Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Karen Volkman - Chicago, IL

Karen, a young and brilliant nomadic poet, buzzes me into her apartment in Ukranian Village, a close-knit urban neighborhood just a little north and west of downtown. She tells me she's been here for about six months after more than a year in Hyde Park, a much different part of the city. She tells me Hyde Park is an enclave unto itself, while her new neighborhood is tied to the city in a real way. It's clear which she prefers.

We go up a set of narrow stairs to her apartment. Karen's place is done up grad-school-funky, books on plain wood shelves, a futon, and the majestic $23 desk she bought years ago in New York. It all goes with her in some combination when she moves on, and she's been a lot of places since leaving her childhood home of Florida: Syracuse NY, Houston TX, Boston MA, New York City, Tuscaloosa AL, and Pittsburgh PA.

And in a few months she's on the move again, on to Missoula MT where she'll teach in their MFA program starting in August. It's a terrific job, and they're getting a terrific poet, one with two highly lauded books - and better yet - an adventurous and passionate voice. Her work in her second book, Spar, is surprising and intense. The prose poems are riveting, "relentless" in the words of one reviewer, and a reader can't help but go through them unblinking and silent.

Karen sits on the futon and I face her in a straight backed chair. We run through some of her geographical moves. She laughs easily and often as she talks. She remembers the stunning temperature shift of moving to Syracuse, where suddenly she saw winter, spring, and fall, after two decades of endless Florida summer.

After we talk, I rave on a bit about Missoula, a town my wife and I spent some time in last year, and a place we love. We stand on the street in front of her apartment shooting some photos and it occurs to Karen that she's only got 4 months left in Chicago, a city she's come to love. She gives a sort of wistful look up and down the block, but after we say goodbye she goes inside, up the stairs.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Wherein The Author Eats at The Rainbow

At the Rainbow Restaurant and Pancake House in Elmhurst, Illinois, they really bring the food to the guy at the next table. He starts with a three egg omelette full of sausage and covered with cheese. He's got hash browns, four pieces of toast, a double side of bacon.

His wife and kid sit across from him eating their own food. The kid, about 8 or 9, eats a short stack of pancakes, leaving half of one drenched in syrup. The wife eats a skillet breakfast, two scrambled eggs mixed up with hash browns and peppers.

The guy, though, he's heroic. After his own meal he signals across the room to Anna, one of the waitresses, who comes over within 30 seconds with a stack of 3 pancakes. These pancakes are about the size of the hubcap off a 75 Buick Le Sabre and the guy goes after them with gusto.

Gusto. That's a good word for Chicagoland, a town, an area full of big people, all smiling, 1/2 of them smoking, virtually all of them red faced and ready to give a visitor directions to the nearest place to get a polish sausage. The guy next to me is fat. Now, please understand, I admire him. I love him. What I mean to say is I love this guy. He eats with an abandon that is intoxicating. I'm big, too, as you must know. In fact my exterior dimensions are exactly the same as those of a double doored Kenmore refrigerator freezer. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. I'm not that tall.)

So, my admiration of the guy next to me is hard-won. I pause during my own meal when I see him finish the hot cakes. I'm praying, rooting, dreaming that he'll raise one meaty finger to Anna again and another plate will come. But he doesn't. He drinks some water. Smiles at his family. They pay the check and leave. When he's gone, the place seems a little quieter, a little less fun. My own meal doesn't taste as good.

I shot this sad photo long after he's gone.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Mark Strand - Chicago, IL

There is one real reason people live in Chicago instead of New York: Lake Michigan. On a pretty Sunday morning, I'm sitting with Mark Strand about ten floors up looking out over Lake Shore Drive, while the 70 degree weather pours in through a bank of open windows. The blinds flutter sometimes, and the sound of weekend construction floats up to us as we talk. From my chair I can see the water and I think about heading over there after the interview to walk alongside the lake, watch the joggers and dogs. Peer up the lakeside all the way to Milwaukee or whatever is north of here.

We're just on the edge of the University of Chicago, where Strand has been for the past several years. He is - as it is clear - a revered and monumental American poet of this or any generation. His work is frankly astonishing in its breadth. His early work virtually reinventing what we understand to be the contemporary poem; his later work clear-eyed and unflinching, poems about age and love and beauty and light.

We sit in his white-walled apartment for a pleasant chat that is long-awaited for me. Strand was among about 5 poets I had at the top of my list more than 6 months ago when this journey started. On my first contact, Strand told me that he was flattered I wanted to chat, but that he really didn't have much to say. When it appeared I'd have a chance to make another loop through the area, I reconnected. He was again very kind, but this time our schedules were off-kilter, and he likely would be elsewhere when I was in Chicago.

Finally, I enlisted the help of one of his long time friends. A phone call on my behalf was made; lies were told about how pleasant I was to meet (!), and when I contacted Strand a few weeks ago, his one line response told me to come on.

So we found our way to Chicago and I waited outside his high rise for a full hour, unwilling to risk traffic, tides, or acts of God that might keep me from the door.

Strand, now unthinkably 70, is tall, lanky, and still the handsome rake. It is not unusual to see the word "swoon" in any retelling of a meeting with him. He's soft-spoken, erudite, and he puts me at ease.

He's pleased that one of my early questions probes a notion that he sees in his own work. He develops the idea for me in his answer. We talk about some of the places of his life, Utah, especially, and then Canada, my home, too. He recalls the watery summers in Nova Scotia, blueberry pies, the beauty and the fishing of St. Margaret's Bay. "I still say 'eh,'" he says with a big warm smile, when I ask him about the Canadian things he has retained besides the memories.

After a time we get up to do some photos. He's got six inches on me easy, and I awkwardly raise the camera a bit above my eye level to get him head on. He stands there, relaxed, smiling. He doesn't think to duck down a bit, and I am glad to be there, reaching up, trying to capture him.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Hot Beef

Alongside highway 71 in Missouri, we pulled off in Butler for a bite to eat. I've been doing this low carb thing for about 9 hours so I was ready to treat myself. We found the Dinner Bell Family Restaurant with an empty parking lot and the cook out back changing his oil. We went in, looked over the menu, and I opted for the Hot Beef sandwich. $3.95. It arrived within 3 minutes, a gigantic gob of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, and a nicely cut white bread sandwich overflowing with hot beef.

This is what we eat here in the middle of the country, and were there a job around here it'd be my choice 5 days of the week.

I didn't lick the platter, but that's because I'm classy. But I got any of the excess gravy with my spoon.

Later we headed across the border into Iowa to this tiny town with a pretty little college where I'm interviewing for a job tomorrow. This morning we took in the sights, waved to some Amish folks who were raising a building, and shot a few pictures.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Wherein the Author Catches Up With His 9 Readers

We're on the road briefly after about ten days in Arkansas. Off to a job interview somewhere in Iowa, then on to Chicago to see the terrific Karen Volkman - and possibly another poet, a revered and magnificent writer who doesn't do many interviews. We are keeping our fingers crossed and hope to blurb-icize this news soon. If it all falls apart, you'll never know who it was and I'll retain a bit of dignity.

The book is on target for completion. Have been busy transcribing February interviews and developing film from the past 6 weeks or so.

Early April will take us on the final leg of the journey: Lubbock, Salt Lake City, Logan UT, and Denver. Then it'll be a mad dash to put everything together for the final manuscript. Will be in Arkansas off and on until July at least.

This tree is killing me.

Thursday, March 11, 2004


The good folks at Utah State University Press have made an offer to publish The Poetry of Place in June 2005. We are overjoyed to have a home for this extraordinary project. We will hunker down in NW Arkansas for the next few months as I finish the book.

Wherein We Break the Heart of Winnie Cooper

155 days or so later, we drove back into the restful and pleasant burg of Bella Vista, AR, the home to our furniture, my wife's parents, and a small house we bought last summer. 5 months to the day that we left to head north toward Kansas and the first October interviews, we eased the dependable, honorable, and lovable Winnie Cooper into the driveway and put it in park one last time. Oh, she didn't know what was coming, and, 2 days after making the decision to let her go, we're a little surprised ourselves.

But as the major traveling for the book has ended - we still have one-off trips to Lubbock, Salt Lake City, and Chicago - we simply no longer need the rolling tin can home on wheels.

We toyed with keeping her. We've talked about storing her, keeping her for later, for next summer when we might want to sprint up to Cape Cod for a week or something. But it's a pricey little item and we'd like to get some money back out of her at a spectacularly good time to be in the RV marketplace. She's a 2004 model, it's spring, it's clean and lovely, loaded with features.

We will never forget her, of course. This trip has been the single grandest journey of our lives. The scope of it continues to amaze us. And for nearly all of it we lived in Winnie, snaking up and down the Rockies, wounded but still protected from the howling rain and wind of an Oregon winter, resting on the desert floor more than 200 feet below sea level in Death Valley, spending the night in a rest area in Mississippi. Oh sure, I'm nostalgic now that the "For Sale" sign is on her, but there were dark moments.

It's a small space to live in. Sure, it's got a fridge, oven, microwave, shower, bathroom, dinette, couch, queen sized bed, closets, and cabinets. But it's not like living in a house where there is space between these things. It's not like in a house where you can actually turn around in the shower, for example. (Some days I washed my front; other days my back.) There's nowhere to get away from the wife (or, the husband, as my wife will tell you). There's no basement, no attic, no corner in which you may go and sob when the confinement gets to be too much. (Yes, I know one can go outside. But I'm so sensitive to temperature changes that it's hardly ever an option - unless I'm smoking a cigar...then it's all right.)

Oh, and the plumbing. I've battled with the notion of this story for a few days, and it's clear to me that my gentle readers don't need many details. But, when living full time in an RV, there is the occasional need (like every 3 f&*%ing days) to empty the tanks, a gray one that holds water from the sinks and shower, and the black one that holds - well - the waste and sewage from the toilet.

See, I knew you were too dainty. Several of you just gasped. One of you put your hand over your eyes, and one just turned away from the screen.

A few days ago I was down in a crouch making the necessary connections to empty our tanks and get on to the next town. It's something we've done more than 50 times, so it's not some great technological challenge. There's a big hose, a big spout, and a big hole in the ground (usually called a dump station - love that terminology). There are two handles down there, one for the black tank and one for the gray, and while emptying the black tank, I could tell there was something wrong. The flow was not satisfying. I didn't hear the pleasant "woosh" that lets you know that matter is running freely.

What was worse was that when I tried to close the black tank, the handle would not close. It would almost close, but when dealing with raw sewage, almost isn't enough.

As in every thing we've done these past months, my wife and I each have our duties in any particular task. I buy the groceries, but she did all the cooking. I drove a lot more than she did, but nobody could have navigated us better. I held the remote control to our DirecTV system, but she told me which numbers to press. She will hate me for this, and I am sure to suffer punishments unknown, but in this particular job - the emptying of the tanks - my wife's duties are to put things away once I have done the dirty work. Sure, she rinses the hose as well, but you know what? I wouldn't mind running some clear spring water on a hose every once in a while, and then placing the hose in a bin. That sounds like a little slice of heaven, a walk in the park, an ice cream cone on a summer day. Especially to a guy who handles human waste and pulls the black handle!

Anyway, my wife was behind me, waiting with her little water hose when I made an executive decision. Because the waste wouldn't come to me, because the black tank would not empty, I decided to investigate.

Sure, turn away. This may be too rough for you. Maybe you're all a little squeamish. Go back to your pleasant thoughts and rose gardens. Run, if you must, but this was not an option for me.

I unhooked the sewer hose and the rest of the tale is too horrible to tell. Suffice it to say, when the black tank did "loosen" up, there was a mighty roar and a mighty suffering that befell us. Those clothes I was wearing that day are gone, left in a dumpster in a rest area many miles away. Those shoes. My coat. All victims of my hubris, my stupidity, my desire to tempt the RV God Winnebagus.

But you know, I got clean. It took some doing, a lot of soap and Purell. A lot of those little Clorox handi-wipes. I have more clothes. My skin is red and raw from the scrubbing, and most nights now I still wake in fright, still hearing the sound of the explosions, my own girlish screaming, the smell, the horrible realization that it was too late to hook up the hose. Sure, my wife ran a little water over the hose when it was all done, but we felt that maybe this was enough of all that.

It seemed a sign. We were within a day of "home" when Winnie broke my heart.

But I'd do it again. I'd do everything. I'd swing wide of that house we hit in Oregon (go back to November 16, 2003 if you want to relive that), and I'd leave the sewer hose on next time. But I'd do it all again. I just hope I don't have to.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Frederick Smock - Louisville, KY

Frederick Smock's writing room is spartan and perfect. A tiny wooden desk sits in one corner next to a large wood-framed window (a dozen panes easy). Out the window is the small street in front of Smock's apartment (in a 2 story home from 20s or so). Past Smock's street, but straight out the 2nd floor window, is Cave Hill cemetery, a sweeping and gigantic mid 19th century graveyard where Smock's grandparents rest.

In front of the desk is a rolling wooden chair with two overstuffed pillows. It's the kind of chair one could sit at for a while. The small writing surface is lit by a 9 inch lamp. A few small volumes crowd one side; in the middle is a stack of stapled pages.

The adjoining right hand wall has a single 48 inch tall bookshelf. It's full, but not overfull. The back wall, facing the window, facing the desk, features a tiny end table and a big red futon. I sit on the futon and face Smock in his chair and I notice for the first time a dark and large unframed oil nude against the room's fourth wall.

Smock paints, and later we will go through a doorway to see his painting studio. I ask him about the connectors between painting and poetry and he talks a bit about that.

I ask him about his long tenure as the editor for The American Voice, a splendid literary magazine - featuring work from U.S., Canada, and Latin America - that ceased publication in the late 90s. He tells me about some of the poets whose work graced those fine pages and then pulls out and gives me the terrific end of publication anthology - available through University of Kentucky Press.

I ask my favorite question, the one about a poet's "obligation" to capture something of his/her place in the world. He rejects "obligation," but confesses the job of writing about his part of the world is something that interests him all the same.

The room is quiet and still, and the peaceful space has taken me in. Smock's voice is even, and his motions are muted, tiny. He sips occasionally from a coffee cup. Sometimes his hands clasp. After we finish talking about his poetry and Louisville - and those two things are clearly at the heart of Smock's life. On one wall are about a dozen canvases (for a gallery show, his second ever). He admits freely he's an amateur, but his passion for it is pretty clear. The canvases are all landscapes, each packed with color, most with heavy, dark skies, far-off buildings, the occasional tree in the foreground. They are like a dozen versions of one image, each slightly different. He's working it out, placing and replacing the elements. I'd like to stick around and see the final canvas, where he gets everything where he wants it.

And I'm struck right then by the memory of a poem of his that I'm fond of, one from a literary magazine somewhere. "On the Fields of France" is nine lines long, just a whisper of a poem in some way. But - like most great poetry, and like most of Smock's - it's spare, minus all the things that might hold it down or puff it up. Each line a revelation. Each line a new opening, a new space in the poem, a new idea so unlikely and surprising that there's a breathless little turn down to the next line.

At the ultimate line - a revealing sort of filmic ending with just the moon pouring down - the poem disappears quietly. Its construction is so sure, that the removal of a single image would strip something. The movement of one word would render the mystery unsolvable.

I wonder how many drafts. How many sketches. How many canvases before it became whole.

We shoot some shots by the window, and then go down the stairs into the morning coolness. Smock has on a coat. As I get the camera focused, he looks away from me, across and down the street.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Mark Jarman - Nashville, TN

Winnie Cooper strains in most neighborhoods as I bend her to my evil will, bouncing over curbs, taking down power lines and tree limbs, scaring outdoor pets, and pinning car pool moms and soccer dads to 1/8th of the normal avenue, boulevard, or lane.

But south of Nashville, off one of the main north/south highways, I steer recklessly through the spacious neighborhood where I'll find Mark Jarman. As I drive, I pour back a Diet Coke, dial a pal on the cellie, and look back at my wife who is wondering who ate the last of the chocolate. I throw my head back and howl; the streets are this wide and flat and smooth.

(Who's been on the road too long? But some of the above is true.)

At the end of one pretty and long road, I find Jarman's house. It's the house that Mike and Carol Brady would have built if they wanted some real room. It's right out of the 60s, bi-level facing, slanted roof, set way back on a large lot, surrounded by a wide variety of hardwood trees, a giant Y-shaped Cherry number right in front.

Jarman meets me at a big glass door and takes me in on the main floor. Light pours in from the back of the house where I can see through to the back yard. It used to be horse pasture, he tells me. There are some houses back down there in the valley now, but you can just see their roofs. Jarman's back yard is heavily wooded, filled with birds and bird feeders, a few stray limbs from the giants that were here on this wonderful spot long before the house.

And the house does come from the 60s, built by the Speer family, a long-living gospel singing group - still going, run by a grandson now as the New Speer Revival. But the Speers sold the house to someone after many years, and then Jarman and his wife and family bought it. They've been here a dozen years and what I see of the house is homey - and (seemingly) run by a large and lazy cat who sees me, but doesn't even bothering raising an eyebrow as I come in, visit, or leave.

Jarman sits with his back to a four sided fireplace and I sit opposite him at a big wooden dining table. I set up the gear and we get to the questions. I do my best in all of these interviews to simply ask the questions, record the answers, but today is a little different. Regardless of my desire to stay out of the way of answers, Jarman's ideas about place are so like my own that I find myself jumping in, having more of a real conversation than I normally do. He talks a little and then I tell him some of my own answer, sometimes as it comes from my own work, other times as it is drawn from earlier interviews.

I have a real sincere love for Jarman's beautiful, nostalgic, and haunting poems. In person, he's quiet, serene, getting over a cold, but focused and alert at my questions. I ask about one of my favorite pieces of his in context of an earlier question and I get just what I really want, an explanation of how that poem came to be, what the trigger was, some of the inner workings. Good inside stuff, and for a fan of poetry, it's one of those little 5 minute chunks of time that has made this trip worth it, just for the stories.

I've got other poems of Jarman's I'd like to ask about, but I've taken the time I've already asked for and I've got the answers for the book. We go outside to the big tree in the front yard and I maneuver around Jarman for a few shots. He tells me to drive safe, checks to make sure I've got the right highway to take me toward Kentucky, and we say goodbye. The book of his I wanted him to sign is still in my big bag. I'm paging through it now.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Natasha Trethewey - Decatur, GA

No city offers a more stunning transition from its ring of highways and interstates to its inner hub of suburban plots. Coming into Atlanta - really, anything within 70 miles - is like driving on the Ugly Highway to Ugly Town. The gray slabs extend to 4 and 5 lanes in every direction. Cloverleaf after cloverleaf - almost all of them under construction - web together endlessly. The pines that line the road obscure everything else that might resemble a place one would want to spend some time, and the cars just hurtle onward, onward, grim death grip, smoldering tires, 18 wheelers pinning you into one lane or the other.

But once you leave that behind - and in our case, slip into Avondale, an eastern suburb - large sweeping yards and one-story ranch houses line each road. Businesses cluster at intersections, but as soon as you leave them behind you are back in another pretty neighborhood. They all have churches with towering steeples, small parks with grinning kids. Houses are brick, surrounded by bushes and trees. It looks like a great place to live until we see a sign that says: "1 Bedroom Townhouses from the low $500,000s." Never mind, but it's still pretty.

We curl Winnie Cooper in and around Avondale until we hit Decatur, another beautiful eastern suburb. Natasha has told us there's a church parking lot near her, and we find it easily. We've been back in Winnie for about a week after the long cold February trip without her, and everything is cozy once again. I leave my wife behind - she's always happy to have some time to herself to catch up on her own stuff, bills, email, writing her own blog, just time to think about what a swell guy she could have married had it not been for me - and I stroll across the street to the gigantic 2-story set of condos where I'll find Natasha.

The building has all the cool Southern stuff, the columns, the weathered brick - though I learn it's sort of faux-weathered. It's from the 30s, was a boarding house for years, and for the last few a set of small but cozy condos. I poke my foot in the black dirt along a walkway and straighten some pink and yellow pansies that look like they're fixing to go across the road. When they're back in place, I go to the front door.

Natasha buzzes me up and I meet her and her husband. We stand in their glittering kitchen - not just spectacularly clean, but ringed with stainless steel appliances - and then Natasha and I go and sit on two overstuffed couches in the living room. I tell her a little about the most recent steps in the journey and we get to the questions.

She was born in Mississippi, and now makes her home next door in Georgia. While she's spent time elsewhere - and professes a love of the northeast, where she has spent time earning her MFA and completing a fellowship - she's back home in a sense here in suburban Atlanta. She talks about the Mississippi coast, her grandmother's house - which is surrounded by rural beauty on one side and pinned into the earth by a gigantic highway billboard pillar on the other - and feels totally at ease in this pretty New South suburb. She loves sitting on the wrought iron-ringed porch, and she has a wonderful academic home just 5 minutes at Emory.

I'm interested in her second book, Bellocq's Ophelia, a collection of poems inspired by a number of turn of the century photographs of prostitutes by E. J. Bellocq. The research was intensive, and Natasha used everything at her disposal, including her own youth along the Gulf Coast, and her father's (the poet Eric Trethewey) tenure at Tulane University.

We finish chatting and I encourage her out to the front of the building to get some shots. She hates the camera, and has professed a real distrust of the whole process, but the photos are great. I can tell it's irking her to pose there, but what can I do. I try to get her to smile and she does, a big happy grin. I click fast, and let her go back inside.