In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa. I had met authors before — after standing in lines to get books signed by them; as visiting writers at university, where a healthy distance and a microphone separated student from author during the Q&A; or, when I was in graduate school, at the professor-house parties, where informality ruled, fueled by friendship between the visiting writer and the professor/host. This interview, though, represented the first time I would have direct, professional interaction with a celebrated author, one whom I had studied; I could not shake the intimidation and awe in which this interview blanketed me. Also, I could not shake my fear of appearing underprepared; being a student of literature and creative writing, I did not have the journalistic chops and had never performed an interview. I feared I would appear an amateur, so I prepared my list of questions based on the reading I’d done of his work. During the interview, I did not have the gut instincts to delve into the more important of his responses; I blindly turned to the next question on my list or allowed my own interests to lead me down some patently obvious lane. In my ignorance, I missed the chance to follow his thought down an alley which has become an important one to me as a writer.
A child of the South, I found it impossible not to read and study Southern literature and one of its most exposited characteristics — Place. It lay, posed in the works of Southern authors I read, like a frog in Biology class, something to dissect and tease apart but not to manipulate for its own ends. Aware that Komunyakaa hailed from Louisiana, I posed what seemed the obvious question — had he found that images and impressions from his youth in the South had insinuated their way into his work? He answered:
Yes, I think so, especially in the book, Magic City, because that’s really about my childhood-adolescent experiences. But also I think what happens is that we, as people, internalize terrains and, consequently, those internalized terrains become psychological overlays for whatever we experience or even dream about later on.
At the time, I had been writing a series of poems, a fictional, serialized account of love gone bad, captured in snapshots of image and word, moment and action. Unconsciously, I had myself internalized the terrain of the small Mississippi town to which I had recently moved — smoky bars with peanut shells on the floor; curbsides on the town square late at night, concrete parking blocks still warm in the humid Summer air; the snake-sweet smell of woods in summer and musty leaf of winter. I had used all of these images to give the protagonist and denizens of my poems a landscape. Komunyakaa’s insight galvanized me. Place was not something in which an author planted his characters. Rather, in using the term Terrain, Komunyakaa’s response suggests to me something I had missed in my studies; the by-ways and highways in which characters lived, not merely inhabited, could tell as much about them as their own actions, could be every bit as much a character as them.
To this day, the work that speaks most clearly to me provides its characters that necessary Terrain. Billy Lafitte, the anti-hero protagonist of Anthony Neil Smith’s Yellow Medicine and Hogdogging, stomps and blazes his way across the windswept reaches of Southwestern Minnesota, Southeastern South Dakota, and any number of locales in between and beyond, in many ways every bit as barren as the landscape suggests. Likewise, in Tom Franklin’s Hell At The Breach, the claustrophobic woods and weedy creeks enliven the tensions between its characters. In this novel of chaos and feud, a bulwark of forest, known as the Bear Thicket, serves as more than the metaphorical boundary between Town and County; it swallows characters whole in its voraciousness.
Much more than simply Place, as I had misunderstood it in my youth, Terrain becomes as much a character in a story or poem as those that wander through it, feeding on the narrative force it provides, sometimes falling prey to it themselves. It is. It lives, it breathes, and it speaks volumes as I wade through it in search of the story taking place across it. For now, as a writer, the terrain that surrounds me, that exists within me, seems at once immense and rapacious. Sometimes it’s a wonder I can leave the house at all.