The Poetry Garage
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, July 20th, 2011. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the poetry of parking. In Chicago, they’ve got parking down. There’s a garage on almost every block, big ones too. Buildings many stories high are entirely consecrated to parking. Just look at Marina City, the corn-cobbed shaped residential towers near the Chicago River. This is a parking shrine. The first 19 floors in each of these colossal buildings are exposed spiral parking ramps. You can see your car up on the 19th floor. Thats 38 floors of parking for two buildings. For a New Yorker who’s Monday and Thursday mornings are consumed with alternate side of the street parking, it is a thing of wonder and of beauty. But on the inside, parking garages all look and feel the same, which is why they have one big design problem. How do you help a customer remember where he parked the damn car?
Arnie Winegard: At a minimum, most multilevel garages have some sort of color coding system. In addition to that, you can do themed garages. There are sports teams —
Curtis Fox: So you park on like the Chicago Bears level?
Arnie Winegard: Exactly. At the airport, at O’Hare, there are the Bears and the Bulls and the Blackhawks.
Curtis Fox: That’s easy to remember if you’re a sports fan.
Arnie Winegard: Even if you’re not!
Curtis Fox: For years now, Arnie Winegard has been designing themed and non-themed garages. He often works for John Hammerschlag who is the part owner of a garage at 201 West Madison in downtown Chicago. One day Hammerschlag said to Arnie —
Arnie Winegard: We really need to do a renovation of this garage. It’s 10 years old, getting a little dated. What do you think of using poetry as a theme?
Curtis Fox: So he came up with that idea?
Arnie Winegard: Yes, it’s not something I ever would have suggested on my own.
Curtis Fox: Not that Arnie doesn’t like poetry. As a matter of fact, he got an MFA from Colombia —
Arnie Winegard: Several hundred years ago.
Curtis Fox: And in the past few years he’s taken up writing poetry again, and even attended a prestigious artist’s retreat not long ago. Hammerschlag got wind of this and long story short, the poetry garage officially opened this past spring. What, you may ask, is a poetry garage? How can parking and poetry possibly go together? Arnie Winegard recently gave me a tour, starting at the top of the garage on the 10th floor. We were met there by the voice of Robert Frost, reading his poem “Mending Wall”
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
Curtis Fox: You listen to his poem as you wait for the elevator to take you back down to street level, and next to the elevator doors there’s also a picture of the poet, a short bio, and the text of that poem.
Arnie Winegard: It’s a little more than you can read waiting for the elevator, hopefully the elevator comes sooner. But over the course of the week and the month and the year, you’re going to hit every part of that poem and know it pretty well.
Curtis Fox: If you parked on the 9th floor, you would soon get acquainted with Langston Hughe’s poem “Harlem”. On the 8th, a Carl Sandberg poem “Languages”, and on the 7th we hear Kay Ryan and her poem “A Hundred Bolts of Satin”. One problem with the poetry garage, it’s sometimes hard to hear the poems.
Arnie Winegard: There are probably no worse acoustics. It’s all hard surfaces and the L is right next door. You’re hearing this rumbling periodically.
Curtis Fox: But you can always read along with the poem. For our purposes on this podcast, we actually have the Kay Ryan poem on the site, poetryfoundation.org, we have the audio as well. It comes with a nifty introduction with the poet. Just imagine that you’ve just parked your car and you’re waiting for the elevator to arrive.
Kay Ryan: The reason that I find this poem really terrifying is that for me it’s about when your mind comes apart. All you have are separate cars, and the things that are in those cars can’t keep you alive if your mind comes apart.
have to lose
and the mind
all the way back.
to have been
to have been
life: a crate of
a dozen dozen
bolts of satin—
Curtis Fox: This poem has the virtue of being relatively short. You could hear the whole poem while you’re waiting for the elevator. These elevators are awfully fast though.
Arnie Winegard: Brevity is a virtue.
Curtis Fox: Hear that poets?
Arnie Winegard: In parking! Let me qualify.
Curtis Fox: Does Kay Ryan know that she’s part of the poetry garage?
Arnie Winegard: Well, we pay a little honorarium negotiated by her publisher. I’m pretty sure that would be one of the more unusual royalty checks that any poet could possibly get.
Curtis Fox: Robert Frost is on the 9th floor, Kay Ryan is on the 7th floor, are you making some kind of literary judgement there?
Arnie Winegard: No, no. I tried as best as I could to separate genders, ethnicities and eras. Then when I did that, my client said, “No, you’ve got to put “Casey at the Bat” on 3.
Alex Wilson: “Strike two!”
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered
“Fraud!” But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.
Curtis Fox: This is one of the most popular poems ever in American literature. How do you explain why?
Arnie Winegard: People love an accessible narrative structure, and people really love an accessible narrative structure around baseball. Victory and defeat, redemption or the lack there of, it’s kind of irresistible. For what it is, who’s done anything better? It’s a great prom.
Curtis Fox: I don’t know about that, but probably the most appropriate poem for the parking garage where you’ve probably forgotten where you parked your damn car is on level two. It’s Billy Collins reading his poem “Forgetfulness”.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
Curtis Fox: Billy Collins is one of the most popular poets in the country today, he’s also one of the funniest. Does he know he’s on the second floor of the parking garage?
Arnie Winegard: I certainly hope he does because I would look forward to reading the poem he’d write about it.
Curtis Fox: But if he knows he’s on the parking garage on the 2nd floor, does he know Kay Ryan’s on the 7th floor?
Arnie Winegard: (LAUGHING) I guess as the editor of the poetry garage, that was one of the tough decisions I had to make.
Curtis Fox: Arnie Winegard is a designer in Chicago, home of the poetry garage. The voice of “Casey at the Bat” belongs to Alex Wilson. Let us know what you think of this program where our motto is,
Alex Wilson: If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
Curtis Fox: Email us at email@example.com. The theme music used for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.