Sunday, June 6, 2010

This Poet on Place

How has place influenced your poetry?

I am not sure still. I guess it depends on what definition of place we are working with. My place in life, in society, in time, in history - my identity and how it relates to all the aspects of location - that is generally what poetry is about for me. I don't mean "history" in the sense of the historical, wars, battles, but in terms of my personal history, my personal experiences with time. The changes of my body, how I experience places, it's all filtered and interpreted through the self. I have tried to get out of my head, out of the body, but it seems that is where I begin effortlessly. And I don't begin there just because it is easier. It's the necessary "starting place" for me as a poet. My inner landscape influences everything, it's my bias, and I'm always questioning it, smoothing out rough surfaces and assumptions I have made about myself.

It's not just the self either, it's other people. When I travel, it's almost always because someone I want to see is in a place. I think the same is true for my poetry. When I write, it's because there is someone I'm trying to see; myself, a past lover, a current lover, an old friend, a member of my family. I am visiting a lot. I am currently visiting Chicago because my best friend from high school lives here. I am staying in California this summer because my boyfriend lives there. I visit a place and it's inevitably connected with a person, a feeling, a memory. So for me each poem visits places too, or old feelings, a blurry memory that needs to be shaped.

In retrospect, do you see specific places influencing your poetry?

Looking back at the work I have produced over the years, what I have noticed is place has always been there. It's been deeply connected to my experiences as a female and my body. It's been my anchor when I feel anxiety or depression pulling me away from shore. It's not a separate entity. Place is the feeling I get when I can't stop thinking about how a person or an experience made me feel. Once I get into that place, I write. I write the body as place, people as place, time and death and laughter as place.

When I think about place literally though, the physical landscape of Pennsylvania has definitely shaped my work. I grew up camping with my family and the outdoors used to help me slow down. Help me get into that place where I can't stop thinking about something and it has to be written. You don't have to drive more than 30 minutes in any direction of Pittsburgh and you'll hit a state park. I grew up in these parks, camping, hiking, jumping over creeks. I had a real comfortable affection with the outdoors, the moss and wind and birds of my state. Growing into young adulthood, I lost that connection for a time, but my writing has allowed me to reconnect with and recreate those experiences. With all the rivers and slopes and bridges and tunnels of Pittsburgh, I sometimes imagine my body laying down and fitting right into the physical landscape. I feel at home in this landscape.

I drove through the Midwest a few days ago on my way to Chicago and all I managed to say was, "Wow it's really flat here," and,"Look, a farm. A cow." My friend in the car and her one year old son were much more interesting to me. A landscape has to compete with the beauty that I grew up with in order for me to take notice. It has to pull me out of my head or away from people. Pennsylvania can do that. West Virginia did that for me, when I lived there for a time. Oregon sometimes does. I have a friend who lives in Portland. California does initially, with all that sunshine. That is definitely something we lack in southwestern Pennsylvania. I stayed near San Francisco for two weeks last summer and all I could say each morning was, "It's just SO sunny here!" and that was impressive. But I can see it becoming less novel. Pennsylvania always surprises me. There is always something new to see growing, shifting, blooming, withering, regenerating. Just like myself and my poetry. If anything, I'm always in a new state of being, and so is my poetry, much like the landscape of Pennsylvania.
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