Scanning Lola Ridge
by Catherine Daly
When I requested and received my scanner, as a Christmas gift, it was mostly for this; I firmly believe public domain texts should be available free on the internet. Mine is a fairly common attitude among people who have used the internet for a relatively long time or who use the internet a great deal. I am interested in making poetry written and published before 1923 by women, especially academically overlooked women, available. There are certain ramifications to this, of course. While not striking a blow against global capitalism in the publishing industry, I would affect, negatively as well as positively, the people I wanted to help: overlooked female poets and the female academics who study them.
At the time I found the first two Lola Ridge books, The Ghetto and Sun-Up, originals, I was reading from and circulating a list of roughly twentieth century proto-modernist or modernist female poets writing in English who seemed to be overlooked. A large number of these women were from the UK diaspora. Ridge was born in Dublin, Ireland, raised and first married in New Zealand, and moved to New York after her divorce. My list of poets was derived from a discussion on the WOMPO listserv, Kim Lyons’ Poetry Project list, the HOW(ever) archive, the Light & Dust Books online anthology, and other similar sources. Many of these women published before 1923, but their works were unavailable online. I have scanned and uploaded, or am in the process of so doing, volumes by Marjorie Allen Seiffert, Evelyn Scott, Hazel Hall, Eunice Tietjens, and Genevieve Taggard. I will probably also make Sour Grapes and Kora in Hell by William Carlos Williams available, and for non-poetry, Vachel Lindsay’s book on film.
It is important to proceed rapidly: some firms are making electronic copies of public domain texts available and reserving “electronic copyright.”
Negative ramifications of online publication of public domain texts include possible lower distribution of in many cases long-awaited collected volumes. As-yet unplanned collected books would most likely continue to be unplanned, once the works begin entering the public domain. If the internet becomes a library for out of print texts, as I believe it should, it would have a different effect on book publishing and buying, especially in the specialized arena of poetry, than library availability does, because electronic copies may be assigned reading in academic courses. In fact, because I teach online, this is one of my motives. It simply doesn’t make sense to have my students buy physical texts. Students can print electronic books at will, rather than signing up to read them at the reference desk. Further, my own students, who are online, would have access to this work, which is long out of print. I remember my own student poverty: I never bought any of the books.
Lola Ridge’s writings are scheduled to be published by the University of Maine Press. The editor of this volume, Collected Poems: Lola Ridge, Elaine Sproat, is the Ridge literary executor. As an independent academic, she had also written and presented papers related to her project. She also plans a biography. Her project hasn’t proceeded rapidly. If establishing ownership of an overlooked writer makes an academic career, here is one to be made; yet, here is one not being made.
Other problems of making these volumes available include distorting perceptions of these poets writings by making only first books available. This concerns me a bit more than it might ordinarily since, for example, I prefer the poetry in Lola Ridge’s first two published books to her other work.
I began scanning The Ghetto. It was difficult not to correct the errata and spelling. I didn’t exercise my editorial pet peeves, such as not capitalizing each line, and not capitalizing the first word in each poem. But these are fairly mundane considerations. What was more difficult was reading and “cleaning up” the scans.
Scanning and cleaning up the scans is a completely different way to read poetry. I have typed poetry to force myself to read it, written it out longhand, listened to it on books on tape, made readings recordings of my own poems and myself reading other poems. I recommend these sorts of chores to inclined students, especially those finding poems don’t reveal themselves adequately when read silently or memorized. Normally I might be more interested in things which mis-scanned — examples of those include “like the eyes of corn” and “inlay babies” — and things I accidentally scanned more than once, such as the page beginning “Life in the cramped ova.” There was plenty of pleasure in the frangible pages aside from the text. It is common to note these pleasures when “running down” electronic texts. Here’s my example: someone had scanned this passage in blue ink (from “The Song of Iron,” 52) I wouldn’t have picked out:
As I scanned, I became interested in my overly politically correct reactions to Ridge’s glorifying all-male construction crews, Brotherhood, etc., as well as out-and-out racism. The only exception to common gender roles seems to be mentioning sex before marriage and pink collar jobs. This in a poet praised as a leftist activist and early gender heroine. As I read more, especially in Sun-Up, I was surprised to read about a modern single mother working at home when her child is small, then hiring a less-than-preferable nanny to go to work after that. I was surprised because she describes the same wretched child care / pink collar job situation thousands of (especially politically conservative) women working in the technology industry are discovering as though it were new.
There is a mammy poem in dialect about white women throwing a black infant into a bonfire during an East St. Louis race riot. A critic at the time called this the only poem in the volume also containing the recitative “The Ghetto” in which “Miss Lola Ridge” becomes “a full poet.” It’s truly bad. The very questionable irony is undermined by the baby’s parents’ depiction as drunk or missing. These flaws sit alongside complex characterizations and beautiful images I had chosen to attend on early readings. Some of these poems I wanted to cut or supply with female pronouns, without attention to any sort of archival record.
After that, I began to worry about italic. Ridge uses left-margin capitalization sometimes deliberately, left-margin proper case sometimes deliberately, and sometimes the left margin seems to reflect no poetic or editorial decision made by this poet-editor. Similarly, she makes extensive use of three and four dot ellipses, but does not consistently capitalize after four dot sentence-ending ellipses. She uses a great deal of italic, for quotes and voices, but again, not consistently. While I ignored the Project Gutenberg welcoming of editing in favor of being as letter-perfect to the print edition I could be as a single volunteer scanner / proofer with a jillion other tasks at hand, there is a problem with .txt files. They are overly considerate of below-par browsers. In other words, the .txt file, which allows no italic, standard was set years ago, when most IT professionals felt a hierarchy of browsers would be in use, and that everyone, at least, would be able to read .txt files. This, five to ten years later, is not the case: the problem is everyone has a browser, but the server the Project Gutenberg files reside upon is too slow to serve them effectively without either a great deal of patience and forbearance or a corporate-speed TCP/IP connection. In other words, the poet’s intentions run awry the “e-publisher’s” intentions because the “e-publisher” was overly solicitous towards the audience, and has ignored poet’s intentions in many respects in order to serve a case which is untrue about the audience. There are not thousands of old 386 machines in Nepal being used to access English public domain texts on the internet.
Since I began this project, more and more texts are being made available: H.D.’s Hymen is now online. Additionally, unpublished US materials written before 1922 will enter the public domain in 2011, a loophole which, if not closed, would make this aspect of US Copyright law more liberal than that in other countries. Copyright was extended by a law sponsored by Sonny Bono before his death in order to protect Mickey Mouse and other works of late modernism. It is time to get a fuller picture of first wave modernist women’s writing, much of which was used to replace earlier genteel writing, while its authors were derided as “feminus scriblerus.”
Bio: Catherine Daly lives in Los Angeles. Tupelo Press will publish her first book, Locket, in 2003; another manuscript, Heresy, was a finalist in the 2002 National Poetry Series competition. She is at work on two collections of criticism: one on contemporary experimental poetry written by women and one on early modernist poetry written by women.