Friday, September 3, 2010

Buffalo buffalo Buffao buffalo buffalo ...

In Buffalo I stayed with Joey Yearis-Algozin, whom I'd met once or twice before in Philly — formerly a Temple English M.A. guy, now a Buffalo Poetics Ph.D. guy, and a friend of Greg Laynor and Steve Zultansky. We have similar aesthetic influences and alignments, and got on real nice.

The morning after I arrived, I headed to the SUNY Buffalo campus to meet Mike Basinski, curator of the poetry collection at the rare book library. It's one of the most extensive collections of its kind, and Mike was enthusiastic — almost giddy — about its mission. I told him about some friends of mine who run publishing imprints, and he gave me business cards and told me to have them send copies of everything they put out. The approach of the Buffalo collection, he said, starts with the ideal of acquiring every volume of poetry published in English — utterly impossible, obviously, but appealing as a galvanizing goal. Mike gave me a little tour of the art and artifacts on display in the reading room, including a pair of James Joyce's glasses, a few of Ezra Pound's walking sticks, and many, many Jess paintings.

Michael Basinski, Buffalo

My next interview was with Kaplan Harris, who had to do some work at the rare book library anyway and agreed to meet me there. Kaplan is an editor and critic — not a poet — so instead of reading poems for the recording, he pulled up the endnotes from the forthcoming Robert Creeley selected letters (which he's co-editing with Rod Smith and Peter Baker) and laid a few on me. Kaplan spends a lot of his time in and in contact with archives, which I find to be a fascinating and rather glamorous vocation. (The piano in the photo below, by the way, was painted from top to bottom by Jess.)

Kaplan Harris, Buffalo

I had to kill an hour or so before meeting Loss Glazier, so I walked around the campus a bit, got a salad at the food court, listened to an audiobook version of Mile Davis's autobiography. At this point in the book ("book"), Davis ("Davis" — voiced by LeVar Burton) was talking about the depths of his heroin addiction. It was a beautiful sunny day, and there I sat on a bench by a pond, listening to horrible stories of pimping whores to pay for dope, watching friends wither and die, attempting again and again to quit, again and again getting drawn back in. I was very tired, and had come down with an awful cough. This isn't a story that goes anywhere, but that hour is inordinately vivid in my memory.

And so Loss picked me up in front of the art building and gave me a ride over to his house. He made Cuban coffee for us, and we talked about the curious field of digital poetry — its wide-open promise in the mid-'90s, and its maybe less-than-spectacular history since then. We could hear a field mouse in the walls while we recorded, and it was really getting on Loss's nerves. He said it had been around for the last day or so. Halfway through our interview, lo and behold, the mouse ran across the foyer adjacent to where we were sitting and got caught in a glue trap. Loss got up to make sure it was really done for, and he was all smiles when he found it was.

Loss Pequeño Glazier, Buffalo

Joey and I met up with his friends in the evening, and it was then that I came to understand why Buffalo is such an appealing place for graduate work. Theirs struck me as a great social knot — these people are on all the time, talking, talking, endlessly. We hung out on the roof deck at Joey's girlfriend Holly's place, and it was a solid gang of friends of friends: Divya Victor, Chris Sylvester, a fella named Gabriel, and a few other names I've forgotten. We talked on and on and on, late into the night — about, of all things, poetics. The conversation was intensely centered on aesthetics and poetry and poetry culture in a way I haven't quite seen before. I could tell they'd been over some of the territory before, and all knew one another's dispositions and chinks and rhetorical tacks, and occasionally Joey would lean over to me and explain some fine point of BuffPo arcana. Really great fun.

I did an interview with Joey in the morning, and the conversational inertia continued nicely from the previous night. I antagonized him playfully at every turn, drawing out, perhaps, some shared misgivings about our shared aesthetic tastes. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I find misgivings healthy — the only way to keep moving forward, really. I think I got some good tape.

Joey Yearous-Algozin, Buffalo

Next I talked to David Hadbawnik, another Ph.D. student in the Poetics Program. David's writing is rather different than conceptual work Joey does — more oriented toward attention to daily experience and careful play of language. His reading included a few poems out of Translations from Creeley, a tiny chap in homage to the style of its namesake. We talked about his magazine, Kadar Koli, and his attempt to cross-pollinate between Poetics Program people and unaffiliated Buffalo poets with the reading series he runs. Each event is hosted in his living room, and features one writer from each side of the fence.

David Hadbawnik, Buffalo

From outside the Ph.D.-sphere, my last interview in town was with Aaron Lowinger. Aaron grew up in Buffalo and got his B.A. at SUNY, during which he took four classes with Charles Bernstein. He then went back for an M.A. in linguistics. His writing is wide-eyed and refreshingly un-serious — very funny stuff. We talked a bit about Charles's teaching style, and Aaron's subsequent employment as a social worker. He was holding his infant son in his arms for much of the recording, so there are many endearing coos and gurgles in the background.

Aaron Lowinger, Buffalo

After Aaron and I finished, I headed to Holly's for very good homemade fish tacos on the roof — much the same crowd, much the same chatter — then caught a bus to Michigan at midnight. And that's where I'll leave the story for today.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Way Back in Toronto

My, my, this trip has been exhausting. Many apologies on the radio silence, but the scope of these posts has made them difficult to finish in a timely fashion. I'm reminded of the introduction to Don Fiene's R. Crumb Checklist, in which the author talks about getting in contact with Crumb but finding him unwilling to give much assistance because he was too busy being an active living artist to exert energy on an encyclopedic account of his achievements so far. That is to say that the podcasts are the point, and the blog is secondary.

In any case — I'm currently in Long Beach, California, on a bus down to San Diego. For this short leg of the trip I was lucky enough to get a bus with wi-fi, but for the last 34 hours I've been without any connection at all. And I spent the night before that in San Antonio, stranded by Greyhound and forced to get a room in a fleabag motel — again, with no connection. However, that's a story for another day! I'll keep it chronological and pick up back in Canada, 4000 miles away.

I arrived in Toronto at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, and the streets were deserted. I had no map, no web connection, and nowhere to be for nine hours. This has become a familiar situation.

So I set out in search of a place to sit. Lacking any other way of orienting myself, I started walking toward the CN Tower. I walked and I walked, and the sun came up little by little. Everything was closed. So after 20 minutes or so, I made it to the tower and just looked up for a while. It is indeed very tall, just like they say. It certainly isn't a beautiful structure from 50 feet away — just a big block of concrete with discolored patches up and down the sides where they've made repairs over the years. To my sensibility, naturally, that made it more appealing.

CN Tower, Toronto

I kept schlepping, and within a couple blocks I found a Tim Hortons that had just opened. Hallelujah. Got a coffee and a strawberry jam donut. Timmy's isn't the kind of place where one is encouraged to sit and work, so I took the single outlet in the place — presumably where they plug in the vacuum cleaner — and sat there for the next five hours. A hotel nearby had an open wireless connection.

Around noon I decided to take a walk, so I made my way over to the St. Andrew's Market, which isn't a "market" at all but rather a couple streets where vintage clothing stores and organic produce places and various other alt-ish shops have sprung up together. I assumed there would be a bookstore or two, but was rather surprised to find that there weren't any. I'm not sure whether this is a business opportunity or an indication of the local appetite.

So I walked over to Chinatown, a block away, and had some very strange dumplings for lunch. They were pan-fried, but prepared in a way I've never seen before. The cook had added a small amount of batter to the huddled dumplings before taking them off the heat, so a thin disc of crispy dough ended up fused to each, the whole mass connected in one big unit. This was carefully flipped over onto a plate, so the dumplings themselves were hidden beneath the disc when the dish was served. And I really wanted to enjoy eating this odd presentation, but the dumplings themselves were a little off. A little too greasy, and a little unpleasantly sour. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood — who knows. I ate them all, anyway, and was biologically nourished.

Pretty soon it was time to catch the train up to Paul Dutton's place, a little house just to the north of the city center. Paul and I ended up hitting it off right away, and we recorded for an hour or more. He's a guy with some strong, strongly-worded opinions about writing and culture, so it was fun to get him going. I didn't have any obligations for the rest of the day, and ended up hanging out with him for seven hours or so. After we finished our recording, he took me out back to show me his pear tree and vegetable patch, and even gave me a few ripe pears to throw in my bag. We talked and talked about music and books and 1910s newspaper comics and bpNichol and Bob Cobbing and on and on. He pulled out volume after volume of concrete poetry to talk about, including a lot of rare Cobbing stuff. He also told me about listening to a rock and roll station out of Buffalo back in the 1950s, not knowing that the DJs and musicians and intended audience were all black. It was a good time.

Paul Dutton

I left Paul's with a grin on my face and a handful of new books in my bag, and around midnight I got to my friend Sean Cole's apartment in northwest Toronto. We got a beer — Labatt 50 — and sat and chatted for a bit. Sean writes poetry, and he's also a public radio guy — a reporter for Marketplace, in fact. So we talked about audio gear and interviewing techniques and so on. He was quite excited about my trip.

In the morning I met Ken Babstock, which I think went well. He's got a pretty wide audience in Canada, and he'd been recommended to me just a few days before I got to Toronto. We sat in his small backyard for the recording, which ended up being a bit of a technical challenge. One of his neighbors was cutting plywood with a table saw the whole time, so every few minutes the noise would rise up and drown out our conversation. We'd sit and wait, and when the neighbor was finished we'd take a step back in the conversation and pick up there. I'm not looking forward to editing this one.

Ken Babstock

I sent emails for a few hours in a little restaurant nearby, then headed up to Sean's to get cleaned up for the evening. I'd been in contact with Alana Wilcox — senior editor of Coach House Books — before coming to town, and she kindly offered to rustle up a posse of writers to get together for a drink. This she did, and I met the gang at the Victory Café, near the Coach House office. We got a table outside, and as the night went on the group expanded to take over a couple more. There were ten or fifteen people at one point, but I lost track. In any case, it was a great array of personalities. Alana was there, of course, and the poets Matthew Tierney and Kyle Buckley, and Leigh Nash and Andrew Faulkner, who run the Emergency Response Unit imprint, and Bill Kennedy, and a handful whose names I've forgotten. Karen Solie and Christian Bök were in town, so they came too. Christian was a great resource, giving me lots of recommendations on people to talk to in Vancouver and helping me set up interviews with Matt and Karen. It was the eve of his birthday, incidentally, so we drank many toasts to him.

Leigh and Andrew and I are similar in age and disposition, and we talked on and on in a half-crazed way, coming up with elaborate plans for collaborations that will probably never happen, etc. etc. They gave me some of their broadsides, and I talked up my poet friends on the East Coast. Good fun all around. The crowd didn't disperse until well after midnight.

I caught a few hours of sleep, then got up bright and early for my busiest day yet: five interviews. The first was with Sean Cole, my host. One of the topics I remember discussing was the small community structure of the public radio world and its similarity to that of poetry. He has a good radio voice, as you'd imagine, and a relaxed presence on the mic. I learned a good bit about recording from him, just by going through the interview process and asking technical questions as they struck me. He was clearly amused to be on the other side of the exchange.

Sean Cole

Alana at Coach House had previously offered to let me set up my gear in their coffee room to record in one place all day, and I gratefully took her up on it. Coach House, it turns out, is housed in a literal coach house. It's an amazing place, really, with printing presses on the first floor and an elaborate library on the second and offices all over and people scurrying about with manuscripts in hand, etc. In short, Coach House is a real brick-and-mortar publisher with a longer history and more diverse output than I'd previously been aware of. I asked Alana how they're possibly able to stay in business, and she said they only manage to break even with the help of various government grants. Man oh man, Canada.

Matthew Tierney was there when I arrived, and we had a good time together. His work often uses terms and ideas from the world of science, so one thing we talked about was how he ended up becoming a writer instead of studying something more technical. I made a similar decision as an undergrad, so there was a bit of common ground there.

Matthew Tierney

Next up was Souvankham Thammavongsa, who was born in Laos and moved to Toronto with her refugee parents as an infant. Her writing is minimal and delicate, finely tuned visually and aurally. She told me about a recent reading at which she played a wind-up music box to quiet the crowd, which strikes me as a good encapsulation of her aesthetic. We also talked about how much she likes the Wu Tang Clan, and she told me about being influenced by seeing the GZA live in concert. But you'll have to tune in to hear more, etc. —

Souvankham Thammavongsa

My fourth interview of the day was with Karen Solie, whose book Pigeon won the Griffin Prize this year — a big deal and a lot of money. She was very humble about the whole thing and seemed a little surprised to have received such an honor. So we talked about the topic of the book: her relationships with the rural (where she grew up) and the city (where she's lived her adult life). I also brought up the topic of arts funding in Canada, which I find novel and fascinating. We got along nicely.

Karen Solie

Last up was Bill Kennedy, who wrote/curated/appropriated the book Apostrophe with Darren Wershler, as well as doing the programming for its interactive online counterpart. These projects were, in turn, based on a poem Bill wrote back in the early '90s. So he read the original work, and we discussed its various iterations. We also talked a bit about The Scream, an annual literary festival he runs in Toronto.

Bill Kennedy

Then, quick quick quick, I headed to the Greyhound station to catch a bus to Buffalo. Got across the border without issue, and arrived at Joey Yearous-Algozin's place around 11:00 or midnight. More on that in the next post.

Best, all —

Friday, August 13, 2010

O Montreal

I started this post last week in Montreal, a few hours before catching my bus to Toronto. It was soon after this point that things shifted up a few gears, and I've barely had a spare non-exhausted moment since. I've been on the road a bit over three weeks now, and general fatigue is just starting to set in. Here goes:


I've got a belly full of poutine, a few hours of fresh tape, and several hundred new graffiti photos. Montreal, you've been good to me.


My bus to Toronto leaves at 9:00 tonight, so I'm currently killing time at a pizza shop in the Latin Quarter. I just saw some crust punks carrying two pet rats in a cage. I just saw some other crust punks washing windshields for change. I just saw some other crust punks with elaborate full-face tattoos, lugging their worldly possessions in olive knapsacks. It's summertime in Canada, and things couldn't be more pleasant.

When I last left off, I was a few minutes away from checking in at my hostel, a small place on Ave. Mont-Royal. It was only moderately filthy, which I appreciated — and just four out of six beds were occupied in my room. Not bad!

So I took a quick shower and walked to Sina Queyras's place, three or four blocks away. She was quite nice, and we got on well. She read from her recent book Expressway, and we talked about its relation to the last several years she's spent living in Brooklyn. During that period she was teaching at Rutgers, so she also discussed the differences between creative writing students in the U.S. and Canada.

Sina Queyras

I headed back to the hostel afterward, where I hung around sending emails and half-watching television for the next few hours. In standard hostel form, people were sitting around drinking beers, swapping travel stories, and flirting with the cutest girl in the room. I'd seen it all before: three Germans poring over a map, an Australian dude with an eyebrow piercing, a guy who was clearly too old to be staying in a hostel, some shy Spanish people, etc. The Australian also had a tattoo on his foot, which read "You will never walk alone." He said it was the motto of Liverpool's football club, and that he got it while "drunk as fuck" on a trip to England. He also told a story about waking up on the median in the middle of a German autobahn and having no recollection of how he'd gotten there. Traffic was moving too fast for him to cross back, so the cops had to stop traffic and pick him up. I sort of stopped paying attention halfway through.

At one point Two and a Half Men came on, and I took it for granted that the people around me would let out a collective groan and change the channel. But no! The Australian and the older guy (a Canadian) started talking about what a funny show it is and how attractive one of the female characters is and its development from one season the next. Good grief.

I ate a cup of instant noodles for dinner and headed out for a nighttime walk through the city. My sense of Montreal's scale was a little off, though, so I ended up walking well over an hour before reaching the subway stop from which I knew how to get home. Developed some serious blisters on my feet, and soon obliterated them.

The next day I walked to Darren Wershler's new place, which was ten or fifteen blocks from the hostel. I had a good time talking with him about typewriters, steampunk, and Apostrophe, his book of search engine distillations written/collected with Bill Kennedy. I also got to meet Max, his new baby.

Darren Wershler

After meeting Darren, I decided to take out a bike from the Bixi rental service and go for a little ride. I made my way down to Chinatown for lunch, where it actually seemed like Vietnamese places outnumbered Chinese. So I decided pho would be best. As usual, I picked the spot with the highest ratio of Asian patrons — and boy was that soup delicious. I got tripe and tendon and everything, and sat there for a long while reading The Globe and Mail. This was the only time in Montreal that I felt comfortable speaking French beyond "bonjour," mainly because it wasn't the native language of the people running the restaurant. I found the same to be the case in Marseille last year, where I had a friendly and mostly intelligible chat with a cookbook seller in the Arab market.

Bixi Bikes in Montreal

After lunch I talked to Matt Abess on the phone, mostly for the sake of prepping for my interview with Paul Dutton a few days later. Matt knows a whole lot about concrete and sound poetry, so it was a useful refresher. I also read bits of Erin Mouré's books for an hour or so to get ready for the next day's recording.

Then — still thinking about the visual text — I set off on a graffiti walk. Montreal is one of the best graffiti cities in the world, at least to my eye. Nowhere near the mastery of Naples or the sheer volume of Berlin, but the work is consistently inventive and the technical standards are generally high. I found something surprising on every block.


I'm considering writing an in-depth post just on Montreal's graffiti, but I'm not sure anyone else is interested. Anyway. On the inventive side of things, I came across a little runic squiggle dozens of times, all over the city. It took me a few hours of close attention across various iterations (some clearer than others) to figure out that this spells "Caper":


After, I biked back to the hostel and hung around with (ie near) the Australian guy and ate more instant noodles. Earlier in the day I'd passed a dim, dank place called "Club Chaos," which I took to be a punk bar, and made a mental note of its location. So I brought my Erin Mouré printouts and stopped by around 9 or so. It turned out, however, to be more of a metal bar — lots of leather and spikes and odd hair, etc., but the music they were playing was just awful. I left after half an hour and headed home.

The next morning I interviewed Erin Mouré, which was great fun. She's a huge figure in Canadian poetry, known for her translations as well as her writing. So we talked a good deal about her work between and about languages, and about how Montreal is a place where many languages (not just French and English) manage to co-exist. After our interview she invited over Chus Pato, whose poetry Erin has translated from Galatian. I did a side-by-side recording of Chus reading her poems in Galatian and Erin reading the translations, a format they were clearly used to. Chus didn't speak English, so we said hello and thank you and kissed on the cheeks and smiled a lot and generally acted polite and friendly in the way people do across language barriers.

Erin Mouré and Chus Pato

Then I went on another graffiti walk, this time into the somewhat sleazier neighborhood below the east end of Saint-Denis. Got some really gorgeous stuff, including the work of Fiefo, whose faux naive style I find really appealing. These things look like stylized versions of the very first instances of the piece form, by Blade (et al) in the mid-1970s in New York — right? I found four or five others by him within a few blocks.


And that brings me back to sitting at the pizza shop, killing time before catching the overnight bus. I'll stop here for now, and pick up with Toronto in my next update.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

More on its way

Hey all. Many apologies on my lack of updates lately. It's been my busiest week so far, and there's barely been time to eat and sleep. Since my last post, if you can believe it, I've interviewed 15 more poets — so the thought of crafting thoughtful narrative summaries for each day and each writer is a bit daunting.

I'm currently in Buffalo, where I've been staying with Joey Yearous-Algozin and having the best time. I'm catching an overnight bus to Ann Arbor at midnight, so with any luck I'll have at least couple hours to work on getting myself up to date.

For now —

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Boston & Bangor

Hey gang. I'm beginning today's post from the Greyhound bus, en route from Bangor, Maine to Montreal. Curiously enough, Greyhound doesn't run buses from Maine to Canada. So I have to travel back down to Boston (over five hours), then head north from there. Pretty annoying.

My last update ends just before my interview with Stephen Burt, so I'll pick up the thread there. I caught the T in Brookline and made my way over to Harvard Square, where I walked up to the Barker Center to meet Steve. His office was in fabulous tumult. Books filled his wall-to-wall shelves and overflowed onto his desk, floor, and every other surface in the room. He's a guy who gets a lot of review copies in the mail, and I guess this is what happens in the summer. It was great — something of a dream, really. Our interview lasted nearly an hour, and boy can he talk. Every point was lucid, every argument detailed and thorough. It's clear that Steve has spent a good deal of time honing his teaching skills. It's also clear that he has a very well-defined idea of what poetry is and how it should operate. He read a handful of poems for me, both his own and others'. A highlight was the sonnet "Mysterious Night" by Joseph Blanco White, which he explicated on tape from top to bottom. We may have a few aesthetic differences, but I found his breadth of knowledge and rhetorical crispness rather stunning. Afterward he took me to Felipe's Taqueria for lunch, and I had a very good chorizo burrito.

Stephen Burt

I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around Cambridge and Brookline, reminiscing. I lived in Cambridge for a summer a few years back, so I took great pleasure in taking a walk from Harvard Square to Central Square, my old neighborhood. Bought a used copy of H.D.'s Hermetic Definition for $2.50. Passed by my old place, picked up some groceries at Trader Joe's, and headed back to Tanya's to eat dinner and read. I had eggs and rice noodles — simple and tasty.

In the morning I woke up to an empty apartment, left the requisite "goodbye and thanks" note, and took the train to the MIT campus to meet Nick Montfort. I somehow never realized how huge MIT is, but I got to take a pretty thorough tour when someone on the street gave me bad directions. Ended up walking 20 minutes out of my way with all my gear on my back. Nick's office, once I found it, was a pretty amazing place. There are old computers everywhere — 5, 6, 7 of them set up? I walked through the door sweaty and out of breath, and within two minutes Nick was demonstrating things for me with childlike excitement. Most impressively, perhaps, he has a arcade version of "Asteroids," the technical innovations of which he explained while I set up my equipment. Then he powered up his Atari and started playing the inferior mass-market version of the game, telling me all about the differences in graphics and strategy. It was great — seems like he's really made a little paradise for himself there.

Nick Montfort

For the recording, Nick read some pieces from his forthcoming book Riddle and Bind, which is a collection of riddles and constraint-based poems. Really great stuff. We went on to talk about ppg256, his recent series in which he's been writing poetry-generation programs in Perl with a maximum length of 256 characters each. I've read about these on the web, but never really understood the method — so it was nice to take a look at the source and see them run in real time. His approach to the problem is quite novel. Tune in to the podcast for the full explanation.

After our chat, I had to head straight to South Station to catch my bus to Bangor. It was a fairly smooth ride, and Steve Evans was waiting for me at the station when I got there. After five hours on the bus, though, I was a little too tired to jump right into recording, so we decided to put it off until morning. Steve and I went to dinner at Sea Dog, which is the restaurant associated with the brewery of the same name — a familiar brand from my Cambridge days. We sat outside on a deck overlooking the Penobscot River, and talked and talked. I got a lobster roll, which was just splendid.

After we ate, Steve drove me to Ben Friedlander's, where I was to spend the night. Ben and I sat in his kitchen with glasses of wine and chatted for perhaps an hour, and then I hit the hay. After coffee and an email session in the morning, Ben and I sat down for our interview. The conversation ranged all over, from Ben's years in San Francisco in the mid-'80s to his time with Creeley at Buffalo to his more recent life as an archive trawler. He read a lot of recent work written in the context of the Flarflist, including some very personal and actually quite melancholy uses of the form/style/genre/meme. I think it went well.

Ben Friedlander

Then Ben drove me to Orono to record Steve Evans, which was an interview I'd been especially looking forward to. Steve isn't a poet, only a critic — something we talked about. His particular specialty is writing about the recorded poetry reading, a topic I clearly have a lot invested in. In the mid-1980s, while an undergrad at UC San Diego, Steve spent three years making archival copies of Paul Blackburn's reel-to-reel tapes (among other materials), and I was particularly interested in that experience. Blackburn is a bit of a hero of mine (in some respects), but very few of his recordings have circulated beyond the archive at UCSD. So I got some answers to nagging questions, with the result being that my curiosity is piqued more than ever. I'll be in San Diego in a few weeks, so I'm hoping to get a chance to spend at least an afternoon with the collection.

Steve Evans

I should note, by the way, that Steve was quite generous with his help as I was planning the trip. We got in contact by email and phone a few months back, and he had heaps of suggestions on who to look up. Come to think of it, we were also in touch years ago when I was working on my thesis. His blog, The Lipstick of Noise, is one of the few — perhaps only? — poetry mp3 blogs out there. So it was excellent to finally cross paths in meatspace.

I'm finishing this post about 22 hours after I started it, so at this point I've made it safely to Montreal. I ended up having a four-and-a-half-hour layover in Boston last night, which was unexpected and unfortunate. Nonetheless, I made the best. I strolled from South Station up to Boston Common, then back down to Chinatown, where I had a dinner of udon noodles with shrimp. When you haven't eaten for ten hours, there's just nothing like big fat chewy udon slathered in hot oil. Yum yum.

I'm meeting Sina Queyras at 4:30 today, so I'd better get back to prep. I'm meeting Darren Wershler tomorrow, Erin Mouré on Saturday, and Paul Dutton on Sunday. So — more soon —

Monday, August 2, 2010

Waking up in Brookline

After New Orleans, my trip took a geographically illogical turn. While planning this thing, I faced a pretty serious caveat: an old friend was planning to get married on July 30th in South Jersey. So with 60 days to work with, I allowed myself some wonky choices in the sequence of cities I'm visiting. (The reason for timing my departure as I did is a longer story than I'll go into here.)

After a bit of date shuffling, I determined that it made the most sense to take care of the Southeast first, then head back up the Philly suburbs for the wedding. Then, as it turned out, the release party for Tan Lin and Danny Snelson's series of Seven Controlled Vocabularies spinoffs (for one of which I was an editor) fell the day before, in New York. So I rearranged some more and decided to show up. This meant I'd be traveling straight from New Orleans to New York City — in my case, a two-night, 36-hour journey.

So I walked to the Greyhound station from Jeremy's apartment in the French Quarter, and when I got there I knew I'd be riding the bus for the next two nights. I also knew that on a good day my laptop gets a whole 2.5 hours of battery life. But I signed myself up for this, and I don't even have anyone to commiserate with. So I just did it. I'd also slept on the bus on the way down to New Orleans, which means I ended up spending three nights in a row on the Greyhound. I read and listened to podcasts, and the time passed.

Atlanta, Georgia

When I tried to transfer from bus to bus on Wednesday morning in Atlanta, however, the one I was supposed to catch was overbooked. I wasn't in line early enough, so I had to wait for the next ride — from 8 a.m. until 1:45 p.m. Pretty annoying, but at least the station had lockers I could use to stow my bags. I walked around the immediate neighborhood a bit, and found it to be densely populated with outgoing homeless people. The first one who approached me struck up a little conversation about where I'm from and what I'm doing, etc., and then held up a translucent little rock of crystal meth and asked if I'd buy it. Actually, to be more accurate, he asked if I'd give him some money and then smoke it with him. I excused myself from the conversation and kept walking. On the next block I ran across a guy who started a conversation by speaking French with me. Once he realized I couldn't keep up, he told me a sob story about moving to the U.S. from the Ivory Coast to play football for Pitt and then having visa trouble and ending up on the street, etc. etc. etc. I saw him again half an hour later, and he remembered my name.

Atlanta, Georgia

I strolled downtown and looked around a little, then sat next to an urban clothing store and wiped my brow. They were playing 95.5 The Beat over a P.A. onto the sidewalk, so I listened for 15 minutes or so. A Ciara song came on in which the pitch-shifted intro reps ATL. It was 88 degrees and very humid, and I was one of the very few white people in sight. I walked into a check-cashing place to use the ATM (lower fees than convenience stores), and I listened to the woman at the counter talk for a little bit. Her accent was almost identical to André 3000's, which made me slightly giddy.

Anyhow — caught my bus, and no big deal. I got to New York at 11:30 a.m. the next day, and had the whole afternoon to kill. As I've done so many times before, I bracketed the spare hours for dumpling chasing with Matt Abess. We met up with Patrick Lovelace and caught the Long Island Railroad to Flushing Chinatown, where we hopped from place to place and ordered small quantities to share. Man oh man, I'm salivating just thinking of it. I believe Matt's favorites were the lamb and carrot dumplings at a place called Fu Run, though I was personally partial to their pork and sour cabbage offering. We also got some hand-drawn noodles at a spot in an underground complex of tiny restaurants, which were unspeakably banging.

New York

At 5:00 we went to Danny's event at Printed Matter, which was fun. Got to see the fruit of some labor, and hung out with the New York gang for a bit: Eddie Hopely, Kareem Estefan, Steve Zultanski, Kristen Gallagher, Chris Alexander, Nada Gordon, et al. Also got to meet James Hoff for the first time, albeit briefly. Kenny and Charles showed up too.

New York

New York

And so it went, and so it went. Played pool with Patrick, Matt, and Phillip in K-Town for a few hours, and then slept. Headed to South Jersey in the morning, thinking of wedding bells. Picked up a new suit and ran errands for a few hours, one of which was getting a bushel of books from the Penn library for trip research. Then I got a haircut and shaved, and drove on over. The ceremony and reception were at a hall near my parents' house. I looked good.

I stayed a second night in New Jersey after the wedding, mainly because my list of future interviews has rather ballooned, and I wanted to spend another full day prepping with materials from the library. Having accomplished this, I watched dumb comedy entertainment in the evening and relaxed my aching back as much as possible.

Before leaving for Boston yesterday afternoon, I re-packed everything. With a couple weeks of experience behind me, I decided to cut down the weight I'm carrying by about half. I'm sure I will thank myself for this. All my gear currently fits into a single backpack and a small canvas satchel from the Army-Navy surplus store. I'm immensely pleased with this setup, as I no longer have to pull or carry anything with my hands. On the other hand, I'm straying deeper into the cliché of the traveling ascetic — just as I set out on the narrow road to the deep north.

Last night I slept on a bed provided Tanya, one of Phillip's BU friends who lives in Brookline. In a couple hours I'm catching the T to Cambridge and interviewing Stephen Burt, a recording I look forward to with a piquant mix of curiosity and trepidation.

Will update soon —!

Friday, July 30, 2010

New Orleans, a place I want to live someday

When I left off last time, I was still riding the bus in the early hours of Tuesday morning. I made the post from a coffee shop in New Orleans a few hours later, but without adding anything. Let's start with my arrival.

I stepped off the bus at 6:00 a.m., with no map and no access to the web. I didn't have a plan at all, actually, except that I was supposed to call Jeremy James Thompson in the late morning to meet for lunch and record our interview. So I shouldered my pack and took to the pavement.

The Greyhound station in New Orleans is mercifully close to the center of town, and the center of town is fortunately conspicuous. I walked toward the tall buildings, and pretty soon I was on Canal Street. It seemed like nothing was open but hotels and a couple fast food places, so I had McDonald's for breakfast and rested a bit. They didn't have wi-fi, though, so I took my time finishing my coffee and headed back out.

Jeremy lives in the French Quarter, and after wandering a couple blocks I was lucky enough to find a sign pointing the way. And so I walked and looked. There was no one on the street, and it was still early enough to be fairly cool in the shade — perfect timing for standing and staring without getting jostled. The architecture was really terribly beautiful, just like the say. And what's more remarkable is the sheer volume of amazing houses. One after another had elaborate cast-iron railings on their second- and third-floor porches, and one after another appeared to be pushing 200 years old. I walked the Quarter from end to end, straight down Chartres St.

New Orleans

By 8 a.m., the heat was becoming unbearable. I'd walked over two miles, and my shirt was becoming saturated with sweat. All I wanted was a coffee shop, and all I could find were shuttered drinking establishments. No wi-fi anywhere. At the very north end of the neighborhood, just as I was about to pass into the Marigny, I passed a dim little bar with its front doors open and a couple haggard types drinking PBRs inside. I thought, "These are my people," and went in.

The place turned out to have an occult/horror theme, with satan- and tombstone- and voodoo-related decorations all over. A History Channel UFO conspiracy theory show was playing on TV. I hung out for a little while and worked on my notes for the interview.

I walked around a bit more and found a coffee shop for sending email, then got in touch with Jeremy about lunch. He took us to a restaurant with a little outside courtyard, and we shared a muffaletta and each got a bowl of gumbo. They were both quite good, but in idle moments since I've found myself fantasizing about the soup in particular. So much going on in such a simple package.

After lunch we recorded our interview. Salient topics included Jeremy's interest in gunslingers, gamblers, and barkeeps of the American 19th century, and the atavistic ritual appeal of poetry in community. I was also surprised to learn that this champion of the luxe handmade book object has recently become a heavy iPad user.

Jeremy James Thompson

After we finished, I was left with a few hours to kill — and Jeremy was only too happy to give me a tour. He's made his living for many years as an elite bartender, so there was a clear theme to the afternoon. First we had a drink at a nearby hotel, where the bar rotated like a carousel at the rate of one revolution per 15 minutes. Apparently Truman Capote used to spend a lot of time there.

Next we went to a small bar in the very southernmost part of the Marigny, where I had my first Abita, a beer made in New Orleans. Quite tasty. The place was almost empty — pretty much just us and the bartender and a fella with huge black plastic-framed glasses. A couple minutes after we arrived, this guy sat down at the piano and started playing. I mean he was pushing this stand-up to the physical limit, belting old-time honky-tonk of the most idyllic kind. He must have gone on for over an hour while we milked our drinks and chatted.

New Orleans

One of my goals for the day was to get a good sazerac, so our next stop was a rather upscale bar at which Jeremy knew the maitre d'. I was the only person in the room without a collared shirt, and I felt like a huge beag — sweaty black band tee, beard grown like a pard, acute awareness of my slouch, etc. But the drinks were fantastic. Jeremy gave me a thorough history lesson on them — much more so than Wikipedia! — and I felt like I was drinking a glass of American innovation.

On the way back to Jeremy's, we walked up Bourbon St. (which he had been carefully avoiding all day). I was certainly glad to see it, but better a brief sweep than otherwise. The closest comparison would be the tourist district in Amsterdam: so much neon, so much enticement to debauchery. We passed a busking brass band, which struck me as way, way too talented to be playing on the street. There were signs all over for "Big-Ass Beers!" and "The Biggest Beers on Bourbon!" and so forth. My oh my. I must say, though, I was a little tempted by the electric bulls.

New Orleans

New Orleans

And that it was it. 14 hours after arriving in New Orleans, I had to catch my bus. I walked the mile and a half or so from Jeremy's to the station, and pushed off.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Athens to N.O.

The Magazine

Hello from the sweaty, buggy South. My oh my, these last few days have been fun. Where to begin?

First off, I should mention that the small magazine I've been assembling for the trip has finally come together. It's a little behind schedule, but nonetheless — I printed my first batch of ten copies on Saturday in Athens. I can't carry too much weight, so my solution to distributing dozens or hundreds of copies of a poetry magazine is to print them in small runs on photocopiers along the way. The collection I came up with includes a variety of things from 16 friends, mostly people based in New York and Philly. Each copy takes the form of a stack of single-sided 8.5"x11" pages. You can see the Athens version of the magazine in PDF form here.

OK, back to the narrative. Alejandro picked me up from the bus station at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, and we spent the rest of the day driving around Athens and doing very little. We hopped from café to café all afternoon, and later from the "English PhD kid hangout bar" to Michael Stipe's dance club. Alejandro has so, so many friends around town. For dinner, we had Korean food at the home of a girl named Lisa, and it was just the most lovely thing. Baseball was viewed and discussed. We sat on the front porch in the evening heat, sweating sitting still. I had a good conversation with Alej's friend Vaughn.

We spent Saturday night at a big communal art house called Secret Squirrel. I got a room in the attic, where I lay face-down on a mattress without covers, with a fan pointed straight at me. I slept deeply.

On Sunday afternoon we met Andrew Zawacki at a study center on the UGA campus. He was (disarmingly) wearing a "The National" t-shirt, and he indeed turned out to be an affable and gregarious character. Alejandro sat in on the interview, which I think came out well. We talked about Andrew's writing and teaching for a good long time, and we all continued the conversation for a few more hours at a nearby pub where an Irish band was playing. Andrew had a lot of helpful suggestions for people I should talk to, especially on the West Coast.

Andrew Zawacki

After hanging out with Andrew, Alejandro and I hopped around among coffee shops a bit more — chatted, sent some emails, etc. — and had pizza for dinner. We sat outside after our meal and each had a glass of pastis, which seemed appropriate for the weather. Then went to Alejandro's sister's house, hung around, watched a movie, stayed the night.

Monday morning we woke up and ate lunch at a nearby bakery, where I had a cup of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Afterward, Alejandro and I recorded an interview at his sister's. It was a sprawling and varied conversation, so I'll have a lot to pick and choose from when I edit. I'd been taking notes on Alej and his conversational interests over the course of the weekend, which helped a good deal. He read excerpts from his poetry collection Morpheu, as well as bits from Wasted, an appropriation of every edit Pound made to Eliot's Wasteland. Alejandro finished things off by jamming for a bit on his Vonome, a MIDI keyboard linked to a bank of short video samples. Only the audio will make it into the podcast, but it'll be enough to get a sense of the thing. Video or no, this kind of work is all about timing.

Alejandro Crawford

So that was that. By the time our interview was done, I had to catch my bus. We stopped for an espresso on the way, and then Alejandro saw me off. It's now 3:30 a.m. Central as I finish this post, and I'm 12 hours into the trip to New Orleans. There's no internet connection anywhere nearby, so I'll have to post this later. Let's see — what else should I mention about Athens?

For one thing, I had a great time listening to the speech. There was a big range, from the predominantly "neutral" language of transplants like Alejandro (i.e. standard California/television accent, with a slightly Southernized pronunciation thrown in every 800 words) to Vaughn's mellow Georgia inflection, right on up to Mary Virginia's heavy (and adorable) Mississippi twang.

I also learned a bit of local slang: namely, the word "beagle." As one of Alej's friends explained, it's a versatile term with a broad negative denotation. For example, one might say, "Look at those beagles." This would be similar to phrases like, "What a bunch of toolbags," "Those kids look like sheisters," or other such vague negatives. I'm sure there are specific connotations to the term "beagle," but I'll leave such subtleties to the Athenians. And like so much slang, "beagle," becomes more elegant with truncation. So "Fuckin' beag ..." would mean, "This situation is unfortunate, but what can you do?" or "Ugh, whatever." I asked about etymology, and here's the response I got: "It's like — you know, beagles. They're just ... there."

And then the city of Athens itself is pretty amazing. It has a nice, friendly downtown area, and a big part of the local culture seems to take place in cafés which also serve booze — a super European thing which I've barely seen elsewhere in the States. The most trite statement I can make is that Athens combines the active culture of a city with the small-scale feel of the suburbs, socially and geographically. To reformulate: Athens is its own suburb.

The air conditioning on this bus is shot, so it's coming out at half power and everyone's been a little sticky the whole ride. Fuckin' beag. But it's now cool morning, and things are a bit more comfortable. I should be arriving in New Orleans in an hour and a half or so.

[finally posted from a coffee shop in the French Quarter at ~9:00 a.m. Central]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Last Day in the Capital

OK! I have a few days to catch up on. Let's start with Friday.

First thing in the morning I said goodbye to Uncle Brian and Ellen and kids, and then took the metro downtown. My first interview was with Ryan Walker, who lives in the Trinidad neighborhood — over a mile from any stop on the train. So I lugged all my gear and baggage there on foot, which wouldn't have been such an exertion if it weren't such a miserably hot day. Ryan's place was in the process of being rehabbed, so there was a lot of torn-up sheetrock and plastic drape stuff around. The interview went pretty well, I think. Ryan's work deliberately employs the strategies of both ends of the D.C. poetry community continuum — i.e. disjunctive language-ey work on one end and funny discursive stuff on the other. He's a chameleon in that respect, or a Zelig. Any number of poetry crowds could get something out of his writing.

Ryan Walker

Next up: nothing. I took a bus to Georgetown and sat around for about five hours, just sending emails and doing research on Rod Smith. I had a pretty terrible but pretty satisfying bowl of chili at some bar, and used the wi-fi at Barnes and Noble. Around 4:00, I headed over to Bridge Street Books, which Rod manages. It's a legendary place, and I was happy to finally make it. I spent about an hour looking around, and bought a few books to read on the bus. Here they are:

Linh Dinh - Some Kind of Cheese Orgy
Jed Rasula - Tabula Rasula
Robert Duncan - Roots and Branches
William Carlos Williams - Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and other Love Poems
Roland Barthes - Writing Degree Zero
Aristotle - Poetics

I'm revisiting those last two for the sake of the question-writing process. I've been trawling all over for topics — chatting with friends on the phone, listening to old recordings, reading interviews and reviews, etc. — and every little bit helps.

Rod Smith

After Rod finished work, he drove us back to his apartment for the recording. He read a bit of new Flarf stuff, as well as his series "The Spider Poems" in its entirety. We talked about poetry in D.C., his bookstore, and the arc of his career. Mel Nichols got home toward the end of the interview, but because of my bus schedule we didn't have to time to record a show. Nonetheless, she was quite warm and interested in what I'm doing, and we had a pleasant chat in the few minutes before I had to leave. I'll be in D.C. again soon, I hope — so I'll get her on tape eventually.

I then proceeded to the bus station by taxi, and got there just in time. The ride to Athens was 13 hours overall (counting a stopover), and it gave me my first taste of the Greyhound sleeping experience. It went relatively smoothly, I suppose — which is to say I avoided any serious neck pain. I slept lightly and in short spells, so I spent a lot of time sitting up while the rest of the passengers slept. At around 5:30 a.m., I woke up and looked out the window for a bit. The sun was just rising, and everything was a little misty (or muggy). So we made a right turn under a train bridge, and on the other side I saw my last name in big blue letters — "McLaughlin" — rise before me. Turns out there's a car dealership called McLaughlin Ford in Sumter, North Carolina.

I'll make a separate post for Athens, so keep your lids up for another one later today.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

D.C. Day 2

at Adam Good's

The trip rolls on, and I can scratch two more writers off my list. The photo above is from Adam Good's apartment: his next piece in progress. Adam's recent work has been about generating "new potential truths" through improvised remixes of existing texts — a rather fanciful pursuit, but certainly entertaining in practice. His selections for today's reading included shuffled fragments of books by Rod Smith and Rosmarie Waldrop, as well as a book on cognitive science.

Adam's apartment is in a neighborhood in the beginning stages of gentrification, but Latin American culture still dominates heavily. Taquerías and bodegas (and many, many liquor stores) line 14th St. in North D.C., and I heard a kid on the street refer to the neighborhood as "the 1-4." We forewent Mexican food, however, in favor of the air conditioning at a thin-crust pizza place. We shared a sausage-and-pepper pie, and it was good.

Adam Good

And my first interview of the day was with Maureen Thorson, a federal customs attorney by day and poet by night. We talked about her recent use of the genre tropes of sea shanties, and I discovered that she's one of the few other people I've met who likes archy and mehitabel. Maureen gave me a beautiful little chap called Epithalamion, which is an erasure of the Spenser poem of the same name (à la Jen Bervin's Nets). I have a pretty serious fascination with the original, so this too was a happy coincidence.

Maureen Thorson

When the work day was done, I had dinner at a Thai restaurant with my uncle and his family. The AFI theater was right around the corner, so I stopped by after to see a newly restored print of Godard's Breathless. Man oh man, is that movie funny. And there were only 15 people in the audience, which added a distinct charm to the occasion. Afterward, I overheard a well-dressed guy saying to his teenage daughter, "Really? You followed the whole thing without subtitles? That's great!"

I have two or three more interviews downtown tomorrow, and at 8:00 p.m. I'll be catching an overnight bus to Athens, Georgia. It'll be my first overnighter, and it should be a good measure of the discomfort level I can expect from the rest of the trip. Fingers crossed, etc.

Still rested and lucid,