The genesis of “Channel,” a poem in our Fall 2016 issue.
I grew up along the Susquehanna, and taught for many summers along the Tiber, and today most warm early mornings you’ll find me rowing my shell on the Schuylkill. I learned to row in middle age because I wanted to see my city, Philadelphia, from the perspective of the river and to know what it would be like to be buoyed by its surface. Was this how I prepared? Or was it water plants and buried objects, Whitman and Wang Wei, Charles Cros and Works and Days, rhymes and chants, imagining how we pass in parallel at disparate speeds?
“Channel” began and begins with the words “salt” and “sweet.” I had been churning them in my thoughts for months—streams and the sea, the tears in our eyes, and the moisture in our words. A desire, after a hard winter, to write a long poem about a river. “Channel”: from canna, canalis, a pipe, a groove, a reed, a bed of running water. As I sketched and made notes, I wondered what views the poem could open, and how much history, where it would emerge (somewhere in a spring and in Spring) and where it would end (eventually at Siracusa, site of the sweet/salt legend of Arethusa and dear to my heart). In other words, it started with some words, as most poems start.
Then my friend of more than twenty-five years, the artist Ann Hamilton, invited me to make something new with her. She had an idea about a reel, a reel for reading. Both of us like to think about slowing things down, adapting technologies to human scale, reading and writing as means of knowing, ways of life. For the first time in our work together, we would start “from scratch” and see what would happen; we didn’t know what we would make until we made it.
After this, my poem started to grow into a new shape—like a ribbon. I kept composing, altering, revising, extending. For many months we worked in tandem: Ann in her studio, experimenting with fonts and textiles, inventing new reading devices, while I was cutting up the single lines of the poem into strips of paper and then pasting them onto adding machine tape; gradually, the poem stretched from the new world to the old and told a story of vanished forms of work and love. In the end, I decided to turn the poem back on itself and made a companion poem, “Mirror,” that ran the lines of “Channel” in reverse, taking the river back to its source. The two-poem loop was now a departure and return.
Ann then took my paper prototype and printed it on fabric ribbons. She wound the ribbons onto the reels of old film winders. She also filmed the experience of reading the poems very slowly with her tiny video camera. Then, with support from the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, she built an installation, called habitus, in a pier along the Delaware with enormous curtains that spin in the wind from the river. “Channel” and “Mirror” would be projected onto shipping containers at the pier and the fabric ribbons would be set up for reading from the film winders. Visitors, choosing whatever pace they liked, could sit before the machines, reading the poems by pulling the ribbon through the reels—the right hand spooling the ribbon out to view, the left hand tightening and steadying.
This fall, “Channel” has two lives: in the pier by the Delaware and on the pages of The Paris Review. These are two ways of reading: the page’s turn and the turning wheel, but beneath them both is the possibility of reading a river, which is one of nature’s gifts for reading time.
“Channel” and “Mirror” will be presented as part of the “habitus”exhibition at Municipal Pier 9 on the Delaware River until October 10. The exhibition will continue at the Fabric Workshop and Museum until January 8, 2017.
Susan Stewart’s Cinder: New and Selected Poems will be published early next year.