I’ve lived in these hills for three years and I've written exactly one thing about them--a poem. It's weird, though; I don’t write much poetry. When I do it comes in blasts, wrapped in some powerful emotion—after a couple glasses of wine, or, in the case of that one poem, while driving through the Santa Cruz mountains on a warm night with the music up loud.
Writing—fiction, at least—about a place never happens while I’m in it; there needs to be distance. I'm tempted to come up with an equation to determine just how much, something like d = the number of epiphanies experienced x total time spent there over pi. I’ve written a number of stories set in Japan, but I didn’t start on them until I’d been away a couple years. And only recently have I been able to put together something readable that’s set in my hometown. My journal from the India trip in March is full of notes and observations, moments that, even while experiencing them, I knew I’d write one day. But I can’t begin to make sense of them yet—there’s too much, too close.
I guess the difference I feel between writing poetry and writing fiction is that with fiction, I can control the process, at least a little. I sit down every morning and work on stories, whether I want to or not. I’m always considering story ideas, making notes. But with a poem, I’m out of the driver’s seat, so to speak. For me, poetry is an urge, an idea pushing itself out, taking over my head until I feel I’ve expelled it. That night in the mountains I drove one-handed, scribbling now-illegible phrases onto a piece of junk mail; I pulled over in the middle of nowhere and wrote most of the final draft. In a short story, I may spend months considering a line of dialogue, or a gesture, or why the hell this character grew a tail on her thirtieth birthday. Stephen King says writing a story is like excavating stone—you spot the tip of something and if you work carefully, you can bring it into the world mostly intact. Poetry, though, feels different. Instead of excavating a stone, to me it feels like…passing a stone.
The more I think about it, the more questions I come up with: if poetry is like this and fiction is like this, what does that say about the people who write them? Is there a difference between poets and fictionists themselves? There are plenty of people, of course, who do both, and do them well. But how do they divvy the inspiration? Or do ideas emerge into consciousness as proto-poems or proto-stories, the way babies are born male or female?
Either way, I'll keep my thumb out for any muses willing to pick up hitchhikers.
Another Night Drive
I’m winding into Highway 9 at night
coming up on Apple Jack’s, the only neon in these redwoods
Two figures slouched at the bar
backs to a pool table,
Pale blue streetlamp on the right,
then it’s back to darkness.
Paul Simon is singing about a chip in time
It’s one of those numbers
with a beat you could pick up, watch it kick,
then set down and it’d roll
all the way across the Pacific.
And I can’t tell
if the road is a vacuum,
pulling me ahead,
or if it’s just the music
propelling me forward.
All I know is that I can’t take credit for the motion,
I’m along for the ride,
a passenger in my body,
a South African sangoma channeling
her all-knowing ancestor.
She speaks in an obtuse language of dreams
that I record only crudely
Sometimes my car
going too fast around a curve
is the only place I feel safe.
Windows up. Top down.
The sky winks its approval.
There is something I’m supposed to see,
or maybe I’ve just always felt this way—
on the verge of discovery.
Drums seep into the creased leather seats
bound up the dashboard,
stream over the windshield,
and leave a humming trail of fading tail lights.
On those dark hill roads,
warm nights mean shooting stars.
Headlights bounce off the pavement,
a camera freezing creatures in flight.
But don’t be fooled—
Bats, moths, even wayward leaves play that game.
When the genuine article appears,
hot ink slipping across the blackness.
Sliced open, the sky never scars
but show me a meteor and I’ll jump
and sometimes I make a sound
that’s a little too loud, for me.
It can be heard even over the radio,
a beat I couldn’t stop with a bulldozer
as I begin to sing,
how the absence of anything
can weigh so much.
("Another Night Drive" originally appeared in print in The Cafe Review's Spring 2007 issue. Thanks to John to for all his help with it!)