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A Shifting Sense of Place

Four contemporary poets discuss where their work belongs in the world.

In his classic book Art as Experience John Dewey writes, “At every moment the living creature is exposed to dangers from its surroundings, and at every moment, it must draw upon something in its surroundings to satisfy its needs.” Dewey theorized that all art is metabolized through experience and our immediate environment, “not externally but in the most intimate way.” In their anthologized visions of place, classic poets could stroll through an orchid garden, stumble past a church, or kneel in the grass and feel sated and grounded. But today, where is the poet’s sense of place? Itinerant, polluted, untethered? Tweeted and Foursquared? Or is it still Romantic, still finding solace in nature, tripping over the transcendent on every morning stroll? I recently interviewed a few American poets with a distinct sense of place—particular to their surroundings but informed by their historical, literary, and political contexts—to find out where they are and how they see it. 

* * * 

Patricia Smith

As a poet, are you drawn to a particular place? Is there somewhere you keep returning to, literally or in your writing?

Lately, I’ve been drawn to the South—which is odd, since I wasn’t raised there, and have no particular recollection of having visited as a child. I think it’s because I’m intensely curious about the region that was home to both my mother and father before they came to Chicago as part of the great social migration of the 1940s and ’50s. I’m an only child—and since my father has died, and my mother considers the South a shameful and oppressive place that’s best forgotten, I guess I’m searching for roots. It’s frightening to have so many blanks in your own background.

Do you see a place differently after writing about it?

Constantly. You slow down your pace, peeking under rocks, sneaking around corners, tiptoeing down alleyways that you never dared. As a poet, you search for whatever gives a place its muscle and bone. After I’ve written about a place, there’s a moment when it stands in newly stark relief, vulnerable and unveiled. If you look long enough, you’ll see stories pulsing there.

Has your relationship to place changed since you shifted your focus from journalism to poetry?

Not really. No matter what kind of writing I’m doing, I always think of myself as a storyteller. The only things that change are the technical trappings of the story. A strong sense of place is vital in both genres—to differentiate is to grant more credence to one mode of storytelling over another. You’re no longer allowing the story a say in the way it wants to be told.

You mentioned in a Facebook thread that you don’t write nature poetry. Why is that?

Nature just wasn’t a presence in the place where I grew up. Sure, trees and bushes and grass grew in places, but concrete and glass were the order of the day. My parents’ way of introducing me to the world was to keep me away from it—so I didn’t have the romping through fields of wildflowers to draw upon. If I have to do research to write a nature poem, then there’s no sense in writing it. There are plenty of contemporary poets occupying that place—why should I strain toward something that’s so alien to me?

Hip-Hop Ghazal
By Patricia Smith

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.

As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.

Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping ’tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.

Engines grinding, rotating, smokin’, gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.

Gotta love us girls, just struttin’ down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.

Crying ’bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.


* * *

Todd Boss

As a poet, are you drawn to a particular place?  

So here’s the sad truth: I’ve resented every place I’ve ever been. It isn’t “me,” or I don’t “fit in,” or it’s “too close to home,” or my wife isn’t happy there, or it’s not where I’d have chosen to live, or whatever. My parents moved from one farm to another out of desperation when I was six; the new farm turned out, when the snow melted, to be covered in acres of trash, and that experience—of digging out of someone else’s despoiled Americana—was formative for me. 

So I’m of two minds about place. You could say my poetry is rooted in farm country, but I’m more inclined to say that the poems’ location is actually that sweet spot where pride in place collides with physical exertion and the expense of tears. You could show me the most pristine beach, and my mind would wander to bitter thoughts about what it takes to maintain it, how hard the earth worked to build it, what a tragedy it is that more people don’t appreciate it, how the surrounding development insults it. . . .

I was just reading in the Atlantic how the French government throws gobs of money at restoring old farmhouses into gîtes, or vacation rentals. That’s nice, but I have this nagging sensation that we’re all displaced agrarians, and the land is fast becoming more rebuke than respite. To live on such a planet as this, we should be ashamed, yes, but how deeply ashamed, and for which of how many reasons? To be a tourist in the very land I’ve raped; is that my moral compass (see also Adam and Eve)? Dunno, but it sure has the ring of purgatory. 


The Sticks,
by Todd Boss

my mother still mutters whenever

she remembers where we lived,
reciting then her one life sentence

of overlush underbrush, neighbor trash,
shoddy farms and fallen fences

and filthy Herefords knee-deep in
barnyard shit.
                        Ugh, she says, it makes

me sick. To have been stuck there,
with those hicks in Derision, Wisconsin,

a beer bottle’s throw from the poverty
line, her bleary eyes fixed on the stinking

horizon, her candle’s ends weeping
hot wax at their wicks.

[By permission of the poet]


* * *

C.D. Wright

This question is going to sound rather vague, but in general, I am thinking about your work in Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self. How would you define your sense of place?

To be honest, even the phrase “a sense of place” feels quite drained of significance. I locate my work, situate it, because that is so real to me. Deepstep Come Shining emerged from a road trip with Deborah Luster through North and South Carolina and northern Georgia. We had an itinerary to visit outsider artists because we were focused on vision in all senses of the word. It is a visual work. It’s my big canvas.

One Big Self is situated in Louisiana. I don’t think the work Debbie did or that I did would have been the same if it had taken three other prisons elsewhere as its locus of perception. Louisiana is as defining as prison culture in that text. I’m just finishing a shorter text on Debbie’s current project, A Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish. Chorography (from χῶρος khōros; “place” + γράφειν graphein, “writing”) is a term deriving from the writings of the ancient geographer Ptolemy. Debbie chose the word chorography. I tried to talk her out of it because I said it would be misread repeatedly as choreography. But she stuck with it, and she was right to, though the misread sticks to it as well. 

According to historians, “In his text of the Geographia (second century CE), Ptolemy writes that geography is the study of the entire world or large sections or countries of it, while chorography is the study of its smaller parts—provinces, regions, cities, or ports. Ptolemy implicitly would include the making of views (not simply maps of small regions) in this category, since he claims that chorography requires the skills of a draftsman or artist rather than those of a scientist, which are needed for the practice of geography. The term chorography fell out of use after the Renaissance as city views and maps became more and more sophisticated and required a set of skills that required not only skilled draftsmanship but also some knowledge of scientific surveying. Its use was revived by Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of Manfred von Richthofen (aka the ‘Red Baron’).”

The mapping of the city is integral to the subject. But as markers of the art, “a sense of place” and “finding one’s voice” have no resonance left. I might read/read out of/skim/leaf 40 books or more when I am working on a project that attaches to a particular place. It is all just to situate myself so I can navigate the material more effectively, and with greater awareness of its affect.

Lake Echo, Dear
By C.D. Wright

Is the woman in the pool of light  
really reading or just staring  
at what is written

Is the man walking in the soft rain  
naked or is it the rain  
that makes his shirt transparent

The boy in the iron cot  
is he asleep or still
fingering the springs underneath

Did you honestly believe  
three lives could be complete

The bottle of green liquid  
on the sill is it real

The bottle on the peeling sill  
is it filled with green

Or is the liquid an illusion  
of fullness

How summer’s children turn  
into fish and rain softens men

How the elements of summer
nights bid us to get down with each other  
on the unplaned floor

And this feels painfully beautiful  
whether or not
it will change the world one drop


* * *

Frances McCue 

Is there a place you keep returning to, literally or in your writing?  

Yes. In that dream space, the one where writing lives for me, I return to the woods behind my childhood home near the Ohio River. Many times, I’d heard my grandfather say that he’d swum in the Ohio as a boy. It seemed so brave to me, slipping into all that mud with those twirling currents and no rocks or outcroppings to hang onto, that I imagined him clutching for a raft, one he’d fashioned out of logs. My grandfather told me that he remembered the church steeple poking up from the water during the river’s worst flood, the one that happened when he was small. He said that whirlpools were almost invisible to the naked eye; you could see them only from above. Boys drowned back then, just after the turn of the century. According to my grandfather, canoes of Little Miami Indians regularly came down the Little Miami River from small settlements and journeyed into the open water of the Ohio.

Do I remember this as part of the folklore that I’ve pinned to the triggering place near my childhood home? From that house, the one tucked behind the hill from the waterway, I might have walked up the path all the way to the top so that I could have a view of the magnificent river. But I didn’t. Instead, the little trail disappeared into a wrinkle of clay and rocks between two hillsides. I never ventured that far. Instead, I kept to the low-lying trails, climbed trees, and built little shelters out of branches and leaves.

I also return to the Bled, the raw desert on the fringes of Marrakesh. That’s where I lived for a year, and that’s the place my husband died. There’s a sickly river that runs through there—the Tensift. Most of the time it is a dry crevice in the land, a gulley of wizened clothing dried into the rocks and branches. When it runs, as it sometimes does after the melt up in the Atlas Mountains, the river is red.

Both of these places are ones I can’t get to often. They have ghosts lurking. They change. When I do see them, perhaps every decade in the case of my childhood home, those woods seem like a stage-set version of the woods I once knew. Memory and landscape warp together and make something utterly new. That’s why they are rich deposits for writing. I don’t really know them all that well. I knew them intimately at different times in my life, so my memory makes the act of imagining them a passionate, never-ending inquiry into blending human existence with some patch of earth.

Do you see a place differently after writing about it?  

I do. It’s like I’ve done something that has let me emotionally take control of the place. I feel differently about the Milltown Bar (a Montana bar that [poet Richard] Hugo frequented often) now that I’ve put the goat’s head over the bar into prose.

Is there a type of place you would never write about?  

My own bedroom. Hey, private.

When I talked to C.D. Wright, she said the phrase “a sense of place” is nearly drained of all meaning. What would you choose to replace it?

The torque between temperament and terrain.


The Bled
by Frances McCue 

Note: Bled, n. French and colloquial Arabic, bled, representing (depending on context) balad vast stretch of country or bilad land, country. In parts of North Africa formerly under French rule: an uncultivated wasteland; the hinterland behind a fertile, populated area. Also, in extended use: a rolling plain or other open stretch of land.

Some passionate gospeller, some high energy missionary
in the desert could find Spiritus Mundi or the vast and
trunkless mass of disintegrating saints in the oracles
we visit and awaken from. God is God is god:
rough beast the rapture promises, shepherd who releases
virgins, king who offers keys to heaven’s lock-up.
Christians and Muslims who pray for kingdoms to fall,
sand-tongued fate mongers, taunt the horizon’s promise:
sanguine city and sky spread to murk under the dust
from burnt things. They await the raw animal.

Our desert flattens between the D’jibblets, little mountains,
and the great Atlas. How did we come to adore the bled?
Drain and suck of such a place, mat where Europe
dumps goods that lasted not a week, where goats eat
plastic bags, nudging scraps and their innards wrap
upon themselves, cruel knots caught until even
goats cannot heal. Where Sheep give birth and drag
bloodied lambs. One could see the frozen, scalded acre,
flashed with heat and cold, the brick-chunked
rocks on the cusp of sand, the not-so-far Sahara.

We live here. A family transplanted from the damp
moss and dark of America’s Northwest into the heat,
our rooms opening to the derbs in the medina,
old city, and out to the hinterlands. The air:
bled-tinged with smoke or cumin, oranges and the sights:
watchful farmers, wagon pullers and women wearing
red and orange skirts and torn sandals, pumping water.
Artichokes blooming thorny stars and bougainvilleas
splattering. Pomegranate trees flowering red, chard
going scarlet in the ground. It became our home,

near the scrimmage of sheep and the man who baked
cinderblocks with sand and ash, forming
his house from the bled. Alongside, the wrinkles of
would-be rivers—Ceres, Hades, Tensift— dry into beds.
Soot pocks the throat—stench pulls the stomach.
How my husband loved the place, goat paths
wobbling through sage and stone, how he followed them
home. To the men along the bled, tending sheep
making blocks, he’d waved. The air was dry and his
thirst took hold: “What is water but the generated soul?”

My husband’s organs: dumped and burned in the bled.
Heart, kidney, liver, spleen deflated and cindered
under the little minaret speakers, the calls to prayer.
All shade is tin under this heat. My daughter and I
crawled along our breath; we touched the slowest parts
of hours and days, pawing toward the beast, hunger for
blood to flow, red and warm, for the slathering wet
to bathe us. What is water but the wizened well?
We prayed for him to cross the bled and crush the sphinx,
The terrible chunking of it against the horizon’s spin—


[By permission of the poet]

  • Jeremy Richards is a poet and journalist living in Seattle. His work has appeared widely, including in The Spoken Word Revolution Redux, McSweeney's, Rattle, The Morning News, and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Day to Day, and All Things Considered. "Nietzsche! The Musical," for which he wrote the book...


A Shifting Sense of Place

Four contemporary poets discuss where their work belongs in the world.
  • Jeremy Richards is a poet and journalist living in Seattle. His work has appeared widely, including in The Spoken Word Revolution Redux, McSweeney's, Rattle, The Morning News, and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, Day to Day, and All Things Considered. "Nietzsche! The Musical," for which he wrote the book...

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