I was recently invited to write something for Abraham Smith & Shelly Taylor’s anthology Hick Poetics (Lost Roads Press, forthcoming). Under this self-aware celebration of the outskirts, the sticks, the places less valuable to developers / more valuable to deer and skunks and chickens, I got to think about where I come from (upstate New York, the very border of Albany suburbs and real country) and where I am now (Laramie, WY, surrounded on all sides by prairie, archetypically-snow-capped mountains, highways that can be relied upon to regularly shut down during our ten months of snow). These are places I write from. But, because I am a dillweed, when people asked me if I thought my westward move would change my work, I said place doesn’t really influence my writing.
I write from affect and emotion. I write from figure and persona. I write from politics and theory filtered through these agents. But of course I’ve always set these agents somewhere! This didn’t properly dawn on me until I sent Mommy V—the mommy-vampire of my first Laramie-written book Manhater (Dusie Press)—out on the prairie to hunt, brood, and get some me-time. So here are a few of my places:
1. The body. As a person with a chronic illness, in constant-if-low-level pain, with a tremor, with weird reactions and restrictions, my body and sense-of-self hardly meld. The body has been a place where I’ve suffered. It’s been a place of which I’m ashamed. I’m a woman, so often it’s been an object, but less than equating my self with it, I’ve equated it with my boundaries. I’ve sought out its less painful corners (a pain-therapist’s trick: the tip of the nose rarely hurts). I’ve tried to outrun it (though not physically because running hard trounces it). I’ve tried to medicate it, give it orgasms and pleasing foods, and strengthen it. Two humans have come out of it, having swum in it like otters, having for long months known only its red light and loud thrumming. I also know the body to be a habitat. A greater part non-human life, the body is a microcosm. A lot of neighbors in here. Thus, my speakers navigate the body like a zone.
2. The domestic space. I spend a lot of time in my house. My first year in Wyoming, the University paid beaucoup dolla bills to Famous Writer, who, within the space of a breath praised Famous Writer Men for writing the domestic and personal—a courageous act in the face of oppressive regimes! he argued—and then denounced Jane Austen for her domestic novels, which to him to have no political value whatsoever. I’d have loved to offer some instruction to Famous Writer, but he was hardly in a listening mood. The rest of you, I’m sure I needn’t bore with the politics of women’s domestic experiences over the centuries, the equation of personal with political, or the like. And heck, maybe I misheard (Ms. heard?) him. But let us say that in my feminist-gothics, US women speakers often find themselves conducting their lives, works, and trials in houses, apartments, bedrooms, beds.
3. The city. What a surprise! It turns out I very much love to live in the city, but rarely does the city hit the page for me. Even when living in cities, I didn’t write about their spaces. A few interiors, maybe, a bar always serves in a pinch. In a recent project, though, a sort of ars poetica, noir murder mystery, love story in form, I set my couplets in a cityscape. While I found that the speaker lived outside the city, on a wooded property, most of her experiences with the lover and book she loves take place in hotels (think AWP hotel bar). At some point, down by the docks, she’s kidnapped and shoved in a shipping container. I believe this setting comes a.) from my longing for water and urban life, and b.) many years of watching All My Children in whose fictional town Port Charles many bad things occurred down by the docks.
4. The river, the creek, the culvert, the ravine, the woods, the prairie: while northeastern landscapes swell my heart and feel like home, the prairie landscape has also become a touchstone (there’s a pun in there, right?). Its lack of shelter, its sharp or barren moods, the animals, the rough flora, the overwhelmingly blue skies, or the storms sweeping in. If it’s a good place for a violent crime, a crime of passion, a place to dump a body, a place beyond the law to bury a loved one, if lonely tracks or rivers run stoically through it, I’ll want to set something or someone out, down, or in there.
Photo By: J. Stephen Conn