Cole Swensen is the author of fifteen books of poetry. She has twice been a finalist for the LA Times Book Award, once for the National Book Award, and has won the Iowa Poetry Prize, the SF State Poetry Center Book Award, the National Poetry Series, and the PEN USA Award in Literary Translation. A 2007 Guggenheim Fellow, she coedited the 2009 Norton anthology American Hybrid and teaches at Brown University. Her poem “Gérard de Nerval” can be found here. More poems appear in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Gérard de Nerval”? Did you start with one line or phrase, or was there something about Gérard Labrunie that made you begin to write?
That poem is part of a book, On Walking On, which is on writers who were/are inveterate walkers, and is coming out from Nightboat in spring 2017.
Obviously, most human beings walk, but we’re not all “walkers.” In writing this book, I thought a lot about that distinction—what makes a person a walker as opposed to simply a person, who, in the course of his or her daily life, walks. It has to do with intentionality and with attention, with engagement. The walker sets out on a walk; it’s an intentional engagement; the walk is the event, and is not simply or mostly as a mode of transportation.
That said, Gérard de Nerval was noted as both a writer and a walker. Based on the testimony available—his own and others’—walking was central to his ethos and his aesthetics.
But re “original impetus”—I’ve always been a little bit in love with Nerval. A third of my MA thesis focused on his work, and I started my PhD intending to do my dissertation on his work in relation to the self-construction of identity through travel. I got distracted and ended up with a dissertation on contemporary French and American poetry, but retain a deep love for Nerval and his work.
Nerval also represents a key moment in literary walking—a shift in walking practice from the rural to the urban, not that people didn’t still walk in the country and hadn’t been walking in cities for centuries, but there was a shift in focus, particularly in France, that gave walking a central role in evaluating through observation the tremendous changes that transformed Paris throughout the nineteenth century. Baudelaire would have been the more obvious choice to represent this shift, but I felt that so much has been done on him in this vein that, while the attention is well deserved, it would also be interesting to focus on others of the same era and persuasion.
You mention Guy Debord’s idea of dérive, as well as “the habit of detour.” Could you talk a little bit about the tradition of walking in “mid-nineteenth-century France,” and why it captivated your imagination?
Great question! And one that goes right to the heart of this project—the notion of a walk as necessarily engaging chance. Debord and his ideas on la dérive came out of wanting to experience the city differently than the walkers of the mid-nineteenth century had, and that included engaging the city as an active collaborator in the walk. Which means that it (the walk) collaborates with the world at large in all its parameters—weather, animals, terrain, traffic, etc. It’s a walk dependent upon accident, one that embraces all contingencies, even negative ones (downpours, traffic jams) in ways that focus on the entire world as movement.
This is one poem in a series about walking. What is different about walking in New England, London, or France? Which of the poems came to you first? And how did you select these other walkers—Henry David Thoreau, William Blake, and Thomas De Quincey?
What an interesting question! My initial response is “everything is different!” because what you’re looking at in each case is different and, for me at least, walking is a matter of extended and paced seeing. It’s an ekphrastic act. The quality of the walk is also determined by interactions—what kinds of things force your attention? Make you change direction? Cause you to stop and look around?
Choosing among the hundreds of writers who’ve also been dedicated walkers was difficult, but the book started in a response to Thoreau’s essay “Walking”; I find writing about a text to be a deepened way of reading it, and I decided to focus the book on responses to texts that various writers had written on the act of walking itself. To these serial responses are added short poems that move chronologically up into the late twentieth century, with its evolving ideas, including Debord’s dérive, Burckhardt’s strollology, and others.
This is a little silly, but since we’re on the subject: Do you believe Nerval used to walk a lobster around Paris parks on a blue ribbon leash?
It’s an amusing, even lovely, image, and one that I believe captures some of the marvelous aspects of Nerval’s character, but I doubt it is literally true. A rather surprising amount of research has gone into this question, exploring lobster physiology, etc., etc. A great website that gives it appropriately thorough treatment is here.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
In a way, it’s become much more intentional, and much more outwardly directed. More and more, I use writing as a tool for investigating things, particularly relationships, and particularly those among the arts and visuality.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Probably the visual arts, particularly painting, though more generally, reading and research. Increasingly, I find research very stimulating for writing; it’s the inundation by new information, the sense of exploration that writing accentuates.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
And from Lorine Niedecker: Condense.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m playing with a form of the ekphrastic lyric essay that is much more lyric than essay and that tries to approach the expository in a way that’s freed from the burden of proof. So often an intriguing idea is completely killed by the weight of the proof it’s thought to require, so I’m trying to work on shifting that balance and keeping a lot of energy in the statement, often through sound and through associative thinking. I have no idea if it’s going to work out—or let’s say, by the time it does (because I think you just work and work on things until they do work out), it may be something quite different.