Photo: 'Playingwithbrushes'

Anna Lena Phillips’s Five Poets of Place

It can be hard to talk about place-based writers—for a lot of people, I think, “place” signals “environmental,” which signals on-to-the-next. It’s a big yawn; we’ve heard it all before; we’re doomed, but what else is new? For this reason, the category “environmental writing” is, to my mind, a misleading one. If you’re looking for work that engages deeply with place, by necessity you’re also looking for work that talks about the most pressing of our human concerns—relationships, desire, survival. This is the kind of writing I want as editor of Ecotone: work that has to exist, and that has to exist in place.

“My intuition is that my bioregion—the one I am located in—is peculiar to my body and where it goes,” writes Linda Russo, herself a fine poet, in “Writing Within: Notes on Ecopoetics as Spatial Practice.” She goes on to suggest a much more complex frame for thinking about writing from place—but I like the plain notion of body as region, body carrying the knowledge of loved places. It describes, very accurately, the feeling I have of holding the places I love, vastly different places, within my person. It creates room for place-based poetics from those of us who have been—or whose ancestors have been—displaced. Room for poets who convey the longing for a home landscape that’s distant or lost, whether due to movement by economic necessity or environmental degradation or, as in so many cases, compulsion by others.

The poets I’ll note here fill in missing parts of our maps, and they do so with verve, grace and humanity.

1. Carolyn Beard Whitlow

As an editor, I’m always seeking out new writers, but it’s equally important to look to poets who are quietly doing good work, who may not release a collection every other year, but who, when they do come out with something new, remind us all to up the ante. Carolyn Beard Whitlow is one of those poets. An early mentor of mine, her thinking about relation to place, especially about the loss of place experienced by African Americans over generations, is bracing and inspiring. She moves fluidly between dialect and what we call standard English. Her verse-novel-in-progress, Witch Hazel, distills the formal experimentation and rigorous attention to language of her two earlier collections to draw a masterful narrative. In multiple voices, and spanning from the U.S. South to the North, she tells the story of Rue, a girl pulled between a white mistress and her African American birth mother, amid the chaos of the Civil War. It’s a collection worth waiting for. In the meantime, When the Wind Stills, a chapbook from Finishing Line Press, has some poems from the series, including “Sella’s Song,” which is preceded by a poem in which Sella, who has escaped from slavery, rescues Rue and carries her on his shoulders down the road. The poem takes a form Whitlow created—a blues villanelle—and it precisely evokes the loss of family and orientation, and the will to reclaim them:

Goin ta look fo Mama   ma chirren   pap n wife
gone fine me da road dey trabble way down souf
cuz widout dem dis ain gone be no kinda life

2. Heidi Lynn Staples

Heidi Lynn Staples is a relentless experimenter and explorer. She responds to the environments she seeks to know with keen intellect, a fluidity of formal and procedural strategies, and openness to what places ask and tell her. “Florida Native,” from her collection Noise Event, incorporates high-school yearbook entries and text from a 1613 guide by Francisco Pareja on converting the Timucuan Indians of Georgia and Florida. Drawing from these, her work encompasses both personal and historical aspects of place: “Is my Florida native trembling a sign that something bad is Florida native to Florida native to me, that they are saying Florida native about me….”

She’s active as an editor, too, co-curating, with poet Amy King, the journal Poets for Living Waters. And her new work, a poetic investigation of the watershed surrounding her new home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, promises to offer another exemplar of deeply focused work that unites primary research with somatic practice. Heidi Lynn Staples says yes, and she does it in ways that are as interesting and compelling and intellectually rigorous as I know.

3. Corinna McClanahan Schroeder

Corinna McClanahan Schroeder’s recent poems evoke apple orchards, Ohio rivers, and the bittersweetness of growing up. “Follow the serpentine river roads / toward the Little Miami’s lip,” she begins, in “Instructions for Return.” The poem makes good on its titular promise, landing the reader in the mild wilderness of Southwestern Ohio, in a time just distant enough to elicit an ache in readers of a certain age and inclination (the Cowboy Junkies clue us in). When she writes, “That’s river musk on your teeth,” we know to believe her. Schroeder is a Ph.D. student at University of Southern California, Dornsife; her first book, Inked, won the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, and will be out with Texas Review Press this fall.

4. Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.

Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.’s collection from Four Way Books, SERIES | INDIA, is out this year. Gray is also a translator of ghazals from Farsi, no small feat to do well, and her work carries a sense of deliberate contemplation and craft. A traveler, she evokes the sense of longing for one place even while experiencing the undeniable reality of another, as here in “The Jeweled Deer”:

. . . Surely in India there would be,
in a forest of strange trees, a clearing, where he and I
would gather delicate renunciations and become wise
together. When her mother threw books and threatened
to break each vase, out in the hall that thought
shook its slender antlers of ivory, beckoned, and shyly,
dappled in diamond and topaz, disappeared
into a thicket of gurney and wheelchair.

In a new project, she draws on Tibetan texts and maps, and other documents from World War I Belgium, to talk about place, space and the illusion of safety. It’s vital, strange, compelling work, and it asks us to consider places and states of mind we might prefer to forget, but whose remembrance is essential to understanding the world.

5. Samiya Bashir

Samiya Bashir is electric. Her poems evoke both a defiant allegiance to place and an expansive interpretation of it. An ongoing project of hers draws on Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, using erasure to explore and expand the text; she performs the work accompanied by a film whose score includes her own voice. In this, and her other work (two collections, Where the Apple Falls and Gospel), she’s thinking through both place and displacement—she’s thinking us through it. At a recent performance, she handed out sheets of vintage graph paper with words from the text typed on them, a fitting accompaniment. Before performing, she suggested that attendees might tear out and eat one of the words. I have the feeling some of us did.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *