Adding a sense of place to your poetry

I, like probably most writers today, fail to include a sense of place in a lot of my work, yet contests call, specifically, for “place” entries. The Zocalo Public Square Poetry Contest (no entry fee and the deadline is Nov 5th!) defines place as  “a place of historical, cultural, political or personal importance; it may be a literal, imaginary or metaphorical landscape.”

Today, I see place as something really important to a story or poem, even if it’s on the periphery. Many of the stories that won the Pen/O. Henry Prize do have a sense of place: a region, a specific city or country, or just a general feeling. These “places” do contribute to the story, sometimes in a big way. “Pole, Pole” is set in Kenya. For the most part, the place is on the periphery. The different things particular to Kenya are mentioned, but really only in passing. The main focus is on the relationship that unfolds. But, at the very end, when the main character gets a look of pity from the married-man-she-just-slept-with’s servant, there’s more mileage there. The main character is higher in both status and class: she’s white, American, and employed as a documentary filmmaker. Hence when this servant looks at her with pity, it is surely a sign that the main character has done something worthy of quite a lot of it.

Many stories I read for The Pinch slush pile miss this context. They may have some interesting premise or an evocative relationship, yet without a sense of place, it seems too generalized. There’s no description of the landscape, no keywords in the dialogue (lightning bugs vs. fireflies; pop vs. soda), no restaurant chains or stores referenced. Sometimes, having a story that could happen in any place can work. In  my experience though, more often than not, it’s not something particularly chosen to exclude, but, instead, chosen not to include.

Sometimes, a place can be a home or just a room. In my poem, “The Widow’s Attic,” (which I talked about drafting here) the place is in the title and the whole poem describes that place and what items might be found there.

Today, I am trying more avidly to include a sense of place in my own work. I moved several times as a child, and though I’ve lived in Memphis for nearly 14 years now, I’ve never really owned Memphis as being my home. For the longest time, I really thought I just needed to get the hell out and then I’d find my “place,” but I’m realizing more that regardless of how I feel about a particular place or how I may still be far from “settled” in a particular place, I can still use it in my work.

In the memory poem I talked about writing here, I did include that. I lived in North Carolina for 2 years as a child, and though my memories of it are just fragments, I did include what I remembered. What I didn’t remember, I looked up: What kind of trees do they have there? What do they look like? The flowers? What did I remember it feeling like? Where were the places I liked to go? Why did I like them?

Richard Tillinghast, in an interview that will come out in The Pinch in the Spring, talks a lot about place. He’s an avid traveler, yet he was born and raised in Memphis. His family’s home on S. Cox had been bought right after it was built and over 100 years of his family have lived there. Because he’s been able to travel so much, it’s helped him be able to see places he lives and has lived differently. I know when I travel myself, when I return, things look different, more exotic, a little less familiar. I see this and that with new eyes. After I returned from Greece over the summer, it took at least 2 days for me to adjust to the fact that every television station was in English: I was so used to either flipping through Greek channels or seeing Greek subtitles run under whatever programs were being aired in English.

Yesterday, I tried my hand at writing a “Memphis” poem. I have never found the landscape of Memphis particularly lovely. My parents and I moaned for years that Memphis, with its grass that turns brown and its overwhelming greenery, was a pale comparison to how shockingly beautiful and colorful North Carolina was. Despite that, I still tried to find the beauty in it, by remembering when I was a child and when I’d go on walks.

Here’s how it begins right now:

“Under overcup oaks and boxelders,
I skimmed tadpoles from a creek
drained from the Wolf River…”

I again looked up the types of trees, the types of nuts and other things that the trees shed: “monkey balls” are actually sweetgum fruit. When the fruits harden and drop, they spread seeds. I also discovered that the nuts that fall outside my apartment complex are not big acorns, but hazelnuts.

Tillinghast makes a suggestion of thinking about where you grew up as a child, the places you would haunt, the things you would like to do, and the people you would see. For some of us with more nomadic childhoods, that might be hard to conjure, but poetry is about emotional truth, not realistic truth. Think up an experience you had and then see how the place could help influence that or build on the objective correlative.

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