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Why Back Stories Matter

June 4, 2013

(This is the first of a two-part blog, which opens with the premise for my new poetry/essay collection, Backroad Melodies, that will be published in mid-June by Tuscany Global.)

I LOVE BACK ROADS. Like I love back stories. I love to drive and run along them, slowly, wondering what sights, scents, secrets and sounds lurk behind every knoll, valley, ridge, canyon, glen, hollow or swale. I notice the subtle changes in temperature and scent every time I drive or run up a hill, dip into a valley, pass a rain-flooded creek or bluff hole where children splash and lovers mingle, immerse in a neighbor’s barbecue, or watch the skies open up with a drought-shrinking pop-up thunderstorm that turns a dusty hard pack lane into mush within ten minutes. I greet the dogs, horses, sheep and cows by name, names that I created for them. I am even endeared to the guinea hens that wobble into my running path.

            My mind cuts loose, imagining how lives play out inside the houses, cabins, shacks, barns, homesteads, basements and porches that dot the landscape, and sometimes define it. How would they write their stories? What adventures did they have? How far away from this place in space did they ever go? Who did they love? Leave? Take in? Raise? Where did they serve? How far back does their lineage go? Do they know their ancestral roots here, the stout men and women who settled and began making the family that led to today? Or do they carry the blood and traditions of the Cherokee, Miwok, Paiute, Choctaw, Mandan, Shoshone or Maidu? For those who have passed, what stories are told about them while people gather at their gravesites in country cemeteries, after winding past a forest, hill or vale on a sidewinder of a road to get there?


I yearn for the songs of the back roads: Old bluegrass played on those porches with guitars, harmonicas, mandolins, tub basses, washboards, Jew’s harps or sticks banging against upside-down buckets. Tunes chirped overhead by a dozen species of birds. Rain stomping down with the ferocity of an orchestra in full force, or misting with the gentleness of a lightly plucked guitar string; spirituals sung to highest heaven from tucked-away churches the size of a postage stamp; tender melodies of wind skirting thigh-high meadow grass; or the haunting marching songs whistled by troops either coming or going from war. If you listen closely, you can hear them in the wind, or by pressing your ear against an ancient oak.

Then there are the names of these roads, often more colorful than any way we can describe them: Long Branch. Nunn Switch. Singing Pines. Jackass Flats. Tyler Foote. McNab Cypress. Sages. Fishtrap. Vista Knolls. Flume Canyon. Pan Ravine. Maidu Ridge. Musket Ball. Turkey Knob. Kailash Circle. Blind Shady. Silverthorne. Seminary Loop. Saddle Slope. Rosebud. Buck Spur. Grizzly Hill. Backbone. Blackford Church. Railroad Avenue. Kadaheska. China Flats. Each name invokes images, stirs the imagination, and triggers in me the deep desire to throw open the gates and release all the stories, tales, sagas, legends, myths, poems and songs told, thought and witnessed along these roads. One slings across a fossil river bed. Another bisects bucolic Amish country. Still another goes out of business for three months a year, when the Ohio River tradewater floods it out.

For me, these are the roads to wonderland. I wonder what I will see and experience every time I cruise a back road.

There you have it: the backstory of Backroad Melodies. While each poem and essay in the collection has its own launching point, its own backstory, the title has one of its own, too. In this country, we get so lost in highways, freeways, turnpikes, expressways, rush hours, urban sprawl and going fast that we forget to slow down, turn right off the beaten path, and take in these roads. When we do, and we trust what we see and how we feel, then we realize we are driving into the reflection of who we are, at our deepest place: beings with roots, dreams, stories, and a desire to be at home. If the back roads reflect anything, they reflect being at home.

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO, I attended a poetry reading in New York. The featured poet offered up a nice selection of work, the cadence and tone of his spoken voice well synched to the verses and stanzas. His poems ranged from inner city topics to feelings and perceptions of loneliness, yearning, love, wonder. He wrote about himself; he wrote about others; he wrote about precious moments as they happened, in his eyes. He held the crowd of about one hundred in his hand.

Except for one thing: he refused to offer up any backstories. Every time a member of the audience asked for a little background on a poem, or an image, he would say, “That would take away the mystery and the power of the poem. I never tell anyone where these came from.”

At first, I thought his answer rude and insensitive. If I drive to this bookstore, or event, to hear you read, I want to know how these poems came about! Call it the reporter in me. Then, I thought further, a series of questions that built on each other like a snowball rolling down one of those snow-filled crevasses that snowboarders reach by helicopter only: What if his poems contain all the meaning that matters? What if it is his way of divulging a secret emotion or event, of releasing it, his public catharsis? What if he simply wants to be ‘mystery man’, giving us the outer layer of his onion while remaining safely tucked inside? Or that he feels life begins at the poem’s launching point? Is everything before it mere gestation?

I’ve had these conversations with writers and poets everywhere. The vast majority, I find, are all too happy to share the creation stories behind their works. Also, I know from my own experience that listeners and readers dial in more astutely when they know something about the story that precedes THE STORY, or the actual experience that informs the poem or essay.

I don’t buy the rationalization that backstories must be kept entirely hidden so that we don’t give away our secrets to the reader. Especially if they have already read the book. Not now, in this transparent online era in which we are obsessed with storytelling and story writing to an extent never before seen or known. Everyone has a story, or hundreds, and wants to share. Why else are memoirs the eye candy of most publishers’ lists? Why are there more sites and topic-specific blogs on the Internet where people can post stories than there are publishing houses in the world? Why are there more blogs (195 million, as of January 2013) than there are people in all but four countries (China, India, the United States and Indonesia)? And why is the number of online and print literary/story journals the highest in publishing history?

We want stories. We love stories. We can’t get enough. You tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine. And we’ll do it again. We tell each other stories in our homes, backyards, parks, porches, schools, workplaces, cars, semis, planes, beaches, fishing boats, libraries, over fences, under tents, inside tunnels, sitting on old water towers or the scaffolds of new construction. We tell and read stories because we are our stories. If anything is as mitochondrial as our DNA, it is the stories that define us … because stories are part of our DNA. Have been since Shaman first interpreted the divide between here and there to our most distant ancestors, countless eons ago, in caves and fields scattered throughout the world. Talk about the ultimate backstory!


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