On discovering Florida as a landscape worthy of literature

I grew up on the central Florida ridge, a landscape of longleaf pine and scrub oak and palmetto brush. It was not like the lush, tropical landscape folks from elsewhere imagined; this Florida was poor and harsh, big-skied and mean-spirited. Nor was it like the landscape of the books I read. I was an avaricious and compulsive reader, and I swear that every book I read before I turned twenty, excepting only the Bible, had at least one birch tree and at least one stand of rhododendrons. Even Huck Finn, as Southern a boy as was ever created by our collective imagination, paddled through a landscape that looked an awful lot like “up north” to my Floridian eyes.

I didn’t think about it much, but when I started writing stories and poems in middle school, I set the stories in New England and borrowed environmental details from Anne of Green Gables. The characters were all bad copies of people I knew, except they talked the way people in books talked, not like the working class Southerners I grew up with. When I wrote poems, I stuck to feelings and imagery I believed to be universal—love, religious fervor, soft rain, the stars, the moon.

If you had asked me about the moon, even then, I would have said that I love the half moon best. Waxing or waning, the half moon’s light is magical, and where I grew up, it reflects off the white sugar sand the way I suppose it must off undisturbed snow. Under the first layer of dew, the sand remains sun-warm late into the night, and, if you know where the prickly pear and palmetto roots grow, you can walk for hours through the soft, warm sand in the moonlight with no fear except rattlesnakes and scorpions. But I didn’t write about that. As far as I knew, no one did. The language of poetry was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It was New York and Paris. It was not wireweed and red tailed hawks and Frostproof, Florida.

It’s a simple idea—show, don’t tell. Write what you know—but if no one has ever told you that what you know has value, that it is worthy of art, the idea is revolutionary.

In my first college poetry workshop, my teacher gave a simple assignment that changed my life. He asked us to write a close observation poem. “Sit down in a real place,” he said, “and write what you experience with your senses.” I sat on my mother’s porch swing, and I smelled orange blossoms and heard mockingbirds and saw my siblings lined up beside me—”like stair steps” someone always said when we were small. I saw the house my father built. I heard my mother singing John Denver. I saw and heard and smelled and tasted all the real things that represented the feelings I’d been trying to write, and for the first time I knew what Eliot meant by the “objective correlative.” For the first time, I said out loud, “I want to be a poet.”

It’s a simple idea—show, don’t tell. Write what you know—but if no one has ever told you that what you know has value, that it is worthy of art, the idea is revolutionary. I didn’t know birches and snowy woods and rhododendrons, but I knew orange groves and oak hammocks and sugar sand. I knew rattlesnakes and armadillo and wild boar. I knew the heartbreaking language of working class, rural Floridians. I started to wonder what I could make out of what I knew.

That was the start for me of a deep appreciation of writers who honor their home place by using its imagery and language with great specificity. Robert Frost was on my reading list at that time, along with Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Wright, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bishop, Sherman Alexie, Gary Snyder, and Sandra Cisneros. No wonder I began to love literature with a strong sense of place.

My Florida isn’t an easy place to love, but I do love it.

It was also the beginning of a struggle because, like so many of the writers I most admire, my place and imagery and language are not prized by the literary establishment. In workshop, one of my classmates, an enviably beautiful and talented New Yorker, handed my poem back with just one word circled—off-kilter. “What does this even mean?” she wrote. I felt a little foolish. At home I asked, “Is this not a word people use? Is this not something people say?” It didn’t occur to me then to ask why my classmate hadn’t understood the word based on numerous context clues or why she hadn’t looked up a word she didn’t understand. At the time I assumed the problem was with me and my language.

I had never heard the term “code switch,” but I had done it all my life. As a scholarship kid at a private high school, I had called the evening meal “supper” at home but “dinner” to my friends. I had concentrated hard when saying words ending in –ag or –eg, shaving away my southern accent. When I first started writing, I thought I had to code switch in poetry too. I had a lot to learn. I read writers like Gloria Anzaldua, whose essays on language and racism made me uncomfortably aware of my privilege as a white, native English speaker, but that also helped me contextualize and defend my own “native tongue.” My southern accent wasn’t worn down by institutionalized racism, but I understood some of what Anzaldua meant when she wrote, “[A]s long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.” I understood implied linguistic illegitimacy when my mentor vetoed the first title I chose for my thesis—Missing the Seasons. “You know what it means, and other people from Florida know what it means,” he said, “but every editor in America is either from Vermont or Iowa, and they won’t publish you if you confuse them.”

I gave up on that title, but I haven’t given up on creating art with broad branches and deep roots, art that transcends regionalism while remaining firmly grounded in the imagery and language of my particular place. My Florida isn’t an easy place to love, but I do love it. Once, riding horses through the groves with my father, I glanced back in time to see a panther ghost across the path behind us and disappear as if it had never been. How I longed to kick my horse to gallop after it! I know that moment of fear and joy in my bones and know it to be as unique and universal and worthy as any moment in a New England wood. I hope that by loving this place and writing about it as honestly as I can, I might make it easier for someone else to love and write the place they know, and to value the strange places and languages of others.