Below, my contribution to the May 1st Aboutaword blog. Click here to see the text formatted with images.
1. There’s an alligator two long blocks away. He’s not in some preserve or a visitor in some urban park with a wild streak, but in a retention basin behind Sam’s Club in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I’ve been a visiting writer at the UNCW MFA program. I’ve been going out there every day, since I read about the alligator in the local paper. I never see him, though. I’ve been looking for alligators since I’ve been here: at the lagoon around the Battleship North Carolina, in the turtle pond at Greenfield Lake, just south of downtown. I bet I’d see one if I weren’t looking for one. I’d be walking by some pond, and there he’d be, shy, resting beneath some plants.
2. In a matter of days, I’ll have a new book out. A novel this time, though I think of it as a long poem. It uses all the techniques of a poem–ellipses, disjunction, compression–and I think poets will get what it’s up to. One Tuesday night, when I feel especially restless, I head over to the Barnes and Noble at Mayfaire Town Center on the east side of town. It’s after nine, and this shopping area feels especially ghosty and deserted because the place is meant to resemble a real town, with shops on the ground floor, apartments overhead. City planners call it New Urbanism. Somehow Mayfaire feels less like a town tonight, and more like the usual shopping center pretending to be something else. I walk in the store, one of the few places still open, and head into the fiction section, which is, as predicted, buried deep in the store. Will The Burning House find its way here? Most of the covers feel bright and needy, not what the writers would really want for their books. I pick up two books, head over to the cashier, and when I leave the store, I have the feeling I’ve done something completely out of sync with the moment. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt like that upon buying a book: fastened, printed, built of sturdy paper. Maybe that’s because all the other people inside are hanging around the coffee bar, looking at their screens. Luckily the book will also be out in eBook form, just a few days after its print release.
3. Alligators have a mythic status here, maybe because we’re at the northernmost end of their habitat. People talk about them more than they do a few hundred miles south. Sightings are big news, which would make sense given that there are only thousands of alligators in the region. If there are so few, why have several been spotted in the ocean nearby over the last year or so? Alligators aren’t meant for saltwater; they’re fresh (or brackish) water creatures. And yet they’ve chosen to put themselves out in the least protected places, in Topsail Beach, in Carolina Beach, in Myrtle Beach.
4. I take a drive to North Myrtle Beach, an hour south, hoping to get a kick out of the place. If a 13-year old boy were given the chance to plan a beach resort, I bet he’d come up with something like North Myrtle Beach. Pancake houses, an alligator attraction, miniature golf courses with elaborate fixtures. In one, a three-story volcano spews water the color of grape Gatorade. I drive and drive, expecting to feel: exuberance! humor! Instead it feels like a manifestation of human desire out of control. In other words, need, need, need, need, need.
5. Desire gets the characters in The Burning House in trouble. There’s a funny thing about desire: it feeds us–we know that–but it can also get us into big trouble. The book is interested in that big trouble, the damage that one man might do unconsciously in order to see his wife once again, as she is right now. He must sense that he has fallen for a romanticized notion of her, and held fast to that notion at his own peril. He wants to be in sync with her again, whether he knows that or not, and maybe that’s why he falls so hard for his wife’s sister.
6. I walk through the long campus house on College Acres Drive, where the creative writing program has put me up for the month. The house would not be too big for a family, but for one person, it feels spacious, empty, a little ghosty. There are bedrooms I never walk into. How could one person fill it? The space couldn’t be further from the one-bedroom Manhattan apartment I share with my partner, Mark, and our retriever Ned. Three big lives packed into 480 square feet. I’ve wonder if I’ve lost my ability to live well in a space with room. I try to let myself sprawl, then take inordinate interest in picking up the cups and papers, and keeping it fanatically neat.
7. My work has always been interested in houses. The search for them feels primal and animal, especially in a world that often feels like it’s coming undone around us. In The Burning House, the narrator’s sister-in-law has joined a group that’s trying to stop a townhouse project on a nearby island, home to a colony of endangered shore birds. That’s the only way she knows how to protect the community around her, which is being torn up (teardown after teardown) by greed. The characters in the book love wildness; if given the chance, they’d probably chose living outside over inside, but they also know that homes, of whatever sort, are meant to be protected.
8. After I finish my last workshop, I reward myself with an overnight trip to Charleston, South Carolina. I am only here one more week, and I figure I’ll never get to Charleston again. I spend the evening out at Isle of Palms, stirred up by what’s left of the maritime forest. Why have we allowed our beaches to be scraped all up down the east coast? I walk by a pond with the sign Warning Alligator and walk out to the beach. I fear that I’m indulging my love for the beach at evening, when a smart person would be across the river, walking up and down the city streets. I save that for the next day, and once I’m in the 18th century city, I’m entranced. Colonial houses up against palms and jasmine, pelicans and gulls overhead. The kind of hybridized place that stirs up my imagination. I walk up and down through one residential zone, aware that these houses were built on the backs of slaves; aware too that it feels loved, like few places are these days.
9. Why would a crocodile venture as far north as the Isle of Palms fishing pier, hundreds of miles north of South Florida, their usual zone? But that’s exactly what I find out in the archives of the Charleston Post and Courier. A crocodile did that back in 2008, and after a trapper caught him, he was trucked back down to the Everglades, where he might still be lurking in some creek, among the mangroves.
10. Tomorrow morning I’ll be flying back to New York. My stint here is done. My book is out, and I’ve been productive here, writing-wise, a very good feeling. Maybe I’ll delay my packing and head out to Wrightsville Beach just one more time. I am looking forward to being home, but there’s that part of me that will miss sitting out on the back porch, miss the humid air on my arms, the squeak toy sound of laughing gulls overhead, the thunderheads, the hum of the university’s physical plant, the fifty foot-tall pines. I will probably even miss the University’s water tower, which has pretty much commanded my view for the past thirty days. It has helped me keep my head up.