We historic site colleagues were picking words to describe our presentation styles with the public. We like words: They’re artists and grad students who love communicating about history, and I do, too, and I’m, you know, CPT Me.
I suggested I’m “Intellectual but Funny.” They nodded agreeably, and one said, “The word we chose for you was Subversive.” Really??? Explanation: Because I had dismantled and rearranged our Revolutionary Personages talk to add in colonial poet Sarah Wentworth Morton, and to connect the subjects of the talk in my own chain of meaning.
My colleagues are young and in Master’s programs, blissfully unaware that in the Academia where I used to dwell, that’s not Subversive. That’s Required. That is called “intervening in the conversation,” and You’d Better have a new twist on things if you want to live in EnglishPhDland. Theoryguay. LitReviewistan. Jonestown.
OK, OK, a little dark humor isn’t going to leave a stain. I am proud of some of my work, deeply impressed by some scholars I know and read, and full of stuff to say about the 18th century. But I gloriously failed to be an academic many times while acting like I was trying to become one. That’s OK, though. Let’s all live our best lives.
Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that Scholarly and Creative can harmonize. But often they don’t, and I still don’t quite get it. For example, the author of an important book in my field said to me over cocktails that, although nearing retirement, she was discovering a whole new way to approach theater history. She was now attending actual rehearsals at her university for the first time in her career. Yeah. From her tone, she felt subversive. I felt a little sick. I can laugh about it now.
My Revolutionary talk at work is a good, coherent little talk, a star shape nicely squeezed out of the Play Doh Fun Factory of my Intellect. But it was prompted by real, personal interest and Creative Sisterhood with Mrs. Sarah, and those things aren’t too academic. Do I get to call the talk Creativity? I don’t know, yet oddly, I care. I hope someday to have more Intellectual/Creative harmony.
Am I subversive? I don’t write in a bare garret, rejecting everything but Art; I have an AC. I read mysteries and watch Antiques Roadshow. I like vanilla ice cream a great deal.
The writer and queer/feminist activist Michelle Tea described “Sister Spit, the all-girl performance tour that tore up the United States at the end of the last century” as, among other things, “the my-poetry-can-beat-up-your-theory menace.” I like that. That’s funny. I value poetry a lot more than academic writing. I’ve been dealing with some things and been pretty sub-versive lately (get it?), but I still see a poet in the mirror. And will even if I do finish that book about 18th-century theater history.
I don’t know if I can reach Tea’s subversive heights, but I was busy writing this today instead of writing for money. Taking an actual day off work to prioritize whatever creativity showed up. Not wearing pants. Reading literature in the current administration. You do what you can. I could murder some ice cream right now. Chocolate? I like eating it with a fork.
The portrait of John Adams by J.S. Copley belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I quoted from Michelle Tea’s piece “Sister Spit Feminism,” in her new book Against Memoir, published by Feminist Press. I highly recommend it. My talk and other good ones are available at King’s Chapel on the Freedom Trail, Boston.