I found Paul Chowder at the Tip O’Neill building. He was in the passport office cajoling the bureaucrats into renewing his travel documents just days before his departure to Switzerland for some big international poetry doings because he didn’t realize he’d expired. I was there for my once-a-decade passport renewal even though I had no plans to travel abroad since the day in 1995 when I watched video from a Buenos Aires apartment of my 10-month-old son taking his first steps holding someone else’s hands. I swore an oath not to leave the country again until my kids were grown. I still like the feel of intrigue with a current passport in my hands though, even if the mug shot makes me look a criminal on the lam.
I asked him if he thought he could get his introduction written by the time his flight left the next week. He still had some boxes to move out of his office and those beads to string for Roz, so he really didn’t think so, but he was hoping for some inspiration in the high altitude of the Alps. But what about that whole You can start anywhere business? You know, Paul, how you said That’s the thing about starting. If you start, you’re in motion. If you don’t start, you’re nowhere.
Don’t you ever listen to yourself? I asked him. It sounded like something I’d read in Rumors of Water, and Chowder conceded he’d lifted that whole idea from the author but thought it should only apply to other people and went on about being on this tall aluminum ladder into the sky and not knowing how he got there but seeing great poets up above him on the ladder, swaying in the clouds, and then all these younger poets clambering up behind him.
Did he know that I climb ladders for a living, I wondered, and he said he didn’t. Well, I told him, mine is only 21 feet tall and I’ve never seen another poet climbing above or below me, not even Ted Kooser or Helen Vendler, though sometimes a farmer will follow me up onto his roof because he’s not sure an adjuster can possibly get it right. I have written some poems on the roof before though, just scratched them out between measurements on my graph paper, and sometimes I have to draw diagrams on the roof with chalk. Once I drew a kitten with whiskers. She was smiling like she wasn’t supposed to be there. It was on the back side of the house so no one could see it and the homeowner wouldn’t call and complain to the insurance company.
You could write anywhere, if you wanted to, I told him. He’d been so busy stacking books that certain way in the boxes and cleaning up his office because he thought he had to have a particular place to write. A person could write from that aluminum ladder, I said. It’s not like he’d feel any less vulnerable than at his desk in the barn. I even wrote a poem while I was driving last Thursday. That storage compartment between the seats makes a decent writing surface, if you don’t care about being able to decipher your handwriting later because you can’t see what you’re doing. A poet who writes while driving should still watch the road instead of the paper.
The poem was about a green insect on the inside glass, and Chowder insisted he inspired it with his talk of the bug in his house with the unusually long ovipositor, but I told him that was nonsense and I hadn’t even read that or the part about the shadows on the windshield until afterwards. It’s funny how those things happen.
Wings too long for your intricate body,
you drag them across the glass, looking through
to see the remains of fallen comrades, corpses
splattered by human propulsion at subwarp speed,
memorialized in transparent mausoleum
until the next car wash.
They lie still in two dimensions,
the third blown out of the shell
when lives went flat on impact.
You wander under tempered graves,
safe behind protective glass
like Marlin Perkins, blissfully unaware
that by morning we’ll find your green translucent
body, lifeless in the crevice by the side glass.
I heard later that Chowder had some sort of catharsis in his class in Switzerland while explaining that the secret to writing poetry is to ask yourself “What was the very best moment of your day?” Once you know that, he said, you have your poem. And then he fell apart and cried his eyes out, but wrote a bunch of poems on his flight home and got to work on the introduction. Seems a little ironic he started writing while he was in motion.
He said it was still a little clumsy when it was done, but “at least there are things I’ve said that I know are true. I’m happy about that.” At least some of the time, that might just be enough.
And Roz is coming to dinner on Saturday.
This post wraps up our time together with Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little meander through writer’s block. Tell us your thoughts about the reading and add a link to your own blog if you posted about it there. Chowder suggests a key to writing poetry is to identify the best moment of the day — can you share a poem in the comments that emerges from such a thought?
We’ll be taking the month of August off the book club. Stay tuned and join us for our next title.
(In the interest of proper attribution, portions of the above, most notably those quotes attributed to Chowder in dialogue, are taken from the book.)
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In August we’re exploring the theme Rain.