Road Trip!

No road trip down I-95 is complete without the following:

1) Spotting an inexplicable food-like product.


2) Befriending a creature at South of the Border.

Often, these two can be combined in one stop, though this time the offending "ham" was spotted in North Carolina. Meet Speedy, whose shell is checkered a pleasing shade of Tarheel blue.

Last week I returned to Charleston to read at Monday Night Poetry & Music at the East Bay Meeting House. One of the pleasures of going to Charleston three times in one year is that I can now orient myself rather quickly. My first visit included an agonizing 45-minute slog through the outskirts...and I never even saw the water. This time I'd found a parking spot off East Bay and within minutes, here I was--already dreaming of the oysters I'd order at Pearlz. 

Host Jim Lundy did a great job packing the room, and he lined up charismatic guest emcee Jack Tracey so he could focus on taking pictures, which you'll find here. I was thrilled to see the faces of increasingly familiar friends, including Katrina Murphy, Richard Garcia, and many other members of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which has to be the most vital and active state poetry society in America. theory is that anytime the bartender (in this case, Brit Washburn) steps out from behind the bar and reads a great poem, you're in the right place for the night. Also, that is my face on the very nice flyer behind Brit. I will never get used to going to a place and seeing my face plastered all over the walls. It's eerie.

I was home-hosted by a member of the PSSC Board who lives in Bedon's Alley, a historic downtown neighborhood where my father and I went sight-seeing on our last trip. We wondered what the houses looked like inside. Now I know: jaw-dropping.  

From Charleston I traveled to Georgia Southern University--a drive that turned a bit white-knuckled when I realized it would take an hour longer than I had planned for. But I made it, speeding-ticket free, and tumbled headlong into an amazing day of visiting three classes, a craft talk on projecting one's voice on the page, and a reading that drew from each of my books as well as new work. Tack on an interview for their school newspaper and a Thai dinner with two faculty members, and I was beyond beat. 

The GSU students had primarily studied the memoir rather than the poetry, which I always find intimidating. But I was deeply impressed by their sensitivity to the material, their curiosity about the science and cultural history I'd woven in, and their sophisticated questions. It made me want to start another nonfiction book right away. I also welcomed the chance to re-connect with Laura Valeri, my host for the GSU visit and a talented fiction writer I first met at the Sewanee Writer's Conference. This is the surreal backyard marsh view from her living room that I woke up to the next morning...

...where we drank strong coffee and nibbled on fresh-roasted peanuts her husband had made for us. So much of my book tour time is spent being "on," trying to inspire students and be mildly authoritative about navigating the challenges of publishing. But like anyone else I have doubts, failures, worries. It's important to get down off the pedestal--whether it be spent talking about love (mis)adventures at The Blind Tiger in Charleston, or commiserating over genre divides and agent adventures in a Savannah living room. 

Since I'd never been to the city before, I took a few hours to get lost downtown. I called my grandmother as I walked around Forsyth Park, eating blueberries from a bag Laura had packed for me. Savannah is a surreal place, and in many ways older than Charleston; perhaps because the war memorials are as likely to be about the Revolutionary War as the Civil one. But the city is a place for fresh, edgy art, fueled by the presence of SCAD, their students,  and their brand-new art museum, which features a gallery curated by AndrĂ© Leon Talley. 

Oh, I wish my sister could have been there with me! She's the fashionista of the family. 

Going from square to square appealed to me--it didn't take long to feel at home. So I do what one does when feeling at home. I found the nearest rooftop, in the Bohemian Hotel overlooking the river, ordered a Bloody Mary, and read 5o pages of a book. To be happily on a rooftop in February tells you something about Georgia weather. 

Admittedly, it was a looong drive from Savannah to Atlanta. There was some cheek-slapping and hollering to keep myself awake. There was a nap in a Chili's parking lot. But I made it--I got in around 1 AM at The Highland Inn, which is my all-time favorite artist's hostel, given room #333 (3 is my lucky number: good omen!), and told that I might be quick to see Jack--the resident cat--because I was staying next door to his owner. Jack was waiting, all right, and when I opened my door he darted in and made himself at home on the couch. I took that as another good omen. It was nice to have the company as I unpacked.

During the day I got lost at the High Museum of Art. Their "Picasso to Warhol" exhibit was a bit of a letdown--though the works are amazing, they are drawn entirely from MOMA, making it a bit redundant for anyone who has spent a lot of time in New York City. I wasn't head over heels for "The Art of Golf" either But all was redeemed by the stunning and naturally-lit upper floor of contemporary art (including a room of Gerhard Richter's work and a large Anselm Kiefer starscape that I'd never seen, even in my restrospective book of his work), the Bill Traylor exhibit tucked away on the ground floor, and the clever corkscrew design of the Stent Family Wing that tours one through different centuries of art.

Charis Books is a fabulous bookstore with a rich history of supporting feminists and women writers. Staffer Elizabeth Anderson is the best kind of bookseller, gracious and serious about handselling the titles and authors that impress her. Though our crowd wasn't huge (it didn't help that Matthew Harvey was reading at Emory the same night, oof), I was thrilled to have an all-star crew of Atlanta writers attend. Memoirist Jessica Handler and I went out for dinner beforehand; poets Collin Kelley and Julie Bloemeke joined me for a beer at the Brewmaster's Pub after. Both times the conversation was a perfect combination of shop talk and real life. And laughter--a LOT of laughter.

The next morning, as I should have been hustling toward that 12-hour drive home, I instead returned to wander Charis's neighborhood, Little Five Points. Whoa. You cannot think you know Atlanta until you know this place. I loved it, from the eccentric boutique The Junkman's Daughter (where pirate costumes and everyday corsets hang interchangeably on the racks), to the vinyl stores Wax n' Facts and Criminal Records, to the plethora of drafts (and glassware!) at The Porter Beer Bar, where I had delicious deconstructed adobo pork tacos. All packed in just a few dense blocks around the intersection of Moreland, Masfield, and Euclid. I've got to go back. 

But sadly...I can't go back just yet. For now, I must pack my bags for AWP in Chicago, then a reading in Urbana on my way back home. Always, the next drive is waiting. 

This week my poem "The Old Riddle" went up over at Site 95, an intriguing project curated by Meaghan Kent that combines visual arts and writing from up and down the East coast, with related on-site installations in New York, Miami, and elsewhere. (Site "95" = I-95, eh?) The poem is from the third collection I am working on now--a manuscript that deals with romantic love--and it definitely captures some of my experiences in the last few years. But it doesn't reflect my today. Today, my heart is full.