In a gathering of writers, waxing poetic about days in Philadelphia
Bar Talk: for the Commentary page
By Teresa Leo
Recently I attended a writers' conference in Albany, N.Y., where hundreds of people gathered for three days of readings and panel discussions.
In the relative tranquility of the hotel bar, I decided to ask poets from around the country what recollections they had about Philadelphia. We mused over images and impressions, people and poetics and, of course, cheesesteaks.
"When you're in Philly, someone who knows the town drags you out to a neon-lit spot at 2 a.m. where all these people are eating cheesesteaks," said New York poet Bill Wadsworth, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. "I once went with Robert Hass, who was U.S. poet laureate at the time, and while everyone else had one, he ate two. Obviously this is why he was poet laureate."
More than one poet talked about the early-morning rituals of Philadelphia.
Kashmiri-American writer Agha Shahid Ali, who likened Philadelphia to Manhattan without the constant voltage, said, "I once wrote a poem called 'Philadelphia, 2:00 A.M.,' where I tried to capture that moment when the bars close. The phrase I came up with was the 'taxi hour of loss,' the kind you get over pretty quickly, but at that time it seems to be the most crucial thing in your life."
The poets often associated heightened emotional moments with the visuals of Philadelphia, recollections of beauty in the midst of loss: "I was taking a train from Baltimore after having been broken up with by a woman," said David Daniel, poetry editor of the Boston-based magazine Ploughshares, "and the only time I peeked up was coming into Philadelphia, and I saw this building that was startlingly and strangely beautiful. So that's what the city has always meant to me: a moment of reflected light in the midst of gloom."
I heard stories of bridges and smokestacks, of cobblestones and cream cheese. Architecture and history were often bundled together with personal vignettes, as in State College poet Robin Becker's description of walking from Rittenhouse Square to Independence Plaza: "We were wearing our black leather jackets, and suddenly I felt like it was the 18th century and that we were all walking around in tricornered black hats and little buckled shoes. I had a wonderful sense of communion with Philadelphia's history at that moment."
Others described the character of our neighborhoods and the small-town atmosphere. "It's a bar town," said Oregon poet Dorianne Laux, "but it's as if the bar is taken out of the living room and put where it belongs, which is in a bar, yet the bar is made to look like your living room so you don't feel like you've left home at all."
Washington, D.C.-based poet Stanley Plumly, who once drove the entire length of Broad Street, said, "What I love is the immediate juxtaposition of neighborhoods. I don't think there's a street that represents America more totally in the full spectrum and range of humanity than Broad Street in Philadelphia."
I learned that Philadelphia is the home of Frank's soda and Tastykakes, and, according to David Fenza, executive director of the Associated Writing Programs, "the birthplace of the movable frame hive, invented by the Rev. L.L. Langstroth in 1851, which was a big stride forward in the history of beekeeping."
What else are we famous for? Beyond the cheesesteaks and beehives, history and architecture, the most frequent comment was about the graciousness of the people. We were touted as "friendly" and "hospitable." Stuart Dischell, a poet based in North Carolina, had a particularly momentous memory of Philadelphians from a high school trip: "I was almost hit by a bus in Philadelphia. I was standing off the curb, and a bus came whipping around the corner. A stranger grabbed me by the collar and dragged me back just in time. Otherwise I wouldn't be speaking to you 30 years later."
Philadelphia moments like this, complete with the unseen hand of the ordinary good Samaritan, remind me of the hand of the poet recording the unexpected for us, which our memory sometimes also saves.
© 1999 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.