What does a Las Vegas literature look like? Is it vivid and brash, like neon? Is it spontaneous and risky? Is it populated with casinos and cocktail waitresses, jackpots and cheap drinks? Is it preoccupied with themes of chance, luck, swift changes of fortune? Does it even have to have any of these qualities to be considered “Las Vegan”? These are questions crossing my mind after reading Sandra Beasley’s recent rumination on the importance of regionalism. Beasley is chiefly concerned with regional poets, but her point could readily apply to the creative elements of any form of writing:
I’m not here to laud the rhyme schemes of riding the range, or the strategic deployment of “y’all” in verse. But I’m interested in regionalism’s aesthetic and social capacities. Let’s define the term this way: commitment to a location for five or more years; use of that particular landscape, urban or rural, in the creative work; and engagement with a local community of authors outside of academic obligations.
Beasley argues that, particularly in a era when success is often measured by exposure (think ubiquitous memes, viral videos, blockbuster movies, the best-selling author on the talk-show circuit), regionalism proposes to stake truth in local texture: “The rewards of a region are not easily quantified on a curriculum vita.” And if regionalism requires a deep fascination with place, she also suggests that fascination results in a sturdiness, a rootedness and realness to the artistic expression that results: “... regionalism is not a box to cram your poems into; regionalism provides the bones that let the skeleton dance.”
It’s interesting to consider the challenges of writing about Las Vegas in the context of this article. The temptation to knit the threads of Beasley’s defense into a manifesto tailored for Las Vegas is strong — particularly if, like me, you’re a sometimes knee-jerk Vegas defender who thinks it’s important to create the space and foster the talent to make it more possible to tell our own story. I’m not going the manifesto route. But it is worthwhile to consider a few things about writing, about Las Vegas, and about writing about Las Vegas. One thing to consider is how the raw appeal of our mythology has perhaps worked against homegrown writing. Vegas is magnetic as both subject and setting; what writer, filmmaker or journalist can resist? But maybe the glut of books, films and TV treatments that come out of this dampen native enthusiasm rather than spark it.
Another development to consider is a countercurrent to this. It’s the seeming trend of artistic homesteading. That is, in recent years, I’ve met several artists and writers who originally arrived as wanderers or pioneers, but have decided to put down stakes in Southern Nevada. And, just as crucially, they did so because they’ve embraced Las Vegas and they want to explore its spirit and its quirks, its faults and its fascinations. There’s also a sense among them that there’s much more to the story, or stories, currently being told about Las Vegas. This charged sense of possibility is regionalism at its most hale. It’s a mindset enthused about place, not preoccupied with provincial cliches. And, as Beasley writes, getting into that mindset is as easy as looking outside:
When a workshop instructor urged me to be more specific than “bird” or “tree” in a poem, I’d sift through myth and nature guides, looking for a species of maximum symbolic heft—rather than looking out my own window. I wish I had meditated a little more on where I was, rather than where I wished to be known.