Research Notes · 08/14/2015

Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Wendy S. Walters writes about Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal from Sarabande Books.

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In Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal (Sarabande), I spend time thinking about real and imagined borders and the way they affect my perception of history and the present moment. The subtitle of this book — On the American Real and Surreal — marks an important distinction. Some of the essays are based entirely on fact: carefully reported and researched, they stand as nonfiction. Others are works of fiction. Some are a mix of the two.

I cannot reconcile the difference between the way a boundary looks on a map and how it feels when I stand on it, so I study places to make sense of the contradiction. Maps offer perspective on how well neighborhoods fit together when considered from a distance, but the spaces they denote are as fictional as they are true.

I have always been drawn to the politics that emerge out of specific locations. My first book of poems, a chapbook, envisioned the city of Los Angeles as a series of mythologies. My last book of poems focuses on my hometown, Troy, MI, as I try to understand the relationship between landscape design and xenophobia. In Multiply/Divide, I write about Portsmouth, NH; New York, NY; and Washington, DC.

My research begins when I visit a city or territory I have never been to before. When I travel, I try to be as inconspicuous as possible. This does not work all the time, and sometimes the way I stand out — especially with regards to race, gender, or class — provides the inciting incident for the writing work. My research might also start when I try to rethink a place I know well through details I would normally ignore. Through observation and investigation, I pull myself away from familiarity and become a conscious onlooker.

This kind of attention to location sparks a new awareness in me, derived from witnessing some part of the world that is too beautiful or complicated for me to process in the moment. Then come the questions: How did the world get this way? Why didn’t I know it existed before now? Why does the place make me believe that I have no other option but to change if I am ever going to understand it? How do I change, especially when I do not want to?

Once I get a sense of a locale that has made me wary or speculative, I attend to its maps and written history as well as seek out historical records and regional publications: pamphlets, newspapers, cookbooks. Often I interview people about how they see themselves in relation to where they are.

In Multiply/Divide I examine real destinations — ones on a map — and conceptual spaces — ones that exist as the sum of geography and metaphor. Real places have records in libraries, county clerk’s offices and universities, so they are easier to get a fix on. But real places also are subject to mythologies of culture, race, class, and gender, and it is in those stories that I find complexity. Conceptual spaces tend to be a construction or fiction but with real-life implications. Information about them may be cobbled together from a wider variety of sources, including ones that might be called “invented.” For example, in the piece “Cowboy Horizon,” I write about the American West, but as it exists in the movies, a destination that remains unreachable.

Material evidence provides the strongest evidence of the real or conceptual place’s relevance, and I take copious notes on my own experience there, which helps me work through my feelings once I’ve returned home. When my visit leaves me confused or ambivalent, these notes help to reveal my shifting point-of-view.

I think my appreciation for material evidence was fostered during a summer I spent researching blues music and culture at the Folkways/Smithsonian archives while in graduate school. I spent two months sifting through recordings and reading liner notes. While I did learn a lot about the music, the biggest gift of that fellowship was coming to understand the importance of the archive and the privilege of being able to touch and manipulate the source material associated with my subjects.

The archive has allowed me to have many “happy accidents,” wherein I discover sources I was not expecting to be significant. While researching an archaeological report on the slave burial site in Portsmouth, NH, for the essay “Lonely in America,” the placement of the report in the local library — the original library and then the new expanded library a few blocks over — revealed a great deal about the town’s changing relationship with the burial site.

The effect of this research, aside from giving me a stronger position from which to make assertions, is a greater appreciation for the details that compose the history of a place and respect for how irresolute any interpretation of it must be.

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Wendy S. Walters is the author of Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal, an IndieNext pick from the American Booksellers Association, and two books of poems. She lives in New York and is Associate Professor at Eugene Lang College of The New School.