Pudding House Press, a small press in Columbus, Ohio, has recently released the first chapbook by Jared Leising who says he is a Midwest Poet, a regional poet, which might strike some people as an odd and even humble declaration from a poet when every poet is a mouse click away from every other poet on the entire planet. Any poet with access to a word processor can launch a Web browser capable of exchanging poetry with poets in Perth or Timbuktu.
What exactly is Jared Leising? Is he actually a regional poet? He grew up in the Midwest, and this is a chapbook of poetry rooted in the dirt of the Midwest, and really very few things could be as locally specific as dirt. In ” Loess” Leising writes ” But, this dirt made me, I can’t help it.” The poems are Midwestern poems.
It seems odd to me that Leising would place himself so firmly in the Midwest. Doesn’t he risk seeming, well, provincial? Novelist Ellen Glasgow wrote, ” I would write of the universal, not the provincial, in human nature. [ …] I would write of characters, not of characteristics.” Balzac cuts right to the chase about provincialism: “The country is provincial; it becomes ridiculous when it tries to ape Paris.” And yet, the romantic tradition asserts that poets can find the universal in the particular. Martin Amis wrote that ” Every writer hopes or boldy assumes that his life is in some sense exemplary that the particular will turn out to be universal.” The writer who writes about life observed cannot help I think but take this risk, that they will end up writing about the mundane and boring. Who are you to tell me these things, to spend my time, a reader, or a critic, or more likely another writer, might ask. But really, who is anyone? I think that’s what these writers are trying to answer.
Leising was educated in a creative writing program not in the Midwest but in Houston founded by the Texan, although born in Philadelphia, writer Donald Barthelme. Although to imply that Barthelme was Texan would be to say that Coca-Cola is a carbonated beverage from Atlanta. Barthelme is as close to the dirt as Astroturf. To be educated as a poet at the University of Houston, I imagine, is to be educated in poetry of national scope — neigh international scope! — instead of the crusty, soddy scope of Arapahoe, Nebraska. Leising has taught for a number of years now in the Pacific Northwest at Cascadia Community College. And so what then is Jared Leising? How can he claim to be a regional poet in this late age when second and third generation Vietnamese families live in Louisiana, Russians and Indians populate Seattle, and Dixie, and Yankee novelists subsist on the same low-fat diet of cholesterol-free stodge and drink fruit juices filled with apples from Chili, China, and Spain?
Even so Leising insists, ” Bony greenbean bridges trapeze stonewaves shattered to gravel in a room by men who’ve drankslappeddrank slept red with hands clenched, moon-husked gleaning harvest scars, white grain elevator explosions…” a sequence of syllables and words that rise out of the Midwest loess in a way that would not happen in a region where grain elevators and harvest moons and husking and green bridges do not exist. This is a sentence that is not one likely to occur in Seattle, for instance, although it did because a Midwestern wrote it while in Seattle, and correspondingly I’ve written it down here wherever here is. The book itself is named after a sequence of lines lifted from the dangling lines in a typeset edition (the widows and orphans) of Winesburg, Ohio a book central to naturalistic American fiction but also, I suspect, a book central to Midwestern Lit such as Cornhuskers, in our time, and Sister Carrie or to Pacific Northwestners, Honey in the Horn, Sometimes a Great Notion, and The Egg, and I.
Regionalism as Leising is explicitly expressing it here is described not just by dirt and the other directly physical tokens of a place, but by the string of syllables and words expressed by people from a region. Some of these poems could happen anywhere. Home Box Office for instance is narrated by someone listening to an entire trailer park eavesdropping on a loud domestic fight. ” I’m lying / in line, listening carefully / on an 8-foot futon beside / Hell’s box office.” But, set alongside the other poems, consistent with the place and time of the Midwest it is a Midwestern poem.
Regionalism has really failed (so far I hope), I think, to make a revival. There is periodic, if unsustained, interest in the Oregon, Hawaii, Brooklyn, and other places with specific names. I’m less familiar with regional movements elsewhere in the country. The South has managed to define itself around writers such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner and continues to produce writers such as William Gay and even produced an annual anthology or two of work somehow organized by region. Poets however usually do not strike me as belonging to regional schools.
The practice of graduate school admissions is to discourage students from attending a school in the same region where they grew up or attended school as an undergraduate. When one considers that most graduates of graduate programs end up in living in the city where they attended graduate school, you end up with a mechanism that has the unintended consequence of shuffling writers away from their regions of origin. The separation from their homes becomes even more radical for those writers interested in entering the academic caste. These writers must undergo a lengthy apprenticeship working as nomadic instructors working visiting lecture jobs waiting for a position to open, at which point they end up far form home. Thus, we end up West Coast writers such as Chuck Kinder living for decades in Pittsburgh, Seattle author Michael Byers living in Michigan, and Midwestern Leising working in Bothell.
In the denatured environments of graduate schools and often practice a kind of poetry, such as language poetry, suspicious of or completely unconcerned with ” the referent,” and the ways in which locals use language except as a kind of ” spice.” But, this is not to say that regional poetry does not exist — rather it is difficult to find. For example, David Smith strikes me as more of an academic poet than a Southern Poet. In contrast, Charles Potts is a Northwest Poet of a more natural origin.
I sometimes hope that regionalism can be defined in a way palatable to writers who are suspicious of languages tie to the physical world. Maybe regionalism can be defined by the occurrence of specific words and the juxtaposition of certain patterns? In this way, Leising is regional. He writes in that Midwestern style the one used by Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Carl Sandberg. Leising thinks about American dirt and corn, and that strikes me as Midwestern as anything.