Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

  Tallgrass Trail

Hiking Trail, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Chase County, Kansas



I love it when a writer, in her poem or short story, gives me the native’s tour of a small town. Maybe she takes me to her town’s only tavern where several locals sit at the bar, and she tells me the story of each person there.

In the dimly lit room, with Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” playing on the juke box, perhaps the poet will show me the initials that she carved into a wooden table, and point out that it has always bothered her that the “Gals” sign on the restroom door is crooked.

That is the kind of writing that excites me, the stories of place. And I suppose that’s why I tend to write so much about place myself. I write about what I know: open pastures, my dusty hometown, or my grandma’s farmhouse, because for me it’s the details that bring a place to life.

The other day, Dave gave me a book called “Good Poems – American Places” compiled by Garrison Keillor. Over 100 poets are represented in this volume including William Stafford, Jane Kenyon, Sharon Olds, Walt Whitman, Ted Kooser and Charles Bukowski.

The book has poets I’ve read and poets I haven’t. What I love about poetry is the power that each word carries. A poem’s strength is its brevity; so much is conveyed in so few words.

This book in particular makes me happy because each of these poems focuses on a setting: a Laundromat, a Greyhound bus, a hardware store, a gravel road in Nebraska.

What kind of place is worth writing about? It can be anything, anywhere. It can be any moment that we look around and notice things. Perhaps it’s an antique store where we hear the whirr of a ceiling fan, notice fingerprints on the glass counter, and paw through a bowl of costume jewelry that was worn by someone else’s mother.

To feel a sense of place, it’s about being fully present, to take in what’s going on around us.

Maybe we’re in a wooden barn and we see horse hair caught in a hasp. We catch the smell of horses, even if horses haven’t been there for a decade. Light enters the barn from above and we look up to see that roof slats are missing, replaced by the summer sky.

We’ve been in countless places in our lives and for some of them we attach a level of importance, for whatever reason. Maybe there’s a certain emotion involved, or a connection to a friend. When thinking of a particular place, we might recall thoughts we had there, or maybe a song we heard while standing in that spot.

I can think of a hundred places that I’d like to describe myself, places that come to mind while reading through this book of poems. Each topic brings a rush of ideas.

If the topic is rivers, I will, of course, first think of the Arkansas River located about a mile south of Pawnee Rock. When the river still had water in it, my friends and I watched high school boys leap from the wooden bridge into the stream. I was always nervous crossing that bridge; the low railing was uncertain, slapped together with 2 X 4s.

My memories of the river go in a dozen directions – the time my friends and I spotted a mattress overhead in a tree and wondered who had hauled it up there. It was on the banks of the Arkansas that my dad, in his 30s at the time, taught my brother and me how to skip rocks across the water. I remember hunting morel mushrooms here with my mom.

So, if a Pennsylvania writer describes a stream, the Arkansas River will naturally to come to my mind. And other readers will be thinking of their own personal river.

Good writing introduces us to new perspectives, things we had never considered. But good writing also brings us back to our own selves, and reminds us how and where we fit into the world around us.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

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