It’s Thursday night, and I’m in a Holiday Inn in Clark, N.J.; I’ve just had dinner with the principal of the high school I’m visiting here tomorrow, and now I’m back in the serene anonymity of my hotel room—which is a kind of pinkish beige, with lots of florals, and a broad view of the parking lot.
Most of my day was devoted to getting here—a plane to Boston, another to New York, a train out to Jersey. This is the complete opposite of what I’ve been doing all week, which is turning inward, listening to that source whence poems arise. This experience—going out on the road to give a reading—is about turning outward, reaching toward an audience.
This sort of day is a part of the working life of every poet I know who’s been lucky enough to find readers. The culture of poetry readings in America has grown exponentially during the last two decades; now we’re all on the road, appearing at colleges and festivals, literary centers and book fairs. It’s a terrific opportunity to connect with readers—to have an actual, live face in front of you as you say the words you’ve labored over, a responding human presence. That is a thrilling thing; it makes what is otherwise abstract—that we write for someone—into an embodied, visible fact.
But it also means, of course, time away from the desk, away from home, away from the inner life out of which poems arise. It means airports and taxis and schedules, and more than anything else it means meeting people, lots of people, who are curious about you and what you do. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and it can be totally exhausting, and make you feel as empty as the dresser drawers in the Holiday Inn, after you’ve poured out your energies and attention on the Great American Poetry Road.
So I was feeling a bit mixed about this trip. Part of me wanted to go out adventuring; part of me wanted to stay home, immersed in the new work I’m thinking about. But then something happened that made going out to meet audiences seem completely, deeply worthwhile, which was this. A reader called. A reader from the other side of the world, Northumberland, in the north of England. Her name was Ann, and she phoned just before I left home this morning to tell me that she’d brought my books with her on a trip to Provincetown, and she was hoping I might sign them. She was a little nervous about calling, afraid she was intruding. But in fact there was something about the earnest quality in her voice that made me feel honored by her interest, and I asked if maybe she’d like to meet me at the airport, on my way out of town, and we could talk there while I waited to catch my plane.
Ann appeared, an hour later, with her books, and with so much to say. How on her trip to the States with her teen-age daughter she’d been thinking about my work, seeing places that she’d read about in those pages; how she’d been in Provincetown for a day and taken delight in recognizing landscapes from the poems, and how she’d been drinking in the beauty of the place, filling her eyes with it, and how much our beaches looked like the beaches she knew at home. She was nervous, but it was because the books she held on her lap while we talked had held much meaning for her; she’d taken them to heart.
I can say this without embarrassment because, in truth, what Ann had found in those books didn’t have so much to do with me. I wrote the words, of course, but what she’d read between the lines was, indeed, her own; she’d found her life mirrored in my language. I don’t know how to say what that means to a writer. I grew up thinking that no one would ever hear me, not really; I never imagined that something I might say might enter so deeply into the imaginative life of a reader from the other side of the ocean, much less that such a person might actually seek me out to tell me so.
We had a wonderful, brief conversation. Ann got her books signed, but I got something better: a reminder that when I take my act on the road, lugging my books and my old bones out the door and onto the little plane for another reading, I may be making a connection with another person that is, in its way, as profound as any I’m likely ever to make: a linkage of imaginations, a recognition of common ground made across time and space. We remain, in a way, strangers, but in another way some contact’s been made that matters deeply. It makes me feel humble and full of hope and makes this motel room seem not so bad.