by Jeffrey Shotts
An unlikely figure rose to the mound to throw out the first pitch at the Saint Paul Saints baseball game on Friday, August 27, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Utah's Poet Laureate, David Lee, had not thrown a pitch in an official arena for thirty years, when he played semiprofessional baseball as the only white player to ever play for the Negro League Post Texas Blue Stars and pitched for the South Plains Texas League Hubbers. Since his baseball days, Lee has raised pigs, taught literature, and has written several books of poetry, including A Legacy of Shadows: Selected Poems and News from Down to the Cafe, both recently published by Copper Canyon Press.
Though a strange place to find poetry readers, Lee appeared at the Saints game and threw out the first pitch to promote his new books, which chronicle the lives of farmers and townspeople in a vernacular, rural dialect. Lee's plainspoken humor is winning him a wide audience, one that might have shied away from Wordsworth and Tennyson in the classroom. "I'm often quoted for saying, 'I write for people who think they don't like poetry.' While I may not have said that, I don't disagree with it," Lee said.
Lee has been making his way through the Midwest to promote his work in libraries and bookstores—traditional outlets for poetry—and at state fairs and now a minor league baseball game. With Copper Canyon Press, Mary Bisbee-Beek, publicist at Beeksbee Books in Saint Paul, has orchestrated Lee's tour. "My thinking in bringing Dave out to the Saints game was that his poems are about the people who attend these games," Bisbee-Beek said. "A lot of these people come from the farm and come from small towns. These are not necessarily people whose forebears were urban dwellers, even if they are right now. I think Dave's poems can speak to them."
Lee and Bisbee-Beek both acknowledged the difficulty in getting people to listen to poetry in venues like baseball games and state fairs. For Lee, this can be frustrating. "I have no clue how to prepare for an event like this, and the same goes for a state fair," he said as he indicated the waves of people bustling past the table where Bisbee-Beek hoped to sell books and Lee signed a few copies. "This genuinely terrifies me: the space is not enclosed, I can't see my audience, and they're not sitting, they're moving. But I'm always willing to give it a shot."
Such tactics to promote poetry to a wider, more general audience than it usually commands are rare, and sometimes meet with limited success. Few people buy books, and few people seriously listen. "It can be a disappointment," Bisbee-Beek admits. "But it's an experiment."
Lee believes that it's a worthy experiment, however, and that the kind of poetry he creates can meet a social and cultural need. "I think there is a need for an oral tradition, and a need right now to return to a narrative form in poetry, to get back to the idea of story for the sake of story, the story as art," Lee said. "That's where I'm aiming and betting my life, and I hope this is what people are looking for."
DAVID LEE'S ONLINE TRAVELOGUE
1st Phase: The Northwest
Dawn 2 p.m. interview reading Seattle @ Y
(know I get nervous, get a head start)
Scenic over bay bird call great walk madrona/cedar Radio-Iowa Interview
late p.m. storm—lightning—2 struck in Seattle
One of my favorite places on earth to read is Open Books on 45th. Great book store that stocks only poetry. But it's small. So they moved the reading to the downtown library. Around 30 showed; recognized maybe 4 to 6 from the regular Open Books audience. They were a good audience—sold quite a few books. The key is, one down. The rest to go. We're launched!
Spent a great half day with Gerald the pig, in his pen, filming a TV clip to be used the week of the fair. May be foreboding since I'm working a ton of state fairs later this month. Gerald was wonderful—a very gregarious, well-behaved pig who knew he was beautiful and was very proud of it.
Several friends from Utah showed up at the reading. Wow. Come 1000 miles to read before friends from Utah! They included Rob Van Wagoner who just published Dancing Naked—which may be the best first novel I've seen in five years.
Reading: Village Books - Rob/Brenda Miller
Great book store, terrific audience
Rob's boy Phoenix & Shae sign books--spell their names out loud. Shae spelled my name for me for his children's book, gave me a hug.
Rain all night gentle slept through night
first time in . . . months cloudy dawn, sprinkling smell of ocean, muted shore birds
Went to see Paul Hansen, the great Chinese scholar/translator. He has a weaned litter of Newfoundland puppies. They were in a room with the door shut. After a half hour and tea Paul said brace yourself, I need to turn them out. Nine puppies the size of three-month shoats. They ran halfway across the floor, then all stopped together and peed. There was enough urine from those pups to call in Charlton Heston and have him part the sea. Terrific, beautiful dogs. But when they grow up they're as big as Shetland ponies. I believe I'll pass on buying one. Especially after I heard the price tag: $1500. Wow.
Reading: Watermark. Patti, Norman, Vicki, Jules; Chris from Gray Spider came. My mother also came, didn't want to be introduced or acknowledged—but I did anyway. Fun to reverse the tables & watch her squirm.
Little old ladies had to leave before last poem. Third poem from the end, "can we stay and hear one more?" Then "we're late"; "oh just one more." Then left before the last poem apologizing, "We're sorry. We're sorry. But they'd lock us out of the rest home." As they opened the door one yelled, "don't ever get old." The other said, "that's right. When you're old they lock you out."
Misty dawn patches of blue
Hour on porch with Jan with tea, staring at water
(Satan: being stupidly good—Paradise Lost)
Vancouver radio station '40s/'50s oldies--I can hear Johsee, "God, Dad, what is that?" I'm as happy as I've ever been. A mudbound hog showed me nothing.
Drive to Pt. Keyston Ferry—
Print shop four hours work. Final logistics with Thatcher and Michael
At the reading Alan Turner had me sign some books to his daughter Cassidy. Six years old already has a 400-copy, signed-book collection. One couple came to reading surly, stranded, had missed last ferry out, bought every book after. Their first reading ever. All-time bad day for them: reading flip-flopped their day. Joseph brought twins—after reading played ring-around-the-rosy including new verse to get up after falling down which I can no longer do.
Rainy, thick. Good day for driving. Hope it clears by afternoon for flight to Waldron. Stopped at press to pick up books. Check out.
Alan had left two Pete's Wicked Ale breakfast beers and a signed copy of The Hedge, The Ribbon by Carolyn Orlock.
Met by Sam, Sally, Alicia, and Michael. To the Green's cabin—great meal with good friends.
Reading: 47 came (out of total island population of 90). Great audience, sold a lot of books. Story: during reading of "21 Gun Salute" looked to right and saw a woman signing to a deaf man. Stopped reading, explained presence/purpose of Leonard Askins in poem, asked if he'd be offended. He signed back, hell no, of course not. He laughed at poem.
Two high school girls came twirling in dressed as gypsies—just in case the reading needed livening up. They were gorgeous. Wish I'd figured out what they were doing quicker—I'd have read "Interlude" from My Town.
Fun reading—looked like a return to the '60s. Waldron Island is low, low key. No barbers, so a lot of shaggy hair. No laundromats so a lot of baggy clothes. Didn't smell anybody light a joint—that's about all that was lacking.
Evening: glass of wine by coal oil lamp
Irony: Brooding Heron books printed/produced on island with no electricity or public water system
Calls from Lopez Island wondering why they weren't included on tour.
Walked around island for four hours—great coffee and poetry talk at Alicia and Michael's cabin. Flew out at 2:30 with great sense of sadness at leaving. Four people on plane attended reading.
Stayed with Mom and Jim—left at eight for Sea Tac/Portland—sad/happy, morose—then the flight from hell screaming baby with mother who thought it was cute, nonstop for forty minutes. Understand why the Pope kisses the ground when he deplanes.
Evening reading at Powell's
(Chris Faatz ill—didn't see)
Lunch at Jake's—Jan ordered escargot, which I told her cost too much so I ate about half a huge garlic: I breathed on a lamp post and it glowed, two muggers apologized when I turned and said "what?" in their face.
Read with Clemens Stark—low-key audience (but I was due). Weakest reading of the tour so far—dunno why. Mebbe not a good idea to read with two poets? Dunno.
2nd phase: The Midwest
The man in seat ahead talked loudly on cell phone for twenty minutes until the attendant told him to stop. Asked "are you ready to rejoin us?" He immediately started telling his seatmate about his world travels. Lady next to me put a scarf over her face and a hat over the scarf, wrapped herself in two felt blankets and slept (mummy).
Reading: Two minutes before it was scheduled to begin, audience of three including me, Sean, and Adrian—my book distributors. Then librarian showed up to do an intro then three street people and a couple. During my next to last poem the person who had agreed to sell books arrived, then his wife about halfway through last poem.
Great dinner at Oh La La with Sean & Adrian. Great waitress, Jodi. Salvaged the day.
ILLINOIS STATE FAIR
Twilight Ballroom: 40x80 cement pad, four posts, metal roof. Half building for electronic modern agricultural display with bullhorn and free popcorn—hung sheet separated us. To East, 30 yards, rock and roll pavilion; to North, 30 yards, jazz/blues pavilion; to West tilt-a-whirl & children's roller coaster; to North, beer garden. Thank god for Ethan and ---- who brought Ken and Sam Davis. They were my audience.
Group of kids came, stood holding hands, one wide-eyed & in shock—I read a funny poem, she tried not to laugh, I winked. Asked her older sister, "What's he doing?" "He's reading." "Why he doing it out loud?" "Maybe he want to." "He a grown up man, he don't have to do that." "Maybe that's what he do." I read another funny poem, all except questioner laughed. She said, "I think we all better go right now." So they did.
First set scheduled for two hours; after one hour a woman came up, said, "We posta have this stage now, we got awards to pass out to some chirren." Please. Take all the time you need.
Second set, 3-5 p.m.—hot, windy, sweaty. But several stayed over an hour and listened. One man laughed until he bent over at "Lazy"—his wife grabbed his arm & pulled him up. "Come on, let's go. You're having too much fun. That's not good for you."
Died and went to heaven. One of most pleasant readings in my life. Mostly older people—one eight-year-old girl in front row laughed until the audience quit listening to me & laughed at/with her. Oh Maggie. Bless you.
Great down day. Walked. Walked. Walked. Four hours.
Found out my reading starts tomorrow at seven. Same time kick-off will take place a half mile away. Green Bay/Denver. Oh my.
Monday. Rain. Rain. Rain. Walked an hour, got soaked. Tried to stay over an extra night at the hotel—they're booked solid, have been for three months. "When they kick off at 7 this place will be a ghost town. Everybody within 100 miles will be at that game."
Okay. Found a motel outside town. I think I'm the only person here who's not staying by the month. Most of the rooms have charcoal grills & outdoor furniture in front of them. Very friendly. I said, "Rain, rain," and a woman said, "Yep," and an old man said, "Looks like it."
4.8 miles from motel to Borders Books. Took 50 minutes to make the drive. Bumper to bumper Green Bay Packer fans. Four beers offered from windows. Happy people.
Huge, wonderful bookstore—size of Kmart, clean as an Amish kitchen. Four customers in store. Total. I drove back to the motel in ten minutes. Could have run every red light. Drove two blocks from Badger Stadium, heard a Green Bay touchdown fan reaction, felt like a minor tremor: 2.4 on the Richter. Go Packers. Why not?
Rain stopped, sky cleared. Saw the old man sitting in front of his room. Waved, called "more rain tonight?" He called, "Mebbe. Then mebbe not." I answered, "Yep." Brevity is the soul of wit.
Great drive—first time through Wisconsin, 50 places I wanted to pull off & explore.
Met Mildred Larson—ultra efficient, gracious, polite woman; immaculate setup. Three hour workshop with the best prepared high school students I've ever worked with: all of my anticipations (worries) early plowed under—a dream afternoon class.
Fish & chips in a fine pub (ironically no one ordered a beer—might as well have been Utah).
Reading went well. Hour long live interview with Peoria radio station. Evidently the reading there went well. Yea!
Arrive mid-afternoon—like being home. Great talk with Mary [Bisbee Beek]. They're upset over the press over the State Fair experience; Thatcher's thinking of coming to Lincoln. Called—told him not to worry: this is an experiment (or "learning experience," which always means/implies "oops").
Reading at Hungry Mind—[Jim] Heynen—many old friends. Great fun.
J. Otis Powell radio gig—surreal but terrific; played CD "Clean" then segue Quincy Troupe poem, then one of mine as response. "Man with the golden voice." Took on a tone of sadness: "seemed like a eulogy, an obituary." Then he told me, "that was my last show."
Meal at Thai buffet: last supper, the surreal compounded. No conversation for the first ten minutes. Just heavy eating. The guys on either side of me guarded their food with their arms like we were in prison. I wanted to remind them, "it's a buffet."
Anderson Center—Hungry Mind to the 10th power—like being with family, Judy, Gary, Lauren. The tour is a success! Three terrific readings in a row.
Newton's 3rd—pride goeth before a fall: St. Paul Saints game. Read @ 5:30-5:45; game starts at 7, gates don't open until 6—no audience. One person with tape recorder to do "an interview to be played during game broadcast"—after he conned Mary out of a copy of Selected Poems, tells me all he wants is me reading a 30-second poem.
First pitch; I biffed it—tried to show off & throw a curve ball, bounced it to the catcher—he was pissed, I was embarrassed. Thank God for Mary and Jeff who met me with a beer. Now this was a character-building experience and that's what humiliation actually means. Mary more upset than me, I think. If possible. Even asked me if I wanted to cancel the rest of the tour. That's a screw up.
Parting is sweet sorrow. It was hard to leave the Hotel de Beek. Mary had put a ton of time & energy into this tour. She gets no praise, all the blame when it falters. I feel like I'm leaving with my tail between my legs, and mostly because I blew the first pitch at the ballgame. So it goes. Chin up, Dave. Fuck baseball. There. It's better already.
Timely change of scenery—to Minneota Bill and Marcy, who don't care if I bounced the pitch. They laughed. "Laughter is also a form of prayer." Thank God for laughter. I'm glad they don't think forgiveness is a divide and should therefore be left to God. Thank God for fine whiskey. I feel whole again.
Drove in a fine, heavy rain. First time in North Dakota—beautiful rolling landscape. A handsome country.
Zandbroz Variety—small, enthusiastic crowd, 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon reading. Rocky's mother comes—wow. After, to micro brewery with Greg Danz and Mark. Beer, nine pounds of peanuts and pretzels, and a gargantuan plate of boiled eggs baked in Italian sausage. Bill was $10. I thought it would be that apiece. Maybe I should move to Fargo.
Great tales of Tom McGrath. I'd forgotten this was his home town. Story of first writers conference here, he came and stood against the wall during readings. James Dickey, et al. Host didn't know him, asked how he liked it; said all the writers were second rate. "Who are you?" McGrath said, "I'm the sixth best writer alive in America today." Of course, of course.
Back to Minneota & a down day—went to see Leo Dangel. Great afternoon—he read poems aloud (first time I've heard) including a new poem—he signed it to Jan.
5 a.m. rising shiny, Willie Nelson time
Out on the road again. No need to go said Bill. You can stay here said Marcy. They'll sit you at a table and no one will say hi all day and you won't sell a single book and you'll waste the day. Well.
HURON, SOUTH DAKOTA
Three hour drive. Beautiful prairie. Terrific PBS station with brass morning music and a gorgeous sunrise. South Dakota State Fair. Billed as the Fair's Writer in Residence.
Arrived a half hour early, but it took an hour to find the building, go back to the car, get books, return and set up a booth. First glance appears Bill was right. Then: within a half hour several people stopped to look at books, a few talked, including four teenagers. I've already matched a month's social quota for Utah. Then a woman comes, says, "I've been looking for you. Which one of your books do you think I should buy?" 10:30 and already exceeded the day's expectations by 100 percent and I've got Cormac's new novel to help me through the rest of the day.
Ah that a man's reach extends his grasp, or what's heaven for?
She bought a copy of News.
Life is good. It just doesn't take much to keep some people going.
And then another. And another. And another.
Fine reading at Zandbroz Variety #2. Met Larry, a federal judge who comes to poetry readings and knows his poetry. Why does that strike me as odd? A completely intelligent, likeable guy.
Bill Holm came over with me and I dunno if the route we took was good or not, but I couldn't repeat it if my life depended on it. Great conversation all the way. Great scenery. Adrian Lewis came. I'm delighted. He'd been told I hated his work. Not true. I think his fiction is terrific and likewise most of his poetry. Being a reader for a press has its downside—especially if the editor quotes you out of context. Mebbe it's time to take your name off the reader list. Fine man. Great sense of humor. Wish I knew him even better.
Loooooooong drive back to Minneota. Got there around three a.m. Thank god Holm's a talker. Doubt I could have made it without him.
Last gig of a long, long journey: Idaho—New Orleans—Illinois—Wisconsin—Minnesota—North Dakota—South Dakota—Nebraska. Thank god Jan was with me for most of it. But thank god she wasn't there for the state fairs . . . or oh lord the baseball game. That would have compounded the humiliation.
The last three weeks of this tour have taught me a fine lesson I shall eternally remember: celibacy is not all it's cracked up to be.
Sunday. The Nebraska State Fair. Two readings. Ugh. Thatcher sent some flyers from Copper Canyon Saturday. Kloefkorn and I took them around Lincoln to poetry hangouts and the Nebraska Bookstore, which is a shrine to Cornhusker football. I saw framed posters for $500 of football players and coaches. My favorite was a small girl on her knees holding a Nebraska cheerleader uniform before a crackling fireplace. The only thing missing was a picture of Jesus on the wall. I'll wager if BYU ever sees it they'll do one with a picture of a Mormon temple above the fireplace.
Another State Fair reading tomorrow.
Sunday. Gods. The reading went fine. Mostly thanks to Kloefkorn and Marge Sassier who showed up with a gift of her new book (Plug it, Lee: Bones of a Very Fine Hand), little knowing I would shamelessly con her into reading with me.
Kloefkorn was in heaven. He mounted the stage, both readings, to introduce me and began by introducing himself as the Nebraska State Hogcalling Champion, then gave an exhibition of his winning call. The room began to fill. Then he held up Thatcher's flyers and pronounced them quality bookmarks that normally sell for upwards of eight to several hundred dollars after they've become collector's items, and that free bookmarks would be available, but only at the conclusion of the reading.
First reading: standing room only, a crowd begets a crowd.
After the reading a woman came to the stage and stated she wanted to buy both books and a CD. Her husband grabbed her arm and said no. She asked why, he said, "I don't want to carry them all day." She said, "I'll take them to the car." He said, "Nope, it's too far." Then she said, "I'll carry them there." He said, "No, you'll ask me to and I'm not going to." Then she said "but I want them" and he said "then go to the bookstore tomorrow by yourself and get them. I didn't come to the fair to read, now let's go." So they did. Ah, love. Ah, State Fairs.
The second reading went like the first except at 5 p.m. the audience was smaller. Most were good friends from Nebraska. A fine way to end.
All in all it was a very long short summer. Between 5 June and 6 September I slept eleven nights in my own bed. But the book is launched. I got a god's ransom of publicity and exposure. I'm bone tired, sick of motels, loathe café food, and horny as a 9-tine pitchfork staring at a bale of straw. I'm ready to go home.
But then I remember: school started a week ago without me. I've been gone three months which means I've got precisely three months worth of work waiting for me. Ye gods and little fishes.
BACK TO UTAH
There's no rest for the wicked. But the righteous don't need any.
Go home now.
Home. We. We.
We all the way.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999