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,


First Day in D.C.

Washington, D.C.

Yesterday in D.C. was a success. I interviewed Tina Darragh and Peter Inman in a beautifully ornate bioethics library on the Georgetown campus, where Tina happens to work. I made it a double-length joint interview, which seemed appropriate for the occasion. We talked about Washington, D.C. in the 1970s and the rippling influence of language poetry. Asking them about their political disagreements was another fruitful tack.

Afterward, they took me to dinner at a restaurant called The Tombs, which was completely packed with crew (i.e. rowing) memorabilia. I ate a turkey sandwich with avocado, and it was quite tasty.

Peter Inman and Tina Darragh

Also, I just got around to upping my photos of Ric Royer to flickr:

Ric Royer

Today I'm talking to Maureen Thorson, Adam Good, and Cathy Eisenhower.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Greetings from Charm City

Greyhound Discovery Pass

Well, my trip is finally underway. It all feels a bit surreal so far, but then anything heavily anticipated has a tendency to induce a slight out-of-body sensation. I'm currently in Baltimore, on what is officially day #2 of my 60-day Greyhound pass (pictured above). I meant to make this update last night, but after a day of travel and work I was so wiped that I fell asleep halfway through the Village Voice's article on Damon Dash and woke to the whoosh of katydids in the morning.

But I should back up. Yesterday Catherine took off half a day of work to help me get ready, and I spent the morning packing and re-packing and wandering around my house looking for forgotten items. After an early lunch, she dropped me at the Greyhound station around noon. My bus was at 1:30, so I killed time reading and emailing (the first of what will be dozens of Greyhound station time-killing sessions). The bus ride was blessedly uneventful.

When I arrived in Baltimore, I caught the light rail toward the city's vast north side to visit Ric Royer. Ric was recommended by both Danny Snelson and Cecilia Corrigan, and he kindly offered me a place to stay for the night after our interview. When I boarded the light rail, the sun was shining and the weather was pleasant — though the humidity was noticeably more intense than in Philly. But in the middle of my 15-minute train ride, the sky opened up and rain started coming down in sheets. It was the kind of rain that seemed like it could end any minute, so one just stands under an overhang and waits — and then it starts coming down harder, and the thunder starts up, and that's that. I threw on a poncho and ventured out for the 0.8-mile (mostly uphill) walk ahead of me. My gear and books were fine under the poncho, but I got thoroughly soaked. Within 10 minutes of starting my walk in the rain, naturally, the weather cleared up and the sun was shining again. A fine start to what will surely be a grueling trip.

Ric's neighborhood, however, is just lovely. Though his address is in Baltimore, he lives way north of the city. Up here it feels like a suburb, full of old houses with big lawns and lush vegetation all over. Huge trees line the streets. Ric lives on the second floor of a house with hardwood floors, nice molding, and big stand-up radiators. And you can tell he's had a lot of experience hosting transient writer-types: one bedroom is apparently dedicated to the purpose, with a bed, desk, reading chair, and a Swiss-made Hermes 3000 typewriter from the late '50s. Decorations in the room include photos of Audrey Hepburn and André Breton.

at Ric Royer's

The interview went just fine. Ric invited over his friend Adam Robinson, the man behind Publishing Genius Press, and the three of us had a discussion about the writing scene in Baltimore and what it means to call oneself a poet today. Ric would like to re-claim the term "hobby" for his poetic work, and get over the stigma of having "a hobby" in the sense of building model trains and airplanes alone in one's basement. Jacket2 is launching in January, so you can hear the full (edited) interview in just six or seven months —!

at Ric Royer's

After the recording, Ric and I walked to a nearby sports bar for dinner. I had the shrimp salad sandwich, and Ric got a comically large pile of hot turkey slices with gravy and french fries. We talked about baseball and watched the Orioles come back to tie it up in the the bottom of the 9th. A successful day done.

Now I'm going to send a few more emails and start packing my bags. I'm interviewing Tina Darragh and Peter Inman in Washington, D.C. later today, so I have a short Greyhound ride and some D.C. public transit wrangling ahead of me. Looks like there's a possibility of more thunderstorms later, so I'll keep the poncho within reach.