Thursday, November 27, 2003

Thanksgiving 2003 - Wherein Winnie Cooper Comes Back to Us and the Journey Begins Afresh

Thanksgiving came one day early for us as the good folks in McMinnville called Wednesay afternoon to tell us that Winnie Cooper was good as new. In the pitch darkness, just before closing time, we hurtled into Valley RV to reclaim the newly repaired 29' rolling tin can that has been our home for the past two months - I mean, when I wasn't beating the hell out of it or running it into the overhangs of vacation homes.

We paid the bill and headed back to suburban Portland where we've been staying. It was nice to be in the warm confines of the RV. Sure, there's a musty smell. Sure, I'm a little gunshy about driving the thing, but it feels like normal again, and the big trip continues southward tomorrow morning.

We're headed to California where we have appointments to see David St. John, Carol Muske-Dukes, Sharon Bryan, and a handful of others. (We'll also be shooting across to Nevada to see Donald Revell and Claudia Keelan.)

Anyway, it's Thanksgiving here as I write this, and we're spending our last night in a hotel before getting on the road in the morning. We are 2 of about 6 guests in the entire hotel. We get a complimentary continental breakfast each morning, and today we sat by ourselves and ate a dozen hard boiled eggs, our voices echoing through the empty building.

Later today, instead of having our normal Thanksgiving in Arkansas with my wife's folks - which is always a gigantic and delicious feast - we'll be here at the hotel microvaing Swanson "Hungry Man" Turkey Dinners. They look terrific. Really. White turkey meat. Peas. Potatoes. Monosodium Glutamate. Food coloring. And hardly any cleanup! No pie. But I did grab 2 Snickers bars out of the vending machine. And for drinks I've got three cans of Coors Light chilling.

What a lot to be thankful for right here.

But the highway calls and we will be swerving on it soon.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Floyd Skloot - Amity, OR

While Winnie Cooper waits in a heated bay at a large RV shop in McMinnville, Oregon, I take our rental car south to Amity, Oregon, to see Floyd Skloot. 

Floyd and his wife live in a pretty round home on 20 acres, due east of Amity, a tiny burg with one gas station and one feed store.

I twist and turn up a hilly road through farm and ranchland (and vineyards), and turn down Skloot's driveway. Heavy stands of trees crowd in, providing a lovely green canopy as I travel the 1/5 of a mile to the house. I stand and stare into a long, beautiful valley that sweeps away from me. I spot Floyd through one of the large windows and I head inside.

Floyd Skloot and I talk on the first floor of the house in a lovely small office with a window that opens into a heavily wooded area. Often during the conversation Floyd points outside at the view. He's not pointing to a scene in particular; he's simply referencing what is apparent: this place is beautiful. It's a peaceful place, dead quiet, and richly arrayed by nature.

In 1988, Skloot entered a terrifying and confusing new world after a virus created permanent brain damage. He reclaimed the ability to read, speak, and write, and now lives with the damage, helping himself by noting things on slips of paper that he knows his damaged brain might lose the next day. (The remarkable story of his illness is in the award winning memoir, In the Shadow of Memory.)

But during my visit, Skloot is charming, funny, insightful, and he energetically talks about his work. He grew up in Brooklyn and then on a barrier island near Long Island, NY. His early poetry is full of those images, as his most recent work full of his adopted home of Oregon.

His illness limits the hours he can work effectively. So the work comes out more slowly. But it matches the pace of the life here. He motions out the window again. He knows he's distant from the publishing and academic worlds, but he learned years ago that it didn't matter. As a younger man he was a long distance runner, covering 50 miles a week on his own through dense parks. He's always gone on his own paths at his own pace. He travels distances now, too, in his work, back through the maze of his chaos-wracked memory. But he wrings what he finds into fine and beautiful language.

After we're done chatting, we shoot some photos upstairs while we visit with Skloot's wife. She's shot all of the author photos for his books and while I take my turn to aim and fire, Skloot tells me that when he looks at the old photos he can watch himself age. His beard is brown in the earliest photo; it gets more and more gray as time goes by. When I'm done, putting my cameras away, I look up for one last view out the window, and I catch a moment not intended for me. Floyd smiles warmly at his wife, and she back. If you're going to grow old, this is a good place for it to happen.

We say our goodbyes and I go out to my car alone, past two sweet cats. I shoot a couple of shots and get into the car.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

The Day I Did Winnie Cooper Wrong

The crunch was pretty loud. Oh, I didn’t know what it was, but I knew something pretty bad had happened. It was a crunch that sounded thick and noisy. I looked at my wife and asked her if she had any ideas. I thought maybe a small deck chair we hadn’t stowed properly. Maybe a small badger. Maybe fifty tin cans.

We had just finished packing Winnie Cooper full after a lovely week on the Oregon coast. We had appointments to make, but we had many hours. There was no rush. I had put the new Dido CD in the player, took my coat off. I started the wipers on the big tin can. The rain was coming down sideways, the wind coming in, too, 30-40 mph. But the view was clear. We had finished cleaning the house we had rented, put the keys back in the lockbox, and we were headed out of the driveway. Until the crunch.

When I got out and got around the side, I saw the problem. A three inch piece of the house had pierced the roof of the RV. We had chunked up against the house’s eave, a 2X6’ board under the gutter had been torn off, about a 9” chunk laying on the driveway.

The house looked okay. I was grateful I didn’t tear the metal gutters down. It would be an easy repair. A shitty break, but not the end of the world.

On the other hand, as I struggled to pull my gigantic ass up Winnie’s ladder, I kept thinking: “Please, God, I know I’m a sinner, a dirty dog sinner. I know I’m doomed. But this time, this one time, please don’t let there be a tear in the fiberglass.”

And of course, there was one. 24” or so. I could see inside the coach from the top, down to the Styrofoam insulation – I’m not making it up – down to the drop ceiling in the bedroom closet. And the rain kept on. The wind howled. I stood there on the ladder, 9 terrifying feet above earth, and wished with all of my strength for a pistol so I could blow my aching brains out.

But I trudged down. My wife and I left a contrite note for the house owner, and got rolling.

When you have a hole in your roof, and when you don’t really know where you are, it makes sense to drive just about any direction. They’re all the same. The storm was swamping the entire coast for a hundred miles north and south. We just started north on US-101. My wife started looking at the big RV guide, looking for something, maybe a big ad that said: “Are you in Oregon? Are you a dumbass? Do you need a place to park where the rain won’t ruin all of your belongings? Call 1-800-SHATTERED-DREAMS.”

20 miles later and we pulled over at Newport. We found a large tin building with a gigantic For Lease sign, and we parked tight on one side, letting most of the wind and the rain shoot over top.

It was the first break we had taken since the crunch. My wife – bless her – hadn’t said a cross word. She knows me. She knows that the self-loathing was deep. She knew that I was beating myself up in exquisite ways, interesting ways, varied ways, ways that could not compare. We worked on the phone, looking for a repair place. We don’t carry every yellow page for every small town in Oregon, so we kept burning the cell phone at $2 a call for information.

Finally, we located a place, 90 miles north. It was Sunday. Noon. In this part of the state everything is closed on Sundays. The streets roll up. The gas stations close at 7 pm.

The phone rang and was answered at Valley RV in McMinnville, Oregon. The guy had the same name as me. He understood. He felt bad for me. He didn’t judge me. I loved him.

He told us to come his way. Their service bays were closed till the next morning, but, by God, they had a big awning and I could park there if I wanted.

The sun parted the clouds in my foggy soul. The rain kept up, but now the wind was behind us. My wife went back to closet every once in a while, and yes, what a surprise, the ceiling was getting wetter. The water kept coming in. Things were getting soaked. The wood was getting saturated. The RV was losing resale value as fast as I normally make my way through a big bowl of pudding.

But we got there. We pulled Winnie out of the storm. The nice man inside gave me the yellow pages and we found a cab to take us to a Best Western, where we later made plans to have the good folks at Pizza Hut bring us large, meaty pies, which are now gone.

There’s a TV movie on. I’m showered, clean. My wife has brought me a beer. I look out at the blinking signs outside my window and I see a place where later – in several hours – I will go to breakfast. I will show these Oregonians who’s boss when it comes to biscuits and gravy.

And maybe, just maybe. The phone will ring. Winnie Cooper will be fixed. It will cost us more money than is reasonable. It will cost what it normally would to send a kid to a large state college for a year. But Winnie will be whole. We will load up again. Smarter. Better. Duller in spirit, but shiny yet, despite it all. And we will roll toward California.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Wing Sing

If you're ever blind and lost on the tiny winding highways of central Oregon, watch for an unlikely town called Philomath, and an unlikely restaurant called Wing Sing.

Wing Sing has both kinds of food, Chinese and American, and both kinds of music on the jukebox, Country and Western.

My wife and I were exploring off the coast during our delightful stay in Waldport, and got mad lost on highway 34. I kept imagining it would "hook back" to the water. My wife knew I had taken us down the rabbit hole. I kept saying, "It's going to hook back right after this corner." And then there'd be another view of this pretty stream, more towering trees, denser fog, another pickup truck with a rifle, etc.

Anyway, after about an hour of praying for a hook back, we roared into Philomath. Philomath looked to me, like heaven. It was a town with a highway that went west again. I saw a sign that said we were - impossibly - 100 miles from where we had started. I know we hadn't come that far, but I wasn't going back on Hwy. 34, it of the suddenly winding curves, the nervous and tiny shoulder.

But before I committed to the larger Hwy. 20 and its unknown pleasures, I thought we should get something to eat. We looked up and down the main drag and saw only two lit signs, one that said "TAV RN," and one that said "Wing Sing's." You know, of course, that no place has a finer reputation for Chinese food than central Oregon, so that's where we went.

There are two rooms at Wing Sing, a bar attached to the north side of the building, and the restaurant to the south. a little walkway attaches the two rooms together. Over in the bar there were three people, a woman behind the bar, an old guy at a booth, and the old guy's daughter, Sherry, playing video poker while her dad waited for their food. It was Sherry's birthday. Our waitress told us.

My wife and I sat in the restaurant alone and ordered chow mein and sweet and sour chicken. I was still fretting, still thinking about the hook back, wondering what kind of meat the chicken would be, but my wife was into the new adventure. We waited about 8 minutes and two gigantic plates arrived. The food smelled delicious and we dug in.

Twenty minutes later we pushed back from the table, still the only one occupied. I gave my money to Darnelle, gave her an extra $5 to buy the birthday girl a drink, and we went back into the pitch blackness, aiming at Highway 20, delighted to see what and how it would get us back to from where we'd come.

Sunday, November 09, 2003


There's a soda company I've stumbled across out here called Jones Soda. At a tiny groceteria somewhere in central Oregon, we bought four bottles, two of "M.F. Grape Soda," and two of "Fufu Raspberry." They're in glass bottles. They're fizzy and delicious, and full of bubbly satisfaction. (I get too much pleasure from stuff like this, I know.)

The company has recently expanded into the hot hot hot energy drink world with two offerings: Big Jones Energy Soda and Whoopass Energy Shots. If I could, I'd buy into the company. They rotate different black and white photos on the labels of their sodas, and they've got feel-good propaganda on their bottles and on their website. If I had any cajones at all, I'd be this brave. Maybe if I drank some Whoopass I'd get out of the academic world and start making soda (or cheese, or chocolate) and be a nutty corporate wonk of the flaky variety; I'd wear ribbons and sandals and really let the big belly go.

But alas.

The book project is on hiatus for 8 wonderful days. We've rented a lovely house in Waldport, Oregon in order to give us a chance to save up some strength for coming months. I started this project more than 2 months ago, but my wife and I have been rolling in Winnie Cooper for exactly 1 month. 25 poets so far. 3500 miles in September. 4000+ in October. Gasoline? Hamburgers? Ice cream sandwiches? I don't even want to count those things. The shock and dismay would cripple my already withered spirit. But really, would God have made so many varieties of the ice cream sandwich if he didn't want me to try them all?

To my pals who are in email contact with me, I do complain a lot about the travel and the relative discomfort of living in the big rolling tin can. But here's a picture of our view today while we had soup and sandwiches for lunch:

So, the trip has a wondrous upside.

Not least of which is the unending string of interesting poets, all who welcome us - albeit briefly - into their lives and work. I continue to be appreciative of their help as the book continues its growth.

This week I sent out some proposals to some university presses. I hope to get an editor interested in the project, and I think we're at a good point to do that. The project is taking shape on this website, but the real meat, the interviews, are still on my computer, still on tape, still getting transcribed. Their addition to the website blurbs will really bring the themes of the book together. There's some real poetry in the interviews.

Barbara Drake - Yamhill, OR

Barbara Drake lives amidst the rolling foothills of far western Oregon, surrounded by vineyards and nut, really...nut farms: hazlenuts, walnuts, chestnuts.

Her pretty - and self-described "funky" - farm is crowded with sheep, chicken, one big rooster, and Guy, a large and happy Border Collie.

She and I walk through the farmhouse and I am buffeted by the smell of scones and hot coffee. She shows me the floors and ceilings that her husband Bill did himself. "They're soft wood," Barbara tells me. "The dog marks them up." They look terrific to me.

We sit in her sun room as the Saturday morning light floods in there.

We talk about her recent chapbook, a gorgeous limited edition offering full of earthy poetry, all of it rooted in place and the natural world. Barbara tells me about an old guy who showed up at the farm one day, a guy who had lived on this land almost 80 years ago. He remembered it as the place where he was happiest. They struck up some correspondence and he sent her a photo of the place from the 20s that showed some of the same trees that are there today. Barbara likes living here a lot, and a lot of that has to do because she knows the history, feels the history of the place. She knows that the spirit of the place is something that existed before her, and she hopes it continues long after.

We struggled to get Winnie Cooper up the dirt road to Barbara's place, and going down is the same. We knock a few limbs down as we go, but - as always - hope we leave the places as we find them.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Mark Halperin - Ellensburg, WA

Mark Halperin is a delightful guy who greets me in his snowy front yard. He and Dasha, his sweet half-Husky, half Malamute - who understands commands in English, Russian, and "dog" - escort me to the warmest room in the long and lovely house, Mark's study.

Dasha makes herself scarce and Mark and I talk on a sunny but chilly morning.

We talk about the standard items from this project, but also get around to Mark's love of fishing. He's a serious fisherman, a fly fisherman, who can see the edge of his beloved Yakima River from any of a number of windows on the south side of the house. When fishing doesn't take up his time - and he fishes in lieu of writing all summer - he can reach over and pick up one of his treasured banjos or acoustic guitars. He has a Gibson acoustic, an L series from 1913. He picks it up at one point and finger picks a sort of Leadbelly-style country-blues.

Mark has taught and worked in Russia a number of times, and we talk a bit about how those experiences have been crucial to his own translations of contemporary Russian literature. But he spends more time telling me about life in Russia, how the elevators work, about a theater he frequents.

He's a great interview. He listens to a questions, recognizes the answer I'm probably looking for (much to my chagrin), then spins his answer a couple of ways. He says he doesn't mean to be contrary, but it lights him up to do it. He is animated and fun to listen to. We fill one side of a tape and I pop another in and keep going.

After a while, we go out into the back yard to see another of his writing areas, this one in 1/2 of a finished shed in the back yard. I meet his wife, Bobbie Halperin, a painter. Bobbie has spotted my wife sitting in our rented car in the driveway - putting stamps on envelopes and other mindless chores - and has brought her in to see her studio. So the four of us, and Dasha - she of the serious language skills - stand around a bit and chat like we're all pals. Which is what we've become.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Jana Harris - Sultan, WA

It's election day in Sultan, Washington, and one of the candidates, a tall and gaunt man with a long beard, is standing in the back of his pickup truck at a local gas station, hollering at passers by. He's running for city council. He has my vote, just for the beard and the courage of his convictions - whatever they may be. We get some gas at the station and I listen in a bit. He's talking taxes, and freedom, and about keeping government out of the "business of the little man." Some cars move right past him like he wasn't there. But others stop for a second on the shoulder and open their windows. Some folks honk. He waves at everyone. He seems to know about every third person, calling them by name. 

As we have traveled out of the urban cities on the Washington coast, we've found the towns a little tougher, a little more wild. People are more independent here, especially when compared to the reserved folks we know from our time in the northeast U.S. Hippies and rednecks live happily next to ranchers, methamphetamine entrepeneurs, and the ever-present militia folks in their cammo outfits. Loggers and fruit growers.

We wind through some narrow roads east of Sultan and up into some pretty ranchland. Mountains rise in the eastern sky, and we drive between orchards and pastures until we get to Jana Harris's farm on a spacious and quiet piece of land, a barn, a long house, and a pond to the north.

Jana Harris lives on a working horse farm, and before se see the house, we see four beautiful mares in separate pens on a clear and sunny chilly late morning in November.

Jana welcomes us into the house, as does Charlie, a sweet old lab, and Hillary Clinton, a cat with a - reported at least - running line of cat chatter.

Jana is whipping up some food in the kitchen. She talks about her land and horses while she cooks, and we drink in the smells and play with Charlie - who loves the sun coming through onto the dark floor tiles.

We eat and talk about Jana's work. Jana's most recent books give voice to pioneer women and children who lived in Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. Jana does brilliant research, unearthing photos and stories and turning this raw material into gorgeous narrative poems that let these heroic - but often lost - characters live fresh lives on the page.

After a feast, we see Jana's writing area, atop an old black leather padded bar from the previous owners of the house. She writes and sleeps in a gigantic open room on the second floor, with large windows open to the southern view of her pastures and the mountain range.

We go with Jana outside as she brings the horses in from the fields for some hay and carrots. The horses are gigantic - I am a city boy, of course - but Jana hooks them and hauls them in easily, all the time talking to them, catching them up on these new visitors who are suddenly in their barn.

We go in for dessert and talk a little about her teaching, some of the schools she's worked at, and it's time to go. We take our leave - and two apples.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Sam Hamill - Port Townsend, WA

We leave Everett, WA, at 6 am in a rented Ford Focus. We're headed for the first of two ferry rides that will take us to Port Townsend where I'm scheduled to meet with Sam Hamill, a terrific poet, translator, and editor of Copper Canyon Press. (Winnie Cooper is hooked up in a nice but crowded RV park, warding off - we hope - all time low temperatures for the area.)

The ferry rides are spectacular. On the first one, a 30 minute ride from the mainland to the southern tip of Whidbey Island, the sun rises behind us as we disappear into the frosty sub-freezing fog that obscures the island from us. Once on Whidbey we drive the small two-lane until we hit a diner. The sidewalks are dotted with kids headed to school, all of them bundled up in layers, not a serious winter coat anywhere.

I have trouble with the ketchup bottle and drown the poor hash browns, but otherwise the food is warm and wonderful.

The next ferry takes us off Whidbey Island, through a small strait, right to the attractively-arrayed town of Port Townsend. Even from a distance, I can see pretty white houses and buildings scattered over the hills. It's almost enough to make you miss the towering range of Olympic Mountains behind the town.

Once in Port Townsend, we do some banking, check a few antique stores out and then my wife drops me at the white clapboard building that is Copper Canyon.

Sam greets me and we get down to business quickly. On the wall facing him is a monumental stack of books published by his esteemed press over the past 30 years. It's a little daunting. I spot on the spines some of the names of poets I've already seen on the trip.

It's probably not necessary to mention it, because it's mostly well known in the poetry community, but Sam's world has been buzzing this past year. In January he was invited to the White House to take part in a symposium on American poety sponsored by Laura Bush. But when the war in Iraq began, Sam organized Poets Against the War instead, a 21st century version of the earlier Vietnam-era model. Many of the most important and influential poets in the country got involved in a wide range of readings and publications. The project would tax anyone, but as Sam correctly notes, it's generated some of the most important public discussion in decades.

But we're here today to discuss other things.

Sam answers everything directly without hesitation. He's sure of himself. It's a sort of confidence, I think, that comes with his comfort level. He's lived in Port Towsend for 30+ years; he's run the press for the same amount of time. He's a grown up.

After we chat, we shoot some photos in the building, some in his office and some in an airy room that contains - what I imagine is - Copper Canyon's original press. In the photos, Sam looks right at the camera. In other situations, the interviewee sometimes wants to know what to do. What should I look at? Is this okay? Should I sit? Sam just knows. He looks right at me, his eyes open, clear, and I shoot fast; Sam Hamill is a guy who's got a full day ahead. The day doesn't stand a chance.

After fish and chips at the Dry Star Cafe, we head south out of Port Townsend. We curl around a series of highways until we end up in Bainbridge Island, a little burg that sits aside one of many ferries back to Seattle.