Essay

Prioritizing Place

In defense of regionalism.

by Sandra Beasley
Prioritizing Place

Bring up the word “regionalism” around poets, and we get nervous. Many see the term as a box you’ll be buried in, as captured by eulogistic statements such as “He published in a few journals and anthologies, regional places mostly.” Others assume “regionalism” signifies art laced in cliché. Mention the genre of cowboy poetry while seated on a panel with current and former Texas state poet laureates—as I did at a 2011 conference—and folks lean away from you.

I’m not here to laud the rhyme schemes of riding the range, or the strategic deployment of “y’all” in verse. But I’m interested in regionalism’s aesthetic and social capacities. Let’s define the term this way: commitment to a location for five or more years; use of that particular landscape, urban or rural, in the creative work; and engagement with a local community of authors outside of academic obligations. Though not revolutionary, these tenets are not organic for today’s emerging writers, who are encouraged to follow one- or two-year adjunct and fellowship opportunities no matter where they lead. Prioritizing place over profession is seen as compromising. The rewards of a region are not easily quantified on a curriculum vita.

Yet there are many ways to succeed as a poet. The California-born Jack Spicer never felt a need to prove himself on the East Coast. In college he encountered kindred spirits Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, forming the Berkeley Renaissance. Spicer went on to cofound San Francisco’s Six Gallery, where Allen Ginsberg would later present an early draft of “Howl,” and in addition to teaching he informally mentored writers through his Circle sessions in North Beach. Spicer’s West Coast setting is usually obscured by allusion in his work. But his openness to poetry as dictation, as discourse with unruly spirits, reflects a specific cultural landscape. When water is the key motif, the Bay’s ecology surfaces; in “Any fool can get into an ocean…,” Spicer invites us to “Look at the sea otters bobbing wildly / Out in the middle of the poem.”

Poets are voracious observers, building a reference bank unique to experience. Robert Wrigley hails from generations of Illinois coal miners, and his early work is suffused with Ozark visions, as in “Moonlight: Chickens on the Road” from Moon in a Mason Jar. But in 2000, he moved with his wife—the author Kim Barnes—to teach at the University of Idaho and to live in the woods of Moscow Mountain, Idaho, along the border of Washington state. Asked about the creative impact of this move, Wrigley reels off elements channeled by his surroundings: “mountains, canyons, forests, wild undammed rivers, moose, bear, wolves, cougars, the abundance of birds, fly fishing, skiing, snowshoeing,” all of which are found on the page. His themes as a writer might stay constant whether in St. Louis or Manhattan, but his images are drawn from place.

Or consider the work of Campbell McGrath, for whom Miami provides a kaleidoscope of imagery. His volume Florida Poems is populated with jasmine, jacaranda, alligators, steel drum bands from Trinidad, and locales referenced by the shorthand of “Maizel at Shorty’s [B-B-Q] in Kendall” or “At the Royal Palm Barbershop.” Although McGrath has long taught at Florida International University, his influence has also been felt in community organizations such as the Miami Poetry Collective and its sister, the fictitiously accredited “University” of Wynwood. The point, McGrath urges, is to “find a corner of the map where you can be gainfully employed and get your writing done.” His work has not solely explored the Sunshine State. Shannon is a book-length poem about the Lewis and Clark expedition, set in Nebraska. Region need not monopolize your motifs. To paraphrase Molly Peacock when she talks about received forms, regionalism is not a box to cram your poems into; regionalism provides the bones that let the skeleton dance.

Some geographic affiliations are involuntary, tied to childhood or marriage years. The poet may learn to love the unbeautiful, working through distaste toward deeper understanding of a community. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “At the Movie: Virginia, 1956” unpacks racial divisions in her Piedmont birthplace of Chatham, Virginia:

This is how it was:
they had their own churches, their own schools,
schoolbuses, football teams, bands and majorettes,
separate restaurants, in all the public places
their own bathrooms, at the doctor’s
their own waiting room, in the Tribune
a column for their news, in the village
a neighborhood called Sugar Hill,
uneven rows of unresponsive houses
that took the maids back in each afternoon …
and still I never saw them on the street.
It seemed a chivalric code
laced the milk: you’d try not to look
and they would try to be invisible.

Pulitzer Prize winner Claudia Emerson, growing up in Chatham a half-generation later—Voigt’s mother was her fourth-grade teacher—was influenced by reading Voigt’s honest treatment of their 1,300-person town. Many of Emerson’s early poems draw on tasks of rural life, including “The Taxidermist,” and “The Way to Water,” from the collection Pinion, which is set on a 1920s farm for which the epigraph establishes “Preacher remembers calling up his cows.”

“[Voigt] gave me a way to see it, a different lens in poetry, and she also gave me permission to elevate a place that I found repressive, and in so doing, find liberation from it,” Emerson writes. She has stayed within driving distance of Chatham, where her mother still resides. Though Emerson now holds a professorship at Virginia Commonwealth University, her commitment to the area necessitated various employment stints along the way as a librarian, a letter carrier, and a used bookshop owner.

When the canon fails to give a poet deserved acclaim, the fabric of regional influence can become a securing net. Poet and activist E. Ethelbert Miller campaigned to create the position of D.C. Poet Laureate in 1984 to honor Sterling Brown (author of “Ma Rainey,” among other poems), then 83, whose recognition as part of the Harlem Renaissance had been muted by his decision to spend most of his life in the Brookland neighborhood of northeast Washington. Myra Sklarew elegizes Brown in “Monuments,” which asks “What yardstick / by which to measure importance? To measure earthly // agency? Each of us has monuments in the bone case of memory.”

In the early 1990s, Frank X. Walker coined the term “Affrilachian” to protest what he saw as the specious exclusion of African American voices from the Appalachian cultural tradition. The “Affrilachian” region is a mountain landscape spanning 13 contiguous states. Walker enlisted poets such as Nikky Finney, born in Conway, South Carolina, for literary outreach efforts into area schools. Finney, who taught at the University of Kentucky for many years and has since returned to teach in her home state, has never backed away from addressing complicated Southern politics. Take these lines from “Dancing with Strom”:

I stand on the landing high above the
beginnings of Love, holding a plastic
champagne flute, drinking in the warm
June air of South Carolina. I hear my
youngest brother’s top hat joy. Looking
down I find him, deep in the giddy crowd,
modern, integrated, interpretive.

For ten seconds I consider dancing with
Strom. His Confederate hands touch
every shoulder, finger, back that I love.

The multicultural membership of the Affrilachian collective includes Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Crystal Wilkinson, and Ricardo Nazario-Colon. Two decades since its founding, the collective remains strong.

Naomi Shihab Nye has been equally vocal about San Antonio, Texas, which she first came to as a teenager (her family alternated being stateside with residence in Palestine’s Ramallah and the Old City in Jerusalem), and has since made her home. She has traveled to small towns on behalf of the Texas Commission on the Arts and edited an illustrated anthology of work by Texas authors, Between Heaven and Texas. “I remembered the old men / in the west side café, / dealing dominoes like magical charms,” she writes in “San Antonio.” “It was then I knew, / like a woman looking backward, / I could not leave you, / or find anyone I loved more.”

Richard Hugo is often considered a seminal poet of the Pacific Northwest. But as Robert Wrigley, his former student, observed, “Dick Hugo was very much a poet of place, but he was a poet of every place he went: Seattle, White Center, towns from all over Montana and the rest of the Northwest, as well as Italy and the Isle of Skye.” For some poets regionalism is temporal, merely a way to focus attention. Wrigley recalled being told by Hugo, “Everybody’s a regional poet to some extent, but the region from which you write is merely the lens. The real region is you.”

One of Hugo’s most famous poems is “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” set in Montana but—as Wrigley reminds us—about more than the town. Still, drawing on a distinct setting and history energizes the poem. Take that merciless litany of failures and resentments in stanza two:

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

All of which hurtles us into the confrontation of stanza three’s question, “Isn’t this your life?” And later, “Are magnesium / and scorn sufficient to support a town, / not just Philipsburg, but towns / of towering blondes, good jazz and booze / the world will never let you have / until the town you came from dies inside?”

I once believed that to be an accomplished poet in America began with recognition in New York City. In college I agonized over whether a draft should refer to the “metro,” in the vernacular of my actual experience, or the “subway” familiar to imagined Manhattan editors. When a workshop instructor urged me to be more specific than “bird” or “tree” in a poem, I’d sift through myth and nature guides, looking for a species of maximum symbolic heft—rather than looking out my own window. I wish I had meditated a little more on where I was, rather than where I wished to be known.

I was in Boston for a conference last year, and a fellow writer pointed out the window and said, “That’s the garage, you know.” He meant the setting of Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” which Lowell debuted at the 1960 Boston Arts Festival, in which the speaker presses against the barbed fence on the Common to watch “yellow dinosaur steam shovels,” “grunting / as they cropped up tons of mush and grass / to gouge their underworld garage.” The Lowell clan traces their Massachusetts heritage all the way back to arriving on the Mayflower. Part of the core pleasure in Lowell’s looser, more conversational poems, such as “Memories of West Street and Lepke” from Life Studies, is how he preserves a street-level view of life that still resonates today.

Every great literary town I have ever visited has been made great largely by its fixed stars, their immediate gaze and winking light. Comets are brilliant in their passage, but they’re not what give us the constellations to steer by. The universe will offer you a thousand loud reasons to move, but sometimes the one quiet reason to stay—“this is my home, and it inspires me to write”—is the one that matters.

Originally Published: January 28, 2014

COMMENTS (8)

On January 29, 2014 at 6:17am T.R. Hummer wrote:
I am allergic to regionalism for reasons having to do
with being from a region with a "strong" identity. Being
from the southeast of the US carries a stigma, and I have
been from time to time punished for being from there.
Region can be a two-edged sword: it is not a simple
question of identity.

On January 29, 2014 at 9:44am David wrote:
I think of Denise Levertov, so widely traveled, as a
great example of a multi-regional poet. Specific
mountains even serve as bookends of her poetic life:
Mount Snowden in Wales ("The Instant") and Mount Rainer
in Seattle (figuring in so many of her late poems). Nice
essay!

On January 29, 2014 at 9:52am David wrote:
James Merrill also comes to mind: Greece, Manhattan,
Stonington ... the last place a regional anchor for
Merrill's forays into the other world.

On January 29, 2014 at 11:28am Thom Tammaro wrote:
Thank you, Sandra Beasley. Nicely done. Your meditation on place
reminds me of William Stafford's "On Being Local":

"All events and experiences are local, somewhere. And all human
enhancements of events and experiences -- all the arts -- are regional
in the sense that they derive from immediate relation to felt life.
It is this immediacy that distinguishes art. And paradoxically the more
local the feeling in art, the more all people can share it; for that vivid
encounter with the stuff of the world is our common ground.
Artists, knowing this mutual enrichment that extends everywhere, can
act, and praise, and criticize, as insiders -- the means of art is the life of
all people. And that life grows and improves by being shared. Hence, it is
good to welcome any region you live in or come to, or think of, for that
is where life happens to be, right where you are."

On January 30, 2014 at 3:58pm Gregory Luce wrote:
Excellent piece, Sandra! I too was reminded of William Stafford. This is a bit out of context (and I don't remember the original source), but he once used the phrase, "more personal and therefore more universal," meaning—to me anyway, that the most personal is the deepest and therefore most universally human. One's sense of place sure has to do with that. If you're lucky like me to have grown up in one region and spent most of your adult life in another, you get a variety to draw from!

On January 31, 2014 at 10:41am Tim Barrus wrote:
Seriously? It's not about place. It's about transcending it.

I live in Appalachia. If I started writing about life here in any way, the
First People to scream would be Other Writers. The Writing Tribe of its
us against them. That you are them is irrelevant.

I would be accused of bringing publishing to its knees, and of robbing
mountain children of their heritage. I lived for many years in Paris. If I
wrote about it, American book critics, and American editors would
have a cow. "You'll never have brunch in Texas anymore." My
apartment's bay window looked out at the Golden Gate Bridge. My life
in San Francisco revolved around sex work. Even writers have to eat. If
I constructed a poem about it, gay writers would throw me off the
bridge. Everyone wants a tourist brochure of palm trees and sunsets.

If you write about genocide, you damn well better have been killed by
one.

I lived in New Mexico for a decade. If I wrote a poem about how a
statue of a conquistador had his foot cut off, every newspaper in the
state would call for my head on a platter. I am not from Spain. Place
sucks. So does writing. It's not worth the grief. Everyone stakes out
their turf, and they defend that turf with vitriolic claims of ownership.
"I own all of that since I am from there because I say so." The
prerogative of wherever you popped out from.

My genetic background includes a vast array of time, places,
communities, and the history of my ancestors having sex in log cabins
and caves. If I wrote about it, the Republican Log Cabin Committee
would whine (in print) that I should be held down to a table in a blood
lab to have my blood's tribal validity published on a public billboard.

Place IS community. In a more perfect world, the requirement that you
belong to a community via a card you carry in your wallet would be
ephemeral. But it is not a more perfect world. It is a world permeated
and saturated and stirred with hate, fear, and self-serving vomit
disguised as important writing. Publishing is not unlike a nasty little
girls' club where tea and revenge are served warm to who is in, who is
out, and who is ripe to be punished.

Place, community, tribe, family, and "people like us," are all kept alive,
and well, and living on the rotting corpse of a sadomasochism writing
poetry is not immune from in a bondage of tiny little minds, and tiny
little values, and tiny trade associations designed to keep the riffraff
out. In fact, publishing itself as the oldest profession in the land of
pandering and whoredom feeds on the schizophrenic paranoia of
someone might see us for who and what we are, and they must be
gagged, restrained, edited, and chopped down to size so they might
know their "place."

To transcend place is to call the sacred golden gods and calves a
collection of statues. The temple priests will see you disemboweled.

Your poetry, and your work, will be trashed by an army of insiders
who uphold the traditions of literary prizes as sacrament. You will
never be invited to another conference again.

Published poets who have been published because they are, indeed,
from a politically correct place will unpack their razor blades to
sharpen.

You and your poetry will be left with blogs.

A place where no stalker and no hater from a community of them has
ever whipped his wet noodle on a poem.

Place is ubiquitous. We are all from one. Some of us have kicked
around. Some of us have kicked around a lot. And in that process, we
have kicked up sand in the face of place.

Some of us have even broken the rules and transcended place by
suggesting that the human condition is human. But do not think for a
minute that you will not be hanged in the town square of place where
your dead body will be castrated, and your work will be denounced by
the moronic proponents of the status quo.

On January 31, 2014 at 1:51pm Ann Engelman wrote:
Thank you Sandra for this good discussion. I believe that poets can
transcend their place. . .if they want to. But I am under the spell of
poet Lorine Niedecker, known as a "poet of place." Since I live near
her place - on a river, in a migratory flyway, in a small town, and visit it
regularly, the thrill of the daily/hourly poems of this place are
everywhere. Lorine took advantage of these obsvations. But as her
place defined her, it did not limit her. She is barely recognized locally
but is known world wide . . .and in New York. Nervous poets, I hope,
might examine her poems and experience and be reassured that
limits of "place" are their own.
I do wonder however, if she had had mentors and support similar to
poets of her time, Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind, .would Lorine's
recognition to day be wider?

For best work you ought
to put forth some effort
to stand in north woods
among birch
Lorine Niedecker

On February 1, 2014 at 8:23am Phil Nast wrote:
If ethnicity is valued, why not regionalism? I had a acquaintance who was cautioned as a grad student that her Southern accent would be a liability. Why? If her accent had been French, it would have been an asset.

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 Sandra  Beasley

Biography

Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox (W.W. Norton, 2010), Theories of Falling (New Issues, 2008), and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown, 2011).

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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