How is place even possible? So much is the same and yet we travel. I have incredibly mixed feelings on travel. I get homesick. I have traveled somewhat extensively. As an alcoholic I need my routines. I don’t think that I learn as much from travel as others say they do. My own culture is strange enough that I think it’ll take me forever to figure it out. Traveling makes me nervous. And yet, we live in a traveling culture. Travel is possible in part because so little is strange. And yet, poetry about place must make it strange again. Place is possible because motion is possible. We are moving whether we like it or not. The earth is spinning. The plates are shifting. The cars are driving. We are often within them. That said, Where I Stay made me want to want to travel again; it made me want that abandon, that freedom, that insouciance.
The basic story of the book is pretty slim: a slightly drug-addled drifter travels around the country from Cheyenne, Wyoming around the country and back again to Cheyenne. You feel that a story is being told even if you might not be quite sure what that story consists of. The story is told through the interplay of three parts (each of which appears on each pair of opened pages): prose poems titled by date and place, photographs presumably from those places, and quasi captions that sometimes throw the reading off the author’s trail. It is the intuitive (not necessarily logical, but always intriguing) interplay between these elements that keeps the reader’s attention and forces a place to emerge, a place that is perhaps equivalent with a narrative, but one that cannot be pinned to the ground.
In an interview with Bookslut, Zornoza says, “The photography was difficult. Where I Stay is a complete work of fiction. Except, I took the photos. So, it’s all completely true. I was there, some of these people are dead. The geography is there, but it’s temporarily covered with Walmarts and Starbucks.” I don’t exactly know why, but it does feel as if there is a pretty radical division between the author and the narrator and I wonder if this division doesn’t come from the book’s long gestation period and from the unique mixture of fact and fiction. Zornoza has said that he worked on the book on and off for 14 years and that what he started with for the project were some old diary entries. This distance from the author, both in terms of gestational time and fictionalizing the accounts, ably draws out the narrative elements of the book.
An paradigmatic example of a point along the book’s road is the portrait Omar in Odesa, Texas, which reads, “A truck-stop…a diner…a busboy. The busboy asks his sister if they have room at their place…The boy’s name is Omar and his father makes crosses out of string and pipe cleaners to make cigarette money when he is in prison. Omar has hundreds of these little crosses and now we are both wearing them. We smoke a lot of pot together…The next morning he drives me down Rt. 10. Cars are swerving off the road, honking their horns, flying by at hundreds of miles per hour. We are on the wrong side of the highway and Omar flips the wheel and sends the car onto the grassy divider. Laughter—happiness.” It’s a little road story, something collected, something remembered. On the next page we are given two photographs presumably of Omar, the first of someone in what looks to be a swimming cap smoking pot and the second of a young man pointing at a window. Beneath these we are told, “Omar was shot in the face, October of 1999. He is now dead.” The matter-of-fact tone imparts a shocking seriousness to the preceding insouciance. Thus, Where I Stay offers both the freedom of travel and the slap in the face that is the responsibility necessary to stay in one place.
Francis Raven’s work includes the volumes of poetry, Architectonic Conjectures (Silenced Press, 2010), Provisions (Interbirth, 2009), Shifting the Question More Complicated (Otoliths, 2007) and Taste: Gastronomic Poems (Blazevox, 2005) as well as the novel, Inverted Curvatures (Spuyten Duyvil, 2005). Raven’s poems have been published in Bath House, Chain, Big Bridge, Bird Dog, Mudlark, Caffeine Destiny,and Spindrift among others while critical work can be found in Jacket, Logos, Clamor, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, The Electronic Book Review, The Emergency Almanac, The Morning News, The Brooklyn Rail, 5 Trope, In These Times, The Fulcrum Annual, Rain Taxi, and Flak.