Editor’s Note: Beth Kephart’s 17th book is LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair (Temple University Press), a collection of essays on place and memory. Kephart’s Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River (Temple University Press, 2007) was a pathbreaking work of history, fiction, and memory, written in the voice of the river. Now Kephart returns with a work in her own distinctive voice. She’ll read from LOVE tomorrow night, October 7 at 7:30PM, at the Free Library of Philadelphia Parkway Branch (information HERE). Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin explores the book’s themes in this Q&A with the author.
Nathaniel Popkin: It’s funny about format. Much (but not all) of this material appeared in the Inquirer’s Sunday Op-Ed section. But it’s not until reading these essays here, chapter after chapter, that it reads so distinctly as a classic piece of urban wandering, in the mode of Christopher Morley, who walked and wrote about this city 100 years ago, or Joseph Mitchell or Alfred Kazin in New York. Even the essay titles seem to echo that literary era. Did you have these writers in mind as you set out on this project?
Beth Kephart: The answer to your question is no. When I first began writing these pieces I was sinking into memory. Plunging deep into the heart of my childhood, for example, while remembering the Jersey shore. Thinking about summer heat and garden shade at Chanticleer. Each essay was its own budded thing. A seed of an idea. A sprout. An unwinding. I would write two or three paragraphs that hinged on looking, listening, feeling, then stop to ask myself, But what does any of it mean—to me, to a potential reader? Sometimes it would take me days to find that answer.
So that the making of each one of these essays was a journey, and it wasn’t until I had created perhaps two dozen of them that I began to wonder what would happen if I collected them. How would I arrange them? How did they connect? What would I—and a reader—learn if they were stitched together, seamed? What was missing? I was relying on my own internal sense of choreography and rhythm, and not historic patterns. But also, I teach memoir at Penn. I’ve written a book about the making of truth (Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir). I was thinking about memoirists and memoir making, and how I could bring all that matters to me about that form—universality, empathetic imagination, urgency—into these essays.
If there was a far-away influence, I would guess (though I have never stopped to ponder this before) that Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and the work of W.G. Sebald (specifically The Rings of Saturn) and perhaps Susan Brind Morrow’s The Names of Things might have played a role, in terms of the permission such books give to be tangential, poetic. But poets give us that permission, too. They take us on walks of their minds.
NP: This book can be read as a tour inside and out Philadelphia’s monumental and quotidian places. Places that matter to you or that you discovered walking. What surprised you on these walks—what did you learn about Philadelphia you didn’t already know?
BK: Every time I take a walk I learn something I didn’t know. This is the exercise of life, Nathaniel. To stay attuned. To watch. To wait. This is the writer’s privilege. I discovered small things, like the inscribed names and occupations of those who lived on Market Street between 5th and 6th Streets, like the huge white dog (I was so impressed by it) at the park at 25th and Spruce, like the chill that enters your bones when you walk through the door of a Port Richmond foundry. I was never searching for facts per se. I was searching for the feelings that arise when facts are idiosyncratically encountered. I always did do research (how much fun, for example, to read the history of Locust Walk and, also, The Woodlands)—but not until I had connected with the spirit of the place.
NP: Flow, your book length prose poem in the voice of the Schuylkill River, is a great work of feminist literature (and urban history). The river is a woman, a strong, resilient one. The usual urban wanderer/writer (as the above noted) is a man. So what gives this book it’s female perspective? My guess is that you aren’t looking for answers to questions (the city is perpetually unfinished, you say) and that you see the natural environment as an integral part of the urban, a powerful component.
BK: Vulnerability. My own vulnerability gives this book its female perspective. This is not to say that men are not deeply affected, too, by place. Of course they are. Look at your examples above. But I go out into the world full of the knowledge of my own not knowing, my own small-ness, if you will. I want to be awed, Nathaniel. I allow myself to be awed. Is that a female thing? My willingness to walk without a given purpose, to see and be (at first confused), to feel and to find my way toward minor, sometimes major, epiphanies. I don’t write text books. I do write life.
NP: In writing about a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Linc, you ponder, what’s to say about The Boss? And your reply is, “Beth Kephart was here.” In other words, these essays are deeply personal—they are about your relationship to this place, how the place fills you with spirit and how you respond to it. So why does this place move you so? You might respond, “read the book.” But I suspect there is an actual calibration of thought and emotion.
BK: I would never respond “read the book,” though it would be nice if people do. What moves me, Nathaniel, is that this city is the city I call home. Home. My grandfather’s family emigrated from Italy to Philadelphia (my great-grandfather became a naturalized citizen in 1922). My mother grew up in southwest Philadelphia. My father worked in the city for years. I went to Penn here. I met my husband here. I lived in three separate Philadelphia neighborhoods, then took the train into the city for years. This is my home. Sometimes I’m battered by it, embarrassed by it, worried for it, but I love it in that impossible surging way that I love things.
But it isn’t just about me. Right? One of my very favorite moments came on a very hot day, when Flow, the book you reference earlier, was launched at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The bookstore had ordered just a handful of books. No one expected anyone to come. And I walked into that upstairs room and it was wall to wall with people—and not because of me, an unknown writer. It was wall to wall with people who were full of pride about their city. People who came to me and said, I’m a sixth-generation Philadelphian. I’m a fourth generation. I was born on Poplar Street. My great aunt took me fishing in the river. I was standing there in a room full of strangers who were not strangers, because we all call Philadelphia home.
NP: I particularly like the moments in these essays when you talk to people you encounter and draw their experiences onto yours, and then across the landscape. Most notable in this regard is the essay “Psycholustro,” on the 2014 art installation by Katherina Grosse commissioned by the Mural Arts Program, in which you talk to SEPTA Regional Rail train conductors. I won’t quote the entire terrific passage here, “The built and the fallen: that’s the landscape…,” but I wanted to ask you to comment on the way time works in fostering your relationship to the city, how the city is always changing in time and how you are too, but not necessarily in synch, and how the city also represents in the present its past and future, deepening the sense of an eternal relationship.
BK: Time. Isn’t that what I’m always writing about, ultimately? Isn’t that what I mean when I say that I write about the intersection of memory and place? What I saw once. What I see now. How both eclipsed and exhilarated I feel as the past and the present waft through me. Knowing the city over time ages you. These pieces declare my own age. I won’t be eternal. I hope my words outlive me.
NP: That said, this is a particular moment for Philadelphia in which it is now quite OK to declare one’s love for the city. Emma Fried-Cassorla’s “Philly Love Notes” blog, which ran for three years until last month, and probably dozens of other media and social media sites, including this one, have made it possible. So what’s happened? Beyond the obvious elements of the urban resurgence, which is a national story, as a careful observer of Philadelphia, what’s in the air?
BK: I try to get at this issue of why now in the opening pages of the book. Maybe the metaphor is orchestral. For many years, in this city, if you heard a song it was often a single note or instrument. One person’s hope. One institution’s light. The trash would blow around the streets. The restaurants were all indoors and mostly closed on Sundays. There might be someone singing an aria through a window at Curtis one early evening, but the overall feeling was that of a huddled place. You had to fight your way to the river banks. There was way too much concrete. Someone said, Let’s close the Water Works.
Then one note became two. Two became three. Someone said (then many said), Let’s save the Water Works, and it was saved, made vital. Someone said (then many said), If we build the Schuylkill Banks, people will come, and people did. Isaiah Zagar started painting old walls with mirror shards and the sun broke through. The Snydermans moved into Old City and other artists followed. Jane Golden (and her muralists) turned art into stories, lives into a higher purpose. Jack Ferguson brought the world to this city’s doors. Jerry Sweeney (and his Brandywine Realty Trust and so many collaborators) believed in a potential renaissance on the west banks of the river, and look what we have: a renaissance as well as the city’s first vertical neighborhood (FMC, now rising). Penn and Drexel and CHOP and Comcast and so many other institutions are delving in, building the new, seeking out the cross-currents of possibility. Restaurants are setting up outdoor cafes. East Passyunk Ave. is alive and oh so well. Spruce Street harbors a pop-up garden. The Free Library of Philadelphia brings some of the world’s great talents to its stage. And on. And on. This is not one person’s doing. These are big revolutions and small iterations, one person and committees, politics and civics, and each positive outcome feeds the next. If they did it, so can we, the city’s people collectively say.
And some of us, the wanderers, look up, listen, hear the music playing, and say thank you with our words.