‘But inasmuch as any entity within-the-world is likewise in space, its spatiality will have an ontological connection with the world’ – Heidegger
I’m on a couch at the back of Columbia University’s Social Hall at a poetry reading. It is quiet, though we laugh when it is appropriate. The Geordie poet Tom Pickard invites us to
Fuck the sonnet, I piss upon it
and those who seek to launch a sinking reputation on it
I’m taking notes furiously. This is odd because it’s a poetry reading, and because I’m not (yet) imaging a future where I might refer back to them, and because I heard these same poems read two days earlier. They are dubious notes; apropos of nothing, a slap-dash cartouche contains ‘Anna Pesto.’ I don’t know who spoke this near-Pynchonian poetic pun and it doesn’t clarify anything. Of course, I’m in a lecture hall, surrounded by other students and poetry-positive New Yorkers – the Moleskine set – and so I’m not the only one writing. But it is the pleasure of writing, here, in this room, that is overcoming me, and although I’ve never been in this building before I’m shocked by my relative comfort.
I prefer working in rooms that are well-thought-in, where I am able to imagine myself pulling minor epiphanies out of the rafters, rather than confronting writing as a solitary figure on a frontier. In the past four years, I’ve moved from Canada, to the UK, to Canada again, and now to the United States, pulled nose-first by an abstract ‘there’ I assume will be more productive than ‘here.’ The further away the city – or even country – the easier it has been to imagine it as cohesively Where Someone Else’s Great Thing Got Done. When I stood in my Dad’s studio in Toronto and scanned a lease on a room at Wolfson College, I was already anticipating the industriousness and inspiration that Sylvia Plath found on the other side of Grange Road. Were Betty Smith to have advised my most recent move, I’m sure she would’ve pointed out that today, each tree that grows in Brooklyn seems to find three or four manuscripts in its shade. All of this is to say that I assumed I could break through (something, I’m not sure what) by working under someone else’s sky. But I’ve found that, while I may like the idea of moving, I’m not terribly good at it, and it takes several months before my industrial comfort is truly unpacked. Suffice to say, it takes a fair bit of working a space to make it a workspace, and the first step seems to be the attempt to name the space as such – taking it from space to place.
In my experience, living in New York seems to mean being subject to a hybrid obligation: an avowed Newness renovating the spectral precedent of York (and Amsterdam before that, insists a popular brand of cheap gin). We’re here innovating inside of a historical tradition while historicising innovation. At the risk of putting too fine a point on things, One World Trade Center topped-out the day after we moved-in. And as a sort of nested doll within this diachronic frame, this particular Social Hall impresses its own hybrid frame: built in 1910 as a part of the Union Theological Seminary and now on lease to Columbia, it educated a generation of liberal priests before becoming a cauldron for the labor movement. But the very idea of a Social Hall – a space that declares interaction no matter who else is inside of the building – is pushing me to consider the way my note-taking, or writing of any kind, feels like socializing with a space, rather than just in it. I’m recalling that the feeling of total inhabitation that accompanies a really good afternoon or all-nighter seems like a step towards understanding the way working works. It’s a chance to really feel related with these environments we’ve made for ourselves for making something else. Maybe my satisfaction with a finished piece is as much a function of my presentness as it is of my productivity. Maybe it’s hard to really work in a space you don’t know, but you also don’t really know a space unless you’ve worked in it. Emerson beings his essay ‘Experience’ by asking existentially ‘where do we find ourselves?’ and it’s worth attending to the po-faced answer, which is always going to be some form of ‘where we brought ourselves to be ourselves working’.
On my way out of the reading, I overhear one of the other readers – who named his most recent book after a resort where he’d been staying and writing – complaining about the resort refusing to give him a free room as a courtesy for the title. I can only assume that he asked, and that he felt this room to have already been his. Hopefully he’s moved on.
I’m in my office in Brooklyn thinking about being wrong, about working on being wrong and working-on while being wrong. This isn’t an immediately promising approach. If the Social Hall at Columbia pushed me to consider the relationship I have with the space in which I work, being ‘at the office’ – even one that is only separated from my bedroom by a set of French doors – is naif shorthand for working when one would just as soon be doing something else. April Bernard has written brilliantly about the author’s house as an inhabitable intentional fallacy – the belief ‘that visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work’ – and one’s office is this exactly same false-space, at least, until it is proved otherwise. Time goes up in flame by the heap. Just being in an office can feel oppressively metonymic, as its etymology betrays; the Latin noun officium carries the connotation of a duty or service, despite being derived from a verb compound of opus and facere, ‘work’ and ‘to do, to act.’ It’s a space we carve out for ourselves, but one to which we are as obliged as it is to us.
I’m finding it worthwhile to tease these two conceptual spaces apart, looking for the moments where the space of duty and the space of working are at their most distant, if only to provide myself with a clear trajectory back to the one from the other. In some cases, this means trying to work where it feels wrong to do so. It’s easy to forget how common this is – after all, ‘I have to go to the office’ is shorthand for going to work on something that one would just as soon not be working on. John Ashbery’s most famous, least representative poem, ‘The Instruction Manual,’ begins in precisely this situation:
As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.
I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace,
And envy them – they are so far away from me!
The speaker has separated from the work circumscribed by the space metapoetically – as writing a poem seems to obviously not be writing an instruction manual – but the tinge of green shows its obligation lingering. Even if the writing of the poem confirms the space’s creative potential, the speaker is, at that moment, literally in the wrong. This wrongness gives rise to the entire poetic occasion, pointing-up writing as a process for working through wrongness. This isn’t just wordplay, even if it is.
Maybe this is specific to someone that is, as I’ve said, dreadful at the whole process of moving away from home, but in each new place, you’re forced to figure out new habits, new patterns of behaviour, a new way to be. And this doesn’t happen right away – you develop concentric circles of familiarity around your home and office, building first impressions on top of the relatively well known. A lot of first impressions have the texture of facts, because you have no contradictory evidence to hold them against, but they are rarely absolute. The first best cup of coffee is usually just a good cup of coffee. You revise and move on. I think this has an important precedent in childhood, when you seem to be ready for every fact to have been misapprehended, to be open to completely destabilizing new information. As you get older, it gets harder find yourself, ahem, ‘in’ the wrong unless you get away from the familiar.
Sometimes wrong isn’t simply being incorrect but is felt as a pervasive ill-fittingness or out-of-sortsness. This is how Heidegger talks about the stifling affect of Bad Moods – they unavoidably colour the entire space, and certainly I’ve tried working in spaces wholly inappropriate for doing so. I ludicrously tested the unsuitability of the bathroom of an overground from East Croydon to Saint Pancras, which I’m sure any other passenger could have confirmed. Heidegger infamously names the Counter Mood – our strategy for finding pockets of harmony within these Bad Moods – without gesturing towards how a mood might be countered. Thinking of one’s office as an island or a refuge is a hopeless cliché, and one that does nothing to reflect the moments when these Bad Moods, these discrepancies between work and obligation, settled around our desks. But if working is, at best, a working-out, the ideal beginning might be a situation one wants to get away from. On a macro-level, this squares with the itinerance I’ve fallen into. But for the mundane day, I wonder if each great-actually-just-good cup of coffee, each shortcut-no-longcut, doesn’t help to keep things just a little bit uncomfortable. If that separation between duty and productivity isn’t itself productive. I’m unequivocally more productive with one set of doors to my office open, and the other closed.
I’m at a party in one of NYU’s faculty apartments in Greenwich Village. ‘We’ are thanking the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson for coming to New York and talking to us about her new chapbook Thinking Spaces. The entire south wall of this 14th floor apartment is windowed from the waist up. The immediacy of the lit-up financial district reminds me of the urbane sleaze of eighties thrillers like After Hours and Cruising. A fluorescent uneasiness leaks in through the windows and I have eaten all of the salami, quickly.
Robertson and I are both from Toronto and spent time in Cambridge, her as a prestigious Judith E. Wilson fellow, me as an MPhil student. Though we missed each other by 10 years, Cambridge is extremely something we can talk about. She’s telling me about the inveterate college poet Jeremy Prynne telling her about the deceased poet Veronica Forrest-Thompson because I asked her to and she’s much nicer than I could’ve expected – no one from anywhere else can say ‘oh for sure’ with a Canadian’s perfectly genial timbre. I can’t articulate how or why, but the whole time I’m thinking about Cambridge’s unique spatial disclosures. Its tall brick walls broken-up by loose iron fences, openings from which the distance between feeling in a space and just perceiving that space becomes osmotically thin. The buildings huddle monastically, sharing ideas that might still hold currency even if their credit is about a hundred years expired. As Robertson wrote, while in residence, ‘Doubt crumbles open.’
This new chapbook is wonderful and challenging. A canny art critic as well as a poet, Robertson famously refuses to distinguish between her ‘poetic’ and ‘critical’ work, which can estrange and discomfort even the most flexible readers. Thinking Spaces reckons with historical examples of libraries that were arranged in such a way as to encourage certain shapes of thought, or thought processes. Each begins with its most basic necessary constituents – ‘a table, a book, and an opening to the outside’ – and the way they were organised in a given room was meant to correspond to the forms of thought each room was meant to encourage. Most enduring is her description of the Warburg Institute’s elliptical reading room, which was inspired by Johannes Kepler’s theory of elliptical planetary orbit. Kepler accounted for visual imperfections and inconsistencies by speculating that planets orbited around two points, a positive (the sun) and a negative (the ‘equant,’ a point of absence that was actually used to account for velocity). Aby Warburg wanted to inspire his fellow art historians to direct their thoughts along this trajectory; from concept to doubt to affirmation, or the reverse, discomfort to comfort to unease. Robertson sees this shape inflecting her own memory of the Warburg library as well:
Remembrance happens in an actual space, a proscenium or cosmos. But the ellipse is an image not of memory, nor of refinement, but of time itself: it wobbles, its centre shifts, it doesn’t pertain to hierarchy…Warburg called the ellipse a space for thinking, and for him his library with its elliptical hub was a lantern, and it was an observatory.
The space itself recast as the light that reveals both perfection and imperfection.
I step away from Robertson/ the empty snack tray, and over to the window. When the Empire State Building was being completed, Le Corbusier was so disappointed by the American approach to urbanization that he speculated about what a ‘Cartesian skyscraper’ might look like. He predicted a structure whose interiors would feature no walls: ‘Why repudiate richness itself: floods of light coming in.’ But he was unable to anticipate the nightscape of this setting, the eerie infelicity of opening out onto the black sky (no stars, of course) punctuated by so many other spaces – other rooms opening onto, or more accurately ‘out to’ each other – like an A4 covered in periods. In New York, tonight, easier to imagine a sort of fricative energy vibrating across all of these spaces, a city full of elliptical thoughts, the doubt illuminating each room.