Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Spirit of Location: Mapping Tomorrow, Mike Sonksen

We need an alternative social geography to promote tolerance & perspective

historical reference to celebrate

the power of place

to understand the past & illuminate the present

There are two primary methods of doing research and deeper investigation on a place or a subject. First, there is physically going to the location, spending time there and talking with others who have been there.

The second method is to read previous essays, stories and other writings about the location, author or subject in question. As a longtime journalist as well as poet, I have spent many years doing both.

Both methods of research performed in tandem enable a writer to achieve deeper knowledge and move towards being an authority on the topic. I have an equal love for both the physical research, what some call “pounding the pavement,” and the voracious reading that comes from the other method of research.

In conjunction with both methods of research, the spirit behind my poetry and prose is guided by geography, public history and respect. Respect to my elders and those who came before me. This ties in especially to geography and history. As Susan Schulten writes: “geography grounds events in space and history grounds them in time. Every space has a story.”

Multiple stories. Every landscape is a palimpsest with generations of stories. I try and record as many of them as I can. At the same time, the idea is to inspire others to do the same.

Mapping a human tomorrow refers to the possibilities of a more enlightened world. The historical references are meant to show where we have been. The reminders are also there so we do not forget.  

Rewriting memories is attaching stories

to spaces

speaking          landscapes

the spirit of location

   generations    of oral histories

                                    collections of public memories

  Anchoring experiences to Place

A scheme of arrangements, a utilitarian framework

A city of emotional landmarks

                                                      Mapping a human tomorrow

Back in 2001, I was interviewing the poet Lewis MacAdams, the founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, at his house and he showed me a book that had been very influential to him. It was Investigative Poetry, by Ed Sanders.

MacAdams let me borrow it under the condition that I would return it soon. Like MacAdams, the key concepts espoused by Sanders stayed with me. The subtitle explains the work further: “that poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history.”

Sanders advocates for ideas like, “presenting data on the page,” and “story wheels as ‘memory gardens.’” In later works like America: A History in Verse: Volume 1, 1900-1939 and 1968: A History in Verse, he uses these techniques to record historic events in verse. I have always been driven by a similar impulse, and for this reason, I have always connected to Sanders’ work. 

The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal writes “documentary poetry” kindred to Sanders in books like, Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems. The poetry scholar Robert Pring-Mill writes about Cardenal’s poetry in the book’s “Introduction” stating: “These poems demand more than just an alert response, because the poet wishes to prod us beyond thought and into action: his texts are never just concerned to document and understand reality, but also to help change it… But the data have to be recorded before reality can be reshaped, and the reshaping lies beyond the poems themselves: the changes for which the poet yearns lie in the future.”

I follow the template set forth by Sanders and Cardenal. The many years I have worked as a journalist further reinforce my urge to record historical narratives. As Cardenal’s quote correctly notes, reality needs to be recorded before it can be reshaped and therefore “investigative poetry,” and the closely related “documentary poetry,” are critical actions for mapping a human tomorrow.


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