Felicity Plunkett is a poet and critic. She holds Australian Book Review’s 2019 Patrons’ Fellowship. Her new book, A Kinder Sea, is forthcoming with UQP in February 2020

Hosts and Ghosts

Hospitality, Reading and Writing

This essay starts from J. Hillis Miller’s ‘The critic as host’, an anatomy of reading which connects ideas of ghosting and hosting. If the reader or critic hosts a text, s/he does so both as ‘eaten and eater’, containing ‘the double antithetical relation of host and guest’ (Miller 1977: 442). Miller finds in the ethical reader someone aware of these ‘reciprocal duties of hospitality’. With its images of winding ivy and squirming parasites, Miller’s essay contains a dynamic disclosure of the spirit of attempt that drives it, and the energies of the ‘species of that fanaticism, or rapture, or even revelry that Immanuel Kant calls Schwärmerei’ that, elsewhere, he invites readers to enter (Miller 2005: 253).

These ideas haunt and illuminate my practice as writer, editor and critic. This essay explores the possibilities of applying Miller’s evocation of the ‘reciprocal duties’ involved in inhabiting a text as a reader to these other varieties of habitation. My research into confessional poetry and life writing repeatedly washes up questions of (and into) the liminal spaces between the imagined and something we like to think of as fact. In writing about ‘real’ people, hospitality’s questions become challenging: what to serve, bring or hide in a cupboard; how best to listen; questions of transgression, politeness and pleasure. Similarly, the creative editing of another writer’s work is premised upon a privileged hospitality: an interlocutor can only be effective if a writer has invited her into the work, and is willing to accommodate her reading.

The form of this essay’s exploration is inspired by the poetic assemblages of Joseph Cornell, which Charles Simic describes as ‘vehicles of reverie’ where objects and ideas are shuffled into conversation through a ‘dime-store alchemy’ (Simic 1992).