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Faculty Publication Spotlight: Emily Kopley's "Virginia Woolf and Poetry"

Former Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Emily Kopley shares her insights into the research and experience that framed and influenced her latest book, "Virginia Woolf and Poetry"
Image by Concordia University .

Dr. Emily Kopley, course lecturer in the Department of Jewish Studies, recently published her first book, Virginia Woolf and Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2021). Kopley undertook much of the writing and research of her book during her time as a Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of English, from August 2013 to February 2016.

Virginia Woolf’s career was shaped by her impression of the conflict between poetry and the novel, a conflict she often figured as one between masculine and feminine, old and new, bound and free. Virginia Woolf and Poetry, the first book on Woolf’s attitude towards poetry, explores Woolf’s sense of genre rivalry and reinterprets the motivations and aims of her canonical work. Written in clear and lively language, the book maintains a narrative drive as it traces Woolf’s thinking about poetry over her lifetime.

During her fellowship, Kopley also published two articles related to Woolf’s work, one on Woolf’s cousin, poet J.K. Stephen, and another on poet George Rylands, who worked at the Hogarth Press, the publishing house founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. She also published for a wider readership, including an essay in the Times Literary Supplement on the only recording of Woolf's voice and an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education about being a postdoc. Thanks to the support of the Mellon Foundation, Kopley also attended several conferences.

We asked Dr. Kopley to share her insights on her research and her experience as a post-doctoral fellow at McGill.

Q: During your time as a Mellon post-doc fellow in the Department of English, what experiences and opportunities influenced your research for this book?

My research gained not only from time to write and opportunities to present my work but also from teaching. Among the several classes I taught was a seminar on Woolf, which forced me to articulate my arguments clearly and succinctly. And I learned from my students’ questions and ideas. Some of my students went on to publish the papers they wrote in our class.

Two others, who are now pursuing PhDs in English, attended the 2015 Woolf conference, which was held in central Pennsylvania, near where I grew up. I introduced them to Cecil Woolf (who died in 2019), the nephew of Virginia and Leonard and a publisher in his own right. I wrote about an assignment I created for this seminar, and quoted my students’ comments and papers, in an essay called “Teaching the Revisions of Virginia Woolf and Others” (published in this book).

Q: In what way was the McGill Library a help in completing this book?

I was, and am, deeply grateful for the holdings of the Redpath Library. I spent a lot of time in the stacks of the 5th floor and in the Rare Book Room, and made so many Inter-Library Loan (ILL) requests I fear I made the ILL folks feel the force of their acronym. One memorable time was when the day grew dark as I hunched in the 5th floor stacks looking through pre-1940 books whose titles were variations on A History of English Literature (Stopford A. Brooke’s, call # PR173 B76 1899, is an example.). I was trying to understand how Woolf would have seen the place of the novel and of poetry in the history of English literature and in the establishment of English as an academic discipline. But there were so many books I didn’t know what to check out. This is also what Woolf observed towards the end of her life, when she wanted to remind herself, during the Battle of Britain, of the solidity of English literature. In September 1940 she visited a public library searching for “a history of English literature.” “But,” she wrote in her diary, “was so sickened, I cdn’t look. There were so many. Nor cd I remember the name of Stopford Brooke." 

And [the] library staff facilitated my research and teaching. Lonnie Weatherby (Liaison Librarian for the Humanities and Social Sciences Library) guided students in my Woolf class in conducting research. And Michael Groenendyk (now at the Concordia Library) performed a feat of bibliosorcery. There’s a disk from 1996, “Major Authors on CD-ROM: Virginia Woolf,” that is hardly ever for sale and then costs thousands of dollars. It contains, among other things, images of reams and reams of Woolf manuscripts held in various libraries. So if you have this CD you can access tons of Woolf’s draft material, letters, etc., including things that haven’t been published. I requested the CD through ILL and Mike was able to extract and copy the files of manuscript material for me. 

Q: Why was McGill, and particularly, the Department of English, the right setting to explore this line of inquiry into Woolf’s work?

The knowledge and generosity of the Arts faculty was a help and a motivation. In the Department of English, I would talk shop with my supervisor, Associate Professor Miranda Hickman, and with Professor Allan Hepburn. I learned more about poetry and publishing from Associate Professor Eli MacLaren. I also learned from Associate Professor Brian Cowan (History and Classical Studies) more about 18th – century British authorship.

Q: Your book explores how holding an “ideology” of a particular genre can shape literary debates and aesthetics; drawing on your teaching experience, how do these ideas and beliefs shape the way students respond to works they study in the classroom?

My students don’t share Woolf’s gendered views of poetry and the novel, nor do I, but sometimes they think that poetic form is elitist and obscure. I try to show that rhythm and rhyme are among our earliest pleasures, as in nursery rhymes, and that the language of metrical feet, kinds of rhyme, etc., is not hard to master and can help us pay closer attention to verse—and to prose.

Q: In your opinion, which of Woolf’s works are the most emblematic of her poetic prose? Which of those books should students add to their reading list?

My two favorite are To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931). Both feature the three tools Woolf borrowed from poetry: the lyric “I,” figurative language, and aural recurrence (that is, repetition of sounds, as in rhythm). A good edition is important; in my McGill seminar we used the Harcourt annotated editions for all the novels, but I also recommend the Penguin Classics series, edited by the late Julia Briggs. It’s useful to read these books in a class or book group or with a friend—some forum in which you can talk about them, because they can be confusing and also because they are singular and beautiful and it’s a pleasure to share them. A character in To the Lighthouse thinks, “That was his way of looking, different from hers. But looking together united them.”

Emily Kopley received her BA in English from Yale and her PhD in English from Stanford. Originally from central Pennsylvania, Emily has lived in Montreal for ten years. She's been a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in English at McGill, a Lecturer in Études Anglaises at Université de Montréal, and the Researcher in Residence at Concordia University Library. She's now a Lecturer in Jewish Studies at McGill. Her writing has appeared in The Review of English Studies, Studies in American Jewish Literature, Mémoires du Livre, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the TLS, and elsewhere. Her first book, "Virginia Woolf and Poetry", was published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

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