Much of your poetry draws inspiration
from the peculiar mix of natural and industrial beauty that is
Pennsylvania. Do you perceive your speakers as emerging "from the
land," as it were, or as careful (sometimes ecstatic) cartographers of
a new landscape?
In other words, does authority in your poetry come from familiarity or
It was a big relief to me when I reread
these lines from James Tate’s poem “Initiation” and discovered (stole)
the title of my book: “How strange, / I thought I was new here.” Tate’s
uncanny reckoning, I thought, crystallized so many of my griefs and
fascinations about both Pennsylvania and poetry. Back in 2003 I
moved to Factoryville, PA (roughly eight miles from my childhood home
in Clarks Summit) to live with my family for the summer before going to
grad school in Chicago the following fall. Factoryville was new
to me, but not new at all. It had all the familiar scars and
gothic features that I had known for so long, but everything looked
more tedious and beautiful to me during this time; I don’t know
why—possibly because I was moving there from Pittsburgh, and was easily
spooked by my new and thorough solitude.
After a false start as a pizza delivery boy, I took a job working
graveyard shifts in a CD factory, a scarce vestige of industrial work,
so much of which is gone now from Northeastern PA, or manifests only in
ghostly wrecks of buildings, old culm piles grown over with scraggy
trees, guided mine tours and the like. I would drive home on
Route 6 & 11 at 6:30 in the morning. The hills were clotted
with mist from the creek. There were dead deer flung in haphazard
contortions of martyrdom along the shoulder of the road. The
apoplectic pickup trucks that rushed around me on the highway reminded
me again and again that this place was not mine. But it was
essential to me still. I loved it almost as much as I feared it.
My speakers are outsiders. They don’t belong where they love, if
you’ll forgive that grammatical jumble. But they have a lifetime
of observations on which to draw in order to articulate their
estrangement. They are above all ambivalent. They are
cartographers of their confusion. They are trying to be reborn
but they are no good at it; and for that reason, every potential moment
of rebirth lapses into (painful) memories of past lives.
They are ecstatic about the prospect of leaving and returning but never
about being where they are. I’d like to go home, be closer to my
family, be new there again, but I can’t. I can live there in my
imagination, but not in fact.