Research Showcase: Mary-Jane Holmes

Mary-Jane Holmes is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing in the School of English. Here, she answers some questions about her project.

What is your research project about? 

Drawing on feminist translation theory and poetic formalism to investigate whether translation can be successful in releasing the target text from its own gendered constraints, my PhD investigates the ancient poetic form called the Muwashshaha (Arabic for ‘girdled’; plural Muwashshahat) to ask whether translation of form across languages can create a new route to understanding how gender can be voiced in poetry today. I am working on a sequence of English ‘girdle songs’ in order to enact and respond to the effects of formal transference while critically exploring the regenerative act of performative and dialogic translation. 

How do you tackle topics of gender, the body, and/or sexuality? 

Through the study of poetic form. Many feminist poets have considered formalism to be a legacy of patriarchy and thus relinquished it, others find it compatible with progressive, feminist political engagement. The central drive of this research is to test and explore the nuances of those opinions by investigating the relationship between fixed form and female identity in poetry being written now in English. Its central aim is to ascertain the ways in which a new form in English language poetry might open a discursive space that facilitates the amplification of the female voice through the development of innovative formal strategies ‘carried over’ from another time and culture. 

What prompted you to do research in this area? 

The muwashshaha was a love poem written in either classical Hebrew or Arabic, but its last stanza, called the Kharja or exit stanza was often spoken in Vernacular Arabic or in Andalusi Romance (the language of the colonised) and by a speaker different from the speaker in the rest of the poem. This ‘other’ was often a female voice, a rare event at the time.  For modern readers, the kharja opens a window to the hidden domain of women: to that realm where women do speak and sing and love. But also underscores the tension between this male-authored first person female persona and the general paucity of recorded female voices form the time. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the relationship between your research project and the study of gender? 

‘The future of feminisms is in the transnational and the transnational is made through translation’ Olga Castro states. Over the last hundred years poets such as Phyliss Webb with her ‘Anti-Ghazals, Jo Shapcott’s ‘rebukes’ to Rilke, the American haikus of Amy Lowell, have looked to other voices, cultures and contexts via translation to find ‘other ways of thinking’ (Marilyn Hacker). Hacker, who engages with various Eastern forms and languages, describes her poetic vision as a ‘colloquy’:  ‘an ongoing, open-ended conversation with poets both contemporary and long-gone, spanning generations and transcending national boundaries.’ I hope to further this conversation. 

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