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Q&A: “Burn Scars” poetry collection gives a visceral description of loss in Greenville after the Dixie Fire one year ago

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Tolsun Books
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Listen to “The War”

Listen to “May Day

Plumas County author Margaret Elysia Garcia began writing her poetry collection “Burn Scars” while waiting at traffic stops driving from her mother's house into Greenville. After the Dixie Fire devastated the community one year ago today, what had been a 20-minute drive to get supplies in town became 45 minutes. Her mother’s house was spared from the fire, but Garcia’s office was not.

Garcia spoke to NSPR in July about the process of writing the collection over the course of nearly a year.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On the inspiration for “The War,” the first poem in the collection

My mother's house where I live now didn't burn, but it's right outside Greenville. It's a neighborhood and so to get anything you have to drive out. This entire year … has been us having to wait in 45-minute traffic stops to get just to the neighboring town that used to take 20 minutes. I had a lot of time in the car without any internet connection and just sitting there thinking about this new reality we were all in. And I remember one day — I had just spoken with some people who had fought the fire about what downtown had looked like and what it sounded like, and that it sounded like all these bombs going off, and that when they finally came to the idea that it took probably eight minutes for the town to burn … I mean, that was remarkable to me. And I knew I wanted to use it in something.

"I don't want the rest of California to forget this town … I'm happy that there'll be people going forward who will read about it in these poems and know what it was like to live out this year."
— Margaret Elysia Garcia, Author of “Burn Scars” concerning the Dixie Fire of 2021

I wrote this poem at traffic stops where I had 45-minutes to kill before I could do anything else. The majority of the poems were written in the car at traffic stops because that's that segment of time where it's just enough time to gather your thoughts together about something, but you can't get into a huge project because you're about to go.

“May Day” — the last poem — really affected me because I thought I was fine and over everything or had gotten to a place of acceptance. And the lot where my office was, was one of the last three lots to get cleared out. I kept hearing from people how they were freaking out when their property finally got cleared to dirt. I thought, you know, how stupid, we can't rebuild unless we clean out the lots. Like, why are people having this, like big breakdown? And then it finally came to me, and the lot got cleaned out. And that's when I finally burst into tears and had such a hard time and kind of chiding myself like, okay, I get it now. And also, intellectually knowing yes, they can't rebuild unless this is cleared out. But that really being the last straw of like, oh, it's all gone? Whatever happens afterward. It's not this.

On crossing caution tape on her burned lot to remember what had been there before

I did it a lot. My office was built all of wood furniture, and it had nearly a thousand books in it. So, I never held out hope that there was anything sitting there. Although my husband did find in our office a Wedgwood vase that belonged to my grandmother, a Japanese soup bowl that belonged to my officemate and another officemate had a terracotta bowl for yarn. And he found one thing in each of our spaces, and then we were like, okay, we each found one thing, and we'll just give up from here.

"I hate the word resilience because it's overused and I don't want to be resilient. But the experience has definitely taught me a lot on an emotional level, on a governmental level as doors have closed for so many of us for various things."
— Margaret Elysia Garcia, Author of “Burn Scars” concerning the Dixie Fire of 2021

But a few times, I went back to photograph the area and I would see just stupid things like a pile of now rusted paper clips that I knew were in a canister on my desk, and I had a bunch of spiral notebooks of stuff I was working on. And I found, of course, the metal rings all rusted. So, there were these reminders of all that was lost. And I would go back and look. It had a weird comfort that it was there.

On how writing the collection helped with processing the fire

I'm friends with a few other writers in the area and a good friend of mine, we were talking one day — in fact, the book is dedicated to her — and she said something about how I hope we don't forget all these little pieces of what it's like afterward. I was starting to encourage people I knew [to] write down exactly what your family's story is and what's going on with you. And then I started to realize that I was doing that for myself.

Some of the poems in here are really intentional of trying to remember exactly what was happening and what our frame of mind was, and exasperation. It's just a way of chronicling this situation for us, and that's the kind of feedback I've gotten from neighbors who've bought the book. They're like, thank you for putting into words some of the things we've been feeling and didn't have the words to say. And other people have been like, yes, this is exactly what the situation was. Thank you for saying it. It's really been this strange, cathartic experience of a not necessarily — especially in this political climate — ever agreeing with any of my neighbors about anything and, and then all of a sudden, having those same neighbors who — I know we don't vote anyway the same or do anything the same — but they're like, thank you for voicing this, because this is exactly how we're feeling right now. And so that's been a great privilege for me to feel like it's a community response.

On the significance of remembering the Dixie Fire a year later

I just feel like it's a very strange experience to live through. And I certainly never want to do it again.

I hate the word resilience because it's overused and I don't want to be resilient. But the experience has definitely taught me a lot on an emotional level, on a governmental level as doors have closed for so many of us for various things. It's been a strange, surreal sort of year of us getting used to very different living circumstances, and just taking it because we, most of us just have to, without any choice.

“It’s been rough, and commemorating it is just I think, for our town, it’s just a way for us to heal and move on. There’s not that many of us left. Before the fire we had like 850 people in town, and I think we’re around 250 right now.”
— Margaret Elysia Garcia, Author of “Burn Scars” concerning the Dixie Fire of 2021

I have a few more choices than most people up here. I was already in the process of trying to move back to Southern California where I'm from, and that's going to happen in February. But it's been quite the strange year of dealing with just anything from feeling like you're completely over it, and then all of a sudden, you go to use something and you remember, oh, wait a minute, that's gone. You know, it's gone, but you didn't need it in the last seven months, and then all of a sudden, you need that one thing, and it's not there, and then it brings everything all back again. So it's been rough, and commemorating it is just I think, for our town, it's just a way for us to heal and move on. There's not that many of us left. Before the fire we had like 850 people in town, and I think we're around 250 right now. So just acknowledging all that.

On what readers should take away from the collection

I feel like it's a bit of a time capsule. I don't want the rest of California to forget this town. I'm proud of it for that, that it encapsulates what's been going on for the year. It's in the libraries up here. There's a copy in every [Plumas County] library, the college, the high schools, and I'm happy that there'll be people going forward who will read about it in these poems and know what it was like to live out this year.

Adia White is a broadcast journalist and producer with nearly 10 years of experience. Her work has appeared on WNYC, This American Life, Capital Public Radio and other local and national programs. She started at North State Public Radio as a freelance reporter in 2017 before leaving for a stint at Northern California Public Media in Santa Rosa.