Interview with Benjamin Johnson

by Tera Swearngin

Benjamin Johnson is an associate professor at the University of Central Missouri. His articles on modern poetry and culture have appeared in venues including Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Arizona Quarterly, and The Wallace Stevens Journal.

How did you get interested in the work of Beatrice Hastings?

I stumbled upon her while doing research for an essay about the early-twentieth century reception of the French poet Francis Jammes. She wrote a very funny parody of an essay Ezra Pound wrote about Jammes, and I set out to try to find out who in the world she was. After I read a bit more of her and realized that very little of her work was still in print, I pitched it to the Unsung Masters series editors.

How did you decide which Hastings poems to focus on in your research and writing?

I picked the ones I thought were good poems. It is a bit different from working on a canonical poet. I’ve published a couple essays on Marianne Moore, but there’s so much written on Moore that one ends up looking for understudied work, or at least the work about which one has something new to say. I’ve really never written about my favorite Moore poems because I’m not convinced I have an angle that adds anything new to them. But with someone like Hastings, where the poems are even less read than her other work that is also barely read, the field is wide open. So you pick what you like.

Hastings was rigid in her use of poetic forms and classical motifs and critical of more experimental poets. Do you have any theories about why she was so – dare I say – pedantic and entrenched?

I’m not sure I would say she was either. Pedantic isn’t quite right–she could be quite critical of what she thought was bad poetry, and its clear that by and large free verse poetry did not sound good to her. But compared to, say, Ezra Pound’s imagist manifestos, she hardly reads as pedantic. And while obviously her own poetry is largely written in traditional verse forms, it is worth remembering that the 1910’s were far less given over to free verse than we tend to remember. If you go back and read any literary magazine from the period that was not fully committed to the avant-garde, what you mostly see is metrically regular, rhyming poetry. So Hastings wasn’t unusual–the poets who have become canonical were the ones who were unusual.

Beatrice Hastings wrote some essays that were clearly feminist under one pseudonym and others that seemed contradictory under another pseudonym. In your introduction, you wrote that “she comes across as borderline misogynist” in those essays. Overall, would you classify her as a feminist writer?

Probably not, although of course it is tricky. In some ways she probably feels more feminist now than she would have one hundred years ago. Her arguments against the cultural idealization of motherhood to the exclusion of other paths for women, or her insistence that young women need to taught about sex and reproduction, or her critique of the socio-economic blind spots of the upper class leaders of the English women’s movement strike me as having real resonance with concerns of twenty-first century feminists. But we are also talking about a writer who ultimately came down in opposition to suffrage, which was undoubtedly the most public “feminist” issue of her time.

Much of the best scholarship on Hastings–and here I’m thinking especially of Lucy Delap, Ann Ardis, and Carey Snyder–has dealt with the ways that she moved between feminist and anti-feminist positions, and I guess that for me that’s the most useful way to think about her. She was a fascinating writer on the political dimensions of women’s lives, and at a certain point trying to label her as something or another gets in the way of actually reading her.

What’s your next project?

Not sure, really. I’ve been so focused on Hastings and a couple other essays for the past couple years that I have not really plotted a next move. I have a few hunches percolating, but that’s about it for now.