Paul Allen has been a poet nearly all his life, and he's taught poetry at the College of Charleston for 36 years. He’s published two collections, American Crawl and Ground Forces, and has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events.
Two years ago, he retired from teaching, and he planned a whopper of a recovery. He sold all of his belongings and hit the road in a 20-foot Toy Hauler camper. He's been traveling cross-country for the last two years doing readings and playing his guitar wherever he could. Then, after a short visit to Charleston a few weeks ago, he hit the road again.
Follow along with him at www.poems-songs.com.
During his visit to Charleston, he gave an interview to the Charleston City Paper, and here are a few excerpts:
On his decision to hit the road:
I've always wanted to move, to explore — books, ideas, and places. So being divorced, kids grown, and my retirement coming up, and living in an apartment, I figured this was as good a time as any to explore. I gave up my apartment, gave my furniture to my children, my books and CDs of a lifetime to my students, and jumped.
Poet Paul Allen in his camper/trailer on the road,
somewhere in the U.S.
On how his travels have affected his writing:
The poems I'm working on now for a collection has the working title of Recalculating: New Poems from the Road. I'm discovering that the places I travel — and this is one big country with a lot of elbow room — the sense of being in states where I do not know a single person who lives there, and the sense of being alone staring into my campfires have combined to make these poems more intimate in tone, in some respects quieter.
Now, with no agenda and the rest of my life to accomplish it, I can take more time with my work, exploring the ideas over weeks and months. I don't have to think about building a career. I just finished a long poem that I worked on every day for four months, over 200 pages of notes and drafts and exploring philosophy, history, and religion — I can be a lot more patient with the poem that is trying to surface, now, and with myself in the composition process. And since I go for a week at a time without meeting a soul or talking to anybody, I find my poems more introspective now.
Strangely enough, the quiet life exploring wherever I land, has made me even more aware of spiritual kinship with strangers and with the land.
Memorable moments from the road:
Spending time alone at the mass grave at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and a month in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred ground to the Sioux, and the spirits of the place allowed me to feel their presence. Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Mo. and being in the room where Jesse James was assassinated, and watching the annual Buffalo round up — 1,400 wild bison coming over the hill at full run — that was spectacular.
On going back on the road after his recent stop in Charleston:
I'm hoping I'll want to spend March in Alabama, and I hope I'll want to go toward Montana in April through the summer. But I really have no agenda, plans, or goals. On my way to Montana, I might pick up a brochure that makes me decide to stay in Nebraska awhile. Could be I never get to Montana. Heck, I might decide to park my camper somewhere permanently. Whether it's a street in Clovis, N.M., where Buddy Holly recorded, or a bus stop in New Orleans, the Sonora Desert, an abandoned mining town, or an art museum in Nashville, it's all teaching me something I didn't know. And if you can't find something new to learn in your own yard, you're not likely to find it anywhere else.
Read the entire Interview from The Charleston City Paper
Interview with Paul Allen.
A new poem by Paul Allen, written on the road:
1. Hell Hound on My Trail
My friend’s teen daughter is being sucked down
into a hole so deep and dark a grown up would turn
to fits of madness, madness to roil or wreck
all sense of balance, proportion;
where the house, the car,
the sliced thumb instead of an onion,
the taxes, the way our coat hangs
on the railing of the ship,
the broken finger, the faucet leak
or lack of tape for a late night
Christmas wrapping, and the deaths
become all equal, equally shameful, equally
victimizing, muddied and toxic.
The kid’s not but 19, for God’s sake!
I want to send her something.
Her dad says music seems to be her only
solace. I’m giving all my stuff away anyway,
retired, and living in a camper on the road.
So my several hundred CDs,
my several hundred books,
all my furniture
go to students and my daughters.
Certainly I could send the girl some music.
What to send, though?
What might bless her?
Solace? Or will the songs suck her
farther down in her sickroom,
which is any room she is in?
I can’t send “Ain’t gonna work
on Maggie’s farm no more,”
“Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound,”
as much as they meant to me,
or Eroika, with its great (recanted!) heroism
or Chopin—the strains of some concerti
so great that all I feel in listening
is a kind of beautiful fear.
You can’t send those to a young girl
with a fist full of Paxil, Haldol, Loxapine,
all of which work and don’t,
work and make things worse.
So too with my albums—they work,
they make things worse.
The voices of children are beautiful
unless you’ve been aching to have a child.
We don’t know the real ache,
or its tributaries, when we heap our recommendations.
O the roadside bombs we set with our love!
Songs that I could tell her “changed my life”
might be those that changed my life
for ill. I didn’t turn out so great.
Does the same thing clear, that clogs the bloodstream,
depending on the ear, the jog of memory?
2. Old Man River
(he must know something but he don’t say nothing)
Downstream, all good goes south,
Eventually; eventually all bad becomes a boon.
Last month I stood at the Rio Grande and marked
how small it seemed compared to the books I dreamed it in
when I was a boy in the Carnegie Library stacks
on beautiful Saturdays, becoming bookish and unfit.
This month I stood at the Edisto,
the longest black water river in the US,
they say. I’ve crossed the Shannon on ferry,
the Mississippi, over and over,
stood in it. I’ve looked down to the Bou Regrig
in Morocco from the fort then up the bank to Sale.
I’ve walked the twisted path on the Zambia side
down to the edge of the Zambezi
where all you can hear is Victoria Falls
and your own heart trying to get to something
more stable than earth.
Lately I have been camping near rivers,
thinking of their own journeys:
flowing, flooding, going down, making towns
then taking towns down in ruin.
But even they are not on a journey,
as I’d thought, source to estuary.
People debate the beginnings and ends.
There’s usually a marker
for the presumed beginning place,
but just presumed, best guess.
And at the end, at the sea, the only markers
are “Danger” “Unpredictable Currents” “Pollution.”
Then where does that stop?
Just because the muddy water drops
its brownness in a foam line across the bay
doesn’t mean the river’s done.
In the ocean,
it shall be raised in air as air,
then dropped on towns far off
that name it in another language.
All rivers are the one river.
3. Your Long Journey
Emmy Lou Harris
At Camp River Dubois there’s the marker
planted in the worn-down stones
saying where the Lewis and Clark Expedition began,
but really, Meriwether Lewis joined up weeks after,
elsewhere. And where did he begin?
When Jefferson wrote him in Pittsburgh
to come work in Washington?
Or when he sat, hot faced at the lamp, reading Jefferson’s copy
of the new book by the Canadian, McKenzie,
and they both were spurred on?
Or did it begin—Virginia, in the woods Lewis tramped
as a boy near Jefferson’s home? Seven thousand miles
(some say eight) and the beginning was everywhere.
Where did it end? St. Louis? Or later,
delivering his report, when Lewis went mad,
at Grinder’s Stand on the Natchez Trace
and shot himself in the head,
then shot himself in the chest,
then journeyed outside,
or the journey back inside to get his razor,
or back outside, from the porch to yard
where he took to slicing himself up?
Or when his papers were delivered?
Or when they were published?
Or with me as a boy reading We Were There with Lewis and Clark?
We debate the end and beginning of our long road.
Follow the Drinking Gourd,
cross, climb, crawl, fall, roll, ride, swim, skim, drift, drive,
book passage on the Middle Passage
or take the Grand Tour.
All roads are the one road.
4. Children, Go Where I Send Thee
We’ve narrowed down no-time to time,
and time down to today,
and today is Tuesday.
I am in Florida.
In the heart of the campground, till sundown,
children played in the roped-off area of the river.
They were playing Marco Polo.
5. Nothing Was Delivered
So I’m living on the road now, camped this week
by a river.
Woman, I would relieve your suffering,
but what to send? No music that I’d choose
for you can help. Or if it helps now,
will it hurt you down the road, downstream?
No metaphor I offer is anything for you
but a worsening, debris you have to dodge
or clean up. I have no wisdom-words for you.
I’m not sending this poem to you, either.
How reductive: this poem, my roads,
my flapdoodle about rivers!
And you in your pain would know
how reductive. They would scourge you,
my best wishes. They would be brutal
by my seeming to have my act together,
while you don’t.
Or if I broke into some embarrassing,
shameful honesty about my life and loves—
the things I’ve killed, or let suffer, or said,
the drunken nights, the hatreds I have felt,
and then wisely talked of guilt, or getting by,
or through, might you not scream
to shut me up because I can be so honest
and you cannot?
I have never felt more empty handed.
Thus, I send nothing.
Tonight I speak this into my fire,
and watch the fire lift it into air
where it will join the one river
to rain down on the one road.
Paul Allen’s Bio, written and emailed from the road, several months ago
My first book American Crawl (U. North Texas Press, 1997) won the Vassar Miller Poetry Prize and contained the poem “Lapses” that appeared in After Shocks. The year After Shocks was published, 2008, my collection, Ground Forces came out with Salmon Poetry (Ireland). In 2010 my two disc CD of songs and poems, The Glebe Street Adios, came out just before I retired from College of Charleston, Professor Emeritus, after thirty-six years. I vacated my apartment, gave my furniture to my daughters, two truckloads of “stuff’ to Goodwill, and a lifetime’s collection of books and CDs to my students, and took to the road in a 20-foot camper. I have nothing in storage, no home to go back to (unless you count “back” as four feet behind my truck). I’ve been living on the road for a year and a half now.
And so my little house shakes mightily in the winds of Nebraska; accepts the spiritual intimations of the Black Hills of South Dakota; gives me shelter when I come in from seeing the jail cell of Billy the Kid in Lincoln, New Mexico, or walking the streets in Clovis, where Buddy Holly recorded, or taking the tour of Sun Studios in Memphis. Generally I write in the morning and in the afternoon check out interesting stuff of the area—woods, rivers, quarries, museums, art galleries. Mark Twain’s home in Hannibal, Missouri and a month later, Willa Cather’s home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Or the room where Jesse James was assassinated in St. Joseph. My trailer holds my guitars ready for when I get a whim to drive into some town for an open-mic.
I don’t know how long I’ll live like this. I give myself the liberty to land somewhere permanently any day. I’ll probably continue as long as this strain of poems continues, or until I crash the truck or the trailer or myself. Right now, I just look for the next interesting area to set up camp, the next curiosity to explore the next ghost that speaks from my campfire, the next poem.
Follow along with Paul Allen's voyage at www.poems-songs.com