rewriting landscape.


Loretta Clodfelter

Comments for Dillon Westbrook


The following comments on the subject of writing about place, and about Oakland in particular, were prepared for Dillon Westbrook to be used, as needed, for a paper he was giving at a conference in Edinburgh at the end of summer. In preparing the second issue of There, I have been thinking a lot about what role place plays in writing. I am including the following thoughts, unfocused and scattered as they might be, because I am having difficulty getting any closer to answering the question.



When we spoke before, I emphasized observation as a poetic practice. I think it is important for writing about place to be endowed with specificity. The details are important, are detailed in the pursuit of facts.

The goal may be one of cataloguing, collecting, identifying. Poet as botanist-explorer, as astronomer-royal. This insistence on fact has a whiff of Enlightenment naïveté, and of course we should all be skeptical about received truths in this post-modern world. However, when I read the news and how it is manipulated by the present administration, their willful disregard of any division between truth and falsehood, their belief that whatever they say is what we will believe, then I am willing to fall back on fact.

Of course, even fact is open to manipulation. A statistic is just a number. Names can be changed. An observation is only as good as the observer.

In light of all this, my focus on place becomes romantic: there is always the land. What can be more real or true than that which can be seen, touched, experienced by the senses. (You may see why Lucretius and I were such a good fit.)



Is there something about Oakland that resists authorial authority? I think some of it might have to do with authenticity and the question of who has the right to speak for a place. I remember we spent a lot of time in Juliana’s class talking about Oakland, about who was from Oakland, about the sense we had as ‘outsiders.’ Some cities embrace their newcomers (I believe it only takes 2 years and 7 months to become a San Franciscan), while others remain closed to anyone not born on native soil.

Or maybe it’s a matter of neighborhoods. I can maybe claim this hill bounded by Grand, MacArthur, and Piedmont avenues, but I can’t claim downtown, West Oakland, East Oakland, North Oakland; not Adam’s Point, Rockridge, Temescal, Montclair, Eastlake, Grand Lake, Fruitvale, Maxwell Park, Millsmont, Laurel, Dimond, and neighborhoods I don’t even have words for. Do I have to belong to a place to write about it? Not necessarily, but Oakland seems linked with authenticity in a way that Dallas or Denver isn’t.

Is race (or racism) a factor? I wouldn’t rule it out. There might be some of an attitude in Oakland’s white post-avant poetry crowd that writing about Oakland is an ethnic thing, a “slam” thing, that it just doesn’t make good poetry. At the same time, whiteness, at least in Oakland, doesn’t confer much authenticity.

issue 2


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