After teaching poetry for 36 years at the College of Charleston, Paul Allen retired, sold all of his belongings, and hit the road in a 20-foot Toy Hauler camper. He’s been traveling cross-country for the last two years, and he’s circled back around to Charleston, where he’s giving a free reading of his newest road poems on Fri. Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Charleston Library Society. Here’s what he had to say about his journey. Follow along with him at poems-songs.com.
City Paper: So, what made you decide to hit the road in the first place?
Paul Allen: I’ve always wanted to move, to explore — books, ideas, and places. So being divorced, kids grown, and my retirement coming up, and living in an apartment, I figured this was as good a time as any to explore. I gave up my apartment, gave my furniture to my children, my books and CDs of a lifetime to my students, and jumped.
CP: Tell me about how this major life change has effected your work.
PA: My first book, American Crawl, was about the individual trying to find a sense of home. The second, Ground Forces, explored the idea of “we’re all in this life together,” and the spiritual implications of that. The poems I’m working on now for a collection has the working title of Recalculating: New Poems from the Road. I’m discovering that the places I travel — and this is one big country with a lot of elbow room — the sense of being in states where I do not know a single person who lives there, and the sense of being alone staring into my campfires have combined to make these poems more intimate in tone, in some respects quieter. Since I don’t have to think about publication as part of a career, I can be more intimate without thinking, “Who’s going to publish this?” Strangely enough, the quiet life exploring wherever I land, has made me even more aware of spiritual kinship with strangers and with the land.
CP: What are some of the most memorable things that have happened to you so far?
PA: The young man whom I met at a songwriter’s open mic in Nashville. He was a blacksmith who wrote songs, about 25, I think. I gave him one of my CDs and invited him to my showcase the next week. He said he had to work that day, 40 miles away, so he doubted he could make it. But the next week when I took the stage, there he was in the audience. Afterward, he gave me a horseshoe he’d made for me when he got off work, and he’d signed it for me. Eighty miles round trip for a 25-year-old to bring me the labor of his hands is one humbling experience.
Another was spending time alone at the mass grave at Wounded Knee, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and a month in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred ground to the Sioux, and the spirits of the place allowed me to feel their presence. Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Mo. and being in the room where Jesse James was assassinated, and watching the annual Buffalo round up — 1,400 wild bison coming over the hill at full run — that was spectacular.
And you know what else was most memorable? When after a year I came back to Charleston and gave a reading, and so many friends and young people came and welcomed me so warmly. Many students stay in touch with me and I think that relationship may be the most memorable of all.
CP: Anything life-changing happen?
PA: I’m not sure that we can change our lives. We only discover different parts of the self that was in us all along. Our various “lives” may be like my two years in a camper, simply going from one state to another, exploring what’s interesting. Every state — geographical, spiritual, personal — has some very cool things to explore.
CP: Tell me about some of your “road poems.” What’s your writing process like now? Has it changed?
PA: Yes. Now, with no agenda and the rest of my life to accomplish it, I can take more time with my work, exploring the ideas over weeks and months. I don’t have to think about building a career. I just finished a long poem that I worked on every day for four months, over 200 pages of notes and drafts and exploring philosophy, history, and religion — I can be a lot more patient with the poem that is trying to surface, now, and with myself in the composition process. And since I go for a week at a time without meeting a soul or talking to anybody, I find my poems more introspective now.
CP: You’ve also been writing music. How has this experience influenced your songwriting?
PA: That’s an odd thing. For my first year, I set the goal of not allowing myself to write a song. I wanted to get poems done so I’d have all new poems for my Charleston friends last year. And this year, without intentionally setting that goal, I’ve only written poems. The ones I’ll read on the 8th are new since my reading last year. Just recently I had an idea for a song, but when I think I might write it, a poem seems to want to come. So I just follow that lead. I’m governed by whim, and I haven’t particularly wanted to write songs.
CP: What’s next for you? Do you plan to stay on the road?
PA: I don’t know. I’m hoping I’ll want to spend March in Alabama, and I hope I’ll want to go toward Montana in April through the summer. But I really have no agenda, plans, or goals. On my way to Montana, I might pick up a brochure that makes me decide to stay in Nebraska awhile. Could be I never get to Montana. Heck, I might decide to park my camper here permanently. Whether it’s a street in Clovis, N.M., where Buddy Holly recorded, or a bus stop in New Orleans, the Sonora Desert, an abandoned mining town, or an art museum in Nashville, it’s all teaching me something I didn’t know. And if you can’t find something new to learn in your own yard, you’re not likely to find it anywhere else.