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Writing Arizona

June 4, 2008 |  8:41 am


Old West meets New West: a bobcat passes by a suburban Arizona garage. Photo by Kim Perina.

Poet Sally Ball and her husband, novelist T.M. McNally, live in Scottsdale, near Phoenix. When I was traveling across Arizona, Sally showed me around Tempe, which is also near Phoenix. It may be more accurate to say that both towns are now virtually in Phoenix; the capital of Arizona, at 1.5 million people, has swelled past its outlying towns.

The writing community of Phoenix/Scottsdale/Tempe is spread thin by the city's sprawl, Ball told me. Yet she was enthusiastic about the outreach efforts of Arizona State University (where she and her husband teach), particularly Alberto Rios' work and the projects of the Piper Center for Creative Writing.

Ball shared her thoughts of the relationship between people and place in her part of Arizona.

I sometimes think very hard about the unnaturalness of how we live here -- in the desert, with our pools. And I live in Scottsdale, which is sort of the peak of the weirdness of it: golf everywhere and lavishly decorated freeways, and "water features" in our irrigated yards (i.e.: cascading into the pool, a rocky waterfall, or scuppers shaped like lions or dragons (a lot of these have a kind of "ancient flavor" -- Rome, or the Qing Dynasty). And I think the Lifestyle (this word is in heavy use) sort of mimics the landscape and the falseness of living in the desert, the willfulness of it:  so many shallow roots, a shallow sense of belonging. Which then increases shallowness or falseness in everyday life: plastic grass for the Xeriscape, plastic boobs for Mom. This place with no menacing weather (okay, monsoons for two weeks in July...) but Hummers and Escalades by the thousands. There's a baseline sense that we can beat nature: bring in water for our lawns, thrive even in 110 degree summers, and why not also have fuller lips, skinny thighs, no more wrinkles....

More thoughts from Ball on Arizona, the Old West and the New West, below.

Carolyn Kellogg

Ball writes:

Old West and New West: the evolution of the cliches about Arizona all of which have teeth: Cowboys and Ranches (still present, dwindling, but -- have you ever seen a hand-tooled leather cell phone holster, which cowboys now make because cell phones have saved their bacon: no more two-hour (or two-day) rides to get supplies when the fence is down, just a phone call....) so they need them, and they need to protect them from falls, calves, etc etc.

And then, Spiritual/Health/Comfort Arizona: the energy vortices in Sedona's red rocks, and astrology and chakras and the healing power of the desert. Real Native culture and stagey tourist attraction imitation Hopi rituals. The Mayo Clinic is here, and rehab, and a spa in every strip mall.

And then the Retirement Zone, low taxes, a kind of libertarian/hands-off version of Republicanism so we favor guard-gated communities over fully-funded police forces and have trouble adequately funding schools. This is also, though, the strand of Arizona consciousness that voted NOT to amend our constitution in order to prohibit gay marriage.

The identity of the place is so much invested in individualism, sometimes it's tenacious, other times it's more flighty.

I think I quoted a line of [my husband] Mike's, about how in Phoenix, power -- and communication -- move underground. Because we bury all the lines: to keep the sky clear. He's been taken as a writer of the New West. I think "new" means "more" usually: Growth chokes that sense of the frontier. So then each strand of Arizona's history remains and contributes to the present, but so much else is here.  Maybe Arizona seems young and small enough to generalize about, then turns out to be richer, stranger, more oddball? I hope so. It's been that way for me -- like the seasons, or the reflection of the seasons in the desert: which at first seemed so uniform (and yes I still sometimes have a short but vertiginous experience of not knowing if it's April or October...) but once you get acclimated, the hills and washes are full of changes and surprises and wildness and transition.

It's an intriguing mix, too, of delicate and tough, or subtle and blaring: the flowers (in the photo below), they only last a day. But they're like intercoms of lust and beauty. Staggering, and gone. And the cactus they grown on is as mean as they come.


cactus photo by Sally Ball