Place in Poetry I
Herein lies the first of a short series of conversations on the notion of place and its affair with writing. I will be talking with a different poet about their relationship to place in each post. My name is Anthony Cinquepalmi, and I will be your host. This is post one—
with Beckian Fritz Goldberg
This summer I visited California after two months of days of watching Netflix and intentionally slothing around my house. I wrote a few sonnets in June. I watched full seasons of five TV shows. I'm not sure if that's disparity or if those activities make sense together. Either way, I had hoped a relatively thoughtless trip to some other place would fix the congestion I felt hiding inside from the desert. Well, in terms of writing, the trip made me feel useless. I had nothing to say about the shore, the smell of the shore's air, etc. Nor the trees, the sand, the people under the trees in the sand. Nothing.
I have wondered why travelling to a 'new' place did not inspire me. My first thought: "Surely, inspiration takes more time! You are spoiled and should have more patience!" That may be true, but I believe this account points to the strange idea of PLACE and its relationship to writing. Well, how does it figure into writing? Are we talking about place as something physical: the landscape, the front porch, the hallowed writing desk in front of the sunned window, the shade under the favorite big tree? Or, more importantly, the place in the mind a poet goes to each time they write, the images a poem lives in—that quiet fever of translation from within the mind to the outside, the page? Or there’s a poet's place in society and how that informs their writing Even further, what about a poet's place in something like POETRY?
I'm not going to be able to answer these questions—I do not want to. Though I do want to talk about their importance in being questions at all, and as Rainer Maria Rilke might have done, live in them.
I want to go about this by talking to poets who have been poets longer than I have, who have lived in & traveled to & written from various places. With that in mind, I began the first discussion.
I spoke to Beckian Fritz Goldberg the other day, and I'd say the conversation surprised us both—how sweeping and huge the idea of place is, and how little it's talked about in terms of poetry. Here are some locus-related facts: Beckian spent the first five years of her life in the Midwest before moving to the desert. Her first three books were "written from childhood," specifically those formative five years in Wisconsin. Maybe that is a testament to how spongy the infant mind is—or a testament to the impact of Midwestern landscape, its images, its snow…. Having grown up in Illinois, I felt a kinship in our discussion of that landscape. I realized that as of late I had also been writing from childhood, reproducing images of snow around the shed in my backyard. I don't usually think about why certain images enter the poem. They find their way in. It’s something that just happens. But I want to ask why am I returning to my childhood landscape when I've spent eight years in another place? The desert is a different animal.
"The desert is not a nurturing landscape. You have to earn it…You have to coax it out—it doesn't happen to you like New York happens to you."
Beckian has coaxed it out. She spoke to me about the two acres of desert her house sits on in Carefree, AZ, and about sitting in her backyard around dusk this summer. The heat creates a "vacuum" that quiets down as the sun sets, a sense of solitude in the landscape—Black Mountain, Sentinel Rock, stacks of boulders, coyotes, and jumping cholla cactus. It's quiet out there. Stars are visible. It's a landscape that informs more and more when treated with patience. And it's one Beckian has gravitated towards over time—her sense of place has changed, "It's fluid." In that regard, there's a sort of 'living' element involved in this. After a while a place might imprint upon a poet, and therein begins the sort of relationship Beckian has come to know with the desert: "I don't like it that much, that's just the way it is."
She has this great poem in the upcoming 49th issue of HFR, "Birds of Darkness Inhabit the Night, Stars on Their Foreheads," which plays into this place conversation and reminds me of how I spent most of the summer:—complete indolence—“I pissed the day away." The poem throws the reader a sense of scale with which one can size up their place on this earth while looking at images of the earth on a screen. It's fun. It’s a poem that was born from Beckian's perpetual courtship of the desert.
I can draw from our conversation that poets construct different relationships with place, not by choice, but by something outside of choice, a gravity. Some are nomadic: they can travel and write books rooted in one place before moving on to another. Still others are like Beckian. They like to nest, to wait and coax the landscape out, or relish awhile in its silence. And still, there are probably variants within this simple division. I'm wondering whether or not these orientations become fixed, ingrained within the writer to the extent that wherever a poet is physically, he or she writes from one place (the idea of a place in the mind). Or if one's relationship to place changes over a life, with some landscapes & images holding on stronger than others. Because they want to talk to us. Because we need them to.
"As a writer you have to be able to divorce yourself from where you are."
I think this is the most salient point in our conversation. A poet's task is one of communication, regardless of the particular variant of place-relationship to which a poet subscribes. We agreed that instead of trying to reach some conclusive point in this dialogue, it would be better to say I don't know and talk about dystopia films, Bobbie the bobcat (who makes a cameo in her poem), and physics:
A —Physics is so weird.
B —Yeah. If I had a brain I'd be a physicist. But I don't so I'm a poet.
A —(laughs) You know I'm going to have to quote that when I write this up.
B —(laughs) Yeah, that's okay, the poets will like that one.