It takes guts to name your blog after a book by Henry James; as well as guts, Steve McLaughlin has the time, the energy and the open-ended Greyhound bus ticket to crisscross the USA and Canada interviewing semi-prominent figures in experimental, or semi-experimental, poetry for a series of podcasts. McLaughlin, who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (which is sponsoring the podcasts), has been recording his travels on his blog, The American Scene. There you can see his photographs of graffiti and his portraits of the people he has interviewed in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Maine, Georgia, New York City and New Orleans; you can even read his brief, flattering notes about his interview with me.
McLaughlin learned how to read, and how to write, contemporary poetry (so he told me) first by taking classes with Kenneth Goldsmith, the poet, performance artist and theoretical prankster whose books include a set of misunderstood rock lyrics and an exhaustive record, sentence fragment by sentence fragment, of every physical action he took on a given day, from brushing his teeth to masturbating. (The day was Bloomsday, the project a homage to Joyce.) Most of the figures McLaughlin is interviewing are champions of the self-consciously experimental, the post-avant-garde.
For such an ambitious road trip, you need some inspiration, a model or lodestar, in travel; for writers (and interviewers) of previous generations, it might have been Kerouac, but for McLaughlin it’s Dishwasher Pete, a.k.a. Pete Jordan, who wrote a very funny self-published magazine in the 1990s about his ‘quest to wash dishes in all 50 states’. He gave up after 30 and moved to the Netherlands with a woman he met through the zine. Jordan’s jobs – or anti-jobs; he loves few things better than quitting – include stints on a hippie co-op in Missouri, a ski resort, a salmon fishery in Alaska, and a campsite for teenagers in California where the operator makes the mistake of trusting him to lock the place up in the off-season. Four years ago the zine was turned into an excellent book.
McLaughlin is more reliable than Dishwasher Pete used to be, but both writers have an enticing informality, an indie ethic not immune to humour and a sense of low-budget adventure. After leaving me McLaughlin went on to Montreal, where he took the photograph that appears at the top of this post.