I’ve been thinking and working a great deal in the realm of Indiana, getting lost in the Hoosier Heartland if you will. Perhaps it came from the great darkness that seemed to have gripped onto the river narrows since the start of the year. That darkness brought on the need to day dream about warm, brighter places. Our time in Indiana was definitely defined by warm summer nights, hazy with firework smoke, and the thickness of air that comes with a lushness of land. Spending my first few years as a real adult complete with home ownership landed us on the east side of Indianapolis for the first three years of this decade. With that time came the sort of indelible mark that comes with such a time in one’s life. What is honestly more Midwestern pastoral than Indiana? What drives a poet and a writer more than the manner that memory serves to us the places we’ve inhabited?
This return landed me with the essays to Scott Russell Sanders. Most specifically his collection of essays in Writing from the Center has been speaking to where I’ve landed creatively. Sanders is a Hoosier transplant, but embraces his physical place and writing on Indiana. He does this great image painting of the physical state of the land, the mighty almost too lush and fertile place to live, and at the same time this rather polluted and somewhat degraded portion of land. There is an Edenic sense to the land. However that sense is complicated by a hard reality that in Indiana after God tried to kick everyone out, they instead stayed and kind of trashed the joint. It’s still beautiful and you still feel and see that beauty just beyond all the Chic-Fil-A wrappers, Marsh bags, and Keystone Light cans. You might call it a pastoral grittiness that works in the same fashion as the industrial grittiness matches Michigan’s character. I witnessed it, I lived it, and I came to love it almost revel in it. Sanders, I believe helped me to sum up those feelings a little better.
This mental return also found its way to Bluebeard by Vonnegut. Not as much associated with the landscape of the great Hoosier state as Sanders, the work of Kurt Vonnegut finds its process of storytelling and the psyche of its characters from Vonnegut’s homeland. There is something decidedly Hoosier in his narration, the use of humour to deal with the traumatic, the devaluation of self, the clear sense that better days appear to be behind them. I would debate that the last point is less truth and more perception but that is given to a different sort of blog post that I’m not writing here. Vonnegut is one of the state’s greatest literary offspring and it is easy to see how Vonnegut as a writer reflects that pastoral grittiness that the Indiana landscape projects. The narrative structure reads as if it comes from the back country down home storyteller, the type of voice very much aware of itself and its audience, and willing to carve out all the necessary bits for both entertainment’s sake, but to also make a real point about the folks it speaks to. There is much to admire in the craft and much that other writers can take. But it, too, is a reflection of the place. One that I no doubt hope to capture in the work that this period of writing is hammering away at.
I was also very recently lucky enough to stumble across a copy of Susan Neville’s Indiana Winter. Although her short fiction work tends to stray into the realm of non-fiction in terms of sound and style, and the individual pieces in the work comprise a miscellany of genres, the connection points to the Hoosier landscape and culture are as strong as one comes across in recent times. I actually believe Neville’s work here does much to capture what both Sanders and Vonnegut do individually in their works (character and landscape) and stitch them together into an excellent well rounded vista of Hoosier life. The title story of the collection does one of the better jobs of stitching together the varied lives of those in the state in the very familiar setting of a rural house party. After all my time in Indiana, I must say the sense of rural plays a massive role of Hoosiers, even those living in Indianapolis. There just isn’t the remove from the land itself that you see at work in many other Midwestern or American cities. Indianapolis exists in spite of the fact that it is a major city and often tries to undo its sense of urbanity through design (think bike paths) and low rise development. The grittiness is there, its in the rundown buildings, the trash-strewn shorelines and roadsides, and within the characters themselves.
None of this says that Indiana doesn’t have its dark, violent, and often times problematic aspects. I experienced some of that and some of that forced me and my family north to Canada. However, I find that my time in Indiana left me with the vision of Indiana as that pastoral gritty version of Eden that maybe every writer should have. Out of this last few months has begun to re-emerge much of my work related to this place and people that writers like Sanders and Vonnegut and Neville talk about. Distant and darkness helps this process. A complete poetry manuscript will emerge later this year as a book (announcement is forthcoming) and individual pieces have been appearing throughout North America in small magazines over the past few years. I’m also finishing up some short fiction work set in the region, basically returning to my fiction writing roots first laid down in the great southern Indiana college town of Bloomington. I believe that from the great bleak darkness that started off this year, I was brought inward to memory and find that warm pastoral place that acted as a light to carry forth my work. As a writer, I find that the most important thing you can do is get lost for a little bit. The guiding light of my Hoosier time is carry me forward into spring and what could be a year of Hoosier work.