In her great short story "Marigolds," Eugenia W. Collier writes that memory "is an abstract painting — it does not present things as they are, but rather as they feel." My poem "College Town," which appears this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder, came from a similarly indirect origin. This poem was inspired by a memory of the University Center outdoor shopping plaza at UC Irvine, which I attended as an undergraduate, and it is a memory of a night that never took place. In a poetic sense, that doesn't disqualify it from being true.
I love colleges, and I love college towns. My own abstract painting depicts them as places of hope, exhilaration, and rejuvenation -- safe havens from a volatile world, where the free flow of ideas and scores of young people contribute to an overall sense that something good will happen here. Perhaps it will be an idea that births a more democratic world; perhaps it will be atonement for the past; perhaps it will be eyes opened and barriers broken. Am I romanticizing and simplifying? Yes, but my inner Chagall doesn't care. You may have seen Richard Linklater's film Boyhood, which ends with the protagonist -- after aging 12 years onscreen -- driving to his first day of college.That scene made me misty-eyed. Plain and simple, I envied the boy.
"College Town" depicts the kind of night that I hope he might have had once he settled into campus. Linklater's character is a photographer, after all, and I wrote "College Town" as a visual piece; if I could submit any of my poems to be painted as a mural, this would be the one. Again, it's all fictional, at least as a whole. But I'm sure that on a campus somewhere, there is (or at least was) an old blues musician strumming his guitar at a corner hangout, a movie about the Lost Boys of Sudan playing at an art-house cinema, young people of Aztec heritage hoping to gain admittance to a hip club, a photo exhibit about the Great Depression, maybe even a fountain and a corner magician. Put them all together, and you have a setting that defies cynicism. That's what college is all about. Please don't remind me otherwise.
Two other notes about this poem, for whatever they're worth:
1. While I am very fond of "College Town" as a piece of writing, I have almost never performed it at live readings, simply because it is very hard to read aloud: one meandering sentence that finally ends with a period at the end. That was intentional, as I wanted to capture the feeling of constant, frenetic movement. I have a feeling that this poem could be performed well, but it might require a group of readers (or maybe an experimental choir) to do it justice.
2. This is one of my few poems to have an actual sequel: "Blues Man," which takes the musician mentioned in the opening lines and flips the scene to show his perspective. That poem actually got more attention than "College Town," and it appears on the website of the Poetry Foundation. I will get to it in a future post.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.