There is a website called How a Poem Happens. It interviews various poets on the process behind a specific poem. One of the questions the poets are frequently asked is “What’s American about this poem?”
Their answers range from “John Deere” to “Christianity and violence.”
Whether we directly acknowledge it or not, place is a character we are always engaging with. Its themes become intertwined with the themes of our stories and poems. Place for me is not only a source of inspiration, but an influential force that has shaped the reoccurring themes that have emerged in my writing. By invoking place in our writing, the speaker in our poems can come to embody, contradict or interact with those themes and beliefs we associate with a specific place. It’s sort of like tapping into the energy of that place and harnessing it in our work. By utilizing place, we can heighten elements in our work in a way that doesn’t feel heavy handed. It’s a subtle charge given to the narrative.
Place gives the writer a way in—it allows us to come at things from the side. In Florida Poems, Campbell McGrath uses Florida—its history, its landscape— as a way to cultivate larger themes, such as consumerism and conservationism. Florida acts as a grounding force that enables McGrath to address universal themes without losing his reader.
Place can also act as an antagonist. It can possess its own agency or echo the poem’s emerging tensions. We can see this particular use of place in Sandy Longhorn’s The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. Throughout Longhorn’s collection, there is a reoccurring narrative of a girl on the verge of adulthood who attempts to escape but finds herself repeatedly held captive—literally stuck in place.
For example, in “Haunting Tale for Girls Held Captive,” Longhorn writes:
[…] She ran, then,
and her parents followed into the wide,
unblemished swath of green alfalfa.
Raising their arms, they called out a curse
that could never be called back.
With their oath, a bolt of pain transformed
the girl, her bones hardening to branches,
her feet thinning, sinking to deep roots.
Place can also be a way out. It saves me from getting too close, those moments when my writing risks becoming melodramatic or sentimental. It buffers. It can mirror. It gives me space. Place is both permeable and malleable—my intention can move through it, but I can also mold it to serve my intention. Place can say the things that, for whatever reason, my speaker cannot.
Kathryn McLaughlin is a first-year MFA student in the Poetry Program at FAU. Her interest in the way place informs writing stems from her obsession with Florida.