Tuesday, August 19, 2008

robert frost's bed

My friend Tanya sent me this picture of Annex House, my residence for 11 days last year up at Bread Loaf. She is up there now, doing her second tour of poetry duty, and now that this year's conference is in full-swing, I find myself mentally projecting myself there. I opted not to apply again this year, thinking I'd be preparing to pursue yet another college degree and busy situating myself around yet another college or university campus. If only I had known then that I'd travel to India, change my life's plans, and not presently be working, I'd like to think I'd be there now.

Having never attended a writers' conference before, I did not know what to expect from Bread Loaf. I only knew it was the oldest and most prestigious writers' conference in the country, but since I'd never been to any other conference, I could not put this into perspective. Only once I received my information packet in the mail was I able to do so, to some small degree. I was shocked to learn that writers had been gathering at this retreat in Vermont for 82 (now 83) years--longer than the Pittsburgh Steelers (celebrating their 75th anniversary last season) had been playing professional football. I also learned the current recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry was going to be in attendance; here she is, Natasha Tretheway (right), drinking on my porch with Tanya (left), who has just informed the preeminent poet that she has a nice butt.

The one thing I did know about Bread Loaf, going into the conference, was that it had been parodied as "Wordloaf" on the Simpsons. And to answer Homer's question at the end of this clip, no. Bread Loaf does not have an open bar (which would be truly crazy the way writers drink) except for the party in The Barn at the very end of the conference (which was truly crazy the way writers drink). There was a cash bar that served beer and wine on a daily basis in The Barn, but it only opened in the evenings, late enough after dinner that my friends and I were forced to go into town to do some occasional shopping. Here's Maria with a couple of baby Heineken keggies and a cart full o' bottles and boxes of wine.

While there, my internal odometer rolled back to my college days, and just as then, after my afternoon classes, I liked to have a couple drinks before dinner. I had very little problem finding people like Maria who were of the same inclination. Our core crew was Maria Nazos, Tanya Jarrett, Jamie Iredell, and myself. We would sit out on the porch before and after dinner, and shoot the literary shit. Other attendees and faculty would pass by the porch, join us for a cocktail, stick around for awhile and then move on. It became an institution-- the porch at Annex House-- where you could be sure to get a drink, bum a smoke, hear a favorite poem recited, recite a favorite poem yourself, e.g. the best 9/11 poem ever written-- Martin Espada's "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100" --engage in a discussion on poetic craft, hear Vincent "the baardvark" recite a spoken word poem in which he geniusly rhymes "Lake Wobegon" with "Pokemon", tell your best drunk story, listen to someone else's most disgusting sex story, watch a half a dozen people standing on top of the boulder in the field across the road which was the only place on the entire mountain where one could get a lick of cellular telephone service, have your picture taken by Adam Grabowski, skip a creative nonfiction reading at the Little Theater in order to listen to Jamie recite a poem recounting the evils of each and every one of his ex-girlfriends, hear Ames sing "I Had My Beer Goggles On", watch Laura challenge Maria to a beer-shotgunning contest and then shit-talk about her victory afterwards, participate in a late-night recite-a-poem-from-memory smackdown with Ilya Kaminsky, Major Jackson, and Matt Hart among others, admire the sunset shining in the mask of beer sweat on Jamie's face after drinking half a case of PBR, see Eavan Boland walk by on the sidewalk and feel your poetic soul pulled by the gravitational weight of her presence, or sit back in a rocking chair and just fucking rock.

Or you could hear one of several different accounts of what happened to me at the Frost summer house, a mile and a quarter off the Bread Loaf campus. The following is the definitive account.

Most of the rooms on Bread Loaf campus are doubles, including those in Annex House. The informational packet that an attendee receives upon acceptance to the conference forewarns you of this fact. I had my reservations about sharing a room with a total stranger. The last time I had been assigned a roommate was my freshman year in college, and he turned out to be a total cocksucker. However, I took some comfort in the knowledge that the staff at Bread Loaf makes every attempt to pair up compatible attendees at the conference. As it turns out, it couldn't have been a more perfect fit with Alex (far left in this picture).

A rugby player, a fiction writer, a helluva storyteller, a drinker, a nasty farter, and an all-around funny and personable guy, Alex was a more suitable roommate than I could have imagined. We bonded from the start, and with him, I attended one of the conference's first get-togethers-- a BBQ and Frost lecture on the grounds outside Robert Frost's summer house near Bread Loaf campus.

The highlight of this excursion was the opportunity to see Frost's summer residence first-hand. A national historic landmark, the house was tiny and must have been cramped even for Frost, who I learned (much more first-hand that I would have liked) was a surprisingly diminutive man. Emerging from the confines of this quaint dwelling must have made the natural landscape surrounding it seem all that much more grandiose and enthralling for Frost. The house consisted of four rooms: a small sitting room, a narrow kitchen, an almost airplane-sized bathroom, and a single bedroom. In the bedroom there was a small window, a framed poem hung on the wall, a nightstand, and a single bed. Robert Frost's small, single bed.

Alex and I had been the first to enter, and we breezed through the house while those behind us were proceeding at a thoughtful, museum-ish pace. They were still noting the titles on Frost's bookshelf in the sitting room, and weighing the quaintness of its few pieces of wicker furniture, by the time we had swept through the place and were standing in Frost's bedroom.

Only once I saw the size of the bed in that room did I realize how tiny this giant of American poetry actually was. The mattresses in the bunk bed that I used to share growing up with my brother, while on vacation at our family's obsessively fish-themed lakehouse, seemed queen-sized in comparison.

The bed was against the wall, to the left of the door as you entered the bedroom. I was overcome with the inexplicable urge to sit on the edge of the bed. For whatever reason, I wanted to place my feet on the exact same spot on the floor where Frost would have placed his, waking up each day, in an effort to connect spatially with the poet. At least this is how I rationalized the urge after the fact.

With utmost care and gentleness, I sat. Alex was watching as I did so, nervously. Nothing happened. The bed, though small, was sturdy, and I let the bed frame take the weight of my ass. I mused upon my feet and grinned up at Alex. Outside we could hear people walking from the sitting room into the kitchen, at which point the expression on Alex's face told me that I should probably get up.

I reached back with my left hand, to help push myself up, when the back corner of the mattress dropped through the bed frame with a bang. I fell backwards atop my arm, my legs flying up spread-eagled in the air over the edge of the bed frame where they had been planted. Looking up from between my knees, I saw Alex standing over me, horror-stricken, as if I had just spontaneously given birth or asked him to lick drops of Tabasco off my perineum.

In an exhibition of behavior most unfitting a good roommate, not to mention a UK rugby player, Alex ran out of the room like a scared little girl.

Fortunately, for me, two of the first people he elbowed past, in exiting the little house, were Maria and Adam, to whom I am both truly indebted. Adam immediately extended a hand to help me up, and Maria barred entry to the bedroom, managing the scene. When someone asked, "What happened in there?" she responded, "Nothing!" and abruptly shut the bedroom door.

Panic-stricken, I got on my knees before the bed and began to examine what I could do as a means of damage control. Once there, I realized what had happened; the mattress rested on three pegs in the bed frame where there should have been four. The peg in the bottom right hand corner was missing, so when I had pushed back on the mattress with my left hand, it dropped through the frame and hit the floor.

I simply pulled the mattress back up so it sat level on the three pegs there. Like that, the bed looked untouched, except for its mussed covering which I smoothed out (carefully) with the palm of my hand. Then Maria opened the bedroom door to several astonished faces, and we walked out, trying to look deadpan. I must have looked like I had just had a physical altercation with Robert Frost's ghost.

The house that had initially seemed so small was now palatial and labyrinthine as we struggled through the querulous crowd that packed its square footage. Once through and out the door, nature had never before been so expansive and inviting. I took a deep breath of fresh, fresh air.

Immediately I found Alex, who was busy telling a group of people on the lawn outside the house how his roommate just broke Robert Frost's bed. After first questioning his manhood, then the content of his character, and finally calling him "chipmunk nuts", I put my arm around my roommate and confided to him that, if I had been in his shoes, I would have in all likelihood exhibited no less panic and cowardice.
As it turns out, the experience served as a boon for our Annex Porch get-togethers. People that perhaps wouldn't have stopped by did, just to meet the idiot poet who "broke" Robert Frost's bed.

While writing this, I was saddened to come across this article in the Middlebury newspaper detailing how on December 28th, four months after my attendance at Bread Loaf, the house was severely damaged in the wake of "a large, underage drinking party."

This passage from the article describes the damage that was done:

Police say vandals shattered a window to gain entrance to the farmhouse and proceeded to destroy tables, chairs, pictures, light fixtures and dishes, torch wicker furniture in the fireplace to warm the unheated building, discharge two fire extinguishers and urinate and vomit inside the building and on the surrounding property.

Surprisingly, Frost's broken bed is not included in this list of damaged furniture. Perhaps the reporter missed this detail, or maybe the horde of drunken teenagers, despite all their pissing and puking, had declared Frost's bedroom off-limits during their party, thereby preserving its sanctity and exhibiting a modicum of respect and common decency for the poet that I, by sitting upon his bed, had managed to lack.

I hope the bed remains there, as is, its mattress resting on three pegs, awaiting the next destructively over-curious poet to sit upon its edge...


Mathilde said...

For the record, I'm unsure if I ever said that I want to be James Longenbach, and if that is the case, it makes it quite strange that I would have been assigned to his workshop this year.

the poetman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
the poetman said...

You're correct in that you didn't say that while we were at Bread Loaf last year; you told that to me in an email this year. Acknowledging my chronological mistake, the passage in question has been deleted from the record.

And yes, it is strange you were assigned to Longenbach's workshop. Maybe it is your density to become him.

Mathilde said...

Damn, I assumed that I was simply filled with affection for the man and drink. This is what I told him anyway when we were walking to the Barn on break a few days ago. He was flattered and then asked: must one be grown up to be me?

I acknowledged there were more than a few logical flaws in that assessment, but being him isn't that bad... and then I asked if it were. He seemed to think that it wasn't so bad being him, so I feel more comfortable being him, or being Longenbach with tits and a feminist bent or something.