Why Poetry of Place?
Interview with Murray Silverstein, Editor, Sixteen Rivers Press
by Kristi Moos
I sat down at a Berkeley café with Murray Silverstein, poet, editor, and architect with JSW/D Architects to answer that very question— what can poetry do for place that prose fiction or nonfiction can’t?
Murray serves as a member and editor of Sixteen Rivers Press, a shared-work, nonprofit regional poetry collective dedicated to publishing authors of the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2010, the press published The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed, a collection of regional poetry celebrating the diverse perspectives, cultures, and landscapes of the region. The Place that Inhabits Us is a ground-breaking model for the ways in which a place-centered literary anthology can transform the social, cultural, and ecological topography of the places we call home. After chatting with Murray, I am further convinced that place-based poems have and will continue to have a strong impact on the physical and social niches they occupy.
KM – There’s risk-taking in the selection of poems for this anthology. There are nature poems but there are a number of gritty, urban poems. There’s also a lot of space in between. What starts to take shape is a multi-layered and poly-vocal portrait of the watershed. How did you go about selecting poems to represent this region?
MS – We included well-known poets like Adrienne Rich and Robert Duncan, but also relatively unknown poets selected from an open submission. We hoped the anthology would not only portray an eco-system, but also would itself be like one. There are many levels of strength in a living ecosystem. And with the theme of place as a constant, you can listen to the conversation develop between poems, between the various levels of strength. In this way, the anthology itself became a mosaic. It’s a larger poem made out of a collection of voices. In the United States today there can’t be a single Whitman-like voice anymore (at least for now)—we’re too diverse. But there can be a mosaic of voices that, together, form a vision of wholeness.
KM – Regional poetry is breaking away from 19th century literary formulas. In contrast to the current era, there was once a larger emphasis on national writing. Nationalism was a really important aspect of how we identified writers and schools of thought. National literature hasn’t disappeared completely, but there’s a strong new emphasis on place-based work and writers of particular regions.
MS – That’s right. But within the universal lies the particulars of place. And in a place like the Bay Area, full of people from other places, there’s also an exilic feeling that ropes everything together. The poems find themselves in conversation with themselves and with this fact. Which is a universal condition. The common condition of being at home in exile allows the poems to work together even though they’re written by people from different times and backgrounds.
KM – The multiplicity of perspectives present in the anthology remind me of an interview between Casey Mills and Rebecca Solnit, published in Issue 2 of California Northern.1 In that interview, Solnit talks about how hard it is for an individual to know a place. She has lived in San Francisco since she was 18 and just recently published Infinite Cities, a creative cultural atlas of San Francisco. Yet Solnit says she still can’t fully know the city, or any place for that matter. She says there are at least two reasons for this. One, because her perspective an individual is limited to her own experience, her own ability to witness. Secondly, each place is constantly evolving—once you think you know a city block, you learn something new. And so places continue to change, to offer up new meanings. In that way, Solnit points out that place in one sense unknowable. How can poetry capture and reflect how place can be in constant flux?
MS – All living ecologies – natural and cultural – are in flux; that’s their nature. But some as they change become more alive, while some degrade and slowly die. And, of course, in truth, both things can be going on at once. The optimism one senses in the anthology, in even the darkest poems, is simply that with all the change, a living, breathing language is continuing to exist, continuing to desire to exist. And that this language will continue both to draw from its place and influence its place. There’s a sadness and a fierceness in some of the poems, and a resoluteness, a stubbornness of voice, stubborn in the face of forces that are destroying language and place, transforming unique places into more homogenized and ecologically lifeless places. The anthology is a pocket of resistance against such forces. A good poem is a pocket of resistance simply by existing. Poetry says to the future: value this; slow down; look around, care for this place. Poetry may seem to be a weak force in this campaign, but it plays the long game. And poetry always seems able to reinvent itself because it’s a critical part of what it means to be human.
KM – In 1952, Gary Snyder wrote in his journal that he felt for himself and for humanity “a pressing need to look within and adjust the mechanism of perception.” And he saw that poetry had the ability to do that. Place-based poetry does have a way of adjusting how we see place, both in terms of what this location is like now and perhaps how it once was. Poetry is a reflection of not just how we see the world around us, but how we adapt to it and how we change it.
MS – I agree. Here’s an example: in the 1950s what is now Point Reyes National Seashore was privately owned. Developers were planning to build high-end suburbs. But folks from all over fought the developers and won. Now this vast area of seashore and rural countryside is part of our commons. That it exists, in such close proximity to the city, is an incredible and vital thing. And there’s a relationship, I believe, between this land, this stunning coastline, and poetry. Of course, many poems are about this place or were triggered by it—Kenneth Rexroth had a cabin there, etc—but the question I want to ask is, why did people want to preserve Point Reyes? They wanted to preserve it, in part, because they were speakers of a language that contained a poetry tradition that valued nature, nature in vital proximity to cities. They were speakers of the language in which As You Like It was written; the language of Blake and Wordsworth. This is what I mean when I say poetry plays the long game. It keeps the language alive by keeping the ability to value and feel alive. In effect, the existence of a poetry tradition helped keep that piece of land intact, a common good, in vital proximity to our cities.
KM – Why poetry? What can poetry do for place that fiction or nonfiction can’t do?
MS –The lyric. Poetry is the repository for the lyric impulse, the spontaneous feeling of rapture and ecstasy and dread, in relation to something outside of yourself. Where you feel in some way merged with or into this something. That’s not a narrative thing. It’s something that happens in a moment, though, in a sense, it’s timeless. Narrative is horizontal; it takes place over time. But in poetry, the lyrical has a vertical flash. Like music, poetry tries to do that impossible thing: to give form with words to the everyday experience of the lyrical: to lift the everyday world, the world at our feet, into a sphere where everything is real, implausible and mysterious, at once.
KM – Many writers and philosophers have said that writing is a personal art that’s done in exile; the literary impulse arises away from community and remains psychologically divided. But writing is now becoming a shared and common culture. We have workshops, write-ins, improvised performance poetry. And we write conscious of the fact that our work will join a community, whether published in literary magazines, anthologies, or read aloud at readings. And perhaps most importantly—our writing comes into conversation with certain issues and movements. In other words, we have a culture of writing that encourages people to think about how they’re connected not simply by shared identity through language, culture, or ethnicity but also through space and location. So this idea of poetry as personal and separate is perhaps starting to break down.
MS – That’s true. It’s interesting to me that, having lived in the Bay Area for fifty years, helping create this anthology has made me feel more at home here than ever before. Churning through this work, helping to put it together, changed me. Poetry makes you feel and see differently. In an exilic mind it can awaken a sense of home. As illusory as that may be.
KM – Especially in a place as heterogeneous as the Bay Area. If you ride public transit, it’s a miracle if you have something in common with the person sitting next to you. In a similar way, this anthology is a portrait of the mixing. The printed page allows us to discover the invisible common threads. I have to ask—how do you think the world would change if every region or city had its own poetry anthology? What would we see?
MS – Again, it’s a matter of valuing the local, the particular. What is it about this region that’s different, that gives it its flavor, its uniqueness? And there are historical layers to this. In his foreword to the book, Hass wrote that language is itself an anthology. The mixture of words: native words that still exist, words brought by the waves of immigration…all mixed together.
KM – So the act of writing is an active form of anthologizing. That’s an interesting thought. Let’s switch gears. Let’s talk about regional poetry outside of the context of the local. What do regional anthologies like The Place That Inhabits Us offer to people outside of that particular region?
MS – It could be a model, inviting writers to create books like this in their own vastly different regions. And such books would speak to each other, across our regions. In his poem “North of San Francisco” Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, reminds us that a striking thing about this place is that it’s at peace. He was visiting from his home in Jerusalem and wrote:
In my land, called holy,
they won’t let eternity be:
they’ve divided it into little religions,
zoned it for God-zones,
broken it into fragments of history,
sharp and wounding unto death.2
We take it for granted that this region is at peace. It took an outsider, Amichai, to incorporate the idea of peace into a poem. He says the cows on the hillsides “ignore us like angels.” And I can no longer drive out into the countryside without seeing these cows on the hills, and feeling the treasure of what it is to live in a place that, for all the conflict it contains, is fundamentally at peace.
KM – That’s such a refreshing perspective—most people don’t see the Bay Area as a peaceful place. It’s a beautiful and useful practice to look from an outsider’s perspective at a place that you know so well—what ends up happening is that new ways of seeing and valuing place begin to spring up.
KM – Speaking of peace, we haven’t talked a lot about chaos and disaster. Can you talk a bit about how poetic forms and syntaxes reflect natural disaster? In the Bay Area, we have wildfires, earthquakes, and flood. Climate change is visibly changing the shape of our shorelines. Many natural forces are forming and shaping the region as we know it. How can poetry reflect these natural forces?
MS – Poetry is the imagination’s game. Robert Duncan’s great poem “Often I am Permitted to Return a Meadow” contains the line: “…that certain bounds hold against chaos.” The imagination fights back against the fact and pain of chaotic loss. We use poems—all art—to try to contain this reality, but ultimately they can’t. It’s a losing fight. But it’s a good fight. In Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Auroras of Autumn”, a man looks up into the sky, at the aurora borealis, and sees something that is so unfathomably strange and awesome and frightening; so full of images that cease to be as soon as he can name them, that he throws up his hand and says, ‘I can’t keep up! I’m not capable!':
He opens to door of his house
On flames. The scholar of one candle sees
An arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.3
Stevens creates his poem out of this confrontation; he admits we’re human; there’s nothing we can do. We’re going to be wiped out—imagination and all–whether by the eternal forces of nature, a tsunami or otherwise. All we can do is erect this illusory frame: that certain bounds hold against chaos. They don’t hold, and yet they do, and provide us with consolation and meaning.
KM – Many of my local friends who are writers are not from the Bay Area. They came to San Francisco for their MFA degree. Back home, they heard stories of the earthquakes and they arrived with this fear and anxiety. They don’t have experience growing up with earthquakes. They are conscious of the fact that there’s a potential for everything to collapse at any given moment. And from that comes an impetus to write; to collect what’s here. The imagination is unstable because the land is unstable. They’re stirred and inspired by the fact that any moment, an earthquake might level everything around us. I wonder if place writing is shaped by the potential for natural disaster, even if it’s only alive in the imagination.
MS – It’s probably true. After the recent tsunami in Japan, I saw the famous woodcut of Hokusai’s great wave, from the early 19th century—an image that I’d seen around here on greeting cards—and it seemed suddenly so frightening, so ominous, saying, ‘This is where we live, in the presence of this kind of force.’ And this is where we live and build our cities. Blake is wonderful in this regard: he had the idea that the city is the ground where this battle takes place and its nature, which includes us and our imaginations, must be protected and allowed to flourish.
KM – Yes. Blake wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is—infinite.” Gary Snyder copied that into his journal. Do you know Novella Carpenter? She’s an urban farmer in West Oakland who’s facing legal battles with the City of Oakland to secure permits for her Ghost Town farm. She says when she was young, the cool thing to do to clear your mind was to do drugs. Now it’s Nature. It’s growing your own food or getting outdoors and hiking. It’s being a locavore—enjoying locally sourced meals, going out with friends to local farmers markets and pop-up food stands like Off the Grid and being a part of your city and region that way.
MS – Local food is communal, physical, social, and visceral.
KM – That brings me back to the idea of the greater metaphors of human interaction with the physical environment, the human place in ecology. And naturally, the human is a present force in The Place That Inhabits Us. There’s a fusion that exists. Rebecca Solnit points out in the California Northern interview that in the Bay Area (and perhaps other urban places), we often don’t have clear boundaries. The urban and the wild fuse together. As do humans and place. Solnit tells us that “if nature is not what we look at, but how we conduct our lives, it’s much more natural to live in a human-scaled landscape, where you can walk to the terms of your survival and many of your pleasures.”
MS – I agree with Solnit. Nature is so hard if you live entirely in it. Without artificial light, heat, etc., it’s a menace. But from the vantage point of a decent city, where you can walk to a beach or a river, get on a bus go into the countryside, it’s an utterly different thing. Cities can offer that. And there are places within cities that can create this incredible mix. I work a few miles away from here on a nondescript block in South Berkeley: but across the street is The Starry Plough, an Irish bar and a home of slam poetry; in the treetops nearby is a nest of Cooper’s Hawks; a block away is the Center for Gnostic Studies; there are underground creeks and an underground train; and around the corner, on top of the BART station, is the new Ed Roberts campus, a world center for the study of accessibility for the disabled. In a lively city, you take a cross-section cut through any neighborhood and find an incredible richness at your feet, an ecology that’s really amazing and mysterious.
KM – It’s mysterious and it gives me hope. There are a lot of people who believe the globe is heading towards a doomsday-like scenario. But I see the opposite. There’s such fruitful interaction and conservation going on here. As these ecologies are becoming more widely contemplated and celebrated through anthologies like A Place That Inhabits Us, I believe regional and ecological poetry has remarkable potential to shape Place for the better.
1 Mills, Casey. “When We Say We Know a Place: A Conversation with Rebecca Solnit.” California Northern, Winter 2010: 9-13.
2Amichai, Yehuda. “North of San Francisco.” The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed. San Francisco: Sixteen Rivers Press, 2010.
3Stevens, Wallace. “The Auroras of Autumn.” The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. ed. John N. Serio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
© Poecology 2011.