About a third of the poets I meet ask, "Why me?"
It's a complicated question, and I don't think I've ever given a completely satisfactory answer. But in this entry I thought I'd try.
1) The work of some poets just screams out "place" to me, poets like Miller Williams, for example. It's always been impossible for me to read his work without feeling the South in every line. So I sought out many poets like this when I was first putting a big list together. I wasn't trying to stack the deck in favor of the conceits of my book, but I did want some ringers, some folks who would think that the question, "Has place influenced your work?" was a satisfying and enjoyable place to start a conversation.
2) Simply, geography. The planning of this trip has been monumentally challenging. I've been unable to completely describe the logistics of it to anyone. The truth of the matter is, early on, I had a huge road atlas in front of me, and I knew we'd be hurtling thousands of miles, dozens of states, shooting through countless - and many now unremembered - towns. And since we were there, why not talk to someone? I will confess that there are some of the poets I've met this year who I hadn't even read before this trip. I don't know what sort of revelation this is; my god, there are tons of poets out there. But lucky geography has led me to several folks who I've now "discovered" in a real way. One of these poets is David Romtvedt of Buffalo, Wyoming. I saw that our route was taking us through his part of the state, and using Google, I happened across his name. I read some poems online, loved them, and I'm very grateful I took the time to contact him and visit his picturesque little town. His work fits this project beautifully, and better yet, he was a terrific guy to spend the morning with.
3) The old/young dynamic. Relative terms, I assure you, but since I went to school in the early 80s, many of the poets I studied are now 60+. Because I wanted a good cross section, I knew I'd need to find poets roughly 40 and below. It's easy to pick someone who's been in the game a while and has 15 terrific collections. It's a little harder to find someone more or less just starting out. But as the overall list was being created, I noted that it skewed older than, say, the average age of a living American poet. So I began to work on adding younger poets. It was in this way that I discovered Beth Ann Fennelly, for example, a dynamite poet from Illinois, now in Mississippi.
4) Some poets I wanted to meet with disqualified themselves by noting that place just wasn't a concern for them. They didn't see how they'd fit into the book's conversation. Some poets have bowed out because they were too busy, finishing books, doing research, teaching, new children, etc. Sometimes it just was simple bad timing. Poets on sabbatical. Poets out of town during the week I was going through their area. The vagaries of my trip caused some of this, and without going around AGAIN, I don't know how to avoid this sort of problem.
5) Some poets I just could never contact. Some never replied to any of my queries. My preferred method is via email, and a surprising number of poets - even ones in academia - don't publicly list an email address of any kind. In many of those cases I've sent faxes to their offices. In some cases, the fax worked and we've been able to set up meetings in that way. But in other cases I was never able to reach some poets that would have been welcome partners in the book's conversation. (In some extreme situations I've even used the telephone to reach folks who had been otherwise unreachable, and again, sometimes I've been successful getting a hold of someone, sometimes not.) Obviously this limits the book in some ways. I toyed with the idea of seeking out previously published interviews, finding a way to fuse this material with my own, but that seemed less than satisfactory. So much of this trip is the actual physical visit that I make to the poet's home. And in the end, I never want the visits or the interviews to be something the waiting poet is dreading.
Finally, I can say that the process of choosing poets for the book has been a fascinating challenge. It's a rigorous thing I'm asking. Not just, "Let me ask you some questions," but welcome me into your home or office. I'm going to appear on your doorstep in a few weeks with a giant bag of cameras and tape recorders. I'm an imposing presence (I mean, fat); my bald head is gleaming with sweat (regardless the weather). I'm on a schedule. I've just driven 200 miles in the big rolling tin can. My wife is circling your narrow neighborhood streets while I'm here, and I've got 200 miles to go this afternoon, SO PLEASE RELAX AND GIVE ME THE ANSWERS TO MY QUESTIONS. I'm unclear what state I'm in, what town. I may confuse you with another poet I met yesterday or will meet tomorrow. And I'm likely to eat any amount of cookies you put on a plate in front of me. It's frightening, I guess is what I mean!
But, 38 poets into the project, over 13,000 miles later, I would do it all again, every moment, because the poets I have met have been universally terrific, giving of their time, receptive to the ideas, and just plain fun to spend part of a day with. A mighty "thanks" to them all - past and future - just isn't enough.