In the first of a series of Q & A’s with our Issue Nine prose contributors, Caitlin Palmer weighs in on memory, her writing process, and the aspects of setting in her lyric essay, “Inventory.” This is Caitlin’s first publication in a literary review, and we’re happy to report she has work forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic. You can read Caitlin’s essay here.
Would you talk a little about the role of memory in your piece, “Inventory,” specifically the relationship between taking inventory or keeping a record or list and the preservation of the past?
CP: A true “inventory,” for me, is what resurfaces after the years. What are the images that still haunt me even though I’ve long since turned my back on them. What are the things I will remember to my dying day though I can’t recall what I need from the grocery store. Although, after looking at old journals, I am more of a believer of taking notes of the day-to-day—weather, who I talked to, something I saw on the street—those things are only the background, the context. Memory for me, an artist’s memory, maybe all human memory, is a sieve, and time and forgetfulness filter out things until what you are left with are the things turning in your mind that help form your mind, that make you who you are. In a way, this piece was an inventory of my mind, my childhood—things that probably wouldn’t come up in normal conversation.
What was the catalyst for writing “Inventory,” and would you describe your process as the piece took shape?
CP: I read a description of a comb, like a flat one with prongs for wet hair, and the idea of it seemed identical to me to my father’s ashtray. Like you could put the two side by side to try to measure them somehow. I wanted an image of all those things I would lay out if I was to have an exhibition of my childhood. In “Cold Mountain,” Charles Frazier builds a similar set, describing the things his character Inman has laid beside him as if it were an exhibition staging of “The weary traveler.” If I was going to point to things and expect people to draw some conclusion from them, it would be these things. After that initial impulse, the list came quick and hard. The lines of the ashtray to the lines of the map; our location on the map to the south; the town to the north; the town the other way. These were items I was listing. Then feelings. Then losing them. And lastly, what exists when you’ve lost them.
You mention that the Midwest serves as a touchstone for you. Tell us more about what that means and how Hedge City, Missouri, specifically, is a standard by which you evaluate or recognize.
CP: I’ve traveled a lot, and hope to continue to do so. As a kid, I was always reading books, always wanting to be somewhere else. In college I got to go to Greece and then as soon as I graduated I left again for Spain, Wales, Scotland, Italy. I’ve always felt at home being the stranger. At home, in the Midwest, I sometimes felt out of place for having that desire. It made me feel, in ways, more foreign there. When I think of “the Midwest,” what I mean is, “my farm,” my parents’ farm, and the towns around it were only branches of my time there. I got to be wild at the farm, I didn’t have to work, show up anywhere on time, didn’t have to do anything. So “the Midwest” is this freedom of not being in the adult world, yet while your imagination isn’t constrained, your body is. So everything that happened to me there is weighted with extra significance. Life taught me all my lessons there, and I’m only now understanding the consequences of them, away.
Hedge City is—exactly what it is. A weigh station. A pit stop on the way to somewhere else. People drove and parked cars there, to be able to drive and park cars in another place. It’s got the shadings of Dorothy’s Kansas—colored as dust, but on either end of a dream. Hedge City showed me in a way that the world was big, and even in this rural place, there were people and tools and meters standing by to get you ready for it. And damn if you wouldn’t be ready and also have a stick of taffy by the time you left.
Caitlin Palmer is a native of Missouri. She has lived in Europe, Greece, and southern Bayou, but cycles back to the Midwest as a touchstone. She studied Creative Writing and Magazine Journalism at the University of Missouri and aims to pursue graduate study. In 2014 and 2015, her prose was displayed with regional photography and art at the Columbia Art League Gallery. Her work is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic. This is her first publication in a literary review.