Being in Place

by Katherine Soniat

“Over time I have come to think of these three qualities—paying intimate attention to where we are; a storied relationship to a place rather than a solely sensory awareness; and living in some sort of ethical unity with place—as a fundamental human defense against loneliness.”

—Barry Lopez

I was asked to write about how a writer can use craft to manifest “place” in poetry and fiction. Your home territory of course is one possibility, but more problematic are those geographies we travel to and through, sometimes quickly, ones that we want to record in an authentic and creative manner. Most of all we want those topographies to maintain a breathy sparkle, and not flatten into encyclopedic entries. Having used the locales of Crete, Peru, the high desert Southwest, and the Chesapeake Bay as backdrops for collections of poetry, I now ask myself how these poems came about—an issue many poets and fiction writers do not question during the creative process.

When I arrived in the Chesapeake Bay area, the Eastern Shore in particular, to start pondering what would become the collection Alluvial, I rented a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse for a month from a woman named Mindelle Moon who lived on Miracle House Road in Claiborne, Maryland. How could a poet resist the draw of such names? Contract signed, the synchronicities began to blossom from this watery landscape.

Never having visited that section of the Bay, I drove in through the county back roads with an audio recorder to catch my immediate impressions. No censorship. It was remarkable how fresh and available those broad fertile fields, old farmhouses, and my own imagination were. I lived in that schoolhouse with its single large room with thirteen windows on the Bay, alone, reading John Smith’s Diaries from 1609 that beautifully render his entry into this estuary. Smith, a military mercenary, writes eloquently of the huge natural abundance encountered—virgin forests and crystal waters not polluted by our latter-day fertilizers and agricultural overload spilling from the Susquehanna River Basin. This first visit to the Eastern Shore was the inception of a four-year writing project.

Thus, from these initial impressions and from reading Smith’s Diaries, I threaded an overlay of the personal and historic. Then, as I now see, my awareness shifted 180 degrees to unearth tidbit facts about life in the Bay. The poem below, “The Cup,” started to spin around my discovery that the oyster, through its filtration process, is the creature that has kept the Chesapeake Bay pristine for eons—until the last four decades.


Underground springs on a curl,
then out in the bay,

over the waves
and down,
an oyster at rest in its shell.

Plump gray cleanser of water,
thousands of gallons

for thousands of years. And always
we thought the world our cup,
the fresh green heft of it,

sun-glints at the bottom.
Then that spectacle was
almost all gone,
gotten away,
gotten way out of hand,

the farm-fed rivers flushing round
and round the bay:

this estuary
just another hole
where the birds and beasts once lived

filled with marsh reed collapsing.

“The Cup” is a short lyrical poem that pursues an important issue, and the image of a toilet flushing round and round was a figuration that grew from my writing, and ended up designing a poetic form that pushes each line forward at quite a clip. If I had set out to write a poem about the environmental disaster at work on this estuary, I would have gotten nowhere. I know that about my imagination—it shrivels at such polemical dictates. But almost subliminally, a canvas was stretched tautly between the underpinnings of history and a small factual gem. Not to wriggle too long in the left brain, I put pen to the page. Then, of course, there is lots of revision—a short poem often being the hardest kind to write well.

If you too would like to use place in either fiction or poetry, try immersing yourself in a defined segment of your topic’s history, then do some good factual reading concerning an object or life that attracts you. Sit back, stir, and be patient. Take those images created during the day to bed with you, dream on them, and see what evolves. Surprising yourself is one of the best rewards of writing.

Katherine Soniat’s fifth collection of poetry, The Swing Girl, is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press in 2011, and A Raft, A Boat, A Bridge, from Dream Horse Press will be out in 2012. Earlier collections include A Shared Life, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. New work is in recent issues of the Iowa Review; Antioch Review; Hotel Amerika; Image:Art, Faith, and Mystery; American Poetry Journal; and Mid-American Review. Having served on the faculty at Virginia Tech and Hollins University, she now teaches workshops in the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC-Asheville. For more: