Riverwalking: The Story of “North”

The impetus for my poem “North” came from an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “The Moose.”  The premise of Bishop’s poem is that the speaker is riding a bus, leaving a familiar town, and a moose blocks the road in the countryside.  The poem is memorable for the description of the moose, but the angle I was after was the description of the journey leaving town.  I attended the Bear River Writer’s Conference a couple years ago, and writing a “departure” poem was one of the assignments in the workshop I attended with Richard Tillinghast. He handed out Bishop’s poem for us to get in the mindset of description.

List of sub-national animals

The poem I wrote at the time didn’t work out, but I kept the idea, writing about a departure, and later came back to it, with the idea of writing a poem about leaving Big Rapids on foot.  There is a river trail (the Riverwalk) that I can walk to from my house that meets up with the White Pine Trail.  The impetus for a poem is important to me: one question I continually ask as a poet is what are poems about? Because each time I sit down to write, I swear I don’t know.

Walking is also important to me.  It helps clear the mind, which is important, since I have adult ADD.  When life gets too overwhelming, I walk (because I’m usually too out of shape to run).  Lots of poems occur to me on walks and bike rides or while running. I think the exercise helps focus the mind, and some vague notions I might have floating around crystallize.  The excursions themselves often become the subjects of poems, and I’ve been known to dictate lines into my iPod Touch while walking.

In this case, after a particularly bad day, I went for a long walk, about four miles round trip.  I decided to walk until I felt better and then turned around, but I kind of waited too long and my legs let me know it on the way back.  At some point later on, I thought I wanted to write about that feeling, about feeling closed in, wanting to escape, not getting relief for a long while, realizing I went too far. In the writing, I wanted to recreate that feeling as reflected in the landscape going by during the walk.

I wrote the first draft of the poem longhand in a Moleskine notebook with my horrible, all-caps handwriting. I’m kind of a notebook snob: Moleskines are expensive, but have fantastic paper and binding.  I don’t have to have a Moleskine to write, but I like them a lot.  (If you want to buy me a Christmas present . . .) I was also writing with a fountain pen at the time,  but I usually can’t keep ink in it and so will write with whatever cheap stick pen I have around.

After a couple of days I typed it, making edits as I worked.  And I put it away for awhile and revisited it later.  Other than changing it to couplets and tweaking word choices and line breaks, there weren’t any major rewrites on this poem.

I chose the form of couplets with somewhat regular line lengths because I like the opportunities such a form creates.  The line breaks help emphasize certain words, and the frequent stanza breaks also emphasize the beginnings and endings of stanzas and each stanza can be seen as a “step” on this journey.  I realized, sometime after this poem, that my overall basic line unit was being dictated by how many words I can fit on a line in my notebook, so I often use different sized notebooks or double up the lines when I type to get out of that rut now.

I also like using second person, “you,” to write about myself.  Using “I” can seem too much like complaining sometimes, too confessional in a bad way, and talking about yourself in third person is just weird (and is currently the territory of Herman Cain).

Now, it’s important to note that if you walk away from my house for two miles, you will find the places I describe but not in the order I describe them.  To me, a poem is art with words that expresses some truth.  The goal I am after in an autobiographical poem is to render the “truth” of an internal state of being  through the emotional colorings of words on the page.  In order to do that, I don’t have to be 100% accurate in the factual details.  In some way, what actually happened doesn’t matter so much as what I do with what happened. There is a relationship between the events, my memory, and the poem; I’m not writing about walking on Mars or something.  But I don’t have to burden myself with being totally accurate in the external details if it doesn’t dramatize the internal state I’m after.  Plus, I have a poor memory for certain details anyway (ADD, remember?).  I remember images strongly, but not the order of them or names attached to them.  In fact, when I read someone else’s poem in a journal or in a workshop, I am often not that interested in the actual story of an autobiographical poem than in what the poet does with it.  If the language and sentiment and form are interesting, I don’t care so much about the plot.  You could write about Spongebob and it would be interesting to me if it were fresh and full of insight.

SpongeBob's Truth or Square

I was pretty happy with the result, and thought I could submit it to journals.  I submitted it to three different journals over time and it was rejected without comment from each.

In February of 2009, on a really snowy Michigan day, I met Foster Neil at a reading.  As part of the Festival of the Arts in Big Rapids, Phillip Sterling, one of my colleagues at Ferris State University had organized a faculty reading.  It was a great event, held at the Comstock House, a bed and breakfast in town.  Upwards of twenty faculty members from all disciplines brought their own writing to read, and we had a great time.

Foster is a local poet, originally from Big Rapids, who had earned a degree in poetry from Antioch and came back home.  He’s made it his life’s work to bring poetry to the public since then.  He runs a publication, The Michigan Poet, and he prints broadsides (posters) that he distributes in local businesses and schools and anywhere else someone might hang a poster.  At the time, he just wanted to talk to other local poets.

After I knew him for a while, he asked me if I had any poems that might fit his project.  There are some limitations to what he considers for publication: the poems have to be 25 lines or less to fit on the poster and, because he gives them to local schools, they can’t have anything overtly sexual, religious, political, etc.  It’s also helpful if they reflect the season or the Michigan landscape in some way.

I prepared a few poems for submission, and “North” fit every criteria except the length.  In the version I submitted, I end with these lines:

Past the last houses and
the old gas fields and

you’ve made it to the open.
When you wish to be gone

this is the way you go.

The last line is not a couplet, so it breaks the “rules” of the poem, but a form works in part through both regularity and variation, so I don’t have a problem with that.  It gives extra emphasis to the last line, and suggests that there’s more than one meaning there.  An alternate version I have (and the version I keep on my blog) adds these lines:

this is the way you go.
Your legs tell you when it’s

far enough to make it back
unless you are too far gone

to listen. In that case,
listen to the jays

and crows and fear
their warnings instead.

I kind of like the jays in crows in there, but these extra lines may be more telling, not showing, so I’m not sure which is the best version.  If this poem ever makes it into a book collection, then I’ll have to make a choice.

In December of 2010, the poem came out.  Foster posted it around town and in schools and online.  I’ve published poems before, and they often seem like they disappear into the ether.

Not this time.  For the next two months, I got comments from all sorts of people: other faculty members, students, and acquaintances.  They often would say, “Hey, I saw your poem at Snyder’s.  Cool!”  It was very satisfying to feel like I had actual readers for awhile.

The poem still hangs on my office door and in the hallway in my building, and students and colleagues comment on it sometimes. Very recently a friend and I had a good conversation about it.  One day, when I wasn’t there, her middle school son was with her in the office and had read the poem and said, “Hey, what’s he got against middle schoolers?”  She told him that the poem was me giving advice to my own son, who is autistic.  Although that wasn’t my intent with the poem it’s not an unreasonable assumption because I write a lot of poems about raising a son with autism.

I’m not given to the idea of the correct interpretation of the poem.  There has to be some connection between the poem and the interpretation (the interpretation has to be defensible with evidence from the poem), but I’m okay with a different reading of it.  I had never thought of my poem in that way, and that’s been the best outcome of publishing this poem, the continuing conversation.