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.