Thursday, October 23, 2003

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.