Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Resolutions for 2010

December was a month for family (and finals), and I fell behind in my blogging. That’s all right, though. Family is important, and time away from technology can be time very well spent, especially when travel is involved. So I have a few resolutions for the new year: getting back to the blog is only one… continuing to spend time with family is another, and finding time to write poems (and send them to magazines) is a third. All will be a challenge this spring, since in addition to my full teaching load, I have a conference presentation at AWP and the Southern Literary Festival to organize for April 22-24 at MUW.

Christmas was a great time, though! Posole with my sister’s extended family (and our family) in Albuquerque was a great twist to the tradition. We usually have it in Iowa, but this year everyone went to New Mexico to be with my sister while she was having chemotherapy treatments. Fortunately, she had changed medicines and was feeling better and well enough to host us around town. Trips to Old Town and to Acoma Pueblo to see the Christmas dances on Dec. 26 were highlights. Deer and Buffalo dancers in the old mission church, now the pueblo’s public kiva, were highlights. It was moving to see the Acoma doing traditional dances, not for tourists (though we were allowed to watch and even encouraged to participate in the festivities) but primarily for themselves. Men with deer antlers on their heads and their faces covered in evergreen branches or men with buffalo hides covering their heads and shoulders were joined by young boys, girls, and women dancers, led by excellent drummers. It was certainly a celebration of their culture and community that inspires us to value family and community in our lives as well.

Happy 2010 — may your lives be filled with good poetry, art, family, and friends.

Apologies to Chicago or ‘Truth’ in Poetry

As I wrote awhile back, we visited Chicago this summer. I got to read at the Uptown Poetry Slam and see old friends. We also drove around the city (driving the Loop on Sunday morning was delightful!), took the dog to the Montrose dog park, had Leona’s pizza in my old neighborhood, and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

That all got me thinking about a poem I wrote several years ago that is in my new book Time Capsules. The poem is “Travelogue,” and it was written on a cross-country trip as an experiment in writing very autobiographical poetry about what was happening as it happened. Mind you, this could be dangerous to do while driving, but never fear, I did stop to write most of the time. Occasionally, I jotted a line or a few words on a scrap of paper, but mostly composed in my head or waited until I could take a break to write. Everything in the poem happened in one way or another, though I quickly found that memory became a theme even though I had planned to write about the present. Past memories and present experiences merged, which should probably not come as a surprise, since I was driving for days by myself with just a cassette player and my dog to keep me company.

Though my goal was to write the truth, I also realized quickly that the truth is a slippery concept in a poem. Hence my need to apologize to Chicago or to my friends who stayed there, at any rate. While driving the interstate in heavy traffic, I was caught in a long traffic jam. This reminded me of some of the reasons I left the city — the traffic, the concrete, the heat in summer, the crowds of people — all of which could be exciting and oppressive, especially to a kid from a small town.That section of the poem ends:

             …Now I
remember why I left Chicago.
It was not the traffic really,
but all that concrete and so
many people going nowhere.

Though true for me, and certainly true of the traffic jam I was in as I drove I-80, I felt even as I wrote it that the last line both was and wasn’t true. There are so many people in Chicago, but many are going places, even though at the time I left, I felt I needed to move on to go where I wanted to go. So for my friends who have gone many places while staying in Chicago, and even for myself, now that I see where I might have gone had I stayed there, the last line isn’t true. And yet in the moment of composition it was the truest line I could write. To say more would have overburdened the poem.

Of course, this is the case in any poem, and it’s not just a matter of poetic license. The demands of the form you are working with or the demands of the thematic choices you have decided on (to write the truth as you see it at the moment of the writing, for instance), affect what you can or should say. The sound of a word or the length of a sentence can demand that you need to tell it ‘false’ in order to reveal the ‘truth.’ The truth of any situation is complicated and has many facets; a poem often can only hold some of the many ways of looking at it.

For “Travelogue” this was even more the case than usual, since I was weaving together the surreal experiences of memory and a long drive. And as with any autobiography, experience became subjective even when ‘recorded’ as it was happening, since it was filtered through my experience of it and my thoughts and memories. This became a theme for the book as a whole, or at least for parts of it, as the working title of the collection remained “Travelogue and Other Poems” for quite awhile.

Continental Divide

We were reminded of the meaning of the term “Continental Divide” a couple of times this summer when we crossed it in places you might not expect. Traveling east towards Duluth from the Mississippi Headwaters, we crossed it when we left the Mississippi River basin and entered the Great Lakes basin. We tend to think of the Continental Divide as one line running down the highest mountains in the continent, but there are actually several lines, on each side of which, the rivers flow in different directions. Minnesota has three. The Mississippi heads north for a while, then turns south, flowing to the Gulf of Mexico, as everyone knows. The Great Lakes feed into the St. Lawrence and flow east to the Atlantic (more on this, in a minute!). The Red River, as I learned during the news coverage of this winter’s flooding, flows north into Hudson Bay. There are contintental divides in the west (Rockies) and east (Appalachians) as well.

But I was most surprised to learn that Ernest Hemmingway was born near the continental divide in Oak Park, Illinois, just west of Chicago. A little sign in Scoville Park alerted me to this fact. From this slight rise eastward, all water flows into Lake Michigan. Or it used to, at any rate, until they re-engineered the Chicago River to flow south out of the lake (instead of into it) by digging the Ship and Sanitary Canal that connected it to the Des Plaines River in 1900. Checking my facts for this post, I learned that two other rivers or creeks were reversed in the area before the Chicago River was.

Writing this on a rainy afternoon, I am reminded of the importance of watersheds, and the sometimes subtle ways that they define our geography and the cultures that live in them. This summer we thoroughly enjoyed traveling along the Mississippi and the shores of two of the Great Lakes. Aidan and I even had a chance to swim in Lake Michigan–a bit of a shock on a rather cool July day! And we enjoyed stopping to read the roadside markers that told about the land and its history.

That reminds me of an exercise I thought about giving to my creative writing students (but didn’t, since the semester was nearing the end, and I didn’t know if they would be driving anywhere). Stop sometime to read a Historical Marker — how many do we speed past on the highway without taking the time to read — and read about the place or event that it describes. You might be inspired to learn more about that place and write about it, or you might use words from the sign in a poem or story that has nothing to do with the immediate subject of the sign. The point is to take a moment to stop and consider the landscape and the words someone has used to record it.

The Father of Waters or What I did on my Summer Vacation

One of the places we visited this summer was the Mississippi River. It’s hard to call this a ‘place,’ though, since we crossed and recrossed it all summer long, starting with our first trip down to Natchez to the Great Big Yam Potatoes old time music festival in May. There we walked along the bluffs of the river and visited the mounds at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. On July 3rd we watched fireworks along the river in Dubuque, Iowa, where we had traveled for a reunion. The next day we toured the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, where we saw channel cat, alligator gar, and lots of other fish, plus river otters, exhibits, and even a dredge riverboat. Traveling back to Osage with my mother, we stopped in Guttenburg, where my ancestors first crossed the river into Iowa, then went on to McGregor. The view there from Pike’s Peak (yes, named after the same Zebulon Pike who named the other, taller peak) used to be our favorite view of the river, and a frequent stop when I was a boy, anytime we headed east on Highway 9.

Mississippi at Pike's Peak

Mississippi at Pike's Peak

Though we always cross the river on our way to Iowa, spending this much time along it reminded me how important a presence it was for me growing up. We lived along the Cedar River, and often biked a mile or so out a gravel road to fish or swim in it. But the Mississippi was always grander, and always called us back whenever we could go.

Another site along the river that we visited were the Effigy Mounds. These were the first Indian mounds I saw as a kid, and I probably didn’t realize they were so unique. I did become interested in the mound-building cultures, and gradually came to realize that other groups built mounds that were higher and perhaps more impressive all along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

After spending some time with my family in Osage, Kim, Aidan, and I continued on our journey, this time to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi in Lake Itasca State Park. There we heard and saw a loon, biked along the lake, walked across the stones that span the river (placed there by Civilian Conservation Core workers in the Depression when the headwaters were ‘restored’ after a logging dam upstream had been removed), then waded back across to where we’d left our shoes. There in the Northwoods of Minnesota, the Mississippi seems much less powerful, more tame. It is hard to imagine the small stream it is at its head when you drive across it in Memphis or walk the bluffs in Natchez. And it is hard to imagine, when you’re wading across, that this insignificant stream will become the Father of Waters, a central channel for transportation, trade, and culture that has been the backbone of the continent for centuries.

I am reminded that Walter Ingliss Anderson carved a magnificent sculpture, almost a totem, that he titled The River or Father Mississippi. In the center stands a blue man with what appear to be antlers or the tributaries of the river emanating from his head. He is flanked by ducks on each side with a stag deer on the left and a possum, a crane, and other animals on the right. Most of the statue is gone, but a picture can be found in Christopher Mauer’s biography of Anderson, Fortune’s Favorite Child. I have often thought of writing a poem of the river to add to my Barrier Island Suite, which was inspired by Anderson’s logs. Traveling along the river this summer may give me ideas for how to begin.