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I am a writer but on my desk-top computer I have about 20,000 photos. You do the math on what they say about every picture being worth a thousand words, or as Rod Stewart says, every picture tells a story. Most of my photographs were taken while traveling. Most aren't very good in the way photographers measure quality, but most serve my purpose: reminding me of where I have been and what the place looked like and what I experienced. More than a few have prompted their requisite word count. Sometimes the images even announce how I felt or what I thought without the words. Once I've returned the ones I view most often seem to set off flares of irony or humor, and remind me somehow that I caught a moment and I can always return. Since coming home I've also been reading some of the best travel writing about Croatia and, of course one of my most literate friends suggested I dip into Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an impossibly long (1100 pages) journey through old Yugoslavia in the 1940s. Rebecca West and her husband followed our exact route-- by train from Germany, through Zagreb, and on to Split and the Adriatic coast. I dipped in up to my neck. The book is stunning. She described Trogir, a city we visited, this way: "Trogir ... covers a minute island, lying close to the coast, in the lee of a larger island. It is one of those golden-brown cities: the colour of rich crumbling shortbread, of butterscotch, of the best pastry, sometimes of good undarkened gravy. It stands naked and leggy, for it is a walled city deprived of its walls... Now it looks like a plant grown in a flower-pot when the pot is broken but he earth and roots still hang together." I hope, if I work at it, I can write a poem or paragraph that descriptive. But until then, I'll flip through the photos and thumb through my journal. None of my photographs are as good as that paragraph, but I'd like to end my week of blogging with these images anyway. Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
First Day By mid-morning we had left the harbor and motored into the narrows between the highway and low, hog-back hills pinching in from the starboard side. The shore was lined with black floating barrels anchoring "shells," commercial mussel operations. On each side of the bay the sloping hills beyond were the broken outlines of the ubiquitous stone walls defining the ancient fields where olives and grapes once grew. There were no trees now and the geometry of the fields formed a quilt of antiquity. The ancient city of Trogir was tucked into the next cove south but we couldn't yet see the church tower. It was still three or four tacks ahead of our view. Instead we gazed sated with the simple architecture of the old walls and the sage-green cover of the hills. Only the white windmills revolving on the ridge-line annoyed the timeless feel of sailing. *** View from the head of the bay before we made the last tack for the reach to the island of Brac -- *** The carst of Zagoria forms a layer cake on the horizon and like a knife slashes through the range, forming the gorge where the Cetina River passes through. The river flows from a valley beyond, and in the foreground, Split, sprawled against the hills. *** Bobovise Beautiful harbor, deep and calm. We had a great waitress at dinner who spoke good English. After dinner we walked up toward the castle ruins, but never got there. Grasshoppers in the dry grass, a lonely road headed into the wild dry island countryside. Later, a big storm came from the west. All the rigging clanging in the harbor. Flags flapping. Sky to the north the color of a bad bruise. Locals out on their balconies watching the weather. Betsy said, "This is what forty knots feels like." There were ghosts of that big wind all night, but now the storm waves begin. We could be here all day, riding it out. I love the color of the islands. Sage green. Dark green. Gray green. Purple. Orange. Brown, and the water going from aquamarine to turquoise to gray. *** Hvar Town Another cruise ship has now taken the place of the one that pulled out overnight-- the production line of industrial tourism, and us one level up or down, the yachting crowd, Jenneaus rented by the week for cruising the islands, any islands. Saw one pod of exceptionally obnoxious sun-burnt American tourists on shore all wearing "Red, White, and Booze" matching tees. I'd say here we finally crossed wires with "Tourist Croatia." Later motoring out, old fisherman standing in his tight white underwear in his cluttered wooden boat, pulling in a net. Russell says he looks like the guy in Water World bartering for paper. *** Vis Waking up to the sounds of cicadas onshore. Much more quiet harbor than last night. We went ashore to eat dinner. A place with a live lobster pit right in the middle. We had... Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
When we headed from the coast into the Croatian hinterlands we had only a sandwich the hotel in Trogir had made us for lunch. We expected the trip to take about two hours to get to the Raftrek Adventure Travel outpost, but we'd also expected more road signs, and pavement all the way. We drove west through several larger villages with orange-tiled roofs and simple traffic round-abouts as the highway forked into a network of smaller routes. Soon the interior was as starkly beautiful as any I've ever seen. The rolling country opened up and dried out, covered with brush and gray limestone outcrops, bisected by a grid-work of old dry-stack stone walls. At the two-hour mark we were on a gravel road in the mountains waiting for a herd of goats to cross. We drove on hope and intuition, two elements common on the periodic table of exciting travel. Finally the Zrmanja River valley opened up before us, but there was really no way of knowing it was it. We had a Google map pulled up on the iPad but no cell service and for what-ever reason, the steep sage-green country we were negotiating showed up on the screen as white empty territory, with no village names or locations. We could have been driving through Siberia. "This looks like good adventure camping country," Betsy said and we descended to the valley floor in dusty switchbacks. A good paved road bisected the valley, and we crossed it and entered the village called Kastel Zegarsky. Betsy pointed out the stone cottages were mostly abandoned and many had been blasted from above. There was a burned-out school, but in several of the yards near the river we saw inflatable kayaks, so we followed the raftrek signs to the Raftrek Adventure Travel outpost, a rebuilt country house surrounded by colorful kayaks. A young slender man with blond dreadlocks saw us drive in and greeted us warmly. This would be our guide, Philip. We'd signed up for a day of trekking in the Krupa River canyon and a kayak trip down the Zrmanja the next day. Raftrek would rent us a tent and sleeping pad for the evening and we could camp next to the river. We told Philip we had no food beyond the sandwich and he said not to worry, Bobo, the neighboring sheepherder, would make us another home-made prosciutto sandwich dinner and breakfast and then a prosciutto sandwich for the second day for a small fee. Philip had work to do to prepare the day's river trip before he took us trekking, so he pointed out our campsite and also where we could get fresh water-- a spring bubbling out of the river bank. "Fill your bottles there," he said. Walking to the spring is where I noticed for the first time that the banks of the Zrmanja were lined with wild figs trees. They weren't ripe yet, but they were everywhere. I felt like I'd fallen into a Mediterranean survival... Continue reading
Posted Jul 16, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
For writers travel happens often in both a real and literary space. I always try to track down poetry from wherever I'm going, and sometimes I read novels, essays, blogs. Of course there is always the sketchy narrative presented by Rough Guides which define so many trips from town to town, organized by region-- where to stay, how to order a beer, what history is most important, what to avoid, where to be sure to eat. Sometimes I enjoy the travel guides, and other times I avoid them because I want to form my own opinions about new landscapes and looming cultures. I try not to fool myself into believing that reading the Rough Guides makes me somehow more authentic a traveler than someone who reads a Michelin guide. Guides are guides. As has been so famously said in other contexts, a map is never the territory. I'm very interested in the territory and know when I have wandered into it. Sometimes it's an observed space, as it was watching the old man carry his ruck sack into the train station in the Alps; and other times it's a mundane scene as we witnessed when the Austrian daughter left her demented mother in the coach across from us and we watched the old woman go through her purse over and over for hours. She stayed put and before we crossed into Slovenia someone came on the train to get her. Often I'll read books that don't have a direct connection to exactly where I'm going, but will give me some deep background and present perspectives I didn't expect. When I traveled in China I read a series of books about Americans teaching abroad. I also read an anthology of classic Chinese poetry in translation that had no bearing it seemed on today's Shanghai. When I traveled to Zimbabwe I read the story of a famous local Bishop of the Methodist church and his struggle to maintain a moderate position during the period of nationalism and revolt, but I also returned to a beloved collection of African praise poems. This trip my parallel reading for southeast Europe was English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and Water, one of the books many say is among the best travel writing ever. The book is part of a series by the recently deceased Fermor (who died in 2011 in his 90s), a recreated account of his 1933 walk as a young man from Amsterdam to what he persisted in calling "Constantinople" (of course, now Istanbul). Fermor's book fit me nicely. He's a master at weaving personal narrative, thumbnail sketches of characters he meets along the way, and defining histories of "middle Europe" as he passes through-- Budapest, the Great Hungarian Plain, Transylvania, the Carpathian Uplands. As we rode the train toward Zagreb, and then on to Split and the Adriatic, I read Fermor's lovely sentences and began to form some ideas about being European I'd never considered before. To live in Europe... Continue reading
Posted Jul 15, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
We are rolling through the Slovinian alps and I'm listening to Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark on my iPod-- "I'm always running behind the times, just like this train..." and the 1970s lyrics are lining up perfectly with the way I'm feeling in the summer of 2014, writing in my old-time travel journal, reading poetry, talking on and off with my wife as the hours click past ("settle into the clickity-clack..."). I'm feeling quite old school, two weeks without email, looking out the wide window and occasionally taking pictures: Sometimes of houses Other times of churches near the tracks: And other times just of how the light falls Or some strange track-side architecture Or red locomotives on another track headed the other way Or an alpine valley so deep and beautiful I want crawl out the window Sometimes I draw little pictures of things I see in the distance so I can remember-- churches with steeples the shape of onions, signs, the contrast between mountains and sky. Other times I just keep notes, writing down lines of poems I'm reading from a book of poems by Tim Liburn and start thinking about one of his ideas: "homesteading in otherness." I'm trying this homesteading as I move through this landscape, using my journal as a way to settle for a moment on what passes, what shifts by in the window square. Tim Lilburn's all about attention and so in the margins of my journal I write down the name of every station we pass through and how many hours we've come since Frankfurt, and how many we still have to go before we get to Zagreb: Jesenice, Lesce-Bled, Krang, and Ljububljana: This is the beginning of two weeks of travel, and I plan to blog it when I return, so I'm taking good notes and thinking about it all as I go. The destination is Croatia and everyone is interested in why we're going there. Mostly it's because of the beauty and the surprise of new places. But I'll try to go deeper than that as we move along. It's also because I haven't ever been this deep into Europe and I want to see it to feel it. Tomorrow we'll be on a train again this time bound for Split on the Adriatic Sea. When we get there we'll be "scraping into town with the brakes complaining," just like Joni says. For now it's just Slovenian valleys after valleys opening up like doors. This one reminds me of Yosemite and I wonder what's over there beyond that anvil of a mountain. Maybe next time we'll get off here and go up there. Until then it's onward toward Croatia! Continue reading
Posted Jul 14, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I have a 29-year-relationship with AWP. In three decades I've probably attended ten or twelve meetings in various regions of the country. Several meetings I've forgotten but I know for sure there was one in Savannah, two in Atlanta, one in Phoenix, three in Chicago, one in Albany, one in Washington, and now, this one in Boston. When I told my wife what I wanted to write about this morning she said, "Great, the cranky senior citizen poet's long-term perspective of the largest gathering of writers in the history of the planet." She's right about the size of this conference gathering. There are 11,000 folks here. There are writers, editors, teachers of writing, and publishers, plus various hangers-on. So the sun is rising on Boston AWP 2013, Day One, Thursday, and my two-day blogging adventure begins in the Musak lobby of the Marriott Copley Place surrounded by airline pilots and flight attendants in blue suits waiting for their cabs. Little golden wings shine from each chest and the battered rolling luggage crowds the aisles between couches. Writers and airline crews. Would Walt Whitman believe this collision of missions in the founding city of the Great Republic? Are the missions of pilots and writers similar-- transporting cargo through space and time? The cargo contained in our heads, the baggage we wheel around, is our ambition-- our desire for fame and love and recognition. We crave contact, connection. I would wager my iPad that we all want to be loved and sometimes we even end up hated. (How many poets will be out there tonight avoiding other poets? How many prose writers hate the guts of this or that writer because of a job, a review, a prize? Sometime this conference acts as a vortex for literary malcontents; other times it's the Yellow Brick Road with the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and Little Dorothy skipping toward a hundred versions of a literary Oz.) It's this surprise, this variety, the potential for connection and drama that we pay $199 a night to stay high over Boston and walk through a mall to see Seamus Heaney read poetry. With some writers, young and old, the collision of bodies is what it's about, and with others, it's the collision of minds and visions: book to book, poem to poem, conversation to conversation. I woke up with Robert Hass's line "Snow is falling on the Age of Reason" repeating in my head. The line is from one of Hass's early poems and the memory of it triggered what may be my most enduring AWP memory, my Ur moment as an AWP writer. It was Savannah AWP 1984, my first conference and I sat up until three in the morning in a closed breakfast nook with Robert Hass and the novelist/poet Elizabeth Cox yakkaty yaking, as Alan Ginsberg would say, about all things literary. For hours and hours we sat there, three literary friends at least for one evening, talking as the reveling conference... Continue reading
Posted Mar 7, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
At the Robinson Jeffers Conference the keynote started her talk by saying she'd never heard of Robinson Jeffers until she got the invitation to speak. I told them I'd been reading Jeffers since I was a sophomore in college, about 35 years before I got the invite. I talked about how I have a tower where I write in summers in North Carolina but my tower is sheetrock and two-by-fours, so maybe mine isn't quite as sturdy as Jeffers, but it's still a tower. I thanked my other panalists, both poets, and then I quoted Jim Harrison as cover, "I am the bird, and not the ornithologist." Then I read an old unpublished poem called "Where Three Springs Meet" in which both Oedipus and Odysseus make appearances, and said that makes me mythic and tragic like Robinson Jeffers. In Q&A somebody asked me how I'd come to read Robinson Jeffers in college in the 1970s in the South and I said I had a professor for Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and one day in class he said, "Frost and Jeffers are crap," and so of course I went straight to the library and checked out NORTH OF BOSTON and THE DOUBLE AX and actually liked both of them more than THE CANTOS. I made a B in the class and I still blame it on Robinson Jeffers. There were only about 20 scholars that day at The Robinson Jeffers Conference. There was an Italian scholar who handletters Jeffers books and even had his power point handlettered (well, hand lettered and then photographed). There was a Czeck actor, a woman in her 80s who had played Jeffers' Medea off-broadway and she did one of the monologues in a black wig and thick makeup and a thick accent. She wore a shawl and I thought for the whole monologue it was the golden fleece, but I then realized I had my myths crossed. She ended up sprawled on the floor with a plastic dagger in her breast. And then there was the scholar of literature who has written several Jeffers books who ended his talk by saying, "Jeffers was the only modern poet to read and understand evolutionary theory and cosmology." I asked him about AR Ammons and Theodore Roethke. "What about "Corson's Inlet?" What about Roethke's "The lowly worm climbs up the winding stair?" I'd say that's pretty Darwinian." Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Last week I took a side-step or maybe even a step back in my technological rumba with the literary future. I bought a desktop computer again, a brand new 20" iMac, and when it arrives I'm installing it in what I've always called "my writing work room," the personal sacred space written into our dream house ten years ago. In all the places I've lived since graduating from college 35 years ago I've always had one, a room with a desk in it, a workspace for literature, a dedicated nook or cranny for making art, a place to sit down and cut, hammer, sand and stain poems and prose the way someone might craft a fine chest of drawers out of walnut. Going to my dedicated writing place-- what others may call a study-- has always been a ritual cleansing of the day-to-day, a way of sloughing off my common life and spending tracks of time communing with a different order of creation. I'd go there mostly at the beginning of days to get my "real work" done, before I graded papers or went off to teach. My space has always been centered around a desk and a computer, some book shelves filled mostly with poetry and journals, and walls covered with clippings, broadsides of favorite poems, some shelves and window sills filled with fossils, bones, rocks, and feathers. These remains of other living things have always been a special part of the space. I guess it’s my own way of recreating that old Romantic poet’s trick of writing with a skull on the desk. Except in my space the mortal remains have to be from other living things, my cousins, not my closest kin. As with any good carpenter, I watched my tools change over time. In college I had a noisy Smith Corona plug-in typewriter but I still wrote mostly with pen and paper. I preferred lab notebooks and legal pads. My drafts of poems and musings on the universe often found their way onto these pages. Then I discovered a portable Olivetti typewriter in the 1970s, a small laptop. I carried that green machine around for a decade, and then in the 1980s I left typewriters behind forever, moving to huge desktop portable computer. I purchased an IBM PC ripoff Sanyo for way too much money (I took out a loan like buying a used car) and with it got a white daisy wheel printer the size of a chest freezer and a "tractor feed" paper system. (If you are over 50 you remember such machines.) I stayed with my desktops a long time, not abandoning that writing system until 2003 when we moved in this house. That's when I went totally laptop. I say "totally laptop" because I need to admit I’d been a duel computer guy for maybe fifteen years. I always had a laptop charged and ready to go in a shoulder bag for travel, but it never occurred to me use it in... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
A friend wrote the other day to say that for her a particular place exists mostly in her head. I thought about this and realized that place for me often begins with where I am physically and my relationship to that spot. I mean this literally. I've written in a journal for over thirty years and I often start with where I am. I'll write "I'm sitting in a cafe," or "I'm at home sitting on the couch," or "It's early morning and I'm camping by the river." But right now I'm not writing in my journal. I'm tapping on a key board, but I could still write "I'm sitting on the couch in the living room of our suburban house in upstate South Carolina." Though we are in the suburbs, we have no close neighbors. After a few years we could afford to buy the lots on either side, and so our house sits alone on its own cul du sac, and behind us the yard slopes to a creek and a 250 acre flood plain. After dark we can only see one or two house lights through the winter woods. At first when I started writing this morning I was facing almost due east with my feet on the floor and the sun was not up. I could see this because our house has so many windows and no curtains or drapes. This openness is one advantage to not having close neighbors. Looking out the windows of our house makes me think of the Theodore Roethke poem "Open House," with its opening lines: My secrets cry aloud. I have no need for tongue. My heart keeps open house, My doors are widely swung. Now I've swung my legs up onto the couch (with the iPad in my lap and the dog sleeping beside them) and I'm facing due north. My back is to the creek and the huge open space of the flood plain. Soon I know the light will rise. It's six in the morning, one of the first days of March. I think about my friend and what she said about place. It's not that nothing exists in my head. I'm not fully here in this place. I'm typing on the keyboard of this iPad connected wirelessly to the planet's other wired devices--900 million computers, phones, tablets, servers. I've already checked facebook and email this morning. I know at any moment I can leave here and be anywhere with just a key strike, a button push. My doors too are certainly widely swung. But I'm an old fashioned poet and I'm often uncomfortable with the world's modern connectivity. Sometimes I want to live counter to Roethke's "open house." Sometimes I want to close down, to shrink my connections, to get small and live like Annie Dillard's weasel: "A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two... Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I want to buy a mountain place. I’m looking for the purest form of retreat. I want to put as many one lane bridges between me and the nearest Wal-Mart as possible. But I also know it’s the Southern mountains, and there will always be neighbors, echoing sounds from across the ridge, presences offering howdy waves as I pass on the driveway lined with rhododendron. I don’t even care if I have indoor plumbing or well water. I’m not trying to make visits comfortable for my city friends used to vacation cottages. I not looking for the rural life. I’m sniffing out some 1990s version of what Horace Kephart, in that 1905 classic Our Southern Highlanders, called “the back of beyond.” It’s not so much I want to leave something. It’s more that I want to enter something else. I want a place where I can slow down enough to do a great deal of seeing, even some naming, recording. I want the growth cycles of mountain species--ginseng, trillium, black locust--to become as real to me as fescue. I want to note the change of temperature from evening to morning in a hard spined journal and follow the scream of the piliated woodpecker up the north slope to its nesting tree. I know “faith is sight and knowledge,” as Thoreau wrote in his journal. It is only through mountain summers that I feel I can find a place to exercise both. I want to disappear into the moment that Annie Dillard describes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.” So an aunt dies and leaves me enough money to finally buy some land, and I put the money in the bank and start looking for a mountain in earnest. A friend has this place he wants to sell. He has five acres with a structure he had built himself-- a two story “tower”-- as a writing space. My friend had dreamed of living there year-round, surrounded by trout ponds, organic gardens in raised beds, water from abundant springs. He had gone as far as laying out the septic tank and getting a friend to design a house. He wasn't looking so much for a “back of beyond, but instead comfort and old-time homesteading practicality. He wanted Foxfire more than Walden. My friend lived down the road with his wife and crept up the rutted approach drive once a day to meditate and muse in his plywood tower. He had taken me up once or twice and I told him on the first visit that I wanted to be first in line if he ever decided to sell. Then his marriage broke up, and the place lost some of its appeal, reminding him of a time that has passed. In need of some cash flow, he offered to pass the place on to me at a fair price, considering the energy he’d put into it... Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Mike comes into my tiny office and holds up a new anthology of contemporary poetry. "We'll never be in a book like this," he says with a resolved sadness. We are both in our 30s and have published two chapbooks each and many poems in literary magazines. Mike has even won a few small prizes in poetry contests. But as he himself says, in spite of our small successes, we are very faint lights in the galaxy of poets. "You couldn't find us with a radio telescope.” I'm not thinking much about the galaxy of poets. I’m teaching high school students writing and simply trying to stay warm. It’s the winter semester and very cold for a Southern boy. As I cross country ski that afternoon I think about what my friend Mike’s said and remember some Yeats, “There are too many of us," he’d said as he gazed around the Rhymers Club eighty years before. How poems survive, and how poets survive to write them, are questions that will not leave me as I traverse the snowy landscape of my early thirties in Northern Michigan. I know that Emily Dickenson was a great poet of her age, and ages to come. Yeats must not have been referring to himself, bound as he was surely was to be, as Ezra Pound would say, "the best poet writing in English.” But looking contemporary poems (or poets) in the face, how can we tell who or great-grandchildren will be reading, or if they will even be reading at all? I know whether I appear as a momentary sighting in an anthology, or flame into super novas, like Yeats and Dickenson, is the public business of poetry and I have little to do with it. I also know that the public business of poets begins when I face my desk or notebook each morning. This is the first (and maybe hardest) step toward immortality, toward super nova. Back then when the poems, "feelings into words" as Seamus Heaney calls them, finally crawled out into the light of language, I revised and keep them around like old friends for months or years, adding light to light. Then I stuffed typed pages in threes, fours or fives into white envelopes, added an SASE, mailed them to small and large magazines all over the country. I had some success, but how much success is enough to secure survival? Sometimes Mike is so discouraged he says he is ready to give up on this poetry life. He is not the most patient of men. “Poetry publishing is irrational," he says. “A poet should find great comfort in irrationality in any form,” I say as we walk along the snowy lake front. “We poets are so irrational that Plato threw us out of his Republic.” I’ve heard this complaint before. Every friend of mine who writes crazy, irrational poems wants them published eventually in rationally designed and distributed books. Already, in 1987, I am struggling to find the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 5, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
In Charlottesville I stumbled into a short career as a chef. I was a Hoyns Fellow, a poet, a young intellectual in love with the world inside my head, a world of words, ideas and things. Though I had good friends and teachers at UVA, I preferred town to the university district. There was still a working class feel to downtown Charlottesville back then; the rock stars and movie stars were just beginning to arrive, and the downtown was still rough, especially on the side streets around the old railway depot. It was chance collision that landed me a job my cooking job. I knew a man named Sandy who owned a used bookstore downtown. It turns out, though I did't know it at the time, he also owned the C&O restaurant. Though Sandy owns two businesses in town I would not have called him an entrepreneur. He had a beard that he’s been growing since Woodstock. People said he had a PH.D in Romance languages, and a hundred other rumored pasts. The bookstore had over a hundred thousand titles, arranged loosely in ten small rooms. Sandy kept a list of what was sold on small scraps of paper, stuck on a spindle and cleared at irregular times. I was a regular in Sandy's bookstore and one day when I was checking for new arrivals in the philosophy room, I asked him for a job. All I needed was something to give me a little spending money above my English department stipend. A book stocker maybe? “This is your lucky day. We need a cook at the C&O,” Sandy said. “Have you ever cooked before?” “Shoneys when I was in high school.” “That's good. We don't want someone with experience.” There was only one spot where the warehouses and shops have given over to gentrification, the C&O, the small French restaurant across from the depot that Sandy owned. The C&O was named for the old rail line across the street. Rich people come into town from the county in their BMWs and Jeep Wagoneers to eat there. They’d mix nightly with the drop-outs like me who worked at the C&O, and pass the vagrants on Depot Street who shuffled around out front waiting for a handout. My first day at the C&O the big wooden doors were propped open with a crate of empty Beck's beer bottles. A tall man in a green beret and a faded blue Mexican wedding shirt sat at a table in the hallway, smoking a thin brown cigarette and clove is in the air. He look up, and put down the pencil he was doodling with. This was Spencer, one of the head chefs. He showed me the list he’d been working on. There was veal on the menu for that evening and said he’d compliment it with a sauce he called “Ray Charles.” “We made that one up,” Spencer said smiling. “It's a cream sauce flavored with tangerines, Ray Charles' favorite fruit.” Every day... Continue reading
Posted Oct 4, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Outside beside the door at Copper Canyon press there was a pile of Douglas fir chord wood for the stove. Before I came in to work in the mornings I'd split the wood into smaller pieces, striking at the wood's heart, thinking as I dropped the maul on the top of the round, “This is how separation feels, this cleaving.” I missed something of the South. I missed something of home. But what did I miss? I missed small things, like snakes, the weather, the humidity. Sweet tea at all the restaurants. Hardwood trees turning color. Country music. I did feel lighter out on the West Coast, but maybe lightness was what I really needed. Be the round or be the maul? Which did I really want? I loved the smell of the broken wood, the way it wafted upward out of the inside when the round fell apart. It smelled like Christmas every moment. Even though I missed something I felt like the maul that year, active and strong. I broke another round. I never missed with the maul. I was getting good at that. I lifted my arms in the cool morning air and the maul fell on the round of wood, and it split clean if my aim was true. There was a network of small cracks on top of the round. They were like a road map and if I found the right system trailing over the surface, then I could split the dry wood with one strike. Miss and I pounded on the top, three or four times. I read each round as I stood it up, maps of my lonliness. Maps of the possible roads back to South Carolina. The press was housed in an old blacksmith's shop from Spanish American War days at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington. Every day I went through the presse’s heavy front doors and inside found the smell of old metal and wood smoke. From blacksmith's shop to poetry press, there was a symmetry. The forging of poetry. Its making. Literally, "Standing beside words" as the presses logo suggests. Sam was always who I saw first when I opened the door. He would be folding the Seattle Times into a fan to place at the stove’s bottom, adding kindling-- scraps from the cedar shake mill near the house he shared with his wife and co-publisher Tree-- and then he'd place the thick Douglas fir chord wood on top. “This is how you make a fire burn clean,” Sam explained every morning, very seriously. He was teaching the Southern boy how to do the most simple of things: make a fire, make a book with type, ink, and paper. Every day Sam wore a flannel shirt, old blue jeans, and turquoise bracelet. I remember on one set of knuckles he had a word spelled out in fading tattos: love. Only the outline of each pale blue letter was visible against his white skin. One day Sam... Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Three weeks ago I was in New York City to visit family and do a couple of “salon” poetry readings, one uptown at a friend’s apartment to a group of thirty or so of her literary friends, the other a 9/11 anniversary reading of eight poets in a loft in Brooklyn. Both readings were pleasant literary punctuation to visits with our two sons, now New Yorkers. These recent readings were very different from my first trip to the city in 1978 when I was just a year out of college, a Southern boy from the suburbs of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Back then, New York City was Oz for me, an Emerald City mostly imagined through the lens of Hollywood films, Bohemian poetry, and urban novels. When my first visit to the city finally happened it was anchored by a real reading before a crowd of literary strangers at a smoky bar. My youthful reading at Chumley’s Bar & Grill in the West Village was the first big public event of my life as a poet. Back then Chumley’s had quite a long and colorful history. Opened in 1922 by Leland Chumley, former stage coach driver, the bar operated as a speakeasy /gambling den through Prohibition. There was no sign at the entrance, a oddity still in place when I read there in 1978. During Prohibition days the bar became one of New York City's leading literary dives. There were portraits of writers lining the walls. All the great ones drank there: of course, Dylan Thomas, but also Djuna Barnes, John Cheever, Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, John Steinbeck, James Thurber, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s said the Fitzgeralds ended up there after their wedding party at the Plaza, and after drinking at Chumley's consummated their marriage in one of the booths. Besides being a literary hangout, back then Chumley’s had a regular poetry series run (it’s strange to remember such a little detail) by a woman named Sara. That particular Chumley’s event was a special one (at least for me) called “Carolina Poets Night.” I have no idea how the reading came about, who got in touch with Sara or what. All I know is that it happened and I read with poets Susan Ludvigson and Chuck Sullivan. I didn’t know Chuck at all except through his fine poetry book Vanishing Species, published several years before. I’d met Susan a year or so earlier when I’d been invited as a college senior to a workshop/reading by the poet Donald Hall at Wintrop College. Reading in the Village in a famous old Speakeasy was as good as it could get for a 23 year-old poet from the provinces. I think I took the train up and I arrived a few days early. When I got to town a big blizzard had just hit. I was staying uptown near Columbia University with high school friend. Jim was in graduate journalism school at Columbia and he’d given me directions to... Continue reading
Posted Oct 2, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Had a really great time! Sent from my iphone
Has anyone done research on the differences between poets (or anyone else) who get up early and those who stay up late? A friend of mine once gave me advice that’s worked for me: “Let not one day tread upon the next.” Yesterday did not tread upon today. It’s 6:03 a.m. and I’ve been up an hour. I’m one of those people who goes into a dizzy netherland about 8 p.m. I have trouble focusing. I can’t carry on a conversation. If I’m at a club listening to music as the night goes on the sounds begin to pool in a great basin of undifferentiated notes in my head. On the other hand, I can roll out of bed and be sitting at my desk writing at top speed soon after waking. I have a local weekly column called Kudzu Telegraph and it’s due at 8 a.m. on Monday morning. I never start writing before 5 a.m. the day it’s due. It’s the way I work and I now have over 200 columns in the bag. I think about it all week, but I can’t write a word until early Monday morning. There’s no acceleration lane needed for my imagination if I’m up early enough. Coffee helps (the ritual of it) but I could get started without it. Poetry seems suited to either late nights or early mornings. It’s not my way or the highway in the poetry world. There are plenty of good poems written after midnight. There’s plenty of inspiration to be had after most people are sound asleep. It’s just that Cat Stevens’ “Morning has Broken” inspires me more than Professor Longhair’s “wee wee hours between midnight and day.” If every poem I’ve ever written had a time stamp on it, I’d be willing to bet 95 percent were conceived between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. I don’t think I’ve ever had a literary thought after 9 in the evening. I don’t think I’m in the majority, but I know I’m also not alone. We’ll call my predilection toward dawn “the William Stafford School.” Stafford got up early before the house awoke and did his poetry work. Then he went on with his day of teaching and simply being human—family, community, yard work. The next morning he did it again. And the next again, for over 60 years. In one poem he once said, “The light along the hills in the morning/ comes down slowly, naming the trees/ white, then coasting the ground for stones to nominate./ Notice what this poem is not doing.” The poem is not staying up late, or it would have missed that light. Light is a word that would be common in a concordance to my work as well. “Dark” isn’t there much. “Midnight at the Oasis” I’ll leave to Maria Muldaur, and Wilson Pickett can “Wait ‘til the Midnight Hour,” but I’m going to bed. When I was in high school I rose every morning at 5 a.m. for three years... Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
When I was a young poet I used to work at poems sequentially and with great patience. I would write in the morning soon after waking. I don’t remember how the poems came to me. What I remember is working at them. Back then when I started a poem I would put the first handwritten draft in a manila folder, conjure a title and note the date on the top tab, and place the folder at the bottom of the pile on my desk. All morning as I worked I’d pick up older folders one-by-one and open them and work on whatever draft was on top. The folders included poems in various degrees of completion. Sometime there would be 20 or 30 of them on my desk. After two or three days working on the initial handwritten draft I’d type up (I’m talking 1979 here) a first script in 12-point courier and place the typed page on top of the earlier handwritten drafts. There was no other choice. Courier was the only typeface I had. Once I had the typed draft I returned to making notes by hand with a pen or pencil. I marked up the draft, substituting, clarifying, rearranging. I’d seen library exhibits of multiple drafts by dead masters like Keats, Whitman, and Yeats. I knew that this was often the way poets of the past worked. I believed in continuity. Sometimes I flipped back a few pages and returned to an earlier draft and salvaged a line I’d ruined by revision. Other times I forged restlessly forward typing a new version, adding the new words, line breaks, sections moved to a new spot. This process is not foreign to anyone who is serious about poetry. It’s not the only form of composition, but it might still be the best way to slow language down and make it count, as I believe it should in poetry. The process was much like the composting I do to add nutrients to our garden. Lots of strange stuff goes into that silver can on our counter (daily life). What comes out the next year (writing poetry) is dark humus that when spread, grows good things. Within those folders my early poems built up images and lines like topsoil over weeks, months, years. At some point I’d feel good about what was within the folder and I’d pull it out, type a final clean copy, fold it up with three or four more poems I felt good about, and send the packet out to engage the ongoing conversation of among writers and editors about poetry. When the poems came back (which they more than often did) they never slept in the house. I sent the next batch of poems back out in the same day’s mail. I often waited many months for their return. I was much more patient and persistent back then. That was before the rationalizations about “simultaneous submissions.” Today my process is very different. I abandoned the “real” manila... Continue reading
Posted Mar 4, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
In January I traveled to China for a little over two weeks. I stayed mostly in Shanghai, studying “Tradition & Modernity” with 18 of my Wofford College colleagues. Our lodging was comfortable, a modern hotel on the edge of Fudan University, one the educational institutions fueling China’s mad economic sprint. I’d never been to Asia so everything was startling at first—the sharp, rhythmic speech so far from my own English, the magic sweeping strokes of calligraphy adorning walls and signs, tai chi in the parks, a large smiling Mao statue at the university’s front gate, and sweet potatoes roasting on 55-gallon drums on corners around campus. Mornings there were lectures by Chinese academics. Afternoons we took excursions into the city center, 15 minutes away by bus. I’m not much of a city boy, and so I suffered a little “urban shock” the first few days. The college had given us a generous stipend for food and entertainment, but after the daily commitments I retreated to my room, stunned by strangeness into watching Chinese basketball on TV. Those first few nights I fell asleep by 8:30 p.m. China time and I woke up around 3 a.m. Internet service was consistent in the hotel, and so in the early hours before dawn I surfed the web freely. Before I left the United States I’d downloaded a program on my laptop that would allow me to access the sites the Chinese blocked. As one of our Chinese hosts put it, I could “climb the wall.” I felt like a real revolutionary as I Googled whatever popped into my head. I accessed “The Cultural Revolution,” “The Great Leap Forward,” a progression of national screw-ups by way of Wikipedia. Of course I was a little paranoid too. Was some Big Brother monitoring my every query, in spite of the software? Would I be confronted with my Google transgressions when I passed through Chinese security on the way home? It didn’t take me long to leave history behind and start looking for poetry. Shanghai has 22 million people and I don’t believe any of them had the China in their head I arrived with. Mine was derived mostly from reading Gary Snyder’s translations of Han Shan’s Cold Mountain Poems in the 1970s. I don’t need to tell you that there was no “Cold Mountain” to be found that first few days in Shanghai, and Snyder’s hermit poet hunkered only on cheap silk scroll imitations sold to tourists like me downtown. On our second night we went to the Chinese opera, and I was so tired from the day’s activity I nodded off. As I came in and out of sleep I thought that the characters on stage were speaking nonsense English, and so I wrote a poem as I sat there in the theater. I thought it was a liminal poem and maybe I was balancing on a threshold between cultures, trying to find my way from one to the other. That night I decided to... Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Chuck the Biologist had placed fifteen aluminum Sherman traps all over the old Glendale cotton mill site, Wofford College's outdoor classroom, a post-industrial landscape of granite rubble, twisted rebar, scorched bricks, and rusted bolts. There are two standing mill towers that survived the great Glendale fire of 2004, so when I come out to the field station I always think the site looks downright Gothic, like something out of Lord of the Rings. Chuck divided his Biology 480 students into four teams and dispatched them to roam the property like natural history pilgrims. One group stayed with us checking the Sherman traps. On other sections of the property the small pods of students netted fish in the creek, listened for spring peepers, and conducted a survey sweep of the trails looking for tracks and listing species of song birds. As a biologist Chuck’s specialty is copperheads. Copperheads are poisonous snakes most of the students would only study from a distance. Chuck is different. He likes snakes. He seemed disappointed when he told the students that he expected lots of mice, but that it was too cool for snakes. Chuck had hurt his back digging a hole day before, so he sent me—the poet director of the field station—up the hill to retrieve a trap from one of his carefully chosen hideouts. Chuck had marked each trap’s location with a sliver of red flagging tape. I returned down the slope with a trap that had been sprung. Chuck shook it and guessed there was a mouse was inside. “Soon as the weather hits 70 we’ll find snakes in these jumbled blocks of granite of the old foundation walls,” he said. “Mice mean snakes.” He popped open the spring door, shook the Sherman trap baited with a single pecan. The students watched as a little roan-colored mouse tumbled into the 5-gallon bucket. Chuck looked in and worked his face into a wide smile as if the mouse stood in for something that either pleased him down deep, or offered an omen of snakes when the days warmed. One student squatted in the dirt and thumbed a field guide, looking for a match. “Dr. Smith, it’s either a white-footed mouse or a deer mouse. “Not a meadow mouse?” I said, looking down in the barrel at the little scrap of roan fur with a long tail and little pepper corn eyes. Of course I was referring to Theodore Roethke’s famous poem and his meadow mouse in a shoebox, but none of the biologists got it. “His feet like small leaves, Little lizard-feet,” I thought to myself, “Whitish and spread wide when he tries to struggle away.” I looked in the bucket. The mouse rested in the bottom, a little like Roethke’s mouse, but this captive piedmont mouse didn’t exactly look “innocent, hapless, forsaken” as Roethke had claimed for his poetic species. I wondered why the poet didn’t mention those black mouse eyes, too big for its body? It was the first thing I’d... Continue reading
Posted Mar 1, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Today at the South Carolina Book Festival I decided to descend the antiquarian alley where poetry books live extended lives alongside their more popular cousins in prose. As I walked under the antiquarian banner I thought about the fate of poetry books, how a few end up in libraries, more in private collections, and how some end their bookish lives thrown in a dumpster, or sold by the pound at estate sales. Sometimes the books are very lucky, or the poet is well-known, and they’re acquired by a dealer and peddled like stamps or coins at these antiquarian gatherings. I thought about all this as I strolled for a few minutes among the work of lucky writers who live on in Mylar covers in orderly calculated rows. In the first booth I asked a serious dealer about poetry and he pointed to a glass case and a slim volume, A Green Bough, a poetry book by William Faulkner published in 1933. The book was worth $1500. “It’s not one of his more desirable titles,” the dealer said as he opened the case and flipped to an interior poem. “Everybody wants the novels.” Across from “Faulkner Under Glass” I entered a booth that was much more inviting. I strolled in and struck up a conversation: “What’s the most expensive poetry book you’ve ever sold?” I asked the proprietor, someone I’d bought books from at past festivals. He thought for a moment. “An early collection by Australian Les Murray. Oxford bought it. You know, the real Oxford.” His wife heard us talking, added, “Don’t forget we’ve got a $950 Derek Walcott over here— Last time I checked he was still a poet.” They showed me the Walcott, then an impressive running foot of Billy Collins collections on a high shelf. The dealer pulled one down and opened it. “He’s very popular and sells well.” The books were $50 to $100. “And by the way, you might write down we’re not antiquarians. We sell collectibles mostly—like these Billy Collins books. The thing for me is hearing the poet read. Then I collect their books and get them signed. That signature. That makes them collectible.” “But what about that sign?” I said, pointing up. “It says antiquarian.” He laughs. “Oh, we sometimes get some old ones. I even sold a Robert Burns today. It had a leatherette binding. Got $60 for it. It’s not that I don’t like antiquarian poetry. I do. I’m a sucker for a pretty old poetry book, a sucker for a leather binding.” I wander on down the alley. I think for a flashing moment of all those tables full of poetry books every year at AWP, of all those slender volumes someday soon abandoned and forgotten like all the volumes of the past. My books will most likely be there, joined by most of the poetry ever published. Most poetry books don’t make it to a collector’s shelf. What was it Pound said, write like you can produce one... Continue reading
Posted Feb 28, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
This is my first post for my week as BAP guest blogger and it will be short. Tonight for dinner I ate something called a Liberty Tavern Club. It had an egg on it. It didn’t go very well with my nut brown ale. Actually, my two nut brown ales. I'm out of town for the weekend, attending the South Carolina Book Festival. I’m feeling a little out of context, although I'm only 90 miles from home. I’m out on the road, "barnstorming for poetry," as James Dickey once called these sorts of visits to literary events. I'll admit this blog got me thinking about the poetry community a little more than I usually do. All the way down from Spartanburg I kept pondering the South Carolina Poetry Universe that I've been a part of for 30 years. I tried to define it in my mind. You know, just exactly how far out on the edge of the literary solar system is my little corner of the South Carolina? I even tried to decide about our Captain Kirk. When I arrived in Columbia I had to stop thinking in metaphors and start unloading books. I helped my wife Betsy (above) set up her booth. She's a small press publisher, with Hub City Press, and she hopes to sell a few hundred dollars worth of books this weekend. Hers is the real ground war of literature-- out there hand-selling books. My wife does this on a regular basis. She's good at it. Today she sold almost $500 worth of books to strangers, a few of them even poetry books. When I come to events like this I always want to hob-knob with the local Dylan Thomases, but soon reality sets in. All around Betsy’s booth were hordes of self-publishers who had rented a booth too. They were offering bowls of candy. They were often dressed up in costumes. Why were they willing to resort to carnival gimmicks? They are desperate to swim into the view field of somebody with a telescope trained on a literary universe. But lots of good poets did come by the booth to check in while we sold books, and none of them were in costume. There was Jim Peterson (above), a former South Carolina poet friend down from Virgina for a tribute to recently deceased poet Stephen Gardner, Kwame Dawes (left), director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina’s poet laureate (below) . When I get a chance tomorrow I’ll send in a longer report on this event with a little more detail. You might know the characters, and you might not. Question of the day: Would you dress up in costume to sell a book? Continue reading
Posted Feb 27, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 27, 2010