Sunday, October 26, 2003

Christopher Howell - Spokane, WA

Christopher Howell is a quiet man with a studied nature, and my visit to his lovely home in Spokane is pleasant and much too short.

We walk through his kitchen and into his office that looks over his back yard. The room is small, but well lit and we sit across a heavy wooden desk to talk while drinking coffee. As I do in all of these interviews, I start with the principal question: "Does place impact your work?" Howell answers that in complete and precise sentences. He works the phrases slowly, but they are elegant and well wrought.

I move through some other questions, and I can tell instantly whether or not they're good questions. Howell's face tells me instantly. A good question elicits a solid nod, an intake of breath, and the beginning of an answer. A question not quite as good brings a wrinkled brow. Howell can take an okay question and draw from it an angle that's interesting and far more in line with what I really wanted.

He's so good, in fact, that I try a new question, one I've not tried out on any poet yet. It sounds garbled as I sell it, but Howell sees an area of light in it. He gives me an answer I'll be able to simply type into the book. No edits. Sentences with punctuation. Terrific.

We finish chatting as the tape recorder clicks off. It's a sign.

The light has gone down quickly outside. It's only 5 pm, but it looks like 8 or 9 anywhere else. We go out into the bricked patio area off the back door of his house and we shoot some photos. We talk a bit about a new book of his coming out. He walks me through the house, out into the front yard to look for my wife. I see the lights of Winnie Cooper (the new name for the big beast) and wave back at Howell through the window.

Nance van Winckel - Liberty Lake, WA

Nance van Winckel lives outside of Spokane, Washington, in an airy and beautifully apointed 2nd floor condo that looks over Liberty Lake, a small, but gorgeous body of water surrounded by trees.

She shows me her writing studio first. The large high-ceiling room faces the lake, and is lit by a floor to ceiling window nearly 5 feet across. She tells me she has plans to add another window in the same room, and I picture the room with one entire wall of windows. It will be spectacular.

We go out to the living room and Nance sits on the couch and I face her in a rocking chair. We cover some general questions first, then begin to discuss some new things for me. Because van Winckel is also an accomplished fiction writer, my questions about place generate some new angles. We talk about how important setting is to fiction, how much more dense the physical world appears in a short story versus a poem.

When I question her about specific work, she recalls a trip to eastern Europe in the mid 80s, a time when the Berlin Wall and Communism still stood. Her visit generated nothing more than a few notes, but more than a dozen years later the physical landscape of her visit found its way into a series of poems she was writing that eventually became the much-honored collection Besides Ourselves. Van Winckel figures it took a dozen years for that rich and complex place to work its way into her subconscious, until the sights and sounds were as second nature for her as any that existed in her from her childhood or coming of age.

We shoot some photos after we finish chatting, some on the porch overlooking the lake. We wander out front of her place and shoot a few more.

As always, the visit is over too fast. I'm keeping to a schedule, of course, and the journey has really only just begun. We say our goodbyes.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Robert Wrigley - Moscow, ID

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a 29' motorhome to go up a dirt road near the Idaho border. Yet, this is what we did today. The accomplishment of that was so thrilling - the dust, the bumps, trees and branches slashing at us - that when we got to the home of the poet Robert Wrigley, I locked the keys in the big tin can for fun. Oh, how we will laugh, I thought. In an hour or so I'll be finished with the interview. And to really make my visit memorable, I'll force the poet to endure an extra hour of Beth and me standing and waiting for a locksmith to arrive from Godknowswhere, Idaho. We're making memories, after all. What fun would it be if I just showed up and went away when I was done? Where's the gimmick in that? Instead, I'm thinking of ways to make sure all the poets on the trip get a story or two to tell. I can't always lock my keys inside like today, so some days I might spill an entire Pepsi onto the carpet, or release a baggie full of wasps that I smuggle in. Maybe at the end of the trip I'll just burn someone's house down. Stay tuned.

Robert Wrigley lives four miles outside of Moscow, Idaho, a rugged college town near the Washington border. Our newly named rolling tin can (Winnie Cooper) squeezes up a combination of gravel and dirt roads, through severe switchbacks to the top of a towering hill that looks south and back toward town. The view is extraordinary, three mountain ranges, one more than 100 miles away on the horizon. On a clear day you can see all the way to Oregon.

Wrigley greets us and shows us his studio, a 12 X 15 building he built himself. Inside it's full of books, pictures, and a gleaming white Fender Stratocaster that Wrigley won in a raffle. Wrigley played as a kid around St. Louis, but now just uses the guitar to help delay the inevitable work that awaits him at his desk, where his hard backed journal and mechanical pencil await.

Robert and I sit in the studio, and while I'm setting up a camera, he shows me a 1934 Webster's unabridged dictionary. It's on a wooden stand covered with a small towel. It's a prized possession. He points out that the book, being so old, is missing a lot of words in use normally now, and it's an idea that surprises me, but that seems to really please him.

He sits in a high backed office chair and I'm on the couch/futon and we talk easily. It's not hard to see how the natural world that populates Wrigley's work ended up there; we're in the midst of a mountain forest that teems with animal and plant life. He tells me about moose, coyotes, owls, snakes, and bear.

After we finish chatting, we go out of the studio to discover my wife sitting by the Winnebago, locked up nice and safe, the keys resting politely and disarmingly on the dash.

Wrigley takes us into the main house and we take turns calling locksmiths until we find one open on this sunny Saturday.

For 30 minutes we play with Opal, the 4 year old Australian Shepherd who is happy to see us. I silently fume at myself as we wait, but my wife is relaxed and Robert is a perfect host. He shows us some photos of another house he says has a better view than this one - though I can't imagine such a thing exists. He shows me another photo of a mutual friend.

When the locksmith arrives, we go down to greet the guy and his wife who apparently travels with him on his weekend calls. The locksmith tells me it'll be $20 and then inserts a small wedge into the space between the window and lower window jamb on the passenger side.

Then he pulls out an 18 inch "slim jim" and begins wriggling it in the opening till the lock pops. He reaches in, unlocks the other side and we're about ready to go. I'm pulling out $20 when I hear a gurgling. The locksmith's wife hears it too and looks at me. It sounds like hot water on metal, which of course it is. The locksmith's truck's radiator has had enough and is giving up its water and coolant like an open faucet on July 4th. I stand back, a little alarmed - such is my bravery - but the locksmith goes right up to the boiling radiator and gingerly loosens the cap. Once it's off, he goes back to the back of his truck, gets some more coolant, and begins feeding it in the radiator.

I think to myself that things couldn't get any better. I've been stuck in Robert Wrigley's driveway for an hour, and now my new friend is stuck too, and he's right behind me. We're here forever. I wonder if Robert has guest rooms for all of us. Maybe I'll just move in. I hope that the next poor sap who wants to interview Wrigley lets a few months pass. This shan't be forgotten.

I fetch a gallon of water from underneath Winnie Cooper and give it to the locksmith. The combination of a little time, the coolant, and some nice drinking water has calmed the locksmith's truck. He backs out and leaves us to say goodbye to Robert.

My wife and I shake Robert's hand. I apologize some more, just for good measure, and then we slowly back out of the long driveway. (This is the only way to get out; there is no turning around the big beast on this narrow and rocky path.) I lurch backwards, pushing one time toward the edge of a cliff which would kill me - but me alone - and then toward the rocky side, which would likely only scrape up the Winnebago, but probably crush my wife. My self-loathing - and you must know that I make Richard Nixon look like Anthony Robbins - is raging. But we get out of the driveway; my wife joins me. Gives me a shrug that lets me know that "Shit happens," and we angle slowly down Wrigley's mountain, aiming toward a road made of cement, running north, and headed to Spokane.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Highway 12

Highway 12 runs between Lolo, MT, in the westernmost part of the state, straight through the panhandle of Idaho, and into eastern Washington State. And we take that route today, leaving Montana around noon, and crossing the Snake River into Washington around 5. It's 200 miles, roughly, and the first 150 or so are the most beautiful miles I've ever driven.

Highway 12 follows the Lochsa River, a trickle for the most part this year, but at one time, a rager big enough to carve out its own bed and the path that Highway 12 follows.

For the first 150 miles, the highway is crowded on the left by the river, and on the right by quickly rising walls of rock and evergreen trees. A sign early on says, "Winding Road, 77 Miles." And it's not a joke. The road meanders through slow left and right turns for its entire distance. Cars run around 55-60 mph for the most part, but the big rolling tin can settles in around 45. And that's fast enough, because each turn brings another gorgeous tableau of water, rock, road, trees, and mountains.

We pull over at one of the scores of turnouts and make sandwiches. We stare out the window at the river going past.

We continue on, bending, releasing out of the corners, accelerating on the short straight stretches, eyes always cocked up, checking out the mountains that peer down on us. The cell phones are both out, otherwise we'd be calling everyone we know. So, how are things where you are?

By the time we hit the small town of Orofino, the landscape has changed. The mountains are hills now. We've left the last of the Rockies behind, for the most part, the towering Bitterroots - the mountains that most vexed Lewis and Clark - the last range for us to blast through at 8 miles per gallon. We stop in Orofino for groceries for the next couple of days. My wife gets a pumpkin, not quite as big as my head, but you get the idea.

We're in the Pacific time zone now. The sun is setting already at 5 pm. Highway 12 still bumps around in my brain as I exit onto 5th Street in Clarkston, Washington. We pull in at a campground that overlooks the Snake River and Granite Lake. By the time the sun has gone down, we're into our second bowl of chili.

Tomorrow is a work day, transcription day. The tapes are piling up. Then back on the road. Moscow, Idaho. Spokane and Liberty Lake, Washington. Four more days, three more interviews and the October leg will be over.

Sandra Alcosser - Lolo, MT

At 10 am, Sandra Alcosser pulls up beside our motorhome. We've parked at a small park and ride on a highway south of Missoula, MT, and about 5 miles from Sandra's home in the mountains between Florence and Lolo, Montana. She greets us both warmly and we pack our stuff into her wagon.

We head up a gravel road, then a dirt road, and then squeeze halfway between the trees and the ditch to let a neighbor go by. "That's Harve," Sandra says, waving at her neighbor's pickup truck. We press on up the dirt road. There are only 6 houses on this stretch, and Sandra's is at the end.

We turn into the tiny driveway and see her new dog, the lively Rio. Rio is glad to have the company, and despite my love of dogs, I ignore him for a bit and look around at the place. To the south, the land and the trees slope away, back down to where we started. Behind us, the mountains climb, but not so far. We're a long way up. Pine trees pop up everywhere. The sky is a collection of colors, dark clouds to the north and west, but above us blue, and the sun coming through and warming up the ground around the cabin.

We all go in, and it's gorgeous. The wood is warm, the furniture heavy and old - some of it from an old drugstore in Missoula. Sandra uses some of the furniture to hold books, but one piece is still mostly empty, waiting to be filled. They once held a collection of amber bottles of strychnine and belladonna, and I'm voting for their display instead!

Sandra sets us around her table with cookies, fruit, coffee, and delicious and cold blueberry-banana smoothies.

This is the first of the interviews that my wife has seen in person. I traveled in September by myself, and since we've been on the October leg, it's always been more convenient for her to drop me off and pick me up. I'm glad she's here today, because I know she loves this part of this country, and I'd want to show her this beautiful cabin anyway, but it feels odd. We're on this journey around the country together, but this book is my thing. My wife supports it, listens to me bitch about the work. She looks over the photos and gives me her advice, but she's never seen me teach, and I've never gone to watch her at work. Our work selves have always had their own space, and suddenly she's watching me and it's disorienting. What must she think of this talk of poems and place? How many times have my eyes glassed over at one of her work functions when she and her colleagues talked about advertising, network TV sales? At how many English department parties have we exchanged comical glances when I'd be locked in a life or death discussion about Ginsberg or Stevens while my wife would be motioning like she was starting the car and driving us home? We know couples who work together, who have the same work pals. But that's not us. When we're not working, we like to check RIGHT out. There's no chance a spontaneous chat about the all-important 18-49 demographic is going to come up, nor are we likely to discuss whether or not we think Robert Frost could be excised painlessly from the canon. We talk about dinner. Movies. The last Grisham. Our pals, families. It's not better or worse, it's just us.

Sandra feels strongly about place, the energy of New York versus Montana or San Diego (where she still runs the poetry program at San Diego State, a program she started). She's passionate about her work and about poetry in general. Over the years she's logged tens of thousands of miles working for the NEA, teaching drug addicts, running the Poets in the Park program in New York City, teaching and reading around the country.

She talks easily about her work and her role in its creation. I pose some sticky questions that have come up in my earlier interviews, and Sandra thinks about each question and answers them assuredly, deftly, with force and clarity.

It's all over too quickly. The three of us leave the cocoon of the cabin, and into the startling sunlight. Rio joins us, his puppy-ness overflowing. We hike up a small path behind Sandra's house, a path that literally could take us all through the rest of Montana and into Idaho. We shoot some shots of Sandra - and one of her with Rio - and head back down. We drive down the mountain, talking about Ireland, a place my wife and I visited this summer and a place Sandra is going later this year.

When we get back to the motorhome, Sandra hugs us both. We load my gear into the Winnebago and Sandra's wagon disappears away from us, onto the gravel road, and back up into the mountain.

The West: Some Thoughts

I’ve often told people in the East that I thought of myself as a Westerner. I love the West, I’d say. I’d tell them about going to college in Arizona, my love of the Oregon coast, and some story about smoking a cigar on a car hood in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

I never had to say much more than that. That was always strange enough for most people. In the circles I’ve lived in for many years now, the West is just some blank spots on the left side of the map. My pals in Maryland could no more pick Montana out on a map than I can drive past a Taco Bell without stopping in for a taste.

In the past week, we’ve been moving around in western South Dakota, Wyoming, and now Montana. Big empty states. Beautiful empty highways that are always snaking through badlands or hills, pastures, wheat fields, and then mountains. Twenty-four black Angus cows, steers, whatever, all lined up by a lone tree. Actual cowboys moving a herd of cattle down the side of the highway outside Aladdin, Wyoming, population 15. Endless and stoic power lines disappearing into the horizon in Crawford county.

As we left the badlands and high prairie grasslands of South Dakota, we started to get into hills through eastern Wyoming, and by the time we got to Buffalo, in the north central part of the state, we could see parts of the Rocky Mountains looming ahead of us.

From Buffalo to Butte, Montana, we climbed from 3000 feet to nearly 6500. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to encourage a 29 foot motorhome up to 6500 feet. It’s a lot like getting me out of a hammock. But we eased off the gas, hugged the right hand lane with some semis and moving vans, and ended up crossing the Continental Divide at a brisk 40 mph.

And every mile over the past few days has been stunning. The land out here just eats you up. In South Dakota, it’s the horizon that kills you. It’s everywhere. You look any direction and see the earth moving away from you. But now in Montana, there are hills and mountains on every side, the highest of them snowcapped, despite the fact that we’re in our third or fourth 70+ degree day in late October, breaking records all over.

We spent the day in Missoula, a pretty western college town with art galleries, ranchers, college students, artisans, and hippies. We spent some time at a Kinko’s, doing some work for this book, and nipped out for lunch at one of a hundred quaint cafes. One thing that has really struck me since being here this time is the very real and important role nature has in the lives of Westerners. In the east, the lack of rain or snow in a normal winter is weather talk. Here, it’s different. The environment is not just an abstract topic of discussion. The health and well being of the land, the watershed, the trees, all of it is crucial to the simple survival of the people, their homes, and the way of life. While talking with an old timer on a bench outside the cafĂ©, I asked about the snow the past couple of winters. It’s been down, I know, and I was really just asking for something to say. In my head, I sort of expected something like, “Yeah, nice warm winters. It’s been great.” But instead, the old guy says, “Yeah, it’s been terrible. Not enough snow, so no runoff. The lakes are down, the rivers are down. The forests are dry and brittle. We had 400,000 acres of fires this summer.” They lost firefighters out here, right from Missoula. Lost homes. Lost animals. The beautiful and living land was scorched. Trees that have stood for a hundred years or more lost in a flash.

We wandered back to a small car we had rented in order to get around and do some errands, but I kept thinking about the conversation, and all the things I’d seen in the past few days.

People are tougher in the west. You see houses and farms up mountains, perched on cliffs or just butted at the end of long dirt roads. It gets cold out here, and the snow does come, and these folks are cut off from the world for a while. Ranch after ranch we passed with hundreds of hay bales already saved, covered, put aside for animals all winter. These hay stacks tower above the fields, some covered with tarps or wood. Each house has a wall of firewood at least 6 feet tall, sometimes 40 feet long. Firewood for a nice fire, perhaps, but usually for heat, and sometimes to get them through a hard stretch.

Monday, October 20, 2003

David Romtvedt – Buffalo, WY

Downtown Buffalo is dotted with galleries and coffee shops. It’s a cute little town within sight of the Bighorn Mountains to the west, and just past an endlessly beautiful 400 mile stretch of badlands and high prairie grasses.

At the post office, two men in identical outfits, cowboy boots, jeans, starched white shirts and baseball caps finger through their mail and talk about a guy they know who is coming back to live in Buffalo. “It’ll be good to see the old rascal,” one says.

Main Street is pretty much it, but it’s terrific. Chamber of Commerce, lots of parking. Friendly folks in front of their stores or homes, because here the small homes on North Main butt up against the furthest reaches of the central business area.

The weather is unseasonable, warm, headed to the 80s in late October, and everyone’s making use of it. At the Catholic Church in town a maintenance man rakes and then sweeps up some leaves that are slowly deserting the confused trees. It’s not uncommon for there to be snow here at this time of year, and the long and warm autumn has everything a little off-kilter.

I find David Romtvedt not at the front door waiting for my visit, but hollering to me from around the side, from a fence that encircles the two small and pretty homes he, his wife, and daughter call home. One they live in; the other is the guest house. (After my interview we stroll over to the guest house. It’s a miraculous little place with gorgeous hardwood floors, airy windows, soft, inviting beds, and on the front porch – inexplicably – a dozen pairs of fluffy slippers, duck slippers, cat slippers, one set in plaid.)

David and I sit on the back porch of the house they actually live in, and we talk in between petting Leo, a happy dog who does not quite understand why anyone would sit when there was a small orange football to be tugged, thrown, and chewed.

David’s work is full of this town and its environs. He lets the “prairie, mountain, and sky” of the place in all the time. And the poems that result are alive, vital, and steeped in place. In many ways, he’s a perfect poet for this project.

We talk about a few poets he knows who I’ve met, or plan to. He and I have already met online; he’s filled out a sort of pre-interview set of questions that I developed after my first month on the road, so I know a lot about what he has to say already. I follow up some of these points, but mostly we just chat out there.

When we’re done, we go out into the back yard and I shoot some 35mm shots of him in the typical ways, against a tree, sitting by some corn stalks that appear odd, more art than science, right in the middle of his back yard. Eleven stalks, I think.

As I’m leaving, he volunteers to walk me, mostly, I think, to see this 29 foot rolling home of mine. He, like many of the poets I’ve met, are intrigued by the practical elements of this project. How does one get to Wyoming, Washington, Wisconsin, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana and back?

Leo comes along, and when we get to the motorhome, Leo is the first to bound in. My wife is glad to see us all. David looks around. I try to explain that the place is bigger when the slide outs are fully extended, but he likes it anyway. Leo is up front by the driver’s seat and I’m thinking that he looks pretty comfortable. Does he know we’re going into Montana now? Does he want to go? Could he help with the driving? Does he know the way?

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Overheard at Mt. Rushmore

- If you don't start acting like a big boy, we're going RIGHT back to the motel.
- Not THAT button. Push the OTHER button. That's the WRONG button.
- Sit with grandma here in the shade. Grandma doesn't want to go any closer.
- That's not the zoom, THIS is the zoom.
- Zachary, Zachary, Zachary, are you listening to me?
- I think old Dubya would look pretty good up there next to Washington.
- You want more money? For what? An ice cream? Didn't Daddy already buy you a nice camera and this trip? Daddy doesn't have any more money.
- I can't hear you...I can't get a good signal...I'm NOT in the office. I've got the kids and I'm in South Mt. Rushmore. It's HOT here. I couldn't hear that last thing. WHAT? I have to call you back. You can't get a decent signal anywhere up here.
- Zachary, Zachary, Zachary, get OFF of that.
- Look at how good that little boy is being. You are being a very bad boy.
- Bo, Bo, Bo, Bobo, sit here with your grandma.
- Sarah, don't run. Don't run down there. Sarah. Sarah.
- He's being such an asshole this whole trip. He told me that once he got finished with rebuilding that truck that he was going to be sweet like when we got married.
- Zachary, get your hands out of your mouth. We have to go to that nice place and have lunch now. Zachary, Zachary.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

RV Life, Vol. 1 - Rapid City, SD

All in all, the life in the big tin can is quite sweet. Check with me on different days about this, though, because I am sometimes a little dark, dark like the Grinch, dark like Monty Clift.

We have a 26" TV with DVD and VCR, and an auto satellite dish that pivots and twirls till it locks on a giant floating TV machine that floats - always - above the Texas gulf coast. We have hundreds of crystal clear channels, and mostly I just make it go from 201 to 545 as fast as possible.

We have the microwave, a nice refrigerator, three burners, and an oven big enough for the thinnest cookies ever made. We have slideouts in the living room and bedroom, enabling us to increase floor space in each of those rooms by 50%. The bedroom has a nice queen size bed, with room to walk around both sides. Storage is good. I have the seven shirts that make up my wardrobe, and my wife has along about what Diana Ross packs with her when she goes to Europe for a month. The living room has a 4-seater dining room table and a full length couch. You can really stretch out. When the sun's up, we have all the windows open, and the views are almost always pretty spectacular, given where we've been traveling.

The bathroom? Well, the shower is located about half way back in the RV, and on one side, and as long as you're under 6 feet tall, it's an efficient space. Imagine a phone booth. Then think of something smaller than that. Something that would fit inside a phone booth. With running water. And slick surfaces. The toilet area is across the hall from the shower, and includes a stool, wash basin, and enough storage for 2 toothbrushes, some soap, some towels, and the medium size tube of Crest. When you shave in there, your elbow beats a nice pattern on the side of the wall, but if your belly wasn't as big as mine, you'd think you were in a phone booth. Or something that would fit inside a phone booth. With a little chair.

The cab of the motorhome is great, CD player, weather band radio. We have a super handheld GPS unit - given to Beth by her former colleagues at WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. - that tells us where we are, and more importantly, which upcoming exits have gas stations - or a Taco Bell! The seats up front are comfy. They tilt, got the big captain's arms. It's like Kirk on the Enterprise, I guess, except I'm pretty sure Kirk didn't have to actually steer as they hurtled through the universe like I'm doing.

By day we drive, stopping absolutely whenever we want, making sandwiches at rest areas or scenic overlooks. Sometimes I take a cigar out and stand there, like today, staring out at the spectacular Badlands of central and western South Dakota. Sometimes we just sit inside, slurp our soup, make phone calls on one of the cell phones, or just marvel at the gas receipts that we sometimes hold up to the light...$87 at the Exxon in Sioux City, Iowa. Are we part owners there now?

Those who know me think it's inconceivable that I've made it through the first week. I'm a bit of a motel whore. I love the Holiday Inn Express, the Radisson, the Sheraton. I'll even be happy at the Comfort Inn, the Super 8 in a pinch. If there's an ice machine, cable TV, and a Denny's next door, I'm there. But the RV life is so amazingly different. While the inside of the RV never changes - much like hotel rooms all sort of run together - the various machinations around parking a 29 foot motorhome and hooking up to power, water, and sewer each night, and negotiating the sometimes dodgy campground setting, bugs, snakes, outdoor bathrooms, etc. is just not part of my nature.

Yet, here we are, day 8 and still married. My wife and I have a great system going; should I ever need a hotel day, she's said, just take it. We'll park the beast, pack up an overnight bag, and let the Ramada Inn care for me for the night. It's a great option, and one that I'm glad to have. Yet, I've not exercised it yet. I want to push on, in the spirit of great adventurers everywhere, Lewis and Clark, etc. I am tough as nails. While watching the Cubs and Marlins last night on TV, drinking a cold Coors Light and watching the hot dogs cook on the stove, I felt like an explorer crossing the Continental Divide. I was making my own way across the country.

Later, after finishing the new Grisham, I set the furnace to 70 degrees, turned off all the lights, got in under the sheets and comforter, thought about those settlers, traveling the same route I was on. They weren't so great.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

David Allan Evans - Brookings, SD

God bless Wal-Mart. When we are low on supplies, and unable to park the giant beast in any of the now impossibly tiny town squares of the Midwest, a familiar sign up ahead tells us that all is safe. As we arrive in Brookings, South Dakota, we turn the Winnebago on a dime and extravagantly take up two nose-to-nose spaces in the far reaches of a gigantic parking lot. We stroll inside, buy some new RV anti-freeze, some tiny cans of soup, a magazine or two. We just stand there in the dazzling hum of enterprise. When it's time to go, we go freely. There will be another Wal-Mart. Even when things are darkest, we know one is waiting out there for us, with toilet paper, CDs, Pepsi, and batteries.

Evans's poetry was pretty new to me when I started working on this book. But I took to it immediately because it was so in sync with my own ethos about poetry, place, and the physical world.

He meets me at the door and we go down to his basement to chat. Like other basements I've seen on this trip, this one is full of books. It's well lit, and his computer rests in the far corner. We sit on comfortable chairs and start talking about poems from his upcoming book, a personal best collection of work of his from over 30 years.

I ask him about the poems written about his hometown, Sioux City, Iowa, and despite the fact that he's been in South Dakota now for 35 years, he talks fondly and in detail about the alleys and streets of his hometown.

He talks about his long interest in the physical world. He was a pole vaulter, played all kinds of sports, and is as comfortable fishing or hunting pheasant as he is writing about all of them. When we talk about places that have inspired his work, he rattles off a number of poems that couldn't have existed without the genesis that the world has provided him, a poem about bullfrogs, poems about the packing plant where his dad worked.

We go through his lovely, almost sprawling home, and go out into the back yard. It's sunny today. Crisp. It is a time in South Dakota when it occasionally is already snowing. But it's brilliant and pretty. We shoot some photos. We go around to the front and he admires the size of my motorhome. And then I'm gone.

On Dust, Corn, and Popcorn People

In the southwest corner of Iowa, we pull in to my brother-in-law's house south of a town called Red Oak. He's taught there for almost 25 years, and he's my wife's only brother. He's a funny and brilliant guy who knows enough about history and baseball to keep you talking all night.

My wife's family is from Iowa, and she was born just about 20 miles from here. One of our stops this weekend is to that little town, but we also have plans to see a square of countries, about 25 miles across, six counties, all in southwest Iowa.

Most folks have no concept of the Midwest. To them, it's just a flyover area of blank spaces, a green patch in a road atlas, a place they've never been. There is some sense of cold. If you say "Iowa," some folks imagine corn.

But there's so much corn you can't even fully describe it. As we drive the highways, dirt roads, and gravel roads (all brilliantly straight north and south or east and west) we are always bordering corn or soy bean fields. The corn stalks are dead, harvested, but still straight and standing and whistling a bit in any breeze. Up close they make a rustling sound, like cardboard against paper, dead leaves against a window. Field after field, and nothing but that on the horizon. Trees only intrude inside towns or around river bottoms. The fields themselves are uncluttered, rows and endless rows, sometimes a shocking group of silver silos, a single combine or harvester, a row of gigantic power lines escaping toward Nebraska.

On a blue and sunny Saturday my brother-in-law drives us around. We roll in his giant Buick on dusty roads, the dust pouring in vents or closed windows. Dust so thick it makes a fog around you. Think Pigpen. Think Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Dust so heavy you can feel it on your tongue. You sneeze. You blow your nose, then take another deep breath of dust. The car is full of dust, but how could it not be. It's been a drought year and dust is what you get from that.

Every town we see has a population of about 800. Some smaller. Some larger. My brother-in-law tells us which towns are dying out, which ones are hanging on. They all look much the same, with old prairie-style homes from the turn of the century, a tiny post office, one or two restaurants (one's always a buffet). Farmers push into town in pickups or congregate on benches or by the feed stores.

Everyone waves, smiles. The sun beats down on a late autumn day. The crop for corn was okay this year, the soy beans won't be quite as good. But it's a beautiful place, even with the dust.

We roll into Hamburg, Iowa, where my wife was born, and where she's not been since that day. It's like most of the other towns we've seen, but a little larger, a little more prosperous. "These are all popcorn," my brother-in-law says, pointing at over a hundred squatty silos, about 40 feet high, about 40 feet across. They have a popcorn festival here each year. We find the hospital, a one story deal, three or four wings, and my brother-in-law looks at me and says, "You should be bowing. They probably have a statue of her in there." I look back and smile at my wife, but can't see her through the dust in the back seat.

We go through town and then head up a small hill that leads through some homes. (There are hills in Iowa, and Kansas, and all the rest.) "These are all popcorn people up here," my brother-in-law says, as we wind up and right into the driveway of a nice brick house, sprawling, green lawn. A kid on a lawn mower nods at us and keeps going. We get out for a minute and peer over the back of their back yard, fields, a distant Interstate, and dust rising off a county road and a single green pickup.

We go by another town, where my wife graduated high school, and another where my brother-in-law's high school volleyball team is going to play that week. One of his players is sick, his best player. She has mono or West Nile, something. She missed the last couple of games. The phones in the area have been buzzing about her; will she get well? Will she back to play Malvern? We have to have her back to beat Malvern.

We head up another gravel road. It's big enough for one and half cars of this size, so we're right in the middle. Dust roars in both sides of the car. I'm smiling, holding my breath. Corn rushes by both sides. Suddenly, a giant red combine appears ahead of us, moving in the same direction, but slower. My brother-in-law is pointing out the window on his side. "One of my players lives there," as he motions at a small farm house down a dirt road. We fly past the combine, two wheels half in the ditch, the combine's massive red arm right at eye level on my side.

When the day is over, we get out of the Buick and the dust settles on me, my clothes. I worry about the motorhome. My tin can will be full of dust. I will have to clean it all out before I get back on the road.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Jonathan Holden - Manhattan, KS

Holden is a sweet, wryly funny man who is quick with a hearty laugh. We sit in a spacious and beautiful living room in his home in Manhattan, and talk easily about all manner of things, my favorite being a story about some girls heckling him when he was young for being too skinny. He turns to me and says, "Skinny Man, Skinny Man," bringing back the memory with real pleasure and maybe the smallest amount of leftover tragedy.

He brings up Wordsworth a couple of times, and we both recall the same line, "emotion recollected in tranquility." He brings up Kim Novak and we both recall her as well, in the old William Holden film, Picnic.

Much of Holden's best work is nostalgic, and he's plumbed his own past most beautifully in his memoir Guns and Boyhood in America.

He reads to me from his earlier book, The Names of the Rapids, and recalls for me the genesis of some of those poems.

It's an autumn afternoon, but the outside sun suggests late July or something. A gigantic wooden deck stretches out to the side of the house. I tell Holden how much I like it, and he tells me he does, too, but he regrets how often it has to be resealed. He hires someone to do it, and thinks he probably pays too much. The dollar amount sounds high to me, but I think to myself there's not much of a chance I'd do it for any less, nor would I want to do it on my own if I still had one.

I shoot some pictures of Holden up against a blue sofa, the light coming in the gigantic living room. We shake hands and say our goodbyes. I walk out onto the small cul de sac and head for a bigger road, one big enough for the rolling tin can that I know is out there waiting for me.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Elizabeth Dodd - Manhattan, KS

The sun is going down in Manhattan when I arrive at Elizabeth Dodd's home near the campus of Kansas State. The sun peeks through a stand of trees and we sit on a screened in porch in her back yard. Cars go by, but the town seems awfully distant.

As with all of these interviews, it's remarkable to talk to her about her work. Like many academics, Dodd is where she is partly because of a job. Born in Colorado, raised in Appalachia, she finds herself in the high grass prairie of central Kansas, a striking and beautiful landscape, desolate, stark, and currently fashioned with millions of small red plants. Her own work has been informed by all of the places I've mentioned, but Kansas figures prominently in one from her book Archetypal Light. She reads to me on the porch, and I recognize some of the prairies I saw south of town. If I close my eyes I can see the poem's trees as human forms, hear the prairie on fire.

We go inside the house, past its reclaimed and beautiful hardwood floors, and into Elizabeth's study. A striking ceiling to floor window pours soft early evening light into the room. Elizabeth has two workspaces, a plain table facing the window, and then a laptop away from the window, facing a favorite painting by a former student.

We say goodbye and I carry my bag of cameras and recorders alongside the road. I'm lost in thought about Dodd's work, especially the poem I've just heard, and I'm stunned by the sight of my giant RV, waiting in the parking lot of a church nearby. My wife is reading a magazine, and she greets me with crackers, peanut butter, and Pepsi.


The giant 29 foot Winnebago began rolling northward today. For those following along at home, we moved the Beltsville furniture to the new vacation home in Arkansas. The stuff didn't fit, of course, so boxes line every room, boxes of such variety and combinations that the house looks like it might be a sort of training center for young men who dream of being movers one day. The garage is full. There is space enough to lay on one of the two beds. You could stand on a kitchen counter, but you'd be unable to walk out either of the kitchen doors. There is a wall of boxes by the front door that looks like a fort built by children full of sugared drinks.

Yet, our stuff is safe from weather. The house will serve as our storage home away from home and we've left it in the caring hands of my in-laws. I secretly hope that a tornado will come through and take it all away, the furniture, the clothes, any of that old stuff that was too useless to fit in the big rolling coach.

But you gotta meet my in-laws. They are aces. They fed us for the the few days we were in Arkansas getting ready to run, and now they will wait behind and make sure the boxes don't get out onto the street, where they might be struck by one of the two cars that rolls through the sleepy burg. My wife's parents are remarkably supportive of this journey, but as I do with everyone, I imagine that inside they continue to wonder what sort of madness has overtaken us.

We made our promises to drive safe and keep in touch, and in the gloom of a Thursday morning, with pelting rain coming down, we creeped out of northwest Arkansas, into Missouri, and then up Highway 71.

The RV is top heavy. It's 12 feet high and 29 feet long, but it feels like the first pebble is going to flip it like one of those alligators doing a death roll on Discovery channel. At any speed over 55, the steering wheels pushes and pulls back and forth. The whole experience in the driver's seat is like wrestling a big angry hog, slick as snot, mad as hell. But when it's sitting on the side of the road, it's pretty great. Air conditioning. Big dish on the roof to beam in TV anywhere on the globe. The living room is roomy already, roomier when you activate one of the two slideouts - the other expands the bedroom nicely so you can walk all around the queen sized bed.

We eat lunch at a truck stop. But far too soon, we're out on the giant slab again, the wind from 16-wheelers buffeting us from both sides, the coach drifting from the white center line to the warning marks on the shoulder. My wife drives, too, and none of the above bothers her. I see her with cruise control on, her hand limply on the steering wheel. She's listening to "Rhythm is the Dancer" on the CD player and humming along. I want to scare her, or throw a badger in front of the vehicle to make her swerve. I want to see some of the wild grim fear I've been feeling.

What the hell is wrong with her?