Fall 2016 (Volume 20, Issue II): 20th Anniversary Issue
A Voice of Place
A VOICE OF PLACE: HAPPY BIRTHDAY DUNES REVIEW
Each voice belongs to a place. —Terry Tempest Williams
Once, I’d been away from these lakes, my native Great Lake waters for so long that I thought I’d lost my voice. Where I was, no water flowed, so even the lines of my breath felt truncated, dusty and secret. I loved the desert for the way it held secrets in clear aridity, but it also reminded me of water for its long-eyed open space, for that horizon punctuated by austere mountains. Like islands I thought, but that immensely shadowed rock, that ancient mythical air—took my breath, my voice. Where had it gone? Had it gone dry, tucked itself into the bedrock to wait for rain? One day, I felt a different breath on the page, rattling and strange, a different voice, rising from the arid. Desert voice, desert breath. The voice I had found in my youth may have been given by water—I had not known that until this terser voice came to me in the desert—a voice of spare blue and muscular lines: cacti crack up the sky, dry as ice. I used it for the time I was there, and when I gratefully returned to the lakes, my native voice returned. One day I found I had forgotten the breath of the desert; I was filled with a longing that fingered the inside of my mouth. It was relieved only when I walked deep into the dunes.
Recently I lost my voice again, this time my speaking voice. Bronchitis. The week I was sick, I was scheduled to teach in three different places throughout Michigan. I’m a travelling writer and speaker these days, but that required speaking voice had turned tail, disappeared down some narrow rat hole. The sound of it, the essential rhythm, of which I am mostly unaware, was caught in phlegm and wisp. I felt again the connection between breath and voice. With my breath gone to an irregular wheeze, I couldn’t hear my own rhythms. I couldn’t even hear the way I talk in my head, which tells me how I word the page.
Voice was there, but so badly muffled, I felt muzzled. David drove me to urgent care; they gave me prednisone. My voice miraculously returned, but with it came sudden troubled dreams. The words I put on the page that week were awkward, a voice returned but too soon, falsely healed, trying to figure out how to say anxiety. What does it mean to lose voice, find a voice, change a voice? I find out by reading other voices.
I read slowly. People think that’s odd for a writer, but I’m usually “throating” the words as I read. I almost read aloud but internally, and though this practice developed over years, it came from the need to breathe with another writer. I didn’t know it would slow my reading. In my thirties, I read many books a month while teaching full time, but now I can feel myself slow, giving my breath to the breath of the writer whose breathing is on the page. Now, fewer books but deeply read. Once I’m inside the author’s story, the throating fades, but when I come to those seminal lines in a poem, or sentences in a narrative, or whole paragraphs inundated with the breath of voice, I stop in that place and I reread. And reread, almost aloud. It’s a place of mind, lingering over the words. What is happening here? How is this made?
Who made it? It’s a strange practice, full of admiration and gratitude. I know only that breath and voice, rhythm and place, seem deeply connected. I feel like I know the writer, even when I don’t, even when it’s fiction I’m reading. I feel this connection—nothing to do with the subject of the writing, but with the breath—the shape of sentences, length, complexity or simplicity, or the way verbs work, or the way a paragraph can arc through meaning with sensory language. Sometimes, it’s the punctuation. It takes my breath away. Literally. A breath stop on that line—how startling and rich. Now inhale before you pass out. I sometimes find, when a voice is really strong, I can write an entire piece in that borrowed voice, breathing inside the other voice. It inundates my consciousness to the degree that I can mimic it for a while. Perhaps this small thievery is how we grow different styles. In this taking, I learn to flex my voice and develop the necessary audience sensitivity that makes a writer adaptable. I hope some little tic will stick, will blur with my own tics, will sparkle up the sentences. Perhaps this stealing of breath is not thievery, but makes the web of words meaningful, holds us together in ways we do not even know.
There is something else essential in this voice talk. It has to do with the place/person connection, a kind of eco-composition of self and literary environment: reading and internal breath, sentences and external voices, the way the brain surges with visual thought coupled with language, those rising pictures and dream fragments that come from inside but reflect the outside places. It has to do with the smallness of who we are as individuals, the specificity of where we are and have been coupled with the immense mind, acts of imagination each of us carry, and whole cultures we connect with. Not to get too carried away here, but this experience of voice and breath, place and reading of mind is about as close as I get to formal religion. There is church in this.
I have seen other writers enter this place/space as they read their own (or others’) material aloud. We are sitting on folding chairs or coffee house couches, and suddenly we, writer and listeners, are in a different place, the place of the page, the movie of the mind clicking and running. Recently a listener at a bar reading asked, “How did you do that? Take me out of my head like that?” I wanted to respond, and I was in yours, but I wasn’t much aware at all, except that for a moment maybe I forgot that I was reading. We were all in the same place then, and I was simply vehicle for what was happening as meaning left the page and entered community. Stephen King, in his memoir, On Writing, says good writing is one of the only ways we read each other’s minds. I would suggest it’s also how we read the mind behind the story, the mind that comes from breath, the filling and emptying of lungs. From breath and perhaps from what Mary Oliver called “sensual inundation,” the way sensory language can inundate the brain, literally lighting dendrites with replicative experience better than does abstraction. But even that sensory inundation must be breathed, and it must be breathed in a place. I touch my hand to my lips, I feel breath on fingertips. Sometimes, it seems like a Helen Keller move: because she was both blind and deaf she followed with her fingers the shapes of Annie Sullivan’s mouth (her teacher) in order to learn to speak. I follow the shapes of the words of those I admire, trying to see how the words are made, put together, breathed. Sometimes we are all a little sightless, and must move forward by feel.
In 1995, David and I returned from Chicago to the Grand Traverse region. We had bought property in a woods near Empire, and over the next three years, we slowly built a small sleeping cabin, then the larger house in which we would live. We built the cabin as a place to camp while we built the house, then the cabin became my writing
place, a wooden-tent Think House—after the Think Houses in Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. It is small, and the trees press close. I was born on a farm, and had lived in many places, mostly open, but had never lived in the woods. I learned a woods breathes differently; the trees stand in unison of breath, day to night, night to day. Oxygen and carbon dioxide. This breath place is woven by a world in a canopy. Wind strung through maple, beech, ironwood, cherry, and even the yellowing, empty-branched ash. Phoebe, grosbeak, finches, robins, woodpeckers of half dozen types, hummingbirds, sparrows, crows.
Ducks, loons and even the sandhill cranes fly over, honking and calling, and land in nearby Taylor Lake. All the groundling creatures sound their various alarms; the underground creatures, their molish grinding. I listen and breathe, almost under myself. I write more slowly here, gradually losing awareness of the larger world. I write to get into the under-place of meaning. Some days it seems hard and I think I have no voice, or even will for this, and yet this is how I’m breathing now.
Recently I heard Jerry Dennis, the amazing writer of all things environmental, speak of how as he gets older, writing is harder because now he knows so much more about good writing. I felt my own breath slow as I listened to him. He is a writer of great breath and breadth who has exercised far more discipline than I have to shape words on the page, and he too finds that the more writers we admire, the more we feel the responsibility to write well, to give the page its deepest breath. I long to write a sentence that will take my reader, or perhaps not just take them, but take them to a place of positive change, a place outside of themselves. I want a sentence that moves so deeply inside my fellow reader that the breath changes them. I want a sentence that goes into the lungs of their living. Impossible. Someone else may write that. And really, that is a false premise. Writing is about pleasure. I do it because I love to breathe this way. We write to work, yes, for our readers, yes, but also for our own joy, for the pleasure of creation, for the breathing. And for that joy to be complete, we need people to breathe with us. Move forward by feel.
Back in 1995 and 1996, while we were building our house and I was learning to breathe in the woods, I was also trying to find a literary community. We were here, near this Traverse City that was growing with artistic momentum, and I was meeting people every day through the classes I taught at the college, the EES program, and as Writer-in- Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy. That said, if any of us wanted to be published, we had to submit outside of the community. There had been a brief interlude of opportunity with a stunning magazine called Small Towner. Now only Traverse, The Magazine was accepting, and those were short essay columns celebrating place. I started there, but I was longing for something that—I couldn’t have said this then—had the breath of our place, all our voices. The trees told me something about how organisms breathe in unison, so where was a place where a community of writers might breathe together?
It became clear we needed a publication that could help us hear each other’s breath. I talked with Kathleen Stocking. She said try it—you’ve got people who will help. She also advocated that the title be the Moraines’ Review because, she said, a moraine is a local feature few other places have. It didn’t feel quite right in my mouth. My husband was the first person to say Dunes Review. That one stuck because dunes were desert and marked us, perhaps anchored us, in their very shifting, a dry voice butting against all that water voice. Definition by contradiction?
I talked with Dianne Hubert—she said grant money might be available from Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs—and for four or five years, that grant was the seed money. I talked with Michael Delp, who would judge the first contest. I talked with Glen Arbor Art Association board and they said yes, we can be your nonprofit umbrella. On that board, the late artist Suzanne Wilson said Yes, here’s the painting for the first cover, an image of the great dune climb of the sleeping bear in winter, an apt cover for a publication which would reflect this our places. The yeses felt natural as breathing, and I remember in my wandering thoughts, the word nature, its earliest etymology, not of the natural world but from nasci, the Latin verb, to be born, shaped, destined. One’s nature. How does that work? Where does it really begin, the nasci, the nascent self, the nascent breath? With yes?
I think that maybe for a while the pages held the nasci of our writing community long enough for us to claim our breath like trees do, breathing as individuals and breathing as one. Maybe in gathering the poems and stories, we learned something of the breath our individual voices brought to community and it/we natured (read it as a verb), not matured, but natured in that we identified our destined communal breath. Our voice of place.
We are gathered at my dining room table in the woods to read the submissions for the first Dunes Review. Sunday afternoon, still winter, but the empty trees are breathing down on a bunch of us in various stages of claiming the word writer. We feel lucky and connected. It’s heady to be reading these submissions for the first time, and I like to believe we bring every literary cell in our beings to the process of selecting. The sun comes in on our table scattered with copies. That first advisory board included Norm Wheeler, Dianna Johnson-Doak, Heather Shaw, Duncan Sprattmoran, Ray Nargis, Bronwyn Jones, Geoff Peregrine and Marguerite Cotto. Some left: others came through those first years. We didn’t have a lot of submissions, but we had enough strong ones to envision something larger than ourselves. In the Editor’s Notes for the first issue, I had actually written of the submission process: “I was hearing the collective voice, not just individual voices— but the making of what we are in community.” Those first issues under my editorship are nearly embarrassing in their awkwardness, yet open the pages and breathe us. Oh, there would be problems: lousy proofreading, flawed pagination, clumsy printing (what’s a gutter?), and so many aspects of a fledgling effort. Still, we came to the table, and ever after, readers have come to a table or gathered in a room, and breathed over those pages, looking for writers whose voices feel—yes, that moving forward by feel. I have never doubted that.
That first launch reading, in the beautiful dining room of The Leelanau School, almost took our breath away. Somehow, on a Sunday afternoon, we gathered about a hundred people. Music and wine. Readings. On the first (or maybe second) of these start-up events, several of us on the advisory board had received news in the night that a young woman we knew, a high school girl from Benzonia, had been killed in a freak car accident. It saddened us terribly, but also offered the fragility that brings true awareness. We breathed together in the contradiction of this making and that losing. The chosen poems were read—grace and simplicity. Michael Delp, who was the judge for the Shaw contest, read from meditations that would become one of his best books, Coast of Nowhere. As we sat in the folding chairs, holding copies of Dunes Review, trying not to smear pages with our brownies and wine, we breathed toward our readers and each other, hearing aloud the voices that we had selected for our pages. There, among the last of the season’s yellow tulips, I think we did not know if this project would last. Maybe we doubted it would last. The money was iffy, no one was paid, it depended on so much good will, and so we simply felt momentarily important and proud.
The second year, another grant, and Judith Minty judged the contest, and the board members felt thrilled that she came, this powerhouse of a wild woman who had given us the Yellow Dog Journal. Though Dunes Review was merely an annual publication, we were growing. Submissions increased, people donated by sponsoring pages, and the advisory board rededicated to continuing it, but in the following years, as my responsibilities at Interlochen Arts Academy grew, I couldn’t keep up. I turned Dunes Review over to Holly Wren Spaulding and Jenny Robertson, and then one year later it came back to Holly and me. After that it went to Heather Shaw, Todd Mercer, and others. Its original sponsoring organization shifted gracefully from Glen Arbor Art Association to Michigan Writers, an apt match. Every single editor and organization put their stamp on it, made the presentation stronger. Now, when I see how editor Jennifer Yeatts has linked and threaded current pieces, I feel the breath linked and threaded to a community more distant and simultaneously more encompassing. The voice has broadened; it expresses a wider range. The covers are sensational, the selections strong, interesting, and varied.
Not to be self-aggrandizing but in those first notes in 1996, I wrote one of the few prophetic lines of my life: “I hope it (Dunes Review) will become a document which we can turn to and say this is who we are, and perhaps a hundred years from now, a young historian will dust off the first issue and say, ‘This is how we sounded then.’ A witness, testimony. Voice.” It hasn’t been a hundred years, but I think we’ve made a place- voice, a voice-place, thanks to the people who carry on every year, and to the writers who submit. And now, our community at large has become more literary: we are not just Michigan Writers and Dunes Review, but one among many—the National Writers Series, the Film Festival, and other artistic and literary events. There is breadth to this breath of place, voice, and community.
I offer these memories not to wax nostalgic—but to say something about what we have become as a literary community. We can express both identity and place in these selections, in the pride of publication, in knowing that a page may exhale our nature even as it takes our breath away. As a community of literary citizens we are not perfect, and we don’t always breathe in sync, but thanks to volunteers and dedicated literary citizens we have a document. We have the Dunes, desert pages coming up against lakeshore words, all those ways of breathing right at the boundary of water, words that change every year, that utterly nature us. So happy birthday Dunes Review, I am thrilled you are still here, your pages sending up our breath. Thank you to all those who make it happen, keep it going, who make it better and worthy. Thanks to all those who submit their living breathing words, so we can read your minds, feeling your voices in our own throats.