Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Cole Swensen, On Walking On


Cooler this evening, particularly crossing the bridges, where the wind picks up and is making a mess of the surface of the water. People walking, many tonight, and almost in rhythm, as if it were a way of collectively resisting the wind. I stop and look over the parapet, down onto the quay, where five pigeons seem to be marching in step in a single, evenly paced line. I know this is only the projection of a human attachment to order onto random avian behavior, but still, it’s a remarkably straight line and remarkably evenly paced.

American poet Cole Swensen’s latest is On Walking On (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2017), a book-length suite of poems engaged in the subject of walking, from her own notes on the subject to her responses to a lengthy list of other works by Geoffrey Chaucer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dorothy Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gérard de Nerval, Guillaime Apollinaire, John Muir, Robert Walser, W.G. Sebald, Werner Herzog, Harryette Mullen and Lisa Robertson. The back of the collection includes a healthy bibliography, which Swensen introduces by writing: “This series hopes to honor the millennia-old connection between walking and writing without trying to be in any way definitive. It started with an interest in texts written by a number of writers about walks that they had taken and then branched out in various idiosyncratic ways. Idiosyncrasy, in the long run, became the only principle of both selection and order.”

The book moves from sections of shorter poems (up to six, but as few as two) alternating with sections of longer sequences focusing on specific works, from “ROUSSEAU: THE REVERIES OF A SOLITARY WALKER,” and “SAND: PROMENADTES AUTOUR D’UN VILLAGE,” to “SEBALD: THE RINGS OF SATURN” and “ROBERTSON: ‘SEVEN WALKS’,” a sequence echoing Lisa Robertson’s “Seven Walks” from her Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), that includes:

And thanking memory, we spent every afternoon in a park, hiding
a different century    my guide with the endless peaches, and then

suddenly a fig. Suddenly threw our class affiliations into striking
relief, and disappearing to everyone but ourselves, we let time slide

through us. Yet cannot deny: we felt hands too dragging through
our own, leaving empty. We were not alone. (“The Second Walk”)

As I’ve referenced in reviews of some of her previous books, what I’ve long appreciated about Swensen’s poetry books is the way in which she seems to approach each book-length work as a study on or around a particular subject, having written previously of landscape paintings (see my review of her LANDSCAPES ON A TRAIN), gardens (Ours: poems on the gardens of Andre Le Notre), hands (The Book of a Hundred Hands) and graveyards (see my review of her Gravesend), among nearly a dozen other lyric stretches across a realm of research (a great deal of which centres around medieval history or subjects). In certain ways, her multiple poetry collections over the years have evolved from collections of linked lyrics to book-length essay-poems, even to the point of each title existing as a single, continuous poetic line. On Walking On, also, moves temporally, threading another line through the collection that runs from the medieval walks of Chaucer, through to a far more contemporary walk via Lisa Robertson, allowing each step in the poem to move the collection forward through history and time. Responding to questions from Maria Anderson via The Rumpus in 2016, on an earlier selection of the manuscript (posted as a chapbook by Essay Press) [I also wrote on an earlier, albeit different, section of the same manuscript, here], Swensen wrote:

Cole Swensen: No, I’ve never thought about it specifically, but in fact I neither take anything along nor take anything away. My focus is on the rhythmic relationship between body and ground and the visual relationships among the elements of the always-changing scene.

But yes, sometimes I do have rules, or rather constraints. One I’ve been working with lately, for instance—and it only works in urban spaces—is the single constraint of turning left whenever I encounter an obstacle, something that makes me stop, such as a traffic light or a T intersection or crowd congestion. I’ve been doing a series of these walks this fall, always starting from the same place and always for the same length of time, to see how differently the walk develops. I end up in very different places.

Rumpus: This is a fascinating constraint. Have you ever looked at these walks visually? Drawn them up on a map to see the shapes?

Swensen: Yes! Exactly! I’m so glad that comes to mind! I do draw them out on a map, and in that way, the kinetic experience becomes a visual work, and the perspective that has been linear and time-based suddenly becomes bird’s-eye-view spatialized. I have also then retraced the lines on a separate sheet of paper, thus removing the map and turning the lines into an abstract drawing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pattie McCarthy, margerykempething and qweyne wifthing


thirty-eight years I lived with my husband
when I was not on pilgrimages or
locked in the buttery saying prayers by rote
thirty-eight years & fourteen children I
lived with my husband     I am no virgin
I am no heretic either                         margery
kempe conceives in a hairshirt a last child
a lapse   this sentence from several failed
attempts   margery kempe was not embarrassed
had ful many delectably thowtys fleschly
lustys     & inordinate lovys to hys persone
we cannot count the blackbirds in the tree
fast enough    they move about & fly away
disappointed I am not my husband

From Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy comes two new, beautifully designed and produced chapbooks via a collaboration between eth press and Punch Press, her margerykempething (2017) and qweyne wifthing (2017). It would be impossible not to see these two publications as siblings, even as two sections of a larger, book-length work-in-progress. Through these, McCarthy researches into and through the terrain of Medieval mystics, women, their labour, tales of mothering, birth and other related topics that have existed throughout the whole of her published work-to-date, from bk of (h)rs (Apogee Press, 2002) and Verso (Apogee Press, 2004) to Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (Apogee Press, 2010), Marybones (Apogee Press, 2013) [see my review of such here] and Quiet Book (Apogee Press, 2016) [see my review of such here]. As she spoke of her interest in Medieval subjects as part of an interview for Touch the Donkey a couple of years ago:

I’ve been in love with the medieval for most of my life. This definitely has something to do with attending Catholic school—the art! The syntax of Catholicism, too, led me to studying the medieval. I think that most people are irrationally attracted to certain historical periods. The way medieval literature & art employ narrative—fragmented or episodic narrative, specifically—also the sense of simultaneity, layers of time in the work—it makes sense to me. On a more personal note, the lives of the saints were like fairytales for me. I mean, when I was a little Catholic schoolgirl we learned about all the girl-saints, about Mary—& those stories stuck to me. My school taught us a great deal about medieval women mystics, about Joan of Arc, about anchoresses in their cells, & it was very ‘cult of the virgin’ when it came to Mary (at least as far as I remember). Even as a child I think I understood that those stories all had to do with power, with women’s bodies, with literacy. I think the nuns taught us about the mystics to counteract “woman is a temple built over a sewer” & “woman is defective & misbegotten” & the rest of the church fathers (which I also remember well, clearly). When I walk into The Cloisters or the Musée de Cluny or the medieval galleries at any art museum, I want to sit down & think & be quiet. I feel that way in medieval churches as well—it’s what left of religion for me.

margerykempething and qweyne wifthing are each composed as collections of twenty-four sonnets (with all poems in margerykempething sharing the title, as do all the poems in qweyne wifthing, same), and margerykempething takes as its prompt the manuscript Book of Margery Kempe that sits in the British Library, an edition that sits as a single copy, giving Margery Kempe the title of “first English autobiographer.” When a digital version of “medieval mystic” Kempe’s manuscript was released online in 2014, Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian:

Kempe lived in Norfolk from around 1373 to 1440. After she had given birth to 14 children, she made a vow to live chastely with her husband, and embarked on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, Italy and Germany. Her devotion was expressed through loud cries and roars, which often irritated bystanders, but she became famous as a mystic, and claimed to have conversations with God.


Biggs said the memoir, which has just been digitised by the British Library, was “perhaps the first autobiography written in English”, and is also “a remarkable record of the religious life of a woman during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries”.

McCarthy, on her part, cites the 2000 Longman edition as her source for quotations, but the 1985 Penguin edition, her “undergrad copy,” as her “sentimental source,” writing out the details of Kempe in a line both straight and slant: “margery kempe invents the autobi- / ography &       vernacular tell-all / the backs of quiet houses from the train / a month & a half of inconvenient / Sundays [.]” The second (admittedly arbitrary on my part, given the publication of these two items appear concurrent) collection, qweyne wifthing, centres itself not on a singular specific text or individual, but on multiple, citing David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower and Linda Simon’s Of virtue rare: Margaret Beaufort, matriarch of the House of Tudor. She centres the collection instead on multiple Medieval matriarchs, royalty and sex, as “wifthing” is defined, variously, as sexual intercourse with a woman, an affair connected with a woman or wife, or, simply, a wedding or coupling. In her poems, lines and phrases repeat and are reordered, reworked, allowing echoes and threads to exist throughout; repeating even as the poem progresses, furthers, further on. The repetition exists almost as a reminder that the stories might belong to different women of the period, but are far too familiar, and far too often repeat the same array of mistakes, misfortunes, loves and losses. As McCarthy writes:

they breathe together that she is always
the same woman          but those are different
women      bent at the waist with grief hands
over their mouths        covering what sounds
it’s just that in that moment of recognition
that point in the process of knowing one’s
own fear & grief                      everyone moves the same
there never was a ‘before we were lovers;
after there were children & thus   infinite time
both stretching into the future & also
in every second     so that any second in fear
over the baby’s body was excruciated & endless
& in the gap of the mouth   to be or become
wide open        the whole round earth in his blue mouth

Monday, February 19, 2018

announcing : versefest 2018!

Six days, seventy poets, one festival. Celebrating written poetry and spoken word in English and French, VF ’18 brings you some of the most exciting poets on the planet.


MARCH 20 – 25, 2018

Ahmed Ali, Alice Notley, Allison LaSorda, Carolyn Marie Souaid, Chris Tse, Christine McNair, Claire Kelly, Colette Bryce, Daniel Dugas, David Charette, David Groulx, Di Brandt, Didi Jackson, Faith Arkorful, Frédéric Lanouette, Gary Barwin, Georgette LaBlanc, Gonzalo Hermo, Hans Jongman, Henry Beissel, Hoa Nguyen, Holly Painter, Jamaal Jackson Rogers, Jan Zwicky, Jean Van Loon, Jeff Latosik, Jennifer Baker, Jonathan Lamy, Kama La Mackerel, Kate Cayley, Klara du Plessis, Lady Vanessa Cardona, Louise Bernice Halfe, Louise Dupré, Luce Pelleteir, Lynn Crosbie, Madeleine Stratford, Major Jackson, Miles Hodges, Natalee Wee, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, Nyla Matuk, Peter Sirr, Rachel McCrum, Robyn Schiff, Sjón, Sneha Madhavan-Reese, Steve McCaffery, Tina Charlebois and Victoria Gravesande, as well as this year's Hall of Honour inductees!

For a full schedule, including ticket information (and festival passes!) check out

Sunday, February 18, 2018

above/ground press 25th anniversary essays

I’ve started posting a series of short essays/reminiscences by a variety of authors and friends of the press to help mark the quarter century mark of above/ground press, aiming to appear on the above/ground press blog throughout 2018. 

So far, short essays have appeared by above/ground press authors
Erín Moure, Stan Rogal, Eleni Zisimatos, Derek Beaulieu and Jessica Smith, with forthcoming pieces by Gary Barwin, Amanda Earl and Jason Christie, among others. You can see links to the whole series as it develops, here. 

And of course, 2018 subscriptions (backdated to January 1st) are still completely possible. New and forthcoming 2018 titles include chapbooks by (in reverse order): Allison Cardon, Melissa Eleftherion, Uxío Novoneyra (trans. Erín Moure), Travis Sharp, Dani Spinosa, Andrew Wessels, Stuart Kinmond / Phil Hall, Natalee Caple, Jon Boisvert, Lise Downe, Dennis Cooley, Edward Smallfield, Sean Braune, Kate Siklosi, Michael Martin Shea, Jennifer Stella, Miguel E. Ortiz Rodríguez, Sara Renee Marshall, Gary Barwin and Tom Prime, Stephanie Gray, Amish Trivedi, Stan Rogal, Eleni Zisimatos, Gary Barwin and Alice Burdick, Rachel Mindell, Adrienne Gruber, Andrew Cantrell, kevin martins mcpherson eckhoff and Anna Gurton-Wachter (as well as four issues of the quarterly Touch the Donkey, and at least one issue of The Peter F. Yacht Club).

I mean, the press produced forty chapbooks last year (roughly half by Canadian writers and the rest by American writers). Isn’t that work a mere sixty-five dollars?