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Essay

Prioritizing Place

In defense of regionalism.

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.

  • 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).

Essay

Prioritizing Place

In defense of regionalism.
  • 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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