Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Henry Taylor - Bethesda, MD

I made my last stop today, in Bethesda, Maryland, to meet with my MFA advisor, the gifted and gentle Henry Taylor, a man of immense humanity and talent.

I went to American University to work in his program in the early 80s as a fiction writer, and was turned on to poetry by his book An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards. His work is deft and exacting, funny, and so finely wrought that it is impossible to imagine anything else in its place. He writes out of the places of his life all the time, many times his home of Loudon County, Virginia.

It has been 20 years since I've seen him, and he is the same, smiling, bearded, and comfortable in his own skin. I am who I am and do what I do in part - I hate to lay this on anyone - because of him. The fact that he has a full head of hair is the only thing that disappoints me about the visit.

He lives with his wife Mooshe on a spectacular and spacious wooded lot just north and west of DC. It's a forest in there, and the city seems miles away. We talk in a room full of floor to ceiling windows on soft couches. We catch up a bit about the trip; he tells me about his new book. We remind each other about my time in DC two decades ago.

Henry and Mooshe are champion RVers, so we talk a bit about that. I hate to reveal that we have sold Winnie Cooper, just this past week in fact. We had planned on this for months, but when the ad appeared in the paper, and when Winnie was reduced to her statistics, I felt a dark spot form on my heart. How do you reduce that great rolling home to 4 lines of newspaper text: "2004 Winnebago, V10, queen bed, satellite dish...used to travel the country and dream new dreams, saw a billion stars. Price negotiable."

Henry and Mooshe are leaving later this week for a week's excursion in their lovely gold Class A, and I envy the journey.

We get to the interview, the 62nd and final one of the project. I ask the questions and record the answers. I shoot the photos and all over the event is a serene sort of sadness that I've been waiting for and dreading. I'm a project guy. I'm never happy unless I have something going on. I want to dream a big dream, figure out a plan and get to it. I love finishing, but now, 8 months and 5 days after interview #1, I am reluctant to let it all go.

After we chat we talk a bit about what's next for me. I'm embarrassed to admit we still don't know. There are some jobs I'm still thinking over, but really, maybe we're not ready to stop yet. Maybe we're still going to keep moving. But where? Why? What will be waiting?

I shoot some photos of Henry out on his property. I snap away like I have before and pack my bag. I shake his hand, drink in that moment, there with someone - who I must say - is simply a hero of mine.

And then I go.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Bin Ramke - Denver, CO

We left Logan, Utah in brilliant sunshine on a cold spring morning, and headed east through valleys and passes toward the Colorado border. Before we reached
the stateline we hit a tiny town called Garden City, right on Big Bear Lake, a splendid body of water that emerged before us hundreds of feet below as we descended to it.

With food once again driving my desires, we found the only restaurant open, the Hometown Inn, a place
that advertised their famous raspberry shake and completely run - it seemed - by 14 year olds. Missy took our order and Melissa started the food cooking. Once the burgers were ready Melissa went out the employee door to the front of the place to neck with her surly boyfriend, someone I believe who must be named Snake or Spike. He was sitting in his Camaro, passenger side, smoking a cigarette. They provided us a good deal of entertainment while we ate. I'd have a bite, have a drink of water, and then turn to see how Spike was doing negotiating the gear shift and Melissa's blue Hometown Inn apron.

Inside, Missy asked us a couple of times if our food was okay, then she'd rest her elbow on the counter, place her chin on her hand and stare out at Melissa and Spike as well.

The town was picturesque and clean and snug against this brilliant blue lake. We could see deer across the road munching on the grass and a gigantic mountain pushed against us from the west. I wanted to say to Missy - who might have lost the affection of Spike weeks ago (who knows?) - "What a great town. You must love it here." But of course I'm in my 40s. I've been in small towns and big cities. I've seen enough to know that a place like this is made for me. The city was great when I was in my 20s, but now I just want to reduce the people in my life and increase the trees and mountains.

But as Missy stared out the window, I sensed she was waiting for the end of the shift, the end of high school, and the start of her life somewhere away from here.

After we finished our food we took the trash and dropped it in a bin. Melissa had unhooked herself from Spike and was back inside cooking up someone else's hamburger. I looked for a tip jar, wanting to leave something for the kids. Missy, who I imagined would one day make it at least as far as Denver or Salt Lake City, and Melissa, who I knew would figure Spike was a dead end pretty soon and would need to get out of here as well.

We spent the night in Fort Collins, 60 miles north of Denver, and when we emerged from the hotel the next morning we saw snow on the ground, and our truck covered with ice. It was in the 20s, and though the sun was shining, the wind tore through us.

We drove down I-25 to Denver and then found our way to the University of Denver where I'm scheduled to meet with Bin Ramke, a terrific poet and editor whose work I've loved for years. Aside from his own poetry, he's widely revered for his work as the editor for Denver Quarterly and the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series. His choices for both venues are always impeccable, clear, lyrical work of a wide variety, always challenging, always opening.

Ramke greeted me warmly in the hallway outside the Quarterly's suite of offices and we went in his personal office. We talked a bit about the trip and he asked after some of his pals I've seen on the trip.

We ran through a bit of his geographic history, youth in east Texas, college in Louisiana and Ohio, then a decade long academic start in Georgia. He's been in Denver now for nearly 20 years and provides a lot of insight into how his youth in the South fits together with his long time in the West. He talks about the mountains that surround this large western city as barriers, as an isolating influence for the residents here.

For the past few years he's taught as a visiting writer in Chicago at the Art Institute, and he talked about the interesting dynamic that created, Fall semesters in Chicago - with endless museums and everpresent public transportation - and then Spring and summers in Denver, a more sprawling city where cars and highways fill every conceivable space in between the mountains.

We chatted long after the normal range of these interviews, and I would have happily continued. But the highway called. Ramke walked out with me, met my wife, and the three of us chatted a while longer. The sun was brilliant, and the company was welcome.

When we got in our car and headed east, it was with the knowledge that this last gasp trip to the west was over. It was just 750 miles back to our temporary home in NW Arkansas. The next months will see one last interview (with my MFA mentor, the poet Henry Taylor), and hours and hours of work putting the book together for a July deadline with my publisher.

We drove out of Colorado, into Kansas, and watched mile after mile of empty, fallow fields. Each minute now seems full of import, full of examination of what these 6-7 months have meant to us. A journey that in some ways just started, is nearly over. What have we learned? What do we want? What next? Where next?

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Kenneth Brewer - Logan, UT

Traveling north out of Salt Lake City, we are stunned by the remarkable landscape changes just an hour or so up I-15. We turn east and plunge into a part of the Wasatch range, and when we emerge on the highway to Logan, we are surrounded by deep green valleys, pastures, horses, cows, pretty farm houses. It's like the lushest part of Iowa, but at 5000 feet, and surrounded by snow capped mountains.

Logan itself, the home to Utah State University (and USU Press, this book's publisher!), is gorgeous. Neatly cared for houses spill up and down the ever-present valleys. Downtown is neat and closed up tight on a Sunday morning. Families travel wide white sidewalks on the way to one of several churches, the most stunning, the Logan Mormon Tabernacle.

Ken Brewer meets me the door and helps me negotiate a truce with Gus and Jasmine, a pair of lively Schnauzers who are interested in either tearing my fingers off or licking me to death. (Poets & Dogs chapter coming up next week, perhaps.)

Ken is a gentle and genial host and we have a long friendly chat in his comfortable living room. A westerner since the early 1960s, he delights in debunking for me some of the more romantic myths, including gunfighting and the "singing cowboy" phenonmenon. Ken's a realist and loves to show the places of his life in clear, unvarnished colors.

The current poet laureate of Utah, he's preparing to work on a large archiving project, meeting and videotaping scores of Utah poets. I understand the kind of planning that a journey like that takes, so I make a mental note to keep in touch with him with tips on recorders, etc.

Ken's wife has the yard blooming already in this early spring, so we go outside to shoot some photos. We talk about a shared pal, someone who taught us both, Ken 30 years ago and me almost 20. Since I'm going to see this pal in the coming month Ken enlists my help as a messenger and runs inside to get something to take along with me.

We shake hands and we're back on the road. We have 500 miles to go tonight, and as I leave Ken in his yard, the Cache Valley spreading out beneath him wide and green, I once again find myself wishing I was home (wherever that is) already.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Paisley Rekdal - Salt Lake City, UT

I don't know what was more frightening, the rapid fire barking of Hana, one of Paisley Rekdal's beautiful (large) dogs, or the size and chocolate content of the enormous pastry I was served. Both items took much of my
concentration during my visit to Rekdal's spectacular and sunny home on a hillside overlooking Salt Lake City.

But I'm exaggerating. I'm given to hyperbole. Hana settled down, and I ate almost half of the pastry. I was unable to lift the other half, such a chocolate-foggy-stupor I was in after a few bites. (I'm just joking about all of this. I love when there's food...not just on this trip, but anytime
I'm anywhere. Serve it up. Bring it with you. Leave it in a sack for me to find.)

But in between all of that, Rekdal and I spent part of a sunny spring morning in her front room. She sat on a giant sofa and I was across the room in a large chair. The dogs took turns coming in for love or pastry, and I drank hot peppermint tea out of a heavy ceramic mug.

I was turned on to Rekdal several months ago by a colleague of hers, and I've fallen for her work. She loves the west, the inhospitable quality of it that she discovered years ago when she first moved to Wyoming. Now in Salt Lake City - still a small, somewhat hidden, and awfully misunderstood place to many big city folks - she finds just enough of a mix of things - good restaurants, the towering mountains.

She tells me about the house, about 100 years old, two stories with an attic. She's only been here six months but she's already had to deal with 60 pounds of peaches off the trees in the front yard. (There's a LOT of peach jam in the building; that's all I'm saying.) She's painted the
interior already, making it hers. She has her space for working, a private area which she dedicates to writing and nothing else (taxes are done in another room). She's started a garden. She's been here less than a year, but the place she's made is homey and comfortable.

After we talk, we shoot some photos inside. Then we take the dogs out front - where some new flowers are bulging out, purples and yellows. After Shumai eats a little dewy grass, I get a few photos of all of them on the steps. And then I go.

Friday, April 09, 2004


The trip - which at times has threatened to swallow us whole - is winding down faster than we thought. We are on this last leg through Texas, Utah, and Colorado, and with a couple of days off we found ourselves in southern Utah near two gigantic national parks, Canyonland and Arches.

Like normal tourists, we loaded up the sandwiches and cameras and went for another of a seemingly endless sight-seeing obligation. You know what I mean? You end up in Yuma and someone says, "You gotta see the old jail." So you go. You shoot nine pictures of it. You touch it. You buy a postcard and a t-shirt, then start looking for a Taco Bell.

But as we roll into Arches, we are greeted with towering sandstone spires that reach to the sky, gigantic slabs of red rock, some razor thin, that all crowd the snaking road that leads through the park. It's stunning and humbling, and nothing at all like a normal tourist stop.

We spend most of two full days seeing what we can, hiking across sandy canyons, which sometimes lead right to sudden and beautiful grassy pastures, to see sandstone arches. In the northern section of Canyonlands, we stand on sheer cliffs that fall hundreds of feet and look over hundred mile views. I don't even notice if it's a pepperoni or salami sandwich, if that tells you anything about how the place gets my attention.

As yesterday was winding down, we found a rock outcropping over the Green River valley and sat on the stone, cross legged in complete silence. I thought a lot about the journey, the places we'd seen. I looked for deep reverential meaning it all. Why here now? What's this place about? Why do I get to see it?

I thought about the tremendous toll that the trip has taken on me, the long hours of writing, interviewing. The travel which just blurs towns and states and people together. I think about the maps and the directions. I think about my poor wife - who gets to hear the long version of this paragraph daily - who has stood by me since the nutty idea was born almost a year ago.

Why doesn't she just push my fat ass off this ledge?

Monday, April 05, 2004

William Wenthe - Lubbock, TX

William Wenthe, when referring to his move from bucolic Virginia to hardscrabble Lubbock, Texas, calls it geographic shock. The New Jersey native had made a real home in the area in and around Charlottesville during his pursuit of MA and PhD degrees, so had some adjustments to make when arriving in this splendid but isolated panhandle city.

As an adopted Texan with nearly 15 years in the state of my own, I can appreciate the transition, but also envy anyone who's still living in the gigantic and friendly borders.

But Lubbock is in the flyway for a wide variety of aviary life, and Wenthe - a bird lover since youth - finds that comforting. While we talk in the study of his pretty brick home, Wenthe runs down a long list of birds he sees in the area.

The wildlife in the house is pretty great, too. Zero, the aging and blind - but independent - cat keeps us company during the interview, twice bumping his nose into my intruding tripod, but getting a fair amount of attention in Wenthe's lap. And Eddie, the fiery Corgi makes a welcome appearance early on, alternately barking at and licking the visitor. Wenthe's wife rescued me from Eddie - or maybe Eddie from me - after it was clear I was never going to get to the interview otherwise.

Wenthe tells me about a visit from one of his New York pals a few years ago. As they drove through the barren landscapes north of the city, Wenthe was revelling in the rich tapestry of sky, earth, and clouds, and his pal said: "Boy, there's nothing out here."

It was then that Wenthe knew he'd crossed a threshold. The geographic shock was over. The landscape had taught Wenthe what to see and how to see it, and suddenly Lubbock and environs was home.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Lars Fad - Yopo, IL

We follow I-55 looking for a state highway, then take it into a regional park where we pick up the first of two dirt roads on our way to Yopo, a tiny town about twenty miles from Kankakee, Illinois. When we pull up, the poet Lars Fad is waiting on a large painted glider. He gives a big wave and heads over to us. He is wearing a striped shirt, long khaki shorts, and flip flops. It is 33 degrees and it is raining like that scene in Year of Living Dangerously.

He shakes my hand and kisses my suprised wife's outstretched hand in a sort of continental fashion and then the three of us go inside his log cabin. "I built it myself," Fad says. "From a kit. It's really quite simple if one follows directions well and has an inordinate amount of time and patience. Of course it helps to have an endless supply of grad students, too." His laugh is high and piercing.

Fad shows us around, lets my wife hook up our laptop at his kitchen table, and then he and I go into his study to talk. He's fascinated by my minidisc recorder and only drops it once while turning it over and over like it was a shiny stone. "You look tired," Fad says, by way of getting us started.

Fad has lived in Yopo for the past fifteen years, writing and publishing his work widely in literary magazines all around the country. His second book has just been released, Two Nights in a Castle (Kankakee University Press), and he's giddy about the future.

"I turned my back on New York and the publishing world a dozen years ago," he says. "I turned my back on all of them. And here I am." He slaps his hands flat down on his legs. "Tenure. Books. This cabin, really my sanctuary. It's a sacred place to me," he says, suddenly solemn, almost whispering.

He tilts his head back and admires the open beam rafters. "In this room, my friend. In this room I let the muse dance with me." He looks at me, nods a bit, closes his eyes.

After we finish our chat, he brews up some cinammon tea on a large wood stove. He invites my wife out back now that it has stopped raining and he points out mushrooms on the ground. "Later," he says, "some of my students are coming out and we're going to use the mushrooms in a nice barley soup I make from scratch."

I shoot some photos of Fad out in his back yard. He first of all runs inside to get his cape. We shake hands all around, this time with Fad embracing me furiously and whispering: "Keep writing. Keep the words coming." He whispers something to my wife as well, but I can't make it out. She rolls her eyes once we're in the car.

We're backing out down the muddy bog of Fad's driveway when suddenly we spot him running toward us with a book in his hand. "My first book," he shouts in at me. "I'd like to give you a copy."

"Thanks very much," I say, reaching out my hand.

He lays the book open on the hood of the car. "It's out of print of course. Those sons of bitches in Urbana froze me out years ago. I told them I would rather photocopy my next book then have them make a mess of it." He tilts his head at me and poises a pen over one of the first inside pages. "It's ten bucks unsigned. But if I sign it, I'll have to charge you fifteen."

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Karen Volkman - Chicago, IL

Karen, a young and brilliant nomadic poet, buzzes me into her apartment in Ukranian Village, a close-knit urban neighborhood just a little north and west of downtown. She tells me she's been here for about six months after more than a year in Hyde Park, a much different part of the city. She tells me Hyde Park is an enclave unto itself, while her new neighborhood is tied to the city in a real way. It's clear which she prefers.

We go up a set of narrow stairs to her apartment. Karen's place is done up grad-school-funky, books on plain wood shelves, a futon, and the majestic $23 desk she bought years ago in New York. It all goes with her in some combination when she moves on, and she's been a lot of places since leaving her childhood home of Florida: Syracuse NY, Houston TX, Boston MA, New York City, Tuscaloosa AL, and Pittsburgh PA.

And in a few months she's on the move again, on to Missoula MT where she'll teach in their MFA program starting in August. It's a terrific job, and they're getting a terrific poet, one with two highly lauded books - and better yet - an adventurous and passionate voice. Her work in her second book, Spar, is surprising and intense. The prose poems are riveting, "relentless" in the words of one reviewer, and a reader can't help but go through them unblinking and silent.

Karen sits on the futon and I face her in a straight backed chair. We run through some of her geographical moves. She laughs easily and often as she talks. She remembers the stunning temperature shift of moving to Syracuse, where suddenly she saw winter, spring, and fall, after two decades of endless Florida summer.

After we talk, I rave on a bit about Missoula, a town my wife and I spent some time in last year, and a place we love. We stand on the street in front of her apartment shooting some photos and it occurs to Karen that she's only got 4 months left in Chicago, a city she's come to love. She gives a sort of wistful look up and down the block, but after we say goodbye she goes inside, up the stairs.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Wherein The Author Eats at The Rainbow

At the Rainbow Restaurant and Pancake House in Elmhurst, Illinois, they really bring the food to the guy at the next table. He starts with a three egg omelette full of sausage and covered with cheese. He's got hash browns, four pieces of toast, a double side of bacon.

His wife and kid sit across from him eating their own food. The kid, about 8 or 9, eats a short stack of pancakes, leaving half of one drenched in syrup. The wife eats a skillet breakfast, two scrambled eggs mixed up with hash browns and peppers.

The guy, though, he's heroic. After his own meal he signals across the room to Anna, one of the waitresses, who comes over within 30 seconds with a stack of 3 pancakes. These pancakes are about the size of the hubcap off a 75 Buick Le Sabre and the guy goes after them with gusto.

Gusto. That's a good word for Chicagoland, a town, an area full of big people, all smiling, 1/2 of them smoking, virtually all of them red faced and ready to give a visitor directions to the nearest place to get a polish sausage. The guy next to me is fat. Now, please understand, I admire him. I love him. What I mean to say is I love this guy. He eats with an abandon that is intoxicating. I'm big, too, as you must know. In fact my exterior dimensions are exactly the same as those of a double doored Kenmore refrigerator freezer. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. I'm not that tall.)

So, my admiration of the guy next to me is hard-won. I pause during my own meal when I see him finish the hot cakes. I'm praying, rooting, dreaming that he'll raise one meaty finger to Anna again and another plate will come. But he doesn't. He drinks some water. Smiles at his family. They pay the check and leave. When he's gone, the place seems a little quieter, a little less fun. My own meal doesn't taste as good.

I shot this sad photo long after he's gone.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Mark Strand - Chicago, IL

There is one real reason people live in Chicago instead of New York: Lake Michigan. On a pretty Sunday morning, I'm sitting with Mark Strand about ten floors up looking out over Lake Shore Drive, while the 70 degree weather pours in through a bank of open windows. The blinds flutter sometimes, and the sound of weekend construction floats up to us as we talk. From my chair I can see the water and I think about heading over there after the interview to walk alongside the lake, watch the joggers and dogs. Peer up the lakeside all the way to Milwaukee or whatever is north of here.

We're just on the edge of the University of Chicago, where Strand has been for the past several years. He is - as it is clear - a revered and monumental American poet of this or any generation. His work is frankly astonishing in its breadth. His early work virtually reinventing what we understand to be the contemporary poem; his later work clear-eyed and unflinching, poems about age and love and beauty and light.

We sit in his white-walled apartment for a pleasant chat that is long-awaited for me. Strand was among about 5 poets I had at the top of my list more than 6 months ago when this journey started. On my first contact, Strand told me that he was flattered I wanted to chat, but that he really didn't have much to say. When it appeared I'd have a chance to make another loop through the area, I reconnected. He was again very kind, but this time our schedules were off-kilter, and he likely would be elsewhere when I was in Chicago.

Finally, I enlisted the help of one of his long time friends. A phone call on my behalf was made; lies were told about how pleasant I was to meet (!), and when I contacted Strand a few weeks ago, his one line response told me to come on.

So we found our way to Chicago and I waited outside his high rise for a full hour, unwilling to risk traffic, tides, or acts of God that might keep me from the door.

Strand, now unthinkably 70, is tall, lanky, and still the handsome rake. It is not unusual to see the word "swoon" in any retelling of a meeting with him. He's soft-spoken, erudite, and he puts me at ease.

He's pleased that one of my early questions probes a notion that he sees in his own work. He develops the idea for me in his answer. We talk about some of the places of his life, Utah, especially, and then Canada, my home, too. He recalls the watery summers in Nova Scotia, blueberry pies, the beauty and the fishing of St. Margaret's Bay. "I still say 'eh,'" he says with a big warm smile, when I ask him about the Canadian things he has retained besides the memories.

After a time we get up to do some photos. He's got six inches on me easy, and I awkwardly raise the camera a bit above my eye level to get him head on. He stands there, relaxed, smiling. He doesn't think to duck down a bit, and I am glad to be there, reaching up, trying to capture him.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Hot Beef

Alongside highway 71 in Missouri, we pulled off in Butler for a bite to eat. I've been doing this low carb thing for about 9 hours so I was ready to treat myself. We found the Dinner Bell Family Restaurant with an empty parking lot and the cook out back changing his oil. We went in, looked over the menu, and I opted for the Hot Beef sandwich. $3.95. It arrived within 3 minutes, a gigantic gob of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, and a nicely cut white bread sandwich overflowing with hot beef.

This is what we eat here in the middle of the country, and were there a job around here it'd be my choice 5 days of the week.

I didn't lick the platter, but that's because I'm classy. But I got any of the excess gravy with my spoon.

Later we headed across the border into Iowa to this tiny town with a pretty little college where I'm interviewing for a job tomorrow. This morning we took in the sights, waved to some Amish folks who were raising a building, and shot a few pictures.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Wherein the Author Catches Up With His 9 Readers

We're on the road briefly after about ten days in Arkansas. Off to a job interview somewhere in Iowa, then on to Chicago to see the terrific Karen Volkman - and possibly another poet, a revered and magnificent writer who doesn't do many interviews. We are keeping our fingers crossed and hope to blurb-icize this news soon. If it all falls apart, you'll never know who it was and I'll retain a bit of dignity.

The book is on target for completion. Have been busy transcribing February interviews and developing film from the past 6 weeks or so.

Early April will take us on the final leg of the journey: Lubbock, Salt Lake City, Logan UT, and Denver. Then it'll be a mad dash to put everything together for the final manuscript. Will be in Arkansas off and on until July at least.

This tree is killing me.

Thursday, March 11, 2004


The good folks at Utah State University Press have made an offer to publish The Poetry of Place in June 2005. We are overjoyed to have a home for this extraordinary project. We will hunker down in NW Arkansas for the next few months as I finish the book.

Wherein We Break the Heart of Winnie Cooper

155 days or so later, we drove back into the restful and pleasant burg of Bella Vista, AR, the home to our furniture, my wife's parents, and a small house we bought last summer. 5 months to the day that we left to head north toward Kansas and the first October interviews, we eased the dependable, honorable, and lovable Winnie Cooper into the driveway and put it in park one last time. Oh, she didn't know what was coming, and, 2 days after making the decision to let her go, we're a little surprised ourselves.

But as the major traveling for the book has ended - we still have one-off trips to Lubbock, Salt Lake City, and Chicago - we simply no longer need the rolling tin can home on wheels.

We toyed with keeping her. We've talked about storing her, keeping her for later, for next summer when we might want to sprint up to Cape Cod for a week or something. But it's a pricey little item and we'd like to get some money back out of her at a spectacularly good time to be in the RV marketplace. She's a 2004 model, it's spring, it's clean and lovely, loaded with features.

We will never forget her, of course. This trip has been the single grandest journey of our lives. The scope of it continues to amaze us. And for nearly all of it we lived in Winnie, snaking up and down the Rockies, wounded but still protected from the howling rain and wind of an Oregon winter, resting on the desert floor more than 200 feet below sea level in Death Valley, spending the night in a rest area in Mississippi. Oh sure, I'm nostalgic now that the "For Sale" sign is on her, but there were dark moments.

It's a small space to live in. Sure, it's got a fridge, oven, microwave, shower, bathroom, dinette, couch, queen sized bed, closets, and cabinets. But it's not like living in a house where there is space between these things. It's not like in a house where you can actually turn around in the shower, for example. (Some days I washed my front; other days my back.) There's nowhere to get away from the wife (or, the husband, as my wife will tell you). There's no basement, no attic, no corner in which you may go and sob when the confinement gets to be too much. (Yes, I know one can go outside. But I'm so sensitive to temperature changes that it's hardly ever an option - unless I'm smoking a cigar...then it's all right.)

Oh, and the plumbing. I've battled with the notion of this story for a few days, and it's clear to me that my gentle readers don't need many details. But, when living full time in an RV, there is the occasional need (like every 3 f&*%ing days) to empty the tanks, a gray one that holds water from the sinks and shower, and the black one that holds - well - the waste and sewage from the toilet.

See, I knew you were too dainty. Several of you just gasped. One of you put your hand over your eyes, and one just turned away from the screen.

A few days ago I was down in a crouch making the necessary connections to empty our tanks and get on to the next town. It's something we've done more than 50 times, so it's not some great technological challenge. There's a big hose, a big spout, and a big hole in the ground (usually called a dump station - love that terminology). There are two handles down there, one for the black tank and one for the gray, and while emptying the black tank, I could tell there was something wrong. The flow was not satisfying. I didn't hear the pleasant "woosh" that lets you know that matter is running freely.

What was worse was that when I tried to close the black tank, the handle would not close. It would almost close, but when dealing with raw sewage, almost isn't enough.

As in every thing we've done these past months, my wife and I each have our duties in any particular task. I buy the groceries, but she did all the cooking. I drove a lot more than she did, but nobody could have navigated us better. I held the remote control to our DirecTV system, but she told me which numbers to press. She will hate me for this, and I am sure to suffer punishments unknown, but in this particular job - the emptying of the tanks - my wife's duties are to put things away once I have done the dirty work. Sure, she rinses the hose as well, but you know what? I wouldn't mind running some clear spring water on a hose every once in a while, and then placing the hose in a bin. That sounds like a little slice of heaven, a walk in the park, an ice cream cone on a summer day. Especially to a guy who handles human waste and pulls the black handle!

Anyway, my wife was behind me, waiting with her little water hose when I made an executive decision. Because the waste wouldn't come to me, because the black tank would not empty, I decided to investigate.

Sure, turn away. This may be too rough for you. Maybe you're all a little squeamish. Go back to your pleasant thoughts and rose gardens. Run, if you must, but this was not an option for me.

I unhooked the sewer hose and the rest of the tale is too horrible to tell. Suffice it to say, when the black tank did "loosen" up, there was a mighty roar and a mighty suffering that befell us. Those clothes I was wearing that day are gone, left in a dumpster in a rest area many miles away. Those shoes. My coat. All victims of my hubris, my stupidity, my desire to tempt the RV God Winnebagus.

But you know, I got clean. It took some doing, a lot of soap and Purell. A lot of those little Clorox handi-wipes. I have more clothes. My skin is red and raw from the scrubbing, and most nights now I still wake in fright, still hearing the sound of the explosions, my own girlish screaming, the smell, the horrible realization that it was too late to hook up the hose. Sure, my wife ran a little water over the hose when it was all done, but we felt that maybe this was enough of all that.

It seemed a sign. We were within a day of "home" when Winnie broke my heart.

But I'd do it again. I'd do everything. I'd swing wide of that house we hit in Oregon (go back to November 16, 2003 if you want to relive that), and I'd leave the sewer hose on next time. But I'd do it all again. I just hope I don't have to.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Frederick Smock - Louisville, KY

Frederick Smock's writing room is spartan and perfect. A tiny wooden desk sits in one corner next to a large wood-framed window (a dozen panes easy). Out the window is the small street in front of Smock's apartment (in a 2 story home from 20s or so). Past Smock's street, but straight out the 2nd floor window, is Cave Hill cemetery, a sweeping and gigantic mid 19th century graveyard where Smock's grandparents rest.

In front of the desk is a rolling wooden chair with two overstuffed pillows. It's the kind of chair one could sit at for a while. The small writing surface is lit by a 9 inch lamp. A few small volumes crowd one side; in the middle is a stack of stapled pages.

The adjoining right hand wall has a single 48 inch tall bookshelf. It's full, but not overfull. The back wall, facing the window, facing the desk, features a tiny end table and a big red futon. I sit on the futon and face Smock in his chair and I notice for the first time a dark and large unframed oil nude against the room's fourth wall.

Smock paints, and later we will go through a doorway to see his painting studio. I ask him about the connectors between painting and poetry and he talks a bit about that.

I ask him about his long tenure as the editor for The American Voice, a splendid literary magazine - featuring work from U.S., Canada, and Latin America - that ceased publication in the late 90s. He tells me about some of the poets whose work graced those fine pages and then pulls out and gives me the terrific end of publication anthology - available through University of Kentucky Press.

I ask my favorite question, the one about a poet's "obligation" to capture something of his/her place in the world. He rejects "obligation," but confesses the job of writing about his part of the world is something that interests him all the same.

The room is quiet and still, and the peaceful space has taken me in. Smock's voice is even, and his motions are muted, tiny. He sips occasionally from a coffee cup. Sometimes his hands clasp. After we finish talking about his poetry and Louisville - and those two things are clearly at the heart of Smock's life. On one wall are about a dozen canvases (for a gallery show, his second ever). He admits freely he's an amateur, but his passion for it is pretty clear. The canvases are all landscapes, each packed with color, most with heavy, dark skies, far-off buildings, the occasional tree in the foreground. They are like a dozen versions of one image, each slightly different. He's working it out, placing and replacing the elements. I'd like to stick around and see the final canvas, where he gets everything where he wants it.

And I'm struck right then by the memory of a poem of his that I'm fond of, one from a literary magazine somewhere. "On the Fields of France" is nine lines long, just a whisper of a poem in some way. But - like most great poetry, and like most of Smock's - it's spare, minus all the things that might hold it down or puff it up. Each line a revelation. Each line a new opening, a new space in the poem, a new idea so unlikely and surprising that there's a breathless little turn down to the next line.

At the ultimate line - a revealing sort of filmic ending with just the moon pouring down - the poem disappears quietly. Its construction is so sure, that the removal of a single image would strip something. The movement of one word would render the mystery unsolvable.

I wonder how many drafts. How many sketches. How many canvases before it became whole.

We shoot some shots by the window, and then go down the stairs into the morning coolness. Smock has on a coat. As I get the camera focused, he looks away from me, across and down the street.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Mark Jarman - Nashville, TN

Winnie Cooper strains in most neighborhoods as I bend her to my evil will, bouncing over curbs, taking down power lines and tree limbs, scaring outdoor pets, and pinning car pool moms and soccer dads to 1/8th of the normal avenue, boulevard, or lane.

But south of Nashville, off one of the main north/south highways, I steer recklessly through the spacious neighborhood where I'll find Mark Jarman. As I drive, I pour back a Diet Coke, dial a pal on the cellie, and look back at my wife who is wondering who ate the last of the chocolate. I throw my head back and howl; the streets are this wide and flat and smooth.

(Who's been on the road too long? But some of the above is true.)

At the end of one pretty and long road, I find Jarman's house. It's the house that Mike and Carol Brady would have built if they wanted some real room. It's right out of the 60s, bi-level facing, slanted roof, set way back on a large lot, surrounded by a wide variety of hardwood trees, a giant Y-shaped Cherry number right in front.

Jarman meets me at a big glass door and takes me in on the main floor. Light pours in from the back of the house where I can see through to the back yard. It used to be horse pasture, he tells me. There are some houses back down there in the valley now, but you can just see their roofs. Jarman's back yard is heavily wooded, filled with birds and bird feeders, a few stray limbs from the giants that were here on this wonderful spot long before the house.

And the house does come from the 60s, built by the Speer family, a long-living gospel singing group - still going, run by a grandson now as the New Speer Revival. But the Speers sold the house to someone after many years, and then Jarman and his wife and family bought it. They've been here a dozen years and what I see of the house is homey - and (seemingly) run by a large and lazy cat who sees me, but doesn't even bothering raising an eyebrow as I come in, visit, or leave.

Jarman sits with his back to a four sided fireplace and I sit opposite him at a big wooden dining table. I set up the gear and we get to the questions. I do my best in all of these interviews to simply ask the questions, record the answers, but today is a little different. Regardless of my desire to stay out of the way of answers, Jarman's ideas about place are so like my own that I find myself jumping in, having more of a real conversation than I normally do. He talks a little and then I tell him some of my own answer, sometimes as it comes from my own work, other times as it is drawn from earlier interviews.

I have a real sincere love for Jarman's beautiful, nostalgic, and haunting poems. In person, he's quiet, serene, getting over a cold, but focused and alert at my questions. I ask about one of my favorite pieces of his in context of an earlier question and I get just what I really want, an explanation of how that poem came to be, what the trigger was, some of the inner workings. Good inside stuff, and for a fan of poetry, it's one of those little 5 minute chunks of time that has made this trip worth it, just for the stories.

I've got other poems of Jarman's I'd like to ask about, but I've taken the time I've already asked for and I've got the answers for the book. We go outside to the big tree in the front yard and I maneuver around Jarman for a few shots. He tells me to drive safe, checks to make sure I've got the right highway to take me toward Kentucky, and we say goodbye. The book of his I wanted him to sign is still in my big bag. I'm paging through it now.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Natasha Trethewey - Decatur, GA

No city offers a more stunning transition from its ring of highways and interstates to its inner hub of suburban plots. Coming into Atlanta - really, anything within 70 miles - is like driving on the Ugly Highway to Ugly Town. The gray slabs extend to 4 and 5 lanes in every direction. Cloverleaf after cloverleaf - almost all of them under construction - web together endlessly. The pines that line the road obscure everything else that might resemble a place one would want to spend some time, and the cars just hurtle onward, onward, grim death grip, smoldering tires, 18 wheelers pinning you into one lane or the other.

But once you leave that behind - and in our case, slip into Avondale, an eastern suburb - large sweeping yards and one-story ranch houses line each road. Businesses cluster at intersections, but as soon as you leave them behind you are back in another pretty neighborhood. They all have churches with towering steeples, small parks with grinning kids. Houses are brick, surrounded by bushes and trees. It looks like a great place to live until we see a sign that says: "1 Bedroom Townhouses from the low $500,000s." Never mind, but it's still pretty.

We curl Winnie Cooper in and around Avondale until we hit Decatur, another beautiful eastern suburb. Natasha has told us there's a church parking lot near her, and we find it easily. We've been back in Winnie for about a week after the long cold February trip without her, and everything is cozy once again. I leave my wife behind - she's always happy to have some time to herself to catch up on her own stuff, bills, email, writing her own blog, just time to think about what a swell guy she could have married had it not been for me - and I stroll across the street to the gigantic 2-story set of condos where I'll find Natasha.

The building has all the cool Southern stuff, the columns, the weathered brick - though I learn it's sort of faux-weathered. It's from the 30s, was a boarding house for years, and for the last few a set of small but cozy condos. I poke my foot in the black dirt along a walkway and straighten some pink and yellow pansies that look like they're fixing to go across the road. When they're back in place, I go to the front door.

Natasha buzzes me up and I meet her and her husband. We stand in their glittering kitchen - not just spectacularly clean, but ringed with stainless steel appliances - and then Natasha and I go and sit on two overstuffed couches in the living room. I tell her a little about the most recent steps in the journey and we get to the questions.

She was born in Mississippi, and now makes her home next door in Georgia. While she's spent time elsewhere - and professes a love of the northeast, where she has spent time earning her MFA and completing a fellowship - she's back home in a sense here in suburban Atlanta. She talks about the Mississippi coast, her grandmother's house - which is surrounded by rural beauty on one side and pinned into the earth by a gigantic highway billboard pillar on the other - and feels totally at ease in this pretty New South suburb. She loves sitting on the wrought iron-ringed porch, and she has a wonderful academic home just 5 minutes at Emory.

I'm interested in her second book, Bellocq's Ophelia, a collection of poems inspired by a number of turn of the century photographs of prostitutes by E. J. Bellocq. The research was intensive, and Natasha used everything at her disposal, including her own youth along the Gulf Coast, and her father's (the poet Eric Trethewey) tenure at Tulane University.

We finish chatting and I encourage her out to the front of the building to get some shots. She hates the camera, and has professed a real distrust of the whole process, but the photos are great. I can tell it's irking her to pose there, but what can I do. I try to get her to smile and she does, a big happy grin. I click fast, and let her go back inside.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Escape from New York

We're hours away from the end of February, and we are watching Queer Eye and eating Snickers ice cream bars, breathing a sigh of relief that the cruelest month (so far) is over.

4 weeks ago we crossed the Florida/Georgia border and were faced with a quandary. With temperatures north of us below freezing, with crowded cities awaiting, with virtually no campgrounds open between the Carolinas and Cape Cod, something had to give. So we watched the Weather Channel for a few days and looked for a city where we could leave sweet Winnie behind (she of the delicate plastic plumbing). Savannah, Georgia - it of the temperate climes - was consistenly above freezing at night, so it became the choice.

So 4 weeks ago - for one last night - we parked the unstoppable Winnie Cooper under towering pines. I smoked a gigantic 75 cent cigar, and drank one of the always-present Mexican beers under starlit skies. And in the morning we confined Winnie behind the rusty fence of Dick Gore's "Lock 'em Up and They Might Be Here When You Return" RV storage facility. I gave a guy $50 and the keys and just prayed that she'd be there when we got back.

While the two of us wept, a cab driver wheeled us to the Savannah airport where the nice folks at Hertz took a whopping big chomp of our Visa card in exchange for 30 days with this burgundy 2004 Ford Escape:

And then of course you all know the rest. The Carolinas, DC, Maryland, in and out of NYC a couple of times, out to the tip of Cape Code, and then back to Columbia, SC. 3000+ miles in 25 days, and - oh yeah - 12 more interviews.

We drove like insane people into Savannah this morning. We found our way to Dick Gore's and looked for the guy who we left Winnie with. Nobody knew where he was, but apparently my RV is "right where I left it." The lady gave me the keys, because - well - who else would ask for them. I stood stunned, stared at her and said, "Well, I'll go get it and leave then." And she said. "Okay, honey. Have a nice day."

We sprung the sweet girl and headed back to the Savannah KOA, where we injected the necessary liquids, gases, and electricity to make it our home away from wherever.

March beckons. In like a leisure suit and out like a lampshade. We're going to hunker down 'neath the pines for a couple of days, do some transcripts, and get back into the Winnie-groove in a few days.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Terrance Hayes - Columbia, SC

Terrance Hayes and I were set to meet in Pittsburgh, PA, earlier this week (where he teaches and lives with his wife - the poet Yona Harvey - and their two children). But he got a chance to read at a book fair in his hometown of Columbia, SC, today, so we opted for that location instead. (The forecast was for snow throughout the mountains of Pennsylvania, and South Carolina would make a nice rest stop on our trip back to reclaim Winnie Cooper, our beloved but abandoned motorhome, still resting in Savannah, GA.)

So with much relief, we packed up in Providence, RI, and headed south, seeking the more temperate climes, grateful that our month in the northeast was free of snow, ice, and any other falling winter goodies.

The relief lasted until Dunn, NC. We woke up at yet another Holiday Inn Express and stared out at snow piling up against the window, falling gracefully on the Ford Escape with Georgia plates.

By the time we were on Interstate 95, we were pushing straight into the teeth of a "weather-maker" that would dump 12 inches of snow in about 4 hours. We were skirting the eastern edge of the storm, but we still got hemmed in behind a ton of drivers inching through the slushy - then freezing - meltings of the earlier snow.

Suddenly, a few dozen miles into South Carolina, the snow began to turn into sleet, then a cold rain. When we reached Columbia, it was 35 degrees and raining softly. We found our Holiday Inn Express, called Terrance, and made a time for the next day. Terrance has brought his 9 month old son on the trip - to allow the grandparents some time to dote and fuss - and so thinks it might be quieter to meet at our hotel.

It's the first time a poet is coming to me on this trip and it feels weird. Usually I'm circling some foreign neighborhood, running over curbs and consulting a map of my own evil design, arriving with a giant bag of recorders and cameras. I slam around inside, knocking books and knick knacks onto the rug, my incredible belly bowling over any children or animals who may be too confused or slow to clear a way.

But today I set up my camera and recorder, ate the outstandingly mediocre continental breakfast (watery orange juice, warm milk, hard cinnamon roll, and gelatinous boiled egg), and waited.

Terrance arrived and I welcomed him in room 218. We talked a bit about his being back home for a visit, his reading coming up, and the trip I'm on. We sat at a chintzy hotel room table and talked about poetry, Pittsburgh, sports, his painting, etc.

A word Terrance used early on was "compartments." He is able to keep the parts of his life and work separate from one another, sort of like - he says - the greens and the potatoes on a plate of food. He's a teacher and a writer, a poet and a painter. He acknowledges that these things have something to do with one another, but doesn't see vital or obvious connections. "I'm always asked that," he says, when I ask if the painting impacts the poetry or vice versa. But he sees them as different things. Different arts.

We go down to the front of the hotel to shoot some 35mm shots. I instantly have great regrets about not seeing his new house in Pittsburgh, or his parents' house here in Columbia, but I think of this as a rare home game after a continuing and endless road trip.

Terrance leaves me a copy of his second book, Hip Logic, a lyrical and elegant collection. It features a stunning collage of Terrance's on the cover, a sort of snarling and distorted face, "shards" of newspaper clippings in the background. Inside the book, he's signed it and written a little note, a welcome gift. We shake hands under the Holiday Inn Express awning, and he heads for the parking lot; I head for the elevator.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Michael S. Harper - Providence, RI

A poet's office is every bit as personal and idiosyncratic as a poet's home. So I'm embarrassed to admit that this morning, after setting up in one of Michael Harper's offices on the campus of Brown University, I couldn't stop myself from exclaiming - "Your office is exquisitely messy!"

If I could have added context to all of this, Harper would have known something of the terrible mess of my own workspaces - at home, at work, even in the RV. But I really was a little astonished. Envelopes, manuscripts, books, and files pile on every flat surface, at least six inches high on the desk. It overwhelmed me. Harper told me he had other offices on the same floor where - when we visited later - I was equally as alarmed at their order and neatness. But in this leave year, Harper has let his own office go a bit. After my comment, Harper grinned and said, "I work at it, man. That is to say, I don't waste any time thinking about it." And during my visit, he had occasion to pull out a handful of things, a student's book, a book by one of his old pals, and his hands always went right to them.

I should have known better, because Harper's heart is that of a true jazz artist. I should have seen through what I saw as messy to what is really there, augmented chords, flatted 5ths, a gigantic hand making that minor 7th.

We turned to the project at hand, and I was swept away and overwhelmed at Harper's storytelling. He's the champ. His tales are terrific, enjoyable, vital, and - in the end - astonishing in message and resonance. Time and time again he pulled me through memories that all hit hard at the belly of the reason why a poet is what a poet is. He told me about being 5 years old and riding the subways in New York. About his move at 13 to California. His time in Iowa, a place where he could get into the influential Writer's Workshop, but where his toughest applications were for apartments where he could live.

He talked about his students, about how the ease of laptops and laser printers are hiding some of the gifts that revision will give them as they develop as poets. I know that Harper will find ways to show them what they're missing.

In a blink, almost 90 minutes had passed. The tape had long run out, and I was just listening to it all.

He's a force of nature, as anyone who's read his work already knows, and I could have sat there all day. His students, pals, and family are lucky to have him. His readers, too.

We wandered out to the hall to get some photos, and Harper signed a book for me, shook my hand with his soft but gigantic mitt, told me to say hello to a pal of his I'm seeing soon, and wished me well on the road. As I packed my stuff, Harper disappeared into the stacks of papers and books, content, back to work, knowing where everthing is.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Wherein The Author Spends Some Time Ruminating on The Equipment

God knows that the only way to do this project is with technology. So, far too late, let me offer thanks to:

The Safety Camera: It runs silently in the background, capturing still images every 5-10 seconds. It provides nearly all of the author photos that appear on this site, and provides me a backup in case the 35mm shots I do at the end of interviews turn out poorly. It's an old Epson Photo PC 3100Z, not made anymore, and only shoots at 3.2 megapixels. But it's sturdy and holds about 300 photos at a crack. Shown below solo and with its companion tripod, the indestructible and light Velbon CX300. I use a Jumpshot cable to download photos off of my Lexar CompactFlash card.

The Microcassette Recorder: This is one of two Sony microcassettes I've been using. This one (the M-560V), has the completely useless "voice operated recording" setting. The quality is terrible, and I've worn down the heads on both machines over the year because I'm always rewinding and re-listening to scratchy, almost inaudible burbling. Batteries burn up like a mother. Yet, it's never failed me. I always have something on tape. Even if I can't even begin to guess what it might be.

The Minidisc Recorder: When I first started to chat with a west coast NPR producer, we agreed that I should be recording these interviews in a higher quality. Thus entered the Sony MZ-B100, an amazing piece of machinery that records broadcast quality audio with ease. It has a stereo mic built in, but I added a nice Sony EMC-MS907 to increase the focal point of my recording, and I couldn't be happier. It's also proven effective when a dispute arises over how loud someone might be snoring. In that case, I think, the quality might have been too good, and certainly may have been doctored with some sort of post-production amplification.

The Old Camera: One of several Canon AE-1s I've owned. Like most of my gear, it's made to withstand the occasional (read: 'frequent') drop, mishandle, crunch, etc. This one is circa 1981, but like its many brothers and sisters I've had over the years, is clean and fast. I've got a nice 28-50mm zoom on it, also by Canon, that I found in October at a pawn shop in Maryland. I shoot this camera with some brand of yellow filter to heighten the contrast of the 35mm B&W film. It works pretty well in "SuperProgram" mode, but it's best when I've got some time to mess with the settings. (Note: "The settings" is intended to create the sense that I KNOW what the difference is in the "settings."

The New Camera: The Nikon N75 is a magical and inexpensive autofocus wonder. When the interview has stretched long and I need to get out of town, its autowinder allows me to fire off a half dozen shots in under 15 seconds. Sure, they're blurry. Sure I often shoot right into the sun. But man it's fast. Oh, and to save money, it's equipped with a nearly useless Quantaray 28-90mm zoom lens that will one day just be left on the side of the road, so dark and inflexible it's proven to be. Seriously, if I'd just get out the Visa and get a real Nikkor lens, I'd be in business and this camera would suit me forever. It stands out from other brands at this $300-400 range because its fittings and body are almost all metal, whereas other brands have gone for lighter plastics and composites.

The Computer: This Gateway laptop is a sort of middle of the road machine, but the SprintPCS wireless modem has allowed me to log in to the WWW from remote spots in South Dakota, Wyoming, Mississippi, etc. You can check your email at 70 mph. You can download rejection letters in the middle of the night. You can play Flight Simulator when you're so amazingly tired of transcribing interviews. Without it, this trip could not have happened. I keep in touch with all the poets via email - rarely picking up a phone. I peer into its soothing light looking for campgrounds, hotels, places that sell cheese. The comforting hum of its tiny fan keeps my company when I'm not fit to be around the other humans. I bang the bejeezus out of it occasionally.

The Assistant: Listen. I've never been much of a husband or a friend. And I'm an even worse boss. So I must give long-overdue thanks to the assistant on this trip, the kind, lovely, and patient Beth Mason. She, who drives endless circles in various vehicles (Winnie Cooper, a variety of rentals) while I make my way in and out of interviews in the mountains, the deserts, Hollywood, the Upper West Side, etc. She, who carries giant bags of tapes and negatives. She, who goes to sleep each night with the lights still on, the damn husband still typing. Here, in the photo below, she considers whether or not to take the small opening and bolt down the highway, leaving me behind in the dust. Why she did not, we do not know. And that's not to say it still isn't forthcoming. Stay tuned.

C.D. Wright - Barrington, RI

C.D. Wright's work is a miracle to me. For as long as I've been reading her, I've wanted to get inside her work and pull it apart, finding the secret invisible threads that hold it all together. Unlike my own work, which remains fraught with the narrative tools left over from my start as a fiction writer, Wright's work succeeds so beautifully because of what she leaves out.

The work is still dense, consuming. But in her best work, her most vital work, it is free of unnecessary connective devices. The poetry is evocative. The reader is left to construct part of the poetic world, and therefore asked to be a better reader.

I can never stop myself from trying to sum things up, reveal a tidy ending, to screw my courage up to deliver a last line that is the key to the puzzle above. I'm an ignormaus in these matters. Wright's work cascades. It's alternately shimmering and stony. Each word, phrase, absolutely integral to the final piece. No excessive movement or braying.

It's free of things "poetic," it is rich in things that are real.

None of what I've written above is necessary. Go buy Steal Away, her "new and selected" collection from Copper Canyon to see for yourself.

In the planning for this visit, C.D. was unsure that she had much to say about place - it's already in her work. And I respect that. Many poets I've met on this trip have wanted to hold back part of their process or their art. None of us - entirely - knows what the secret ingredient is to our work. For some it's the transfer of scattered lines out of a notebook onto a computer screen that is magical. For others, it's that "trance" we sometimes find as we channel the work from some unknown location. All through these months I've discovered forbidden zones, places where poets won't let themselves travel with me alongside.

While we were sorting out a visit to Rhode Island, C.D. wondered if she was the right person for my project. I knew - because of this trip - that I was likely asking about matters that are too much "hers," keys to the puzzles of her own work. Born in the Ozarks of Arkansas, she has two distinct homes, that place, and now this place in Rhode Island, a state she calls her adopted home. In her poems and essays, she's mined much of the landscape of both. Not overtly, not merely as accoutrements to some other tale, but as the metaphorical underpinning of the poems themselves. It's easy to see place in something like "The Ozark Odes," but it's tougher (more rewarding) to find it in something like the book-length poem Deepstep Come Shining.

So it is with the weight of all that that I arrive at her home just blocks from Narragansett Bay, south and east of Providence, Rhode Island. The story home is red, with a matching barn, on a gigantic sweeping lot that has a growing wall of bamboo to one of the side streets. She lives here with her husband (the poet Forest Gander - who planted the bamboo and cares for it), and her son (Brecht). Brecht eats a giant bowl of cereal while C.D. and I talk nearby in the muted living room.

She's fairly recently finished a book about Louisiana prisoners with a photographer friend of hers, and the selections of text I've seen are stark, jarring, and moving. But she doesn't feel she's far enough away from the experience - or those places - to have fully "digested" what they all mean yet.

We move quickly through some questions, which she answers carefully and thougtfully. She grins modestly when it's clear her son is listening in to the interview. Brecht is quite happy to deal with the cereal and hear us talk about his mother's work. When we're done, C.D. urges me to look up a writer in Colorado who's work she thinks fits my project well. Brecht comes along into the study and together the three of us page through some books. I get an address and a phone number for someone new for the project.

We go outside for some photos in the crisp February morning, and I say goodbye.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Mark Wunderlich - Provincetown, MA

Provincetown is at the end of the world, the tip of Cape Cod, a tiny windswept collection of B&Bs and fudge shops. We get there a day early so see the entire town, pretty clapboard houses on the water, bigger places out toward the point. We see four lighthouses, stand on frigid beaches (with tufts of snow mixed in with the wet winter sand), talk to couples with dogs wet from the surf. We even see two guys emerge from the Atlantic side hauling surboards, dressed like sea lions in matching black scuba suits. 

It is peaceful, but it is also February. Our B&B is creaky and quaint and they have cider and wine when we come in that night. Jaunty French ballads play on the stereo, with the occasional track from Dido or Mel Torme. We sleep on a rock hard bed and wake to a howling wind threatening to blow in the rattling windows of our room that open to the Cape itself. We eat breakfast in the morning with several couples, Mary and Mary (who are next to us in the King Charles Suite), Rob and Amber (who are likely from Boston and who don't bother putting on socks or shoes in the morning), and Tina and Helen (one very tall, one very short). We have homemade Portugese muffins and hard boiled eggs, and try to see one of the small whippets that the owners keep behind the half-door that leads to the kitchen. Every time the owner sneaks out to bring more juice or coffee, the dogs try to negotiate their way into the main room. Each time, the whole table of guests peer over, hoping the dogs will make it.

It's dreary all morning, but about the time I get to Mark Wunderlich's apartment, the sun is out and Provincetown is bathed in light. He meets me outside and I'm glad to see him. Of all of the poets I've met, he's the one who admits the most freely to knowing about the trip. He checks in on the website from time to time and often tells me that he has the same RV fantasy we had. I think about telling him 5 bad things about RV life - because I am a stinker, after all - but that'd be sour grapes. RVers have to learn. I hope he joins the club soon.

We go into his bright apartment - filled, I must say, with some nutty touches: some kind of skinned rug, a large animal head adorned with beads and baubles, some kind of circa 1950s couch that might be something very hip that I'm too much of a boor to know about, and a fishing rod against one wall with eyelets the size of a pocketwatch.

We sit across a table and, as always, I give some kind of overview of why on earth my wife and I are doing what we're doing. We talk about a poet I've seen recently who Mark knows well, and we share some stories.

Provincetown has a long history of supporting artists and writers. Mark knows this first hand, having won two fellowships with Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center over the years. After the last one he just stayed and likely would remain except for the continuing skyrocketing cost of living. So instead, he and his partner have made an offer on a giant stone house in the Hudson River Valley, much closer to Mark's teaching gig at Sarah Lawrence, and pastoral like the town in which he grew up in Wisconsin.

Mark talks beautifully about living in New York City's East Village in the early 90s - the night life and the solitary hours of writing in his apartment combining. He tells me about his California years in both San Francisco and L.A., but he's a self-professed lover of the country, and he's eager to get to his new home. We go outside his place and shoot some shots of him on the stairs, up above me, looking over the shingled roofs toward the Cape.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

David Lehman - New York, NY

It's 28 degrees in lower Manhattan and we're eating gigantic chicken wraps inside our rented Ford Escape (where it's a balmy 38 degrees). We got the wraps at a funky convenience store where I mostly am amazed to see cigarettes selling for $7. Where are we, on the moon?

I can see my breath as I open my mouth to finish off the wrap. We're here an hour and a half early because I'm a gigantic boob who insists on driving everywhere, even Greenwich Village. I'm a westerner. I love cars. I love pushing the tin back and forth. And besides, this whole trip has hinged on a manic devotion to living on the highways and roads of America. So instead of taking everyone's advice about the A train, F train, whatever, the 6, the 4, etc., I've circled the soda-straw-narrow streets near Washington Square Park for forty minutes before finding a perfect parking spot right near the Blue Note - a decades old jazz landmark that I go up to and touch with my frosted bare hand.

I'm here to see David Lehman, the man who - I'm willing to bet - reads more poetry than anyone else in the country. For more than a decade he's been the series editor (the only series editor) of Best American Poetry, a sprawling and crucial collection of the year's best work (chosen in concert with a guest editor).

Lehman also is widely known for an experiment he started in the late 90s of writing and finishing a poem every day. This experiment yielded two phenomenal and well-received collections, The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun.

A lifetime New Yorker, Lehman sometimes splits the city for his house in Ithaca. But he spends the majority of his time right here, in a tiny book and manuscript-filled apartment. While we chat, Lehman shows me a dozen scraps of paper with ideas and lines for new poems, some on the back of envelopes, some on the back of a memo, even some in a small orange notebook he carries in his back pocket.

He opens a door to a small patio to let refreshing but chilly air in. Then we talk about his work and he takes on my questions. At one point, Lehman picks up one of his books and starts flipping pages, reading out lines that reinforce his answers. He gets into one that I love and he reads the whole thing. Halfway through, the phone rings, so I ask him to start again so I can - selfishly - get it all on tape for myself.

His work can be sharp and snappy, tight lines, no punctuation, vital, moving. But other poems stretch out, become floating narratives. Lots of women and men and the troubles therein. Always quietly, subtly funny. Crack across the knuckle realiztions abound.

He teaches, advises his students, is putting together the new edition of Best American Poetry, and completing a new book of his own. He confesses that he's a workaholic, but says it with a grin. I ask him if I can get some pictures of him on the street before I go.

We head out into the cold, Lehman walking behind me. When I turn to start shooting, I'm delighted by a jaunty hat that Lehman has put on. I get him lined up with MacDougal street behind him. Some guys are replacing a window beside us. Ten feet away some workers are carrying boxes of lettuces into a small restaurant. As always, I'm just a little breathless in New York's energy. A cop car brushes so close past me that I can feel the wind of it. Someone is hollering at the UPS guy. Tourists click cameras at the distant Empire State Building.

In front of me, Lehman looks right at me, gives a charming lopsided grin. I figure I better start shooting before he goes back to work.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Nicole Cooley - Glen Ridge, NJ

Nicole Cooley's oldest daughter has something to tell me when I first arrive: "MY NAME IS MINNIE MOUSE!" She later amends her name to "Snoop," but she says the former with real conviction and it's still in my head several hours later. I meet the whole family right away, Nicole's husband Alex, the new baby Arcadia, and of course Minnie Mouse (who sometimes is called Meridian by her folks.)

Nicole and I climb two sets of steep stairs to her study at the top of their delightful home in suburban Glen Ridge, a pretty and homey town a little east of New York City. I'm carrying the ever-present bag of cameras and recorders, and that plus my own formidable belly make the climb something akin to going up K2 for a regular guy. But it's worth the trip. It's a light and airy room with purple walls and two desks. An easel is set up to the side of Nicole's computer; this is where Meridian does her drawing sometimes while Mom works on her own creations. On the large drawing pad are two versions of Glinda the Good Witch. It appears below this paragraph, but I must confess that it has been electonically enhanced by this author with one of the many pieces of software I keep around just for this purpose.

The easel and the drawing is important to me because it represents something imporant about this visit. Nicole remembers watching her father write when she was little, Meridian's age or younger. Nicole's dad is Peter Cooley, a poet we visited last month, one who appears in the 01/18/2004 archive to the left. Just as Nicole grew up with a poet in the house, so will Meridian.

Nicole tells me about attending poetry readings when she was little, crayoning away in the back row. By the time she was in high school, she and her dad took to doing their "mall poetry," small assignments they would give each other while slurping bad coffee at a donut shop or eating bad something else at a rundown food court in a dilapitated (and now closed) shopping mall. As Nicole tells me about this, I see the light of recognition in her eye as she sees the easel and realizes that Meridian is getting the same start she did.

Nicole has lived the life of an academic nomad already. Her schooling and teaching have taken her from Louisiana to Rhode Island to Iowa to Georgia to Pennsylvania, and now to New Jersey where she lives while teaching at Queens College in the city. But she's comfortable here, and part of that comfort has enabled her to put a world of research into her second collection of poems, The Afflicted Girls, a collection of poems about the Salem witch trials that is already pulling in raves.

All during our conversation I hear happy noises downstairs. Even the baby sounds content when she bellows for more food or more Daddy. Nicole and I talk about her work a while longer and then head downstairs and outside into the 20 degree weather for some last photos.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Lucie Brock-Broido - New York, NY

Lucie lives in comfortable decadence in the Upper West Side, quite near Columbia University where she teaches. She welcomes me in her apartment and the luxurious red of the chairs and wall hangings suffocate me. Sweet William, a Maine Coon cat scampers away as I arrive, but he gets used to me quickly and is a major part of the interview, sometimes fielding questions for Lucie, sometimes just batting his powerful front paws at some of the wires and cords that keep my recorders and cameras running.

Although Lucie's been at Columbia for 10 years (she directs the program here, as she did a decade ago at Harvard), this is the first year she's not spent part of the time in her much-beloved "castle" in Cambridge, MA. She misses Cambridge because for years that is where she's written all of her dense and beautiful lyric poetry. She's rented her place out, and on two occasions has made the drive up just to sit in the driveway. She picks up mail from her boarder, but turns down the opportunity to go inside.

We drink powerful coffee and chat away a lot of a sunny winter afternoon. She talks with great fondness about her students, about their poetry. And she talks forcefully about how important it is for her to help them in any way. She went to Columbia years ago as a student, so she knows what her students face and she's a partner to them as they work.

I ask her a bit about her beautiful, haunting - but too infrequent - books, just three collections in almost 15 years, and she's candid in her response. She has a rigid writing season that begins in October and only lasts until early winter. The cold - cold that hurts - inspires yearning in her, and that in turn allows the poems to come. (To say her work is long-awaited puts too much emphasis on the 'long' and not enough on the 'waited.')

She's a rare beauty, a rare talent, and when afternoon moves to early evening, I feel forlorn in leaving. I say my goodbyes to William, and he tells me a secret. Lucie walks me down to the street, and I wander off - intoxicated - toward my car (somewhere) near Riverside Park.

Wherein the Author Ruminates a Bit on the City So Nice they Named it Twice

Of the rich variety of cultural advantages available to New York City residents, it's quite clear to me that the one that really matters the most is the freedom everyone feels to blow his or her car horn.

Sure, the ballet and all that bullshit is great. The Met. The Guggenheim. Yankee Stadium. Papaya King. But all of that is really available in any city with more than 50,000 people, but this horn thing. This is where New Yorkers carve their niche. The horn honking is constant. In an hour sitting in my car on the Upper West Side, I heard more than 650 cars honk their horns. The complex and beautiful language seemed to have three separate messages:

1) I have become bored with the view of your car. I wish for you to pull over and let me pass along so I may wait in traffic behind someone in a different color Toyota.

2) You have parked poorly, and I fear that should I try to make passage that I might press my bumper up against your own. Please come down from your Ritz Cracker box sized apartment and realign your car.

3) I am a cab driver with many appointments in my future, and therefore I am sounding my horn becase a) I require some space to make this left hand turn from the right hand lane, b) my last tip was dissatisfying, and I need to take out my anger on my current passenger, and my normal violent swerving is not working on its own, and 3) it has been several minutes since I last honked my horn.

That last section is a joke. Just the 3 comical reasons. Everything else is true.

New York is a remarkable place. I mean it. About half the people I know think it's the greatest city in the world. I mean just the bagels alone sway most of my pals. Many of them go to New York 3 times a year. They see some art. They get matinee tickets to either Phantom or an off-broadway play where actors dress like kitchen implements and revolt against the eastern-Bloc styled "drawer" they live in (you think I'm making this up, and I'm not). They eat a bagel the size of a Christmas turkey, and then take the train back to Pittsburgh or Baltimore. I trust them. I really do.

I love Times Square. I love the sidewalk in front of MTV. I love Central Park when it's not crowded. I love 30 Rock. I love looking out the windows of my hotel and thinking: "Holy shit! Look at all the tourists." I love the neighborhoods where locals sit on stoops and chat across the street with the neigbors, all while sitting on stoops, or in open windows. I love Riverside Park, narrow and bustling, but lovely for being jammed between the high rises and the Henry Hudson Parkway.

It's exciting and busy, and for many, the only place in the world where all of the senses can be stimulated simultaneously. I see its beauty; I see its allure. But once we finished our interview this afternoon, we hustled across the GW Bridge, and before too long we were two beers and two big plates of food into a terrific and funny evening at the Longhorn Steakhouse in Parsippany, New Jersey, for my money, the greatest city in the world.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Dave Smith - Baltimore, MD

I ran the undergraduate writing program at Johns Hopkins for the last three years, so today is a bit of a homecoming. We drive past the greatest diner in creation, the New Wyman, and then head over to campus. While my wife circles the parking lots, I run in quick to surprise my former partner in the writing program, Susie. She was my program's administrator, but more importantly, she was my pal and my colleague, and a day did not pass that we did not put our heads together to try and figure out ways in which to make the new program work better. 

I bound up the stairs in Gilman Hall and it's like old times. "Hey," I say, when Susie turns around and sees me. "I haven't gotten a paycheck in six months. What's up?" We hug and talk about some of the new construction on campus. Susie checks in on this blog from time to time so knows roughly where I've been. She says, "How are you doing?" and all I can think of, after 40+ poets and 16,000 miles, is - "I'm tired." Then we both laugh. She's busy and I've got to get to my interview, so we make a promise for my wife and I to get together with her and her husband for lunch when we come back through Baltimore later in February, and I race out to head over to see Hopkins's newest poet.

Dave Smith has only been in Baltimore for about 18 months, but his imposing stone house shows a man at home and comfortable. We move through the first floor to a back room surrounded by windows that open into the back yard. A cat scurries across. I meet Smith's wife and they settle some plans for later while I get my gear out. Smith co-edited the Southern Review for a dozen years, and is as well known for that as he is for his terrific and vast production of poetry.

We sit at a wood table, facing each other. Smith has on jeans; a purple shirt pops out of a nice blue sweater.

He answers in complex but complete thoughts, filling in gaps in answers by looping back, putting periods in by saying, "I think that's enough." His voice resonates in this room, and he listens to each question and weighs it a bit before answering. The answers develop clearly and forcefully. Even when he completely disagrees with an idea that I'm searching for insight on, he does it like a gentleman, with a polite revamping and then a new path.

We go out front after we've chatted and I position him in front of the house, on a slight rise above me. The family dog - who barked when I went up these stairs when I arrived - sees me now and is silent. Smith is patient while I take out both 35mm cameras and start shooting. While we stand there, we talk about an old friend of his, someone who taught me in grad school more than 20 years ago. Smith remembers him in the old days, and thinks fondly of him now. We both love his work.

Before I go, I mention where I'm headed in the coming weeks. He hears one name and asks me to take along a special message. His eyes light up a bit - it's a fond memory or an inside joke, I think. I promise to pass along the greeting, and I go.