"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!

Originally Published: September 18th, 2009

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...

  1. September 18, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    On the border (one of many invisible fronteras dividing this sphere) between Berkeley and Oakland, there is an installation of nine eight-foot tall steel letters (artists: Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, URL: http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=19660).\r

    On the Berkeley side, HERE. Onn the Oakland side (where there is no there there, Gertrude), THERE.

  2. September 18, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Wow, John. How perfect is that!

  3. September 18, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Wonky link, tho. Try this one: http://www.artopic.org/?p=223

  4. September 18, 2009
     Travis Nichols

    From Edward Dorn: A World of Difference by Tom Clark: “[Carl] Sauer, as Dorn knew, had recognized that creative writers–-from Herodotus down to W. H. Hudson, one of Dorn’s primary models of place-writing from the late 1950s on–-are often the best geographers.”

  5. September 18, 2009

    this will be vague also: but i love julianan spahr! her work rocks!\r


  6. September 18, 2009

    Swoonrocket is a goldmine.

  7. September 18, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    I know, right? But was it evil to link to that? I feel like I've outed somebody. But that's ridiculous, right? \r


    I guess I'll just ask Juliana myself when I see her later today.

  8. September 18, 2009
     Don Share

    The sage, said Dahlberg, is he who sits. The Hasids say it’s he who walks...\r

    Above by Peter Cole, from a feature forthcoming in the November issue of Poetry called, "The Poet Takes a Walk," featuring poets... well... walking through various landscapes.\r

    Another excerpt:\r

    "Walking is a way of remaining in place, or in a place, of leaving oneself to return to oneself, of upping the odds that surprise might flow through. Of giving one’s eyes something to do, so that the world within might be heard.\r

    During the years when walking was impossible, especially in this car-crowded city of hills and sprawl, when arthritic pain nailed me to my desk chair, the only way to feel that freshness was to walk through others’ lines and times, against the grain of my language. That was the pleasure of translation – of moving and being moved across a landscape into the foreign, and taking on form and sense as they shuttled between the eyes and ears and lips and tongue. Looking down the alleys of assonance, and into the crannies of consonance. There’s a glittering weed –or was that planted? – in any case, it’s shining. Let me bring that back with me, into an English weave. There’s a car bumper holding the sky. Now a breeze shifts over a knoll, rushing through a scrim of jasmine. Is that literature or is it life? How can I capture –no, create –no, capture –the pitch of that coolness and scent." \r

    Sorry for the plug, which was irresistable. Carry on.

  9. September 18, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Terrific, Don. I feel inexorably moved to mention two more of my favorite wanderweggers.\r

    Rebecca Solnit\r

    Claudio Magris\r

    Thrillers both.

  10. September 18, 2009
     Don Share

    Both gems, Joel. And since it's Samuel Johnson's 300th b'day, maybe we should add Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.\r

    I guess The Ode Less Travelled doesn't count...

  11. September 18, 2009

    One of my favorite melancholy strollers (don't think of a sad baby-buggy trudging down the sidewalk! Don't!!) is W.G. Sebald. Here's a map of Sebald's walks through Rings of Saturn:\r


  12. September 18, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Jill, I was totally going to mention Sebald and am so glad you did. That map is fantastic! Someone should do the same for Austerlitz.

  13. September 18, 2009

    One step ahead of you, Joel!

  14. September 18, 2009

    If the (great) Chillicothe poem is the same one Juliana Spahr read when I saw her in Chicago it can be found "here":\r

  15. September 18, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Yar! That is it the very same. Thank you, Daniel! And duh, I should have known that, since I have reviews in that same issue of Lana Turner. Duh. Can't keep track of everything, I guess.\r

    The aforementioned Rukeyser shout-out, by the way, comes at the beginning of the epilogue.\r

    As Daniel already knows, it's quite remarkable to hear Juliana perform this piece in person. She reads with great fluency, but also with startling speed. The effect is I guess I'd say immersive. Sort of the way reading Stein out loud can become immersive.

  16. September 18, 2009

    to add: stephen vincent's poetry collection 'walking theory' is fab. bay area in the house!\r


  17. September 18, 2009

    No, great to link so Spahr. More thoughts in process please, more entanglements and wonder and less polish. Though that seems to garner many thumbs down around here.