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We recently hosted the 11th installment of “Don’t You Have a Map?”, a “collaborative, traveling essay in letters” whose distributed parts are hosted by a different website each month. The writing, like the method, ranges over a wide geography, mapping the landscapes of nature, language, and cyberspace against each other.
Erika Howsare: horse less press is Jen’s project; she asked me to co-edit the horse less review after the first issue.
Jen Tynes: I’m motivated by the need to, as Robert Creeley said, “make company.” I started the press after my first year in Providence, with the idea that I could use it as an outlet for engaging with writing and writers I love. The name of the press came several years before the press itself; my friend Monica Berlin had just bought a house with an old carriage house behind it, and she talked about fixing it up and putting a press in there. horse less is really, for me, about eros — wanting what you cannot or do not have, responding to an absence. My favorite writing is always trying to bridge some kind of gap.
EH: It is an online correspondence taking place at a slower rhythm than your standard interoffice email. It began as a discussion of form–sort of a nonfiction theory piece. (I’m surprised to remember that.) Occasionally it makes use of the internet as not only a medium for posting, but a medium for enlargement, in basic ways. It always uses sound and reference to hitch one line to another’s.
Time lapse makes it breathe and also lose track of itself (connections may not be deliberate). It talks about form as crow, crowbar, whale, spine, Q&A, dictionaries. It’s a journal of our present circumstances, becoming gradually more personal. It gives up tropes and returns to them. This is another layer. It’s all unpolished. It’s a call and response that references itself directly sometimes. It starts by chatting about form and winds up being formal: “How do you do?”
EH: The form was all Jen’s idea, and I wrote the first installment. We wanted to collaborate again and had talked for a while about an essay on form.
JT: Actually, though I came up with the form, I think this project really came more out of Erika’s earlier suggestion that we do some kind of collaborative essay on form. She’d given me starter material more than once, and it was all very exciting and good, but for various reasons I kept dropping the ball. I hoped this form — which necessarily involves something of an audience and deadlines — would keep me to my word. I really do like keeping to it.
WRT: What works, projects, or writing practices have inspired or informed “Don’t You Have a Map?”
EH: I didn’t read Jen’s installments carefully; I read them intimately, with my nose. It’s not symbolism, but atavism.
Walking/writing practice influences it through rhythmic, spatial openness that results when you take poetic notes as a strolling loner. Also, we took a course together with Michael Gizzi wherein I at least and maybe Jen too developed this sort of long-line, short-paragraph prose-poetry habit. Thalia Field’s invitation to question the formal/generic ground the writing rests on is always something I have in mind.
Brandon Shimoda told me once that he and Phil Cordelli consider their collaborations successful when they forget who wrote what; even though this piece has had no “processing” akin to the rounds of editing and remixing we did on our other collab The Ohio System, I still forget sometimes when I look back who wrote a certain section. Good thing it’s marked.
JT: Yes, you look out the window and the answer is there. I work very publicly on this thing. Walking, talking, from the car. There are landmarks, objects, and overheard conversations showing me what goes next, and some of them are Erika’s, and some of them are things I need to make sure Erika knows about. E and I are obviously very different people, very different writers, but forgetting who wrote what is not confusion or deception — it’s a recognition/glimmer of something communal, finally, dug up.
JT: When I was a kid, I went on a school trip to Memphis and toured Graceland. We also visited The River Walk, a to-scale model of part of the Mississippi River. Alongside the model was the Mississippi River itself. “The Ohio System” reflects a similarly fashioned education.
WRT: Are there any particular literary, educational, or technological experiences in your backgrounds that you see having led towards this project?
JT: I think being in a writing workshop with Erika, seeing what she was writing each week and knowing that she was seeing my fresh writing too, was really essential to our collaboration, and to the particular exploratory nature of this project. We saw that we were interested in some similar things, maybe, but we also got comfortable with exposed and transparent processes, means as part of the end. We are not, I think, in the business of “finishing” things. As collaborative partners, we don’t tend to freeze up, go solid too early.
EH: Besides the other writers and teachers I’ve mentioned, I think Hejinian’s “My Life” is relevant in terms of its accretive form, and so is the inclusiveness of someone like Bernadette Mayer. You ask about technological experience: I’m not at all a techie and if we were to call this “electronic writing” it would qualify as a very timid attempt, but I do love the simplicity of Jen’s original idea, a “sparkly trail across the Internet”. It’s using the web in a very unassuming way, and I like to think that something could exist as a coy thread, nested in various settings, with tenuous language-based relations between its parts that do or don’t manage to hang onto each other within the vast, unstable, extremely fragmented and labyrinthine environment of the web. How can “difficult” language maintain its form in this information-centric setting?
I’d also add that, as Jen says, because we were in workshops together I’ve been reading and admiring her work closely for a while, but also feeling entitled to a certain amount of meddling in her process (and of course the reverse is also true). That helps.
EH: I am forgetful and non-attached because of the time lapses. And because each installment is published before the next one is written, it has to be unplanned. But for me the various contexts don’t change the way I write too much. I’m writing to Jen.
Nick Montfort told me he was surprised at how he enjoyed and found significance in the shifting sites, despite his initial thought “it’s all online, what’s the difference.”
JT: The lack of planning and editing has been the most interesting part for me. Like Dickens publishing his serial novels. When I first starting doing some collaborative work (with Erika and also others) I was surprised to find how freeing it was not to have to worry about or be in charge of where it would go, what it would become. As E mentioned earlier, talking and thinking about improvisational writing with Michael Gizzi was really helpful to me in this way. The relationship between the constant and the variable.
We haven’t gotten alot of specific reader feedback, so I’m not really sure who’s reading and to what extent. I know at least two instances when –despite the titles, etc– a reader was confused about who they were reading. All the sites have regular readers who are not regular readers of ours, so it is, if nothing else, an extension.
WRT: Language and landscape are recurring tropes in “Don’t You Have a Map?” Have explorations during this project reoriented you with regards to physical or virtual places?
JT: This particular project has me noticing how much of my day is spent in transit (in/to/between both physical and virtual places). I’ve been trying, through this writing, to recognize the significance of time spent in that space. Relatedly, I’ve been attentive to how others’ space seeps into mine via their actual or virtual presences.
EH: I always feel that I’m oriented to physical place by writing, both
observation-based “site-specific” writing and something more inward. This one had me watching crows, cows, the tones of Jen’s thinking. That last, by the way, is a virtual place with which I have fairly rich associations.
WRT: The distributed nature of this project raises interesting issues, such as constantly giving up control of formatting and framing content, or the status of the individual parts as ephemera. What are your thoughts on publishing and archival issue?
EH: There is so much material online and in print that it surprises me that people follow this project, as infrequently as we update it. Their interest helps it cohere, and perhaps it will help it stick around if that’s desirable. It would be good to make room in the form for the input of its hosts–this would also solve the occasional discomfort when formatting is changed or authorship is otherwise “violated”.
JT: Yes, right now I’m comfortable thinking about these archival issues as part of the “variable” of this project. I also, however, don’t think the writing is necessarily dependent on the way it is currently being presented — were we to be interested in doing so, I think we could also publish this later in a less shifty and probably revised form. Not a replacement of the earlier work, but, again, as an extension. The shiftiness and open-ends would probably still be there, just in different places.
WRT: What are your thoughts on navigational issues for “Don’t You Have a Map?” - for example, the fact that most parts have no clear link forward, that most readers encounter the last part first, or the necessity of a central listing that serves as a kind of map.
EH: Chronology doesn’t matter. It’s not finished anyway, and there’s no “plot” that can’t be read just as productively out of order or backwards. It’s an open-ended conversation in unconventional grammar that has no explicit rules about content or form (other than the form of online post) so why sweat it? And it expands and contracts, “sweating through [its] yellow silk.”
JT: Exactly. The trials of navigation are part of our game.
WRT: When you refer to a ‘game,’ I think in particular of the word chains that trace through your posts and how they recall a game of telephone - or of exquisite corpse. What kind of playing has this been?
EH: Playing of course with language on a micro level (sound, pun, syntax) but also with the framework that language is in, expectations about subject matter, the addressee, illustration, form (from “theory essay” to “titled stanzas”). Otherwise the momentary games are always shifting. There’s not one key that unravels the whole puzzle.
EH: It has, as I expected, helped me keep a hand in writing this year and as always with collaboration is a way to write with openness and curiosity.
I sent Jen a postcard once from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and can’t honestly say whether it showed up in her response or not, and I opened a gmail account as part of the project that received only spam. It would be nice to engage more firmly with other modes of correspondence. And perhaps to discuss among ourselves what we’re doing, though that’s not really our style. We talk in code and shyly.
JT: I did receive the postcard, Erika! I forgot I never told you directly. It “traveled” around my living space for a while — magneted to the fridge, tape to the wall, clipped to the visor in my car. I don’t think I referenced it directly — it was an eye, or a throbbing absence, or an I for me.
EH: I am working on a prose piece about travel, space, and an eastern-facing view on westward expansion. What comes next is unknown.
JT: I am working on a punny wilderness book, a collection of puzzling poems where the body keeps changing on itself, a new series that has a title (I love them) but is still wiggling out a form. E and I have a chapbook — our first significant collaboration — coming out from Octopus Books sometime this winter.
WRT: Is there a planned end to “Don’t You Have a Map?”
JT: Of course not!
Erika Howsare and Jen Tynes’s chapbook, The Ohio System, is forthcoming this winter from Octopus Books.