Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Queer “Orientations” as Counterblast Manifesto

When Alice Oswald delivered her final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2023, she (once again) made new the modernist manifesto. Counterblast! (a manifesto for poetry) launches the futurists on a rocket ship back to Homer via stanzas containing questions about how we come to sense each other in a vortex, since “after all humans are dark inland pools full of anguish and panic-stricken love.” As an orientation, poetry becomes an “architecture of profusion,” multiplying and mobilizing, rather than isolating and containing.[1] Even so, we are surprised halfway through the lecture to find ourselves transported off the battlefield, off the warship—and into the sewing room. In a radical turn, Oswald shifts her reading from the great poets of the past to a new kind of declaration, a “Manifesto for stitchwork written in Dutch for the feminist handwork party”—“a political feminist artist movement that is dedicated to studying, repairing, speaking, patching up, unlearning and mending. We want to restore the disturbed relationship to our immediate surroundings,” she says, “and a damaged world as a whole. The act of repairing textiles plays an important part in this because it is an exercise in slowing down, embodying and transforming. Through this we are connecting with the underexposed long-standing history of women” (Oswald, “Counterblast!”). She argues for the paradox of “optimism and anger” forming the warp and weft of feminist handiwork in “Stitch and Bitch” societies before taking us on a dizzying tour through the patching and mending of the Bayeaux Tapestry and Helen’s stitching of the Trojan War, source texts that would inform the actual “sewing together” of Homer’s epic by his original editor (Oswald, “Counterblast!”).

The counterblast, then, is a sort of feminist pushback and patchwork, a handmade response to potentially life-threatening or even world-ending problems and provocations. And it is also a collective. It queers the manifesto, the epic, and the rhapsode through a collective vision of the sewing circle where “multiple minds” might coexist, repairing and mending with an orientation towards progress (fig. 1; Oswald, “Counterblast!”). How might an orientation towards our damaged world also be a kind of counter-solidarity? Can we imagine a scholarly practice that puts its hands on pressing issues through radical, transformative forms of scholarship that embrace slowing down, queer association, and creative-critical resistance? Or more simply, as Sylvia Plath asks, “What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?”[2]

A group of people sewing
Fig. 1. Image of a sewing circle at the Decorating Dissidence conference, 2017. Image by the author and appears in Crafting Feminism from Literary Modernism to the Multimedia Present (Oxford University Press, 2022).

As I sat down to write this post as the new editor of “Orientations”—with questions such as these at the front of my mind—I received an email from Virginia Woolf scholar Maggie Humm. In her note, she shared that she just finished reading my first book—a study on feminist and queer writing, craftwork, and archives—which prompted her to dig up her own craft archive of feminist and political resistance (fig. 2). Ephemera and lyric sheets from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp protests include songs and imagery in which, she said, “webs and weaving were major themes. We are the Flow song has the line: ‘we are the flow and we are the ebb. We are the weavers we are the web.’” In the flow and ebb of critical reflection, scholarship strikes me as a deeply woven thing, a product of its processes, a bringing together of various strands of analysis, citation, and critique. How might we, as modernist scholars, make the woven nature of scholarship and the archive more visible for our readers? Do these practices offer new orientations to research?

By expanding the archive of what counts as a scholarly source or a primary document—from Oswald’s lecture-in-verse-as-manifesto or Humm’s protest lyrics—we may queer our intellectual practices, demonstrating the inclusive potential of the collective.[3] In what follows, I offer a set of interwoven provocations for this new chapter of the “Orientations” forum, in the spirit of the counterblast manifesto.

Line drawing of woman on cover
Fig. 2. Greenham Commons Protest Songbook, 1982. From the collection of and used with permission of Maggie Humm.

Feminist Hammers: Dismantling/Repairing

I designed a recent workshop to shift the feminist counterblast from theory to method, testing the potential of process and scholarly collective-making—and collective(ly) making. Hosted by the Interdisciplinary Modernisms workshop at the University of Georgia, my session centered on craft’s dynamic potential for queer subversion, arguing, in part, for the ecological significance of waste or scraps to craft’s upcycled orientations. After my talk, I led a hands-on eco-printed artist’s book workshop. In exploring how modernist feminist and queer writers embraced experiment and play, we paid attention to the reappropriation of tools such as the hammer, needle, or scissors for collaborative and alternately sociable forms of scholarship; Fred Moten, for example, champions a “writing practice” that “improvise[s], where one composes in real time in common.”[4] Sara Ahmed calls noticing (as in, observing sites of inequity or noting areas for improvement) “the feminist killjoy’s hammer.”[5] I handed out rubber mallets and pointed towards a bowl of earplugs; that morning before my talk, I’d picked up bags of plant waste from the University Botanical Garden’s flower curator so that participants could hammer flowers onto linen and cotton pages that I’d dyed with kitchen scraps. They decorated their pages with text before binding their books with needle and thread (figs. 3–4). Not only did our creations raise questions about what constitutes a book, we also played with the processes of craft, pushing ideas of modernist experiment into the realm of queer and collaborative praxis. By calling attention to the possibilities of mark-making—from physical contact as intimacy and feelings of being under pressure to affects of estrangement in political life and interference as an artistic practice—we more rigorously explored the various inroads craft processes offer to our theoretical frameworks.

Woman working on craft
Fig. 3. Workshop participants at the University of Georgia’s Interdisciplinary Modernisms Workshop.
Women working on crafts
Fig. 4. Workshop participants at the University of Georgia’s Interdisciplinary Modernisms Workshop.

And yet, what struck me most about this workshop, and others like it I’ve led or in which I’ve participated, is the way the room buzzes. Our academic work often happens in isolation, and our gatherings are often weighted with the pain of precarity or current events as we attune ourselves to the intersecting challenges of working in higher education today. In bringing folks together in new ways, we feel the energy of the collective more acutely, emboldened (rather than threatened) by our individual and communal pursuit of knowledge. When Janine Utell launched this forum in 2021 with “A Provocation, A Welcome, An Invitation,” she reflected on her experience writing and publishing feminist modernist scholarship alongside a growing sense of “modernism’s attention” to community and praxis. Calling upon Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomenology, Utell imagines a space for the “radical openness and feminist practice” of the “pedagogical, the theoretical, the practical, the activist” as productively disruptive intersections.[6] In the workshop at UGA, I used plant waste to help us more deeply consider the ecological duration of craft, how decay and agency might shift depending on the surface, and to experiment with tactile or haptic ways of knowing. This forum offers similar potential for experiment and play, for scholarship that queers the project of modernist studies itself through multiple points of entry, varied practices—including the counterblast of the feminist hammer.

Dancing, Howling, Raging

Developments in the field such as weak theory, diasporic counter-archives, and low theory's revaluation of “eccentric archives” suggest the value of “counterintuitive forms of resistance” (to quote Jack Halberstam in The Queer Art of Failure). “Orientations” foregrounds how modernists embraced trans-aesthetic forms of resistance while also creating spaces for surviving frenetic times. These interventions—into feminism, queer theory, transnationalism, materiality, and embodiment—also extend to larger questions about the politics of aesthetics, phenomenology and the archive, and the necessary fluidity of the literary and artistic canon. My own scholarly investments would ask us to not only think about these topics, but to consider the forms our scholarship might take. Siri Hustvedt puts it this way: “I dance, romp, howl, whimper, rage, lecture and spit on the page now.”[7] As the incoming editor, I encourage work that bridges the gap between form and content, that demands an orientation towards the queer forms scholarship itself might take—pieces that dance, howl, whimper, and spit (fig. 5).

Film still with two women's faces
Fig. 5. A film-still from “The Weaver’s Handshake,” a film-essay by the author.

Therefore, part of my aim as editor is to expand our sense of method in feminist scholarship, to queer questions around what counts as academic inquiry and argument, and to foreground collaboration as a radical praxis. This approach asks us to sometimes work counterintuitively, to deliberately tinker with scholarly teleology in ways that make our arguments and interventions more lively, inclusive, open, and enduring. Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon, for example, champion “the feminist possibilities of incompletion” by engaging “fragmentary, lost, or vanishing artifacts and archives.”[8] Or Octavio R. González, reading through Rosemary Garland-Thompson’s protomaterialism, turns to “a solution in the form of a liquid structure of feeling” for inclusive social configurations of the misfit in literary modernism.[9] He devotes the entire first chapter of his book to “Methodology,” developing “immanent reading [as] a way to stay close to troubling misfit structures of feeling” (González, Misfit Modernism, 41).

I admire the queer commitment of these approaches—the ways in which scholars push their own modes of inquiry beyond the well-trodden paths of traditional academic writing. “Orientations” has been a warm and fascinating home for analysis, visual theory, and archival studies that write in conversation with a range of approaches, from work on neuroqueerness and the personal in queer theory to writing on literary analysis alongside social media activism and modernist burnout. By embracing the liminal and ephemeral potential of queerness, past contributors have made fascinating inroads to new ways of seeing pedagogies of the closet, modernist dreamworlds, and queer friendship as archival recovery. I aim to continue supporting this kind of work, while also encouraging readers and prospective authors to weave their own multimedia, experimental, and cross-genre practices into the fabric of queer and feminist inquiry.

Igniting Feminist Fires

Maggie Nelson encourages us to rethink care as a “source of texture and amplitude,” arguing that “art is characterized by the indeterminacy and plurality of the encounters it generates, be they between a work and its maker, a work and its variegated audience, or a work of art and time.”[10] I’m curious about the nature of care in scholarship, an ethic modeled brilliantly in previous posts on professional abuse by Carrie Rohman and by Erica Gene Delsandro on how to “foster coalitions inclusive of difference” as a process of feminist “bristling.” How we might care for others through our sites and methods of inquiry, through the queer expansion of our ways of knowing? In our various queer orientations, we might also think about the work of citation itself as a practice of kinship and care. These encounters remind us of the collective yet again, the sewing circle adept at stitching together seemingly disparate objects and ideas. As Ahmed writes, “To create new meaning is to create new ways of being together” (Feminist Killjoy, 184). Readers can look forward to scholarship that foregrounds new ways of being together—both through our readings of queer modernism but also through our modes of analysis and presentation.

"Orientations” has, since its beginning, been a forum for engaging with the work of Sara Ahmed in meaningful ways, even as Ahmed’s own work has pushed forward with inspiring, varied brilliance. In her newest book, she lights a match: “Books can be feminist fire; how we ‘catch fire’. I think of all those feminist fires being lit, lit up, imaginations ignited, desires enflamed, rage too” (Feminist Killjoy, 185). “To write in fire is to write fire,” she continues, imbuing criticism with its own self-generating intensity, “how fire and heat can be used to melt old shapes, make new shapes” (185). It’s my hope that “Orientations” will construct “our own buildings when the world does not accommodate us,” even as we “find ways to send the work out so that it can be shared, catch fire, our imagination” (186).[11]

Readers will notice the paradox of destruction and rebuilding, unweaving and repair, that runs through the reflections assembled here. This queer archival fever speaks not just to issues of flourishing but to the role of scholarship in imagining more humane, livable worlds. Taking over “Orientations” from Janine feels like a spark—something to both inherit and tend, but also to keep burning bright.[12] I welcome you to get in touch!

Woman standing next to fire with text inserted above her
Fig. 6. Digital Collage with Composite Poem by the author with lines from Jack Halberstam, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Heather Love, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Virginia Woolf.


[1] Alice Oswald, “Counterblast! (a manifesto for poetry),” University of Oxford Podcasts, audio, June 16, 2023.

[2] Sylvia Plath, “Conversation Among the Ruins,” in The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2018), 21.

[3] On my use of queer as a verb, a few critical interlocutors that have inspired my thinking: for her ongoing commitment to queer theory as woven scholarship, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of queerness as "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically.” See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 8. In addition to Sara Ahmed’s blending of feminist and queer theory as mutually-constitutive orientations, I’d also point to bell hooks’s framework for “‘queer’ as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.

[4] Adam Fitzgerald, “An Interview with Fred Moten, Part 1,” LitHub, August 5, 2015.

[5] Sara Ahmed, The Feminist Killjoy Handbook: The Radical Potential of Getting in the Way (New York: Seal, 2023), 179.

[6] Janine Utell, “‘Orientations’: A Provocation, A Welcome, An Invitation,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus, November 30, 2021.

[7] Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 134.

[8] Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon, ed., Incomplete: The Feminist Possibilities of the Unfinished Film (Oakland: University of California Press), 17.

[9] Octavio R. González, Misfit Modernism: Queer Forms of Double Exile in the Twentieth-Century Novel (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020), 42.

[10] Maggie Nelson, On Freedom (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2021), 64, 21.

[11] See fig. 6 for a creative offering inspired by these feminist fires.

[12] My gratitude to Janine Utell for passing the torch on “Orientations” and for years of invaluable guidance and feedback. Also, my thanks to two brilliant friends—Alix Beeston and Victoria Papa—for their helpful feedback on this post.