Writing the sheela-na-gig: semiotic complexity, ekphrasis, and poetic persona in the poetry collection Strange Country

Campanello, Kimberly (2018) Writing the sheela-na-gig: semiotic complexity, ekphrasis, and poetic persona in the poetry collection Strange Country. PhD thesis, Middlesex University.

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Abstract

This mixed-mode PhD comprises an ekphrastic poetry collection, Strange Country, and a critical component that accounts for my research and writing processes and articulates my poetics of ekphrasis as practised in the collection. Strange Country focuses on sheela-na-gigs, stone carvings of naked female figures that prominently depict the vulva, which are found on medieval churches, castles, wells, and town walls in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. Historians and archaeologists, as well as poets, have suggested that they were/are variously meant to: act as warnings against lust and sin; ward off evil; aid in conception and childbirth; symbolize female power and sexuality; demonstrate the power of nature to give and take life; signify sovereignty over land and nation; or facilitate passage from one state to another. However, their meaning, dating, and origins are impossible to determine definitively.
In contrast to these approaches that decide the sheela-na-gigs’ meaning, I aimed to poetically inhabit their semiotic complexity in a full-length collection. This aspiration arose from my research and writing process, which included reading the literature on sheela-na-gigs, visiting over sixty of them, and reviewing from a practitioner’s perspective literary criticism on ekphrasis as well as existing poems on sheela-na-gigs by other poets. As I strove for this semiotic complexity in my poems, I deployed a range of poetic techniques. On the one hand, I wrote lyric and narrative associative poems that have a clearly defined, autobiographical poetic persona using a technique I call ‘associative ekphrasis’. On the other hand, I also chose to forgo consistent use of this speaker and came to write found and visual poems derived from an archive I compiled of documents on sheela-na-gigs (dating from the 19th century to the present). Finally, I wrote a long poem that uses a hybrid formal strategy.
The critical commentary traces my creative decision-making process with a particular focus on the position and function of the poetic ‘I’. In the commentary, I use Roland Barthes’s notion of punctum and Federico García Lorca’s duende to describe my experience of the carvings and my desire to emphasize their inexplicable impact and enigma in my poems. In order to analyze the sheela poems by other poets and to account for my own writing practice, I use literary terminologies and debates relating to ekphrasis, and I employ perspectives on the poetic ‘I’ from the poetics of lyric ‘deep image’ and ‘postmodern witness’ poetry as articulated by Robert Bly, Alicia Ostriker, and Tony Hoagland alongside the ‘uncreative’ poetics of Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin. In addition to contributing a collection of poems to the body of creative responses to sheela-na-gigs, this collection and critical commentary complicate the argument that poems written in a lyric mode are necessarily more expressive, ‘creative’, or faithful to the ekphrastic object than those written ‘uncreatively’ using found text and ultimately demonstrate the productive possibilities of an non-polarized approach to these debates.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Research Areas: A. > School of Media and Performing Arts
B. > Theses
Item ID: 25958
Depositing User: Vimal Shah
Date Deposited: 08 Jan 2019 20:00
Last Modified: 07 May 2019 02:07
URI: https://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/id/eprint/25958

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