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ARTICLE: On the Road to Jack's House
“In Russia a poet is more than a poet.”
from a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Moscow University rises in the background
American poet accustomed to meager readership and small audiences for
public readings, I traveled to Russia with Yevgeny Yevtushenko in July
of 2001 anticipating, if not the legendary soccer-stadium size crowds of
the “thaw,” at least a deeper and more widespread appreciation for
poetry by everyday people. Though the flame of poetry has been
somewhat dampened by the advent of consumer/pop culture, the average
Russian still has a connection to poetry that can only be called
soulful. The tour proved to be an arduous – the Russian
infrastructure is slowly crumbling – but wondrous journey that revealed
how pervasively poetry imbues the national character. After all,
for nearly a century the poets were, in the face of the official social
realist truth, speaking the simple human truths – the truth between the
lines. For the people that truth was as sustaining as good brown
bread. One can live by it. They have not forgotten that.
Ray and the legendary Yevtushenko at Bratsk Station.
The occasion of our tour was Yevtushenko’s annual birthday performance at the Moscow Polytech and the opening of the Poet’s House, a museum in his childhood home at the Siberian crossroads of Zima Junction. Our cast included a international line-up of poets, critics, and yevtushenkologists representing Poland, France, Nicaragua, the United States and the whole of Russia from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka. Over the course of two weeks I participated in a dozen readings, four tv/radio interviews and a panel discussion, “Poetry in the 21st Century.” The one constant on the trip can be summed up by Gogol’s quote from the last century, ‘the two problems with Russia are the roads and the food.” That being said, the hospitality and poetic intelligence of the people more than made up for any inconvenience.
After a grueling travail through the guts of the custom’s bureaucracy
upon my entry that lasted 3 hours and proved the petty consulate’s adage
that, as I signed off 6 times on a hefty fine, ‘we are all equal in the
eyes of the instructions,’ we made our way out to Yevtushenko’s dacha in
the writer’s village of Peredelkino. These summer homes 25 kilometres
from Moscow are a holdover from the Soviet era when they were bestowed
as perks by the writer’s union for those who toed the party line.
These simple 2 story rustic wood structures built are right into the
famous white birch and pine woods of the ‘ur’ Rus. There are no wide
lawns and tamed gardens as in Anglo-American country estates. Forest
thrives alongside domicile. One’s thoughts could grow tall writing
here. Inside Zhenya’s dacha are gifts from the 91 countries he’s visited
as well as autographed paintings given to him by Chagall, Picasso, and
Braque. One of only 5 plaster death masks of Pushkin hangs in a
glass case over the couch. For all the meetings with remarkable people,
Yevtushenko is one of the most unpretentious people I have met in the
world of poetry. We drank Georgian wine together while I strummed and
It was here
that I first glimpsed what a poet of Yevtushenko’s stature means for the
Russian people. As soon as we entered the lobby, he was surrounded
by autograph seekers. The paparazzi got wind of his arrival and
soon the shutters were clicking. Two weeks later we saw these pictures
in a color tabloid alongside cheesecake and soap opera celebrities.
When we finally entered the theatre, the audience gave him a standing
ovation. Would the current U.S. Poet Laureate even be recognized
let alone receive that kind of respect? Maybe a poet is less than
a poet in the United States.
by Ray McNiece, copyright, 2001, Ohio Writer Magazine in edited form, 2001.
Party time, Yevgeny and Ray
with a famous
The two poets at Pasternak's
Preface: Poet, performer, and teacher Ray McNiece was awarded a 6-week residency by the Kerouac Project, at the house where Jack Kerouac lived in Orlando, Fla. While in residence, McNiece wrote of his own experiences as a wandering poet. Here are excerpts from his reflections at Kerouac House.
Ray standing on the porch of the Kerouac House
In January of 2002, I set out on yet another poetry performance tour, this one down to the house where Jack Kerouac was living in Orlando when On The Road became a national sensation in 1957 and where he wrote The Dharma Bums in a two-week riff fueled by Benzedrine and wine. The Kerouac Project Committee had recognized years of my own road wanderings and subsequent scribblings, and I was awarded a residency at the house they had recently refurbished. A fellow road-warrior writer, I was coming full circle. I'd have six weeks to write from one very famous still point of the turning world, to relax and breathe into the bones of words some meaning of verbal being where it all turned for Kerouac for better and worse. . .
I've looked East into the dawn from a dune at the end of a trail through the wind swept hummocks that lead to Eugene O'Neil's beach shack outside Provincetown, and, crossing the Golden Gate, looked West from the Headlands' cliffs as seals barked into the big, cold, cobalt surf crash Pacific sunset. I've heard the crunch and spit of gravel on Ohio back roads, the honk and blare of Chicago intersections, and the clattering tunnels of cornrows in Iowa. I've sucked oysters in New Orleans, chewed rare steak in Omaha, munched sushi in L.A., and sampled biscuits and gravy in restaurants off I-40 from North Carolina to Arizona...
I arrived at Jack's House on Valentine's evening. My host, Maureen Morrell, who was opening the house for me, told me to call when I got to the Beeline expressway and she'd give me the final directions. It wasn't my plan to drive in around rush hour. I've been on the road long enough to know better and I've been through Orlando's rush hour before and never was there a truer oxymoron. Stall-hour more like…
There is no sign, plaque or empty wine jug to designate Kerouac's House. I sized up the possibilities on the four corners of the sleepy College Park neighborhood and chose the most nondescript house, a tin-roof, blue-gray painted single story shack beneath a spreading live-oak dangling Spanish moss. I guessed right. 1814 1/2 Clausen. My host opened the house and presented me with a Jack Kerouac key chain for the front door key. I waved goodbye, stretched out the last legs of the 3,000 miles I've driven in the past three weeks to finally get here and walked back inside.
Well, Jack, whaddya think I oughta do, I said from the dining room to the empty house, write a novel? Look what happened to you. How 'bout a toast? I walked my ghost into the bottle-green counter, matching green and white linoleum-tiled period refurbished kitchen and open the fridge--not an icebox. The Kerouac Committee has provided a bottle of cheap French white. It's not the vintage 1957 Tokay rotgut he preferred, though that is the date of these time-capsule decorations.
In a sacramental gesture I pour a glass for him and put it on the writing desk in the back porch bedroom beneath the only known picture of him in this house, a grainy black and white photo of him hunt-and-peck typing on an Underwood manual, wearing his classic plaid Canuck lumberjack shirt. I place also there a wooden beaded rosary I had blessed in Assisi that I intended to give to my alcoholic older sister homeless in Tampa--if I found her somewhere in one of the cloverleaf hobo jungles off an I-75 exit ramp. I ask a blessing for both their souls and walk from room to room talking to Jack all the while, telling him about the road that carried me here, soaking in the silence after the echo.
Back at the dining room table I open up his Buddhist notebooks, Some of the Dharma, at random to divine a response to my earlier question. Page 185, my finger falls on a paragraph that is frighteningly appropriate and portentous of the success that finally found him while living in this house and his ultimate undoing:
The Bodhisattva must first walk calmly through his danger, practicing charity and sympathy for the sake of all. He must retain his non-entity state and avoid fame. He must walk straight to his goal not caring what happens on the way...he must cast off all attachments...If he retains fame he will become valuable and no longer resemble the useless Tao tree no carpenter can covet. Being famous he will be hounded to his death.
He wrote that in 1954 in the notebooks that became the basis for the Dharma Bums that he completed while living here. This is the house where he got the call that On the Road was going to be published. This is where he was living when he was crowned, almost overnight, the King of the Beats--a title he never wanted and disavowed the rest of his life. This is the house where it all turned for him for better and for worse.
Before, he was an obscure, heavy-drinking writer. After, he was a famous drunk. I thought of him groggy, on Buckley's "Firing Line." Buckley, the New England Catholic Brahmin wanna-be, sneered down his nose at this dumb Canuck hack writer. Jack in his stupor couldn't set this square on end. Kerouac was painfully shy and the only way he could stand the limelight was soused to the gills. Be careful what you want, Emerson advised, you will surely get it. But really all Jack wanted was to be a respected writer, not an early media celebrity. A mere three years later, in the fits of alcoholic DTs, he composed Big Sur, his last great work with its comic-horrific descent into hallucinations culminating in a redemptive vision of the cross. Ten years after he broke big-time he'd be dead.
I reread the passage. He couldn't have given better advice if he was standing right next to me. And in the Buddhist sense of the continuous present, he was. In the catholic belief of divine presence he was there, too. I realize I'd been standing up for an hour, stunned, in my boots. I pull them off my bones and drain the last of my wine and look at the empty glass. Here I am. And here I will lay me down. I'm beat, Jack. I'm freaking beat. I hang up my black denim jacket on a hook in the closet. I hang up my aspirations with sigh and shed a tear for Kerouac, a tear full of Avalokiteshvara's compassion and recite a haiku:
Kerouac, we knock
Reprinted from The Ohio Writer, The Writing Life, July-August 2002
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