Saturday, February 28, 2004

Escape from New York

We're hours away from the end of February, and we are watching Queer Eye and eating Snickers ice cream bars, breathing a sigh of relief that the cruelest month (so far) is over.

4 weeks ago we crossed the Florida/Georgia border and were faced with a quandary. With temperatures north of us below freezing, with crowded cities awaiting, with virtually no campgrounds open between the Carolinas and Cape Cod, something had to give. So we watched the Weather Channel for a few days and looked for a city where we could leave sweet Winnie behind (she of the delicate plastic plumbing). Savannah, Georgia - it of the temperate climes - was consistenly above freezing at night, so it became the choice.

So 4 weeks ago - for one last night - we parked the unstoppable Winnie Cooper under towering pines. I smoked a gigantic 75 cent cigar, and drank one of the always-present Mexican beers under starlit skies. And in the morning we confined Winnie behind the rusty fence of Dick Gore's "Lock 'em Up and They Might Be Here When You Return" RV storage facility. I gave a guy $50 and the keys and just prayed that she'd be there when we got back.

While the two of us wept, a cab driver wheeled us to the Savannah airport where the nice folks at Hertz took a whopping big chomp of our Visa card in exchange for 30 days with this burgundy 2004 Ford Escape:

And then of course you all know the rest. The Carolinas, DC, Maryland, in and out of NYC a couple of times, out to the tip of Cape Code, and then back to Columbia, SC. 3000+ miles in 25 days, and - oh yeah - 12 more interviews.

We drove like insane people into Savannah this morning. We found our way to Dick Gore's and looked for the guy who we left Winnie with. Nobody knew where he was, but apparently my RV is "right where I left it." The lady gave me the keys, because - well - who else would ask for them. I stood stunned, stared at her and said, "Well, I'll go get it and leave then." And she said. "Okay, honey. Have a nice day."

We sprung the sweet girl and headed back to the Savannah KOA, where we injected the necessary liquids, gases, and electricity to make it our home away from wherever.

March beckons. In like a leisure suit and out like a lampshade. We're going to hunker down 'neath the pines for a couple of days, do some transcripts, and get back into the Winnie-groove in a few days.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Terrance Hayes - Columbia, SC

Terrance Hayes and I were set to meet in Pittsburgh, PA, earlier this week (where he teaches and lives with his wife - the poet Yona Harvey - and their two children). But he got a chance to read at a book fair in his hometown of Columbia, SC, today, so we opted for that location instead. (The forecast was for snow throughout the mountains of Pennsylvania, and South Carolina would make a nice rest stop on our trip back to reclaim Winnie Cooper, our beloved but abandoned motorhome, still resting in Savannah, GA.)

So with much relief, we packed up in Providence, RI, and headed south, seeking the more temperate climes, grateful that our month in the northeast was free of snow, ice, and any other falling winter goodies.

The relief lasted until Dunn, NC. We woke up at yet another Holiday Inn Express and stared out at snow piling up against the window, falling gracefully on the Ford Escape with Georgia plates.

By the time we were on Interstate 95, we were pushing straight into the teeth of a "weather-maker" that would dump 12 inches of snow in about 4 hours. We were skirting the eastern edge of the storm, but we still got hemmed in behind a ton of drivers inching through the slushy - then freezing - meltings of the earlier snow.

Suddenly, a few dozen miles into South Carolina, the snow began to turn into sleet, then a cold rain. When we reached Columbia, it was 35 degrees and raining softly. We found our Holiday Inn Express, called Terrance, and made a time for the next day. Terrance has brought his 9 month old son on the trip - to allow the grandparents some time to dote and fuss - and so thinks it might be quieter to meet at our hotel.

It's the first time a poet is coming to me on this trip and it feels weird. Usually I'm circling some foreign neighborhood, running over curbs and consulting a map of my own evil design, arriving with a giant bag of recorders and cameras. I slam around inside, knocking books and knick knacks onto the rug, my incredible belly bowling over any children or animals who may be too confused or slow to clear a way.

But today I set up my camera and recorder, ate the outstandingly mediocre continental breakfast (watery orange juice, warm milk, hard cinnamon roll, and gelatinous boiled egg), and waited.

Terrance arrived and I welcomed him in room 218. We talked a bit about his being back home for a visit, his reading coming up, and the trip I'm on. We sat at a chintzy hotel room table and talked about poetry, Pittsburgh, sports, his painting, etc.

A word Terrance used early on was "compartments." He is able to keep the parts of his life and work separate from one another, sort of like - he says - the greens and the potatoes on a plate of food. He's a teacher and a writer, a poet and a painter. He acknowledges that these things have something to do with one another, but doesn't see vital or obvious connections. "I'm always asked that," he says, when I ask if the painting impacts the poetry or vice versa. But he sees them as different things. Different arts.

We go down to the front of the hotel to shoot some 35mm shots. I instantly have great regrets about not seeing his new house in Pittsburgh, or his parents' house here in Columbia, but I think of this as a rare home game after a continuing and endless road trip.

Terrance leaves me a copy of his second book, Hip Logic, a lyrical and elegant collection. It features a stunning collage of Terrance's on the cover, a sort of snarling and distorted face, "shards" of newspaper clippings in the background. Inside the book, he's signed it and written a little note, a welcome gift. We shake hands under the Holiday Inn Express awning, and he heads for the parking lot; I head for the elevator.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Michael S. Harper - Providence, RI

A poet's office is every bit as personal and idiosyncratic as a poet's home. So I'm embarrassed to admit that this morning, after setting up in one of Michael Harper's offices on the campus of Brown University, I couldn't stop myself from exclaiming - "Your office is exquisitely messy!"

If I could have added context to all of this, Harper would have known something of the terrible mess of my own workspaces - at home, at work, even in the RV. But I really was a little astonished. Envelopes, manuscripts, books, and files pile on every flat surface, at least six inches high on the desk. It overwhelmed me. Harper told me he had other offices on the same floor where - when we visited later - I was equally as alarmed at their order and neatness. But in this leave year, Harper has let his own office go a bit. After my comment, Harper grinned and said, "I work at it, man. That is to say, I don't waste any time thinking about it." And during my visit, he had occasion to pull out a handful of things, a student's book, a book by one of his old pals, and his hands always went right to them.

I should have known better, because Harper's heart is that of a true jazz artist. I should have seen through what I saw as messy to what is really there, augmented chords, flatted 5ths, a gigantic hand making that minor 7th.

We turned to the project at hand, and I was swept away and overwhelmed at Harper's storytelling. He's the champ. His tales are terrific, enjoyable, vital, and - in the end - astonishing in message and resonance. Time and time again he pulled me through memories that all hit hard at the belly of the reason why a poet is what a poet is. He told me about being 5 years old and riding the subways in New York. About his move at 13 to California. His time in Iowa, a place where he could get into the influential Writer's Workshop, but where his toughest applications were for apartments where he could live.

He talked about his students, about how the ease of laptops and laser printers are hiding some of the gifts that revision will give them as they develop as poets. I know that Harper will find ways to show them what they're missing.

In a blink, almost 90 minutes had passed. The tape had long run out, and I was just listening to it all.

He's a force of nature, as anyone who's read his work already knows, and I could have sat there all day. His students, pals, and family are lucky to have him. His readers, too.

We wandered out to the hall to get some photos, and Harper signed a book for me, shook my hand with his soft but gigantic mitt, told me to say hello to a pal of his I'm seeing soon, and wished me well on the road. As I packed my stuff, Harper disappeared into the stacks of papers and books, content, back to work, knowing where everthing is.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Wherein The Author Spends Some Time Ruminating on The Equipment

God knows that the only way to do this project is with technology. So, far too late, let me offer thanks to:

The Safety Camera: It runs silently in the background, capturing still images every 5-10 seconds. It provides nearly all of the author photos that appear on this site, and provides me a backup in case the 35mm shots I do at the end of interviews turn out poorly. It's an old Epson Photo PC 3100Z, not made anymore, and only shoots at 3.2 megapixels. But it's sturdy and holds about 300 photos at a crack. Shown below solo and with its companion tripod, the indestructible and light Velbon CX300. I use a Jumpshot cable to download photos off of my Lexar CompactFlash card.

The Microcassette Recorder: This is one of two Sony microcassettes I've been using. This one (the M-560V), has the completely useless "voice operated recording" setting. The quality is terrible, and I've worn down the heads on both machines over the year because I'm always rewinding and re-listening to scratchy, almost inaudible burbling. Batteries burn up like a mother. Yet, it's never failed me. I always have something on tape. Even if I can't even begin to guess what it might be.

The Minidisc Recorder: When I first started to chat with a west coast NPR producer, we agreed that I should be recording these interviews in a higher quality. Thus entered the Sony MZ-B100, an amazing piece of machinery that records broadcast quality audio with ease. It has a stereo mic built in, but I added a nice Sony EMC-MS907 to increase the focal point of my recording, and I couldn't be happier. It's also proven effective when a dispute arises over how loud someone might be snoring. In that case, I think, the quality might have been too good, and certainly may have been doctored with some sort of post-production amplification.

The Old Camera: One of several Canon AE-1s I've owned. Like most of my gear, it's made to withstand the occasional (read: 'frequent') drop, mishandle, crunch, etc. This one is circa 1981, but like its many brothers and sisters I've had over the years, is clean and fast. I've got a nice 28-50mm zoom on it, also by Canon, that I found in October at a pawn shop in Maryland. I shoot this camera with some brand of yellow filter to heighten the contrast of the 35mm B&W film. It works pretty well in "SuperProgram" mode, but it's best when I've got some time to mess with the settings. (Note: "The settings" is intended to create the sense that I KNOW what the difference is in the "settings."

The New Camera: The Nikon N75 is a magical and inexpensive autofocus wonder. When the interview has stretched long and I need to get out of town, its autowinder allows me to fire off a half dozen shots in under 15 seconds. Sure, they're blurry. Sure I often shoot right into the sun. But man it's fast. Oh, and to save money, it's equipped with a nearly useless Quantaray 28-90mm zoom lens that will one day just be left on the side of the road, so dark and inflexible it's proven to be. Seriously, if I'd just get out the Visa and get a real Nikkor lens, I'd be in business and this camera would suit me forever. It stands out from other brands at this $300-400 range because its fittings and body are almost all metal, whereas other brands have gone for lighter plastics and composites.

The Computer: This Gateway laptop is a sort of middle of the road machine, but the SprintPCS wireless modem has allowed me to log in to the WWW from remote spots in South Dakota, Wyoming, Mississippi, etc. You can check your email at 70 mph. You can download rejection letters in the middle of the night. You can play Flight Simulator when you're so amazingly tired of transcribing interviews. Without it, this trip could not have happened. I keep in touch with all the poets via email - rarely picking up a phone. I peer into its soothing light looking for campgrounds, hotels, places that sell cheese. The comforting hum of its tiny fan keeps my company when I'm not fit to be around the other humans. I bang the bejeezus out of it occasionally.

The Assistant: Listen. I've never been much of a husband or a friend. And I'm an even worse boss. So I must give long-overdue thanks to the assistant on this trip, the kind, lovely, and patient Beth Mason. She, who drives endless circles in various vehicles (Winnie Cooper, a variety of rentals) while I make my way in and out of interviews in the mountains, the deserts, Hollywood, the Upper West Side, etc. She, who carries giant bags of tapes and negatives. She, who goes to sleep each night with the lights still on, the damn husband still typing. Here, in the photo below, she considers whether or not to take the small opening and bolt down the highway, leaving me behind in the dust. Why she did not, we do not know. And that's not to say it still isn't forthcoming. Stay tuned.

C.D. Wright - Barrington, RI

C.D. Wright's work is a miracle to me. For as long as I've been reading her, I've wanted to get inside her work and pull it apart, finding the secret invisible threads that hold it all together. Unlike my own work, which remains fraught with the narrative tools left over from my start as a fiction writer, Wright's work succeeds so beautifully because of what she leaves out.

The work is still dense, consuming. But in her best work, her most vital work, it is free of unnecessary connective devices. The poetry is evocative. The reader is left to construct part of the poetic world, and therefore asked to be a better reader.

I can never stop myself from trying to sum things up, reveal a tidy ending, to screw my courage up to deliver a last line that is the key to the puzzle above. I'm an ignormaus in these matters. Wright's work cascades. It's alternately shimmering and stony. Each word, phrase, absolutely integral to the final piece. No excessive movement or braying.

It's free of things "poetic," it is rich in things that are real.

None of what I've written above is necessary. Go buy Steal Away, her "new and selected" collection from Copper Canyon to see for yourself.

In the planning for this visit, C.D. was unsure that she had much to say about place - it's already in her work. And I respect that. Many poets I've met on this trip have wanted to hold back part of their process or their art. None of us - entirely - knows what the secret ingredient is to our work. For some it's the transfer of scattered lines out of a notebook onto a computer screen that is magical. For others, it's that "trance" we sometimes find as we channel the work from some unknown location. All through these months I've discovered forbidden zones, places where poets won't let themselves travel with me alongside.

While we were sorting out a visit to Rhode Island, C.D. wondered if she was the right person for my project. I knew - because of this trip - that I was likely asking about matters that are too much "hers," keys to the puzzles of her own work. Born in the Ozarks of Arkansas, she has two distinct homes, that place, and now this place in Rhode Island, a state she calls her adopted home. In her poems and essays, she's mined much of the landscape of both. Not overtly, not merely as accoutrements to some other tale, but as the metaphorical underpinning of the poems themselves. It's easy to see place in something like "The Ozark Odes," but it's tougher (more rewarding) to find it in something like the book-length poem Deepstep Come Shining.

So it is with the weight of all that that I arrive at her home just blocks from Narragansett Bay, south and east of Providence, Rhode Island. The story home is red, with a matching barn, on a gigantic sweeping lot that has a growing wall of bamboo to one of the side streets. She lives here with her husband (the poet Forest Gander - who planted the bamboo and cares for it), and her son (Brecht). Brecht eats a giant bowl of cereal while C.D. and I talk nearby in the muted living room.

She's fairly recently finished a book about Louisiana prisoners with a photographer friend of hers, and the selections of text I've seen are stark, jarring, and moving. But she doesn't feel she's far enough away from the experience - or those places - to have fully "digested" what they all mean yet.

We move quickly through some questions, which she answers carefully and thougtfully. She grins modestly when it's clear her son is listening in to the interview. Brecht is quite happy to deal with the cereal and hear us talk about his mother's work. When we're done, C.D. urges me to look up a writer in Colorado who's work she thinks fits my project well. Brecht comes along into the study and together the three of us page through some books. I get an address and a phone number for someone new for the project.

We go outside for some photos in the crisp February morning, and I say goodbye.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Mark Wunderlich - Provincetown, MA

Provincetown is at the end of the world, the tip of Cape Cod, a tiny windswept collection of B&Bs and fudge shops. We get there a day early so see the entire town, pretty clapboard houses on the water, bigger places out toward the point. We see four lighthouses, stand on frigid beaches (with tufts of snow mixed in with the wet winter sand), talk to couples with dogs wet from the surf. We even see two guys emerge from the Atlantic side hauling surboards, dressed like sea lions in matching black scuba suits. 

It is peaceful, but it is also February. Our B&B is creaky and quaint and they have cider and wine when we come in that night. Jaunty French ballads play on the stereo, with the occasional track from Dido or Mel Torme. We sleep on a rock hard bed and wake to a howling wind threatening to blow in the rattling windows of our room that open to the Cape itself. We eat breakfast in the morning with several couples, Mary and Mary (who are next to us in the King Charles Suite), Rob and Amber (who are likely from Boston and who don't bother putting on socks or shoes in the morning), and Tina and Helen (one very tall, one very short). We have homemade Portugese muffins and hard boiled eggs, and try to see one of the small whippets that the owners keep behind the half-door that leads to the kitchen. Every time the owner sneaks out to bring more juice or coffee, the dogs try to negotiate their way into the main room. Each time, the whole table of guests peer over, hoping the dogs will make it.

It's dreary all morning, but about the time I get to Mark Wunderlich's apartment, the sun is out and Provincetown is bathed in light. He meets me outside and I'm glad to see him. Of all of the poets I've met, he's the one who admits the most freely to knowing about the trip. He checks in on the website from time to time and often tells me that he has the same RV fantasy we had. I think about telling him 5 bad things about RV life - because I am a stinker, after all - but that'd be sour grapes. RVers have to learn. I hope he joins the club soon.

We go into his bright apartment - filled, I must say, with some nutty touches: some kind of skinned rug, a large animal head adorned with beads and baubles, some kind of circa 1950s couch that might be something very hip that I'm too much of a boor to know about, and a fishing rod against one wall with eyelets the size of a pocketwatch.

We sit across a table and, as always, I give some kind of overview of why on earth my wife and I are doing what we're doing. We talk about a poet I've seen recently who Mark knows well, and we share some stories.

Provincetown has a long history of supporting artists and writers. Mark knows this first hand, having won two fellowships with Provincetown's Fine Arts Work Center over the years. After the last one he just stayed and likely would remain except for the continuing skyrocketing cost of living. So instead, he and his partner have made an offer on a giant stone house in the Hudson River Valley, much closer to Mark's teaching gig at Sarah Lawrence, and pastoral like the town in which he grew up in Wisconsin.

Mark talks beautifully about living in New York City's East Village in the early 90s - the night life and the solitary hours of writing in his apartment combining. He tells me about his California years in both San Francisco and L.A., but he's a self-professed lover of the country, and he's eager to get to his new home. We go outside his place and shoot some shots of him on the stairs, up above me, looking over the shingled roofs toward the Cape.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

David Lehman - New York, NY

It's 28 degrees in lower Manhattan and we're eating gigantic chicken wraps inside our rented Ford Escape (where it's a balmy 38 degrees). We got the wraps at a funky convenience store where I mostly am amazed to see cigarettes selling for $7. Where are we, on the moon?

I can see my breath as I open my mouth to finish off the wrap. We're here an hour and a half early because I'm a gigantic boob who insists on driving everywhere, even Greenwich Village. I'm a westerner. I love cars. I love pushing the tin back and forth. And besides, this whole trip has hinged on a manic devotion to living on the highways and roads of America. So instead of taking everyone's advice about the A train, F train, whatever, the 6, the 4, etc., I've circled the soda-straw-narrow streets near Washington Square Park for forty minutes before finding a perfect parking spot right near the Blue Note - a decades old jazz landmark that I go up to and touch with my frosted bare hand.

I'm here to see David Lehman, the man who - I'm willing to bet - reads more poetry than anyone else in the country. For more than a decade he's been the series editor (the only series editor) of Best American Poetry, a sprawling and crucial collection of the year's best work (chosen in concert with a guest editor).

Lehman also is widely known for an experiment he started in the late 90s of writing and finishing a poem every day. This experiment yielded two phenomenal and well-received collections, The Daily Mirror and The Evening Sun.

A lifetime New Yorker, Lehman sometimes splits the city for his house in Ithaca. But he spends the majority of his time right here, in a tiny book and manuscript-filled apartment. While we chat, Lehman shows me a dozen scraps of paper with ideas and lines for new poems, some on the back of envelopes, some on the back of a memo, even some in a small orange notebook he carries in his back pocket.

He opens a door to a small patio to let refreshing but chilly air in. Then we talk about his work and he takes on my questions. At one point, Lehman picks up one of his books and starts flipping pages, reading out lines that reinforce his answers. He gets into one that I love and he reads the whole thing. Halfway through, the phone rings, so I ask him to start again so I can - selfishly - get it all on tape for myself.

His work can be sharp and snappy, tight lines, no punctuation, vital, moving. But other poems stretch out, become floating narratives. Lots of women and men and the troubles therein. Always quietly, subtly funny. Crack across the knuckle realiztions abound.

He teaches, advises his students, is putting together the new edition of Best American Poetry, and completing a new book of his own. He confesses that he's a workaholic, but says it with a grin. I ask him if I can get some pictures of him on the street before I go.

We head out into the cold, Lehman walking behind me. When I turn to start shooting, I'm delighted by a jaunty hat that Lehman has put on. I get him lined up with MacDougal street behind him. Some guys are replacing a window beside us. Ten feet away some workers are carrying boxes of lettuces into a small restaurant. As always, I'm just a little breathless in New York's energy. A cop car brushes so close past me that I can feel the wind of it. Someone is hollering at the UPS guy. Tourists click cameras at the distant Empire State Building.

In front of me, Lehman looks right at me, gives a charming lopsided grin. I figure I better start shooting before he goes back to work.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Nicole Cooley - Glen Ridge, NJ

Nicole Cooley's oldest daughter has something to tell me when I first arrive: "MY NAME IS MINNIE MOUSE!" She later amends her name to "Snoop," but she says the former with real conviction and it's still in my head several hours later. I meet the whole family right away, Nicole's husband Alex, the new baby Arcadia, and of course Minnie Mouse (who sometimes is called Meridian by her folks.)

Nicole and I climb two sets of steep stairs to her study at the top of their delightful home in suburban Glen Ridge, a pretty and homey town a little east of New York City. I'm carrying the ever-present bag of cameras and recorders, and that plus my own formidable belly make the climb something akin to going up K2 for a regular guy. But it's worth the trip. It's a light and airy room with purple walls and two desks. An easel is set up to the side of Nicole's computer; this is where Meridian does her drawing sometimes while Mom works on her own creations. On the large drawing pad are two versions of Glinda the Good Witch. It appears below this paragraph, but I must confess that it has been electonically enhanced by this author with one of the many pieces of software I keep around just for this purpose.

The easel and the drawing is important to me because it represents something imporant about this visit. Nicole remembers watching her father write when she was little, Meridian's age or younger. Nicole's dad is Peter Cooley, a poet we visited last month, one who appears in the 01/18/2004 archive to the left. Just as Nicole grew up with a poet in the house, so will Meridian.

Nicole tells me about attending poetry readings when she was little, crayoning away in the back row. By the time she was in high school, she and her dad took to doing their "mall poetry," small assignments they would give each other while slurping bad coffee at a donut shop or eating bad something else at a rundown food court in a dilapitated (and now closed) shopping mall. As Nicole tells me about this, I see the light of recognition in her eye as she sees the easel and realizes that Meridian is getting the same start she did.

Nicole has lived the life of an academic nomad already. Her schooling and teaching have taken her from Louisiana to Rhode Island to Iowa to Georgia to Pennsylvania, and now to New Jersey where she lives while teaching at Queens College in the city. But she's comfortable here, and part of that comfort has enabled her to put a world of research into her second collection of poems, The Afflicted Girls, a collection of poems about the Salem witch trials that is already pulling in raves.

All during our conversation I hear happy noises downstairs. Even the baby sounds content when she bellows for more food or more Daddy. Nicole and I talk about her work a while longer and then head downstairs and outside into the 20 degree weather for some last photos.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Lucie Brock-Broido - New York, NY

Lucie lives in comfortable decadence in the Upper West Side, quite near Columbia University where she teaches. She welcomes me in her apartment and the luxurious red of the chairs and wall hangings suffocate me. Sweet William, a Maine Coon cat scampers away as I arrive, but he gets used to me quickly and is a major part of the interview, sometimes fielding questions for Lucie, sometimes just batting his powerful front paws at some of the wires and cords that keep my recorders and cameras running.

Although Lucie's been at Columbia for 10 years (she directs the program here, as she did a decade ago at Harvard), this is the first year she's not spent part of the time in her much-beloved "castle" in Cambridge, MA. She misses Cambridge because for years that is where she's written all of her dense and beautiful lyric poetry. She's rented her place out, and on two occasions has made the drive up just to sit in the driveway. She picks up mail from her boarder, but turns down the opportunity to go inside.

We drink powerful coffee and chat away a lot of a sunny winter afternoon. She talks with great fondness about her students, about their poetry. And she talks forcefully about how important it is for her to help them in any way. She went to Columbia years ago as a student, so she knows what her students face and she's a partner to them as they work.

I ask her a bit about her beautiful, haunting - but too infrequent - books, just three collections in almost 15 years, and she's candid in her response. She has a rigid writing season that begins in October and only lasts until early winter. The cold - cold that hurts - inspires yearning in her, and that in turn allows the poems to come. (To say her work is long-awaited puts too much emphasis on the 'long' and not enough on the 'waited.')

She's a rare beauty, a rare talent, and when afternoon moves to early evening, I feel forlorn in leaving. I say my goodbyes to William, and he tells me a secret. Lucie walks me down to the street, and I wander off - intoxicated - toward my car (somewhere) near Riverside Park.

Wherein the Author Ruminates a Bit on the City So Nice they Named it Twice

Of the rich variety of cultural advantages available to New York City residents, it's quite clear to me that the one that really matters the most is the freedom everyone feels to blow his or her car horn.

Sure, the ballet and all that bullshit is great. The Met. The Guggenheim. Yankee Stadium. Papaya King. But all of that is really available in any city with more than 50,000 people, but this horn thing. This is where New Yorkers carve their niche. The horn honking is constant. In an hour sitting in my car on the Upper West Side, I heard more than 650 cars honk their horns. The complex and beautiful language seemed to have three separate messages:

1) I have become bored with the view of your car. I wish for you to pull over and let me pass along so I may wait in traffic behind someone in a different color Toyota.

2) You have parked poorly, and I fear that should I try to make passage that I might press my bumper up against your own. Please come down from your Ritz Cracker box sized apartment and realign your car.

3) I am a cab driver with many appointments in my future, and therefore I am sounding my horn becase a) I require some space to make this left hand turn from the right hand lane, b) my last tip was dissatisfying, and I need to take out my anger on my current passenger, and my normal violent swerving is not working on its own, and 3) it has been several minutes since I last honked my horn.

That last section is a joke. Just the 3 comical reasons. Everything else is true.

New York is a remarkable place. I mean it. About half the people I know think it's the greatest city in the world. I mean just the bagels alone sway most of my pals. Many of them go to New York 3 times a year. They see some art. They get matinee tickets to either Phantom or an off-broadway play where actors dress like kitchen implements and revolt against the eastern-Bloc styled "drawer" they live in (you think I'm making this up, and I'm not). They eat a bagel the size of a Christmas turkey, and then take the train back to Pittsburgh or Baltimore. I trust them. I really do.

I love Times Square. I love the sidewalk in front of MTV. I love Central Park when it's not crowded. I love 30 Rock. I love looking out the windows of my hotel and thinking: "Holy shit! Look at all the tourists." I love the neighborhoods where locals sit on stoops and chat across the street with the neigbors, all while sitting on stoops, or in open windows. I love Riverside Park, narrow and bustling, but lovely for being jammed between the high rises and the Henry Hudson Parkway.

It's exciting and busy, and for many, the only place in the world where all of the senses can be stimulated simultaneously. I see its beauty; I see its allure. But once we finished our interview this afternoon, we hustled across the GW Bridge, and before too long we were two beers and two big plates of food into a terrific and funny evening at the Longhorn Steakhouse in Parsippany, New Jersey, for my money, the greatest city in the world.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Dave Smith - Baltimore, MD

I ran the undergraduate writing program at Johns Hopkins for the last three years, so today is a bit of a homecoming. We drive past the greatest diner in creation, the New Wyman, and then head over to campus. While my wife circles the parking lots, I run in quick to surprise my former partner in the writing program, Susie. She was my program's administrator, but more importantly, she was my pal and my colleague, and a day did not pass that we did not put our heads together to try and figure out ways in which to make the new program work better. 

I bound up the stairs in Gilman Hall and it's like old times. "Hey," I say, when Susie turns around and sees me. "I haven't gotten a paycheck in six months. What's up?" We hug and talk about some of the new construction on campus. Susie checks in on this blog from time to time so knows roughly where I've been. She says, "How are you doing?" and all I can think of, after 40+ poets and 16,000 miles, is - "I'm tired." Then we both laugh. She's busy and I've got to get to my interview, so we make a promise for my wife and I to get together with her and her husband for lunch when we come back through Baltimore later in February, and I race out to head over to see Hopkins's newest poet.

Dave Smith has only been in Baltimore for about 18 months, but his imposing stone house shows a man at home and comfortable. We move through the first floor to a back room surrounded by windows that open into the back yard. A cat scurries across. I meet Smith's wife and they settle some plans for later while I get my gear out. Smith co-edited the Southern Review for a dozen years, and is as well known for that as he is for his terrific and vast production of poetry.

We sit at a wood table, facing each other. Smith has on jeans; a purple shirt pops out of a nice blue sweater.

He answers in complex but complete thoughts, filling in gaps in answers by looping back, putting periods in by saying, "I think that's enough." His voice resonates in this room, and he listens to each question and weighs it a bit before answering. The answers develop clearly and forcefully. Even when he completely disagrees with an idea that I'm searching for insight on, he does it like a gentleman, with a polite revamping and then a new path.

We go out front after we've chatted and I position him in front of the house, on a slight rise above me. The family dog - who barked when I went up these stairs when I arrived - sees me now and is silent. Smith is patient while I take out both 35mm cameras and start shooting. While we stand there, we talk about an old friend of his, someone who taught me in grad school more than 20 years ago. Smith remembers him in the old days, and thinks fondly of him now. We both love his work.

Before I go, I mention where I'm headed in the coming weeks. He hears one name and asks me to take along a special message. His eyes light up a bit - it's a fond memory or an inside joke, I think. I promise to pass along the greeting, and I go.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Rita Dove, Charlottesville, VA

More than two decades ago I was a befuddled but beautiful Psych major at Arizona State University. I had long hair and a 31" waist. I was riddled with insecurities, however, about my future (which is, of course, just like today), and I was in receipt of another college transcript showing a wide variety of shades, nuances, and colors, but hardly any A's or B's. 

I was searching for a reason to get out of school, or maybe a reason to stay in. I did poorly in the Psych classes I finished, but I wasn't finishing too many of them. I had found my way into a ton of other classes, however: Philosophy, Mass Com, Sociology, and a few classes in writing (everything from freshman comp to introductions to poetry and fiction).

I walked across campus to the Language and Literature building, an 8 story behemoth that housed classrooms and several Humanities departments, and took the elevator up to English. I supplicated myself in front of the departmental secretaries and told them a version of the tale that brought me to my knees. "I need to change my major," I said. "Can I get a degree in English?"

The three secretaries came to the front desk and took turns tilting their heads at me, then shaking them sadly. I may be wrong, but I think one of them reached across and patted my hand. "It's too late," one of them said. "You're a junior. Tough it out." "Have you started taking your required courses yet?" another said. I proffered my transcripts, which showed a variety of courses, low level writing courses, nothing meaty. "I think you better see someone," one of them said. "Give him to Rita," one of them said.

They pointed and I began my middlepassage down the hallway to an open door. Before Rita Dove could say much more than hello, I collapsed into a chair in her office and began sawing the mad, deep cello of my heart. Except for the occasional squeak of the chair, my robust and romantic woeful story washed us both. I thought I might weep. Surely this young, beautiful woman would see the pain, the misery, and she would weep, too. I waited.

"I don't know how to do it," she said. "But I'll get some forms." And she disappeared.

An hour later or so I walked out of the Language and Literature building into blinding sunshine. (This is not metaphorical at all; it was always blinding sunshine in those halcyon Tempe days.) I was an English major. I had the forms. Rita had solved it all. She gave me a schedule for the coming semesters. She asked if I was going to be all right, and sent me along the way I had come.

Rita Dove lives in a spectacular and quiet neighborhood outside Charlottesville. In the directions to her house are these words: field, meadow, Ivy, pond, lane, hills, and rolling. I stand outside the house and look down at this little body of water behind their house. It's partially covered with ice, but the sun is beaming down on it, shining up mad shards, erratic ribbons of light.

Rita and her husband, the writer Fred Viebahn, greet me and we try to remember the details of the last time we met, two decades ago. Fred was moving a box of books out of or into Rita's office. He thinks that's right. He and Rita would have just moved to Arizona; he was likely helping her get her office set up.

Fred goes off to his study and Rita and I sit in the living room on large white couches. There's a piano in the corner. An acoustic guitar casual up against the wall behind an occasional chair. Rita looks exactly like she did 22 years ago. She smiles at some of the memories I recall at the beginning of our chat. I'm trying to give her a sense of how important that one hour of February 1982 was, without making too much of a fool of myself. My life changed that day. I gave away the obligation to do something for others and took the charge of doing something for myself. I chased a dream that was my own, a dream (reading and writing?) without obvious and sensible rewards. And the past 2 decades are only possible because I made that walk on that one day.

But we leave that behind. Rita is glad to hear it, but we move on to the interview.

It's good to note, I think, that Rita Dove is a brilliant poet, one of extraordinary grace. Her books are rich, textured, funny, beautiful, honest, fearless, enlightening, and - always - sharply wrought. Her poems swirl into life and then explode into clarity with one final line, one last stanza. Sometimes just the right word.

She is one of the most admired and honored poets of her generation, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Poet Laureate. She has collected awards and achievements of a remarkable range. But one thing she tells me today obscures all the rest: She and Fred are ballroom dancers.

She talks about a wild notion that drove them and their neighbors into some lessons. She and Fred were the only ones who stuck it out, and now they dance in the style of the "American Smooth," a somewhat loose interpretaion of the sometimes arcane and rigid rules of classical ballroom dancing. The foxtrot. The waltz. Samba. They have outfits. I've seen photos. Fred with his flowing gold mane in a tuxedo, Rita in a spangly purple number.

We finish our chat about the suddenly mundane matters of poetry and place and then go outside for some photos. Fred joins us as does my wife and we stand in a loose formation overlooking the pond. What I want to say is, "Fred, I want to see you dance. Give Rita a twirl, would you?" I have such envy over this that I'm getting the kind of crazy thoughts I'm usually able to keep at bay. Maybe after the trip is over, my wife and I should start some lessons. I like the sound of that. Twirl. I want a tux like Fred's got. I want what Fred and Rita have. Not the house. Not the pond.

I want to dance the American Smooth.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Nikki Giovanni - Blacksburg, VA

Nikki is wearing a medal when I meet her at her office on the campus of Virginia Tech. Her poetry has won almost uncountable awards, plaudits, and honors, but this is an actual medal. I'm thinking figure skating or the 400m hurdles or something.

But the medal is from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences which Nikki got earlier this week at the annual Grammy Awards dinner in Los Angeles. Her spectacular spoken word release of "The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection" lost out to Al Franken - go figure - but the nomination, the medal, and the good seats she had (near Carole King) made the trip a great success.

She's wearing the medal because her students wanted to see it. Just before our chat starts she even gets a call from a student who wants to know about the medal. Did she wear it to class? Did the other students like it? Was Nikki on TV? Nikki answers the questions, reminds the student to turn her paper in, and has to admit that she never got her mug on the TV. And it's too bad, because it's a great mug, open and vital.

On the walls of her office she displays posters of Tupac Shakur, Bob Marley, and Prince, and her long love of music fills her work in the same way. So I smile at the picture of her sitting there on Tuesday watching Prince and Beyonce tear up the opening number, and then later George Clinton and P-Funk tear the roof off the sucker.

We talk a little about Nikki's life in Appalachia: Knoxville, Cincinnati, and here in southwestern Virginia. She spent ten years in New York City and loved it, but her life has been here. I can see the campus out her window behind her. The blinds are wide open, and the sun on this seasonable February afternoon pours in, lighting up Nikki from behind, giving her spectacular white/platinum hair a real glow.

Nikki wants to talk about place widely, and in further locales than anyone else so far on the trip. We talk about Mars, about the need for humans to keep exploring. The wheel took over for the horse, Nikki tells me, and it follows that if we can get to Mars, we really should. She talks about space and the future of humankind with such fervor that I have to ask a question. "What about a poet on that first crew to Mars?" I ask. Nikki's eyes light up. "I think it should be a woman, a black woman, a black woman in her 60s." She laughs.

We wrap it up with some photos. I take another peek at the medal. It's cool, but not as cool as Nikki.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Charles Wright - Charlottesville, VA

Along with Miller Williams - who one can find in the 09/07/2003 archive to the left - Charles Wright belongs on American poetry's Mt. Rushmore. Wright has been a titanic figure in American letters for 40 years and his power is undiminished. It is frankly with some nerves that I appear at his three story home in Charlottesville on absolutely the crummiest weather day of the trip. It's 32 degrees and it's been raining for 9 hours. Trees and power lines are ice coated. The main streets are clear and wet, but the small road in front of Wright's house is like the area around the blue line at the Montreal Forum.

But a typhoon couldn't keep me from making this appointment. I've been a fan of Wright's for as long as I've read and written poetry, and it is enough for me today to simply meet him.

I slide along the circular driveway in front of the gorgeous but imposing gray house and Wright waits for me on the porch. He's a little surprised I'm sans hat, umbrella, etc. We go inside the dark and warm first floor and he leads me up two flights of stairs to his study. I, meanwhile, am bumping the camera bag and tripod against every hard surface. A small dog, locked away for the visit, sets up a little barking to let me know I'm making too much noise.

We emerge into the spacious attic, really more like an entire floor of the house, shaped like a cross with four annexes to the outside world. Wright's been in the house for 20 years, formerly a boarding house, but it was the previous owner - an artist - who fixed it up, including this great floor.

I spot a large table in the center of the room and begin getting equipment out. I notice a little beaten down chair next to a small table in one of the nooks and ask Wright if I can use it. He assents. It's 30 minutes later when we're talking about where he works that I realize this is his chair. It's off to the side near a window that opens over the front of the house, and it's where he writes in longhand. I'm in his chair. I might as well ask him if I can use his toothbrush before I go.

But, on this horrible gray day we sit alongside a large wooden table and I ask questions - who knows what questions I think of to ask - and all too soon it's over.

I get out the 35mm cameras and Wright positions himself in a large arm chair draped with a lovely patterned sheet and I shoot some photos. We talk a bit about a couple of poets I've met along the way who Wright knows. We stand by the table where he works and he points to a scattering of 30-40 photos, all of which have worked their way into his poems over the years. Except one. There's a black and white shot of The Silhouettes, a doo-wop group of the mid and late 50s who are most remembered for their single "Get a Job." That one hadn't made it into a poem, until this week that is. Wright tells me that he's just got something started about that photo.

He'll need more photos soon. We need more poems from him, so I pray he gets some more photos up there soon.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Alan Shapiro - Chapel Hill, NC

We are in Chapel Hill between winter "events." Snow lays alongside roadways and mounds up 6 feet high in parking lots. Tomorrow freezing rain is expected, but today is nothing but blue skies and temperatures in the high 40s. We're traveling this month in a red Ford Escape, a so-called intermediate SUV that is jammed with our stuff. If I eat one more meal, we'll have to throw out a suitcase to make room. I wanted the full-sized space, but wanted to pay the intermediate price. In life are such things. 

Winnie Cooper is back in Savannah, GA, parked sadly between two boats at a some kind of fly by night storage facility that will likely be closed and deserted when we return in a month's time. I paid cash for the space. I didn't get a receipt. I might as well have driven the old girl right into the bushes and taken my chances that way. Alas.

We roll into a picturesque neighborhood just north of the University of North Carolina. Bare trees tower above us as we meander down a thin neighborhood road. Trees separate the 30 or so houses in the area. We pass a pretty young girl on her way to school, pink Converse sneakers, bookbag.

We find the driveway to Shapiro's house and turn down it, winding further into the woods. My wife takes off to find gasoline, some coffee, and a route out of town, and I head toward the house. I knock on the door but nobody comes for a minute. I hear music coming from the back yard and make my way - like any snoopy guy - toward it. I pass some stunning 7 foot tall metal sculptures, salvaged metal welded into figures reaching up.

In the shed I see Callie Warner, Shapiro's wife. She emerges from a smoking piece of metal that she and her assistant are working on. She takes off her work glove and shakes my hand, offers to lead me back to the main house to see Alan.

We go in, and after we all chat a bit about the trip, Alan and I take a tour around the house. He shows me several of Callie's pieces, furniture, a breathtaking dining room table made of metal, some paintings. He tells me something about each piece and he's has proud of the work as if it were his own.

But of course he's an artist, too, a tremendous poet and essayist whose work unstintingly peers into human relationships to uncover the elments worthy of praise or investigation. (In some ways, it's a collection of essays called The Last Happy Occasion, that shows Shapiro at the height of those particular powers.)

We go into his study and sit facing each other, the back yard out a large window that Shapiro admits is usually closed when he's working. We talk about the psychological landscapes that make up the work, the interiors where his characters play tense and beautiful scenes.

We talk a bit about how a city kid who called Boston and Chicago home found himself for the past 18 years in a bedroom community in the South. He talks about his great friends and his kids, all loved madly. He reveals that in a given group, he's the most allergic and the most likely to be attacked by bugs. "I'm a human No-Pest strip," he says.

Once we finish, Alan tells me about a book he wants to do next year involving interviews. I tell him about recording equipment, what to buy, what not to buy. Get something made of iron, is the main thing. It will be dropped countless times before the project is done.

We nip outside to take some photos in the brilliant sunshine, and then I go.