A return to a former home, my old college campus, a show I started 15 years ago, and the years when I started to grow up.
I tell my grandmother, over the phone, that this is where the pivot happened. This is where I began to shed a lost, confused, directionless adolescence and move into something resembling adulthood. When I say this, I’m standing in a plaza in Flagstaff, Arizona, and I am referring to the town itself. I went to school here, earned a degree, started a poetry reading that continues fifteen years later with no help from myself, and began to move toward a life that would fall apart, and the next life I would build from the wreckage.
There are points in our lives like an hourglass. Everything we have ever done seems to come together at one extremely narrow aperture. We sense that we were always moving in the direction of some decision or some movement forward where everything would be clear, where we would step through an invisible barrier and, on the other side, encounter a limitless sense of possibility.
If I paint that transition within myself as an arc, and if I lay that arc down on a map, it would look something like my drive through the state of Arizona.
I like to quote the David Ives when anyone asks me about Phoenix: “It’s like death, without the advantages.”
The Phoenix Valley, which encompasses the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Chandler, Mesa, and a dozen or so other municipalities, is a wasteland with all the cultural amenities one could ask for. There are nice restaurants, beautiful golf courses, and the other comforts of a city where people with money who have fled other states have brought their comfort with them. And all you have to do to access these things is to live inside a convection oven with all the personality and charm of a root canal. The streets are too wide. The houses are too big. The dominant architectural style is strip-mall. Everything is stucco. When Henry Miller’s wrote of “the air-conditioned nightmare,” this city could very easily have been what he was talking about.
I lived here for two and a half years.
One of the problems with going to college right out of high school is that many people simply aren’t ready yet. I fell into that category: an immature, confused, horny tennager (is there any other kind?) so bad at making decisions that I decided to spend my first two years of school in central Pennsylvania, surrounded by racists, homophobes, and a social life that centered around drinking until the lights went out with people I had nothing in common with.
So when I moved out to Arizona at 19, it was a relief. For a while. I went to school on a sprawling campus and continued to have no idea what to do with my life. When my mother visited me and commented on how ugly the city was, I got very pissed off at her for being right.
I only went to school here for a year and a half before dropping out and delivering pizzas while I figured out my next move. I know there are jobs way more depressing than delivering pizzas at three o’clock in the morning to drunks. I’ve had a few of them. But I’ve never worked one that left me more physically and mentally drained every day, which is not how I expected to feel at 20.
One very good thing came out of my life in Phoenix. I got started in this art form called slam poetry, and within weeks of attending my first slam, it became the center of my existence in Phoenix. I was suddenly surrounded by people who took writing seriously, and who forced me to take it seriously. I’d always enjoyed any class that involved writing, always wrote stories in some form. I was always building worlds in my head. What going to the poetry slams taught me was that this wasn’t enough. You had to sit down and do the work and do it consistently. You had to put it out there, good or bad, and if it failed, you had to learn why and come back stronger.
If I hadn’t discovered this form, I doubt I would have returned to school. At least not for a while. But I did. I enrolled at Northern Arizona University, moved to Flagstaff, and started a poetry slam in a bar called The Alley. Fifteen years later, that show is still running.
Brent Heffron, one of the first regulars at the Flagstaff Poetry Slam.
Now, I’ve said all of this awful shit about Phoenix. But the reality is that my 24 hours there on this trip was one of the best days I’ve ever had in the city. I still have a community there, and it’s a community that has built up over the years in a strange fashion. I started off having lunch with my friend Kris, who has been through a divorce and a marriage since last I saw her, and a walk though Old Town Scottsdale. It was so good to see her I didn’t even mind that we were surrounded by chain stores and a strange little canal that only serves as a reminder that this entire water-burning megalopolis has no business being where it is.
From there, it was on to a coffee shop to see Brent Heffron. Brent was one of the first readers at the very first Flagstaff Poetry Slam 15 years ago, and I can’t recall him ever missing a show in the year and a half I ran the thing. He was one of those people that gravitate to this art form seemingly out of a vacuum. He’d never been a writer, was still trying to figure out how to express something building up inside him, and suddenly had this forum where he could bring all the strange energy boiling under his skin and give it a home. He worked harder than just about any other writer in those years that I first knew him, and we would run into each other at the National Poetry Slam for years afterward.
We spent about three hours talking, and the overwhelming impression I had was of a man very comfortable with his life. I’d seen the same thing the previous days, visiting my friend Logan, who also came up with the slam. He and Brent had competed together when they were still in school, and there was something reflected by each of them in the other. They’ve become grown men, fathers, homeowners. They’ve settled close to where they grew up and are working to improve their communities. And seeing the two of them on consecutive days, I had a revelation about travel I’d never had before. It came when I suggested Brent come to New Orleans for a visit.
“If I can,” he said. And I knew he meant it. But I realized that when he could was going to be a long time from then. He’s got responsibilities, good ones, that he is tending to. I thought about Logan, working in his garden, teaching high schoolers, raising his daughters. I hadn’t seen either of these men in five years, and it hit me that if I hadn’t come out to see them, it could easily have been another five years before we saw each other again. If I want to maintain a face-to-face relationship with them, and with the dozens of other friends and family members I have scattered around the country, that will necessitate travel. And if they can’t do it (and many of them can’t), then I will. Because I can.
Travel as a means to community.
And for all the venom I spit at Phoenix, for all the sarcasm and disdain I unleash in its direction, I find it interesting that it is the place where, fifteen years ago, I began to take my writing seriously, and the place where, all these years later, I realized there is something deeper in my need to travel. Sitting there with Brent, I stumbled upon a new reason for being on the road. It’s about family. The family I was born to, as well as the family I’ve chosen. I love both of these families, and I want to keep them together.
PART II—MEMORIES ON HIGHWAY 89A
It’s one of the most beautiful drives in the country, a snaking road through Oak Creek Canyon and the impossibly red rocks of Sedona. It starts from the former territorial capital of Prescott, where residents once responded to a hotel fire by picking up the hotel’s bar, carrying it across the street to the grassy area around the courthouse, and continuing to drink at the displaced bar while the hotel burned down (and yes, the bar is still there). From there, it’s up to the strange little artists’ colony of Jerome, once a billion-dollar copper mine, then a ghost town when the mines when dry, and now a home to retirees and artist types who’ve made a new community thrive in this town pressed into the side of a mountain. It’s a vertical town, and you change streets by climbing stairs up to the next one. If you’re in a car, you wind down the switchbacks, then make your way to the tourist Mecca of Sedona, famous for it’s beautiful red rock mountains and its weird, overproduced, pseudo-hippie downtown, where you can find everything from fringed leather jackets to stands where a mystic will photograph your aura.
I could write a great deal about that road. But right now, I’d rather write about Christopher Lane.
When I started the Flagstaff Slam in 2000, a poet from Dallas who’d recently moved to the area became a regular, and eventually became a member of the first Flagstaff team to compete at the National Poetry Slam in 2001. When I left town in 2002, Christopher helped take over the show, then took it in directions I never dreamed of.
He founded a group called NORAZ Poets in 2003, and used it to to help facilitate workshops, run shows and, most impressively, to create the Arizona branch of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. He became one of the most important poets and community organizers in the state, performed hundreds of times for people of every age range. He’d been through extraordinary hardship in his life, and had somehow emerged as one of the most generous and thoughtful artists I’ve ever met.
One day in 2012 I got an email from Brent Heffron. Christopher had died. He lay down one day to take a nap and never woke up. He was only 40 years old.
We hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years. Not on purpose. Nothing had happened. I’d just moved into a different life and didn’t see him or talk to him much for a while. Then not at all. We simply lost touch.
Christopher Lane (photo: Janise Witt)
When I first met Christopher, he was living in a trailer on a ridge in Oak Creek Canyon, right above a general store that sold jewelry and served impossibly good sandwiches. It was a peaceful place, both secluded and close enough to the main highway to take his motorcycle out on long rides across the state. We used to sit under the awning of his trailer and talk about writing. I was always blown away by his sensitivity, his incredible ability to empathize. He became a mentor to a lot of people in the poetry scene almost from the beginning, and it came as no surprise to me when I heard about the world-shaping work he was doing in the time after I left the state.
Christopher lived on the ridge just behind this store.
I stopped at the old general store and walked around. I kept looking up that ridge where Christopher had his home. I’ve spent most of my life trying to learn how to write, to share what I’ve picked up, to have some small impact on the people around me. I want people to know about Christopher Lane, and I hope that talking about him and writing about his life is a small way of continuing what he did. It’s astonishing what this guy put together in Arizona in less than a decade. I’d like to have even a share of the impact on the people around me that Christopher had on me and everyone he touched. Maybe I can do that. I hope so.
Flagstaff. The center of the hourglass. The pivot point. One of the most important places in my life.
And if it wasn’t for Justin and Erin, a place where I would no longer have anywhere to stay.
A couple years ago, my dear friends Justin Bigos and Erin Stalcup moved to Flagstaff. Our paths have had an interesting way of winding around each other over the years. They both teach at Northern Arizona University, where I went to school. They met each other the same place I met them: at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. And, I didn’t realize until years later, Erin used to come out to the shows I ran while she was growing up in Flagstaff. Small world.
Justin, Erin, and a lot of tamales.
I used to stay with these two in Brooklyn on my swings through New York. Now, they were establishing themselves in a quiet mountain town that couldn’t be more different from their last residence. We spent the evening catching up, eating dinner, and making plans to attend the Flagstaff Poetry Slam, which is still running a decade and a half after I thought it would be a good idea to start a reading there.
The Flagstaff Slam, after years of moving around, is back in the same location it started in. The location houses a completely different business in a completely redesigned room, but it was kind of beautiful for me to come back and see the show running in the same spot as it was in my early twenties. Deep down, I sort of hoped I’d see some of those old faces at the show. Brent. Logan. Dom. Julie. Frank. Josh. Suzy. Christopher Lane. But it was a brand new, very young crowd, and it all felt very far away. There was no one I knew there, and no one who knew me. Maybe that’s how it should be at this point. I’m thrilled the show is still running, but it would be foolish to say I have any real connection to it now. I started something 15 years ago, but it has taken dozens, maybe hundreds of people to keep it running this long. The show is theirs. It belongs to the city.
Looking into the Flagstaff Poetry Slam.
The following day, Justin invited me to talk to his class about writing and traveling. I spoke for about twenty minutes, and all I really remember saying was that the best part about being a writer was the relationships you develop. Everyone I’d visited, and everything I’d done in Arizona the previous week came out of a decision to take my writing seriously 15 years ago.
We travel these strange arcs. We drop stones along the way. We hope a few of them hit the water and ripple out.
The Camp Verde Bugle published a nice piece on Christopher Lane’s life. You can read it here.
A local affiliate did a good piece about Christopher and the Alheimer’s Poetry Project. It’s not enough of him, but it’s something. Watch it here: