Writing Exercise 23.1
In my previous post, I had a wonderful conversation with J.D. Isip about his new collection Kissing the Wound. One of the threads in these poems explores the way we are connected to place. One of the places J.D. writes about is The Carmelitos Public Housing Development where he grew up. While reading Kissing the Wound, I admired the way he was able to write about that place and others from multiple views such as from the present and the past, from the inside and the outside. I mentioned to J.D. how place-based writing is always on interest to me, and I asked if he had any advice for writing about place. I’ll share J.D.’s response here:
J.D. Isip: Yes, after reading Tamp, I can definitely see how important place is to you. My time in Carmelitos was from my childhood, over forty years ago. I think that distance in time helped me to be more objective. I like a lot of the ideas of psychogeography, the idea that there is a spiritual imprint on a place that never goes away, that there are times that keep playing over and over just beyond our vision. One might say that I write about Carmelitos from a place of disdain, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. It was a difficult place to exist in, but, going back to the idea of trauma, I think any place can be difficult to exist in depending on what you might be going through. Yes, I lived in the hood at the height of the Crips and the Bloods, but how does that compare to a middle-class woman in a seemingly loving relationship who just can’t find the will to get out of bed, the depression is so bad? So, for me, I try to think back to whatever I was holding onto – maybe it was my mom or my brother, maybe it was the beautiful neighbor boy who was kind to me, maybe it was my white-hot hatred for being poor or hungry. Whatever it was, I think you have to excavate it like an anthropologist (or whatever Indiana Jones was). You have to be willing to look at a past where you weren’t always right, where you made mistakes, where things weren’t always black and white.
My best advice here, and again, after reading your work, I think you might agree, is you have to talk to everyone you can who existed where you existed. Get their stories. See what they verify or contradict. If you can, use their voices. I like having other characters speak in my work. Yes, I am giving them those words, but I feel like there’s a little more ethos there. It’s like, “Oh, I believe everything about Spoon River, cause all these dead folks told me so!” Also, one of my mentors, Frank Gaspar, told me that the more specific you get in the details, the more universal your message can be. So, it’s not just this tree or that flower, it’s the specific kind, the color, the stage they are in growth, etc. For Camelitos, in “Carmelitos Ever After,” I wanted to take the reader through that psychogeographic journey – this is what was, what is, what ever shall be.
DL: One of my favorite poems in Kissing the Wound is “Leaving Krypton”. I quickly knew that I’d love to share this poem on my blog because the conceit is so interesting and makes for a wonderful prompt. Thanks to J.D. for allowing me to share the poem here.
It is better you had not stayed long enough to know
what alchemy binds us to a place, how extracting
yourself begins a dissolution, the cloud-capped
towers, the cracked cement slab you’d jump every
day on your way to school, the band you worshipped,
a dog you pet in your sleep, friends, parents, all
melt away before you think to look back, you think
turning around, just a glance, will be too much for you
and you are right, some ancient knowledge forces
your stare forward, drowns out the chain-reacting
atoms, the splitting crust of a world where once you
were essential as its gravity, its rotation, its sun—
But, O! What crests into view? A light you never felt
pulls you closer, a strength you’ve never had takes over,
and you are flying this foreign galaxy, feeling yourself
for the first time yourself, arms outstretched, open
to embrace a brand-new atmosphere, the sweet air,
a woman you kiss to sleep, adopted parents, friends, all
will need your new powers to survive this new adventure:
x-ray vision to see the imposters; piercing heat to bore
deep into layers of tradition, stubbornness, scars; a cold
breath for those who call you a false god; and the wisdom
to keep that shrunken city from this place as a reminder
we never fully lose the past, but what we knew is gone
the instant that we leave it.
DL: One reason I love “Leaving Krypton” is because it is infused with all of the qualities of place-based writing. Even though a specific place isn’t named, the reader gains a sense of the place based on the place’s specific imagery. The sense of that place is expanded by ideas of what will be left behind as well as what will be gained, as well as the strengths that were gained (and will be exported) as we leave the place we’re from. The title allows us to connect the place with the fictional Krypton even though we retain the sense that a more-realistic setting is being described. I asked J.D. if he could relay the inspiration for this poem, and how he came up with the idea to write it from the angle of what I assumed was Superman.
JI: Thank you for asking about this poem, means a lot. One of my best friends, Anne, whom the poem is dedicated to, had hit a real crossroads in her life. I talk a little about it in Kissing the Wound, specifically the prose piece, “A Wedding at Cana.” She’d been in this long, emotionally abusive relationship, her work situation was getting pretty bad, and she had just, pretty late in life, accepted that she was a lesbian. I mean damn, one of those would put me under! After a lot of me and other friends telling her to leave this place, she finally did. She did it for her and for her son. And it was one of the bravest, scariest things I’d ever seen a person do.
I wanted to write something to say goodbye. Superman is one of my favorite characters, so of course I thought of him. But I actually thought of Kara, Supergirl. But Anne and Kal shared more, so I just followed Kal’s story. And I threw in a couple of nods to things she’d know were me saying goodbye – the “O” for Walt Whitman and the “cloud capped towers” for Shakespeare. I wrote it in one night, and I read it to her as she was driving away. We both cried. My hope was that she would see her move as so much bigger than it was, and that she wasn’t only running away from her past but running toward her future. I’m a cheesy person. It took everything in me not to say somewhere, “The S stands for hope” – but it’s implied.
Prompt: If you’d like to use “Leaving Krypton” as a prompt for your own poem, then you probably need to begin with the title by which I also mean you begin with a fictional place. This should be informed by your own interests and likes. J.D. Isip loves to call himself a nerd because he likes, among other things, comic books and superheroes. Krypton is immediately recognizable to most readers. So begin by selecting a fictional place to draw on that will also be fairly recognizable: Gotham, Neverland, The Emerald City, Mansfield Park, Yoknapatawpha County.
Begin your poem, not with this fictional place but with details from the real place that you are writing about. Or from your life if you’re writing about yourself. Think about J.D.’s “cracked cement slab you’d jump every / day on your way to school.” That could be from anywhere, but it feels meaningful because the reader understands it’s from personal experience.
The important factor about the fictional place you pick is that you must know some strengths about the character related to that place. Because you will want to draw on those strengths as your work through your own poem.
I think this is an exercise that can be applied, not only to poetry, but to creative nonfiction and fiction. Give it a try. And if you are able to write something from this prompt, send it to me. I’d love to see it.
In the meantime, don’t forget to buy Kissing the Wound by J.D. Isip, available from online retailers and your local bookstore. And make sure you never miss a post by subscribing.