Monday, July 11, 2011

Detour: Howling in The Van™

I've started to wonder what our trip would look like to the outside viewer if it were, for example, a reality TV show.

There'd be a lot of shots of the scene out the window from behind my head and just off center to the left. Lots of traffic cones. Lots of red rocks, replaced by grass now. So much grass. “Mowing Ahead” the signs along the highway say. I've started to wonder just how many people are kept employed by the fertile fields of green swords.

There'd be no soundtrack in our reality show since we have had virtually no music. Creeping up on 5,000 miles – number of musical hours might hit four if we're lucky, but only because John in Leesburg, VA hooked us up with some cassettes. Yes, I said cassettes. The van, might I remind you, is 30 years old – it has a cassette player, and only a cassette player. We had a sucky MP3 player and an even suckier hook up to try to get some tunes going and it usually didn't work. The precious battery life of laptops was reserved for other things, and Mike's attempt at a car charger for them almost set my son on fire somewhere left of the Mississippi. 

MP3 player/converter connection. Can I please just remind you that my husband is an engineer...

Between Monterey, CA and Leesburg, VA, our only tape was one randomly left in the van – a homemade compilation called “AIDS Ride 70s.” Any guesses at how many times you have to hear “I Will Survive” before you have zero will to survive?

One through line to our show would have to be Isaac in the gift shops of America. Isaac started the trip with his own spending money. It was money his grandparents had given him over time, tucked in Easter cards and such, plus change he'd amassed, etc. It added up to a pretty impressive sum and we told him he was free to use it on souvenirs along the way. Naturally, what I had in mind was after he'd fallen head over heels in love with some place or event, he'd just have to have a small momento – a magnet, or a little piece of petrified wood. Instead, my son walked through some of the country's greatest landmarks asking “Does this place have a gift shop?” Then proceeded to find a truck to buy. Taos: Sandpaintings? Turquoise crafts? Handthrown pottery? Wrong! Mailtruck. Carnegie Museum of Natural History: Dinosaur skeleton? Book on Ancient Egypt? Try a matchbox of a pickup towing an ATV.

And the port o' potty. That would be big. Oh, didn't I mention the port o' potty before? Must have slipped my mind. By day, an innocent plastic footstool; by night, an ugly necessity for the preggo who must pee every 10 seconds, and the boy, when it suits him. Mike, being superior to the other two members of his family in every way, does not use the port o' potty, though in a cruel twist in the hierarchy, he must empty it. There would be the scenes of Isaac almost tipping it over, the ones of Mike dragging the port o' potty bag to the campsite dumpsters; the ones of everyone's facial contortions the time we left it in the hot van for a week while staying elsewhere and then opened it once again. Is this getting too real yet?

In our reality show, which might be called, The Van (As in, “I'm goin' across the country in The Van, Bitches!”), I'd have to get in the confessional and talk about how many books I brought with me that I haven't cracked. Some of them I brought under the impression that I would read parts of them and use them to write broadly-based, witty commentaries on human foibles. I brought things like Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Not that I read either of these things on any regular or comprehensive basis, but I thought they'd be good for quotations and springboard material.

Ultimately, however, when I was hot, and bellified, and didn't have lots of open thinking time, I did not reach for the boys of generation Beat. I reached instead for Toni Morrison and her complex worlds of turn of the century African-American women. Who can explain this, except that boys are smelly and have cooties and Toni Morrison, when asked what book she'd bring to a deserted island, responded that she'd bring blank paper and write her own, kicks the hippie asses of Kerouac and Ginsberg combined.

Nonetheless, we have the Howl bumpersticker on the van. For those who don't know, Howl is the name of a book-length poem by Ginsberg that Lawrence Ferlinghetti (poet and founder of San Francisco's City Lights Books) published in 1957, only to be brought up on charges of obscenity from which he was later found not guilty. A recent movie called “Howl” explored the trial and some of Ginsberg's life. I would recommend it, if for nothing else the peek into 1950s American politics, though I found the whole movie interesting. City Lights is super way cool, and often a peek into current American politics.

I wrote a poem about the famous quote of Ginsberg's,“First thought, best thought” - a sentiment which 1) he knew damn well was bullshit when he said it (you should see the drafts of Howl...) and 2) has caused me great distress in working with young poets who get all starry-eyed at the mention of anything connected to the Beats and have been known to insist that their own crap verse is just perfect without any revision because, well, just look at what Ginsberg said!

While grateful to the Beats for putting down some groundwork for poetic movements, I maintain a healthy skepticism about their poetry and their general sense of craft. You can read a review I did of Diane DiPrima's Memoirs of a Beatnik here. (There also used to be an audio link, but I don't think it works anymore.) Or maybe my skepticism is aimed at the new generation of Beat worshippers. Anyhoo...

My poem (called “Redemption”) begins like this:

Damn you, Ginsberg, for ever saying it. / Damn your whole generation of social rebels / and jazzy-improv lyricists.

Later in the poem I suggest he perhaps come back from the other side for a couple days and recant, since surely eternal meditation must have changed his mind...

You could call a press conference, / broadcasting from City Lights, / Ferlinghetti seated at the table beside you, / copies of Howl piled like flapjacks and crowds/ craning to see.

Tell them you take it all back. / Tell them the angels set you straight / and you’re here to spread the word. / Explain how, besides, you’d never advocate / doing the Times crossword in pen. / Comb your beard with your fingers, well-up / for the cameras, release your flock, / Shepherd Ginsberg, to their imperfect / first thoughts, to wander home / stunned and free / to bleed all over their manuscripts, /
rivers of ink...

Who am I kidding? Poetry and reality TV? That would never fly, although those Beats had an awful lot of sex.

We still need a name for the van – please send your suggestions!


Daryl said...

CashVan .. tho CashCab is already in use, CashVan .. nah .. CrossCountryCaraVan ... XCountryVan ... VanXCountry ... all aboard .. WAIT .. "Are We There Yet?" that's the name of the show...

Anonymous said...

'a cruel twist in the hierarchy". hahahahaha. ha.

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