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.
has a whiff of Enlightenment naïveté, and
of course we should all be skeptical about received truths
in this post-modern
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
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,
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.