Research Notes · 11/15/2013

A Swift Passage

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Barbara Henning writes about her collection A Swift Passage from Quale Press.


A Swift Passage is a collection of prose pieces (and one lined-sonnet sequence) that I have written in the past few years. The last piece is “The Dinner” with 18 two page chapters and several characters. The first three (“Twelve Green Rooms,” “A Swift Passage” and “A Slow Curve”) blur the lines between genre: prose or poetry? fiction or autobiography? There are stories and poems about moments of sunlight and violence, biking in the desert, war, child abuse, the BP oil disaster, water pollution, New York City streets, un-health care in the USA, Tompkins Square Park, writers, driving, Halliburton, government contracts, yoga, divorce, flowers, moving shadows, smuggling, picking raspberries in the wilderness. These works are maximalist in that they intersect with my daily life in NYC and on the road driving across country. Our conscious minds hold memory and experience, the private and the public and endless variations. These poems and stories intersect with these variations.

In A Swift Passage, I am thinking about how in our world and time, we are moving so quickly and with such an urgency to get somewhere in particular and then we circle around and return to where we started, but it’s never exactly the same. I like to celebrate the ongoing life force and transformation as we seek freedom, clarity, confusion and confinement, and everything in between. When I’m writing, I try to tell the truth and then examine how that truth tells me and then question whether it is the truth. When writing a story, I don’t want the story to write me, so I interrupt the sentences with various experiments to try and expose or transform the structure, maybe to see something new. I especially like to interrupt my own tendency to fall into sorrow, so I look for the opposition that allows the sorrow to exist.

Below are more specific process notes on the individual sequences:

When writing “Twelve Green Rooms” I excerpted vignettes and passages from my journal, editing them until I liked the way time and space were woven, then cracking apart the narratives, splicing in words and phrases from research about the oil spill, water pollution, shortages and the effects on animals — after all this, I excerpted words in the shape of a W (for water) from each piece and then wove them into the next one. I am now calling this process sequential quilting. Written in 2009–2010, the final quilting took place in summer 2010 in Marquette, Michigan, next to Lake Superior, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. The water on earth and in our animal human bodies plants lands air is the same water that was here when the dinosaurs were lumbering water sound earth ether moving reassembling to destroy re story call forth again om nama shivaya

When writing “A Swift Passage,” I was thinking and living with migration, migrating words and phrases, migrating people and animals, the capital M, from one prose block to another, many writers and friends migrating in and away, including Charles Olson, Gertrude Stein, HD, William Butler Yeats, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Peter Orlovsky, Julie Patton, Lewis Carroll, Herman Hesse, William Shakespeare and Ezra Pound.

“A Slow Curve” was written after I drove out west in the winter of 2011. Twice I passed through the oil fields in Texas, once at dusk and once at noon. Later that summer when I was teaching at Naropa, I read Bobbie Louise Hawkins’s book One Small Saga, the story of her life with her first husband. In this novel, she is traveling. In my poem, I’m traveling. Both of us are moving through love and space. I designed a process of extracting phrases and words from One Small Saga, and then quilted these floating words and phrases into “A Slow Curve.”

“14 × 14 × 14” was written in 2011. One May day, I was talking with Martine Bellen about possible poetic projects and writing constraints. I suggested working with the sonnet form — write one line an hour for fourteen hours for fourteen days. Then I noticed a 4 × 6 index card on my desk, and there were exactly 14 lines on each card, perfect for the project. So I carried a stack of cards around with me for fourteen days, collecting. These 14 poems were composed from that material.

Initially, “The Dinner” was inspired by a list of words and passages taken from some of my reading in 2008–2009, approximately two hundred books. There was an exact method used for extracting the phrases using space and alliteration, but then the story evolved by improvising, inventing and transforming. When I scan the text, all that remains sometimes is a word or a tiny phrase. For example, the first lines of this novella (I call it that) started from a few words from Kobo Abe’s The Secret Rendezvous: “concerned the whereabouts of my wife.” After rewriting, the phrase disappeared, but the story unfolded. Among others, the following writers inspired or contributed unknowingly to this text — Kobo Abe, Kathy Acker, Stanley Aronowitz, Martine Bellen, Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Bowles, Gaudier Brzeska, Pam Brown, Paul Buck, Reed Bye, Jack Collum, Julia Conner, Julio Cortázar, Brenda Coultas, Robert Creeley, Katie Degentesh, Edward Dorn, Ed Friedman, Michael Friedman, Gloria Frym, Cliff Fyman, Michael Gizzi, Anselm Hollo, Jeanne Hueving, Kenneth Koch, Berel Lang, Kimberly Lyons, Stephanie Marlis, Harry Mathews, Bernadette Mayer, Rosemary Mayer, Cormac McCarthy, Michael McClure, Myung Mi Kim, Stephen Paul Miller, Marianne Moore, Hilda Morley, Sheila Murphy, Eileen Myles, Alice Notley, Frank O’Hara, Michael Ondaatje, Maureen Owen, Frank Parker, Michael Pelias, Georges Perec, Simon Pettet, Tim Peterson, Ian Record, Joan Retallack, Kit Robinson, Jerome Rothenberg, Michael Rothenberg, Sappho, W.G. Sebald, Eleni Sikelianos, Juliana Spahr, Jack Spicer, Alfred Stieglitz, Gertrude Stein, Lorenzo Thomas, Lynne Tillman, George Tysh, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Jo Ann Wasserman, Hannah Weiner, Philip Whalen, Tyrone Williams, Jeff Wright, Laura Wright and Lila Zemborain.


Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948, Barbara Henning has lived in New York City since 1983 except for a year in Mysore, India and a few years in Tucson. She has published three novels, seven collections of poetry and several limited art/poetry pamphlets. In the 1990s, Barbara edited Long News in the Short Century: A Journal of Writing and Art. As a long-time yoga practitioner, she brings this knowledge and discipline to her writing and her teaching at Naropa University, and Long Island University in Brooklyn, where she is Professor Emerita.