I started writing “Skate World” after two things happened. The first was that an editor (not from this journal) asked me for some poems for a theme issue on “Americana.” The journal very thoughtfully provided a list of Americana items and when I saw what it included, I wondered why I hadn’t been writing about these things all along—corn dogs and carnivals? Bingo halls and mermaid parades? It all sounded right up my alley. I thought I’d whip up with a batch of five poems in a month or so.
For a long time, I’d been mulling over writing about the skating rink me and my sisters went to often in our childhood. I thought I could write a poem about how my two older sisters taught me to skate. (They pushed me into the center of the rink and then skated off, free of my five-year-old annoying self for at least a few minutes. I still remember very vividly crawling back across those curved wooden boards, trying to keep my fingers safe from the rushing wheels all around me.) But I’ve never found the right entry into that poem—it seems too “confessional”—as in the sense of confessing the sins of the people around me—and too personal (and isn’t that a sin in itself in poetry these days?).
The second, and more important, impetus for the poem was seeing a picture of one of my cousins on Facebook. Someone had posted a recent picture of him from a party and it came up next to one from just a year prior. Already a very large man, he had ballooned in size and looked dazed, as if these changes to his body and life had happened quite suddenly. I remembered him as a tall and handsome teenager, one of the workers (a sort of lifeguard on wheels) at the skating rink. He and his brother had been at home when their mother had been struck by lightning outside. They lived far out on a steep mountain and it took paramedics nearly an hour to reach them. They waited beside her body the entire time. Both of them grew up to become paramedics—conservative, patriotic, and religious. I couldn’t help but to think how much their past was bleeding through to the present but in ways indecipherable to people who did not share that past.
So I started writing this poem because writing is the only way I know to recover lost worlds. But I found it difficult to capture who they were and who they would become, to allow the reader to feel that sorrow. I faced that old stumbling block of the “ethnographic gaze,” that trap of holding up a culture (in this case my own) as an object of curiosity.
In my frustration, I began to feel that “Americana” meant collecting these types of artifacts and writing about them in order to make fun or wax nostalgic over sanitized images of poverty and rural life. I still want to write those poems about bingo halls and mermaid parades though the deadline has long since passed but I have the feeling it’s going to be a long, long time before I figure out how to.