Poetry, the West, Land, and Solitude

In reading blogs yesterday, it began to become clear to me just how nice it must be to live on the East Coast.

All those cities so close together! So many cultures and communities just a brief commute up or down the coast. All those little states (blink and you miss one—there goes Delaware! Hey, wasn't that Vermont?)!

You are all so close together. I have written that before. How, when I went to New York, I could barely breathe. There was no sun, no sky. There were people all around me and it was like locusts descending on a field of ripe crops. That is the downside for me: you have no space. You live in cubicle-sized homes and apartments off narrow streets in tall buildings that take away the sky.

The West was an adjustment to me, having previously been only Midwest, but very rural nevertheless. I lived in a State Forest. It was only slightly more advanced than your recent M. Night Shyamalan film. My small town had a different kind of density—everyone knew me, knew my business, knew who I belonged to. The only trouble worth getting into was the anonymous kind, if you could find it. All others carried swift punishment.

And so the West for me is as much mindscape as landscape: openness, expanse, sprawl. I never have to think of smelling someone on a subway because I drive my own car to and from work (twelve miles). I live in the heart of the city and know two of my neighbors. My physical space encourages emotional space: the encounters I have in my life are almost entirely intentional, fully realized, purposeful. There is almost never a chance meeting.

Almost never, and never here, at least.

But what I love about the West is this: my brain fills up the empty spaces between people, thinks thoughts, breathes, makes notes.

My next book is about the PHYSICAL WEST. You know I'm writing fences into it. You know I'm writing death and beautiful women falling from the doors of old missions in historic San Francisco, and I'm writing about the West that does not exist, the West between here and there, the metaphysical West where we are together, but not touching.

You can have your East Coast. I'm sure you like it there, and that's good. But me, I'm here. I'm only going this way from here on out. When I get to the ocean I'll know I've made it far enough.


  1. I've lived in Phoenix (and Mesa and Apache Junction) and while the Valley has things I miss -- and I will probably return to -- living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn provides an energy I could never find in Arizona, or to a lesser extent, in Florida, where I lived for most of twenty years.

    Of course even in Phoenix and Mesa, as well as in suburban Fort Lauderdale and in Gainesville, I lived in places where I could walk to work and to shopping or cafes and restaurants -- places as close to New York as I could find.

    Walking along the streets, in any city or town, gives me a different perspective on people than cars do. Plus I am not harming the environment. Plus I am getting getting exercise. And those chance encounters are often the best parts of my day.

    For me, the real West was the two months I lived in northeast Wyoming on a cattle ranch. Those incredible sightlines, the immense sky, the sense of isolation and sometimes desolation were really profound.

    I think, though, that every place has its pleasure. I loved living in northwest Arkansas, in Silicon Valley, in the San Fernando Valley, and in a Chicago suburb.

    I recommend a great book of interviews by my friend W.T. Pfefferle, Poets on Place.

  2. I was having a conversation with Adrian Matejka about this subject. . . Major Jackson lives in Vermont and Adrian and I were both floored by this fact. However, Major seems to be thriving in Vermont because it's only a four hour drive from anywhere, really . . . Boston, NY, etc..

    Me, I miss the East Coast some days. I liked being four hours from New York City . . . I felt more "dialed-in" to everything literary. Although I'm much more productive with the physical act of writing out here in the Pacific Northwest.

  3. Funny I should have read this today. We're having a perfectly enchanting fall day here in New Hampshire, but your post reminded me just how subjective that enchantment is.

  4. While recommendations are being offered, might I suggest:

    So Quietly the Earth by David Lee.

    Theory of Twilight by Gary Short.

  5. Charles, your post made me think more about places today. I dug up an article about living in Arizona that I published in the Arizona Republic six years ago: "Living Where There's No There There".

    I suppose I have the philistine point of view of someone who spent the first 27 years of his life rarely leaving New York City.

    In Phoenix and Mesa, I took buses, though, when I could. And I am looking forward to the light rail coming so I can get to ASU by train like a New York commuter.

  6. New York City is a great in a way, just like all places are great in a way, and troubling in others. I do miss trees and fields and drives.

    I think San Francisco would love you.

  7. I used to live in NJ, and it was so strange to move to California. I was surprised to see a place that was a city, but still had a lot of space.

  8. I just came back from two consecutive weekends Back East (I hope to not fly again for ages!). There were things I liked about Brooklyn and the towns in Massachusetts I was in (Belmont and Lenox, in the Berkshires). But back home in San Francisco, I can breathe a sigh of relief. It's not only that I can see the ocean from my living room window, it's the fact that we have the best of both worlds.

    Go anywhere in SF -- a concert or show or rally or shopping center -- and you are bound to see someone you know. It happens to us all the time. And yet we also have the wide expanses, the places to escape and breathe air and not hear anyone or anything but birds.

    And I know this is crazy, but I like the people here. We all share this secret and it's San Francisco...