Place in Poetry II
With David St. John
Yes, the desert cools off.
Growing up, I alternated holidays and vacation time between Chicago and Phoenix. Living just outside of Chicago fostered my innate curiosity for What’s going on over there. The city seemed so important. I could feel its importance; hear the expressway into the city humming at all hours just past the fence in my backyard. Recently, details such as this have wandered back to me, sort of tugging on my sleeve, asking me to remember. In response to a question posed last time: I’ve lived in Arizona for eight years, I have only recently worked up to the conversation with my childhood.
In the spirit of comparing my results with other poets, I ventured to Los Angeles to meet with one whose work I admire and anticipate, David St. John. His poems present to me confrontations & evaluations of the speaker in the terms of what’s going on over there. Sometimes it is a relationship between two people, and others, a relationship between someone and perceived omens. Present in either case is that innate curiosity.
David St. John shared with me anecdotes of his childhood, his relationship to the San Joaquin Valley, and his friendship with the poet Larry Levis. Though both poets grew up in this California landscape, they approached it differently in the poetry. St. John lived in Fresno’s suburban area, one inherently “less harsh and expansive” than Levis’ farmland. Levis loved going back to this landscape in his writing:
There’s a sense of something meditative about the landscape that he really loved. And what’s interesting to me: in his later work, it’s always there, but after he moved to Missouri, there’s a sense of it in Missouri.
And even when Levis lived in different states or spent time in Eastern Europe, there was still that attraction to the desolate San Joaquin Valley. St. John sought out this meditative landscape, but not in Fresno:
Even though it was the landscape in which I grew up, and it was a familiar landscape, the landscapes that I always wanted to talk about were more psychological and less physical. The terrain of my poems had to do with what was going on between two individuals, usually a man & a woman—a psychosexual landscape of what's at stake.
The context landscapes or the 'setting of the poems' were wildly various. I liked being able to create a sense of detachment in the speaker that mirrored the detachment they were confronting.
More psychological and less physical. St. John’s mention of the "context landscape" made me wonder how many poems prefer context landscape over actual landscape. Consider how poems locate the reader regardless of the setting’s actuality; a phenomenon that literary critic Lawrence Buell thinks we should pay attention to: "We need to recognize stylization’s capacity for what the poet-critic Francis Ponge calls adequation: verbalizations that are not replicas but equivalents of the world of objects, such that writing in some measure bridges the abyss that inevitably yawns between language & the object-world."1 It's a testament to the locative power of the image in language.
Poets can create any desired context setting. Though even in the midst of created context, there seems to be a signal of some actual landscape (whether physical or psychological) drawing in a breath over the course of a poet’s body of work. These landscapes come forth and through a poet, wanting to be spoken for, and the when is no matter of the poet’s choice. It wasn't until the center section of his forthcoming book that St. John was able to locate poems in the San Joaquin Valley:
What happens in these landscapes—there's still a lot of psychosexual stuff happening, but they are very deliberately set within the context of this particular place.
And how strange it is to have returned the poems to this landscape after avoiding it & its perceived limitations. Though I wondered why, in his earlier work, St. John consciously utilized context landscapes as opposed to an influential home-landscape?
I didn't want the reader to make assumptions. I also didn't want the reader to make assumptions that they were overtly autobiographical….I wanted to be able to displace the reader—more than I felt I could if the poems stayed in Fresno.
My question to this was what changed, what prompted this return? But this question inundates the asker with more questions. I believe we end up saying I don’t know, again. These places have their clock by which they know when to talk to us. They confront us—just as St. John’s speakers are confronted—in that liminal landscape of our art.
1Buell, Lawrence. "Representing the Environment." The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. Ed. Laurence Coupe and Jonathan Bate. New York (N.Y.): Routledge, 2000. 177-81. Academic Complete. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.