I love Richard Hugo's assertion in The Triggering Town that if you have never been to a certain town or place, try writing a poem about it, because it can be/become anything. We owe the truth nothing in our poems. As Hugo says, we owe something only to the music, the sound of the poem. This doesn't go against the traditional "write what you know" theory, but surely it expands it. When I first read Hugo seven years ago this was very liberating. It allowed me to forget trying to write a poem about Danville, the small Easy Bay area town where I grew up. It allowed me to lie, to fabricate, to bs, although I still think about Danville sometimes.
But now I am thinking about what I will call the haunting towns--those towns we can still smell and see, the ones whose people or music occasionally make their way into our poems but have never entirely occupied a whole poem. I suppose I'm kind of talking about the poetry of place, but it's more than that. It encompasses the physical detail, (i.e. the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia, the place I am thinking about these days) but it has to do with a continuing loss and desire and recurring memories. I've written poems about Cusco, Peru (one of my favorite cities) and Seoul, S. Korea (my birthplace)---but just because we write about something or someone, it/she/he does not stop the haunting. We only placate it temporarily.
But I just haven't been able to write about some towns (hence the haunting)---Phnom Penh, Modesto (the dusty valley town where my parents live), Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City. When I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia I read a pirated copy of Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father and I tell you, that memoir will stay with you. Talk about haunting. I recommend it to everyone. Ung was active for years in the campaings for a landmine free world and has a tremendous story to tell. I have several poems about Phnom Penh and Siem Reap that I want to revise. So how do you write a poem about walking the blown apart sidewalks (yes, many streets still illustrate the recency of the war) in Phnom Penh? How can I write a poem about playing a game of soccer with some local guys in Laos on the bank of Mekong River, knowing how many families had to swim across that very river to escape death during the Vietnam War?
Hell, I don't know. They'll emerge somehow, and if they don't, well, they weren't ready for me (or vice-versa...or maybe I just need to get busy). As Arundhati Roy says, the stories call us out. It's only been a few years anyway. Maybe these things take a while.
Of course, there is a predominant image--fueled by two senses, sight and sound. On the dirt road as we walked toward Angkor Thom, we heard the sound of live traditional Cambodian music, the beautiful stringed instruments beckoning us closer. Then, the sight of the musicians--about eight men, all amputees, "sitting" on the ground as they played. The sound has faded in memory, but the sight was unforgettable. Visit the Campaign for a Landmine Free World if you have a spare moment.