The Poetics of Place

Tucson Festival of Books is coming up in a little over a month. If you’ve never attended this readers’ and writers’ extravaganza, I urge you to dedicate at least one day to it. (More information at the bottom of this post.)

I like to prime myself for events like this by reading my notes from the previous year’s presentations. It puts me in a writerly frame of mind and primes my synapses.

Last year a wonderful novelist and children’s book author named Ilie Ruby came from back east to give a workshop called The Poetics of Place. While it was aimed at fiction, what she taught is useful in any kind of writing where setting is important–in other words, almost everything we write other than grocery and honey-do lists.

Here’s the exercise Ilie gave the forty or so people who attended her workshop.

Step 1 – Close your eyes. Imagine something happened in a real or made-up place. Look for sensory connections to other experiences, real or imagined. Pay particular attention to the tug of place in your thoughts and emotions.

Step 2 – Set a timer for ten minutes and do a free write, using your memory or imagination of that place. Describe it after something unpleasant or upsetting has happened. Keep writing; don’t let your pen stop. Doing it by hand gives you an organic, sensory advantage.

Step 3 – Set the timer again and describe the same place after something wonderful has happened. Compare your two descriptions.

Here’s what I wrote for Step 2: Her father had slammed his way out the back door, rattling the windows. He had slammed the wooden gate and then come back to latch it in that resigned way he had. The girl had retreated to her bedroom, climbed onto the quilt, and hugged her stuffed horse. Maybe she had slept. When she became aware again, the house was silent in that underwater way it was when the fog came in off the bay and climbed the hills. She lay still, cheek pressed against the horse’s dingy pink hide, and one breath told her that things had changed. That invisible thing her mother called mold had awakened and crept up her nostrils to inform her.

I was writing toward her discovery that the house is full of fog. This actually happened in the Berkeley Hills in California I was three or four years old, and my mother, brother, and I had taken a nap and left the bay-facing windows open.

We had less time to finish the second exercise, where something wonderful has just happened: How had she not known how much she loved this house, this wooden womb, this only place she had lived since her mother’s body? Had she, in her nearly six years, never noticed the bright trails of slugs across the fallen bay tree leaves, the smells of dust and wet decay that excited her nose, the patterns of light wedging itself between the leaves of the canopy?

The point of this exercise is to develop the habit of noticing sensory details of setting and how they relate to a character’s emotions. Give it a try and see what your imagination serves up.

Dates for the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books are Saturday, March 10, and Sunday, March 11, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Information is available at http://www.tucsonfestivalofbooks.org. From the website you can get on their e-mailing list. There are a raft of panel discussions and individual presentations, not to mention a wide variety of foods. (Lines are sometimes long, so it doesn’t hurt to bring something to keep your blood sugar up.) Hope to see you there, or at least pass you in the crowd.

A Little Piece of Personal History

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A POET

It’s like the tidal drag of some irregular

moon, alternately flooding and forsaking.

And when it comes, I thrust aside the dishes

that must be done and the novel

tugging at my hem; put off offers of sex

and sociability, and like a woman

possessed by the bulge of body and instinct,

I retreat, lie up, sweat and groan, deliver.

In the end, it takes me over, bears itself

not by me but through me, leaving

the question I’d like to bury

with the afterbirth:

Does human life really matter?

Or are people just the way that poems

have found to reproduce their kind?

— published in Writer’s Digest in 1987 – my second publication

Writing, with Parrots – Part 2

Four little free-flying parrots violate the first

imperative of writing: create a situation quiet,

calm, and insulated. The youngest thumps

onto my desk like a feathered rock, rips up

an eraser, fat-foots the computer keys

until the monitor spasms and seizes up. While I

huff and run a finger down the manual’s index

toward Troubleshooting, she wriggles

down my blouse, punctuates my concentration

like a possessive apostrophe.

This, as the unattached male squabbles

like a fishwife with the pair over leftover brunch.

He lights on the back of my chair, drops a sticky

tidbit of waffle onto my white shirt, scrambles

after it. The other two land in my lap and wipe

their egg-smeared beaks on my clean jeans.

A sharp-shinned hawk cruises the wild-bird feeders

at the fence line, and the parrots scream, launch,

orbit like comets trailing colorful tails. Down the hall

they wing to who knows what mischief, perhaps

a tasty snack of closet molding, curtain cord, or,

in a moment of better taste, the delicate,

Bible-like pages of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems

and a Song of Despair.