An Interview with Milette Shamir and Irene Tucker, editors of Poetics Today

We sat down with Milette Shamir and Irene Tucker, the new editors of Poetics Today, which aims to develop systematic approaches to the study of literature. Shamir is based at Tel Aviv University in the department of English and American Studies, and Tucker is based at the University of California, Irvine, in the English department.

DUP: You both are new coeditors, beginning your terms in July. What are your professional backgrounds, and how did you come to be involved with Poetics Today?

Milette: That’s an interesting question, because my background is actually in American studies, a field not usually associated with the kind of scholarship that Poetics Today promotes. So I come to the journal as something of an outsider.

But as a former student and twenty-year faculty member at Tel Aviv University’s School of Cultural Studies, where Poetics Today was born and is housed today (at the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics), editing the journal does not feel all that strange to me. Poetics Today has a long and rich tradition at Tel Aviv University. It was started at the university in the ’70s by the late professor Benjamin Harshav, and to this day it has links to the kind of literary scholarship that flourished in Tel Aviv at that time and that, at its peak, had worldwide impact, especially in the fields of poetics, narratology, and literary theory. For many years, the journal’s editor was TAU professor Meir Sternberg. For me, taking on this journal and continuing the work of generations of scholars at Tel Aviv University is a great honor, and I am committed to the journal’s legacy even if it lies a bit outside of my own intellectual comfort zone. 

Irene: I’m more of a formalist than Milette, but not in a particularly narratological way—I’m interested in thinking about the ways that this long tradition of looking at narrative form can interact with some of the new and interesting historicist and multimedia questions that have emerged recently.

I also have a long, if not entirely continuous, association with Tel Aviv University. When I was in graduate school, I had a chapter on the early Hebrew novel that I did research on at the Porter Institute. I’ve gone back to Tel Aviv University for a number of sabbaticals and for a third book project that I’m working on now, on the subject of ambivalence about state sovereignty in modern Jewish and Israeli political thought and in contemporary Israeli literature. So, like Milette, I feel a sense of institutional investment in Poetics Today’s tradition and curiosity about new directions that it could take. Also, we work well together, so it seemed like a fun thing to do.

DUP: What is your vision for Poetics Today, and how do you hope to shape the journal for the future?

Milette: Poetics Today was from the beginning an international journal in the full sense of the word—many of its contributors and its readers are based in different countries around the world—not just in North America and the UK, but also in all parts of Europe, South America, and Asia. Its global reach is really impressive, especially given the dominance of North American scholarship in most literary journals. In recent years, several voices in our profession have been making the point that the growth of interest in “world literature” should be accompanied by increasing attentiveness to literary criticism outside of the US and to the way non-US-based scholars think about literary analysis and theory from a diversity of perspectives. 

Since Poetics Today has for decades now been bringing together scholars from different countries, it provides a natural environment for conversations between these globally diverse approaches. This is something that I’m really interested in encouraging.

DUP: Are there places in the world that you’re particularly interested in?

Irene: I think that we’d like to reach out in a lot of different directions. Scholars from Latin America seems a group with which we’d like to be in more regular and sustained conversation. So far in terms of submissions, we’ve gotten lots of interesting stuff from various places in the Middle East, various kinds of scholars in different parts of Africa. We’re not built around a certain national point of interest since national literature is not our structuring principle. We actually can turn and pivot among different kinds of audiences.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that while there has recently emerged a critical movement that calls itself “the New Formalism,” in some, though certainly not all, versions of this self-designated practice, the thing that is “new” about it is its nostalgia for an earlier professional and intellectual moment. This impulse seems to me connected to the recent proliferation of work in various sub-disciplines on “the state of the field,” which seems similarly animated by a certain melancholy. It is almost as if in this moment of crisis in the humanities—which we can’t legitimately call a “moment” any more—people are uncertain whether the work they—we—are doing matters in any lasting way and so are responding by looking back to a time when literary studies was generally acknowledged to command respect. 

Part of what I’m interested in thinking about that we could do with Poetics Today are the ways in which, rather than opting for this kind of melancholic retrospection, we might think of new ways of linking subfields that have been understood to be isolated from one another, if not in active tension. So, for example, we might think about the relations of narrative form and the various sorts of scholarly modes associated with archives. Or we might explore the narrative effects of the proliferation of different modes of delivery—audiobooks and streaming, just to take some fairly obvious examples. How have the changes in the economics of television changed the narrative forms stories take? Scholarship about narrative form has lots to illuminate and to learn from those sorts of cultural studies scholars studying the shifting economics of television.

DUP: Are there any special issues coming up that you’re looking forward to?

Milette: There are several exciting issues in preparation or under consideration. We are currently working on a special issue that brings together comparative literature and cognitive approaches to literary studies, edited by Lisa Zunshine. Another one in the works offers a critical extension of postsecular thinking into aesthetic discourses, cultural criticism, and arts practices. It is edited by Silke Horstkotte of Universität Leipzig and James Hodkinson of the University of Warwick.

Irene: We’re publishing a special issue on logic and narrative in which contributors are thinking about how questions of mathematical form are connected to questions of literary form. This issue came out of a conference on the topic that seemed very promising, so we invited the organizers, Jeffrey Blevins and Daniel Williams, to create a special issue.

Milette: To return to the international reach of Poetics Today, we’re currently considering a special issue that will come out simultaneously with a special issue in the French journal Cahiers de Narratologie, centering around the influential philosopher and theorist Paul Ricoeur. The two journals will publish different but complementary articles, each in its own language.

DUP: What are you looking for right now in submissions?

Milette: The scope of Poetics Today is very broad. As long as a submission falls within the general topics of the journal and is a smart, innovative article that is also self-conscious of being part of an ongoing conversation in its area, we will consider it. We are less inclined to accept articles that offer readings of texts without thinking about the larger theoretical or critical implications of those readings.

Irene: Yeah, I guess my basic principle is: does this piece of writing make me think new things that suggest moving in different ways? Does it make me say, Huh, that’s kind of cool, as opposed to a kind of retreading of a given set of questions? Because we do get lots of articles that are beautifully written but seem very positioned within what we would call normal science. I’m more inclined to consider something that feels a little rough but is moving in a lot of interesting directions, and to see whether we can shepherd it through, as opposed to going with something that feels it’s happy within the terms of an existing discourse.

DUP: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Milette:  I think this is a good opportunity to thank our predecessor, Brian McHale. Brian’s work over the past five years was outstanding, and it is thanks to him that we are able to transition into the role of editors with full confidence in the journal and its strengths.

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