A series of reviews of walking projects
A few years ago there was a thrilling article in the New York Times about Will Self’s arrival in the city for some literary event. It wasn’t the fact of his arrival that was thrilling, but how he arrived: on foot. Having walked from his home in London to Heathrow, he sat on a flight to JFK and then proceeded to walk the twenty miles from the airport to Manhattan. This simple act of practical psychogeography, which would have produced such a radically different experience from that of most airborne visitors, was a perfect illustration of the perceptual potential inherent in pedestrian travel. Walking, one of the most fundamental of human actions, is ahistorical, which becomes apparent even through Rebecca Solnit’s rigorous attempt to document its history in her book Wanderlust. There is, however, a long and rich history of walking as a subject of, as well as an inspiration and technique for, writing: from Socrates to Basho to William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, to Charles Baudelaire sauntering through Walter Benjamin’s streetscape of quotations, to Lisa Robertson’s ambulatory reports from the Office for Soft Architecture.
This particular parade of observations, which focuses on recently published books of poetry and prose — along with one film and one website — that reference walking, was inspired originally by one of those books, Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks / Two Talks, published in 2010 by Ugly Duckling Presse. Their methodology in producing that text was simple — it can basically be summed up in the four-word title — yet peculiarly evocative. Ten Walks / Two Talks explores the intersection and overlap of two vital poetic techniques, movement and conversation, like a cross between a flâneur and David Antin. As readers, we were both so engaged by the results of Cotner and Fitch’s collaborative, conversational procedures that we decided to go about writing a review of their book in roughly the same way: by recording and transcribing our peripatetic conversation about it. Having written this slant form of review, we began to think about conversation as a possible metaphor, or model, for artistic and intellectual engagement: that is, rather than making summative, authoritative judgments about a new book and its merits and appeal, it seemed more interesting to find ways to place ourselves in conversation with that book, to view it not as an event of greater or lesser literary import but as an occasion to initiate poetic, intellectual, political — even personal — dialogue. It seemed a way of getting off the highway and wandering through the residential areas around the airport.
In collecting reviews of recent walking projects, we therefore aimed to place these projects in conversation with one another, even if only implicitly. Rather than simply requesting reviews, however, we wanted to offer reviewers a chance to respond to the work under consideration as we had, by creating a slant form of review. Some reviewers took us up on this offer — to our delight and some degree of surprise — while others preferred to write more traditional reviews, not without surprises of their own. The result is an overview, necessarily inexhaustive, of recent work done in the realm of peripatetic art. Just as we encouraged reviewers to wander in their approach to reviewing, we also encouraged them to consider a diverse array of topics and texts in diverse forms. And the people we invited on this group excursion were writers we like who have also done some wandering on their own.
J. R. Carpenter, for example, immediately leapt to mind when we started to consider writers who have used geography and trajectory as structuring principles in their work. J.R., whose fictions often coalesce around walking the dog or hiking the hills, and whose electronic works often exist as points on a digital map, provided us not with a review of a single text but a meditative introduction to the subject in her Wanderkammer, a wide-ranging reconfiguration of the “Wunderkammer” or cabinet of curiosities. We encourage you to begin with a stroll down the forking paths that she has laid out for us in language; take these other pages with you, though, in case you don’t find your way back.
In the first review on our list, Eugene Lim attempts to avoid being exhausted by George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, recently published by Wakefield Press in a translation by Marc Lowenthal. We thus begin with a respite from walking, because Perec’s Oulipian enumeration of the goings-on in a Paris square is not about moving as much as it is about sitting still while everything else moves. For a less static picture of Paris we turn to Under the Dome: Walks with Celan, by Jean Daive, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck). This memoir of walking and poetry is reviewed by Gail Scott, whose own novel My Paris is, among other things, a brilliant evocation of how walking and translation intersect. The scene then shifts from the city of light to the city of brotherly love, and from prose to poetry, for Erica Kaufman’s (soma)tic review of The City Real and Imagined: Philadelphia Poems, by Frank Sherlock and CAConrad (Factory School), in which she creates a series of walking-based procedures in order to compose her review. Leah Souffrant reviews a series of Philadelphic poetry books by Kevin Varrone under the title g-point almanac — one from Duration, one from Instance Press, and most recently one from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Next is Not Blessed by Harold Abramowitz (Les Figues), in which twenty-eight chapters all tell the same story, differently each time, of a boy wandering into the woods and getting lost; it is reviewed, but only ten times, by Nikhil Bilwakesh. Shawn Micallef is a Toronto writer whose strolling essays have appeared in that city’s Eye Weekly and have now been collected in the book Stroll: Psychogeographical Walking Tours of Toronto (Coach House). Montreal-based poetic traveler Taien Ng followed Micallef — in the form of his prose — through the streets of Toronto and gave us a report on what she found. That’s followed by our own live-action review of Ten Walks / Two Talks by Andy Fitch and Jon Cotner (Ugly Duckling). We finish with reviews of two projects that wander off the page into multimedia territory. First, artist Yvette Poorter, whose ten-year project “Dwelling for Intervals” brought her and a small forest to various cities around the world, reviews the website of The Ministry of Walking. Finally, we have Rebekah Rutkoff’s lyrical essay “We Can’t Do It Without the Rose,” a response to Jason Livingston’s Under Foot and Overstory, a 16 mm film that documents attempts by the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, of which Livingston is a member, to protect some Iowa City park land from developers. And at that point in our stroll we reluctantly turn around and walk back.
Writer and architect Ben Jacks, who recently collaborated with poet Annie Finch on an exhibit entitled “Walking, Poems, Buildings,” has written that “there is no possibility of an architecture or a poetics that is not dependent on walking,” which could perhaps stand (or walk?) as the motto for this feature. Walking, in other words, is not just a time-honored topic for poetry but an integral condition of its saying: to move is to be moved, by a poem, a person, or our surroundings.