"Here" at the University of Alabama's creative writing program we've been enjoying this week the company of poet Juliana Spahr. Scare quotes exhaustively (and perhaps exhaustingly) explained after the jump.
Last night Spahr gave a vigorous and mesmerizing reading of two long pieces rooted in places. The first piece, a sort of memoir/encyclopedia of her hometown of Chillicothe, OH, featured a reference to Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead" about fifteen seconds after I thought to myself, "This reminds of 'The Book of the Dead,'" which added goosebumps on top of the goosebumps the piece had already engendered and made me feel like a real-live smarty-pants. The second piece concerned a long-running and combative collaboration between two writers, one from Berkeley and one from Oakland, who meet on a small plot of land on the border between those two cities to try to create a text about the geographical, historical, psychological, and political liminality of the place. (I don't think it's actually the case, but I couldn't help entertaining the notion that both collaborators were products of Spahr's imagination. Just seemed like something this protean and prolific writer might well have come up with.)
Spahr's work often takes the form of, or at least engages with the spirit of, what William Least-Heat Moon called "deep maps," and we were delighted when she agreed to be here in Tuscaloosa for a week to lead a group of graduate students in a collaborative workshop which would, in her words, "write something about Tuscaloosa that . . . will get at the 'psycho' in 'psychogeography.'"
She went on to describe her agenda for the workshop thusly: "Guy Debord wrote that in the dérive 'one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.' We will attempt this: to write something that captures the flow of acts, the gestures, the strolls, the encounters of Tuscaloosa."
(I love how with the single word "strolls" Spahr conjures up Baudelaire (via Benjamin) on the flâneur: "The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes. For him alone, all is open; if certain places seem closed to him, it is because in his view they are not worth inspecting.")
This seemed to me a brilliant idea for a weeklong workshop, especially since so many of our graduate students come to Tuscaloosa from elsewhere, which fact, combined with the fact that graduate school is a strange place/space to live in and through no matter how, where, when, or why you go, can create a sense of disconnection from one's surroundings which can be disorienting but I think also generative.
I think I've had too much coffee. Sorry if my syntax is "off the hook."
Throughout the week, whenever I saw one of the students in workshop and asked how the project was going, they'd get this faraway look, and then: "It's awesome." Or: "It's amazing." Which was great to hear, but a little vague! Understandably so: These participants were pretty much maxxed out, doing their regular busy schedules by day and then writing into the night with Juliana.
So anyway I was tickled this morning when, idly Googling "Juliana Spahr" to see if I could find out more about the pieces she read last night, I found the top hit on the search results page to be a blog called Swoonrocket, the most recent entries on which, lo and behold, describe the goings-on in Spahr's workshop here this week! I figured at first it must be the blog of one of the students in the class, but soon realized it's Spahr's own blog.
This is turning into a long story.
But maybe worth it because this is kind of weird, isn't it? I go to cyberspace to find information about imaginative poems about real places written by a poet who has no prior connection with this place I live in but who has been very present in this place all week, since she left her place and came to our place in order to lead an effort to see this place more clearly through the vehicle of imaginative acts. And I find in virtual space an account of her group's efforts this week to render the actual space of the town in which she, the students, and I are all currently residing but which is really in many ways a virtual space for all of us, since Juliana's just visiting, the students aren't from here and most won't remain here, and as for me, I do live here, but I often feel I "live" more in books and journals and web sites than I do in this actual GPS-able location where I'm sitting right now.
And another weird thing. I feel kind of funny about linking to Juliana's Swoonrocket site. The entries there have a kind of intimate tone, sort of like it's a set of notes to herself, not necessarily for public consumption. Like it's a private place rather than a public place. I thought about calling her to ask about this, but a) it's still pretty early in the morning, and b) geez, it's the first hit you get when you Google her, so how private can it be? Still, I think we can discern some Potential Discussion Questions (PDQs) in this situation re the public/private, present/absent, immanent/transcendent nature of the interweb.
I considered calling this post "This Connection of Everyone with Blogs," but it seemed a little too cheesy.
Rebecca, this is my rambling and benighted "answer" to your question about place.
Privacy invasion anxieties notwithstanding, everyone should check out on Swoonrocket the terrifically inspiring set of prompts Juliana used to jumpstart her workshop here. Try them out on your own town!
At the reading last night, one of the members of Juliana's workshop told the audience, "We were to write a book about Tuscaloosa. We wrote two."
In conclusion: Thanks for visiting us "here," Juliana Spahr!
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, poet Joel Brouwer is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Syracuse University. Brouwer is the author of several collections of poetry, including And So (2009); Centuries (2003), a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book; and Exactly What Happened (1999), winner of the Larry Levis...