In reading Linh Dinh’s wonderful post about Montana and thinking of Bill Knott’s insightful comment in which he asked, “Is the regional poet extinct?” I began to think of how regional poetry is defined and, indeed, how I might define myself. Having been in New York now for 9 years, where I hope I have not let the “hegemonic nets” blind me to my own personal territory, I find it difficult to find a determinative factor that leads one to the self-proclamation of “regional poet.” I live in New York, but I know every name of every street in my hometown of Sonoma, California (okay, not the every single one, but MOST of them), I am personally invested in the town’s well-being as an artistic community, and I still read the local paper. I return often, sit quietly, and memorize everything from the inanimate objects to the singular stunning landscape.
But, because I’ve chosen the cement-covered city for this past decade, does that mean I cannot say I am a regional poet of the Sonoma Valley? Or California for that matter? Or can I say that I am a New York poet? And why is it important? Or is it? (In case you were wondering, these are not rhetorical questions, feel free to expound below in the comments if you have enlightening answers. Or if you have any ideas for a good high school graduation gift for my 18 year-old brother. That too would be helpful.)
Growing up in such a small town, there was a sort of similarity of subject matter in the poetry I heard from the town’s writers. Of course landscape was important, vineyards, horses, class, racism, oak trees. But it never felt as if they were writing the same thing, nothing defined them as being local poets with local poems aside from perhaps their street addresses. When Philip Levine came to read or Francisco Alarcón, the subject matter was just as vastly different as when local poets Carolyn Kizer and Earl LeClair read (they lived there, but they too were from other places). The most essential connection seemed to be that there was a great gathering place, and still is, for poets, writers, and readers (Readers’ Books) where readings were actually happening. That there was interest in language no matter what state it came out of or what state is was wandering to.
I’ve been accused by my dear friends of extricating myself from labels and definitions as they often make me uncomfortable. I get claustrophobic! It runs in the family! So, I don’t mean to be particularly wily while pondering self-proclamations. Though I think I would claim myself a... California poet (ouch, this definition is too tight and it smells like old wine). I am curious however as to whether or not a return to regionalism will in fact change the nature of poetry and perhaps foster an indigenous aesthetic or if it’s too late for that inward shift? I wonder if it is enough that we create our communities where ever we go, rambling about our pasts as well as our present as we lug them along with us in our suitcases full of trees and barbed wire.
Actually, this whole conversation that I’ve had (with myself) has just made me particularly homesick. I think I’ll book a flight home and in the meantime, I feel a little like this:
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the mourning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
P.S. Thanks to Mr. Bill Knott for inspiring this meandering post.
[the picture is of two beloved horses, one of the passed away just 2 months ago]
Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...