Our faculty at William & Mary are making great contributions to academia with their research. In our recent blog series, we interview faculty with recent publications for insight into their scholarship.
Candice Benjes-Small, head of research and librarian to Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, spoke to Dr. Jennifer Putzi about her recently published book, Fair Copy: Relational Poetics and Antebellum American Women's Poetry.
In 2-3 sentences, please describe your scholarship to someone unfamiliar with the field.
Fair Copy is about the composition, publication, circulation, and reception of American women's poetry in the antebellum United States. In opposition to a traditional scholarly emphasis on originality and individuality, I emphasize what I call relational poetics: focusing on poetry written by working-class and African American women, I demonstrate how an emphasis on relationships between and among people and texts shaped the poems that women wrote, the avenues they took to gain access to print, and the way their poems functioned. Yet it is their very relationality which led to these poems and the poets who wrote them being written out of literary history.
What was the most exciting/interesting part of this project for you?
The archival research! One of the writers I worked on--Elizabeth Akers Allen--had a relatively large collection of papers at a university library and it was an absolute delight to wade through her letters and scrapbooks. But Akers Allen was a successful poet, one who published books and eventually made some money from her writing. (Not nearly enough though, and Fair Copy explores her frustration with the literary marketplace.) Others, like African American poet Sarah Forten and working-class poet Maria James, left only traces in the archive--a poem published in a newspaper or copied neatly into a friendship album, perhaps, or a name mentioned in someone else's letter. The politics of the archive are not kind to women without race and class privilege, but, as so much recent work shows, they can be recovered in the crevices of history. Part of my project in this book was to make women like Forten and James visible, as they once were – in admittedly complicated ways – in the antebellum United States.
Who might be interested in reading this book?
Anyone interested in poetry, women's history, and the stories of marginalized writers in antebellum American will be interested in this book. I like to tell stories – I have a friend who calls me "the queen of the case study" – in part because I think individual stories teach us about larger frameworks and systems in an engaging way. I also want to make these women and their work come alive for readers who may have thought that people like them did not exist. I also want to make their work readable. Scholars have not studied it because it was thought to be too conventional, but it is this very conventionality that interests me. Why did they write in this way? What did it do for them and for the readers who loved their poems?
How did W&M Libraries help support your scholarship?
I can't tell you how many books I've checked out from Swem for this project! Our collection is wonderful, but the Interlibrary Loan department has been incredibly helpful as well. Additionally, our access to databases is truly amazing, especially compared to what some of my colleagues at other institutions have. I did a lot of research in nineteenth-century American newspapers for this project and I couldn't have done that without databases like America's Historical Newspapers and the American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection. Finally, I must mention the Special Collections Resource Center, whose librarians have been so helpful to me both in my research and my teaching during my time here at W&M.
Where can people learn more about your book?
The American Antiquarian Society is hosting a virtual book talk on Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 2 pm.
Check out Fair Copy: Relational Poetics and Antebellum American Women's Poetry in ebook format from W&M Libraries!
*W&M faculty and staff who wish to be part of this series should complete the form available at: https://guides.libraries.wm.edu/pubpromotion