Monday, June 6, 2011

Capturing My Roots

When you grow up in a city in the Midwest whose only claim to fame is being the RV capital of the world, you quickly plan your escape and dream of a life far beyond the city walls. I grew up in Richmond, Indiana and spent my first 18 years right there. It wasn't altogether bad, but I always felt like it wasn't the right place for me. This could be because I was struggling with being gay and literally knew no other gay people in my hometown. Or it could be that my dreams and goals were bigger than the whole city could handle.

From a very young age, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be someone who might just change the world. Richmond isn't full of very many big dreamers. Many people graduate from high school and stay right there. They find middle of the road jobs. They get married young. They raise families. They go to craft fairs. They have family dinners. They don't have much desire to leave. This was nothing I wanted.

At 18, I left for college, which was actually in an even smaller town in Indiana, but there I was surrounded by those who did dream and were bound for great things. There in college, my writing truly took off and the first thing I did was avoid writing about my life or Indiana or Richmond. At that point, I hadn't really lived much of a life, but I thought no one would ever want to hear about my hometown or my past or my family. I thought these were sad inspirations for a "true writer." Instead, I wrote about things I didn't know much about (sometimes even heterosexual sex, can you imagine?).

When I graduated from college and moved to Florida to pursue my MFA, I slowly started to move to the more personal poetry and started to reflect on my Midwest upbringing and what it could bring to my work. To many of my peers, this was interesting. Many of them were from all different places in the country and were interested in the specifics of Indiana.

At first, I saw this as a weakness. I wasn't born in a cool place. I wasn't the child of big intellectuals or writers or artists. I didn't runaway from home and head to the big city either. For a long time, I thought the fact that I was born in the "wrong" place would make my chances for success even less.

I finally figured out that I can't change my past. I can't change my family or where I grew up. No matter how different I feel from many other Midwesterners, I know that my experiences have shaped me and made me into the person and poet I am today. That doesn't mean I should only write about the Midwest. I am not a regional writer. I've now lived in Florida for six years and much of Florida has seeped into my work. But it was important for me to realize that I didn't have to completely escape my roots and that there is value in my past.

I've been thinking a lot about this because I have recently focused my attention on writing a long poem that is rooted in my hometown. In many ways, it is a tribute or examination of Richmond and Indiana. The poem focuses on the 1968 explosion that happened in downtown Richmond and killed 41 people. The explosion has always been in the back of my mind because of the stories I grew up hearing. My mother was very close to be killed in it, but by chance left the area right before it happened. The poem also weaves together pieces of my family history, MLK's assassination, which happened just two days before the explosion, and the history of the KKK in Indiana. It's been a big project and I'm still in the middle of it and not sure exactly where it will take me. Right now it is about 12 or 13 pages and has required a lot of research, which I've enjoyed doing.

Working on this poem has made me realize the rich history that we all have and the uniqueness of each town and family. I'm learning knew things about my own past and about the place I grew up. Of course, I'm also loving the ability to weave and mold these pieces into what I want them to be poetically.

We can try to be the writer we think we should be or we can be the writer that we are. I've decided to fight for the writer I am and use everything I have to be the very best I can. This poem is going to be a perfect example of that. Now, if only I could find a title for it.

-Stephen (Home)


  1. Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing this. Looking forward to the results.

  2. My favorite blog post yet! I also feel disconnected from those who have chosen to live in their hometowns for the rest of their lives. I imagine they long to be famous just like you (and I), but have settled for a life that is more realistic and obtainable: the family life. Indiana shaped my life in many ways and I think the majority of them are good ways. Without Indiana I'm not sure if I would be as patient and hospitable with strangers. Without Indiana I am not sure I would have the drive to explore dirt roads and abandoned buildings or backwoods and old railroad tracks. Without Indiana I'm not sure if I'd have come out of the closet as young as I did (I think my teenage rebellion against the status quo in my small town helped as much as my intense loneliness).

    I think the name of your poem should be "Without Indiana I'm Not Sure If I'd Be Me"


  3. I'm sure I've told you this...I'm a product of the Midwest, too, having lived in Michigan, Illinois, MUSCATINE, IOWA (THE anus of the world, and NOT in a good way!!). Also Fort Wayne, IN, where I met my partner (I made him move out west with me!). And I went to high school in St. Pete., FL. I love reading your blog, and loved this one, especially. We can't get away from our "roots"--though so many of us try so hard to do so! As I'm about to turn 50, I'm finding my pen/keyboard fixated on my wicked, weird youth, and the wilder ride I created for myself trying to escape it. It is what it is. And, in the words of 'Stewart Smally'--"and that's OK." Enough rattling on...
    Thanks again, Stephen, for just being an honest, open guy. I think we have a lot in common. THAT'S the lesson for me. All the best! XOXO

  4. "There is a Bomb on Gilead. . . ."

    I was born in Detroit, spent the first years of my childhood in southern India, then finished growing up and going to school in Ann Arbor. I've been a global nomad my whole life. It took my many years to realize that in fact I WAS a Midwesterner. It became most obvious when I was living in San Francisco, and as much as I loved it, it was obvious that I was from the Midwest.

    Now that I'm back here, living in Wisconsin on the Illinois border, I embrace it. I've been writing a new music commission that is all about being gay in the Heartlands. It's based on stories from gay men who grew up here, or live here now.

    I recently rediscovered the erotic poetry journal I started when I was a teenager in Ann Arbor. (Nowadays teens text or sext. I kept a journal in pen.) It's been fascinating to think about place, person, sexuality, and how all those tangle together in our writing.

    I enjoyed reading about your past. I think it's a great project to engage in.

    One thing I've learned: you cannot overcome your tribal upbringing until you've looked into it, integrated it, and embraced it. After that, you're free.

  5. Thanks for all the great comments. I'm glad this post struck a cord with so many of you.