Walking among a series of prints by the American wood engraver Lynd Ward (1905–85), Art Spiegelman was surprised to find himself transported from a chic Binghamton art gallery into a primordial forest. Though he had not left the gallery, Spiegelman was surrounded by networks of branches, trees, and woods reaching out at him from the prints on the wall. Within this gallery-turned-forest, Spiegelman gained a new appreciation of the power of Ward’s arboreal aesthetic. Singling out a particularly noteworthy print, Spiegelman describes “a panoramic treescape of a young man in shadows, groping and climbing through the dense neuronal wickerwork of dappled trunks and branches, carefully exploring and working his way through the maze of marks that surround him.”
This column for Process is about poetry that tries to make sense of sharing time together as it passes. For that I turn to John Ashbery, about whom I have never been willing or able to write, except in a very brief and unsatisfying conclusion to my first book. I live with several of Ashbery’s poems ricocheting around in my consciousness, along with stray lines by Herbert, Dickinson, McKay, and Rich. The idea of writing something about his poetry is particularly daunting because it carries a lot of emotional weight. More than anything else, the name Ashbery calls to mind the people who shaped and continue to shape what I know or feel about poetry. So when I think about Ashbery, the situation in which I think about his poetry is, almost automatically, a social one.
Rain in Lisbon often made me think of notation, of glyphs and dashes inscribing a page |/. I know this sounds too romantic, too neat, particularly for a rain that would often fall in unruly sheets, dislodging cobbles, stripping trees, and running thick with dirt and debris. There was something in the geometry of its fall, however, oblique strokes driven by Atlantic winds that would swing in an arc of directions, backlit by the amber lamplight. Each long strip of water was visible, and, in the labored rate of its fall, traceable.
Sitting in my apartment, in parks, and on my roof, I have tried to keep track of the ebb and flow of the seasons in the relentless monotony of a socially distanced New York. Keeping track has been made all the more difficult by the seasonal monotony that my research asks of me—working on a dissertation about literary representations of the tropics has me fixated on heat even when I do not feel it.
Virginia Woolf’s memoirs resonate richly with seating, beginning with the rocking chair from which she heard her father drop books to the floor at Hyde Park Gate. Leslie Stephen had “written all his books lying sunk in that deep rocking chair,” Woolf would recall in the essay “A Sketch of the Past,” his feet clear of the ground, a writing board across his lap. Yet Woolf did not herself begin as an armchair storyteller.
Always mornings. Early. And there should be coffee. Breakfast will come later, but the best hours are now—when the world is still blanketed, the mind “puddled in dream melt.” There are particular parameters for the page. The margins must be wide. The font Goudy Old Style or Garamond in a squeeze. Carriage returns between paragraphs. No indentation. I once justified my text; now I like the ragged edges. To write The Names (1982), Don DeLillo had to change his method. He began typing single, numbered paragraphs, each on its own leaf: a microclimate that allowed him to “see a given set of sentences more clearly.” This is a logic that makes sense to me. I learned to write from my mother. She taught me to revise a sentence aloud before putting it into print. To move from breath to inscription can be a mystical practice. The look of letters has long astonished, inviting cryptic explanations. The 22 paths connecting Kabbalah’s Sefirot—emanations of the divine Ein Sof—correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Latin “A” is an abstracted, phonetic descendant from an Ox hieroglyph. Flip it over and you can still see the creature’s horns: ∀. These ideas are important for the writers I study. They reveal a profound longing—the desire to rekindle a relationship between text and the body, at once archaic and arcane, and to locate the origins of writing in the sensual world.
For this two-part installment of Process, I asked eight scholars who had just finished a book—their first or their fourth—to write informally about their experience. Conferences often feature roundtables about writing and publishing, but I thought it might be a good addition to have some personal anecdotes, stories less attached to the mechanics of the industry and more to the quiddities of the book-writing process. A book might arrive as an artifact, but it begins as a dream or a compulsion or a hunch. No review or reading, however generous, does justice to the messiness of the life that seals itself into the final object of the book, as though in anticipation of the spell that may someday release it. The intent here is not so much to demystify as to re-enchant.
We modernist scholars are all digital modernists now, and for a variety of reasons. Listening to recent debates in both modernist studies and the digital humanities, one would not think this was the case. Digital scholarship is often presented as the preserve of a special inter- or infra-disciplinary conversation distinct from the professional fields that contribute to it, thus presenting digital scholarship as a set of methods distinct and particular to digital humanists.
My process of writing this blog post about the writing process was slow, circuitous, and emotionally fraught. I started out with a clear idea of my overall structure—or so I thought—but ended up abandoning it after several hours of drafting, redrafting, and repeated applications of my Delete key. Frustrated, I tried free-writing for twenty minutes: an unstructu