About 70 miles outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, at an extinct volcano that artist James Turrell has turned into an elaborate monument to celestial machinations, poet and one-time presidential candidate Eileen Myles stands defiantly reading her poems into a camera lens.
She cocks her head to the side and rocks a little with the rhythm of her words as the desert wind pulls her hair over her sunglasses.
She's wearing my black hoodie as she reads, and this has me in a perpetual swoon. This is Eileen Myles—the last poet of the New York School generation or the first poet of some unnamable force, a poet who gave her first reading at CBGB almost 30 years ago and has given thousands since—and I am a guy who three months before this was sitting in my Capitol Hill apartment trying to sell a copy of Easy to Make Maidens and Cocktails on eBay so I could buy a belt.
But now Eileen Myles is wearing my hoodie at James Turrell's Roden Crater because she hasn't packed warm enough clothes for the Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour—a 50-city/50-day adventure through North America that I helped organize—and when she stood shivering at the Flagstaff airport an hour ago, I offered up my once-black but now-faded sweatshirt to her.
"I'll give it back when it gets a little warmer," she says, her Boston accent pulling at her vowels, my sweatshirt hanging just slightly off her frame, all those easy-to-make maidens forgotten.
Fifteen other traveling poets stand around her, holding their poems tightly as the wind pulls at them, shivering, smiling at each other, bewildered as to how we ended up here together, stumbling off a bus and into a crater.
It is day 44 of the tour, six weeks after Myles helped us launch the Poetry Bus into the world from Bumbershoot, one month after we watched frat boys wrestle at the Two Bucks bar in Laramie, Wyoming, and two weeks after she read with us in New York City at the Dia building in Chelsea. There, next door to where drunken B-list celebrities stumbled in and out of Amanda Peet's wedding celebration, the spectacular performance-art trio the Typing Explosion opened up the show with their bells, horns, and polyester dresses. The ever-gracious icon John Ashbery followed, saying sheepishly, "Ladies, you are a tough act to follow, but one must try."
After the Typing Explosion typed, after John Ashbery cast his spell, after Nick Flynn read from a play, and after Tracie Morris sang about Jesus, Eileen stepped up to the microphone.
"I don't know myself," Eileen said. "And that's a sin."
Three weeks later, she met back up with us in Phoenix to travel on to Roden Crater, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
By then, our skin was permanently grimed with bus life, oozing whiskey from its pores and sporting faded taxi-phone-number tattoos in Sharpie, but Eileen bounded onto the bus with a cup of green tea and a Daniel Pinchbeck book, smiling as the biodiesel chugged slowly into the tank.
We began to feel better.
Along the way to Los Angeles, she sat in the back on the jungle-print cushions and talked with the other poets about aliens (coming in 2012), Sister Spit (incapable of changing motor oil), and how best to leave New York for San Diego (unemployed and heartbroken).
About halfway there, just outside of Barstow, California, the Seattle filmmaker Linas Phillips asked Eileen to read one of her poems to a window washer at an In-N-Out Burger where we had stopped for lunch.
Linas had been with us since Milwaukee, and this is what he did, asking us to read poems to strangers and filming whatever happened next.
Eileen read with the same intensity she had at the crater, and the window washer stood rapt, smiling and rocking a little herself.
"All right," the window washer said. "It's like when my mother used to read to me as a kid."
"Thanks," Eileen said.
Back on the bus, Linas watched what he had filmed.
"It's a sweet poem," he said.
"It is sweet," Eileen said, sweeping her hair from her eyes. "But it's also erotic. It's two women reading in bed, you know, lovers. But it could be about a mother, too, if you don't want to take it there."
But we did.
And then just last week we ended in the Space Needle, floating above where we began.
We turned out the lights and asked people to look out onto Seattle while we read to them, slightly motherly and slightly erotic, exhausted but exhilarated by what we were able to see.