Travel guidance: Erika Howsare channels a late Victorian explorer for her new book

Erika Howsare’s work serves to jostle answers to two of her most pressing questions: “How can you take a journey and make a document of it that’s a work of art?” and “Can the journey itself be a performance?” Photo by Meredith Coe Erika Howsare’s work serves to jostle answers to two of her most pressing questions: “How can you take a journey and make a document of it that’s a work of art?” and “Can the journey itself be a performance?” Photo by Meredith Coe

Author Erika Howsare first made acquaintance with Isabella Bird as an undergrad, while sifting through a reading assignment. Bird, a Victorian British traveler, had lived and written nearly a century and a half before Howsare sat studying; still, she felt akin to the historic figure, making note of their mutual affinity for travel. Years later, Howsare would render their relationship tangible, etching Bird onto manuscript pages as her imagined travel partner in an escapade out West.

How Is Travel a Folded Form? is the published result of Howsare’s invented intersection with Bird, whose book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, deeply influenced her and is sampled throughout her pages. Howsare, a poet who writes frequently for C-VILLE, can still recall the cross-country road trip at age 19 that launched her own relationship with the American West.

In her new book, she weaves her own experiences with Bird’s quoted notes. What ensues is an experimental poetry-prose hybrid (Howsare cites this “formal playfulness” as the text’s standout strength), a purposefully incomplete travel guide, and an intergenerational conversation.

The guiding premise for Howsare’s paperback dates back to her girlhood. As a child, she created poems and tiny homemade books in her Pennsylvania home, often wondering what it would be like to walk and work alongside her literary hero Laura Ingalls Wilder. As an adult, she found a more resonant connection with Bird, who was also a pilgrim “passing through” spaces rather than settling down—an insatiable explorer propelled by “recreation…and curiosity.”

Howsare’s passion for nature is central to her life in Nelson County, where she lives with her husband and children. They often venture through the woods, to the creek, and into the garden in an attempt to establish an unfiltered, multi-sensory relationship with the neighboring ecosystem—to move away from screen time and tired, pixelated landscapes. Even so, Howsare says it’s almost impossible to shirk the pervasive influence of modern technology. “The line between nature and technology is very blurry in the era of climate change and many other conditions that we are all living with, whether or not we spend a lot of time on Twitter,” says Howsare.

Howsare’s published works range from delicate poems to investigative prose pieces, from architecture-based articles to ruminations on groundhog songs, and she derives pleasure in mashing numerous written forms together. “I’m always interested in mixing genres,” she says, “…bringing history and quotations from biographies and theory and philosophy into poetic work.” How Is Travel a Folded Form? is a testament to that artistic tendency.

She also expresses her artistic prowess in a performative sense, pursuing walking as a live art form. As a college student, she trekked across the state of Rhode Island, jotting notes, logging measurements, and taking photographs. Similar trips followed in New Mexico, where she completed a residency and an art installation, and along the Lewis and Clark path. Her work serves to jostle answers to two of her most pressing questions: “How can you take a journey and make a document of it that’s a work of art?” and “Can the journey itself be a performance?”

Howsare’s and Bird’s journey is equal parts inviting and unpredictable. Boxed-in pages, whose headers are scrawled in Howsare’s own curling handwriting, “are meant to be the notes that Isabella and the narrator are gathering.” A waffling between fonts and Howsare’s unprocessed inscriptions distinguish different registers within the book and signal “a messy, unfinished space” akin to the inner folds of a travel journal. The manuscript is incomplete, Howsare sometimes leaves out entire chunks of text, replacing them with fillable blanks and inviting the reader to participate.

The book also grapples with travelers’ expectations and impressions of a place. “So much of the language of tourism is about stepping into another time or place, and promising that experience of getting out of yourself and in to some other era or some other person’s experience,” Howsare says. “There isn’t one truth and the experiences we’re having are…mediated by the experiences of people who have been there before and have told us what to expect.”

Different definitions for the words “circle,”  “line,” “form,” and “reflection” cycle through the pages as footnotes. As travelers, Howsare notes, “we think we’re traveling in a line, but really, we’re often moving in circles.” Progress—both historical and personal—is not linear. “There’s always myths that are informing our experience in the moment, and none of that can ever be really codified. It’s always fluid. This book is trying to just dwell in that space for a period of time.”

The book offers an indisputable truth in its display of female fortitude. “We often think of so many generations of women who came before us as having lived very constricted lives, [so] it’s heartening to discover a 19th-century woman who seems to have commandeered considerable freedom.”

Howsare is a female trailblazer herself. She is set to expand her current list of published works, including a full-length collaborative poetry collection and multiple chapbooks, by wrapping up an investigative project on architecture and global interpretations of homebuilding. Her pen is scurrying as quickly as her wandering feet, and shows no sign of stopping.

Erica Howsare will read from How is Travel a Folded Form? at New Dominion Bookshop on October 13. 

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