On the Road

Stephanie Burt

They call it poetry

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.


  • 1 September 2010 at 9:55am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I don't understand this. They'll write 500 words about politics, but mention the word poetry and the LRB commenters dive for cover. Why are you people reading a literary magazine? This is another excellent article by the very erudite Stephen Burt. It has lots of interesting links: for example, there's one where you can download to an ipod poets reading their own work.

    • 1 September 2010 at 1:13pm
      outofdate says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Dearie me. In my own case because I have absolutely no interest in contemporary poetry. None, zilch, zip, nada. Also sport. Must I be hounded out of polite society for these shortcomings? Is it, more to the point, because of these shortcomings that I have been hounded out of polite society and now spend my time with the winos under the tollway ramp? (Some of them poets, or so they say, but I just tune out the drone.)

      And then, what sort of comment would you like us to leave? Maybe millions read these no doubt excellent and erudite entries and think to themselves, mmhmm, right-ho, and go on their way refreshed. But do they need to commit these thoughts to text? It’s not as if the value of an entry stood in direct proportion to the amount of scurrilous ranting it attracts, else the Independent’s daily policing of the national thought would be the most valuable resource on the Interweb, when we all know it’s abysmal crap.

      So no, go away, I have nothing to say about this (188 words, sorry, it’s the best I can do).

    • 1 September 2010 at 4:05pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ outofdate
      188 words is better than nothing. And not knowing anything about a subject hasn't deterred anyone before.

      If you have a phobia about contemporary poetry, despite knowing nothing about it, try this: for "contemporary poetry" substitute a euphemism, a synonym that doesn't include the horrifying imagery -- "reflective and thoughtful writing" or something like that. You wouldn't run away if I said "I'm reading a book of reflective and thoughtful writing", you'd want to find out what it was called. You'd never say "I have absolutely no interest in reflective and thoughtful writing. Also sport."

    • 2 September 2010 at 12:04am
      outofdate says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: but when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

    • 2 September 2010 at 3:28pm
      Vance Maverick says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      I didn't reply because this post has no teeth. It's a link to a blog with a bland name, which in turn interviews a bunch of poets, all evidently equally worthy of attention. Neither Burt nor his subject is highlighting specific texts, let alone committing themselves to specific views of them. Your link a step in the right direction: I dislike Seidel, but at least you're pointing in a direction.

    • 2 September 2010 at 3:29pm
      Vance Maverick says: @ Vance Maverick
      (ugh, not even a preview function saves me from fumbling)

    • 2 September 2010 at 5:17pm
      Sorry, I meant, "Even though there's a preview function, and I used it, I still garbled my last sentence."

    • 5 September 2010 at 1:42pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Vance Maverick
      Yah. As posts go, this one goes like this:

      1. Plug for someone we won't have heard of.
      2. Link to Kenneth Goldsmith - Kenneth Goldsmith, remember him?
      2a. Link to Joyce just in case we don't.
      3. Link to Pete Jordan - hey, Dishwasher Pete! Actually we probably won't have heard of him either, but he is established, or well-known - or at any rate more established and better-known than the subject of the post - so he'll fit in here.
      4. And back to the original plug. Job done.

      (I do like the photo, though.)

  • 1 September 2010 at 10:28am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Here's a link of Frederick Seidel reading his own work.

  • 1 September 2010 at 5:08pm
    alex says:
    If I did dive for cover, it wasn't on account of poetry being mentioned (poets were mentioned much more frequently, but in unrecognizable hypostases). It probably had something to do with the bigged-up blogger's clunky chronological passes: 'and then' 'and then' 'next morning'. Naming this after a Henry James title seems to illustrate the difference between having guts and having nerve - McLaughlin has the latter.

  • 1 September 2010 at 6:33pm
    loxhore says:
    There's already a good successful blog called The American Scene! Did Prof Burt not know this?

  • 7 September 2010 at 2:23am
    StephenBurt says:
    Phil, your description of my post seems correct: surely plugs, or notices, or descriptions of work by, writers you've not yet heard about are some of the core functions of a literary journal? In any case they are features, not bugs.
    Loxhore, I didn't know about the other American Scene: thanks for the link. I'll keep an eye on it.

    • 7 September 2010 at 12:18pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ StephenBurt
      Well, I was following up vmaverick's comment on why the post hadn't received many comments, to the effect that I didn't think there was much there to comment on. I wasn't passing judgment on the post, let alone suggesting that it shouldn't be there. (Inusubstantial posts are a feature, not a bug.)

    • 7 September 2010 at 7:07pm
      alex says: @ StephenBurt
      It's the 'yet' that grates, a kind of presumption of our incompleteness, & prediction that many others will talk about what we read here first. Especially when, upon being heard of, McLaughlin doesn't seem to be much of a writer.

  • 8 September 2010 at 9:54am
    Joe Morison says:
    Try this outofdate.

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