Hilltop in the early 1990s was an interesting place. I was in New Zealand in 1992 and random people there knew about the crime in Hilltop. It was a dangerous place with gang members who moved here from Los Angeles turning the area into a high-crime area that most people avoided after dark. In 1994 I met a young girl named Christina Stoddard. She lived with her family right in the middle of Hilltop and she beyond being ridiculously smart and fun to be around, she also did something that had me immediately intrigued; she wrote better than me.
I wasn’t surprised when Christina won the Brittingham Prize award for poetry. I congratulated her and she offered to send me a copy of Hive, her book of poetry. I had read many of her poems before. I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. These poems weren’t just good. They were real. They were deeply personal. And they were quintessentially Tacoman.
I have a novel coming out later this year. It’s 57,000 words and says a few things about Tacoma. I’m proud of it and I hope people like it. But reading Christina Stoddard’s Hive, I was reminded of something filmmaker Cameron Crowe said about musician Paul Westerberg. He said, “Paul says shit in two and a half minutes that I can’t say in two and a half hours.”
Individually these poems are as often haunting as they are humorous. Taken together the poems paint a picture of the young girl growing up in Hilltop long before I ever met her. I’ve been trying to find a way to review Hive without making it personal but I find that it’s simply impossible.
In recent years Christina and I haven’t talked much and truth be told I don’t know her all that well these days. That said, I remember the girl she writes as in her poems. A short white Mormon girl with a good head on her shoulders and a little too much curiosity growing up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country results in poetry that speaks to the struggle so many bright children in bad neighborhoods cope with.
I’ve also found that it’s hard to write about poetry. It’s like writing about skydiving. It’s better to just do it. With that in mind I’m sharing a poem from Hive with the permission of Christina. It’s one of my favorites in the book.
What Tacoma Was
By Christina Stoddard
The scuffed toe of a Boeing work boot,
Puget Sound’s paper mill stench,
the asbestos cough from the Asarco plant.
A tin can that cut my thumb
every time I tried to throw it into the past. The kind
of wound that takes a full minute
to begin bleeding. A cave of Evergreens
at Point Defiance Park, shutting out all light.
The stone in my soup. WIC coupons
common as pine needles, soldiers
from Fort Lewis cruising the mall for girls,
bottles of Rainier beer. The man
who held me down in the storeroom where I worked
and snarled, Don’t fight me, you bitch.
A glue so quick to bond
I had to meet my mother’s eyes and tell her
she wasn’t enough reason to stay.