This month, we published Marianne Boruch's new memoir The Glimpse Traveler. In this book, she recounts a cross-country hitchhiking trip that begins on a whim and quickly becomes a mission to unravel a tragic mystery. I caught up with Marianne to discuss her book before she left for the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont.
This book is based on events that happened to you in 1971. Why did you feel it was important to write about this time in your life? Is there a reason why you waited 37 years before telling this story?
Well, as I say in the book's last chapter, it’s only now that I found the writerly nerve to attempt it at all, the patience—and the distance finally—to see it unfold again. I was 20, still officially immortal and thus immune—as I also say in that chapter—when I experienced this road trip, but I think probably the one perk of getting older is a wider ability to mull things over, and to sense, on a very physical level, the historical context of things. So it made sense to wait, I tell myself in hindsight. The truth is, after years of writing both poems and essays about poetry, I guess I just finally felt able to put this down on paper though even when it was happening, I recall thinking: remember this, you'll need to tell this, someday. The very shape of the trip was so profoundly story-like; that quality struck me from the start.
In the acknowledgments, you refer to yourself as “a poet thrashing about in the brave new waters of narrative prose.” How did this writing experience differ from writing poetry, and what did you like or dislike about the process of writing prose?
I've been going around telling people that writing this "me-woir" was free beer—exclamation point! ("Me-woir"—as Jane Hamilton wryly and no doubt rightly calls this genre though she assures me others have too.) What I mean is: it was a genuine release, great fun, and yet utterly poignant for me to do this mad thing. There really wasn't anything I disliked about the process, but certain aspects seemed largely new and exciting to me: the whole business about character, and its development, or how to deal with time passing, and dialogue, of course. I did find myself keeping to very small chapters, surely a poet-like thing to do.
Character, movement over time, etc.—this must be old news to fiction writers, but my writerly devotions all these years have been to the lyric impulse and its peculiar kind of deepening where pretty much you stay in one place and digress, wander about, and sometimes come back, a movement that makes its own individual logic. My essays on poetry work in a similar way. In The Glimpse Traveler though, I had to attend to story. After all, something happened in the world. It had a clear beginning and middle and end. I was observing, mulling over, but I also had the responsibility to record.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
It comes directly from the fragmentary italicized bit I put in as a kind of preface, which itself grew out of another memory, of another hitchhiking trip I took in those years, through the Pacific northwest. The passage is rendered in the dreamlike way it seemed to me at the time, and also in my recovery of the memory later, this guy playing an old record so damaged—with its static and scratches and the rain outside. But his passion, his leaning in with such reverence to hear that music: that was a glimpse—to be treasured, surely. Susan Sontag has written that memory works like this, in fragments, in bits, like stills in a movie. I end that brief epigraph-like section with a realization that triggered the whole book, I think: I was 20, traveling into glimpses. No matter what, he said, you have to hear it.
You write a great passage about hitchhiking back in the 60s and 70s. I’m fascinated by the image of people standing in lines along the side of the road waiting for their turn to be picked up. Why were you and so many other people inspired to take to the road back then?
I don't know. I certainly don't want to idealize the era. I suppose it was simply that we believed anything was possible, that, big deal, so you had no money. So what? Just go, somehow things would work out. It seems wildly delusional now, but it felt routine then, with the world seemingly falling apart—the war no one wanted, the student riots, a rush of new ideas so rampant and exciting. There was enormous hope. We weren't afraid though I wouldn't say we were fearless.
But it really did seem that everyone was on the road, off to explore something. This was before such euphoria was boxed in and brought down by such terrible and deadening terms as "empowerment." And drivers felt comfortable picking people up. Being young means being curious, doesn't it? Or it should mean that.
One of the items that you took on your cross-country hitchhiking adventure was a notebook. Did you write down any observations during the trip, and if so, were these notes used in writing this book?
Unfortunately, I long ago misplaced that notebook, but I'm not sure there was all that much in it. It's like the book I brought to read on the trip that stayed unread. That's an unromantic but honest answer. I was too busy being amazed and amused or just staying as alert as possible while we drove across the country. I remember mostly staring out the window in those cars and vans.
You write that your mother “checked out of hearing about drugs, sex, rock and roll or politics” once your college years began. Did she ever find out the kinds of things you were doing in college? What was her reaction?
I lost my mother in 2005, but no, I never did tell her about that trip. I think she knew I sometimes hitchhiked though. I probably defended it in some pseudo-visionary, grandstanding way that she didn't buy for a second. She knew I had boyfriends, but never inquired too deeply. She wasn't a worrier. I valued her trust in me, I have to say, though I was taken aback at her insistence on my privacy. I think now that was a great gift to me. It freed me. And in retrospect, I realize she grew up in a very different world than I did. Such news from me would have alarmed her though they all turned out, in my case anyway, to be pretty harmless. The cliché is true: the world was a more innocent place.
Which authors or poets have had the greatest influence on your work?
That list would be pretty much endless—as least, those writers I admire greatly whether or not they've influenced me. Really, how can I figure that out? I hesitate even to start ticking off names because I know I'll leave out crucial people, and kick myself later. But in my 20s—around the time of this memoir—I was smitten by writers such as Borges, Robert Bly and James Wright, Weldon Kees, Denise Levertov, Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Sylvia Plath, Whitman, Dickinson, Mark Twain, Louise Gluck, James Tate, Willa Cather, Flannery O'Connor. Later—Elizabeth Bishop, Roethke, Laura Jensen, Keats, Hopkins, William Carlos Williams, Stevens, Adelia Prado, Tomas Transtromer, Brigit Kelly, Philip Larkin. Later still: all of the above, plus Ellen Voigt, Jean Valentine, Larry Levis, Lucia Perillo, Tony Hoagland. Well, I'll quit there. Too much information, as they say. But I've spared you. My list is actually much longer!
What advice would you give to those who want to become writers?
Just write, for god's sake. And through revision, you'll move into a serious relationship with this thing you're creating. Spend time with your work every day. It's a spiritual discipline. And meanwhile, sniff around to find writers whose work you love, and read them for pleasure, companionship, and inspiration. Take it all to heart.
What are you reading now?
At my son's insistence, I just read David Malouf's novella—An Imaginary Life. It's a fine, extremely haunting book, written from Ovid's point of view. My son was right. I can't get it out of my head.
What are you writing now?
My next collection of poems, The Book of Hours, is coming out this fall from Copper Canyon Press. But new work, in progress, I think you mean. And that has a backstory, as the fiction writers call it.
In the fall of 2008, I was lucky enough to be awarded a "Faculty Fellowship in a Second Discipline" at Purdue where I teach which allowed me a semester free to take part in the so-called "Cadaver Lab" in IU's medical school, whose regional branch is here, on the West Lafayette campus. I also took a Life Drawing class. I had no idea what might happen, in my doing this. I merely wanted to put myself into an unthinkable, unpredictable situation, and go from there. And out of those two profound experiences have come many poems, including a long sequence called "Cadaver, Speak," from the point of view of the oldest cadaver we dissected, which was published in The Georgia Review, in last summer's issue.
Now I'm completing the rest of the poems in that book-length manuscript, and will be at that work for a while longer. The final step in the process will be my researching this material a bit more next spring through a Fulbright Scholarship/Visiting Professorship at the University of Edinburgh, where the oldest surgical museum in the world is. And I'm thinking toward an essay too, on Keats and Conon Doyle. Why this combo, I don't exactly know. I just have a feeling.