Miles to Go Before We Sleep
Americanos! conquerors! marches humanitarian!Okay, so everybody on the bus knows Montana is going to be good—maybe even intense, possibly flat-out momentous—but we’ve got no idea how right we are until the Green Tortoise tour bus starts to inch down a curled-rattlesnake driveway into the Butler Creek Ranch. The ranch lies on 23 Edenic acres a few miles outside of Missoula. It looks like a bowl—there’s a house and a field ringed all around by piney slopes. People at the bottom of the bowl are grinning and jumping and waving at us, which is really nice. After a long and groggy drive from Spokane, we, the 10 passengers on the Wave Books Poetry Bus, are prepared to get stoked: Hey, look down there! Yes! O wonderful waving and grinning and jumping people of Montana! You’re freakin’ hungry for it, aren’t you?! Hungry for . . . poetry! Yes! Watch how we descend from the peaks of the Bitterroot Range like conquering warriors!
Foremost! century marches! Libertad! masses!
For you a programme of chants.
—Walt Whitman, “Starting from Paumanok”
Except something’s off. Something isn’t right.
We get the news as soon as we lumber out of the bus: chaos. Just a few minutes before our heroic entrance, a rogue guest at the party apparently went kind of bonkers. People at the ranch were watching the guy from a distance as he danced around in a black suit and a bowler hat and took swigs from a bottle of something that was most likely not Mountain Dew—and then all of a sudden the cowboy droog hopped into his mammoth white SUV, backed it straight through the ranch’s fence, uprooted some posts, peeled off toward the porta-potty as if this were a monster truck rally, and burned rubber down a dirt path into the brush. There he’d collided with a tree, flipped his gas guzzler, crawled out of the wreckage, and bolted up a hill on foot.
But he’s all right, the locals assure us. In fact, he’s out there running around in the woods. But hey, welcome to Montana!
So the crowd is still processing all this when we arrive, because of course one does not generally attend a poetry reading expecting to see an outtake from The Dukes of Hazzard. “This is very rock ’n’ roll, I have to say,” a bespectacled MFA student muses as cop cars, fire engines, ambulances, and tow trucks begin snaking down into the bowl and heading over to the crash site. Giving American poetry a rock ’n’ roll transfusion—well, you might say that’s one of the explicit goals of the Poetry Bus as it takes wing through 50 cities this fall. And yet this particular style of merry prank—a one-man demolition derby—well, that’s not at all what Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder had in mind when they dreamed up the transcontinental tour. No. Here they stand only three days into their excellent adventure, and already they’re overhearing whispers that the Montana reading might have to be moved to a new site, or maybe even canned altogether.
Which is a supreme bummer—by now a pig has been roasted, homemade pies and salads have been laid out on a buffet table, the parking area is filling up with cars, and our hosts have printed up a lovely program with an apt invocation, “Driving Montana,” by local legend Richard Hugo.
Tomorrow will open again, the sky wideObviously a ton of work has gone into this thing. Zapruder sighs, plants himself in a portable lounge chair, and surrenders to a state of equanimity. “I feel confident somehow that we’ll be able to do this,” he says. “Isn’t this the Big Sky country?”
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost
in miles of land without people. . . .
Amazingly, his confidence is not misplaced. Somehow it all works out, and then it goes beyond just working out. After we wait around for a tense couple of hours, our friends in law enforcement determine that the Poetry Bus and all these word-hungry westerners are welcome to stick around, just as long as they don’t smoke cigarettes near the dry grass in the middle of the fire season. “We’re on!” says poet Anthony McCann, pumping his fist. “We’re staying!” In spite of, or maybe because of, the bizarre saga of the demon SUV, the Wednesday night reading at the Butler Creek Ranch winds up feeling like something for the history books: one of those rare and genuine moments of everyone’s-on-the-same-wavelength connection. The night is cool, the air is fragrant with forest-fire ash, the audience is prone to happy cheering and hooting, the podium’s a stack of logs, and the sound system is so fiber-optically loud and clear that you can hear the way the readers breathe in between each line and the sound of every poem booming away in the hills.
McCann, his dark hair flopping to and fro and his jeans in a perpetual state of ass-crack free-fall, hits the dais like the life of the party, bobbing and weaving. His timing is so fluidly spot-on that he leaves the audience both awed and in stitches.
Katy Lederer’s inflections are sharp, nuanced, pulsating; she treats each poem with the sort of meticulous care that a spider might bring to the task of devouring a trapped fly.
Erin Belieu gives a ferocious reading of a single poem from Black Box, called “Pity.” (“Once I took it in my mouth, I had to / admit, pity tastes good, like the sandwiches / they make in French patisseries, the loaf smeared / with force-fed organs, crust that shreds the skin behind / your teeth.”) Then she tells the crowd that altitude sickness has made her too woozy to go on. Which, of course, feels perfect.
Oh, then there’s Michael Earl Craig.
See, earlier in the day Craig happened to catch a ride to the Butler Creek Ranch in a white SUV. Yep, that white SUV. It was a friend of Craig’s who went lulu and mangled it, and so after the accident it was Craig himself who had to dash over to the wreck and climb into it in order to rescue a few things: (1) travel gear for the next leg of the bus tour, (2) a bunch of books that he intended to sell along the way, and (3) a bottle of bourbon.
So, yeah: When Michael Earl Craig finally steps up to the microphone, the moment’s charged up with more than a little bit of anticipation. “It’s been an exciting day,” he deadpans from the pile of logs. “The police officers were very kind to me.”
For three days in early September I was embedded on the Wave Books Poetry Bus as it traveled from Seattle to Spokane to Missoula—the first leg of a lunatic trip that will eventually wobble its way through Lincoln and Omaha, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, Boston and Austin, Las Vegas and Santa Fe, New York and New Orleans. Based in Seattle, owned and underwritten by the wealthy arts patron Charlie Wright, and edited in a partnership between Beckman and Zapruder, Wave is an independent publishing house that’s all about newness and risk and West Coast brio, and the Poetry Bus tour is ready to give those principles a high-octane road test.
I wanted to tag along because I think there’s a renaissance under way in American poetry—a thrilling new movement that most of the national mass media is too clueless, navel-gazing, and Paris Hilton–fixated to recognize—and because I figured that rolling around the country in a bus full of poets sounded like a gas. And it was a gas. Now and then it even rose to the level of transcendence, as I discovered on the ranch in Montana. But that doesn’t mean it was easy like Kesey. You hear about a Great American Road Trip such as this one and you can’t help but think: On the Road . . . The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test . . . Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…Lewis & Clark . . . a squadron of like-minded and free-spirited people getting sloppy-wasted and heading out on the highway for a 13,000-mile marathon from Stagnation to Bliss!
The only problem with that utopian fantasy is that it doesn’t take into account how often stuff goes haywire. It is possible to satisfy your bliss fix on the Poetry Bus, but what you automatically get in return is a fair amount of bedlam. Before we left Seattle, I admired Beckman, 34, and Zapruder, 38, for having the chutzpah to put this logistical nightmare together, but I admired them even more when we started moving and I saw that these two old friends and their unflappable 27-year-old tour manager, Travis Nichols, were facing a new wrinkle in Murphy’s Law roughly every five minutes. We weren’t even out of Seattle’s suburban gridlock when Beckman realized that one of the bus windows was refusing to close; he grabbed it and held it in place with his hands until we pulled into a rest stop. Somewhere in the middle of Washington, poet Melanie Noel was sleeping serenely at the back of the bus when the Green Tortoise began farting and growling and she was blanketed by a freakish wind of carbon monoxide and heat. A panel inside the bus, right above the rear tires, had somehow shimmied loose and popped open, exposing everyone to baking exhaust fumes. Beckman raced back and clamped the panel shut with his own size-16 feet. We pulled into another rest stop.
Beckman and Zapruder are often asked, “So what’s the point of this endeavor? What’s the Poetry Bus about?” Having traveled with them on the Green Tortoise, I would argue that this shotgun tango between bedlam and bliss is the point, that what we’re witnessing is a tragically obscure and insular American art form getting reacquainted with the stresses and obstacles of the real world. That can only be good for the art form. If the most common beef against much of American poetry is that it’s cut off from American life, well, I can’t think of a better remedy than to ride out on a 40-foot bus and take poetry straight into a teeming pandemonium of Wal-Mart and crystal meth and American Idol and obesity and video games and Rush Limbaugh and killer gas prices. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” as Whitman said, right? Or, to put it another way, consider this moment from the trip: We’d stopped for lunch in a place that felt to me like the nexus of all abandonment—I mean, the absolute pinnacle of nowhere, just a falling-down gas station surrounded by hot dirt, hard by a burger joint whose only salvation was a badass jukebox. We got in line to order our burgers, and the bright young woman behind the counter glanced outside, saw the giant red letters that said POETRY BUS, and asked us what we were up to.
Beckman told her we were traveling all over the country, reading poems in 50 different cities.
Her eyes flashed. The signal was unmistakable: she was ready to quit her job and climb aboard.
“Fabulous!” she said.
It was indeed fabulous, whenever the bus was moving, to stare out the windows and watch the passengers in the cars and trucks alongside us. You could see it in their eyes first, and then in their scrunched brows, and then in the way they moved their lips: POETRY BUS?! What the hell is that? Responses on the interstate ran the gamut: confusion, suspicion, laughter, longing, euphoria. Probably a few thousand people will come into contact with the Poetry Bus through the actual readings, but hundreds of thousands of Americans will find themselves within spitting distance of those bold red letters on the freeway, and that’s exactly what Beckman and Zapruder are going for.
Hey, America, if you don’t think you’re in the mood for poetry, you can avoid a Web site. You can avoid a radio broadcast. You can avoid a book. But you can’t avoid huge red letters on the side of a bus, especially when you’re bored stiff and cruise-controlling it past an alfalfa farm somewhere north of Walla Walla.
So the point of the bus is to promote poetry, sure, and to promote Wave Books, right, but it’s also to promote something else—a mind-set, the very possibility of considering poetry as an antidote to one’s daily tedium. “I believe in changing the context for poetry,” Zapruder told me. “I can’t stand the way people think of poetry. Poetry is a process of being awakened to the thing you’re being awakened to, and it’s the same thing with this bus. We don’t know what’ll fuckin’ happen.”
The first reader was Christine Deavel, the co-owner of Seattle’s Open Books, one of the only book emporiums in America devoted solely to poetry. It was Labor Day and the Poetry Bus was parked in a shady spot at Bumbershoot, the sprawling Seattle arts festival. The surrounding environment was frenzied and flesh-dense, with thousands of sun-dazed people milling about in a vortical quest for bratwurst and falafel and satay and funnel cakes while the Steve Miller Band trotted out FM-radio oldies from the main stage. Bumbershoot was loud, so instead of listening to readings outside, people climbed right into the bus, where they could presumably hear each poet without being overwhelmed by bongo drums and bagpipes. Deavel blessed the bus with an Emily Dickinson poem (“This ecstatic Nation / Seek—it is yourself”) and finished 15 minutes later with Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” the last line of which could serve as a mission statement for the entire trip: “I learn by going where I have to go.”
When Deavel read that, something clicked—a rush of feeling ambushed Beckman, and his eyes teared up. “It didn’t occur to me,” he said, “that it would be emotional like that.” More and more Bumbershooters began packing the bus to catch the readings—so many that some people had to be turned away. We left Seattle at around 9:30 the next morning.
Still, the vibe on the bus was not in any way solemn or meditative—nor even very poetic. Katy Lederer was constantly engrossed in a pile of glossy celebrity magazines. “I have to find out if Angelina’s pregnant again!” Zapruder listened to the Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on his iPod, Melanie Noel talked about her day job in “edible landscaping,” Erin Belieu sported an AC/DC Highway to Hell T-shirt and regaled us with a running commentary.
“I hope we go past, like, the world’s biggest ball of yarn. I love that shit.”
“How did we go from freezing our asses off to the desert? It’s weird. Okay, where are the lizards?”
“Do we have snacks on the bus? I don’t need snacks. I just get sort of panicky when there aren’t any.”
The poets spent a whole lot of time talking about which other poets, male and female, were sexy. They did not spend a whole lot of time gazing out the window at the pretty landscapes, although when they did, the signs along the road seemed to be throwing poems right back at them.
Wolf Lodge District.They chain-smoked. They broke out the plastic cups and drank unwisely—white wine followed by port followed by Irish whiskey. “I’ve got to stop with the smoking after this thing,” said Anthony McCann, whose hair constantly seemed to be pioneering new permutations of bedhead. “Smoking, soft drinks, liquor. When this thing is over. . . .” A few minutes later he took a swig from a bottle of Wild Turkey (a gift from Open Books), winced, and said, “This is definitely not going down smooth.” He picked up someone else’s half-finished cup of coffee and poured a couple of ounces of Wild Turkey into it. “There we go.”
Women in Timber Thrift Store.
100,000 Used Books.
Rattlesnakes are inhabitants of this area.
Don’t Be a Clown. Eat with a King.
Surly Staff. Poor Selection. High Prices. Terrible Quality.
In Idaho it was time for a supermarket run. The bus pulled into a strip mall and the poets headed into an Albertson’s to stock up. Shoppers there didn’t know what to make of Beckman, whose personal style might be described as part Jerry Garcia, part Hasidic scholar, and part Chewbacca. I guess Coeur d’Alene is not accustomed to seeing a guy with a thick rabbinical beard and a nimbus of bandanna-wrapped frizz ambling around the fruit section in ripped khaki cutoffs, open sandals, tinted specs, and a faded T-shirt saying “Show Me Your Text.” That day Albertson’s was full of religious fundamentalists decked out in 19th-century frocks. They stopped in their tracks and gazed upon Beckman as if he were a prophet just back from eating honey and locusts in the desert.
And if they thought that, they weren’t entirely wrong. Beckman is the spiritual leader of the bus—its gentle sage. Most of the time he doesn’t say a word, but when he does, everyone listens. It was Beckman who instigated all random acts of, well, randomness. In Idaho, as we shot by the small town of Wallace, he picked up a megaphone, switched it on, and began reading a Frank O’Hara poem out loud—“Lana Turner has collapsed!” The town of Wallace, Beckman explained when he was finished, was the birthplace of Lana Turner.
At the podium Beckman was a force. His readings managed to swing theatrically back and forth between radiance and petulance, lethargy and liturgy. He was like a slacker Moses on the mountaintop: you half-expected him to pull a couple of stone tablets out of his knapsack. Audiences were transfixed. At a Beckman reading in Spokane, a young guy wearing a black T-shirt with a flaming Aztec bird on it couldn’t stay in his chair. After a couple of Beckman’s poems he stood up, walked to an area behind the seats, and began furiously pacing back and forth, blurting out “yes!” whenever a line really got to him.
and I saw the best minds of my generationThat night the bus pulled into the Trailer Inn RV park, and the poets slept alongside the roar of Route 90. Zapruder walked around in a pair of blue rubber sandals. “I got these so I can shower in the RV park without feeling like a disease is going to crawl up my legs,” he said.
living in lofts
thinking they were the best minds of their generation
while the world hacked up tax breaks and jet fighters
It was only the first night on the road, but already you could tell what an endurance test this thing was going to be.
Why, you might wonder. Why subject yourself to days and days of motion sickness, monotony, insomnia, halitosis, hangovers, spinal aches, bad-burrito indigestion, traffic, nasty coffee . . . ? I think I got the most sensible answer from Bill Wesley, the driver of the Poetry Bus, when, for no reason that I could discern, we pulled over to the side of the road one afternoon in order to see some petrified gingko trees that Bill knew about. As the poets headed up a sun-broiled hill to see the petrified stumps, I turned to Bill and asked, “So why are we doing this again?”
Bill looked at the hill and said, “Why not?”
Apparently we’d learn by going.
Jeff Gordinier is the author of X Saves the World and has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Details, Esquire, GQ, Elle, Spin, Creative Nonfiction, and Entertainment Weekly. His work has been included in anthologies such as Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Food...