Places change us. Many of the writers I’ve admired have always held fast to a sense of place whether it came through consciously in their work or not. Frank O’Hara and the New York of the 1950s. Paul Bowles and the Sahara. Wanda Coleman’s Los Angeles. Bolaño’s Mexico City. The Chicago of Nelson Algren.
These were some of the writers I thought of as I considered the concept of place and how it enters my own work.
I was teaching a class at The Chicago School of Poetics last year and came up with a new exercise. The class was to consider place in relation to Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia.
I was in a heterotopic space. A space in which learning happens. Other heterotopias: the moment when you first look in a mirror, a backyard garden, a hotel room, hospital, or heterotopias of time such as museums. The class was tasked with choosing a heterotopic space to serve as the context for a poem and to use the poem to circumvent time by use of multiple perspectives. To allow the poem to become a site of resistance.
At the time it also occurred to me that Chicago itself could be seen as a heterotopic space. In that it has a reputation as an oasis for those seeking refuge or travelers crossing the continent. Lately Chicago has come to be considered as a literary destination in itself, which is slightly different than how it’s been viewed traditionally. In some sense my conception of Chicago was that it has also been perceived as representing otherness: As an alternative to the other large cities in the United States.
I was thinking of the time I had driven to Black Mountain, North Carolina looking for what literary legacy might still exist there. At the beginning of Black Mountain College, 1933, it might’ve seemed odd that such artistic innovation was happening in rural North Carolina and not Paris. From the earliest days, Josef and Annie Albers transformed a backwoods environment of dank hills covered in scrub pine into a site where poets and painters sought refuge to rediscover what art could be. So, people often transform a place, too.
When I came to Chicago looking for poetry nearly 12 years ago, it was here but it’s not quite as difficult to find now. After hosting more than 200 readings at Myopic Books, I realized that the decisions I made as curator were an effort to create a sense of place for writers. Gertrude Stein’s famous quote about Oakland, “there’s no there there,” could be seen as a phrase that some might’ve once used to describe Chicago. But the city has truly become a place for poetry.
The place where I started is far different than this sprawling and well-lit city of glass and steel. I grew up among sprawling fields and dark pine forests. Lots of crows shrieking from fence posts. A sun setting through autumn trees. The sounds of a dog barking or a far-off train dissolving in the distance. Ohio is idyllic. I spent a lot of time walking through those forests outside, with my own thoughts and a landscape that is elemental: comprising rock, trees, water, sunlight. Ohio is so green. I remember once driving all the way to Martin’s Ferry to see what version of Ohio imbued James Wright’s poetry. Place might have been even more important to me then.
I was bringing those memories to the always-moving Chicago. It seems I was sitting alone on a log in a silent pine forest then suddenly walking among skeletal half-finished buildings and high-rise apartments. All of this city adorned with an urgency and the ever-present sound of sirens.
I was sitting in my car with Richard Hell when it struck me. The excitement of sitting next to a musical idol of mine wasn’t as important, in hindsight, as some of the realizations that moment lit within me. He made a casual comment about an upcoming exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Chaos to Couture” and how the decisions he made getting dressed before going out for the night eventually resulted in a worldwide music and fashion revolt against the status quo. Against a languid backdrop of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Bee Gees tunes, Richard Hell wrote “Please Kill Me” on a cut-up t-shirt before stumbling outside. Cut to nearly 40 years later and nearly every suburban kid in America has visited that place in the wildest recesses of the imagination—not to mention the cavalcade of film and music stars lining the red carpet in their own carefully scripted versions of Hell’s fashion sensibility to see the show at the Met. No matter that the place, New York’s Bowery, has now been eaten up by oligarchs. That particular place became an attitude that’s everywhere, no matter how Romantic that might sound. In this Internet age, place has become even more nebulous. I was thinking place has little to do with geography and everything to do with a certain tenacity.
So, a person can bring a sense of her own place to the world. One doesn’t necessarily have to travel to a New York or Chicago to make art. Perhaps that’s what the best poetry does.
–Larry Sawyer, 2014
Photo By: romana klee