Q. Place is very important in literature. Describe the neighborhood that shaped you as a boy.
I’ve never really thought of myself as a “poet of place” (this from a poet whose works include titles such as “Life along Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue” and “S.E. Love Cry”), and have often wondered why nobody ever speaks of a “critic of place” in the same way. If you think of the examples of Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka, you quickly see how critique and verse can be so wonderfully conjoined around an exploration of place and space. Olson took “SPACE” to be “central fact to man born in America” and spent a lifetime in the spaces afforded by his outward thrust from Gloucester. Baraka, a traveler of the world, was always recognizably a passenger on the NEW ARK.
Still, though I’ve never stood still, several neighborhoods formed me, as they formed that mode of my speech that seemed to confuse at least one speech communications teacher in Junior High School who just couldn’t place me. Perhaps it was due to my beginnings in the Midwest, a place where we thought ourselves the only people on the planet free of an accent. It was only after we moved to Northern Virginia that I could listen to my mother and hear in her tones the distinctive, crackling drawl of the Great Plains. Nebraska turned out to be a great place to be from.
We missed as much by accent as by trees. Nebraska was so devoid of groves that they invented an annual observance, Arbor Day, on which we were encouraged to plant trees. Wouldn’t want the state to blow away again like it nearly did when the Great Depression hit the Great Plains. We were a state in need of roots. For God’s sake, there were tumbleweeds rolling down the street, just like in the song and movies. Once we belatedly got a T.V., I saw Roy Rogers singing about “Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.” Like most boys of my generation, I thought cowboy life looked pretty good on T.V. I could locate myself in the spaces of that song: “See them tumbling down / Pledging their love to the ground,” and it may be that was one of the early experiences of lyric that sent me towards poetry. But that song had been recorded six years before I was born (six years before E. Ethelbert Miller was born, too). The only thing left of that already then imaginary life was the tumbleweed itself. When I walked down the street to school, the tumbleweed would pass me by, rolling in the opposite direction.
I had a closer view of cowboy life than my Eastern friends, though, thanks to the farms and ranches my family had come from. We lived in a town of about thirty thousand grandly named Grand Island, so called evidently because of its originally being nestled between the Wood (ha!) and Platte Rivers. We were surrounded by Prairie Dog towns (one reason I was so puzzled upon finding Prairie Dogs on exhibit at the National Zoo once we’d made it to D.C.). There was a sugar beet factory nearby, which, along with the many abandoned shacks beyond the edge of town, made the perfect playground for us boys. The presence of the factory meant there were trains coming and going, with tracks for us to play around. (How many coins did we let the freights flatten out?) Mine was a town life, but we were perched at the leading edge of town, so there were always basements being dug around us, dirt roads turning to asphalt (and thus plenty of that wondrous substance TAR for us to mess with) and the fields with their mounds of sugar beets stretching away past the school.
Both sets of grandparents were still farming, not so far from Grand Island. My mother’s brother had a ranch near the Sand Hills. Two Aunts, seeing something of the nothing in the Midwest future, had decamped for Denver and greater opportunity, where we would follow before too long. Summers and many weekends were spent on horseback, playing in the grain bin, chasing the chickens, wrestling hogs, going to that little rural church where people would interrupt the preacher if he forgot something. But it only took a few times being sent out to the soy bean field to uproot the volunteer corn to teach me that I would be no cowboy. (Years later, when some of my D.C. friends were moving “up to the country” and getting closer to mother earth, I wanted no part of it.) But I was a natural in the saddle; loved the horses; loved riding among the cattle, the ruminants. At bottom, what I found there was the same thing Sterling Brown celebrated in “After Winter”: “fo’ the little feller, / Runnin’ space.” In my case in space, “galloping” might have been more apropos, closer to my accustomed gait. I was a climber, too, much to the terror of my mother. There were no mountains to climb in Nebraska, so it was first furniture, then the tallest tree in the park. Like so many climbers, I was a faller, landing on my head countless times – maybe the true source of the poetry.
We lived on Louise Street in a house my parents had gotten built thanks to the G.I. Bill. Before that we’d been a basement family, prefiguring the basement apartments I was to favor as a young adult. The surrounding countryside featured an odd architectural sight – flat fields on which someone had stuck a door. Seems people would start a house, get as far as digging a basement and laying the concrete, then go ahead and move in before any above-ground house was in evidence. Driving past you’d just see a slab with a door standing at the front of it. But maybe it wasn’t a matter of waiting for enough money for a first floor; maybe those folk were just taking to heart the drills we had in school in the Fifties. We had tornado drills and we had nuclear war drills. The grownups seemed convinced that the Russians were going to fire atomic weapons at Grand Island, Nebraska, largely because there was a Strategic Air Command base over closer to Omaha. Never made much sense to me. I couldn’t help noticing, have remarked frequently over the years, that the drill was the same duck and cover for both nuclear war and the far more likely tornado. Maybe those under-the-ground-living people were just being savvy. Live in a basement house and you were already in the storm cellar, which might conceivably double as a fallout shelter should Russia and us have another falling out.
Like I said, it was a great place to be from. After nine years of running pretty much without constraint, I moved with my family to the West. Good thing, too. We never did have that nuclear war, but a few years later the inevitable tornado wiped out roughly a third of the town, taking a fair number of those trees we’d planted on Arbor Days along with the roofs of houses foolish enough to stick out above ground level. 2.
My father’s work led to a promotion, which led to Denver, where my Aunts had gone before. We’d been there on a car trip once earlier, for my Aunt Leila’s wedding. I still remember my first glimpse of the mountains – snow-capped and seemingly floating above the ground, though that illusion was probably the result of my small body being planted on the car’s back seat and looking up between shoulders through the windshield. That was something, though, those floating Rockies drifting above my horizon. I don’t remember anything of the wedding, but I remember my Aunt’s record player and her copy of Peter and the Wolf, which I insisted on replaying. The name Sergei Prokofiev meant nothing to me then. (There were those Russians again! – And a composition completed fourteen years before Ethelbert and I were born.) But here was text (I don’t suppose anybody in my Aunt’s apartment called it “text”) with music. This was something that my brain locked down on. Spoken word with music. It was clear that the music was not simply accompanying the text; the two forms of creation were twining together and producing something beyond what either could do alone. My Aunt was a school teacher and probably used the record for its intended purpose, cultivating musical interest in children. We were just far enough past the Red Scare that she wasn’t fired for using Russian music to accomplish this end. I never forgot those final words: “If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive.” (The things grownups tell children!) But the reason I never forgot them was the music. A symphony for children – I knew there must be more – I knew we needed to get a record player.
I went to three schools in the three years we lived in Denver, and we lived in two houses. The first house was a rental we moved into while the parents looked around for permanent housing. This was the house where I called myself a painter and set up a studio in a crowded upstairs room, all as the result of seeing the 1959 movie A Dog of Flanders. (The dog acting the title role had also appeared in Old Yeller – this was the sort of thing I paid attention to – Back in Grand Island I’d gone to a dog movie, The Littlest Hobo, at which the dog himself came on stage, and typed on a typewriter! I got an autographed [paw printed] glossy photo of the dog, which I kept for decades.) This was also the house in which I conducted my first experiments as an inventor, one of which involved my plugging myself into a wall socket. I had learned about electricity but not about insulation. No doubt this was another of those experiences leading me to poetry. My mother managed to disconnect me using a broom, whose handle, of course, would not conduct the current from me into her. Bill collectors occasionally came to our door looking for the previous tenant, but more often our bell was rung by salesmen who had vacuum cleaners, indestructible dining plates, even socks to try to sell to us.
It was in those Denver schools that I began to understand something of racism. Back in Grand Island, several of my closest friends in the neighborhood were Mexican-American. This was even more the case in Denver, but it was in Denver that I first saw that this fact meant something about my relationships with certain among the other white kids (though none of us ever called ourselves white kids – we were just kids – but I was learning that my friends weren’t just kids; they were Mexican kids, despite having lived in Colorado considerably longer than any of my family had). By the time I got to seventh grade, and my third school, “race” was becoming visible in more dangerous ways. That school was huge, had so many students that it was split in two. Half the students went in the early morning, while the other half, my half, arrived a little after noon and stayed till late afternoon. There was an open area with a lake adjacent to the school, and on more than one occasion as my bus arrived I saw groups of boys fighting near the lake, always evenly divisible by ethnicity.
Yes, we were bused to achieve education. The rule was in Winter you had to wait at the bus stop at least an hour. If the snow was so bad that the bus hadn’t shown up by then, you were allowed that shivering walk back to your home. This of course meant that the street around the bus stop was subjected to pretty ferocious snow ball throwing for an hour. One evening as we were busing home, the whole side of one mountain was ablaze. I’d never seen a forest fire before. (The prairie fires of the plains, on the other hand, remain among the most terrifying things I have ever seen, able to spread faster than any animal could run.) Given the distance to the mountain, and the fact that the fire was illuminating the faces of us students in the bus, the fire must have been of tremendous size.
Denver was where I began to learn something of Spanish, first from Mr. Vigil, my favorite teacher at my second school. He was the one who let me and my buddy take over the blackboards one day to work out some computation involving the speed of light that we thought proved the possibility of time travel. (I was deep into comic books and Sci Fi by that time.) On the first day of class, Señor Vigil went around the room assigning each of us a Spanish name. (I remembered this when I went to teach in China and learned that nearly all my students had English names along with their Chinese monikers.) Thus Robert became Roberto, Mary became Maria, Richard was to be Ricardo, Dolores remained Dolores, but what to do with me? Señor Vigil looked at the name “Aldon” in exasperation for a minute, then brightened. “What’s your middle name?” “Lynn,” I responded truthfully, adding to his exasperation. And that is the true story of how I became “Pancho,” a name I was glad to leave behind when I moved on to Junior High School and lunch time gang wars.
Grownups were worried about something they called Juvenile Delinquency. I was worried about the guy who came to shop class straight from stealing a knife from the drug store, which knife he proceeded to sharpen using the school’s equipment. This was the same little dude who said I was probably such a case of arrested development that I hadn’t looked at a Playboy magazine yet. I lied and said I had, but then he asked how many times. There’s no winning with those guys.
It was at my first Denver school that I was for the first time asked by a teacher to write a poem. My initial effort was a great success, one that the teacher read aloud to the rest of the class. Inspired by my triumph, I quickly wrote another one, which was, to put it mildly, less successful. For the next year or so my virtuoso rhyming was confined to warning signs I hung on the door to my bedroom. Now that was an advance. In Denver, for the first time, I got a room of my own. Once we’d moved to our permanent house, where we lived for all of two-and-a-half years, my father, with me pretending to help, walled off a section of the basement that became my room. So I had a basement place! With a door! I put a sign on the door to keep everybody out, rhymed, and hung one of those rubber fake shrunken heads on it to drive the point home. Inside my little man cave, I built my own laboratory, where I concocted strange chemicals and looked at stuff through a microscope. There too I created my comic book library and spent countless hours reading adventure yarns, murder mysteries, Sci Fi and Fantasy, and, my then favorite, science books. I decided I was going to become a forensic pathologist. Even went to a science fair where I got to talk to someone who cut up bodies to find out how they died. I was somewhat unusual in those pre-CSI days in my selection of hero figures with which to identify.
I have to think that my second poem is involved with my first act of criticism. I knew that poem was not as good as the first one; I knew that it failed in comparison to the poems that were beginning to fill my head, from my reading and from listening to the radio. I had to think through what it was that made those other poems so markedly better than my little failed poem. (It was about mythical South Pole people and their ice church steeple/home.)
I had always listened to radio. We didn’t have a T.V. at first in Grand Island, so radio was it in early childhood. (My parents remember having to come get me from my friend Stevie’s house across the street. He had T.V., and it was in color.) I listened to things like the Sparky the Fire Dog program. Sparky sent me a coupon for a six pack of orange soda on my birthday. I never lost the fascination with radio. In Denver I built a crystal set and would listen to it under the covers when I shared a room with my two brothers, who had to have lights out earlier than I would have liked. By fifth grade I had the Japanese transistor radio that we all had, with the single ear phone screwed into an ear. That was how I listened to the World Series out on the playground between classes. One day I’d discovered that the old radio we’d brought with us from Nebraska had a short wave band on it. I stretched a sheet of tin foil (what I still call it, much to my wife’s amusement, the term marking the place and era of my beginnings) across one wall and ran a wire into the radio, and then the world came streaming into my basement. My favorite was a station coming from Cuba that played mostly U.S. Rhythm and Blues.
By then, though, we had gotten that much-needed record player. (Like the big blonde T.V. set we got, that record player stayed with us till long after I was grown and out of the house. I listened to my sister’s records of The Everly Brothers, The Isley Brothers, an unlikely pair known as Paul and Paula, the indomitable Chubby Checker. One day in the drug store I spotted a plastic bag full of 45s that I could buy for just 99 cents, which is how I came to have copies of “Itsy Bitsy Teensy Weensy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” along with more interesting fare from Little Anthony and the Imperials, whose “Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop” taught me another important early lesson in poetry. There was a record store I could get to on my bicycle, and there you could audition records as if you actually had the money to buy them. There were no headphones. You would go into a little booth, rather like the isolation booth in which game show contestants stood while being questioned, and there you could play pretty much any record that was in the store on a turntable considerably better than the Sears and Roebuck portable box we listened to at home.
We had the advantage of the nearby mountains. (My buddies and me could even, on a particularly adventurous day, ride our bicycles out of town and up to the Red Rocks amphitheater.) And we still were within driving distance of the grandparents and uncle with their farms and ranch and, most important, horses. (One grandfather tried to train me to drive a tractor, but the strangeness of separate brakes for the two huge back wheels flummoxed me.)
But the main thing was that we had come to a city. I discovered I was an essentially urban person. Running space was fine in the country. It was far better in the streets. Kerouac’s Neal Cassidy was running on Larimer Street, but I wouldn’t know that till years later, when I could finally get a copy of a book I remembered seeing in the paperback racks at the grocery store in Denver.
My father’s job was in the U.S. Department of the Interior, so that steady promotions eventually promoted us all the way to the nation’s capitol. This time the parents went ahead to find us a house (in Arlington as it turned out – I would quickly learn to tell people I was going to D.C., as otherwise they seemed to think we were moving into a cemetery). I stayed on in Denver for a month with my favorite Aunt and Uncle, the ones who read books and played music and went to art museums. My Uncle even built his own sundial in his backyard.
The day came that I took my first flight on an airplane, all the way to the newly opened (and, I would later realize, hideously named) Dulles Airport. (Like everybody else of a certain age from D.C., I still call that closer-in airport National – can’t bring myself to call it by that other name. Same way we still speak of Malcolm X Park, even though the city never made the name official. Hi there, Meridian Hill !) I’d had no prior experience of anything that could be called the South. My first impression, riding in from the airport, was one of intense claustrophobia. Born on the plains, just arrived from the Rockies, I had never seen so many trees, seemingly leaning threateningly over the also never experienced before white board fences, forming a green tunnel and making it impossible for me to have any sense of direction.
I got used to it.
As I got used to living in a brick house. The real estate people called it “antique brick,” which just meant that it was used bricks, still bearing the tar and markings from whatever structure it had been a part of in its past. Every row house I lived in later in D.C. was built of that same brick, as if it were following me around across the years.
My father went to work not far from the Lincoln Memorial, and I could take that same bus right through Georgetown to downtown and across to the other side of the city. I quickly discovered there was a train station you could reach by bus, thus putting the entire North East in easy reach. We went to a Baptist church at 8th and H, NW. Later, one version of WPFW would be housed around the corner. THEN there was a pet store on 7th street we’d go to when were supposed to be in Sunday School. It was a tiny place, but it had a llama. Not far away was SOUL SHACK, which continued my musical education. They even had a section of records of people reading stories, telling jokes, reciting poetry. I found Carl Sandburg and Redd Foxx within two bins of one another.
Another bus would take me uptown to the Howard Theater, though the first time I saw a show there I arrived by car with the boss of my little gang of newspaper sales boys. Ben’s Chilli Bowl was the place where I had my first half smoke. It would be twenty years more before I realized that people in the rest of the country didn’t know what a half smoke was, perhaps another ten before I realized that Ben didn’t eat half smokes.
Roberta Flack had grown up not far from where we lived (on her way home from school she’d buy a peppermint stick and a pickle and stick one inside the other – I never did care for sweet and sour), and by the time I was in high school, she was beginning to play in places like Mr. Henry’s that I wasn’t old enough to get into. She was also teaching school herself. D.C. and Arlington, it transpired, were the kind of place where such things were happening every day.
It was a city filled with music. Some evenings we’d go to sit on steps by the Potomac and listen to a military band play from a barge in the river. In the summers there were free concerts absolutely everywhere. Each summer the Smithsonian held a folk life festival on the mall, where you could just walk up and talk to the musicians. In short order I was to meet Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscombe, Big Boy Arthur Crudup, Skip James. I remember the guy going around the mall selling programs calling out, “learn how the Eskimoes make ice.” A few years later I would hear a commotion behind me at the festival and, turning, find myself in front of the first version of Sweet Honey in the Rock. But that was much later after graduation, after the draft.
We saw the President coming out of a church one Sunday afternoon. I saw James Brown in a music store. (He was a whole lot shorter than he looked on our T.V. set.) When Carl Sandburg died, I persuaded my mother to take me to a memorial event at the Lincoln, uh, Memorial. The poet’s widow and her famous photographer brother were seated up there. Charlie Byrd’s group played a song. Next thing we knew, that same President made his way to the microphone in an apparent surprise move to pay homage to the late poet. I was to stand in that same place so many times in the coming years; once to visit Resurrection City; once to witness the Panthers’ rally for their People’s Constitutional Convention.
We came to the area when I was twelve, when I was old enough to ride my bike or the bus (more secretly the train) to just about anywhere. I was able to discover book stores. I could hear about any kind of music. I could see politicians ignoring us. I could join in demonstrations in the streets. I could get tear gassed. I could walk right up to the friggin’ Library of Congress. I could talk the nice Arlington librarians into letting me read books in the “adult” section, at a time when the meaning of “adult” had not yet been narrowed to just things I wouldn’t want to read. I could read Joyce. And there was some guy named LeRoi Jones I was seeing mentioned.
At Arlington’s Kenmore Junior High, my English teacher, Mrs. Mowatt, required each of us to memorize and recite a poem. “Old man Woolworth put up a building. / There it was;” Don’t recall if it was before or after my recitation, but I saw Sandburg on, I think it was, Ed Sullivan reading his poem “Arches.” This was a time when a poet could be invited to recite his verses on a network, prime time show, the biggest really big show of them all. This was also a time before I sat down to read Sandburg’s complete poems in the library and was horrified by the frequent racism in the work of this poet who wrote “The People, Yes.” Another stage in my development as a critic, learning that poets were not always good people. (Hey, I was a kid.)
Soon I was reading e.e. cummings. “my father moved through dooms of love through sames of am through haves of give, / singing each morning out of each night.” Again finding that reading someone’s complete works might well color your reading of your favorite poems forever.
One day when I was thirteen, I was dawdling among the racks at a Brentanos when I saw this face staring out at me. The look was of such intensity I had to look at the poetry inside the book. The Dead Lecturer. Who was Edward Dorn, and what did he have to do with the Green Lantern? (I for sure knew who the Green Lantern was.) There was an explanation for the name of Willie Best, but I had never seen any of those movies, and couldn’t in that pre-Netflix year. Who was Robert Williams and why was he in exile? But most of all: “The symbols hang limply / in the street. A forest of objects, / motives.” There was much of motives in the book, a motif. This was well beyond anything of Sandburg or cummings, beyond yet the little of Eliot I’d ingested. Seemed, though, to be in the neighborhood of Pound, Williams and Hughes. I was on to something. First year at Wakefield High School, I went to the Brentanos downtown and came away with a little black and white book titled Kaddish.
D.C. was a place of books, of free music, of free museums, of countless people in the streets from every part of the globe. It was where I should have been born, but then I would have talked differently.