Phoebe: eleven ways of looking at travel
I picked up a copy of the spring 2006 issue of Phoebe yesterday; in the issue, they asked what they called a multiview, asking eleven different writers the same question: How does transportation or travel affect your own writing process, or poetry in general? An interesting range & process of answers, the question, posed to writers (many of whom I'd never heard of) Kate Northrup, Kim Addonizio, D.A. Powell, Lisa Jarnot (I picked up the issue for her name), Greg Fraser & Chad Davidson, Matthew Rohrer, H.L. Hix, Joshua Marie Wilkinson & Richard Silken, got me to thinking of my own response (since no one ever asks me anything):
rob mclennan's response: I have always considered that to write of the world, you have to be part of the world, & that includes writing, talking, taking the bus, watching television, movies, politics, comic books, & thusly, travel. Not always without, but working its own way within.
"Travel poetry" can often have a tendency to slide too many surfaces & not enough depths, working to include little more than a new series of place names, & many of these, unfortunately, have fallen into my own learning curve of writing & even into other writers' full collections. I would eventually love to be able to spend a month in, say, New York City, exploring the city & all the distractions therein, writing & writers & living, & still have enough time to do some competent writing of my own (although the thirty-five hours I was in New York City in 2003 with Stephen Brockwell & Clare Latremouille still managed to result in eight quick poems, many of which were written either in the airport before we left for Ottawa, or on the plane).
Usually when I'm about to do a Canadian tour for a new poetry collection (this fall will probably be my twelfth tour), I can spend anywhere from three to eight weeks on the road, doing readings & seeing friends that I almost only see during these jaunts, I come up with some kind of self-contained book-length writing project to work on during the trip, to keep my mind occupied. I know other writers who have said that writing on the road is impossible for them, such as Robert McLiam Wilson (six months into a tour when I saw him, & all of it away from writing), & Helen Humphreys. Dennis Cooley, on the other hand, seems to do more writing whenever he leaves the house.
Over the weeks before I leave, various structures I want to play with rattle around my head, themes or titles, so I can get started just as the first leg of the journey begins; I prefer to keep such projects separate from whatever usual ongoing projects I have scattered across my desk (I also allow myself to read whole stacks of novels that had been sitting around for months, unread; consider the twenty-four hour train between Vancouver & Edmonton, consider how long the train from Winnipeg to Toronto takes; the last tour I did, I made reread Robert Kroetch's The Studhorse Man, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections & Steven Heighton's The Shadow Boxer, among others). Much of what became my sixth poetry collection harvest, a book of signifiers (fall 2001, Talonbooks) was written while touring Canada for my second poetry collection, bury me deep in the green wood (spring 1999, ECW Press) with Montreal fiction writer Anne Stone & Edmonton poet kath MacLean. As the tours & the writing progresses, I've noticed the travel collections have become less sprawling & more focused; for whatever reason, I seem to write complete twenty page pieces whenever I visit Alberta, sitting at the University of Alberta Power Plant grad lounge every day, scribbling in my notebook.
Whole sections of my forthcoming collection aubade (fall 2006, Broken Jaw Press) are written this way, as a sequence of sequences, with various sections written in various cities, including one completely written in Edmonton, & another in Montreal, for example. Each has its own range of city & city writing to respond to; in Montreal, I am always very much aware of responding to Leonard Cohen & Artie Gold.
I would like to think that I have been in various Canadian cities often enough that the excitement purely of the different place than home syndrome in writing has diminished, & the pieces instead include a flavour of the cities themselves; subtle, but not overpowering.
When I was young, with my father working the dairy farm & my mother's poor health, travel was something we were never really able to do; the one trip to Prince Edward Island I do recall is referenced in red earth (2003, Black Moss Press), or our trip to New Paltz, New York the same time Elvis died, in harvest; & something I certainly didn’t come close to doing on my own until my late twenties. For years I tried to learn the prairies, for example, by not only being there, but by reading Dennis Cooley, Andrew Suknaski, Robert Kroetsch, Aritha van Herk, John Newlove, Sid Marty. You learn a place as much by being there as reading about it; I wanted to understand that question of what is here? In Glengarry we are nearly obsessed with it, so why not ask the same question about everywhere else?
I would like to think, that in my own writing at least, that the question of travel adds elements to the work that otherwise might not have crept in, from my little writing desk on Somerset Street West. What I am really interested in exploring is non-Canadian space, & work to understand a whole range of new references that can't have been possible in a Calgary or Vancouver or Ottawa poem. Do you remember that collection of Richard Brautigan's written in Japan, June 30th, June 30th (1976)?
If I am to explore, I want it to be about everything.