Sticks and Stones: memoirs about the writing life

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Here’s the second of my three pieces about writing, originally published at Awkword Paper Cut:

Be Here Now: Poetry of Place

By Erica Goss

I’ve never had a bad day in San Francisco.

 

Ok, that’s not entirely true, but the happy memories far outnumber the unhappy ones. And maybe I don’t want to acknowledge the bad memories because I love San Francisco that much. It’s easy to forget the time I searched for my father, senile and lost somewhere in the international terminal at San Francisco Airport, or the time I saw a famous jazz musician slap his wife after a concert in North Beach. I don’t want to associate anything negative with the dream that I nourish.

That dream got started in 1966 when I was six years old. A friend of my father’s invited my family to visit for a few days in San Francisco. We had just spent the summer in Fresno, house-sitting for a professor who was on sabbatical.

Fresno in summer is one of the hottest places in California. San Francisco is one of the coolest. A soul-crushing three-hour drive in our radio-free, non-air conditioned car brought us to a city that was so aggressively beautiful, so excessively scenic that my six-year-old brain could hardly take it in. Fresno was hot and flat, but here was a place where the streets marched up and down steep hills, where backyards were cool oases of moss and ferns, and where just about anywhere you stood, you saw a giant bridge or a sparkling body of water, or Victorian houses painted in colors I had in my crayon box.

We took a boat around the bay, and I got my first view of The City from the water. While my poor mother descended below deck, seasick, I asked my father, “Is this what the Emerald City of Oz looks like?” He responded, yes, but he thought it was probably greener in Oz.

Place is important in poetry. A poem that captures the essence of a place opens up a piece of new ground for us. It allows us to travel from the page to somewhere beyond ourselves – we are in place, but also displaced by the poem. Therefore, we occupy two places at once, a paradox that allows the reader to get lost and stay at home at the same time.

In my book Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets, Joie Cook’s poem “There are Nights in San Francisco” illustrates this aesthetic in poetry:

 

There Are Nights In San Francisco

 

There are nights in San Francisco

When even the bedbugs come out to pray

Amongst the forest that is life here

 

And streets I believe I’ve been on before

Become hallucinations,

Every steep hill climbed,

An applause for gravity…

 

But I’ve taken it for granted

For over 30 years

The seven hills, the cable cars,

The view from Twin Peaks

On a crisp, November night…

 

I fall in love with cities

The way most people fall in love,

Shamelessly hopeful in the beginning,

Careless, naïve and blind…

 

And there are nights in San Francisco

I would wish to forget

Like a waning romance,

Waiting to crash,

Never looking back

At the wreckage behind.

 

Perhaps if I had been brought to Paris, or Khartoum, or New York City at that young age I would have a strong connection to one of those places instead of San Francisco. I don’t know. At age six, I had an experience like no other in my short life.

 

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Hi friends! I wrote three little memoirs on writing, originally published as “Sticks and Stones” at Awkword Paper Cut. Sadly, APC is no more, but I enjoyed writing those pieces so much that I’m going to keep them going here on my blog. I’ll share the first three and then keep writing them, hopefully once per month. Here’s the first one.

 

Lost and Found

By Erica Goss

 

When I was thirteen, I kept my poems hidden in a felt-covered manila folder, titled “Homework.” One day my folder was missing; in a panic, I searched my room. No one was allowed to see those poems. I’d written about the pain of the last few years, my parents’ separation and our chaotic, financially unstable life, the strange places we’d lived, the countless trips towing a U-Haul trailer up and down I-5, and the ambivalence I felt at the physical changes of adolescence. I’d written about my parents and about boys who’d broken my heart. I’d written with the confidence that no one but me would ever see my poems.

 

Finally, I asked my father if he’d seen the folder. “Oh, yes, I took it,” he said. My stomach plummeted and I broke out in a sweat. “I typed up all of your poems and sent them to Carol.” “Carol” was Carol Tinker, fourth wife and future widow of Kenneth Rexroth. Carol and my father were good friends who talked on the phone late at night, mostly about Rexroth, the 1960s, and my father’s difficulties finding a job.

 

My father reached under his typewriter and handed me my folder. “Here you go,” he said. I never opened that folder again. Within minutes of retrieving it from my father, I dumped the whole thing into the trash.

 

Some time later, Carol wrote to my father: “All I have to say about Erica’s poems is, tell her to keep writing. Some of them were pretty good.” That was all – after I’d destroyed my archive in a fit of teen angst.

 

In 2010, while packing up my now-elderly father’s apartment, I came across a sealed box. I opened it, and on top I found a stack of neatly typed pages, held together with a binder clip. My poems.

 

The same emotions that had washed over me at age thirteen – surprise, embarrassment, and shame – now rolled over me in reverse: shame that I’d thrown away my poems, embarrassment at my rash act, and surprise that I’d found my poems after almost thirty-five years. In addition, I felt an enormous sense of relief, and gratitude towards my father for having saved this treasure. I wish I could have thanked him, but he was already gone, on a trip to his final home in Washington State.

 

A few months before he died in 2011, I visited my father in Washington. I told him I’d found the poems. He looked at me blankly. “The poems, my poems from 1974. Remember, you sent them to Carol?” He couldn’t remember. “Who’s Carol?” he asked.

 

Carol Tinker died in 2012, a year after my father. I never thought to ask her what she did with the poems he’d sent her. Had she sent them back? Were those the poems I’d found in the box? Or had my father made copies before he sent the poems to her?

 

I’ll never know.

 

 

Morning Poem

written at age 13

 

I’m afraid to say

the word “mountain”

for fear one might come

crashing down on my head

 

I’m afraid to move

for fear the air around me might break

and delicate eggshell birds

will come flying down on me.

 

 

 

 

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