I can’t call it a “happy accident” that in my long multi-poem project The End of America, which I have been writing on and off since January 2006, the focal point of my exploration of how to work with description and character has been the San Diego area and the larger histories of U.S., Pacific Rim, and globalist culture and economics, a history which San Diego is neither clearly inside and dominated by or outside and controlling. Before taking a job at Cal State San Marcos in 2005, I had no intention of writing anything about the San Diego region, nor did I begin the project energetically or enthusiastically. The End of America is an attempt to process where I am geographically, and to process what I might do in relation to where I am, in a way that comes from finding myself in circumstances that didn’t result from any consciously literary goals.
The word “process” is crucial. I’m not attempting in The End of America to understand, in some clear way, materialist or otherwise, where I am, much less to explain where I am, and definitely not to formulate an argument based on using the place where I am as background data source for making the argument. Nor is this essay the place where I will explain how the interaction between environment and subject works throughout the poem, or what that interaction ultimately means.
Instead, in The End of America, the meaning of any given poem is the interaction, and can be traced only through the poem, whose insights already move ahead of, or at least differ from, any explanation I might make. I’m not saying that I make no arguments or claims in the poems, or take no positions, but rather that such possibilities are part of the interactions of the poem and not its goal. Nor am I saying that because arriving at a political statement is not the goal, the poem is not political. Instead, the political perspectives of the various poems are embedded in the interactions, are part of the mesh of experience which any given poem moves through. Politics appears as an essential and unavoidable part of life, but not as the reason for or the goal of living.
There are of course many precedents for my attempt to find different ways to write about the social geography of San Diego—“social geography” being the phrase that to me best includes issues of natural landscape, human-created landscapes (rural, urban, and suburban, and all other contexts in which humans shape the environment), and the political, cultural, environmental, and psychological goals and effects of human interaction with the physical world. Lisa Robertson’s work on soft architecture or her book “The Weather” are obvious examples, as are the social and linguistic landscapes in Ron Silliman’s poems. But I’m also motivated, perhaps surprisingly, by work like Flaubert’s, which shows human consciousness as always structured, and responding to, the social environment of which it is a part.
In none of these precedents do I find ideas about sociology, psychology, or natural environment operating in the same ways as in The End of America, since my interest lies in seeing how those ideas play out in particular poems, in a particular context (none of the above writers have anything detailed to say about San Diego), in a way that no prior work or set of theories could account for in advance. I think of literature as precisely the way to explore the ongoing interactions of all these possibilities, often on a momentary basis.
Instead of landscape as background, or as staged set of pre-determined human meaning, or even as character (when a conflict is about “man vs. the natural environment”), it seems to me that landscape, like character, is a shifting group of possibilities (some damaging, but not all) changed by its relationship to other groups of possibilities.
When thought of that way, one thing becomes clear: whatever partial perceptions I have of it, I don’t know all of what landscape is in any specific instance, any more than I can know all of what character is.
Natural landscapes, human landscapes, their interaction, intellectual and artistic insight floating through my brain in and around the shrill manipulative distortions of mass media mental bombardment, stories and counterstories of borders, nations, and cultures, a distant yell in the sunset, the padding of a dog, the shrill whistle of nearby juvenile hawks who haven’t yet learned the silence of their parents. All these, and many more, different at any moment, become part of the environment I find myself encountering.