On Place: Stacey Balkun

The Poetics of Place: On Writing Memory as Imagination

jackalopecover_1024x1024Place lives half in the imagination. We hold place in the palms of memory and expectation; it’s never quite how we remember it or what we wish it. We don’t see the place that’s physically before us but rather what we believe and feel, our experience with place tinted by our emotional memory.

As a child, I loved the Box Car Children. I lived them, playing in the woods behind my suburban home. I didn’t see that small stand of trees as merely a buffer between our housing development and the freeway; to me, it was an enchanted forest. My friend and I spent our afternoons building a tree house and splashing in the little stream, pretending to cool bottles of milk in its water or drawing maps of our kingdom on the backs of envelopes discarded by our parents.

Our relationship to place is informed by the narratives in our lives; as a child, those narratives for me were stories: The Boxcar Children, Beauty and the Beast, Nancy Drew. Like the characters of these tales, I craved some dramatic reason to be out there in the woods, alone or with a best friend. I wanted the responsibility with which the young protagonists of my books were so often saddled, though I can’t explain exactly what or why: to be brave in the face of danger? To care for a family or battle crime? All of these narratives had an allure, perhaps because they so contrasted with my small experience in a small neighborhood in a small town.

There was one farm left in the town at that time. It had a stable and a farm stand. Its property included a much larger woods full of horse trails that led right up to the dumpsters behind the ShopRite Center. Within a few years, some of that land would become a new strip mall with a mattress store and a Starbucks. Soon the county would try to buy the family-owned farm to make condos, but when they wouldn’t sell, somehow passed a law declaring the acreage “open land,” removing the family and chickens and horses and effectively creating an empty, rundown lot with a huge, smelly puddle full of geese.

Place is a mirror. Unlike the murky goose pond, we can look at it to see ourselves reflected back. In poetry, a writer can capture both reflection and reality. Where upon first glance we may only notice a concrete sound barrier or a dead end, our characters can see magic and possibility. The white pines may be as lonely as our speaker, waiting as she is for that last school bell signifying the return of a friend.

To tell these stories and delve into these memories within my poetry, I turned to domestic fabulism, that space between the magical real and most familiar. I created a best friend named Apple-Child, a girl born from a tree. With her, my speaker roams the woods of my childhood, growing into adolescence as suburbia creeps into the shrinking acres of trees. In these poems, imagery and story are manipulated, allowing for a more complete and nuanced study of place. The reader realizes, without being told outright, that the wildness of this place exists merely in the characters’ heads; that in reality, these woods are anything but dangerous.

The introduction of a fantastical element like Apple-Child allows the poems to move beyond nostalgia, memory, and mere description of place. We can give ourselves permission to write how we remember it or what we wish it, letting the familiar world slip into the imagined and allowing ourselves to see the magic that so enveloped us in the first place.

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balkun-stacey-kault-photo2-colorStacey Balkun is the author of Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (dancing girl 2016) & Lost City Museum (ELJ 2016). She has been named a Finalist for the 2016 Faulkner Words of Wisdom Poetry Contest, the 2016 Two Sylvias Poetry Chapbook Prize, the 2016 Event Horizon Science Poetry Competition and the Center for Women Writer’s 2016 Rita Dove Award. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Gargoyle, Muzzle, and Bayou, among others, and she holds an MFA from Fresno State. A 2015 Hambidge Fellow, Stacey served as Artist-in-Residence at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013. She is the Chapbook Series Editor at Sundress Publications and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn. Visit her at www.staceybalkun.com.

 

On Place: Emily Pinkerton

Of all the poems I’ve written, the ones I like the best are always strongly linked to landscapes whose scenes inspired me. Early in my writing career, it was the American Southwest – its desolation and resolute grit. As I’ve grown as a poet, I’ve turned to explore spaces I’m more familiar with. My childhood home on Texas’ Gulf Coast comes up quite a bit, but so too does my current home of San Francisco.

My fascination with desolation is everywhere. It’s easy to find in California right now – we’re ravaged by the worst drought in recorded history. When I wrote “Earthquake Engineering,” the El Niño rains hadn’t come yet, and everything was completely dried up. The air had this dry heat to it that I’m used to encountering in cities like Phoenix or the Inland Empire area. The Bay Area isn’t supposed to feel hot like that – ours is a very temperate climate, generally generous with a whole season of rain, another of fog, and intermittent humidity. Temperatures rarely get over 75 degrees here. But in the summer of 2015, it was hot. We had multiple heat waves, and when you’d go outside, it smelled the way woods smell before a brush fire erupts. It was a deeply unsettling time. (We’ve had a bit of rain since then, though the drought persists.)

I am fascinated by what I see as landscapes on the brink of collapse. The images that comprised this poem came to me in particular because periods of unseasonable heat are often referred to by locals as “earthquake weather.” This resonated somewhere in my lizard-brain with “hurricane season”, the period between early summer and late fall on the Gulf Coast. The idea of catastrophe being an ingrained part of life, something whose fluctuations are expected – like the weather – forms the basis of the chapbook that houses many of these poems: Natural Disasters.

What’s interesting about landscapes where catastrophe is normalized is that they are fertile grounds for adaptation and transformation – the species that live there grow resilient. These twin ideas of survival and adaptation are deeply informative to my poetic praxis. I can’t stop wondering about how life finds a way to carry on when the climate is inhospitable and the odds are against it.

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Emily Pinkerton is a technologist and poet. Previously an editor at Twitter, she is currently an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University. Her writing has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Pith, Anthropoid, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Delirious Hem, Gravel, and LEVELER, among others. She can be found online on Twitter at @neongolden and at thisisemilypinkerton.tumblr.com. Her favorite color is fog.

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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: J. D. Smith

It is widely–and correctly–said that the capital of the United States is two cities. One is official Washington, the realm of official and unofficial power brokers and diplomats, and the parts of city where they live if they don’t commute from one of the more prosperous suburbs. This is the city of The West Wing, House of Cards and Scandal. The other city is DC, inhabited overwhelmingly by people quietly doing the work needed to make any city run, and more conspicuously by a much smaller number of people who can make living here a challenge: the dysfunctional, the homeless, and criminals. With the major exception of the novels of George Pelecanos, this city goes largely undescribed. The two cities can and do meet, but many of those in the higher levels of official Washington seem to have structured their lives so as to remain within a pleasant if largely sterile bubble that minimizes their exposure to DC. 
 
Like many Washingtonians, and like more than a few of the city’s writers with day jobs, I have a foot in both versions of the capital. Working as an editor in an international organization downtown, I assist economists whose ideas can influence policy. Living near Washington’s Southwest Waterfront, I walk my dog past low-rise housing projects and see discarded backpacks and wallets that have been cleaned out in robberies, and once I had to take cover after hearing gunshots. 
 
On a less exciting but in some ways just as eventful outing closer to the water I witnessed the incident that eventually gave rise to the poem “Along the Potomac”. No documentary footage I had seen before could prepare me for watching a raptor strike the water and come up with a fish in its talons, and the simplicity and even purity of this action stood in contrast to the scavenging of the area’s far more numerous gulls and pigeons. What I saw on a dog walk in DC provided a metaphor for the workings of official Washington.     
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FullSizeRenderJ.D. Smith’s fourth collection, The Killing Tree, is forthcoming in July from Finishing Line Press. His books in other genres include the essay collection Dowsing and Science (2011) and the children’s picture book The Best Mariachi in the World (2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. He works as an editor and writer in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife Paula Van Lare and their rescue animals.​​​​
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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: Rachel Cupelo

Prison.  Jail.  The Pen.  Behind Bars.  The Big House.  Lockup.  The Clink.

Correctional Facilities, all, by many names.

No matter how you refer to them, their goals are the same – to deny freedom of movement, to punish, and to deter.  They are the places humanity languishes worst – or best, depending on your perspective.

Correctional Facility – it’s always the word “correction” that stops me.  My experience and education have taught me that there is nothing particularly correctional about these places.  In a system that claims to provide correction and rehabilitation, you often find nothing of the kind.  Instead, you find abuse – physical, sexual, and psychological.  You find those living with poorly-treated mental illness and HIV.  You find functional illiteracy, addiction, and corruption.  You find despair.

In truth, prison is a place where the inhumane flourishes, where malice and brutality are rule, rather than exception.  Love and kindness are revolutions nearly everywhere, but no place more so than prison.

There are many features about correctional facilities that are similar: the slightly stale-yet-antiseptic smell; the neutral-colored, chipping paint on the walls; and the oppressive, closed-in expanse of it all, the feeling that you are also trapped, also subject to the whims of those in charge.

Few places produce more evocative memory than the correctional facilities I’ve visited.  One of these was the Baltimore City Detention Center, closed in 2015.  Located in downtown Baltimore, and more commonly known as the Baltimore City Jail, it was one of the oldest correctional facilities in the United States before its closure.  Even after the 1959-1960 reconstruction, some of the original 1859 structure remained, and the outer walls brought to mind a much less sophisticated Azkaban.  I’ll spare you the mundane notice of tiny cells, and bone-chilling cold, even in the heat of summer.  What captured my attention was the Death House.

I abhor capital punishment, finding government-sponsored murder to be one of the most heinous facets of our justice system.  So the Baltimore death house was a place of dread.  I shook, breaking into a cold sweat as I viewed the cells where the inmates spent their final nights on earth.  The room, in which those inmates were laid out to have poison injected into ready veins, was sterile and chilled.  The bleachers in yet another room, where victims’ families and the media looked on to witness death, felt appallingly macabre.

And then there was the gas chamber.  Maryland is one of just a few U.S. states to have ever had cyanide gas on hand as an option.  Even then, only four inmates were executed this way in the late 1950s/early 1960s, though the procedure was an alternative well into the early 90s.

The chamber was tiny, built into the wall, with a heavy door and several windows.  The individual who ran our tour of the jail urged us to sit in it.  I refused at first, repulsed.  But then my friends did, one by one, so finally, I did too.  We laughed nervously.  We joked.  And then we walked away, still giddy.  In all, it took us less than 2 minutes to become completely desensitized to the violence of that room, and to degrade the memory of anyone who had ever walked through it.  Though a phenomenon well-documented in academic circles from criminal justice to psychology, it was precisely as I had feared: that I, too, was capable of forgetting their humanity, and of relinquishing my own.

It was a moment of clarity that comes to me again and again in my writing: how assuredly prison dehumanizes you, how rapidly a place can become far more than a windowless, concrete box.  When writing about prison, I try to capture the emotions first, in all their variety.  So entirely suggestive is that emotion, that the description of place, never just aesthetics, naturally follows, until a concrete box becomes Hell itself.

In my stories, “It Didn’t Matter At All,” “There But For the Grace of God Go I,” and “Breaking All The Rules,” I try to capture the devastation, and incredibly, the hope, in such systematic cruelty.   The first two stories represent particular features of the corrections system as pieces of a larger plot – visits, and drugs behind bars (“It Didn’t Matter”) – as well as racism, religion, and stepping out from behind the wall (“There But For”).  “Breaking All The Rules” presents a more complete view of institutionalization and daily prison life.

With these stories, I sought to embody the reality of our corrections system, and how place, in this instance, signifies so much more than location.  I write about prison not only to thrill and fascinate, but to educate and foster discussion.  Despite the fact that 2 million people reside behind bars in America, few Americans know the realities of prison life, the inequalities in our justice system brought about by racism and poverty, or how former inmates successfully re-enter society.  The communal imperative in writing these stories, whether they are fact or fiction, and thereby forcing a cultural change, is enormous.  Without that cultural shift, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

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BioPicRachel C. Cupelo is an immigration paralegal for a private firm in the Washington, DC area.  She graduated from American University with a B.A. in Justice (2008), and a M.S. in Justice, Law, & Society: Public Policy (2009).  Cupelo is a longtime fiction writer, proud to be published with BleakHouse Publishing in their literary magazines, Tacenda Literary Magazine and BleakHouse Review, as well as their short story collection, Lethal Rejection: Stories on Crime and Punishment.  She has won the Tacenda Literary Award for Best Poem (2008) and Best Short Story (2011), and is honored to be a BleakHouse Publishing Consulting Editor as of Spring 2015.  Cupelo is currently completing her first independent novel.

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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: Madeline Dyer

Setting is hugely important to me, and it’s always the first place I start when thinking up a new story. I’m a firm believer that the setting can anchor the plot—and the more realistic the setting is, the more readers will be able to relate to the story—something which is hugely important in my genre (dystopian fantasy) given that a lot of the fantastical elements require the suspension of belief. By having a landscape that is realistic (at least in some ways), I think it makes it easier for readers to accept the otherworldly elements and not feel too lost.

In such a way, the setting grounds the plot, and it also becomes its own character, with its own function in the story. Given that my debut novel, Untamed is all about survival—and surviving under the harshest possible conditions—before I even began writing the first draft, I knew I wanted to set this story in a place where the setting would also heighten the survival aspect of the story. I wanted a landscape that was harsh and tough—a landscape that would make it even harder for the characters to survive. But I also wanted to write something that was a little unfamiliar to me. I wanted to surprise myself. I wanted to find the perfect landscape, and then turn it on its head a bit, applying my own creative license.

In the end, after many weeks of research, I settled on a landscape that was loosely based on the rural desert-areas either side of the Niger-Nigeria border.  I spent hours and hours reading first-hand reports of travellers on their journeys, examining blogs and journal entries, looking at images of specific villages and playing with Google Maps. I then spent many more hours researching the fauna and flora of those places until I felt I had a good grasp of it. I wanted to get the details right, and have a believable basis for my fictional landscape.

Then I set about making this place my own. One of my favourite things about writing speculative fiction is that it allows for creative license with the setting. I decided I wasn’t going to use real-life place names (although I did go back and forth on this during editing!) in order to really make these landscapes my own, and give me total control over them—even if they are based on real-life places. But one of the biggest things I introduced to these landscapes—having spent so long researching them for accuracy—were the spirits who live in the land.

Untamed is set in an alternate-world future when spirits roam the world and the remaining ‘normal’ humans (the Untamed) are hunted down by the chemically Enhanced people who are determined to convert everyone. The inclusion of spirits was something that was very important to me, and I knew they were going to be linked to the land. But this brought up a whole new host of questions, the most important one being how the spirits would interact with the landscapes—and what effects this interaction would have on the different places the characters find themselves in.  I quickly found myself inventing a whole new belief system and hierarchy of spirit types, allocating certain spirits to specific environments, working out how these two elements (spirits and places) would work together and add to the story.

As well as the landscape being realistic in its detail, I also wanted it to be unpredictable, to have the element of surprise—a bit of a contradiction, really. For a long time I’d been toying with the idea of having a landscape that changes and has a mind of its own, a landscape that presents its own problems and challenges. Given that my main character, Seven Sarr, grew up in the desert, she knows how to survive there—even if it is difficult. I quickly wanted to move her onto a whole host of other landscapes that would challenge and test her. Yet, I also wanted it to be realistic—and that was one of my biggest problems. I just didn’t think it would be believable if the reason the landscape changes so dramatically is because of the spirits’ powers. I was already asking my readings to suspend belief—quite a lot—with other elements and it just didn’t seem to work. Sure, the spirits in Untamed have some power in changing the landscape, but it would’ve been too much for the spirits to suddenly change the desert into a tropical rainforest. And that’s where the idea of travelling came in.

There’s a lot of travelling in Untamed, as the characters try to seek a safe place, away from the Enhanced Ones. I went back to the villages on the Niger/Nigeria border that I originally used and looked for other places in those two countries where the climate starts to get more humid, or the terrain more green. Anything that was different to a desert, basically. In the end, I had a travel route marked out that encompassed many different terrains and was loosely based on real-life places across Western Africa.

Then, I took some of those places, particularly towards the end of the journey in Untamed, and exaggerated them. I changed and adapted them, made them my own, based on my own experience with other environments, such as the Mallorcan Mountains and rugged moorland. A good proportion of my research also came from several visits to two large biomes in Cornwall, UK. Here, I was able to walk through a Mediterranean landscape, South African landscape, a tropical rainforest, and a Californian landscape. These biomes were also complete with birds and other wildlife too, so really gave me authentic experiences of these different places.

In such a way, my setting became an amalgamation of imagination and reality. After all, given that Untamed is about survival, it seemed only right that when the people-based threats are temporarily reduced in the plot, the landscape rears up, and takes on its own character. In such a way, each place presents new dangers in my novel, reinforcing how the characters need to be able to cope with Photo5965adaptation—and quickly—in such a tumultuous environment that’s ever changing.

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Madeline Dyer lives in the southwest of England, and has a strong love for anything dystopian, ghostly, or paranormal. She can frequently be found exploring wild places, and at least one notebook is known to follow her wherever she goes. Her debut novel, Untamed (Prizm Books, May 2015), examines a world in which anyone who has negative emotions is hunted down, and a culture where addiction is encouraged. Madeline’s second novel, Fragmented, is set to hit shelves on 7th September 2016.

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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.