, and just gazed up.  Jupiter, Venus, M[a]rs, myriads of smaller ones, more brilliant than I ever saw them.  I am sometimes awakened in the night by a blazing west.”

I am looking forward to getting to a place in the processing when I can start to relabel folders with titles that will point to the contents clearly so that I can put my hands on these letters more easily.  The amount of information about acquisition procedures that resides in the correspondence alone is quite astounding.  That the letters are an incredible pleasure to read is just a bonus.  If you want to start up a correspondence with me, write to me about how the stars look when you go to bed at night, and I will write back to let you know that the stars here are sometimes dimmed by streetlights, but that your poems light up my world.  Yes, this is what keeps me in the archival profession, these beautiful private moments between people.

Arts + Health: finding the words

February 3rd, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

Over the past few months here at UNE, there has been an upsurge of energy around connecting the arts with health and health professionals. There have been exhibits, webinars, some talks, and a mixer. In all of this, I felt mostly like someone on the outskirts because the juicy action was happening in the School of Social Work. I went to connect with colleagues, to make the Maine Women Writers Collection visible in small ways at these events, but my real motivation was personal. Over the past years, I’ve been playing, exploring, grappling, but feeling mostly unprepared to produce “real work” on the subject of health.

from "Paper Passages" by Allison Cooke Brown and Martha Hall

What does “real work” mean, anyway? Well, that’s a question I explore quite often, too. I want to make poems and multimedia work that speak to the personal experience of illness without focus on the woe is me aspect of such experience. I think about the work I see and read here at work and I imagine myself in a more polished form. But then I look closely and see the raw emotion that makes these works powerful.

a page from "Prescriptions" by Martha Hall

When students come to the Collection to look at our artists’ books, they are visibly moved by the personal narratives contained in these works. It is there in the diaries and letters we hold, too, but these visual representations are far more accessible to most, and require no deciphering of handwriting. It is a privilege to introduce people to these books, and my appreciation for their power grows every day. While the complexity of bindings and printing techniques is often stunning, the simplicity of human emotion is enough to make these books worth collecting.

a page from "She Tells Me" by Sissy Buck and herbal remedy cards

Our new display in the Collection highlights a few of the resources we hold that relate to art and health, but there are many more, including many diary collections that chronicle women’s struggles with illness, mental health, and living satisfying lives. As I spend more time with these materials, I find the threads of my own words and imagery to explore these themes.

"Phlegm" from "Old Physiology" by Rebecca Goodale

Going slowly into the digital world

November 21st, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

It seems it is always a matter of how to begin.  If we wait for the infrastructure to be in place, we will never start.  If we wait to know enough and have solid standards in place, we will never start.  There are millions of excuses.  We have more pressing projects.  We have to process our backlog.  Whatever it is that holds us back, many of us (by “us” I mean small institutions) have waited to move into digital preservation and curation.  My institution has been no exception.  We have minimal support for our initiatives from our in-house IT department, and most of us have only a broad brush stroke kind of understanding of what is needed to create and maintain a successful digital preservation program.

Believe me, I’ve done a lot of reading and even spent an amazing week last summer at Rare Book School with Matthew Kirchenbaum and Naomi Nelson learning about born-digital materials.  Still, I feel the “I don’t know enough about this” voice hammering away in my brain as I work with others in special collections to develop good metadata standards and think about how we manage all of this digital material we’re planning to create.  And then there’s the stuff that we already own sitting on floppy disks in our stacks.

Oh, god…what about that 8 inch floppy disk?  The anxiety about all of this can be a bit much for a timid archivist’s heart.  (Yes, that timid archivist is me.)

Luckily for us, there are some really great resources available that bring it down to the babiest steps.  SAA sponsored the Jump In Initiative this year to encourage institutions to just start surveying our collections for extant digital material: http://www2.archivists.org/groups/manuscript-repositories-section/jump-in-initiative.  This page includes a link to Ricky Erway’s report “You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run: First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content Received on Physical Media”, which walks you through the steps of surveying your collections.  I did this last summer, and then promptly put it down.  Other things came up.  I had lectures to host, books and manuscripts to buy.  Now, however, I am pushing myself to get back in the saddle of preservation.

One great and terrifying push was being asked to test out BitCurator.  As soon as I said yes, I thought, “Why did I do this?  I don’t even understand the technical description of what hardware I am going to be receiving for the test.”  The excellent thing about making this leap is that it pushed me to acquire an external floppy drive to read disks in our collections.  I even got a drive for memory cards.  I haven’t yet purchased a 5 1/4 inch drive, but I guess that will be coming soon after.  Small steps, my friends.  It’s all I can do right now, but I’m committing to the small steps, which will eventually lead to a comprehensive policy and plan for preservation of born-digital materials here at the Maine Women Writers Collection.

Maine Women Writers Collection

Another push to think about digital preservation was the launch of our Digital Commons site DUNE:DigitalUNE.  While not the most ideal software for interactive display of archival materials, we are working with it to make more of our collection materials available digitally.  It is an exciting prospect to think that people are able to page through the Annals of the Cobweb Club from the Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat papers online, giving the poor crumbling book a bit of a break.  Of course, we still hope that researchers will come to check out our collections–these digital surrogates certainly do not replace the experience of handling original materials–but I am grateful that our digital materials will broaden our reach in significant ways.

We are just beginning to populate DUNE.  Soon, you will be able to page through one of Sweat’s photograph albums that documents how the McClellan House looked during her years living there.  We will also be making all of our old conference programs available on the site.  Soon, I hope to build pages that display materials from the Marie Peary Stafford papers.  We are almost there–just a few copyright and use statements to write and a little quibbling over metadata to go!  All of this is preparing us for a larger project that will involve collaborating with other institutions to make Sarah Orne Jewett’s correspondence available digitally.  We have crept toward the digital universe ever so slowly here, but the momentum is building.  We are finally taking the steps needed to effectively steward our collections in this digital environment, and I am both exhilarated and terrified of making some huge mistake.  Thankfully, I am not alone.  Collaboration is precious.