Why Kansas?

11 November 2017:

I try to keep things straight. The blue lines of my notebooks help. Sometimes I let a word have a whole line to itself—just to see what it will do. Only certain words, say, like ocean or evening. Sometimes I make a list of words down the left side of a page—grey, this, do, dark, soft, road—and off to the right of them I scratch a contour sketch of a canyon. When I close my eyes, sometimes I see Royal Gorge in Colorado, and I let the pen move. Sometimes I see the Arkansas river roaring. Sometimes I pretend I am on the big bridge that spans it. From there, looking downstream, I try to see Kansas.

Kansas has a special place in my writing imagination, in my writing heart. It is full of “triggering towns”—to steal Richard Hugo’s phrase for a poem’s impetus. Kansas is a place I look back to when the writing well begins to run dry.

But people ask: why Kansas?

(No one asks.)

And I say: because driving Kansas takes you out of yourself. Or, depending how you see it, puts you completely in yourself, pulling the world in, pulling you out. Either way, after enough miles, say somewhere west of Salina, the ego disappears and the mind wanders.

The process, for me, has always been this: shock and awe, absentminded boredom, shock and awe. The mind lolls. It is narrowed along a straight, mile-marked stretch of road that just-so-happens to have a grassy border. It sees only forward, thinly.

But, then, once again, I am struck. Startled. Outside the window is a Willa Cather novel. Look, there, the pioneers are crawling across the country!

The process is repeated over and over: wonder, boredom, wonder. There is an undulation of sorts, from awake to asleep, from startled to unstartled. If I give myself over to the land, there is plenty there, plenty to see, plenty to trigger a poem.

Writing, as well as reading, takes a certain type of giving in. This explains why it is so difficult to get into an essay I am working on or a book I am reading. This explains why being involved in an essay or a poem is so rewarding. This explains why letting myself go, giving in to something outside myself, allows me to write freely or finally fall into the language of, say, Joan Didion or Judith Kitchen. Distractions have been removed, and I am committed to the page.

I mean to say: when my writing begins to flounder—I try to see Kansas. And everyone has their Kansas.

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