I have a theory about roundabouts…or Ted Kooser hears about Hmong ghost stories in East Lansing
Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature Annual Meeting
Her turquoise chipped nails tapping the sturdy wheel, her cell ringing—
pick you up—where?
where are we going?
Cold for this time of year—we wish her Happy Mother’s Day after she wishes us the same and she steps out of the taxi, the Shaggin Wagon, to unload the bags from the back, where she also loaded the empties, bottles and cans. Party last night, she says. And her tape deck plays Kansas or Styx or REO—some song in the 8-Track I should remember. Who the/where the hell we are—
The Super 8, which sounds like a galactic heroes’ org (& my retired mom’s hotel of choice for business trips), isn’t what it used to be. Or it’s exactly that.
The heater smells like a damaged hair dryer c. 1979, the hot water only works sometimes, and the continental breakfast is distinctly North America 1972. Kellog’s Cornflakes and Raisin Bran. Coffee, no decaf or hot water, waffles that look like pressed-paper coasters, cinnamon rolls in plastic.
It’s a family business—the father checks us in, the daughter checks us out, the grandfather in a turban passes wordless as we come and go. All the other guests are young men with dark hair.
The cab driver has dyed her hair red.
The woman in fishnet stockings, younger than I am by 10 years maybe, has dyed hers black. She also wears a lot of turquoise jewelry and buttons. Her nails are chartreuse, and her fashion sense runs more Detroit urban, which I grasp, riding the city bus in Lansing, is somehow different from Chicago or Milwaukee. The color palette, maybe. Orange splashes, brown, the flashes of turquoise, this weird glowy-green.
(If I need to tell you that the tree leaf is green, Ted Kooser, or the bear is black, well, I will. And I may be casting the pen like way, way off into some mess of plastic bottles and trash or releasing the reel so that the line gets caught in the upper branches of that green-leafed tree and there’s nothing to do but get out the knife.)
The cabs all say $75 charge for cleaning up bodily fluids. They say that elsewhere too, but the air freshener in ours when we open the door reminds me of hospital. Of nursing home.
I stand between an older Swedish-American prof who seems to be scowling at me and a younger man getting a PhD in hip hop.
Ted Kooser wore a turquoise on his right hand. He drove to the conference. 600 miles. He shows us the movie Pearl, not exactly Hallmark but not the Coen Brothers. Not Waiting for Guffman either, but closer than you’d think. The actors are too pretty for their age. Too smooth. The farm, the road, the car, too perfect. Like when a realtor stages a house to sell. Film Ted drives away and starts writing his poem. Real Ted is, well, maybe he made notes in the car, but driving down the road? He says he writes every day 4:30–7 a.m.
Our cab driver writes on her steering wheel: pickup/destination—where are we going?
I write in crowds. At coffee shops, standing in line. On buses and trains. Waiting to vote. Waiting. I do not write at home and alone. I just don’t.
I also believe cities are part of the real Midwest. That human geography is nature, too. That writing about place has changed because the places have changed. That writers still write their places, if not Sinclair Lewis or Ted Kooser’s place.
Ted Kooser tells us that poetry requires silence. Solitude. That he wrote in a cardboard refrigerator box, a makeshift study in his small apartment. About his dinner at a certain hour slipped underneath the centered box slot. About raising a flag to tell his first wife that he’s there—shhh—no sweeping/no dish washing when the poet is in country.
The cab driver tells us the Chinese students don’t know how to drive. I ask them, don’t you get stopped at home? And they say, sometimes, but they give the police a dollar or two and they’re on their way.
Ted Kooser says, I listen to Chinese story tellers, Asian story tellers all the time, but I’ve never heard of Hmong story tellers. The Hmong story tellers live in Wisconsin. Hmong & white students at UW–Marathon have been collecting their stories and are here to talk about them.
Ted Kooser gets back in his car at the end of the day to drive home to Nebraska. There will be long stretches of flat road, intersections oblique and perpendicular. It makes me almost wistful. I spent so many hours traveling with my mother, keeping her company as she made the rounds to Montgomery Wards stores in her territory of Southern Illinois, Missouri, Iowa. Annual meetings in Kansas City. The year after I finished college, Montgomery Wards closed its catalog division, and she had the task of going to each little town, each family operation, telling them the news, then closing their business. Finding at 45 a new job. The new job took her to cities. To Chicago and St. Louis, Los Angeles and New York. It was a different kind of travel, though she still visited stores in that same region. I preferred meeting her in New York, meeting the vendors she worked with there.
I lived in Philadelphia at the time and returned to downstate Illinois infrequently. I was studying multicultural autobiography and my husband was studying Hmong storytelling and art among school children in Philadelphia. Until I had children, I continued to accompany her on local travels when I visited. And during those long car trips through corn fields and small towns and farms and abandoned houses, she told me stories about the people she worked with as well as her childhood in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
I often wish I’d taken notes on those long looping road trips through the same places, same fields, watching the corn rise and fall, the ground freeze and thaw, the snow, the floods, the droughts. Mom talked about her Southern grandparents, family stories and legends, farm and small town culture. About the families she encountered through work. I loved hearing her talk. Sometimes the stories find their way into my poems. But they’re her stories, not mine. I write in crowds. Get inspired by performance and art. Crave ideas coming together from all different directions, piling up and smashing each other. I remember at 3 or 4 being fascinated by prints on the living room wall—my crazy aunt’s wedding gift. A harbor in London, the Ponte Vecchio in Venice, Paris and Notre Dame. Later I tried to convince a neighbor that those were their travel photos. I wanted to go there as soon as I knew there was a there.
Ted Kooser says no one really wants to visit cities or museums when they get there, if they get there.
How could anyone not want to go to Chicago? How could anyone go to Chicago and not want to see museums, opera, theater, performances of all kinds? For me Midwest is the Chicago that I first visited at 17 on a field trip, walking alone from one architectural landmark to another, seeing paintings at the Art Institute that had only existed in my Masterpiece card deck till then. Watching 50-something Rudolf Nureyev at the ballet. The Chicago I visit whenever I can is not the only Chicago, I know. There are many. But it’s the many, the multiple, that I’m trying to see & understand, from Pilsen to Hyde Park. From storefront theater to slam. From the Baha’i Temple in Willamette to Saint Patrick’s west of the Loop. From the Art Institute to the National Museum of Mexican American Art to the DuSable Museum of African American History. From Garfield to Grand.
Ted Kooser says that if a poem uses “I,” there’s an implicit agreement with the reader that the I points to the poet. Reader, I have studied autobiography & poems.
Wendy Vardaman is the author of Reliquary of Debt (Lit Fest Press 2015) and Obstructed View (Fireweed Press 2009), co-editor of Echolocations, Poets Map Madison (2013) and Local Ground(s)—Midwest Poetics (2014), and founding co-editor of Cowfeather Press. From 2009-2014 she co-edited Verse Wisconsin. One of Madison, Wisconsin’s two Poets Laureate (2012-2015), she has three adult children and has never owned a car. wendyvardaman.com, @wendylvardaman