I'm interested in what happens when one is out of one's element - stories of people and place, history and culture, work and faith. I'm particularly interested in what happens when one willingly abandons that which is known in favor of that which is beyond the scope of experience, the place where the line between insider/outsider is blurred, that moment when the familiar becomes strange.
Phillip Lopate has said that the personal essay "is the reverse of that set of Chinese boxes that you keep opening, only to find a smaller one within. Here you start with the small - the package of flaws and limits - and suddenly find a slightly larger container, insinuated by...the writer's self-knowledge."
I'm after the type of self-discovery that comes out of an honest curiosity about the world, whether it's the world of the familiar (the small ex-coal-mining town where I grew up) or the strange (the tribal villages I hiked through on a backpacking trip to Vietnam). For me, the essay form provides a space where worlds can collide; leaving the room, the house, the city, or the country provides the experiences that become the stories, those ever-larger boxes that both change and become my life.
Teresa Leo's poetry and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The American Poetry Review's Philly Edition, New Orleans Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Painted Bride Quarterly, Xconnect, La Petite Zine, The Portable Boog Reader Philadelphia, and the anthology Whatever it Takes: Women on Women's Sport (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999). She has interviewed Rick Moody, Martín Espada, and Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Her awards include a 2002 Poetry Fellowship from the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, a 2001 Literature/Creative Nonfiction Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She is a former columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer's Commentary Page, past Editor-in-Chief of Painted Bride Quarterly, and has served as Acting Director of the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania. Currently she serves as a Contributing Editor for The American Poetry Review as well as Xconnect Magazine. She works at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the morning, I get up first and in the half-light see Luisa flopped over Loretta like a dead fish. Together they form the letter T- Loretta stretched out normally from the pillow to the foot of the bed, Luisa lying crosswise with her head on Loretta's stomach. Seeing them like this makes me want my own child with whom I can make letters while sleeping, the ascenders and descenders of our bodies coming together lyrically at night.
* * *
The diner across the street from the motel is decorated '50s-style and smells of new vinyl. I imagine it's been built recently, like most roadside stops I've seen along the way, sprouting up overnight like a bloated mushroom. It's 7:30am and Luisa wants bubblegum. I want coffee badly and was even tempted to use the little hot water shooter in the motel to make a cup of complimentary instant, the packets of which were riveted to the table by something red and sticky, which I couldn't identify. We are the only people in the diner except for the waitstaff, who are all wearing bopper uniforms - swirling poodle skirts, pink shirts, anklets, saddle shoes. A photo of a young Frank Sinatra hangs over our booth like a crucifix.
As usual, the restaurant doesn't have a smoking section. So I drink coffee quietly and watch Luisa make mountains and tunnels out of her hash browns. She sends a sausage through, like a train.
- from "Dead Man Wash", Painted Bride Quarterly, 1999