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Anne Carson visits Notre Dame with creative lecture ‘History of Skywriting’

| Friday, February 24, 2023

After two postponements due to the pandemic, the English Department’s annual Yusko Ward-Phillips Lecture series returned this week with “History of Skywriting” by Anne Carson.

Paying homage to two former Notre Dame English professors, the lecture series started in 1966 and has been funded since 2007 by a donation from former English major Stacey Miller Yusko and her husband. Previous guest speakers have included Margaret Atwood, Cornel West, Sylvia Wynter and Elie Wiesel. 

This year’s guest, Anne Carson, has written extensively across genres, including poetry, essays and translations. She is also a professor of classics and has taught at New York University and Princeton. She holds numerous prizes, including both the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships. 

Following a welcome by English professor Elliott Visconsi, his fellow professor Johannes Goransson took the floor to introduce Anne Carson. He commented on the role of translation throughout her work, especially given that in poetry, “it seems there’s some essence that is strangely vulnerable to the act of translation,” often losing some of its significance.

Goransson spoke to Carson’s involvement with this theme of translation, saying, “Her dynamic engagement with translation lends her writing to experiments in different forms and media.”

Her writing not only spans genres, but blends them and even defies categorization at all. Rather than fragile, her poetry is, as Goransson said, “something transformational, transformative and dynamic.”

This particular lecture took a unique form, with the title “History of Skywriting” being quite literal. Speaking from the perspective of the sky, Carson’s lyrical, creative talk encompassed, as she put it, “a brief history of my life as a writer.” 

Starting at the beginning of the universe, “in the uncounted millennia before the Big Bang.” Carson early on acknowledged the irrelevance of “linear time, a human and mortal invention” in the sky’s personal history, as a being that always has and always will exist. However, she pointed out that in service to her readers, she would organize the stages of her history using the days of the week.

Monday began with universal expansion and passionate romance, before a sudden recognition and maturation forced by loss. Tuesday centered around the formation of clouds, complete with reflections on imagination and the human urge to seek knowledge and organization of the world around them. 

On Wednesday, the sky conducted several interviews: first with “the pebbles and small rocks,” and then with “that gentleman everyone was waiting for in the latter part of the 20th century: Godot.” At this point, Carson’s previously solitary spotlight was complemented by a second, highlighting her creative partner Robert Currie to voice the role of Godot from the side of the stage. 

Thursday included a failed attempt “to write a memoir of childhood,” along with several footnotes that featured an extension of the interview with Godot. Next came Friday’s investigation of ghost writers, before the realization that the work relied on the private, internal mind and therefore could not be subcontracted.

Between the reading of Friday and Saturday, the stage went dark while a recording of a man speaking Arabic played over the loudspeakers. 

During the subsequent Q&A section, Carson and Currie explained the recording was of a Yemeni man reciting the “Saturday” section of the lecture in Arabic. The recorded narrator met Carson and Currie as they were contributing to a show on warfare. At the time, the man was seeking an apology from the U.S. government for a drone attack that killed three of his family members.  

Saturday focused on “sky as a medium of annihilation,” referencing the difficulty of translating this into fiction because “warfare has grown increasingly faceless throughout its history.” The day included reflections on the nature of conflict and telling the human story, as Carson read, “No one can tell a story without believing in the reality of others.”

Following the lecture, Carson included two brief interactive segments, including Yoko Ono’s tradition of screaming for one minute onstage. In this case, however, she involved the whole audience and it only lasted for 10 seconds.

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