Monday, September 29, 2003

October Leg Set to Begin

The furniture is in a gigantic Allied moving van somewhere in Pennsylvania. We are still in Maryland, waiting to sign away the deed on the big house. We have matching colds that we caught from an overworking air conditioner that seemed to pour as much water into the room as it did air.

So, we're miserable.

I'm famously lazy, so we hired two crews to help with moving, one to pack and one to load the truck. I'd go on at length here about a variety of minor problems that came up - involving wasps, handymen, and a Sunday morning visit from the Roto Rooter guys - but it's all too close to me. I'm afraid I'd make so many inflammatory comments about the various agencies involved that I'd be tied up in court for the next eight months instead of steering the big tin can all around the country.

So, we're just looking forward to the future. We're hoping that some of the furniture we had in Maryland will show up again in Arkansas, and if it doesn't, that it all has a good adventure in whatever new home it finds itself.

October dates are finalizing now. We will see David Evans, Sandra Alcosser, Phil Dacey, Nance van Winckel, and another half dozen through the prairies and some of the mountain states.

We'll momentarily pause across the Canadian border at the end of October, then dip into Washington and Oregon in early November. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

September Leg of Trip Complete

I've returned safely from the two week tour through the Midwest. What a terrific time, and what terrific hospitality I was treated to at every turn. My mighty thanks to all the poets.

We are now just packing up the house and relocating our stuff to a small vacation home we've purchased in NW Arkansas. We expect to have the big RV on the road in early to mid October. We'll be hitting the plains and mountain states in October and November.

Stay tuned for more postings; enjoy reading the archives (which you can access from this page at anytime).

Monday, September 15, 2003


After 4000 miles in 14 days, I find myself headed home, half lost on the freeways around Pittsburgh at 11:30 at night.

Construction has thrown up fifty orange detour signs and I'm blinking and seeing about a third of them. Finally, I'm on the PA Turnpike, headed east out of Pittsburgh. The city skyline is beautiful, and I'm still sort of seeing the lights in my head as I drive.

About five miles outside of Pittsburgh, I start climbing. Endless switchbacks. There's a three-quarter moon, yellow to orange, right ahead of me, and the traffic is light.

It's been a long trip, driving every day, bad motels at night, working on the laptop till all hours, trying to make sense of all the things I've heard in these great interviews. I can't make it home tonight. It's already late, but I'm just trying to push a few more miles so my last day will be easy.

Ten miles out of Pittsburgh, the switchbacks continue, and the climb is steady.

A Harley, its distinctive rat-a-tat-tat sound coming first, passes me. The guy is big, with a black helmet with "Tommy" stenciled on the back. His red tail light starts disappearing. But because the traffic is light, I increase my speed a bit and follow along behind him. We're doing 70, maybe, for the first couple of miles. When he gets too far ahead and I can no longer hear him, I pick up the pace. We occasionally come behind two or three semis struggling up the hills. I keep thinking that we'll level off, hit a valley, something, but the incline is steady.

Twenty miles out I notice I'm up to 75, 77, something like that. The pavement is glassy smooth, and the moon gives a little light. But it's still a highway near midnight so it's dark everywhere else. We bend left and right, up the switchbacks. I keep thinking, what the hell is the elevation here? How high are we going?

Thirty miles out, two semis have to weave from the slow lane in front of me. Tommy, the bike guy, is still ahead. I lose sight of him. The slow lane has narrowed because of construction barriers. The semis are in front of me; I ease off the gas and watch my speedometer start to fall.

Off to the right, up another climb, I see Tommy's tail light. It's getting dimmer, and I can't hear him anymore.

I tap my steering wheel a while, think that it's odd I'm driving without some CD blasting, and I take a drink of water out of a bottle that is in my passenger seat. It takes about five miles for me to pass the semis, but now my Pathfinder is rolling. I hit 80 miles an hour and the road is empty.

I have the windows all open, and the wind is rushing through here like I'm on a roller coaster. I'm at 85 when I see Tommy's light ahead of me. In a few minutes I'm behind him and we settle in together. We bank the corners, he a second ahead of me or so, and we use both lanes, the left lane for bends that way, and the right lane when we cut back.

He's aware of me - he couldn't not be - but he senses I'm not passing. We climb higher and impossibly higher. As we pass about the 50 mile mark out of Pittsburgh, we haven't seen another car in five minutes. My speedometer says 90, and the sound of his engine is nearly deafening, even to me, the echoes slapping back from the rocks that crowd both sides of the turnpike.

Higher still. Impossible, I think. The moon hangs ahead of us still, the only light save our own, and we're headed up another switchback when I hear Tommy's engine misfire a time or two. Altitude. The gas mixture on the big bike is off a hair, not noticeable anywhere else but here.

He drops to 80 and I stay behind him. When two semis appear ahead of us on the right, Tommy pulls into the slow lane and gives me one finger point, motioning me to go on ahead. He eases his throttle back as he nears what appears to be a level spot of highway.

I go past, not waving, not looking, just pushing on. I eat up the two semis and am now on a flat. The speedometer says 95 and the hum of the engine and the roar of the window is exhilarating. It's the best I've felt about anything in a year, maybe five years. That's a horrible and sad thing to say, and my life is full of incredible blessings. But tonight is extraordinary. It's one of the best nights of my life. I love cars, I guess. Highways. I love the feeling of going somewhere. I never gave a shit about home. That's what it means to me.

And suddenly, there's Tommy again. I can see his single headlight coming up. We're on a flat when he pulls even with me. We don't look, don't wave. And what's important is that this isn't a competition. It's not some testosterone event. It's just driving. Driving a perfect and smooth highway. There are few things that are as effortless and as beautiful as when the whine of the highway and the noise of your own soul match each other.

We fly on like that for another ten miles, sometimes side by side, sometimes one a bit ahead.

When we're 80 miles into the trip, I see the lights of a coming town, an exit. I'm tired, sleepy, refreshed inside somehow, but physically ready for rest. I want to keep going. I want to keep pushing this red truck along at these speeds, under this moon. I think about Tommy. He looks to be my age, or a bit older. On a Sunday night like this, I think everyone is going somewhere to see someone who is up waiting.

It's past midnight.

Just before the exit, I point out the window to the left lane and Tommy goes by. I start to slow, but he keeps going, the Harley pouring through Pennsylvania like sand, escaping, leaving me here at the exit sign, the light of a Best Western shining in on me through the open moon roof.

I stop at Dunkin' Donuts, of course, before checking in. Two jelly filled. I smile big, like a goofball at the two workers. I say, "You guys open all night, huh?" motioning around at the empty store.

And at the hotel I sleep, I sleep like a baby, with dreams about climbing.

Richard Tillinghast - Ann Arbor, MI

Writers work everywhere. Poets can scribble on notebooks in planes and in hotel rooms. Some use every part of their homes, the study, the bedroom, even porches.

But Richard Tillinghast is the winner of the porch sweepstakes. While rain threatens from the southern skies, Richard and I sit on either end of a large, bulky sofa. Richard is surrounded by books, notepads, and a set of homemade flash cards from which he is apparently learning Turkish grammar for an upcoming trip to his beloved Istanbul.

Richard loves a lot of places, western Tennesse, Memphis, Ireland - where he goes every year as part of his work with The Poet's House - and Istanbul.

He shows me some great photos from his travels, and we go through how his geographical wanderings have informed his writing over a long and productive career. He tells me of first reading John Crowe Ramson, another southerner, and the freedom those poems gave him - one can be from the south and be a writer, is what it meant to Richard. One didnt have to be from New York, or Paris, or New England. You could be from Tennessee.

While we talk, his neighbors go by out front, seemingly everyone with one or two dogs. This quiet street, mosty free of traffic, has a never-ending parade of people. We're in the middle of Ann Arbor, a college town where professors and students live near each other and their shared home - the university.

But Richard is on leave right now. He's just come back from upstate New York where he was a featured instructor at a conference. Soon he'll be back in Istanbul, where he will meet and talk with Turkish writers - and use his improving language skills.

I wonder about this porch. Who will keep it running in his absence?

Linda Gregerson - Ann Arbor, MI

Ann Arbor on a Sunday morning is the perfect college town. The Wolverines have stomped Notre Dame the previous afternoon, and the endless outdoor bistros and cafes on Main Street are full of parents and children drinking in the sunshine and the espresso. 

I see a guy set up on the lawn of an Exxon station selling reproductions of Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Monet. He also has one of the "Dogs Playing Poker" series for those with more refined taste.

I get a donut and a bottle of water at a BP service station and a guy coming out asks me if I can believe the weather. "Yes," I say, "I look up, and there it all is." I think this might open us to a few witty rejoinders, but the guy gives me a look like I just knocked his beanie off, and he gets into his Jeep - freshly Armor-Alled if my nose is right.

Linda Gregerson lives in an idyllic setting north and west of Ann Arbor. It's impossible to imagine that there are towns or cities anywhere near this place, set amidst barns, pumpkin fields, and endless trees. The only thing I can think of this morning more beautiful than this spot is Linda's poems themselves.

Linda's home opens into a wooded area, a brook awaits a hundred feet away, and deer and woodchucks often come to peruse her self-described "suburban" garden. We sit on white chairs on a screened in porch and let the warm September breeze blow through our conversation.

Ironically, when younger, Linda's asthma made this kind of communion with the natural world a miserable, taxing event. But thanks to medication, she's getting a belated start on being one with all of the great pollen bearing objects out there spewing their varied stuff.

We talk about some cities she loves, London and New York, but also of her childhood home in the upper Midwest. She talks about some poems of hers written about events that happened before her time, stories told to her by her family, and poems written in and around the hospitals she found herself in when younger.

She shows me around the yard a bit, pointing out some dear plants given to her by some friends. I'm looking for a woodchuck, however. The plants can wait. Ever since she said woodchuck I've been singing that childhood song in my head.

Groundhog? Is a woodchuck like a groundhog? I have a groundhog near where I live now. I think it looks like a great beaver, without the waffled tail, without the big teeth. Without the mountie. What's a woodchuck look like? Where do they summer?

Saturday, September 13, 2003

Battle Creek, MI - wherein the author makes some new friends

It’s 7 pm or so after I check into the Hampton Inn in Battle Creek, Michigan. When I drove in earlier, I was knocked out to see about 30 vintage cars in the parking lot, Fords, Chryslers, all primo condition, detailed, etc. A big sign in the lobby advertises this weekend as the National Street Rod convention.

After getting settled, I decide to run out and make some very bad food choices at the closest place with a drive-thru. As I emerge from the front door, a 50ish guy with a baseball cap comes right over at me. “Hey, are you the guy who bought the Packard?” He’s closing in, got his hand stretched out, so I have to shake it before I say, “Uh, no.”

He hooks one arm around my back and keeps shaking as he says: “Oh, shit, sorry. But you gotta see this, my pal just sold his ’44 Packard for 18 grand…I thought you were the guy…you look just like him.”

Now, this is all happening at light speed, so he’s got me away from my car and headed toward the back corner of the hotel parking lot. It’s daylight, he’s not especially threatening, and I am street tough like Allen Iverson, so after I unloose myself from his grip I keep walking along with him.

Two guys are waiting by a purple roadster of some kind. My baseball cap friend points at a fat guy with a beard and says, “My buddy here sold his ’44 Packard to some guy for 18 grand…show him the money.”

The beard pulls out a wad of cash about the size of a box of Pop-Tarts and shows me enough hundreds to make me think it might be true.

Then the third guy, a young guy pulls out a stack of 20s. “Hey,” he says to me, “This guy was going to show me a game. Watch if you want.”

So, the four of us are all there in a sort of tableau, alongside I-94, half behind the Hampton Inn. Beard, young guy, baseball cap, and me.

Beard suddenly reaches behind a bush and pulls out the top of a cardboard box. He lays it on the hood of the roadster and pulls out three playing cards, all bent in half, lengthwise.

This is three card monte, obviously. If you live in any decent sized city, you can find these guys on the occasional street corner. Three card monte isn’t really a card game at all, but a sort of scam. The American version is based on a similar game called Bonneteau. The dealer shows you three cards, two of one color, one of the other. Usually it’s a couple of matching face cards, say the queens of clubs and spades, and an opposite ace, like the ace of hearts or diamonds. The trick is, the dealer shows you the object card, the one that’s different, then shuffles or tosses them around on a flat surface, face down. When he stops, you pick out the ace and if you’re right you get $20. If not, you pay him.

So this all dawns on me suddenly. I’ve been roped in and the real show is about to start. The young guy has a $20 out. He’s waving it. He’s excited. He’s ready to win. He’s not afraid. The beard shows us all a red ace and two black queens. He starts moving the cards around slowly. It’s easy to keep up. He throws the card that we all know is the red ace to the far right, comically away from the others.

“THAT ONE,” the young guy says, and wouldn’t you know it, the beard turns over the red ace.

“See that,” baseball cap says, slapping me on the back, leaning against me hard enough to make me think he’s feeling for my wallet, or he’s just looking for some companionship on this nice September night.

The beard pays the kid $20 with a reluctant, aw shit kinda look that is admirable.

“Let’s go again,” beard says. “I’m going to get you.”

Then, the kid turns to me. “Hey, you wanna get it on this? You got $20?”

And we all wait. It’s one of those great slow-mo moments when you achieve a rare kind of clarity.

The three of them all look at me. The beard with his stack of cash. My new best friend with the baseball cap. And the young kid, the phony player who’s going to let me share in his great good fortune. I want to thank them all for involving me in the scam. I don’t want to fess up and let them know I’m not some rube. I’d like the scene to go on a little longer.

In my head I run through some of the available scenarios:

“What,” I could say. “Does it look like I have STUPID printed on my head?” Then they beat me with tire irons and take my wallet.

“You mean it, guys? I can really get it on this?” Then I lose $100 and there goes dinner.

So, I flatten my hands out, start backing away and utter the failsafe: “Uh, guys, my wife would kill me.”

Then I went to Arby’s and got myself enough roast beef for a high school football team. When I got back, my three buddies were leaning up against the roadster, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbons and watching the sun go down.

Orlando Ricardo Menes - South Bend, IN

Orlando's beautiful wife Ibis is 8 months, 3 weeks pregnant when I arrive in South Bend. This has been on my mind for the days that have led up to this part of the trip. I'm very grateful for the chance to meet and interview Orlando, but do not want my hurried and cacophonic visit to initiate childbirth during the interview. Should my beaming bald head and affable presence start proceedings later on, while I'm safely on the Interstate, then so be it. You had to know this was going to happen sometime!

The house is bustling with their daughter, with Ibis's mother, and yet another sweet dog. I'm sure this dog has a name, but my ability to recall events, places, names, etc. has completely lost me as I enter the final 24 hours of this trip. So, sweet dog in the Menes home, I'm afraid you will not get your due in this forum, but your kindness is noted all the same.

We visit over rich, dark coffee, cookies and cakes, then go down to the basement to Orlando's study. Books line both long walls on black bookshelves. Two lamps and a tiny ceiling height window provide the lighting. His laptop sits on a wide desk, and it's blinking throughout the conversation...what's happening, I keep thinking...information coming in or going out? It's a metaphor for my visits to all these poets. I come in, I download a lot of info, and I race out again, already trying to work the info into something else again to go on these pages.

While we talk, Orlando points out paintings by the Cuban born 19th century painter Valentin Sanz Carta, and a book of photos called Havana 1933 by photograph Walker Evans (famous for his depression-era photos of American farm workers). These are among some of the sources of inspiration that have fueled poems in the past. But nothing has fed Orlando's work more than what he calls the "mythic" Cuba of his youth, not a place where he lived, but the home of his family. Born in Peru, then relocated to a rich and lively Cuban neighborhood in Miami, Orlando learned to love Cuba through the refractive filters of his family. When he writes about this place, it's a sort of Cuba twice removed, a place that comes to be the poetic Cuba, a Cuba formed by those who know it and love it a variety of ways.

To add another filter to the work, Orlando first started to really write about his "homeland" while peering out a window in Chicago, Illinois, while working toward his Ph.D. And now, in Indiana, his work has continued to plumb places from his past, including Peru, where he was born and where he lived until he was ten years old.

As always, the visit is over before it gets started. I have other questions, other lines of thought, but Orlando has given me much to think about, and much to add to the growing repository of information about poets and their places.

We go to the backyard, squeezing past a porch full of toys that his daughter will have to share with the soon-arriving son. We shoot a few photos, and he walks me out to the truck. I think to myself, the baby can come now.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Lisa Samuels - Milwaukee, WI

I may have found my home here in Wisconsin. As I travel I-90 and I-94, cheese and meat shops appear on the horizon every now and again. Everything is called a Haus. Cheese Haus. Sausage Haus. When I see two on the same exit, I pull over faster than you can say "who has a big belly?" 

The Cheese Haus looks full, but there's a place called Humbird right next to it, and it has a giant painted sign that seals the deal for me: "Fudge."

Three ladies are working the place. It looks like they've just opened fairly recently. Giant display freezers hug one wall, but they're new, and not especially tight to the walls. Some things have prices, but not all of them. The cash register is brand new, and one of the ladies is working it over like she was Mike Tyson.

I wander down the long section of the store where boxes of cookies and crackers stretch from head to toe. There are knick knacks, cups, pens, cheese graters, wine racks, etc. on the back wall. But when I turn the corner and come back to the front, I find a long refrigerated bin of every kind of cheese you can imagine. Many have "Wisconsin" in front of the cheese type. Wisconsin Longhorn. Wisconsin Gouda. I imagine this is a big selling point when you've got a store that relies on highway traffic for its business.

I pick up some Wisconsin Cheddar and some Wisconsin Colby Jack.

At the front, all three ladies are waiting for me. One looks up from the cash register and says, "I hope you're paying with credit card."

"You find what you need?" another one says.

Fudge, I think. "Fudge," I say. "Can I get some Wisconsin fudge?" I imagine that's pretty funny.

"Uh, we've got almond fudge, peanut butter fudge, white fudge. We've even got a new cheese fudge."

"Cheese fudge?"

"Tina, give him a taste."

Tina comes out from behind the counter and leads me over to another, smaller cooler. She picks up a giant round roll of fudge and scrapes a cheese grater across the top. It's just a sliver, but it's the size of a Monopoly bill.

Tina says, "It's made with cheddar."

"It's good," I say. "Give me enough for dessert."

At the front, I give my credit card, and before they run it through the machine, I grab a stick of salami. Then some crackers. I need crackers, good God. How can you have cheese, salami, and fudge, and no crackers.

I pay $19 for all of this. It's a snack. Isn't that a lot of money or a snack? Did I mention I've been driving all day?

Lisa Samuels lives in a 1927 house north of Milwaukee. It's on a busy road, but since she's been there she's put a row of some kind of noise-killing and pretty trees to buffer the noise. The house is gorgeous. Long driveway to the back. Porch. She lets me in the front and we talk houses and Milwaukee for a bit. We sit in a beautiful living room, all dark woods. A welcome and late afternoon shower is taking place, and the room has a grey, but pleasant feel.

I discovered Lisa's poetry fairly recently. The work is varied and exciting, seeming not to be tied to one or another type of method or approach. She's comfortable with long and short poems, even concrete and prose poems. And the language is always careful, literate. Dense one moment, then revealing in the next.

My earlier posting about the excellent lunch that Michael Dennis Browne provided me is reaping rewards. Lisa has an excellent microbrew beer from Milwaukee for me. I get the sense that if I wanted five more, I could get them, too, although then I'd have to sleep in the front yard.

We start with a discussion of her own places, places she's lived. It's quite a list: fifteen states, countries in the Middle East, a country in Scandinavia. She talks a lot about "empty" places where she's felt at home, like Yemen, or the Utah desert.

Lisa talks about an "otherness" that she feels in these places, a feeling of not fitting, like a piece of the wrong jigsaw puzzle. It's a feeling she likes, one that was clearly fostered and nurtured during her nomadic past.

As always, the hour passes quickly. She shows me her study, crowded with papers and manuscripts. "I know where everything is," she says, like I've said myself. We shoot some photos inside, and then she does yeoman's service by standing in the rain to get some outside, up against her house.

We say goodbye. She goes in the house, and I head to my car. Before I get back out onto the small road that will lead me to the Interstate, I have a marvelous recollection. There is fudge in here somewhere. In a suitcase or a bag is the last of yesterday's fudge.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Michael Dennis Browne - Minneapolis, MN

It's an odd thing, this interview game. I am walking into people's home and offices with a giant bag of equipment - that could just as easily contain rope, a mallet, and pepper spray - and I am being welcomed like a member of the family. (Maybe a distant cousin, but you get my drift.) 

After about ten of these, I've gotten quite comfortable with the process. In the early ones, I'd arrive hours early, staking out the street, figuring out which house is 3120 Peacock Blvd. Where will I park? Will I have to carry my stuff over great distances? Does it look like the kind of house where they'll ask me to take off my shoes? Am I wearing the right kind of socks for that sort of thing? Is it possible that they are looking at me right now while my car idles in the street in front?

Now, I just get directions and pull up at the appointed time. I grab my bag of stuff and stride up to the place as though I were invited - which of course I am.

My interview today is with a poet I've met before. Michael Dennis Browne came to the campus of Southern Mississippi in 1985. At the time I was a boorish grad student, sure of myself, sure I was right about everything. I'd even - I'm much embarrassed to admit - developed a little phobia about contemporary poetry. Give me some Keats, but take anything from this century and get out of my way.

But as I student in the program I got drafted to go to Michael's reading. It was terrific. Michael's voice, a sturdy mixture of his boyhood England and his adulthood Minnesota, worked the poems in the best way. Not caressing the words, not inflating the language, not inspiring anything into them that wasn't already there. And the poems were worth the effort it took to read and hear them.

He finished with one of his more well known pieces, a gorgeous one called "Hide and Go Seek," which uses the childhood game as an extended metaphor for the growth, happiness, and safety of his nieces and nephews. The monsters of the contemporary world are mirrored by the monster the speaker plays in the waning daylight hours, and it ends with a plaintive, "All in. All in." It was simple. And it was beautiful. And I bought one of his books the next day.

And today I'm going right in the house. I tell Michael about the first time we met, and we sit facing each other at the kitchen table. The house is cluttered, and I mean cluttered in the sense of full. This is a house where kids and a black lab named Jamie move around a good deal. I see an Algebra book on one table. I see a big sheet over one couch for the dog.

Michael is getting lunch together for me. After hearing about my journey and its odd, vigorous schedule, he insisted I get something to eat other than "greasy road food." So he's walked to a local co-op to fetch tomato basil soup and a fine salad - with giant garbanzos in the bottom. He puts some bread in the oven as he gets the meal ready and we talk about the project. Like many of the folks I've met, Michael is envious of the trip and of the time I've got to to it. This is one thing all the poets I've met seem to share, a sort of wanderlust. New places means new ideas, new poems, new worlds.

We eat at our food, talking the whole while. We look out at the back yard where Jamie has obtained - Michael doesn't know how - a big bone of some kind. I think it looks like something a dinosaur or previous tenant might have left behind, but I'm not really good with anatomy - or whatever scientific field of endeavor applies.

Once we're done eating, we go out to Michael's shed, a wooden structure, literally, no bigger than 4X7. If you put 40 rolls of toilet paper in there, you wouldn't be able to close the door. But it's made for writing, not entertaining. The wood is all fence lumber. A big window opens to the southern sky, and a hand hewn desk falls out of the wall on little hinges. It's as empty as the house is full. Michael's glad to sit in it for me and I get a few pictures. It was built for $300 and it's one of a few places where Michael does his work.

The other place, the dream place, is a house up in the north woods of Minnesota, a cedar house with a screened in porch and a 24' foot peak. It's instructive to tell you that Michael shows me two pictures. One of his kids. One of his cabin.

We shake hands. Michael inquires about the next stop - it's Milwaukee - and once again I'm on the road.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Marvin Bell - Iowa City, IA

My friends who live in big cities have little understanding of the great middle of this country. This is not the greatest failing in the world, perhaps, but it's a failing nonetheless. There are terrific and fascinating places and people on every square inch of the map, and I can't think of a place that hasn't educated or entertained me in some way. Sure, for some lives, New York is the place to be. LA for others. I know many pals who swear by the South. Others won't leave the misty Pacific Northwest. 

But I've never been afraid of the great expanse that Rand McNally and the fellas promise each year when the big Road Atlas comes rolling into my local Wal-Mart, and then into my car.

One of the reasons for this trip, in fact, was just for the sheer enjoyment of going all around the lower 48. I've been in all theses places before, but never in one swoop, so that's part of the challenge. But the real joy is the intoxicating combination of people and places and events that come rocketing through your life when you travel 65 mph pretty much all the time.

This stuns most people who know me in my straight life, because, for the most part, when at home or at work, I shun everything outside my immediate view. Want to go horseback riding? No. Want to bungee? No. Want to try this new thing? I hate new; leave me alone. I've got the curmudgeon thing down second nature, and that works for me when I'm wrapped up in my teaching, writing, watching lots of TV whatever.

But when I let myself open up a bit, and when my wife and I travel around, I'm always buzzing from the big and small things that I stumble into.

In Iowa City today, as I drove the quiet streets of this beautiful college town looking for Marvin Bell's home, I spotted this fat guy leaning up against a truck that advertised "critter removal." Two things. I have a strong affinity with the fat guys of the world. I'm fatter than Elvis. It's a strange brotherhood of fat guys the world over who bond to me - and me to them. The second thing is, any town with actual "critters" has got to be lively. Plus, I like the no-nonsense lingo.

So I pulled over in my truck and said hello.

"Critter trouble? What are you looking for?"

The guy hitched his pants in a familiar way and came over. "Lady here," hooking his thumb back, "says she's got a family of possums in the attic."

"Wow," I said. "Has she seen them."

"No, that's the thing. She's hearing them. I'm guessing she's got squirrels running on the roof. That's all. That'll send up a whale of a racket." He leans against the side of my truck, and wipes some sweat from his brow - my brother.

"What are you going to do?" I say.

"Well, if I can't convince her they're outside, I'll put some peanut butter up in the attic with some live traps."

"Peanut butter?" I say. "You catch possums with peanut butter?"

"Oh yeah, you can catch anything with peanut butter."

"That's funny," I say, "My wife caught me with peanut butter."

The guy laughs a big genuine laugh, not a timid one, not a wise chuckle, not a knowing huff. He likes it. He laughs big. He reaches out to shake my hand. "I got you," he says. "You live around here?"

"No," I say, pointing vaguely up ahead me and the street to Marvin Bell's house. "I'm just going through."

"Well," my big friend says, "have fun."

As I got back out on to the street, I could see the lady of the house coming out the front door, pointing up, and the guy headed to his truck for the goods.

Marvin Bell is a geographical champion. He lives in three different places during the year, a peninsula in Washington State, on far eastern Long Island, and in this home I'm visiting in Iowa City. And he's traveled, lived, and written in a score of other countries.

His memory for these places, and his understanding of their own particular sensibilities is deep. He grew up on Long Island, but finds himself "home" in the others as well. For thirty-five years he's been home in Iowa, although now he only spends half a year or so there as part of his position at the famed Iowa program.

We sit at a dining room table surrounded by books and CDs and art and greenery, a spooky mask of some kind, and a big bowl of fruit from which Marvin pulls out a banana to steel himself for the interview. The home is relaxed and inviting, and we settle in.

Marvin leads me through his geographical biography, and as he does, he easily pulls lines and poems from his work to show me where they were born, and how their place was integral in their creation. It's a nostalgic sort of trip, and it's clear I'm not the only one enjoying it - and learning from it.

We talk a bit about work habits, and he volunteers to show me a tiny 9X12 shed in the back yard where he wrote much of his early work. It's exactly the size someone would need for the task. A small single mattress, two circa 1940-1950 Royal typewriters, a desk lamp, and a buzzer that served as a sort of intercom in the days before wireless this and that. Marvin didn't tell me if the buzzer was used for him to let his wife Dorothy know something, or vice versa. As a married man, I can only guess.

In the shed is even a stack of paper, ready to go in one of the typewriters, but yellowed and covered with spider webs. I'm taking some pictures and Marvin rolls a sheet, sits in his chair, and takes the attitude of the gentleman poet at his task.

We go back into the house and up the stairs to his study, where an Apple laptop waits for him. This is where he works now. He sits at the desk in the same manner as he had in the shed, but I must confess he looked more natural in front of the manual machine. Marvin, I think, looks like a typewriter guy to me. And his poetry, long lines spilling out often beyond the margin of the page and looping back, feels like it should be made on a machine that makes a little noise. Something that presses ink into paper.

Monday, September 08, 2003

Scott Cairns - Columbia, MO

Having taught for the past three years at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, I've forgotten the sort of shock one gets when a giant university suddenly appears in a big town or small city. 

I was casually meandering down a deserted Campus Blvd., arm out the window, sucking on a Pepsi, munching on a Rice Krispie treat (product placement opportunities), when I turned into campus and had my Nissan Pathfinder (an excellent vehicle, fun for the whole family) swallowed up by teeming groups of college students escaping at 50 minutes past the hour. Four lanes of traffic came to a dead stop as hundreds of book-bagged - and terribly thin, attractive, fresh-faced, YOUNG - students strolled across College Street toward unseen dorms, apartments, etc. Two kids played hackey-sack as they walked. One girl flipped off her flip flops right in the crosswalk, punched them into a purse, and never lost a beat in her cell phone conversation.

When I got through this group, and got onto campus, I got caught up in the intoxicating youth of the place. For me - someone who knows the value of a great, pessimistic lethargy - I didn't even let "intoxicating - yet fleeting - youth" enter my mind. Well, at least not until now.

But I walked longer than I might normally, just to soak all of it in. Young men with sleeveless shirts and earrings. Young women with earrings and sleeveless dresses. I peered in through the library windows and it was like looking at a college catalog: a group huddle around a gleaming computer, one older student showing a younger student the way to the stacks, the restrooms, the elevator, whatever. A professorial woman beaming out at me as I looked in.

Scott Cairns is waiting in his Tate Hall office for me. He's recently moved offices, so he's still in the honeymoon phase, shuffling books from case to case, looking for just the right angle for the desk. If it matters, the desk is perfect right now. When one walks in the door, the desk is at about 40 degrees off the mean, angled in such a way that as soon as you walk in, Cairns will be before you.

He's a genial guy, as interested in me and my questions as he is in answering them well. We talk about his background in Washington state, a place I love as well. We talk about his early work, which he identifies as being the most "place-oriented," but we get around eventually to something new for this trip - the spiritual.

Cairns has written for years as a part of a quest (my word) to come to an understanding of the presence (his word) of God. He notes that he's simply got a "God obsession," and that he is able to get glimpses of meaning through his own work. So he continues, and each poem helps him fill in the great unknowns in his own search.

Together we wonder if spiritual landscape fits the overall theme of this book project. And while we ponder it, Cairns talks a bit about the physical landscape of his youth, the mist and the mountains and the rocky beaches of the Pacific Northwest. In those places, overgrown, thick, heavy, and seemingly always shrouded in vapor, he found his way. How like that his work as a man?

WZ: 1947-2003

I heard the news this morning that songwriter Warren Zevon died last night.

Zevon - most well known for "Werewolves of London," a 1978 song that paid him well, but took its toll artistically for the rest of his career - was diagnosed last year with a rare and inoperable form of lung cancer. He was an anomaly, a literate rocker, a longtime favorite of critics and other artists - even "real" writers and poets - but terribly unknown except for the one song a quarter century ago.

All through his career he was a songwriter of rare imagination, one whose grim humor made his diagnosis painful and ironic. In an album before he learned he was sick (the sterling "Life'll Kill Ya,") he wrote: "From the President of the United States / To the lowliest rock and roll star / The doctor is in and he'll see you now / He don't care who you are."

I've been listening to Zevon since 1977, when a school pal lent me a copy of Zevon's self-titled second album. On that album, and on many of the ones that followed, Zevon distilled life in California, pouring that experience into his songs. I spend this time today on Zevon because my interest in poetry and places begins with the rock lyrics that consumed me beginning in my early teens. Zevon, Jackson Browne, Dylan, Springsteen, Rickie Lee Jones - among others - were the first poets I knew.

From "Warren Zevon," circa. 1976.

Desperados Under the Eaves

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring in my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the gypsy wasn't lyin'
All the salty margaritas in Los Angeles
I'm gonna drink 'em up

And if California slides into the ocean
Like the mystics and statistics say it will
I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill

Don't the sun look angry through the trees
Don't the trees look like crucified thieves
Don't you feel like desperados under the eaves
Heaven help the one who leaves

Still waking up in the mornings with shaking hands
And I'm trying to find a girl who understands me
But except in dreams you're never really free
Don't the sun look angry at me

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went hmmm...
Look away...
Look away down Gower Avenue, Look away...

Copyright ©1976, Warner-Tamerlane/Darkroom Music BMI

In the last year of his life, Zevon finished and released a terrific collection of songs called "The Wind." When my wife reached me on the road, I was hurtling up a small highway in Missouri. On the CD player was the first line of the first song of the last album he ever made:

"Sometimes I feel like my shadow's casting me."

Warren Zevon

Miller Williams - Fayetteville, AR

Were we to begin work on the American poetry version of Mount Rushmore, I’d like to volunteer to start work on the chunk that would become the face of Miller Williams. It’s a miraculous face, one that is wise and welcoming, genteel and grizzled, open, inquisitive, and always alive. (And, we share that rare biological gift of a brilliant, beautiful, and smooth cranial dome. I'd think this would require some extra buffing up on the mountain, but it'd be worth the effort.)
Miller's home - a virtual treasure trove, museum, and love letter to his family, his countless friends, and his work - makes a terrific place to meet. We repair to an airy porch off the side of the house, where the sound of a burbling fountain eases into the infrequent gaps of our conversation.

We talk about Miller’s Southern past, a biography of travel, civil rights protests, music, family, and love, that pours out in his lifetime of work.

He recalls for me some of the stories behind his poems, turning pages in a collection, running his finger along lines, sometimes – surprisingly – reading with a sure and soothing rhythm.

We spend some time in his study, where the photos of his friends and family peer down on him as he works his way through yellow legal pads of new work. (These pads he fills, sometimes an entire one to create a single piece.) While I click my camera, he sits in his writing chair and points out Presidents, musicians, poets, and pals on the walls. He points out his family, the ones ahead of him and the ones behind. It's a small room, but comfortable, and it buzzes with the lives that his work has touched.

While I work on my camera, Miller reaches to a small table on his left and starts paging through some pages of new poems. He reads one, then another. These are unpublished pieces, but finished in the best sense. The forms are graceful, the rhymes elegant and transparent. He sets the folder down and shows me some more photos of his family.

His work is broad, inviting, and always exacting. The poems require only that the reader is equipped with an open - and working - heart. The shorter poems spear an idea, carving to the very marrow of the idea. The longer poems drift and pull you into the world as Williams describes it: a hotel in St. Louis, a tavern in Tennesse, standing beside his granddaughter's crib, or at the death bed of an old friend.

The cumulative effect for a poet reading his collected work, Some Jazz a While, is a lesson in using only what is required. There is not a single unnecessary utterance. The poems have been pared to their essence, and they - too often to seem reasonable - shine.

But rather than wax rhapsodic about the poet, let me finish with a few words about a fine dog. The powerful and dominating Shih Tzu - Sister - who allows Miller and his wife to live in their home in Fayetteville, greets me as I arrive, follows me as I set up my recorder and cameras, but then goes about dog business while the humans talk around whatever it is that humans find to occupy their time.

I look for Sister as I leave, but she must be involved in larger matters. I load my truck, and am backing out when I see Miller smiling, and bringing the dog to me in his arms. Miller says, "When you left, she followed you to the door. I think she wants to say goodbye." And indeed, when Miller lifts her head into my window, Sister gives me a little kiss on the cheek, the perfect Southern hostess. As I release the brake, she tells Miller to take her back inside, and that's the last thing I see them do.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Blankets: I-44

Ten miles outside of St. Louis, on I-44, the four lanes of traffic stop suddenly. For the first few minutes, cars jostle lane to lane, trying to make a guess which ones are clogged, which ones are free. This happens all the time in cities. Nobody blinks.

After five minutes, nobody is jostling. Nobody is moving. A few people hit the far right shoulder and ease up the road, angling for an exit. But I'm a visitor, just passing through. I've taken enough wrong turns to stick to the big slab.

After fifteen minutes, we still haven't moved. Cars are still running, but brake lights are going off as people stick their transmissions into neutral. It's 85 degrees with bright sunshine, so it's a little warm out there in the concrete river. Twenty minutes in, we start to creep forward. No more than 6 feet at a time. I pass, slowly, a guy in a suit and tie waving a manila folder over the over-heated engine of his Taurus.

Thirty minutes in, I can tell we're easing off the interstate, all four lanes headed for an exit still 1/2 a mile away. There's a sort of resigned steadiness to it. Somebody lets you in eventually. You wave. I'm punching the radio, trying to find a damn traffic report, but all I get is college football. Suddenly it's all just one big lane of traffic. We're forty-five minutes into the adventure when we line up and pass by the scene.

I see the first white blanket as it appears in the corner of my eye as I pass a state trooper's car. It's a body under there; I can see a black boot stuck out. But the heavy white blanket covers the rest of it. Then, thirty feet ahead, in a similar pose, another blanket, the outline underneath smaller, the pinky finger of a hand the only visible marker. Two troopers in brown, without hats, stand facing the traffic, one next to each of the bodies. Off on the other shoulder I see a motorcycle, upright, nearly unmarked, and a sedan, a woman sitting on the hood, another trooper writing down the things that she says.

I'm ten feet from it. I'm drinking Mountain Dew. I've got U2 on the CD player. I have a map on the dash. I'm wearing sunglasses. I've got half a tank of gas and I've got a lot of miles to drive yet before I stop for the night.

Carl Phillips - St. Louis, MO

St. Louis is a city in all respects of the word. Big time sports - the baseball stadium rises up suddenly right in the middle of the central business district - industry, commerce, tourism. The gleaming silver arch is visible for miles as you arrive. Billboards outside of town advertise - in nearly equal numbers - casinos and churches. 

Parts of the city, west of the big river, reveal a diverse populace. Gentrified neighborhoods with coffee shops, book stores, and cobbled walkways, butt up against neighborhoods that look as though they didn't survive the bust of the 70s. You see empty storefronts, burned out houses, empty, weed-strewn fields, and every kind of trash - from half a pool table to truck tires - discarded alongside streets with pretty names like Euclid and LaClede.

But even at its worst, it's vibrant and bustling, street vendors are set up for a big Saturday. I see people selling everything from flowers to BBQ. There's one optimistic fellow sitting in a lawn chair selling - what appears to be - about 100 bar stools.

At a local grocery store, people gather at the front doors, some going in with empty baskets, talking to friends coming out with full ones. A sort of bare and dismal park is livened up by twenty kids working one giant Chinese kite, two older teenagers watching, actually almost rolling on the grass laughing, as the kite veers out of control and lands on the sidewalk, string sawed off by a "Drug-Free, Gun-Free" metal sign.

Carl Phillips' home hides on a gorgeous tree-lined street in the shadow of the 150 foot high giant green dome of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. The house dates to the turn of the last century, and its front is dominated by a giant Magnolia tree. Inside, the house has high ceilings, hardwood floors - with occasional and surprising marble slab inlays. Carl's study is on the second floor, full of light from giant bay windows that open into the back yard, where one of two large dogs is waiting to see what my next move is.

Carl and I sit in the front living room, he's on the "dog's" couch; I'm in a big chair. Max, the milder of the two dogs, is barking at me. Barking doesn't cover it. As he barks I can see the muscles in his legs and back tense. His mouth flies open, the teeth, nice and white and present. If Carl were not so calm, I'd imagine that I just looked like a great big doggie treat to Max.

In a gorgeous late summer afternoon, Carl tells me about St. Louis and Massachusetts, his two homes. He's from Boston, and goes back there every summer, but has lived in St. Louis - in this house and another - for ten years. I'm interested in if he identifies himself with either place more, but, smiling, Carl confesses that he's probably just an "American" poet.

We talk about St. Louis' size. It's a city, full of the kinds of things anyone needs, but it's not "dizzying" like New York. He says he couldn't live in too small a town, citing Oberlin, Ohio, the current home of one of his friends, the poet Martha Collins (see below).

His proximity to the Basilica comforts him. He says he likes the hourly ringing of the bells, the "flocks" of nuns he sees each morning as they scuttle on his street.

When we're done, Carl walks me out to my truck and I say, looking back at his house, "This is a really great place."

Work Day - Mt. Vernon, IL

In Mt. Vernon, IL, I make an early stop to do some work. I've got transcribing and laundry to do, two jobs that are exactly as sexy as they sound.

The transcribing goes slow. I let it my slim, silver recorder run a few seconds, get a sentence or two, hit pause, start typing. By the time I'm typing I've only remembered the gist of the thing. I rewind, listen again, fix what I fouled, and then the next sentence is waiting. These interviews are ranging from 20-40 minutes, but the transcribing of a single one takes as much as 1:45. Sometimes the voices are crystal clear. Sometimes it's just a hiss and a squawk. What's that word? Constancy? Or inconstancy? Is that a word? That dog is barking. Should I transcribe that? The tape recorder is too near the air conditioner; it sounds like I'm interviewing someone flying a prop plane. That one guy keeps tapping the table as we talk. I get half a sentence, than a white noise CLONK. How does one spell CLONK?

The laundry goes more smoothly. The Daisy Fresh is empty when I go in, but Daisy - I imagine she's Daisy, but don't have the nerve to ask - tells me she's the change machine. She gives me a stack of quarters, points me toward the machines "that were working last night," and goes back to the sports page. "Cardinals killed me again last night," she says. "Lose at home. To the Cubs. No wonder it's a long summer."

Once I get the clothes in the machines (mostly white things in one, any other color in the other), I wander outside the Daisy Fresh and sit on the tailgate of my SUV. I spot a guy with a laundry bag over his shoulder walking toward me, but about three blocks away. Because of the sun, and the flat land, I can see him clearly. It looks like a gigantic bag. He stops every few feet and swings it off one shoulder and onto the other. Suddenly, without any particular warning, a train goes rushing past him, obscuring him from my view. He's so far away still that the sound of the train is only pleasant. But he looks to be right up against the rails, so I imagine it's as loud, as, well, a freight train. I can actually see his feet for a while under the blur of the train. Then his feet and the bag, which he's set down.

When the train's gone, he keeps coming. I swear, he's only blocks away, but it's taking him forever to get here. Daisy comes out, smoking a cigarette in one of those old-timey plastic filters. Very continental, I think. "That's Terry," she says, pointing down the road. "He's a fireman. He's got the Turk duty this week. He gets all the unmentionables. He's got to do them all, and he's got to fold them and put them in everyone's locker."

Terry is within speaking distance now, so Daisy turns her attention away from me and to him. "Did you see my Redbirds," she says? "Fucking stinking summer. I'm waiting for the Rams to start on Sunday."

Terry and Daisy go in. I wait outside a while, giving my clothes a chance to soak.

Once I clear out my dryer, I go to my car and see Terry sitting on a curb. He's got a burr cut, like an army guy. He's got a t-shirt on that says VOLUNTEER across the back. On the front is some kind of insignia. He looks up as I open my truck and start putting stuff in.

"You got a cigarette?" he says. I shake my head. "I'd bum one from Daisy, but sure as hell she'll talk my ear off." He looks down at my license plate and kicks at it with the toe of his boot. "Where you from, Maryland?"

"Yeah, I say, from around Baltimore."

"We got a captain who's from up there. Now he's here training us." He pauses, Daisy's emerged from the inside of the laundry.

"Terry, you got a load done, honey." Then she goes back in.

"You sure you don't have a smoke?" he says again.

"Nope. Nothing. Sorry."

"Hell, I'll have to walk all the way back and get mine." He peers in the laundromat, then over at the road he'd come up before and makes his decision. As I'm backing out, I see him headed back toward the train tracks.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

James Cummins - Cincinnati OH

Jim Cummins, in addition to teaching poetry and lit at the University of Cincinnati, is the curator of the Elliston Poetry Collection, housed in a quiet spot on the 6th floor of UC's main library. The room is set up for readings, so we have a ton of chairs to choose from. He seems glad to hear how the trip has gone so far, so I take a little longer getting set up. Once the recorder is on, though, we get down to work.

A lot of Jim's work is really all about a psychological landscape. In fact I've been eager to see how what he has to say about place will fit with the more traditional sense of that word that I've been researching so far.

But as soon as we begin to talk, it's clear that his work is about place, maybe more internal, but driven and shaped by external, too. He talks about the writing of one of his books, Portrait in a Spoon, and about how the writing of that book took place in the basement of his house, late at night, after he'd read his daughter to sleep. He'd grope his way down into the shabby basement and "wrestle" the poetry to life. In a dirty town, in a small house, he found refuge in the basement and the poems found their way to him.

As a long time Cincinnatian, he has an interesting relationship to the city. He remembers vividly coming back to the city after having down graduate work in the seemingly sunny and primary-color-rich state of Iowa, and when he got back home, the dark and baroque Germanic architecture depressed him. He talks candidly - and not without a little stoic resignation - that this is his city, and a city that means a lot to him because of his own history with it.

Jim is an excellent host and map maker. Once we finish talking, he makes me maps for some places to check out, the giant brown Ohio River, and the streets of his much beloved Hamilton Avenue neighborhood.

I'm driving, mad, lost. It's not the map's fault. It's all me. I've got no one to blame but myself. The river, I think. The river can't be hard to find. It's got to be right over this hill. No, that's a muffler place. Then, maybe if I turn the map around and go back to from where I came. But where's that? Is this a one way? Officer, I'm only going one way.

Finally, I drive right to a gorgeous overlook. I check the map and realize it's all me, baby, the map was perfect. Two lovers are actually smooching on the brick railing that protects the public from a long and painful tumble through the dense and green hillside. (Though the railing doesn't stop a stray cat that leaps it and disappears.) This couple is going at it like they're in an Adrian Lyne movie, but I sneak by to get a good look at the river. It's a snaky delight from up this high. But I know from other trips that down low it's a big moving brown stink that really should just be covered over with some of Riverfront Stadium's old artificial turf.

But like I said, from up here, it's terrific.

The couple finishes their assignation, give me a sort of "Get soaked" look, and leave.

I grab the other map, commit parts of it to memory, then head out again, looking for James Cummin's neighborhood, the place he lives, a place where he has worked and written. If only I can find it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Woody's Dairy Bar

Today's an off day, so I'm steering the red SUV through endless Ohio towns. Roads are closed in a flurry here right now. The last months of heavy summer construction have got me detouring through towns I've never seen before, and I'm turning around in many nice driveways when I miss those "No Outlet" signs.

After my third detour in three towns, I get a hankering for some ice cream. Not a big sundae or anything by Baskin Robbins, but soft-serve. I'm dreaming about soft-serve as I drive, someone dropping big dollops of the stuff from the sky on top of me. Me sliding down a big mountain of it, etc. These are the dreams that foodies always have.

Milford Center is a tiny town that is less than a wide spot on highway 4, and just as I'm blinking and passing it by, I spot a small wood one-story building on my right. The hand painted sign says, "Woody's Dairy Bar and Pizza."

There are no cars at Woody's, save one that I assume is someone who works there. It has two walk up windows in front, but a side door that opens into a tiny eating area that might hold 12 people if you stacked them like wood. One lady is watching "The Young and the Restless" on a TV sitting in one of the three booths, and an older lady with tiny wire frames is behind the counter. I thump down on a stool, give a wave to them both and tell them I've been dreaming of soft-serve ice cream and could I get a large vanilla.

While I wait for the cone, the three of us talk a bit about the weather. Did I come through rain? Was there rain where I was this morning? Have I ever seen so many days straight with rain? When I see the cone coming at me, I take a bit of a breath. It's gigantic. Think Skywalker. Think light saber. The lady hands it to me and it's the exact size and weight of a $48 flashlight. I'm dumbstruck. I don't even know if I'll be able to get it out the door of the place without ducking.

The ladies keep talking, oblivious to my delight, my horror, my stupendous amazement at the size of the behemoth cone.

I give it a few licks to get started. I spin on the stool and watch some of the show. Victor is still good looking, I'm glad to see, and still running Genoa City with that Euro accent and his fancy suits.

Five minutes in and the cone is now the size of what you might get for $5 at Dairy Queen if the server was hopped up on something. It now resembles a big cone.

"What a cone," I say.

"Good, isn't it? Good on a muggy day," the younger lady says.

"Big, I meant, actually. It's a huge cone."

The older lady sort of cocks her head. "You should come after 4 o'clock."

The younger lady says, "Yeah, when Kenny's here, he makes really big ones."

With about 4 inches to go on the cone, I figure I've sat there long enough. I say goodbye and walk out to my car. As I drive away, I dream about soft-serve again, but now I dream about Kenny, this magical man who appears at Woody's after 4, and makes the big cones. I will have to think about that some more. One day, maybe when I'm rested, I'll come back.

Martha Collins - Oberlin OH

It may be that the towns of northern Ohio are about the prettiest I've ever seen. Each little town is full of endless green lawns and 1880 houses bright white with crisp green or black roofs. Nobody is scurrying; there's no traffic to speak of. Even the town bank is an architectural beauty. In Norwalk, OH, I get myself caught in the wrong lane for a moment while I try to negotiate my way to a different highway than the one I came into town on. Momentarily I'm blocking three of the four lanes of traffic. Nobody honks. Nobody flips me the bird. A guy on a tractor in front of me, points once, up highway 113, and then once at highway 20, as if to say: "You can do one of these two things." When I pick one, he gives a little wave, traffic continues as it once did, and I'm pushing down yet another road of perfect houses, red flower planters on porches, a fat kid bouncing a ball, and a fire station done up in American flags and a banner saying: "Pancake Breakfast, every Sunday."

Oberlin College is finishing its first day of the new semester when I arrive in town. The campus is bustling, but beautiful. A middle quad of enormous relative size is ringed by benches, large painted rocks, and students of every variety walking back to dorms.

Martha Collins has given me directions to her Rice Hall office, but I stagger around campus a while first, carrying my gigantic bag of cameras and recorders (and batteries, and tapes, and notebooks). Two girls wearing red "Lifeguard" sweatshirts are talking to a young man with a blank look on his face. He's holding a crumpled piece of paper and actually scratching his head. As I pass, I hear a few words, "Professor...across there...need your schedule...going to Akron...those are cute pants."

When I find Martha, she's cheery. I'm tired from the long day and a head full of allergies to some of these gorgeous trees, but once inside her bright basement office, I feel better. Martha's smile is big and welcoming and we get to work. During the conversation she laughs easily. It's clear she's tickled by these discoveries my questions have brought. She talks about her work with real care. She doesn't have a casual relationship to her work like some poets do. I get the feeling from her comments that those poems were written with great care by a precise and exacting woman, and even talking about them years later, she's affording them the same kind of attention.

We go out to a small courtyard between Rice and Professor Halls and shoot some photos. Mosquitoes love me, always have. My wife tells me I'm so sweet, but she always says sweet like it's a four letter word. I get six bites on my bare legs while I'm shooting Martha up against some great looking trees. We say goodbye, and I pack my big bag again. I walk back through campus the other way. Once, as I stand on the corner of College Street, letting a perfectly good walk light go by, a big African American man on a tiny green bicycle asks me if I know where I'm going. "Yep," I say. "Just taking it all in." "Oh," the guy says, and he and his bike ride off.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

David Citino - Columbus OH

When you book motel rooms over the Internet, it's never entirely without some hidden value. After leaving WV on the afternoon of Sept 1st, I journeyed another 200 miles to my next city, Columbus OH, where I will meet with David Citino. With a whole evening stretched in front of me to recuperate from the initial blast of the trip, I pulled into my Super 8, a motel notable for having both a Waffle House and a Gentlemen's club sharing its parking lot. They form a little triangle with a weird energy. The strip club, The Gold Fox, is red with yellow lights around its exterior. On the front door, which you pass as you walk to the motel lobby, I see that they have a 2 drink minimum, but no cover charge. In felt pen, someone has written: “Shirts with sleeves – no motorcycle gear.” 

The motel is spectacularly bad. It's cheap, too, and this is now all making sense to me. I bunk out that night, listen to banging of an unknown origin from room 120 - except when the steady stream of truck traffic on the interstate doesn't drown it out - then get out of bed quickly to wash it all off of me.

This morning, I am not rested, but I'm happy to be checking out. I drive down I-71 to the campus of Ohio State to meet with Citino. The campus is ungodly large, covering blocks and blocks of area. Inconceivably, because of the crush of buildings already there, construction is flourishing everywhere. When I pull into the Parking Garage B, just off High Street, I am surrounded by work trucks, guys getting out with metal lunch pails, helmets, etc. I go another way - haven't I always - and make my way across to a 2 story McDonald's. The place is fantastic inside, clean, empty. Nobody there but me and Janet behind the counter. I give my order and then head over to a corner of the room with a TV. Right at 7 two kids come in. Now, my first though is: "Lunkheads." Don't get me wrong. I like lunkheads. Sometimes, when I think of my youth, I realize I was often a lunkhead. It's not a slam, is what I'm saying. They look like they just woke up. They both have OSU hats and t-shirts on, thin, worn down. They turn the TV without asking me if I'm watching CNN, which I'm not. There's a car ad on so the taller of the two hustles over Janet and makes their orders. Before guy #1 gets back, a show starts. It looks like a Jurassic Park thing to me, made for TV, though. I miss the titles and opening because I'm doing my best to keep the syrup off of my shirt as I work through three perfectly symmetrical pancakes.

When guy #2 gets back, the two buddies face the TV, sitting on the same side of the booth, and stare at the set, eating all along. At the first commercial break they talk back and forth, #1 catching up his pal on what's happened so far. I find out they're ceramic engineering majors, but don't find out what THAT is because the show comes back on. It's called Lost World, and it is a Jurassic Park sort of thing. These two guys in the show have rescued a damsel who they find has psychic powers of some kind. She's been on before because the lunkheads are glad to see her. At the next break they resume talking to each other: "Has she got predestination?" one guy says, eating half a hash brown at the question mark. "No, she's a sensor." The show comes back on; the lunkheads quit talking, and I head over to Denney Hall.

David Citino has one of those offices every professor wants, full of books, spacious, well lit from inside and out. It's big enough to play racquetball in. He's a terrific host, and we sit next to each other in front of his desk and we chat about the book a while before I begin asking him about the role place plays in his work. Citino's lived in Ohio his whole life, born in Cleveland, now 30 years in Columbus. For him, Ohio is a place that he takes with him on any journey in his own writing.

We spend some time looking out the big bank of windows that open to a nice circular seating area, stone walkways and wooden benches. It's a great place to sit and read or write. We open his window and I go outside the building and take some pictures of David through the window from the outside. I'm almost falling over a circa 1985 Schwinn Roadmaster bicycle, but I get some great shots. I go back in, we talk about a few poets I'll be seeing down the road, and we say our goodbyes.

Thirty minutes later, as I'm hustling up I-71 north, headed for Oberlin, on the radio, crackling a bit in a sudden rain storm, Garrison Keillor reads one of David's poems on his "Writer's Almanac" show. Keillor's voice always a bit too much gravitas for my taste, but he reads David's poem "Hair" beautifully. I weave in and out of truckers who are spraying me senseless. After the poem is over, I pull out a Shelby Lynne CD and turn that up as loud as I can stand and keep driving.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Jim Harms - Morgantown WV

I leave Beltsville around 5:30 am, making my way west through the early and sluggish dewy morning. Out of the Maryland panhandle, into West Virginia, out again, then in Pennsylvania for 6 minutes, then into West Virginia again. By 7 the sun is behind me, diffuse, but lighting my way. By 9:30 I'm in Morgantown, too early for my interview. I hit Wal-Mart and buy a cheapo watch - always buy something, always buy something. I wait out the last hour or so at White Park, tapping on my laptop, listening to whatever kind of bird is going to town on the trees there. A late 20s mother comes by my truck window with a blue-barretted blonde baby and a surging black Lab, and says, "Do you know where the trails are around here?" I tell her I've just arrived here myself this morning, but maybe she could look over behind us by the softball fields. "I've been here a month and this is the first time I've gotten off my butt." The dog barks for the eleventh time, and she says, "Looks like we better go," and then they do.

Jim Harms couldn't be a more amiable fellow. He lets me in the front door of his little white and neat bungalow. I step over his sneakers on the front porch, but leave mine on. We sit across a small coffee table and I see he's a music fan, the Elvis Costello box set gives that away. A Dell laptop rests between us, as if any moment it might be needed. The warm breeze comes in the open windows, mixing with the downward draft of a single, lazy ceiling fan. Harms wears a t-shirt and shorts, loose white socks. He moves his hands around when he talks, but it's all relaxed. No rush, but he's got much terrific stuff to say about place. He tells me that his own "default" landscape is that of California, where he grew up, but that now he's ten years into his life in West Virginia, that these places all sort of mix together.

We talk for about an hour, and then go out to the grass of the front lawn to shoot some photos. I make him move a couple of chairs and a garbage can, and he sits on a brown wicker number while I shoot. He doesn't smile, but he doesn't not smile. He's just taking a day off at the bungalow. I shake his hand, we talk about staying in touch about the project, and I get on the highway to Columbus.