Monday, April 12, 2004

Bin Ramke - Denver, CO

We left Logan, Utah in brilliant sunshine on a cold spring morning, and headed east through valleys and passes toward the Colorado border. Before we reached
the stateline we hit a tiny town called Garden City, right on Big Bear Lake, a splendid body of water that emerged before us hundreds of feet below as we descended to it.

With food once again driving my desires, we found the only restaurant open, the Hometown Inn, a place
that advertised their famous raspberry shake and completely run - it seemed - by 14 year olds. Missy took our order and Melissa started the food cooking. Once the burgers were ready Melissa went out the employee door to the front of the place to neck with her surly boyfriend, someone I believe who must be named Snake or Spike. He was sitting in his Camaro, passenger side, smoking a cigarette. They provided us a good deal of entertainment while we ate. I'd have a bite, have a drink of water, and then turn to see how Spike was doing negotiating the gear shift and Melissa's blue Hometown Inn apron.

Inside, Missy asked us a couple of times if our food was okay, then she'd rest her elbow on the counter, place her chin on her hand and stare out at Melissa and Spike as well.

The town was picturesque and clean and snug against this brilliant blue lake. We could see deer across the road munching on the grass and a gigantic mountain pushed against us from the west. I wanted to say to Missy - who might have lost the affection of Spike weeks ago (who knows?) - "What a great town. You must love it here." But of course I'm in my 40s. I've been in small towns and big cities. I've seen enough to know that a place like this is made for me. The city was great when I was in my 20s, but now I just want to reduce the people in my life and increase the trees and mountains.

But as Missy stared out the window, I sensed she was waiting for the end of the shift, the end of high school, and the start of her life somewhere away from here.

After we finished our food we took the trash and dropped it in a bin. Melissa had unhooked herself from Spike and was back inside cooking up someone else's hamburger. I looked for a tip jar, wanting to leave something for the kids. Missy, who I imagined would one day make it at least as far as Denver or Salt Lake City, and Melissa, who I knew would figure Spike was a dead end pretty soon and would need to get out of here as well.

We spent the night in Fort Collins, 60 miles north of Denver, and when we emerged from the hotel the next morning we saw snow on the ground, and our truck covered with ice. It was in the 20s, and though the sun was shining, the wind tore through us.

We drove down I-25 to Denver and then found our way to the University of Denver where I'm scheduled to meet with Bin Ramke, a terrific poet and editor whose work I've loved for years. Aside from his own poetry, he's widely revered for his work as the editor for Denver Quarterly and the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series. His choices for both venues are always impeccable, clear, lyrical work of a wide variety, always challenging, always opening.

Ramke greeted me warmly in the hallway outside the Quarterly's suite of offices and we went in his personal office. We talked a bit about the trip and he asked after some of his pals I've seen on the trip.

We ran through a bit of his geographic history, youth in east Texas, college in Louisiana and Ohio, then a decade long academic start in Georgia. He's been in Denver now for nearly 20 years and provides a lot of insight into how his youth in the South fits together with his long time in the West. He talks about the mountains that surround this large western city as barriers, as an isolating influence for the residents here.

For the past few years he's taught as a visiting writer in Chicago at the Art Institute, and he talked about the interesting dynamic that created, Fall semesters in Chicago - with endless museums and everpresent public transportation - and then Spring and summers in Denver, a more sprawling city where cars and highways fill every conceivable space in between the mountains.

We chatted long after the normal range of these interviews, and I would have happily continued. But the highway called. Ramke walked out with me, met my wife, and the three of us chatted a while longer. The sun was brilliant, and the company was welcome.

When we got in our car and headed east, it was with the knowledge that this last gasp trip to the west was over. It was just 750 miles back to our temporary home in NW Arkansas. The next months will see one last interview (with my MFA mentor, the poet Henry Taylor), and hours and hours of work putting the book together for a July deadline with my publisher.

We drove out of Colorado, into Kansas, and watched mile after mile of empty, fallow fields. Each minute now seems full of import, full of examination of what these 6-7 months have meant to us. A journey that in some ways just started, is nearly over. What have we learned? What do we want? What next? Where next?

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Kenneth Brewer - Logan, UT

Traveling north out of Salt Lake City, we are stunned by the remarkable landscape changes just an hour or so up I-15. We turn east and plunge into a part of the Wasatch range, and when we emerge on the highway to Logan, we are surrounded by deep green valleys, pastures, horses, cows, pretty farm houses. It's like the lushest part of Iowa, but at 5000 feet, and surrounded by snow capped mountains.

Logan itself, the home to Utah State University (and USU Press, this book's publisher!), is gorgeous. Neatly cared for houses spill up and down the ever-present valleys. Downtown is neat and closed up tight on a Sunday morning. Families travel wide white sidewalks on the way to one of several churches, the most stunning, the Logan Mormon Tabernacle.

Ken Brewer meets me the door and helps me negotiate a truce with Gus and Jasmine, a pair of lively Schnauzers who are interested in either tearing my fingers off or licking me to death. (Poets & Dogs chapter coming up next week, perhaps.)

Ken is a gentle and genial host and we have a long friendly chat in his comfortable living room. A westerner since the early 1960s, he delights in debunking for me some of the more romantic myths, including gunfighting and the "singing cowboy" phenonmenon. Ken's a realist and loves to show the places of his life in clear, unvarnished colors.

The current poet laureate of Utah, he's preparing to work on a large archiving project, meeting and videotaping scores of Utah poets. I understand the kind of planning that a journey like that takes, so I make a mental note to keep in touch with him with tips on recorders, etc.

Ken's wife has the yard blooming already in this early spring, so we go outside to shoot some photos. We talk about a shared pal, someone who taught us both, Ken 30 years ago and me almost 20. Since I'm going to see this pal in the coming month Ken enlists my help as a messenger and runs inside to get something to take along with me.

We shake hands and we're back on the road. We have 500 miles to go tonight, and as I leave Ken in his yard, the Cache Valley spreading out beneath him wide and green, I once again find myself wishing I was home (wherever that is) already.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Paisley Rekdal - Salt Lake City, UT

I don't know what was more frightening, the rapid fire barking of Hana, one of Paisley Rekdal's beautiful (large) dogs, or the size and chocolate content of the enormous pastry I was served. Both items took much of my
concentration during my visit to Rekdal's spectacular and sunny home on a hillside overlooking Salt Lake City.

But I'm exaggerating. I'm given to hyperbole. Hana settled down, and I ate almost half of the pastry. I was unable to lift the other half, such a chocolate-foggy-stupor I was in after a few bites. (I'm just joking about all of this. I love when there's food...not just on this trip, but anytime
I'm anywhere. Serve it up. Bring it with you. Leave it in a sack for me to find.)

But in between all of that, Rekdal and I spent part of a sunny spring morning in her front room. She sat on a giant sofa and I was across the room in a large chair. The dogs took turns coming in for love or pastry, and I drank hot peppermint tea out of a heavy ceramic mug.

I was turned on to Rekdal several months ago by a colleague of hers, and I've fallen for her work. She loves the west, the inhospitable quality of it that she discovered years ago when she first moved to Wyoming. Now in Salt Lake City - still a small, somewhat hidden, and awfully misunderstood place to many big city folks - she finds just enough of a mix of things - good restaurants, the towering mountains.

She tells me about the house, about 100 years old, two stories with an attic. She's only been here six months but she's already had to deal with 60 pounds of peaches off the trees in the front yard. (There's a LOT of peach jam in the building; that's all I'm saying.) She's painted the
interior already, making it hers. She has her space for working, a private area which she dedicates to writing and nothing else (taxes are done in another room). She's started a garden. She's been here less than a year, but the place she's made is homey and comfortable.

After we talk, we shoot some photos inside. Then we take the dogs out front - where some new flowers are bulging out, purples and yellows. After Shumai eats a little dewy grass, I get a few photos of all of them on the steps. And then I go.

Friday, April 09, 2004


The trip - which at times has threatened to swallow us whole - is winding down faster than we thought. We are on this last leg through Texas, Utah, and Colorado, and with a couple of days off we found ourselves in southern Utah near two gigantic national parks, Canyonland and Arches.

Like normal tourists, we loaded up the sandwiches and cameras and went for another of a seemingly endless sight-seeing obligation. You know what I mean? You end up in Yuma and someone says, "You gotta see the old jail." So you go. You shoot nine pictures of it. You touch it. You buy a postcard and a t-shirt, then start looking for a Taco Bell.

But as we roll into Arches, we are greeted with towering sandstone spires that reach to the sky, gigantic slabs of red rock, some razor thin, that all crowd the snaking road that leads through the park. It's stunning and humbling, and nothing at all like a normal tourist stop.

We spend most of two full days seeing what we can, hiking across sandy canyons, which sometimes lead right to sudden and beautiful grassy pastures, to see sandstone arches. In the northern section of Canyonlands, we stand on sheer cliffs that fall hundreds of feet and look over hundred mile views. I don't even notice if it's a pepperoni or salami sandwich, if that tells you anything about how the place gets my attention.

As yesterday was winding down, we found a rock outcropping over the Green River valley and sat on the stone, cross legged in complete silence. I thought a lot about the journey, the places we'd seen. I looked for deep reverential meaning it all. Why here now? What's this place about? Why do I get to see it?

I thought about the tremendous toll that the trip has taken on me, the long hours of writing, interviewing. The travel which just blurs towns and states and people together. I think about the maps and the directions. I think about my poor wife - who gets to hear the long version of this paragraph daily - who has stood by me since the nutty idea was born almost a year ago.

Why doesn't she just push my fat ass off this ledge?

Monday, April 05, 2004

William Wenthe - Lubbock, TX

William Wenthe, when referring to his move from bucolic Virginia to hardscrabble Lubbock, Texas, calls it geographic shock. The New Jersey native had made a real home in the area in and around Charlottesville during his pursuit of MA and PhD degrees, so had some adjustments to make when arriving in this splendid but isolated panhandle city.

As an adopted Texan with nearly 15 years in the state of my own, I can appreciate the transition, but also envy anyone who's still living in the gigantic and friendly borders.

But Lubbock is in the flyway for a wide variety of aviary life, and Wenthe - a bird lover since youth - finds that comforting. While we talk in the study of his pretty brick home, Wenthe runs down a long list of birds he sees in the area.

The wildlife in the house is pretty great, too. Zero, the aging and blind - but independent - cat keeps us company during the interview, twice bumping his nose into my intruding tripod, but getting a fair amount of attention in Wenthe's lap. And Eddie, the fiery Corgi makes a welcome appearance early on, alternately barking at and licking the visitor. Wenthe's wife rescued me from Eddie - or maybe Eddie from me - after it was clear I was never going to get to the interview otherwise.

Wenthe tells me about a visit from one of his New York pals a few years ago. As they drove through the barren landscapes north of the city, Wenthe was revelling in the rich tapestry of sky, earth, and clouds, and his pal said: "Boy, there's nothing out here."

It was then that Wenthe knew he'd crossed a threshold. The geographic shock was over. The landscape had taught Wenthe what to see and how to see it, and suddenly Lubbock and environs was home.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Lars Fad - Yopo, IL

We follow I-55 looking for a state highway, then take it into a regional park where we pick up the first of two dirt roads on our way to Yopo, a tiny town about twenty miles from Kankakee, Illinois. When we pull up, the poet Lars Fad is waiting on a large painted glider. He gives a big wave and heads over to us. He is wearing a striped shirt, long khaki shorts, and flip flops. It is 33 degrees and it is raining like that scene in Year of Living Dangerously.

He shakes my hand and kisses my suprised wife's outstretched hand in a sort of continental fashion and then the three of us go inside his log cabin. "I built it myself," Fad says. "From a kit. It's really quite simple if one follows directions well and has an inordinate amount of time and patience. Of course it helps to have an endless supply of grad students, too." His laugh is high and piercing.

Fad shows us around, lets my wife hook up our laptop at his kitchen table, and then he and I go into his study to talk. He's fascinated by my minidisc recorder and only drops it once while turning it over and over like it was a shiny stone. "You look tired," Fad says, by way of getting us started.

Fad has lived in Yopo for the past fifteen years, writing and publishing his work widely in literary magazines all around the country. His second book has just been released, Two Nights in a Castle (Kankakee University Press), and he's giddy about the future.

"I turned my back on New York and the publishing world a dozen years ago," he says. "I turned my back on all of them. And here I am." He slaps his hands flat down on his legs. "Tenure. Books. This cabin, really my sanctuary. It's a sacred place to me," he says, suddenly solemn, almost whispering.

He tilts his head back and admires the open beam rafters. "In this room, my friend. In this room I let the muse dance with me." He looks at me, nods a bit, closes his eyes.

After we finish our chat, he brews up some cinammon tea on a large wood stove. He invites my wife out back now that it has stopped raining and he points out mushrooms on the ground. "Later," he says, "some of my students are coming out and we're going to use the mushrooms in a nice barley soup I make from scratch."

I shoot some photos of Fad out in his back yard. He first of all runs inside to get his cape. We shake hands all around, this time with Fad embracing me furiously and whispering: "Keep writing. Keep the words coming." He whispers something to my wife as well, but I can't make it out. She rolls her eyes once we're in the car.

We're backing out down the muddy bog of Fad's driveway when suddenly we spot him running toward us with a book in his hand. "My first book," he shouts in at me. "I'd like to give you a copy."

"Thanks very much," I say, reaching out my hand.

He lays the book open on the hood of the car. "It's out of print of course. Those sons of bitches in Urbana froze me out years ago. I told them I would rather photocopy my next book then have them make a mess of it." He tilts his head at me and poises a pen over one of the first inside pages. "It's ten bucks unsigned. But if I sign it, I'll have to charge you fifteen."