The poet on the ‘strange portability’ of life on the road
‘Don’t say “What”’, the customs agent barks at me through the plexiglass membrane dividing France from the UK. I hadn’t made out his question and now I’m frozen in the face of this unexpected puzzle. What do I say besides ‘what?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, carefully, ‘Could you repeat the question?’ I’m in Paris, waiting to board the Eurostar, sweating under the weight of two heavy bags and the knowledge that I have a weed pen stashed among my toiletries.
‘Are you travelling for work?’ he asks, annoyed.
No. Say no.This is like, the one thing I know – if at all possible, avoid saying you are traveling for work.‘Sort of? I mean ... I’m a writer.’ Ugh.
‘Don’t say “soowrt of,”’ he scolds, mimicking my nasally American O. My whole face starts to burn.
‘Sorry. It’s just … I’m a poet? It’s hard to tell when I’m working and when I’m not.’ Shhh … ‘I’m not being paid.’ Finally, with this lie, I am able to be definitive. He asks a few more questions and then reluctantly allows me to pass. Welcome to the United Kingdom.
I’ve been in Paris for a week, where I was also soowrt of working. What counts as work when you’re a poet? If the answer is ‘writing a poem’, I have some reevaluating to do. But I don’t think that is the answer.
The trip from Paris to London is 2.5 hours. I should look out the window, but instead I watch The Girlfriend Experience (2016–ongoing) on my laptop and take photos of myself. I eat hunks of apple and cheese sliced with a broken plastic knife I found in my backpack. I’m a poet. And then, I’m in London.
I’m to stay here for the month, maybe longer. Life has developed a strange portability over the last few years; I give readings and teach workshops wherever I happen to be and so I can be anywhere. It’s amazing and I feel lucky and I do not take time off.
My first event in London is a group reading with Kevin Coval, Safia Elhillo, Glyn Maxwell, Richard Scott and my friend Holly Pester. It’s been put on by The Poetry School, where I’ll be teaching, and is held at The Canada Water Theatre. When I read, the spotlight is so bright the glare coming off my cheekbones keeps distracting me. Is this why football players paint those stripes under their eyes? Group readings can be tricky, but this a good one.
Afterwards, Holly and I get Indian food with my friends Eleanor Catton and Steven Toussaint, both of whom have come down from Cambridge. We went to school together in Iowa City, US and now we’re all in the UK. It’s funny to be in the same place, so far from where we first met, but it’s not altogether surprising. Ellie and Steve remind me of the time we passed each other going opposite directions on moving walkways in the San Francisco Airport. ‘You just went “Shut. Up”,’ Ellie says. It sounds like me, though I can’t totally recall if I said that or not. I think travelling messes up your memory, there’s no straight-line to hang a narrative around. Like tonight – there’s no real logic to what is ‘foreign’ about anything that’s happening. Although, I notice that the samosas in England are different from samosas in the US. I think they’re not as good, but that’s probably because the main quality I look for in food is familiarity.
Saturday, I teach my class, arriving back in Canada Water with a heavy suitcase and bags under my eyes. I’d woken in a panic around 4am, suddenly convinced there’d be no printer at the school and all my planned activities would flop. But, of course, there is. Class goes well, and then I hustle to King’s Cross Station to meet Holly. We’re taking the train to Edinburgh, and then Glasgow, for an event organized by the University there. In Edinburgh we are soowrt of working, but in Glasgow we are definitely working.
We get in late and thread our way through throngs of partiers just to get out of the station. The Edinburgh weekend vibe is much frattier than I’d expected, weirdly reminding me of Iowa City. They’re both college towns. Holly and I make it to our hotel just in time to catch the end of Eurovision, a phenomenon I have never even heard of and am absolutely fascinated by. Holly tries to explain, but she cannot answer my question as to why Australia and Israel are participating.
The next morning we’re up early. The hotel messed up our room – one double bed instead of two singles – so we’ve been granted a complimentary meal. Totally worth it, we agree, over bites of baked beans and potato scones. ‘Potato scones are like the samosas in America,’ I observe, pleased.
We spend the rest of the day wandering. After a brief, hectic pass through the tourist area surrounding Edinburgh Castle (we make it as far as the pay wall before deciding probably just looking at the castle is enough), we board a bus to Portobello Beach, where we drink tea on the promenade and then split up to go do work in separate parts of town. Technically, this is our first time travelling together, but it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve stayed with Holly in London and she’s stayed with me in Los Angeles, where I live, and we quickly developed the kind of comfortable, low-stress friendship of two people who like to be alone.
I walk to the beach and drop onto the sand. I’m working on a poem. I cross out words and write them down again and cross them out until I’m so frustrated I want to throw it all into the sea. Sometimes working on a poem feels like trying to explain a dream to someone; halfway through you realize you don’t really know where any of it is leading or why you started talking about it in the first place, yet you are compelled to carry on. I’ve been trying to explain this particular poem for about four years.
We arrive in Glasgow that evening and check into our hotel. We have separate rooms here because the University is paying, an occurrence that will never stop delighting me. It’s late, but still light out, so Holly goes to find a place to work – she’s got an abstract due. I lay in bed, staring out the window. I am tired. Someone told me once that when you’re on a boat, everything is harder because you have to expend lots of energy just to keep your balance. I think all traveling is like this. I realize it is Mothers’ Day and so I call my mom. I can’t believe I get to come to Glasgow just because I’m a poet, I tell her. She agrees.
The next day Holly and I walk across campus to The Poetry Club where we meet Colin Herd, who organized our reading. It’s a great space and Holly reads some amazing work I’ve never heard before. She’s incredible – one of those performers who really takes you with her using not only language but voice and breath and body; a dip of the head, a stuttering pause. The reading ends, and we go get Indian food, again. It’s really good, but still not exactly what I crave. I’ve got part of Holly’s poem stuck in my head. I shouldn’t have expected it to happen all at once / but I was told to expect it to happen all at once.
Back in London, I go to Soho for the opening of Cameron Jamie’s show at Kamel Mennour. It’s funny to think of Soho as being in London, not New York, but they’re actually pretty similar. Cameron’s show is gorgeous – his ceramics remind me of the sacred tablets of some alien religion, or maybe the impression made by tracking human eye movement as it stares over the ocean. There’s a large sculpture in the center of the room and I overhear someone say that it seems phallic, but I only think of a Jack Spicer poem: So the heart breaks / Into small shadows / Almost so random / They are meaningless / Like a diamond / Has at the centre of it a diamond / Or a rock / Rock. At the dinner afterwards, I’m seated next to Charlie Fox, a London writer who has just been in New York. I hate New York, I might have said, or maybe I didn’t. We talk about jet lag and drink amaretto and eat, like, six different kinds of dessert. I love dessert.
I catch the last train home and use the hour-long ride to update my CV. I send it to Pomona, where I’m teaching in the fall, and then I check in with my person subleasing my house. She tells me that my cats are low on food, so I order some. I don’t actually know the next time I’ll be living with them. When I get back to LA, I will be staying a friend’s place for at least a month. Maybe two. Maybe three. I miss my apartment, but I don’t miss paying rent.*
The next day I’m reading with Ariana Reines and Meryl Pugh at the Poetry Society. Ariana reads first and then A.N. Devers brings up a skirt formerly owned by Sylvia Plath and drapes it over the reading stand. I feel like I am watching a moment in literary history, only I’m not sure if what happens now will ever be history. Who knows.
When it’s my turn to read I’m feeling strange and outside myself. I haven’t been sleeping much and could probably use some actual nutrients. I decide to read a brand-new piece. It’s short and makes me feel shitty so I read it over and over until I’m snapped back into my body. One time, Trisha Low asked me to slap her across the face before a reading. It’s like that.
Afterwards, Ariana tells me, Every time I see you I get the feeling you’re completely indestructible and that it’s tiring. I’m still thinking about it, which is sort of the normal effect of spending time with Ariana. We try to remember where and when we first met. New York? Northampton? We got cheeseburgers. I was bleeding. That was the night I met that guy. In any case it was a long time ago. A lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same. We’re poets, we can do anything we want! We marvel at this, laughing. Holly messages from Romania. She’s performing in the Bucharest International Poetry festival. How did it go, she says. How did it go, I say. She’ll be back tomorrow. We can do anything we want. We’re going to go get Indian food.
Main image: On the train to Edinburgh. 2018. Courtesy: the writer