The act of attention
An interview with Melissa Reeser Poulin in response to Harney City Park
Many of the locations that I have visited with poets for this project are well-known and loved spots in Portland — parks with impressive trees or elaborate fountains — spots that are lavished with attention and public funding. I was grateful for the shift in context and perspective offered by Melissa Reeser Poulin’s chosen spot, Harney City Park. It is a small, nondescript square of grass in the far southeast corner of Portland, surrounded by an unassuming neighborhood of diverse races and cultures. The park is one of the few spots of green in an area where commercial and residential sprawl dominate the landscape.
My interview with Melissa took place on a rainy, windy day. The park is flat and exposed and wind barreled through it, rattling my raincoat against my recorder. Sadly, the audio of our interview was rendered unintelligible. Melissa generously salvaged the effort by responding to my questions in writing, instead. She discusses the importance of rooting into and listening to the place where you live, cultivating openness, and writing as a transcendent act.
Daniela Molnar: Why did you choose the place you chose?
Melissa Poulin: I spent several weeks trying to settle on a place, looking for somewhere really “natural” and “wild.” The Oregon coast, the Gorge, the richly vegetated gullies of Tryon Creek State Park — these places conform to my ideal definitions of those terms. But I realized that these are not the places I turn to on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis for renewal and connection.
I grew up in suburban southern California, writing on a concrete front doorstep about what nature I could find around me. I wrote poems about the sunset, the sound of the pigeons and doves on our roof, wind in the neighbors’ palm trees, ants and bees. I had no trouble, then, in finding the natural and the wild right where I was, and including myself in it.
Living in Oregon has changed me. I’m hooked on the particular wildness of this place, especially the raw edges where dense forest meets the Pacific. The beaches here are nothing like the cigarette-and-sunblock scented beaches of my childhood. But those were the beaches that taught me about my size and my limitations as a human creature on earth. Though the sand was dredged and crowded and plastic-strewn, I spent hours drifting on waves that came from the wild heart of the earth.
So I decided to write about a place like that, and to look at “nature” without blinders on. Harney Park is practically in my backyard. It’s manmade, manicured. It’s where I run, getting the blood moving through my body after hours indoors, teaching or writing. It’s where my husband and I take slow laps, catching up on the day and noticing the subtle changes in the trees and flowers that tell us where we are in the wheel of seasons. After the snow storms this winter, there was an impromptu party—everyone dragging makeshift sleds out to the sudden snow park. I know my neighbors through sharing this space. In the summer, I like to take a book and a blanket into the grass and settle into the park’s particular (natural) sounds: kids playing basketball and softball and soccer, family birthday parties, dogs and remote-control airplanes.
It’s not my ideal place, but it’s my place—for better or worse. Gary Snyder writes about rooting into the natural world wherever you are, whether in a dense urban block or a small mountain town. I wanted to write about Harney Park because it’s where I live, in the broadest sense of the word.
D: What is your approach to understanding a place? Poet Alice Oswald talks about her process of getting to know a place as trying to assume the “eye of a landscape,” trying to understand “water in the eyes of water.” What points of view do you try to assume when you write in response to a place? What actions do you take or not take?
M: In some ways, the experience of writing a poem in response to place is no different from writing any other kind of poem. At its best, it’s a transcendent act. A poem’s gift is in getting me to leave behind my conception of myself as independent. Trying to step out of my limited perspective and see a place, while still holding onto that perspective—I mean, we don’t have much choice in the matter.
I think about Czesław Milosz’s work, writing about exile, the impossibility of return. A poem and a place are both porous, ghosted. I think about H.D.’s Trilogy and poetry as palimpsest: we are always responding to history and creating the future. So, I’m not sure if I can identify actions so much as just trying to cultivate openness and see my own prejudices and biases. (And failing.)
As a teaching writer for Literary Arts’ Writers In the Schools, I spent a semester working with high school students, exploring just these questions. How do you record a place? What does a place really “sound” like, beyond the literal soundtrack? How can we hear and include the unspoken and silenced voices?
We tried all kinds of approaches, including Alice Oswald’s technique of writing in a chorus of voices. For her long poem “Dart,” she literally took a tape-recorder and notebook down to the banks of the Dart river, capturing bits of the historical and present-day voices of the people there. She spent three years on this project. I think what I love most about this poem is the way it reveals identity as a cross-section of relationships, a layering of perspective. A place is not singular, not independent, but absolutely interdependent.
So in one exercise, the students and I practiced recording the “voice” of their high school, by taking a tanka walk through the hallways. This is a technique from Haryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, a collection of 365 tanka poems that document her daily walks through Los Angeles. Her interpretation of the Japanese form is pretty user-friendly: thirty one syllables divided into three lines. We captured bits of dialogue, copied locker graffiti and poster text, described changing temperatures and smells, and included notes on our changing interior landscape as we moved. It all sounds very serious and maybe pretentious, but in truth it was a lot of fun. The students wrote some of their best work on that walk.
I decided to use the same form for Harney Park, as a way to walk the walk I started with the students—literally and figuratively. It’s not easy to write a “place poem.” I learned that alongside those freshman writers. I’m not satisfied with my tanka series, but I think it’s going to take time. I’m going to walk through a full year of tanka with Harney Park.
D: We never actually arrive in a place since every place is constantly changing. How does this flux influence your process?
Probably in an unconscious way more than a conscious one. We can think of the “self” in the same way. If I think about that too long, I get dizzy.
I’m more interested in hanging on to the concrete changes in a place, trying to pay attention. It’s an act of protest and defiance these days, trying to be quiet and pay attention within the distracting buzz of our fast-paced lives.
D: I asked that you choose a public space in or near the urban environment of Portland. It has been argued that public space in our culture is becoming scarcer and less vital. This is a process attributable both to physical forces such as suburbanization and highways, technologies of surveillance, and gated communities, as well as to psychological forces, particularly the erosion of a participatory public through the widespread and ubiquitous use of handheld digital devices. Since 9/11, there has also been a growing sense that public spaces are unsafe. This tension has been heightened by the horrific public shootings in recent years. In light of these psychological and physical pressures on public space, what does public space mean to you? What makes public space creative space?
M: I really resonate with your word choice of “erosion” when talking about the impact of screens. It’s fascinating and sad, how our outer environment is quite literally a reflection of our inner environments. We clearcut and drill and frack and mine and expect the earth to hold up. We text and tweet and post and surf and expect our spirits to stay whole.
I ride the MAX downtown every day, and I’m surrounded by screens. As students arrive in my classroom, they’re glued to their phones instead of talking to each other. It’s unsettling. Which makes me think of Wendell Berry’s book The Unsettling of America, exploring how changes in agriculture impacted our relationship to place in ways we’re still unpacking. It’s all the same crisis.
Berry’s writing has had such a huge impact on me—personally and spiritually and creatively. His ideas about public space and stewardship and relationship are really challenging.
Public space can be a scary thing, but so can private space. I don’t know my neighbors as well as I’d like to, and I often feel like many of them do not want to be known. Our first summer here, I was in my backyard one day when I heard what sounded like a horrific dog attack in the yard behind ours. The fence was so high I couldn’t see anyone, but I thought I heard someone yell, “Call 911!” so I did. I tried to yell over the fence, but couldn’t communicate, and after the fire truck came and went, I felt too afraid to make contact. What if they were upset with me for calling for help? What if there was no emergency? I felt totally isolated—in my own backyard. I still don’t know what happened, if they were safe or hurt. I think we can trap ourselves inside of privacy, whether in our fenced yards or in our fixation on screens.
That said, I am encouraged by small acts of creativity in public spaces, this project included. I feel alive when I push myself outside of what’s comfortable, finding creative ways to care for other people. Making care kits for people on the streets and actually talking with them. It’s not comfortable. We wake up to how much is broken in our world, and how on our own we may be able to fix a little bit of it, but not much.
The other day I did some creative writing with English language learners in the Whole Foods cafe. I think of this as a closed, corporate space, but actually it was quite welcoming. The barista even defined it as a “public space,” that we didn’t have to buy something in order to be there. Is the Whole Foods cafe what comes to mind when we think of public space? Probably not. I think of urban squares and masses of people and big social change. Yet there we were, four people from different countries, writing together and reading our work out loud. It was a really generative, creative way to meet each other, and I think it’s part of social change, too.
D: Paulo Freire said “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) What is a true word? Do you see your writing as a form of praxis?
M: Yes and no. My writing is a form of praxis in the sense I described earlier: the writing that happens in the heart or the spirit, where I am transformed by paying attention to the world. The act of attention is union, is activism, is love. No inner transformation, no outer transformation.
But at the same time, it’s not really in our control. To me, a true word is a mystery. I’m not familiar with Freire’s work, but for me what’s missing in his remark is God. I don’t believe I can get outside of myself and experience transformation without somehow connecting to the Creator. So the work of attention that leads to the work of transformation is an act of participation. Participation in a story that’s much, much bigger than us. There is no true word that is not at the same time a borrowed word, something that has already been said.