2015 – Adventures in Critical Geosophy

2015 is shaping up to be an eventful year. A number of significant projects and events are on the horizon and they are all exciting and somewhat interconnected. The connecting point is my longstanding interest in what I call ‘Critical Geosophy” – the interpretation of geographical knowledge and its role in the constitution of culture and society. I am thinking here of the ways we are informed by ideas such as ‘place’ and ‘mobility’ in particular. The particular projects/events are:

1) Fence My second poetry book, Fence, is being published by Penned in the Margins in October. I am at the final editing stage. I have been fortunate to read this in its entirety three times (Guelph, Concordia, Queens) and am going to read it again at Cornell later this month. I will also do a selection of it at the Nordic Geography conference in Estonia in June. The book is a sequence that takes the form of a polyvocal montage of my own journey to Svalbard (with Nowhereisland) along with fragmented versions of parts of the travel accounts of English explorer, Robert Fothery from 1613 and 1614 and Leonie D’Aunet – the first woman to visit Svalbard in 1838.The sequence uses a number of different vocabularies to explore the relationship between language, a particular place, the flows in and out of it and a fence. The fence stands for both the separations of territories and the flows that make up place. Along the way we encounter whaling, migrant species, a disco, geology and economic imperialism. It is a form of place-writing that enacts and enlivens my more academic considerations of place and mobility.

2) GeoHumanities Fence is also a example of GeoHumanities in action. While GeoHumanities is a recent term it represents an exciting coming together of the humanities side of geography (the longest standing version of geography), the spatial turn across the humanities and social sciences, recent developments in geocoded software, GIS, forms of visualisation of space, place and mobility, and new ways of engaging with the earth in the creative arts and practices. I have been appointed as one of the first Managing Editors of the new Taylor and Francis journal – GeoHumanities (along with Deborah Dixon at the University of Glasgow). The journal is an initiative of the Association of American Geographers and is the culmination of years of meetings and special sessions at AAG conferences. Despite its disciplinary home, GeoHumanities is a genuinely interdisciplinary journal and will include contributions from across the humanities as well as creative contributions from creative practitioners. We are putting together an international and interdisciplinary editorial board which includes creative writers and artists. The journal will be launched at the AAG conference in Chicago in April and the first issue will appear in October.

3) All Possible Worlds In the summer of 2007, on holiday with my family, we got to the end of reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I had been reading the whole series  aloud to Owen and Sam and now Maddy too (she wasn’t around when all this started). The whole reading aloud as a family thing had centred on this series. Anyway – suddenly there was nothing to read so I started writing my own story for the same age group. I wrote 1000 words a day and read it aloud in the evening. Since then I have continued to write it and read it aloud (even as Owen became 21) on family holidays. This last year the momentum has grown and I am almost done. About three chapters left and I know everything that is going to happen. I am excited about the story and my kids all apparently love it. At the centre of it is lovely London (actually several Londons) and the magic of maps. It was partly inspired by the book Sophie’s World which introduced children to philosophy and partly by the Inkheart series which I also read aloud and which featured the danger of writing stories that become real. So – this is another exercise in representing geographical knowledge and its relationship to power. I just need an agent!

4) Living in the Mobility Transition 2014 saw the start of a large comparative project on the future of mobilities. More specifically the project looks at the possible transitions to low(er) carbon mobilities in a range of sites around the world including Canada, the UK, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, New Zealand, South Korea, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, South Africa and Turkey. This has meant engaging with the literature on socio-technical transitions as well as the policy arena – both of which are new to me. Central to the emerging project is the way imaginations about mobility and the practice of mobility need to be part of any transition to a post-peak oil and lower carbon world. This is something a geographical imagination can bring to this crucial field of enquiry.

5) Topo-poetics I recently finished and defended my doctorate in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway that involved 50 pages of poems as well as 40,000 words of theory. The theory section revolved around the idea of poems as space and places (as well as poems about spaces and places). I developed ideas around the topos of the poem and then explored this in four poets – Elizabeth Bishop, John Burnside, Don McKay and Jorie Graham.  I am going to add a few more poets to this list – probably Lorine Niedecker and Roy Fisher and submit it as a book.

These are all linked by critical geosophy. They all engage with the way geography informs imaginations and forms of representation in worlds that are shot through with power.

The Writing Process – Blog Tour

What am I working on?

The answer to this just changed. In April I would have said that I was getting towards completing my second collection – called erratic. The collection was going to be in two parts. The first was a selection of about 25-40 shortish poems of themes of travel and displacement while the second was a 25 part sequence called Fence Furthest North about a fence in Svalbard (supposedly the northernmost fence in the world – who knows). Then I was lucky enough to go to the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada for a month long “Writing Studio” under the mentorship of the Canadian poets Karen Solie and Suzanne Buffam and the American poet Srikanth Reddy. The Writing Studio programme is aimed at writers who already have a first book out so I was also accompanied by 23 excellent writers as well as the mentors for the narrative writers including Greg Hollingshead, Dionne Brand and Gail Jones. I am not sure that anything quite like this programme exists anywhere else – a whole month surrounded by mountains, elk, bears and writing, writing, writing. Anyway – back to the story. I was aiming to polish up the collection and get it ready to send out. I just needed a few more poems. Well, to cut to the chase, Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy was suitably enthused by the sequence to suggest it might benefit from being expanded to become a whole book. This meant embracing some tendencies in my writing that I have resisted – a more ‘clever’ and ‘experimental’ mode of writing that connects most directly to my work as an academic who is quite fond of ‘theory’. I have quite a catholic taste in poetry and can be moved by both short traditional lyric poems and long, complicated whole book sequences that are in a more modernist mode. I don’t have much time for the camps that disparage one another frequently. But that does present some problems when I am writing in both modes and I have doubts about both. Anyway – I worked on the sequence and it is now 42 segments and close to being complete (just three more segments in my head that I need to find inspiration/time/space for). The sequence included my own visit to Svalbard and my encounter with the fence as well as poetic renditions of journals of previous visitors from 1613 and 1838. There is concrete poety, erasure, noun-heavy Lorine Neidecker objectivism and sly, pop-culture references. The themes are travel, territory, whaling, northern-ness and language. Oh – and, of course, there is still the collection of short poems – erratic. So one collection has become two. And, while I have your attention, I am completing the prose section of my PhD in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway with Jo Shapcott. This is an account of poetry and place which I call topo-poetics which draws on Aristotle, Heidegger and contemporary phenomenology to look at Elizabeth Bishop, John Burnside, Don McKay and Jorie Graham. I plan to add Lorine Neidecker and Jack Spicer and then see if I can find a publisher.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

Well my work represents a combination of a life only I have lived on the one hand, and over twenty years of being a professional human geographer on the other (obviously the latter is part of the former). These are the preoccupations I bring to my work. So thematically they tend to draw on my travels and the places I have lived as well as my concern for landscapes and places and the ways we (I, mostly) relate to them. So they are about place, belonging, travel, displacement and lack of belonging. Stylistically I tend to like a spare, adjective-free style with plenty of space. I am not a noisy poet. I also like poems that are slightly removed from their object – that look at things from a distance. There is a lot of looking in my work. “I” am often absent. I quite like thinking through poetry. If there is one piece of advice I have heard over and over it is not to have an ‘idea’ for a poem – or not to let ideas drive poems. I have tried to write idea-free poems and have only recently embraced the possibility that it might be ok to write poems driven by ideas (abstractions). I saw Alice Oswald read recently in Boston and she was asked about American poetry and she said she admired its ability to tackle ideas and that she could not do that. I am not sure if she was being serious or giving a coded criticism. But it is certainly true that there is a more intellectual bent to much of the work being done over here than back in the UK. I quite like that.

Why do I write what I do?

I don’t really know the answer to this. I know that is something I enjoy immensely. It feels like it has no ulterior motive – it is just itself. The specific themes that preoccupy me might come from being born to an airforce family that moved around quite a bit. I think I went to five primary schools. Since leaving school I have never lived anywhere for longer than 7 years. I have no really deep attachment to anywhere but envy those who do. But I also like the endless possibilities of other places which I fall for again and again. I can get off a plane sick from travel and it only takes a few days to think of the next trip. I look at contrails from planes in the sky in the same way people used to talk about the lure of the train’s whistle in the American Midwest (British trains don’t have alluring whistles). In addition to these quite embodied senses I am also generally fascinated with the way people attach themselves or do not attach themselves to the world. And how those attachments (or lack of them) mess up the earth so much. I love things that are a little out of place – that don’t seem to belong. It may be that that is all I ever write about.

How does my writing process work

There are several ways poems come about for me. One is simply based on a line or sound that catches my attention – something I want to work with. Often I am inspired by reading other poems. I tend to work with books by my side which vary depending on which mood I am in. I often have Elizabeth Bishop moods or Jen Hadfield moods. Sometimes I am in more of an Anne Carson or Lorine Neidecker frame of mind. I think it will take decades of doing this over and over again before something that might be more purely me might emerge. I am happy to be derivative in the sense that blues musician might do blues songs over and over hoping to get it right. Sometimes it is an idea that drives a poem. I will want to write a poem about something in particular. I have been trying to write a poem about turbulence – a turbulent poem – without much success. Sometimes it is even a form that I want to try on for size. I walk around with poems in my head as companions. I like this stage – having company – and get antsy if there no poem I am thinking about. At some point I write in a note book – a few lines or perhaps something resembling a whole poem. I often arrange poems into sonnets or into couplets just to see how they look. I also change points of view and tenses. I write poems and then take away the endings or beginnings – sometimes I turn endings into beginnings. Another moment I enjoy is typing them out so they look like a poem on the screen and then the page. But this has the danger of thinking they might be finished. There are usually moments months, or even years, later when a sudden jolt and rearrangement makes the poem approach its final form. It amazes me how they can exist so long before something suddenly becomes obvious about how the poem needs to be.

For the next stop on the blog tour (coming next week) please visit Joanna Lilley‘s blog.

Joanna Lilley is a writer living in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Her poetry collection, The Fleece Era was published by Brick Books in 2014 and her short story collection, The Birthday Books is due to be published by Hagios Press in 2015. Her poems are widely published in leading Canadian poetry magazines.