Margaret Randall asks “What makes you write?”
What makes you write? What sort of memory, idea, event or even sound or smell charges your creative impulse to the point where you have to stop whatever it is you are doing and begin a poem or prose text? Revision—that long process of adding or subtracting, changing words around, polishing—may take months or years. But there is always some instant when the creative spark is lit, the poem is born.
This month I taught in Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program and also at The Taos Summer Writers Conference. I’ve had great students, and seen a variety of such moments when the idea for a piece begins to take shape. Working with students (who so often end up being teachers as well), I’ve been thinking about what prompts my own work.
My new book, Ruins, just appeared from The University of New Mexico Press. All the poems in the collection—which also includes 37 of my black and white photographs made in ruins around the world—are either philosophically or actually rooted in ancient sites. The first poem in the book is “Places We Call Home.” It has its genesis at Chaco Canyon:
Places We Call Home
This is the center, the great hub,
its spokes moving arrow-straight
to the cardinal directions.
Roads wide as runways,
perhaps more for ritual than travel,
to a thousand outlier communities
north as far as Betatakin and Kiet Seel,
south to Paquimé.
The Great Houses stand either side
of this broad wash, under hovering cliffs
and sky that is always blue
even when roiling clouds
bulk before releasing
On the desert water can kill
as surely as it saves.
Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, Kin Kletso,
Pueblo Alto and Casa Rinconada:
names that inhabit the mouth
or slip off the tongue
from early inhabitants, explorers
and scholars, sometimes
reflecting what happened here
and sometimes not.
Shimmying up the long fracture of rock
above Pueblo Bonito
my camera pack catches in the narrow crack.
I turn to free myself
and move to where I look down
on the half-moon like a scale model,
its tiny figures appearing
and disappearing room to room.
I have come here with the woman
I love, intending to camp
then dissuaded by mosquitoes.
With grandchildren I must convince
to leave broken pottery where it lies.
Friends who suffer in the midday heat
or cannot still
their racing hearts.
Each visit I look for the mountain lion:
tiny petroglyph figure on the cliff
that borders a trail
linking one great house with another.
Each visit I run my hand
the length of Chetro Ketl’s wall,
ponder its array of kivas
or strain to glimpse the moqui steps I’ll never climb.
January 22, 1941: I was four years old
when thirty thousand tons of rock
fractured and fell on Pueblo Bonito,
destroying its north wall
and sixty-five rooms. What other
Chaco dates weave in and out
of mine, before during
or beyond my passage?
There will always be a next time
I tell myself, another visit
to contemplate Wetherill’s shame
or learn about the 18.2-year intervals
when earth and sky align
and a sliver of light
descends a wall,
changing the course of history.
Here swallows nest in little pockets of mud
on sandstone walls that drip
with desert varnish,
petroglyphs bear rude bullet holes,
each season picks up
where the one before it vanished,
and the sun always keeps
its promise to itself.
Maybe I lived here once or visited
from north or south.
Maybe the tiny turquoise bead
you placed in my hand
is from a string I wore
eight hundred years ago.
Maybe we all return
to the places we call home.
I’ll be launching Ruins at Alamosa Books (8810 Holly Ave. NE, Ste. D – near Trader Joe’s), on Saturday, August 13 at 2. p.m. Richard Vargas runs the Saturday afternoon readings at Alamosa, our newest independent bookstore with a stock that will take your breath away.
On Sunday, October 9th at 3 p.m., I’ll be down at Acequia Books (4019 Fourth Street NW) participating in (P)EAR, a great new series organized by Lisa Gill. Lisa pairs local writers to talk about their craft, and these events have been unusual and exciting. I’ll be paired with Mitch Rayes. If you don’t yet know it, Acequia Books, run by Gary Wilkie, is a used and rare bookstore where you might find something you’ve wanted for years. It has also developed a steady audience for its Sunday afternoon readings.
And on Sunday, November 13th at 10:30 a.m., I’ll be reading from RUINS at Albuquerque’s own Church of Beethoven. Church of Beethoven features short sets by poets along with exquisite music, much of it performed by the city’s excellent musicians from the Symphony, chamber music groups, and other ensembles.
I hope people in our great Albuquerque community will join me at one or more of these events.