“. . . if you can’t pull forth the riches of a place, don’t blame the place, blame yourself, because it is you who are not rich enough to pull them . . .” — Rilke
Tough words, especially for travel writers. We’re supposed to be so observant, so adept at translating our experiences and emotions into word pictures for our readers. At creating something that makes readers want to go where we’ve been, experience what we’ve experienced. A friend once called them “wordscapes.” It’s not always so easy.
I was recently invited to make a presentation about poetry at a writers conference here in Virginia. I thought: since I’m so steeped in the idea of travel right now, why not make it a travel poetry workshop, and we’ll even do a little writing? I’m pleased to say that it was a success, but the preparation and development of the workshop was a real education for me.
Knowing that “the journey” has been a constant and venerable theme in literature — from the Book of Exodus to Pilgrim’s Progress to Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote — I looked for the same theme in poetry. Sure enough, there are several among the greats: The Odyssey, of course. Canterbury Tales. The Divine Comedy. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. On a more contemporary front, I located two helpful books: Deep Travel, subtitled “contemporary American poets abroad,” edited by Prof. Sandra Meek and Songs for the Open Road, edited by the American Poetry & Literacy Project, which collected some of the classics, from Lord Byron and Edna St. Vincent Millay to Robert Frost and John Keats.
The poet Alfred Corn once wrote that every poem is a travel poem because of the inherent nature of what poetic language does. You have to enter into it. Poetry transforms language into something “rich and strange” — almost like the foreign languages we face when we travel abroad.
Armed with this knowledge, I was off. I had a topic that was worthy of study. I asked my students what they wrote about, how and when they journaled, if they had ever translated some of their journaling to poetry. Some had, and I was delighted.
We talked about what the very word “travel” conjured up for them. Vacations came up, of course. But also military service, peace corps and other volunteer opportunities and even going back to where you grew up. Then they added: what about going to work? Walking on the beach or through the woods? What about dreaming? Yes, I said. I think all of these constitute travel.
Then we talked about journaling — or capturing our experiences — and what to be aware of as we journal. Where are we? Why? How did we get here? What have we seen? Felt? Smelled? Tasted? What have we seen that we didn’t expect to see? What didn’t we see that we expected to see? When and where were we most afraid? Why? Who did we meet? How did it feel to be an outsider?
We talked about what kinds of things we could write about: history, architecture, food (my favorite!), a specific adventure, a mishap, people, politics, emotions, language, expectations . . . this list is endless. And I gave them a few ground rules:
(1) Travel journals are first drafts — you don’t have to show them to anybody, and don’t have to worry about grammar or punctuation.
(2) Get down the “memory triggers” first — don’t try to write full-blown prose or poetry the first time or you’ll likely miss something incredible while you’re holed up in your room writing — and you can always flesh things out later.
(3) Try sketching. Even if you’re not an “artist,” your drawings will remind you of what you saw, and might even become companion pieces to your written words.
(4) A tip from author Lavinia Spalding: when you’re on the road, send yourself postcards. When you get home, you’ll have a pictorial memory of the place, plus emotional, descriptive and factual prompts which can lead to poems. (You’ll also get to see how the postal system of the country you’re visiting works. I once had a postcard beat me home and another arrive about three months later — from the same place!)
So . . . what does travel poetry look and sound like? It can be a four-line Dickinson or Thoreau stanza or a multi-page Byron, Whitman or Ginsberg narrative. The thing is, I have been writing what I called “poetry of place” for many years. I never thought of it as travel poetry, but I realize now that that is exactly what it is. So here’s one of mine and one from a favorite contemporary poet, John Balaban:
Linda Dini Jenkins
I am making riboletta, the twice-cooked white bean soup
that my grandmother used to make,
while the others are back in Florence for the day
or soaking up sun here in the yard
The aroma of jasmine floats in from the pergola
mixing with the garlic from the big pot on the stove
to form a perfect memory of this place
Nonna, you were just a girl when you left here for New York
I wonder how easy it was to leave then,
while this was all still new,
and how you survived in the city
with this countryside in your blood, with these smells
in your skillful fingertips?
Passing Trough Albuquerque
At dusk, by the irrigation ditch
gurgling past backyards near the highway,
locusts raise a maze of calls in cottonwoods.
A Spanish girl in a white party dress
strolls the levee by the muddy water
where her small sister plunks in stones.
Beyond a low adobe wall and a wrecked car
men are pitching horseshoes in a dusty lot.
Someone shouts as he clangs in a ringer.
Bog winds buffet in ahead of a storm,
rocking the immense trees and whipping up
clouds of dust, wild leaves, and cottonwool.
In the moment when the locusts pause and the girl
presses her up-fluttering dress to her bony knees
you can hear a banjo, guitar, and fiddle
playing “The Mississippi Sawyer” inside a shack.
Moments like that, you can love this country.