A friend wrote the other day to say that for her a particular place exists mostly in her head. I thought about this and realized that place for me often begins with where I am physically and my relationship to that spot. I mean this literally. I've written in a journal for over thirty years and I often start with where I am. I'll write "I'm sitting in a cafe," or "I'm at home sitting on the couch," or "It's early morning and I'm camping by the river."
But right now I'm not writing in my journal. I'm tapping on a key board, but I could still write "I'm sitting on the couch in the living room of our suburban house in upstate South Carolina." Though we are in the suburbs, we have no close neighbors. After a few years we could afford to buy the lots on either side, and so our house sits alone on its own cul du sac, and behind us the yard slopes to a creek and a 250 acre flood plain. After dark we can only see one or two house lights through the winter woods.
At first when I started writing this morning I was facing almost due east with my feet on the floor and the sun was not up. I could see this because our house has so many windows and no curtains or drapes. This openness is one advantage to not having close neighbors. Looking out the windows of our house makes me think of the Theodore Roethke poem "Open House," with its opening lines:
My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
Now I've swung my legs up onto the couch (with the iPad in my lap and the dog sleeping beside them) and I'm facing due north. My back is to the creek and the huge open space of the flood plain. Soon I know the light will rise. It's six in the morning, one of the first days of March.
I think about my friend and what she said about place. It's not that nothing exists in my head. I'm not fully here in this place. I'm typing on the keyboard of this iPad connected wirelessly to the planet's other wired devices--900 million computers, phones, tablets, servers. I've already checked facebook and email this morning. I know at any moment I can leave here and be anywhere with just a key strike, a button push. My doors too are certainly widely swung.
But I'm an old fashioned poet and I'm often uncomfortable with the world's modern connectivity. Sometimes I want to live counter to Roethke's "open house." Sometimes I want to close down, to shrink my connections, to get small and live like Annie Dillard's weasel: "A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving."
To live like an animal, that's what I often long to do. To live like the dog asleep on the couch. To live like the weasel with his tail wrapped around his nose. like the first Carolina wren breaking loose with song. Every morning he sings from the same spot behind me. His five see-sawing notes always announce the first blue in the sky through the trees to the east, and each morning he's a minute or two earlier. His song is one of the things that nails me to this place.
I reflect so lyrically on home because this week I'll be away, traveling for three days at the end of the week. The wren will have to bring the sun up without me as this week marks my annual trip to AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), this year in Boston.
I don't go to AWP every year like some of my friends, but I guess I've been over a dozen times since 1984, and this will mark five conferences in a row. I can't say I don't go to AWP to look for a job or to network. I go to this huge conflagration of writers the way Frank O'Hara used to stop and buy a copy of New WORLD WRITING, "to see what the poets in Ghana are doing these days."
There will be 11,000 participants this year and almost all of them are as foreign to me as Ghanian poets. This year's conference has a 10% jump over last. The first time I went in 1984 (in Savannah) there were just over a thousand writers, teachers of writing, editors, and literary hangers-on. The place you can really see the growth is in the book fair. My first year in Savannah there were no print-on-demand books and very few self-published books. This year half the books on display in the huge hall will be spit from a machine one copy at a time on an as-need basis and many will be poets desperate to find a little patch of light.
When I get the AWP program I always do two things. I circle the eight or ten sessions I hope to see, and I turn to the back where the presenters are listed and put a star by every name of every person that I recognize, either as friend or acquaintance or as someone whose work I have read and recognize and sometime even admired. I put double stars next to the names of people I'd like to run into during the conference. I remember fun times with friends.
In Savannah I had just turned 30 and my notations isolated about two hundred folks, about 20% of the participating total. The raw number's stayed about the same through the years-- about 200-- but the percentage has fallen from 20% to less than 2%.
So, home and away. This morning AWP exists as a place in my head but in a few days I'll wake up in a hotel room in Boston. When I'm home I settle in. I listen to the wren's song. I put my head down and bore in like a weasel. I write prose mostly and the poetry only comes around when something wakes me up. When I'm away I'll write about the deep meaning of AWP. Maybe I'll write simply about something or someone who elicits a deep response from my sleeping poetic soul. After all, we go to these far away gatherings to wake up, to see a new sunrise, to have the top of our heads taken off by a new poet or poem or personality. I know I'll come back with a bag-load of books and new magazines and I'll get some stickers to put on my journals as I fill them up. I suspect I'll even hear a bird or two.