Outside beside the door at Copper Canyon press there was a pile of Douglas fir chord wood for the stove. Before I came in to work in the mornings I'd split the wood into smaller pieces, striking at the wood's heart, thinking as I dropped the maul on the top of the round, “This is how separation feels, this cleaving.”
I missed something of the South. I missed something of home. But what did I miss? I missed small things, like snakes, the weather, the humidity. Sweet tea at all the restaurants. Hardwood trees turning color. Country music. I did feel lighter out on the West Coast, but maybe lightness was what I really needed. Be the round or be the maul? Which did I really want?
I loved the smell of the broken wood, the way it wafted upward out of the inside when the round fell apart. It smelled like Christmas every moment.
Even though I missed something I felt like the maul that year, active and strong. I broke another round. I never missed with the maul. I was getting good at that. I lifted my arms in the cool morning air and the maul fell on the round of wood, and it split clean if my aim was true. There was a network of small cracks on top of the round. They were like a road map and if I found the right system trailing over the surface, then I could split the dry wood with one strike. Miss and I pounded on the top, three or four times. I read each round as I stood it up, maps of my lonliness. Maps of the possible roads back to South Carolina.
The press was housed in an old blacksmith's shop from Spanish American War days at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington. Every day I went through the presse’s heavy front doors and inside found the smell of old metal and wood smoke. From blacksmith's shop to poetry press, there was a symmetry. The forging of poetry. Its making. Literally, "Standing beside words" as the presses logo suggests.
Sam was always who I saw first when I opened the door. He would be folding the Seattle Times into a fan to place at the stove’s bottom, adding kindling-- scraps from the cedar shake mill near the house he shared with his wife and co-publisher Tree-- and then he'd place the thick Douglas fir chord wood on top.
“This is how you make a fire burn clean,” Sam explained every morning, very seriously. He was teaching the Southern boy how to do the most simple of things: make a fire, make a book with type, ink, and paper.
Every day Sam wore a flannel shirt, old blue jeans, and turquoise bracelet. I remember on one set of knuckles he had a word spelled out in fading tattos: love. Only the outline of each pale blue letter was visible against his white skin. One day Sam showed me what it said, making a fist with his small hand.
Sam talked often about the Chinese poets who wrote of their snow covered heads though they were only in their twenties. He’d written a book length poem like Williams or Pound. He’d looked closely at the world and written about it.
Tree would start off sorting the morning mail into press orders and a personal pile. She moved quietly around the press, placing Sam’s mail on his desk. Then she’d stop at the old white coffee maker and start the morning brew. It was cold in the press as only Pacific Northwest winter wet air can be cold, and it took the fire an hour to clear out the chill. For those first moments the coffee would have to do.
Then Tree would begin the press work on the other side of the building as Sam sat at his desk and read the morning mail. Sam's walled-off office was full of thousands of poetry books. He was surrounded by them, a sort of literary insulation for those cold mornings.
I’d start work in the outer room, setting type. I’d set type for Copper Canyon’s poetry books all morning to the music of Keith Jarrett— in a year the work of Gary Snyder, Robert Hedin, Olga Broumas, even a little Ezra Pound booklet, all letter pressed. I sat on the high chair at the old composer’s desk, a tray of ancient looking type before me, the typescript for the book to one side, and I’d hold the composing stick in my left hand, place each metal letter, each piece of type, securely in the grip, letter by letter, line by line, until I had composed a complete poem.
When I transferred the lines to the chase Tree would lock it into place and pull a proof on the letterpress and see how much I had misplaced. I was getting better at setting type, not as good as with the maul, but good none-the-less.
There were many other poets at the press that year-- K West, Bill Ransom, David Romtvedt, David Lee, and Billy Mack Gammill, and there were even suprise visits by sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, but it was those early cold morning with Sam and Tree I remember best. As Sam reminded me, I was learning about simple things. I was learning the basics of being a poet. I was learning about making books.
Tomorrow: "Poet in Charlottesville, 1980."