Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
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Liminality, Place, and Poetry

Most of my poems begin with tension—a moment, a word, a phrase that will eventually become threaded through the poem. These get pressed against metaphor, dropped inside a larger moment, turned to image, or maybe they become the metaphor—a soccer field, greater sac-winged bats, kudzu snaking up a silo. I’ll hold onto the tension sometimes for a while before I am ready to put it into a poem. This tension is often merged with the speaker’s relationship with the body, but, more often, it is merged with place.

Though the poems are seldom about place itself, it often plays a significant role in the poem. When faced with the foreboding task of writing a first line, I like to ground myself and my reader in location. If I do not yet know what my speaker is doing, I at least know where she is doing it. Often outside, and always in some southern state. The initial tension becomes nested in place. It is what I write to get to, and can become the tumultuous weather of central Mississippi, or a dying farm.

The place we live at any given time, but especially in the formative years of childhood, plays an imperative role in the creation of the self that emerges from that place. That place stays with us even when we leave it and influences our interpretation of where we later find ourselves as life begins to spread out. Wherever I am, I am viewing that place through the lens of someone who grew up where I did. James Galvin writes, “So the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation.”

I am always going back to familiar places in my poetry, places that I am now completely or at least partially separate from. Many of my poems are set in my parents’ backyard, and many others are set on my great-grandmother’s farm—a place I have not actually been to in years. Even when a poem is not explicitly set in one of these two places, it is still, in some way, located in one, the other, or both at the same time.

“Windowless Place” and “Poem with Mississippi Honeybees” are both set on my great-grandmother’s sweet potato farm in Vardaman, Mississippi. In childhood, I spent a lot of time there, in the dry rows of potato roots with my older brother. As much as we are formed by place, we are also formed by the people that occupy that place with us. Some of my most distinct childhood memories are on that farm—a place my younger brother has so few experiences at. “Windowless Place” creates an imagined formative experience there for my little brother in the way that my older brother and I experienced it over and over again in the fifteen years before he was born.

Each of these poems were born from a seed of tension. “Windowless Place” came from the word “virga,” learned in a game of Scrabble with a friend. Virga was what I was writing to get to, and the farm was where it began. In contrast, with “Poem with Mississippi Honeybees,” the tension and the place was one in the same. This poem came from my older brother at our great-grandmother’s house after her funeral. We were headed to the back room, past the screen door that once buzzed, and he said, “Do you remember when there were bees in the walls?”  

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