A list, not a map

A list from Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual

Whenever I move to a new place, I find that getting lost is essential. I’ve never been very good at top-down, abstract forms of orientation. I have to feel my way around. I drive, walk, take a bus. Certain locations become reference points, often unusual ones. I remember a street because of a particular laundromat or the bright purple paint job on a house. 

That subject-position of being disoriented, uncertain, and unacclimated will be my approach to this series of commentaries, wherein I explore Detroit poetry as a complete outsider, a new-comer, a non-expert. I hope this approach will have some value. Over the last 6 months, I’ve learned that Detroit is a place burdened with an excess of mythology, stereotypes, and outsider perceptions.  I can’t think of any other city about which strangers are willing to speak so authoritatively. When I told family and friends that I was moving to the Detroit area, I was beset with proclamations, many of them coming from people who had never visited the city. This series will be written with a certain anxiety about stereotypes, even as I will inevitably replicate some of them. 

Thinking about the poetic geography of a place complicates things even more. As I’ve been preparing for this project, I’m acutely aware of the tensions Stephanie Young describes in her own series of commentaries on the Bay Area. What metaphor do you use to describe the relationships between communities? What map correlates the literary geography of poetry, poets, venues, publishers, and scenes to the physical and social spaces of the city itself? (Perhaps a counter-map, to borrow from Dee Morris and Stephen Voyce?) And what is lost if you even attempt that correlation?

Unlike Young’s relationship to the Bay Area, I am thinking about these questions as an outsider, or, at best, an insider-in-training. And even insiders can create false images. When someone tells you that New York or Chicago or Seattle is a “great city,” so often they are referring to a particular archipelago within the city as a whole, often a space of privilege or shared identity grounded in race, class, gender, political orientation, or aesthetics. They exclude other spaces and peoples from that definition, at times without realizing it, and suddenly it becomes, as George Oppen well knew, very difficult to actually represent or speak of a city. 

If I had to use a metaphor, I think I would borrow and extend Young’s goal, which was to use the Jacket2 commentary series to push herself beyond her “neck of the woods.” As a newcomer, I have no natural habitat. I’m simply trying to learn the basic contours of the landscape. To that end, I’m calling this account “field notes,” an incomplete record, a draft of a draft. Over the next months, I will offer an accidental list of poetry in the broadest of senses, wherever I find it, wherever it leads me. I’ll leave the mapping and counter-mapping for others, more qualified than myself, hoping that the observations published here might contribute to that project to come.