the edge: driving or walking, I'll write a poem
There are forty-five miles between where I live now and where I grew up. On a good day of traffic, it takes about fifty minutes to drive from Denton, Texas, to Garland, Texas, where my parents live. I live in Denton because I’m finishing my doctorate in creative writing. During the busy part of the semester, I hardly go home to visit.
If I walked it would take me half a day. If I took the train, it would take three hours and three transfers. When I didn’t have a car and before I moved here, there was a brief moment where I thought I might take any of these options.
Of course, I don’t mind the drive. Even if there’s traffic, I find a way to make use of the time spent traveling. It offers me the opportunity to reflect and write poems in my head on the way.
I often think of myself on the path of a writer: how does the writer arrive at a piece of good writing? I’ve taught myself to be patient with this opportunity. It’s the liminal space where I allow myself the question of where I’m going in life to push me forward.
Living in New York City not too long ago, I wore no headphones. I was rich with people to observe. Skills in observation are vital to the writer’s life. Thinking back to that moment, I’m reminded of an essay I once read for class: “The Art of Finding” by Linda Gregg. In it, she writes about how easy it is to be blind to the physical world. She encourages her students to write observations every day in a journal and to be attentive to what is around them. It’s important to make it habit so that seeing happens “carelessly” as she describes it. What is seen is no longer the literal, but something that wasn’t there. It’s an artistic way of seeing. When I first encountered the essay, I tried to put into practice what Gregg said. I wanted to find the sacred world by being attentive to what others don’t see. Sometimes I read and sometimes I just watch and tell stories in my head about the people I see.
Now as a teacher, I pass on what’s been taught to me. I bring the essay into class and ask my students: what do we see that others don’t see?
In the city, while riding the subway and walking to work, what began to interest me most was what others see. I became interested in how others occupied their time. I wondered: who is willing to be patient and polite while sitting and waiting for their stop? Certainly not the one sleeping, with headphones on, and an open book on his lap. Over time, it became easier to imagine a world off the page, something that feels invisible. I listened to the rhythm of the city, so it could birth lines to me. I was reading Frank O’Hara and William Carlos Williams. Like those poets, I romanticized the character of the city and I wanted to get as close as possible to capturing it. I’d carry lines in my head, ideas for a poem that I’d turn over and over until it felt right enough to jot down in a notebook. I’d carry pocket notebooks and fill them with fragments of the city. The rumbling music of waiting for trains to arrive and leave. Fragments of misheard conversations. The music of buskers playing the hell out of their craft, their passion lit by fire. I wanted to get away with saying things like that. What I saw shaped the way I wrote poems: I placed myself as a figure walking steadily toward unearned epiphanies. Sometimes it wasn’t me walking. Instead, the speaker would be watching someone else—-going somewhere unknown to the speaker. This would be the invisible world that Gregg talked about.
Of course, I was a younger poet then. I practiced and practiced the art of finding not only by walking and riding the train but by following the ghostly presence of poets who had walked before me. When I stood at the Brooklyn Bridge once, I was reminded of the beauty Hart Crane’s The Bridge. What he saw was informed by what he found at that bridge. The idea that I was standing in the presence of a poem was felt when I could see the arms, the pillars, carrying me—-the sky—-and its city. The poem has become a frame for the way poets now see Brooklyn and the city.
It became the frame for me on how to read a city like a book and write it.
When I moved back to Texas—-I missed the ease of walking down the street for groceries. I couldn’t find a spot open at all hours or stumble into an all-night diner for coffee. No longer the beneficiary of public transit, I had to learn to love the road again.
I had stopped writing. I wasn’t sure what to write yet. I thought about getting back into it.
So, I borrowed my father’s pickup truck and drove. I recalled the nights I drove aimlessly in the dark when I was in college. There was an older friend I got stoned with once while he drove through the back roads. He and his girlfriend would be sharing a joint, the windows rolled down, the music was loud—-and he’d hand me the joint to smoke too. At the time, I thought it was an apt metaphor for life, something about rolling with the punches. I was nineteen years old and I thought this was living. He’d drive us back to the IHOP and we’d decompress our lives, get to know each other.
Before the luxury of GPS on the phone, I’d look up the directions for trips. I’d print them out and bring a folded copy with me, just in case. I’d memorize the directions before I left for long trips. I hoped that when it came time to turn, I’d trust my instincts enough to turn right toward my destination. This could be living too.
Of course, it’s hard to see the world while driving at night and absorb surroundings. Although, maybe writing is not always about seeing.
I drove all night to Santa Fe one evening for a wedding. The road was dark and the sky black. For ten hours, I was on the road with breaks in between. At each stop, I’d look ahead on the highway to see the desert, a mountain, any sign of life. The roads were empty and I felt at any moment something could come from the void to haunt me.
Re-reading Federico Garcia Lorca’s essay on duende, I’m reminded of moments when I felt the presence of death about to knock. Driving alone in the dark feels like that moment. When I left the wedding, the ceremony was on a house up a mountain road. It was late and my phone had died. I meant to drive the twenty minutes down to Santa Fe where I was staying. Instead, I found myself going higher and higher until I realized I had to turn back. I had to trust the road. Recently, on a whim to recapture that moment, I decided to drive the back roads of Denton late at night. I looked on a map and planned my route. I wouldn’t use the GPS. I’d memorize the route and find my way home. I nearly got lost. I found my way again. The feeling of not knowing where I’m going is not one that I grew up comfortable doing in life. I had to learn to invite uncertainty to my world through writing a poem.
In Gregg’s essay, she writes that it’s not only about finding things to find the resonant resources inside us.
Driving down the long curve of dark road, I find my resonant resource in traveling. To travel, I must trust my instincts.
It’s so easy now to get a dash mount for a smartphone and just follow the screen’s map. But when I drive back and forth between Denton and Garland, the routine route feels so familiar—-I can keep my eyes on the road and daydream about the lines I want to write.
Sebastian Hasani Paramo is the son of Mexican immigrants. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Salt Hill, Pleiades, North American Review, & elsewhere. He is the Editor-in-Chief of THE BOILER. He has received scholarships and awards from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Vermont Studio Center. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Denton, Texas as a PhD candidate at the University of North Texas, where he is the Managing Editor for American Literary Review.