Poetics of Emplacement – Map 6 (A Valley in our Bones)

Rebecca Lauren, Guest Contributor

This post is part of a series on SRPR’s ongoing and evolving conceptualization of the Poetics of Emplacement. What do we mean by Poetics of Emplacement? SRPR’s editor, contributing editors, staff members and friends share their thoughts here.

In the opening poem of my chapbook, The Schwenkfelders (2010, Seven Kitchens Press), I recount a beloved fable of my ancestors, a fable that explains their scattered settlement in Silesia before religious persecution brought them to a different set of valleys in Pennsylvania:

… one night, when hope got lost at the bottom
of some forgotten stewpot, the Devil
stuffed Schwenckfeld’s followers into a sack
and set off for the underworld—
spindly Santa Claus in red with no sleigh.

While soaring over Spitzberg,
snow caps gleaming beneath him,
the Devil snagged a corner
on the mountain’s peak.
Burlap seams split, spilling
Schwenkfelders into the valley.
Men’s bodies bounced like jacks;
women’s spun and splayed like unfurling yarn.

After the great fall, Schwenkfelder women
shook starlight from their heads,
stood and straightened bonnets.
While somewhere in the sky
the Devil hopped on one leg,
cursing a stubbed toe, the valley’s green womb,
the dazzled men and women with looms.

Like my ancestors, there is starlight in my head, a valley in my bones.

Through the historical reimaginings made possible by poetry, I explore the limited physical space available to Schwenkfelder women as homemakers in a valley. However, in The Schwenkfelders, I also express the myriad ways women resisted these constraints through acts of creation: marginalia in school cipher books, fraktur drawings and hand-written letters mailed beyond the valley and across the Atlantic.

Daphne Spain, in her theory of the construction of space, explains that “spatial segregation is one of the mechanisms by which a group with greater power can maintain its advantage over a group with less power…By controlling access to knowledge and resources through the control of space, the dominant group’s ability to retain and reinforce its position is enhanced.”  As I piece together my own poetry and try to find space for it in the literary world, I recognize that I have much in common with my eighteenth- and nineteenth-century female ancestors who scribbled in the corners of whatever piece of paper they could get their hands on. Spain’s theory helps to frame for me how living in a valley – for women in particular, for women like myself – can be simultaneously restrictive and freeing, a womb that both gestates life and pushes it into the world.

Nestled in Central Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna Valley is where I grew up. It’s where my dad and his dad before him set down roots.

My mom, on the other hand, hails from Philadelphia but showed up in the valley one weekend to attend a Doobie Brothers concert with my dad. It was their first real date, and my mom wore a see-through shirt tied in a knot above her midriff along with tight bell-bottom jeans and platform shoes. She arrived at our town’s only bus station on Pine Street next to Rea & Derrick’s Drugstore. My dad met her there and said he just wanted to make a quick stop at his parents’ house before the concert – to introduce her to them, of course.

I think my mom wishes she’d worn a sweater.

When they stopped at the house, my dad’s mother gave my mom a thorough once-over and promptly asked her to drop her bags in the guest bedroom, located on the opposite end of the hallway from my dad’s room.

Later that night, when my dad and mom returned home from the concert, they were greeted my dad’s mother, awake at 3:00 AM on her knees scrubbing the refrigerator.

I have heard this story so many times that I can picture the Tupperware containers of food sitting on the countertop, my grandmother’s nonchalant greeting in which she tries not to sound too overprotective or eager, my mom’s blush of embarrassment, my dad’s chuckle. And I can hear my mom’s unending question, Who cleans their refrigerator in the middle of the night?

I believe this was the exact moment that my mom was introduced to the valley where even the hills themselves seem to watch over everyone like curious parents, waiting to ask where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Like my dad, I love the Susquehanna Valley. During my last year of high school, my best friend and I biked through our town to photograph our favorite places in case they were torn down in the next development scheme or worse – in case we moved away and forgot them.

I have a whole album of these photos – the playground equipment from our tiny elementary school before rural kids were bussed to the giant intermediate unit; the restaurant, Kinfolks, where my girlfriends and I would order large plates of mashed potatoes after high school; and the local paint store that shared the same name as a boy I’d had a crush on when I was twelve.

As the years passed, I watched friends marry young and buy quaint houses down the street from their parents, settling down in the valley as homemakers.

I was incredibly jealous.


The mother in the photograph, Mary Lentz Yeakel, is the author’s great-great-great-grandmother. The youngest daughter, Mollie Blanche Yeakel, is the author’s great-great-grandmother and is featured with her sisters in the poem “The Night Mollie Blanche Yeakel was Named” in The Schwenkfelders. The photograph was taken circa 1893 in Williamsport, PA.

But like my mom, there were times when I felt uneasy in our small town, like I didn’t quite belong. And like the female Schwenkfelder ancestors I wrote about in my chapbook, I could not quite quench the desire to travel beyond the boundaries of hills that grazed the sky, especially if it meant freedom. Especially if it meant making sense of what I could not see.

So I joined the throes of high school graduates who moved away from the valley and who, even now, nestle a certain nostalgia of restlessness in their bones. Though we’ve backpacked through Europe, attended graduate schools, and moved to big cities to volunteer in soup kitchens, nothing’s felt quite like home. Our restaurants are chains named after days of the week, and our paint stores are run by corporate CEOs in New York City, not our ex-boyfriends’ parents. As women from a valley, we find ourselves constantly searching for our place in the world.

When the Schwenkfelders came to America, they were unable to secure a single plot of land, and many of their relatives remained in Silesia.  As a result, women in the valleys of Pennsylvania relied on written correspondence to maintain their identity. Now that I have moved away from the valley, I feel that I too have fallen from some vast Silesian sky and awakened to the hard ground beneath my feet. Writing feels a bit like trying to shake the unsung poems from my head, so like my valley-bound ancestors before me, I turn to writing to bridge the gap, to remember the terrifying fall from the sky, and to find my sense of place again as a woman who is now “free” from the bounds of geographical segregation.

Daphne Spain divides the social construction of space into two categories: geography and architecture. To this list, for women in particular, we must add “artistic space,” or the use of space on a canvas, page, textile, or other creative medium. Virginia Woolf famously pines for “a room of one’s own.” Sojourner Truth asks, “ain’t I a woman?” when her story does not match up with society’s definition of femininity. Elaine Showalter introduces the gynocritical model of inquiry, examining the lack of scholarship on women in literature. Poet Adrienne Rich suggests that “diving into the wreck” allows us to recover lost female voices and encourage women writers to create despite a male-dominated literary world. Alice Walker goes “in search of our mothers’ gardens” to uncover creativity where it has be squelched. And today, VIDA, the organization famous for its pie charts depicting the percentage of women writers in literary journals each year, aptly illustrates how lack of creative space for women continues to directly correlate to lack of power in the literary world.

So sometimes, I revisit the valley in all its fertility and loam-rich possibilities. Sometimes, it is even in person. Most of the time, however, it is in my writing, as I imagine space beyond marriage and housework, beyond farmland sold to real estate developers, beyond bus stops and drugstores and male-dominated narratives.

As a woman writer, I avidly follow the VIDA count but write and submit my work anyway. Like the women who came before me, I create despite confinements, a river making its own way, carving its path.


Photo credit: Rebecca Lauren


Born in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley, Rebecca Lauren lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Eastern University. Her poetry has been published in Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Southeast Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among others. Her chapbook, The Schwenkfelders, won the 2009 Keystone Chapbook Prize and was published in 2010 by Seven Kitchens Press. She received an MFA from Old Dominion University and serves as managing editor of Saturnalia Books.

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Poetics of Emplacement – Map 5

Jake Young, Guest Contributor

This post is part of a series on SRPR’s ongoing and evolving conceptualization of the Poetics of Emplacement. What do we mean by Poetics of Emplacement? SRPR’s editor, contributing editors, staff members and friends share their thoughts here.

My two passions in life, writing and wine, sometimes seem inevitable. I was raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains around books and literature; my father Gary Young is a well-regarded poet, and his writing studio, which sits on a hill above our home, is a short stroll from one of the finest wineries in the Santa Cruz area. For the past three years I’ve worked for the vintner across the road, pouring wine for customers in the tasting room, labeling and boxing new bottles, and helping with the harvest and crush for the first time last year. I realized the many invisible hands and hearts that go into the wine that I was serving, and I realized I want to combine my passions for wine and poetry.To distinguish wines from different vineyards, French winemakers developed the concept of terroir, loosely translated as “the taste of place.” The central tenet behind terroir is that every individual wine can reflect the land where the grapes were grown and the wine is produced. Implied by the concept of terroir is the notion that wine has metaphorical value. In one of his odes, Pablo Neruda shouts out to wine:

more than the wine of life;
you are
the community of man,
chorus of discipline,
abundance of flowers.

Neruda knew the terroir of the human heart. He knew good writing, like good wine, must be balanced, well constructed, surprising but not overwhelming. And the best writing, like the best wine, appears so natural it seems to originate not from a person, but straight from the earth. Neruda recognized the labor, cooperation, reliance on nature, commitment, and luck necessary to make fine wine, and he seemed to insist that wine, like poetry, is more than an integral aspect of human life: it is a metaphor for everything that holds a society together.

There is so much that goes into making a bottle of wine. Those who recognize terroir understand that wine tastes like the land, that the flavors tell a story, and that this story contains a sense of place. To work with the land, to cultivate and nurture the terroir of a wine, is to reveal the components of a place. Place greatly influences my poems; I feel a pull to the landscapes that are such an important part of my poetic project—praising the land, rows of grapes, fields of artichokes, and paths through forests. Through poetry, it’s possible to show how cultures are exemplified by what they consume, and examine how people are connected to the land. People are nourished not only by food, but also by the places where food is grown and by the people who prepare it. “There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher. A great wine reveals a sense of place, and poetry at its most sublime reveals this as well. Traditionally, wine writing has focused on tasting a wine, evaluating its flavors, assessing the bouquet, commenting on texture, tannins and acidity. I try to approach writing about wine and food from a different perspective. Through my poetry, I want to show how the fruits of the land exemplify culture, and examine how people are connected to the land.Wine and poetry have a long history together. Poets were the first wine writers. In ancient China, poetry was considered wine distilled from the mind. Even today, people retell stories of the ancient Chinese poets who played drinking games, floating wine cups downstream and composing a formal poem where the cup landed, drunk on the language of the land. Poetry, like wine, encourages us to love where we are, what we do, and who we are with. I want to praise the world. In order to better understand our own lives, let us understand our wine. Each sip of wine is a reminder of the complexities that tie things together, of the subtle connections that make life enjoyable.

Jake Young lives in Santa Cruz, California, and works at Beauregard Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He Received his MFA at North Carolina State University. His most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Red Wheelbarrow, Miramar, Solo Novo, PANK, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, phren-Z, and Gastronomica: Journal of Food and Culture.

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Poetics of Emplacement – Map 4

Lisa Phillips, Guest Contributor

This post is part of a series on SRPR’s ongoing and evolving conceptualization of the Poetics of Emplacement. What do we mean by Poetics of Emplacement? SRPR’s editor, contributing editors, staff members and friends share their thoughts here.

Establishing an appreciation (or awareness) for what a “poetics of emplacement” might look like, or evoke, one that is grounded in understandings of place as a process in flux that is both open to interpretation and revision seems salient to the discussion I see evolving on SRPR’s blog. A poetics of emplacement, to my mind, is entangled with the recognition that places can be in Altha Cravey and Michael Petit’s words “spatially organized as confining . . . manifest a way of knowing, and places are often objects of power created to further particular forms of domination based on gender, sexuality, race, age, class, and physical ability” (102). A “dedication to place . . . better understood as an interest in emplacement” brings forth a nested arrangement of relations both social/historical and geographical/geophysical.

Because I am not familiar with what a poet’s notion of emplacement might be, (and I’m curious) I had to look up the word “emplacement” and its verb form “emplace” to determine the etymological context of the word. On one hand, the word emplacement means the action of placing in a certain position and the condition of being so placed (OED). On another hand, the word relates to placement of a building, a situation, a position. More disconcerting, for me at least, emplacement is a militaristic term meaning a platform for guns replete with defensive epaulements that afford cover from enemy attack. The poetics of emplacement then can be imagined as both a defensive move and an action taken toward others be they foes or friends.

While I would like to imagine a world in which there were only friends that would indeed be a provincial naïveté. Given that the SRPR’s editor wishes “to make it clear that a contemporary and theoretically informed recuperation of place-based poetics is hardly provincial” it may be fitting to consider how emplacements are built to protect and defend borders, for they are not designed to be attacked from behind. That an emplacement will surely have a blind spot or two makes diffractive reading necessary. Diffraction à la Karen Barad assumes that we will not be able to see everything at once. The idea ought to encourage us to look forward to new situations and positions that afford us alternative perspectives. The pages of SRPR provides me the opportunity to do just that as a rhetor with poetic affinity.

Thanks for an inspiring issue of SRPR.

In case you were wondering what an emplacement looks like . . .

WWII Aleutian Island Emplacement
WWII Aleutian Island Emplacement. Unalaska, AK.
(From http://www.city-data.com/forum/alaska/417413-term-alaskan-22.html)


Work Cited:

Cravey, Altha J., and Michael Petit. “A Critical Pedagogy of Place: Learning Through the Body.” Feminist Formations 24.2 (2012): 100-19. Project Muse. Web. 22 June. 2013.

Lisa Phillips is a doctoral candidate in English at Illinois State. One part of Phillips likes to talk about her accomplishments with other folks who are not that curious, and another part of Phillips is humbled by what other folks do despite enormous obstacles. Middle ground is useful…”I write about things that occur to me, and I try not to embarrass people.” If you’re curious, you ask more questions. If you’re not, you won’t.

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Poetics of Emplacement – Map3

Arielle Greenberg

This post is part of a series on SRPR’s ongoing and evolving conceptualization of the Poetics of Emplacement. What do we mean by Poetics of Emplacement? SRPR’s editor, contributing editors, staff members and friends share their thoughts here.

When I moved to a small town in rural Maine after a lifetime of living in big cities and suburbs, I struggled to imagine how I might shift my poetics to suit my new landscape and life.  Maine is blessed with a long and important lineage of place-based poets, but I myself have little expertise or passion, and thus little to contribute, to the many great poems about the sea, the woods, and the farm.  I live in town.

(I was about to say that here in Maine, I do enjoy spending more time outside by choice, interacting with that thing we call “nature,” than I did when I lived in New York City or Chicago…but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. In New York, I walked everywhere, and made decent use of Central Park.  In Chicago, I ran along Lake Michigan several times a week.)

What seemed important to me, though, was to find my own role, my own voice, as a poet “of Maine,” and of this new life which I did in fact choose for reasons related very much to place: access to local food, to clean air, to small communities, to small farmers.

The poetry I’ve ended up writing, almost exclusively, since moving to Maine, is not what I expected to be writing, but it’s a direct response to this notion that I am here, and no longer in a city, living a more “wholesome” life.  The poems, a series, are engaged in the notion of the pastoral—and in ferreting out both the wholesome and the earthy “dirtiness” of that tradition.  These “country” poems are the most sexually explicit, culturally taboo, and provocative things I’ve probably ever written, and in each one, I am thinking about the very direct correlation, to my mind, between issues like clean air and water and issues like gender politics, BDSM, the human as (sexual) animal, and graphic language.

It seems to me this is writing on a  kind of border, yes?

Arielle Greenberg is the author of several books, including My Kafka Century and, with Rachel Zucker, Home/Birth: A Poemic. She writes a column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review and teaches out of her home in Maine and through the new low-res MFA program at Oregon State University-Cascades. At the moment, she is interested in all things “primal.”


Poetics of Emplacement – Map 2

Emily Ronay Johnston, SRPR Managing Editor

This post is part of a series on SRPR’s ongoing and evolving conceptualization of the Poetics of Emplacement. What do we mean by Poetics of Emplacement? SRPR’s editor, contributing editors, staff members and friends share their thoughts here.

As Kirstin Hotelling Zona (SRPR Editor) writes, “A poetics of emplacement is interested in borders and thus borderlands: beings and ways of being that are often overlooked.” A poetics of emplacement looks—looks over, looks beyond knowing and into the generative realm of wonder. Knowing becomes a beginning, a starting point, not the destination. The destination, rather, is rupture. I am totally on board with not knowing. I mean, how cool is it to have permission to write my way into rupture rather than out of it, avoiding messy-ness at all costs?! When I need to light a fire under my intellect, to override that insatiable addiction to knowledge, I turn to Rumi, Jelaluddin Balkhi. His poetry emplaces me squarely in temporality, in permeability, calling us (human beings) to house the guests of our emotions, regardless of their actions in and through our beings, to “Welcome and entertain them all!/Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,/who violently sweep your house/empty of its furniture” (from “The Guest House”). We mustn’t stop at emotion, though. A poetics of emplacement beckons us to welcome the violence of emotionality, not to indulge in suffering, but quite the opposite: to love. To be sure, “The door there/is devastation.//Birds make great sky-circles/of their freedom./How do they learn it?//They fall, and falling,/they’re given wings” (from “On Children Running Through”). We might say that a poetics of emplacement is not only “interested in” that which is overlooked, it is also the road there, the looking beyond itself, the surrender to being “filled with you [love]./Skin, blood, bone, brain, and soul” (from “We Three”).

Emily Johnston's PicEmily is from Boston, San Francisco, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Central Illinois. Holding a Ph.D. in English Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing/Poetry, her work emerges at the intersections of writing studies, social justice pedagogy, trauma theory, film theory, and narrativity. In particular, she researches and publishes on students’ literacy learning in relation to issues of sexualized trauma. She has taught courses in academic writing, public writing, creative writing, gender studies, literature and film, and English as a Second Language. Emily is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Writing Pedagogy at The University of Delaware, and Managing Editor of Spoon River Poetry Review (SRPR).


Poetics of Emplacement – Map 1

Kirstin Hotelling Zona, SRPR Editor

This post is part of a series on SRPR’s ongoing and evolving conceptualization of the Poetics of Emplacement. What do we mean by Poetics of Emplacement? SRPR’s editor, contributing editors, staff members and friends share their thoughts here.

Contrary to popular belief, SRPR is not associated with Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, but was titled after the river in central Illinois that was itself purportedly named for the freshwater mussel shells used by the region’s Native Americans and early colonists as eating utensils—as spoons. I love the connections held in tact by our magazine’s name: waterways and words, poetry and sustenance, innovating and naming, observation and transformation. Such associations insist on the interconnectedness of language and place, of knowing intimately one’s surround because such knowing erodes not only one’s sense of self as disconnected but, just as importantly, upends one’s conception of place as equivalent to “environment,” that paltry misnomer that occludes the enmeshment of all vibrant matter and thus preserves anthropocentric paradigms in the very name of “saving the earth.”

When I came on as editor, I wanted to build upon SRPR’s dedication to place along these lines—to make it clear that a contemporary and theoretically informed recuperation of place-based poetics is hardly provincial. The “new” SRPR, then, is interested in a place-based poetic that is less concerned with regionalism’s attention to realism than to writing that leads us to the limits of our comfort zones so that these zones (what we might think of as aesthetic ecotones) are first of all exposed—made palpable and felt—so that we might experience the borders of our own known worlds as permeable, as sites of connection instead of sites of uncontestable difference.

In this way, SRPR’s current dedication to place may be better understood as an interest in emplacement—that is, of the many ways we are situated in and through language, the earth, and each other; in and through our histories and our blind spots; in and through our protests and complicities. As such, a poetics of emplacement is interested in borders and thus borderlands: beings and ways of being that are often overlooked.

Kirstin Hotelling Zona’s first collection of poems, Drift, was published in 2011. She is also the author of a book of criticism, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Swenson: The Feminist Poetics of Self-Restraint (Michigan UP), and editor of Dear Elizabeth: Five Poems and Three Letters from May Swenson to Elizabeth Bishop (Utah State UP). Kirstin lives with her husband and two children in Maine and Illinois, where she Co-Hosts PoetryRadio and edits SRPR. She is an associate professor of English at Illinois State University.

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