On Place: Erik Moe

Place shapes our lives in unseen ways every day. I’m especially interested in how choices made in the distant past shape our present day landscape, affect our emotional well-being, our psychology, and the choices we make about how to live our lives. By extension, the choices we are making today are changing the shape of lives in the distant future. This is the main idea I explore in my hyperlocal sci-fi utopias project Future Cartographic Society, with which I am using stories, illustrations, and shared experiences to ask,what will your neighborhood look like in 200 years?” For that project and other writings of mine, I’ve developed a sort of personal cosmology of places I’ve known.

Minneapolis

The place that shaped my formative understanding of the world was the Minneapolis that existed in the 1980s and 1990s. How did it come to be? 200 years prior it had been wild prairie along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, a place the Dakota people called bdote, or “the conflux of waters at the center of the world.” The United States chose to break treaties with the Dakota in order to colonize this place. Industrialists built railroads, grain mills, and factories. In 1883, the voters of that city had the foresight to set aside the most beautiful lakes, streams and land for public parks. Economic tumult in northern Europe brought my great-grandparents there to farm, or to build a new life in the new city rising. The streets were layed out in a logical grid. The houses were set back to allow grand views of the prairie horizon and an urban forrest. The wealth of this new city was often used for public good. It was channelled in to arts and culture, into public works. Museums, theaters, warehouse-sized coffeeshops, record stores, and easily accessible all-ages clubs echoing with punk, grunge, and folk and hiphop sprouted up. This became my playground.

Philadelphia

It wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia in 2001 that I began to understand just how different place can be, and the psychological effects of those differences. William Penn’s plan for what is now Center City Philadelphia was had been laid out in 1682 and aimed to embody Quaker values of “religious, racial, and gender equality.” Those values felt present in the city in 2001, but so did the city’s long history of corrupt politics and troubled race relations. Infrastructure was crumbling. Vines and overgrowth crowded out streets and sidewalks. Poverty and rubble blanketed vast sections of the city that I rarely took the opportunity to explore. Still, punk bands, DJs, and art galleries and community-based performance artists were thriving. Often they worked and performed in the basements and grand halls of institutions of religious tolerance and ethnic solidarity build more than 200 years prior.

Chicago

My time in Chicago was brief, but affected me deeply. I devoured books on its history, which I read in cafes and on long walks by the lakefront in the summer. These included: Devil in the White City; Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago; and Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. It felt in some ways like like the Minneapolis of my youth had grown up, been complicated, remixed, and exaggerated to the scale of Batman’s Gotham. Trains meandered slowly past second-floor living rooms where family dramas and loneliness were on display for all who could afford a C.T.A. fare. The open wounds of redlining gave a visceral feel to ethnic and racial segregation from one neighborhood to the next. The city’s relentless grid stretched to a horizon where it comforted me to know that it eventually faded out to the same ocean of prairie grass that the Minneapolis of my youth was adrift in.

D.C.

D.C. is the jigsaw puzzle I’ve come to love over the past decade. I’ve taken meandering walks and bike rides through nearly all of its corridors and neighborhoods. Forgotten alleys. Distant traffic circles that only locals confidently name when giving directions. The crumbling goat paths of Rock Creek Park. In planning the capital city in 1791, Piere L’Enfant borrowed from classical ideals and philosophies of landscape, including the Gardens of Versailles. As a result, in the width of the streets, the placement of buildings, gardens, circles and monuments, one can absorb the philosophical ideals of French aristocracy and its relationship to the American revolution. The plan is sterilized, tamed, symmetrical, militarized, but also clean, elegant and poetic. Meanwhile, most of modern D.C. lies beyond L’Enfant’s plan. If you cross Florida Avenue to the north or the Anacostia River to the south you can feel a change in the attitude of those who directed the bricklaying. Practical, working class values often perched houses wherever it made sense. Grids, street names, standards and planning came later on. Wars and riots and jazz and funk pumped through these veins and arteries. Today, it’s all one D.C. woven together by culture and memory. Seamlessly stitched to some eyes. Erik MoeHopelessly tattered to others. It’s the place I’ve slowly, carefully, grown comfortable calling home.

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Erik Moe is the creator and Chief of Expeditions for Future Cartographic Society, for whom he is writing and collecting tales of hyperlocal future utopias in D.C. and across North America. He is also the curator of MAKE DC WEIRD, a conversation about “the D.C. we love, the D.C. we have, and the D.C. we want.” His website is erikmoe.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @erikmoe.
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About the “On Place” Series

In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.

On Place: Miriam Vaswani

Place in Frankfurt

The stories I call good burrow into the reader’s mind, then come back like a tenacious virus. Place, for me, is what wakes the virus. I walk through the streets of a city and there’s the story, the one I read last year. It was set here, a character lived in a building like this one, smelled the smoke from that street vendor, slept on a bed that creaked a bit like this.

Frankfurt is the story of Farah, a woman enraged by her damaged career, and about her affair with Marcus. It began as a rough sketch of a woman opening a door to the garage underneath her apartment and turned into a story of the world, set in a small, impersonal space in the middle of a cold city.

 

The Apartment

I was living in Stuttgart when I wrote Frankfurt. It’s a rich, unhappy city, dedicated to the automotive companies that power the German economy. I was a contractor for one of these, and my employer organized a temporary apartment for me in the midst of its offices. It was a functional cube with good light, across from a row of corporate hotels.

Frankfurt, a banking town, is even more empty on the weekends than Stuttgart. I moved my/Farah’s apartment from the Neckar to the Main and altered a few details to emphasize her unwillingness to move in. The kitchenware is not her own, she has semi-unpacked boxes, she uses an empty jar instead of an ashtray. The garage is the same, with its Swiss and Italian license plates, as is the emptiness of the building on weekends as everyone goes back to wherever they really live.

Farah tells us nothing else of the room, and she develops few rituals. By contrast, her affair with Marcus is elaborate and ritualistic, remembered in vivid detail; we know about his fastidiousness with wine, the scar on his chest, the texture of his beard, her menstrual blood on his wedding ring, their subtle intimacies before they sleep. His body is more like home to her than the apartment.

 

The City

A few weeks ago I walked through Frankfurt Airport, a place familiar enough to navigate without much thought, and saw a reflection in a window of a woman lifting a black case onto a security belt. And I thought, there’s Farah. It’s only right that she’d haunt me in that most transitory of airports.

While the apartment is functional to Farah, the city barely exists. Frankfurt doesn’t feature in the story in any physical way. Her scorn for the place is clear; at her most animated she describes it as a money-obsessed backwater. The only image she provides of the city is her work on a collection of anonymous desks. I used Stuttgart again, transferring the worst of it to Frankfurt and to Farah. I didn’t give her the nice things, like cycling through the Schlossgarten in spring, the opera, my favorite deli, my wonderful office and colleagues. Misery magnifies bad shit, like the racist landlords Farah (and I) contended with. To make Frankfurt feel as cold and bland to the reader as it is to Farah, I needed contrast.

Frankfurt’s original title was Lahore, after Farah’s ancestral city which she’s never seen, but where Marcus has worked. Both characters exist in several places at once; another thing I lent them. Farah is Canadian, Marcus is Belgian and German. Farah’s memories of a childhood in Ottawa, a place she initially seems to dismiss, and her image of Marcus’ apartment, which she’s never visited, were written to convey warmth, though distant. Over time, she gives Marcus images of the blue streamers on her childhood bicycle and canoeing on the lakes of Ontario, and later evokes the worn, loved furniture that Marcus and his wife have collected in Brussels. Her mysterious years in Kazakhstan and St Petersburg, and Marcus’ equally murky time in Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan were written to hint at the unrest the two might be addicted to, as was Farah’s knowledge of her violent infancy. Farah’s mind is largely with the Arab Spring, in its late stages as I wrote the story. It’s where her colleagues are, where she wants to be.

Some places are hot, some are cold. Farah lives in Frankfurt (cold) in a sterile apartment (cold). It’s where the entire affair with Marcus happens (hot), but other places they’ve lived (hot) take shape in their habits and memories. There’s also a big/small contrast; the Arab Spring, Kazakhstan, Canada and Pakistan are big. Frankfurt is small and Farah’s apartment is minuscule, but at its center are Farah and Marcus, and their affair, which is enormous, and while this affair is a place where they’re free to be vulnerable, it’s also laced with war-like images of fire and blood.

 

The Internet

In the end, the internet. We’re all there, our names and images and everything connected to us, living a kind of parallel life. We have a little control, but not much, and it’s like home, but not really. For Farah it’s the place where her reputation was trashed and the reason she was exiled, more or less, to Frankfurt. She refers to ‘the Almaty incident’ that destroyed her career, and it’s understood that its stubborn place at the top of a search for her name is the main issue. For Marcus the significance seems to be less; he’s older than Farah, his career predates the internet, and his professional reputation is more solid than hers. Farah and Marcus aren’t intended to be a perfect couple, nor a particularly destructive pairing. I don’t think either of them intend to become significant to one another; it’s largely a result of the violent exposition at the end of the story that they become bound to one another in that most modern of marriages, search engine results.

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4-up on 24-11-2014 at 19.33Frankfurt was published in Gutter. To subscribe to the magazine, please click here.

Miriam is the author of Frontier, a novella published by Pankhearst in 2014. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Gutter Magazine, Valve Journal, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Gender Across Borders, Tin House, Newfound, Retort and Our Penniless Write. She covered the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a columnist in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and was fiction editor of Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine from 2012 to 2014. Her short story Under Water was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2013 and her blog, Little Bones, was archived by the British Library as part of the UK Web Archive project. She lives in Tunisia. http://miriamvaswani.com

 

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About the “On Place” Series

In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.

About the “On Place” Series

In honor of my first poetry collection, I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way, I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts below. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

The schedule of visiting bloggers is:

January 25

On Place: Miriam Vaswani

February 8

On Place: Constance Renfrow

February 15

On Place: Emily Pinkerton

February 22

On Place: Marlena Chertock

February 29

On Place: Jacquelyn Bengfort

March 7

On Place: Katherine Young

March 14

On Place: Madeline Dyer

March 21

On Place: Cameron Gearen

March 28

On Place: Rachel Cupelo

April 1

On Place: J. D. Smith

Dear Robot Blog Hop

BookCoverImageLike most authors, my desire to write books comes from my love of reading them. My library is stuffed with novels and poetry collections, and books crowd my stairs and hide in my closets. As a child, I read as many as five books a day during the summer, not just to win gift certificates at my local library, but because nothing outside seemed as exciting as the worlds in print.

When people ask me why I put anthologies together, the answer lies in those pages. I know what collections I’m desperate to read, and if they don’t already exist, I compile them. For example, after I tried online dating, I created an anthology of true stories called Answers I’ll Accept so that I could ready other people’s good and bad experiences; after a night of yearning for an adult fairy tale to read before bed, I created Magical: An Anthology of Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Other Magical Fiction for Adults.

Dear Robot was no exception. I was driving to work in the morning when the idea came to me: I want to read an anthology of epistolary science fiction. I knew there were science fiction collections, and I knew there were epistolary collections, but I had never heard of an epistolary science fiction collection before.

But you shouldn’t, I told myself. Remember how much work the last one was? Remember the number of times you told your now-husband that you would NEVER EVER IN A MILLION YEARS do another anthology ever again?

Then, as I pulled into the college parking lot, the title came to me.

Dear Robot.

Now that was a book I had to read.

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During the Dear Robot blog hop, which starts on Monday, November 30th and runs until Friday, December 4th, Dear Robot contributors will be posting their own inspiration stories on their blogs. Anyone who comments on either this blog post or any contributor’s blog hop post from now until the end of the day on Friday will be automatically entered in a drawing to win one of five copies of the anthology (please be sure to leave your email address in a way that cannot be spammed, for example: name (at) gmail dot com).

We are also running a Goodreads Giveaway from now until December 10th.

The list of participating authors are as follows:

Monday
Tuesday
Wednesday
Thursday
 
Friday

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Don’t forget to comment below for a chance to win!