In her first full-length book, Sara Wintz looks into the century that shaped her.
Walking Across A Field We Are Focused On At This Time Now, the first book by Oakland-based poet Sara Wintz, takes the twentieth century and gives it a new haircut. Here poetry accumulates around a chronology compiled from twentieth-century events and the births and deaths of personally significant artists, writers, musicians, and friends. The surrounding lyric does not, however, spend much time elaborating on such historical details. References do appear, but only briefly. Experiences are clearly present, but not necessarily laid bare. Rather, Wintz’s poetry, which is written in an open and colloquial style that moves between precise and abstract thought, circles around these dates as a sustained query into the relation between history and the individual. It’s a voice mulling over questions, seemingly as they arise—a kind of accompanying hum of thought as the author goes about selecting and constructing her own rendition. As such, Wintz invites readers to identify with her twentieth century and to consider constructing twentieth centuries of their own.
I first met Wintz in 2010 at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. Her love of poetry, music, and history were immediately palpable in her work, her conversation, and in her engagement with poetry communities. When I heard Ugly Duckling Presse would be publishing her first book in 2012, I was eager to chat with her about it. What follows is our conversation—what we call a “slo-chat”—which took place over email between February and April 2013.
Claire Wilcox Can you talk a bit about the origins of this book, and the main questions or concerns you had going into its creation? I’ve heard you refer to this book as “my century.” Why “century,” why “my”?
Sara Wintz The project is rooted in Wikipedia searches that I performed for each year of the twentieth century. I had a notebook and a pen next to my laptop. I would write “1959:” then go into Wikipedia and type “1959” to see what came up. I wrote down all the facts of interest to me.
I like the idea of a century because it is a complex unit. What is a century? A century lasts one hundred years, but it’s so multi-dimensional! What happened in the twentieth century? I bet we each have a completely unique set of responses to that question. The century is just one framework for the poem to grow inside of. I chose to write specifically about the twentieth century because it’s the century that I identify with the most: I was alive for part of it, and the books I read, the music I like, are all twentieth-century materials. For example: Lou Harrison, Hannah Hoch, Intermedia Art, Dick Higgins, George Oppen, Rosemarie Waldrop . . .
And Wikipedia is an interesting encyclopedia—it’s an openly editable cluster of information. The content that contributors add/revise/adjust inside of Wikipedia becomes factual because of the context it’s part of—it’s a research encyclopedia. And that superstructure of universally accepted truths coincides with the memories and stories that belong to the individual. The majority of the lyric portions of the book are set in a lowercase font to represent that casual, colloquial style we use online.
The century became the framework. And then the data, and of course, the lyric—the individual narrative that is part of the story of a century. It all became intertwined in this book. Anyone can make his or her own twentieth century. And I like to reflect on what the different configurations of that possibility might be. So, this is one individual’s version of that.
CW That just made me wonder if there is such a thing as a general online colloquial style. I feel like there are many different kinds, and it depends on context. Could you write in Wikipedia-ese for example?
SW There are so many! When I was writing, I focused on some of the more basic and broader trends so it would be a little more readily identifiable: again, writing in all lowercase, using abbreviations like “yr.” I like the wordplay, the way that “yr” could mean “year” or “your.”
CW You mention the lyric of the book. How would you break it down? What do you mean when you say lyric? What portions are non-lyric?
SW The non-lyric portions are lists of dates and events. The lyric is that emotive, intimate tone that weaves in and out of the dates and events. The book is a combination of many different writing strategies: dialogue, action, listing, research, analysis, confession . . . . The way that I express myself is complicated! I think that’s true of most of us, if not all—we’re complex.
CW It’s interesting to think about the lyric mode corresponding to the individual’s input on Wikipedia. If that’s the case, what then would stand in for the “site,” the composite? If lyric is “the individual scale,” to borrow a term from your book, is there a poetic form that corresponds with the “larger scale”? Or is that the book, or the community—this set of relations you map out?
SW Yeah, that’s a great question. The larger scale that the individual voice inhabits is the book and the world it contains.
CW There’s a section in the book that delves into variations on the title. These lines jumped out at me: “We will focus our attention on this manner of walking / On neither speed nor duration, but on this gesture of walking across a field.” Your emphasis on gesture, as opposed to duration or speed, made me think of Hejinian and Stein, two authors that appear in the chronology of Walking Across A Field We Are Focused On At This Time Now, and whose works, like My Life and The Making of Americans or Alice B. Toklas, also use historical epic and autobiography to think about the politics of self and collectivity, the politics of making history. In their case, duration and speed are tactically important. What can this focus on gesture do? Or what does it mean to you?
SW Well, I think that a book can be a stage for action to take place in one’s imagination—or an impetus to take action in the world. My emphasis on the action of walking across a field, as opposed to the speed of the action of walking, or the duration of the action of walking, focuses the reader’s attention on the field as it exists as a symbol in literature. The field is like a mountain. It’s a space to be conquered. When we are exerting a significant amount of effort to accomplish a task, we become aware of the small details and the reasons why we are doing what we are doing. The gesture of walking to cross the field is one arrested moment of oneself in the process of attempting to accomplish a great task.
CW So gesture is quite literally about taking action, making reading a matter of walking in addition to sitting . . . and pointing to the physical as well as cerebral?
SW Yeah, emphasis on gesture means an emphasis on the cerebral processes that are associated with movement.
CW And that word “field” has valances in programming, the web, and poetry (like William Carlos Williams’s “wild carrot taking the field by force”) . . . and the page as field, eco-poetry, just to name a few. But it makes me also wonder, because your subject is history, is “street” outmoded? Or “square,” as in “city square,” or “town square”? What happens to the urban site?
SW There are some references to urban sites in Walking, but that locale wasn’t a concern for me while I was writing this book. I think that streets are important. Boulevards are important. Squares are important. But those are meeting places—places where people encounter one another. And that’s less what Walking is about. The project is more ethereal, less grounded. If we meet a person, place, or thing, most of the time those encounters happen as a nod to the past. So and so is born, there are such and such dates in the past, etc. That’s what makes the walk with my friend Judd so compelling. It’s like that moment when you have been indoors for quite some time, then you go outside and immediately encounter a friend. It’s shocking.
There’s more of a place for urban sites in my next book, Everyday Fashion, because it references protests and the multitudinous conflicts of identity. This project is where we may become aware of how many people are slowly making commitments to the sounds of their voices. Walking bears more relation to the individual within the span of history. That’s not to say that Walking couldn’t be urban, but I think that it’s quieter than that.
CW You referenced the field as a place to be conquered, and I quoted that Williams line. I’m interested in the word “field,” that it seems to be drawing out the theme of conquest in our conversation. In artistic and poetic discourses, I hear it evoked when thinking about non-linearity or non-narrativity, about dispersion. So I was surprised the field in our conversation had a more violent/historical connotation (though this is the twentieth century after all). In Walking there’s a linear chronology, and then the lyric portions that surround them. These lyric parts refer to your own history, but they also seem to be very much about the moment of the book’s writing in the sense that it reflects, not just on your own story, but also on the process of selecting your own version of history, and the questions that came up—problems of nostalgia vs. memory, or what it means to be part of a group, or how to speak as an individual among the many. These lyric bits offset the more epic scale of the linear chronology. I actually get a sense of warping scales, of collapsing major and minor categories—the personal meets the epic. But it’s also strange because up comes that “field,” meant “to be conquered.”
SW Well, I am referring to the field as a kind of literary universe. To conquer a literary universe, we have to get to know it and assert a place. We have to become secure with ourselves as tiny specks in that field, writing and thinking and learning all the time—tiny specks capable of changing things.
My writing practice is based on research, which is similar to most people perhaps. We read, write, and take notes when we think. I am reading and learning all the time. My writing process reflects that. And yet, I will never get to know everything, even myself! That’s the nature of information: it’s always growing and changing.
CW I know you’ve been involved in recent political actions, like Occupy Oakland, and did a project called Our List of Fucking Demands. Were you finished with Walking at that point? Did your political involvement inflect or change your writing?
SW Hm. Well, I wrote Walking in 2009 and 2010. The book was still fresh in my mind, but it was already complete when the OWS protests began. In Walking, I created a space for myself to occupy, as a writer—my own unique world. It was like clearing the air. When I moved to Oakland, I remember sitting and watching the livestream of the march on the Brooklyn Bridge. I wanted that to happen here in California too. When the Occupy Oakland protests started, I entered into this amazing moment of people fighting for a space to cultivate as their own. Not only were people fighting for a physical space, they were adjusting as humans to the needs of a movement. The new project I’m finishing, Everyday Fashion, is very much inflected by the ways that I became involved in the Occupy Oakland protests. It’s a space for thinking about identity.
The Feeling Is Mutual: A List of Our Demands is a book that I edited in response to a critique of the Occupy Oakland protests—namely, that activists didn’t have a set of demands. On the news, I was hearing over and over again that the movement lacked clarity. So, I posted an open call for submissions that asked people to say what they wanted. Some of the responses that we received were banal and others very heartfelt. The project was a way for people to participate in the moment. It was also a fundraiser for Small Press Traffic, a non-profit literary arts organization based in San Francisco.
CW Walking organizes itself around a collective act of walking, but you also write: “i want to be behind a desk / a fort of my own creation.” The “i” qualifies herself, acknowledging the need for a protected space, whereas the “we” walking is general, neutral, and largely about the mechanics of walking. What’s the relationship between solo writing labor and walking together? Why make reference to the act of writing? Why qualify one and not the other?
SW Within the collected web of thinking and action, I wanted to reference the act of writing. I wanted to extend the perspective from an imaginary space of births, deaths, and events, to an actual space where the reader is in dialogue with the writer of the book they are reading. This book was actually written . . . by an actual person. And despite the imagined space of an alternative twentieth century and the imagined activities, like going for a walk, this book is the result of a very real position. And so, I wanted to point the reader’s attention to that.
CW And a fort denotes position, and a field is open? Why a fort?
SW I wrote “fort” because the image of a fort connotes a safe and enclosed spot. Most forts have supplies. Sometimes they are comfortable. “A fort of my own choosing” is a pretty nice situation to make for oneself. I’m proud of the psychological and physical space that I have created for myself—it helps the writing.
CW So, in 2011 you moved from New York City to Oakland. How has that been so far?
SW Great! I teach college-level art and design students at a school in San Francisco. I’m happy to be teaching, and I’m looking forward to doing it more. Also, last year Small Press Traffic asked me to guest curate its spring reading series. I’ve had a great time organizing and hosting, and I’m staying in the picture as a member of the organization’s board of directors.
I’m happy to be living in California. Oakland is affordable and it’s possible for me to write and work. I can afford to live alone, which, at this stage in my life, makes me feel like a grown-up. I have a pool and a lemon tree in my backyard, and on Sunday mornings there’s a farmers’ market in the parking lot of the DMV across from my house. I can fall asleep in the pitch dark to the sound of my turntable playing nature sounds without hearing any noise from the street.
CW I’ve been able to live alone as well, in Philadelphia. Thanks be to small cities! (I’m so jealous of the pool and lemon tree.) What’s next for you? What sort of things are you thinking about in your writing these days?
SW Well, I’m in the process of completing Everyday Fashion. It’s almost done. I’ve been reading a lot about fashion—both theoretical and along the lines of Vogue and Nylon—and about politics, visual art, and theater. This project has been a great space for me to explore political theory and activism, and I’d like to move beyond this project to a position that feels right for my body, not just my head . . . which could be going to meetings and protests, or not. I haven’t figured that out yet.
After I finish Everyday Fashion, I’m looking forward to doing more expository writing and branching into more conventional forms of theater and performance. I’d really like to learn how to make clothing, too. I’ve been interested in making a long poem that’s a television series for a while now, but I don’t know if this is the moment for that project yet. There’s a lot of things that I think a poem can be.
Sara Wintz’s writing is published in Jacket, The Poetry Project Newsletter, 6×6, Big Bell, Openned, Try!, HTML Giant, and in the anthology The Sonnets: Re-Writing Shakespeare (Telephone/Nightboat Books, 2012).
Claire Wilcox lives in Philadelphia. Her first chapbook, Change, Changes and .01 & Change is forthcoming in Sydney, Australia.