Sharpening the Knife Blade

This book is more the work of a poet than a trained oral historian. My only real credentials for having written it were that I was native to its situation in nearly every way and had only to listen to hear my own world talking.

—Ronald Blythe, Akenfield

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This quote from Ronald Blythe’s introduction to his seminal book Akenfield has been a mantra for me as I hammer away on this new manuscript surrounding the Los Gatos plane crash of 1948. In the same way Blythe’s book was heavily debated for its redefinition of oral history in the sixties, it’s possible that this book, All They Will Call You, sips from the same stream. At this point I have spent the better part of a year on the writing aspect of it and still have yet to put my finger on any one genre that it might be easily tethered to. I can hear my agent’s voice stressing to me, “What about plot? More plot!” Or a publisher cautioning, “We prefer there to be a clear distinction whether or not this is fiction or creative non-fiction.” Or my mentor’s voice saying, “Consider how the people who populate the book will receive it.” In the face of all this, there is a quiet hum in my skull whispering (dare I even say it) —hybrid.

At the start of working on this book, I had seriously considered that this might even turn out to be a collection of poetry, or even a long poem, taking its cue from Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony—aka poet as witness. I had been excited about the recent book by David Mason, Ludlow, where he uses narrative verse to retell the incident of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, including pieces of actual testimony, newspaper accounts and other formal documents. My project seemed very much along these lines, at least in the beginning. And in a similar way, Mark Nowak’s work in Coal Mountain Elementary, or C.D. Wright’s One With Others, further opened up the possibilities to me. I figured my project would lend itself to this curious genre that I have sometimes heard referred to as Documentary Poetics, or even Investigative Poetics, as Ed Sander’s deemed it. The idea of taking fragments of this “found language” and organizing it in a way that looks and acts more like poetry than prose was appealing to me, as someone who spent five years chasing two writing degrees with an emphasis in poetry. 

After a little more than three years of research now, I have amassed dozens of files and documents, and more than 100 hours of audio and video interviews with everyone, from eyewitnesses of the crash to the families of the victims, and the musicians who brought the song, Deportees, to light. Between this and the fact that I had spent more of my own money than I care to admit, and at least as many hours researching this single incident, I could not allow myself to succumb to the self-serving lure that, for me, is and always has been poetry. It’s just not how I approach writing. I began writing across genres, not because I had some preconceived path of what my career might look like, but in truth, because I was trying my best to allow the story or idea to dictate the form. Some folks can set out to write a novel, and they do. Some set out to write a poem, and they do. For me writing happens something akin to how Steinbeck describes collecting creatures from a tide pool in the opening of his book “Cannery Row.” There are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter to the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle. 

A story, or spurt of language, or lightening thought arises, and my job is to be a good listener and observer. Awareness is my knife blade, and I do my best to keep it sharp. Sometimes the creature arrives as a blob of language, without direction or rationale. Sometimes it starts out as a poem then morphs into a story, or vice-versa. Still, other times it starts as a song lyric then slowly winds its way back toward a straight narrative. If I pay attention, which is to say, once the idea has squirmed its way onto my knife blade, then with slow and calculated precision, I do my best to guide it into the bottle, unbroken. And this is my approach with All They Will Call You.

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