Dana Guthrie Martin and Margaret Bashaar
Hauntings and Visions: An Interview with Margaret BashaarEd. note: Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel, from Blood Pudding Press, is available here.
DGM: Can you talk a little bit about the Grand Midway Hotel, the setting for the poems as well as the place where you literally composed them? What is this haunted hotel, who owns it and how did you become affiliated with it? Also, when did you realize you were going to write a series involving, and written at, this hotel?
MB: The Grand Midway Hotel is a turn-of-the-century hotel in the town of Windber, Pennsylvania (sort of a suburb of Johnstown) that was purchased off eBay (yes, really) by Blair Murphy, Damien Youth, and Betsy Black in 2001. Blair is a filmmaker, Damien, a singer/songwriter (damienyouth.bandcamp.com – his album, The Underground, A Hobo's Opera, is also, in part, about the Grand Midway), and Betsy, a photographer. Damien and Betsy eventually moved to New Orleans, leaving Blair as the sole owner of the Grand Midway Hotel.
In 2005, my poetry mentor, Dr. Michael Dennison, discovered the hotel, I believe through its website iliveinahauntedhotel.com, where he also found out about an event that Blair and a number of others put together each year called Kerouac Fest. Michael asked if he might be able to attend and bring a few of his students with him. I was one of the students he invited, and on a strange impulse the day of the festival, I packed up my typewriter, strapped my two-month-old son into his car seat, and drove the two hours from Pittsburgh to Windber with some really crappy directions printed out from Yahoo maps.
When I arrived at the hotel, I fell in love with it, with the people there, instantly. The space itself is incredible, but more importantly, everyone was welcoming and kind to both me and my son. There was an amazing sense of community among the artists there that I had not experienced before. Blair puts together Kerouac Fest with no budget – the event is completely free. Everyone brings something to share and the festival is built from those contributions, and it is always amazing. The artist gatherings I was used to were nothing like this. It was a huge turning point for me in terms of how I saw the arts and community.
Over the year and a half that followed my first visit to the hotel, I spent more and more time there, culminating in a decadent creative summer/fall in 2006 when I was driving out to Windber every weekend. I think that season was when I realized that I was starting to write the poems that would eventually become Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel. In fact, the title poem was written at my second Kerouac Fest in room 27 with a Smith Corona typewriter named Stuart and a bottle of ice wine. It took the following five years to finally become complete.
The hotel has always been a space of huge creative power for me, and for many many other artists who have come through there. As a friend of mine and I discussed recently, when the hotel takes you in, it takes you in and you belong. It honestly often feels like a force and a life all its own.
DGM: There's so much in this collection that revolves around naming: giving names to Claire, Mary, the Proprietor and others who appear; giving names to that which lies beyond naming, such as the spiritual, metaphysical, and transformational; speaking the secret names of gods.
In Meditation on Ichthyosaurus at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, you speak of naming:
I named you because I couldn't not.
I named you because that is the way it has always been,
the naming of things.
Fish lizard, you are the thing I name
when I cannot open my mouth.
Is naming something that opens us up, closes us down, or both? Is it necessary because it's all we have, or it is integral to transformation?
MB: In many spiritual traditions, to know a thing's name is to have understanding of and power over that thing. There is a certain claim of recognition that comes with naming something or someone. In the Ichthyosaurus poem in particular, it's a question of recognition – can we recognize people from one lifetime to another? Do we know who we are beyond this particular physical form that we inhabit in this one moment? Can karma be that powerful in a person's life? To reference back to your first question for a brief moment, I feel my karmic connection to the Grand Midway Hotel is one of the stronger connections I have in my life. It feels, honestly, like everyone I meet who becomes significant in my life lately has a connection to Windber, which is a town of under 3,000 people. By way of example, Juliet Cook, the editor of Blood Pudding Press, has a grandmother who still lives in Windber. How incredibly unlikely is that?
So on one hand, in these poems for the characters to speak names is to have them invoke a connection and understanding to that person or thing – an almost inevitable one. On the other hand, and this is perhaps more subtly present in the collection, there is a certain level of presumption that comes with assigning names to one another that the characters do end up suffering for to various degrees.
As a poet I do see naming as something that is very powerful, but also potentially limiting. The choice of what to name my son was one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life. I think that naming not only potentially transforms that which is named, but also the person who gives that name. When we name something, we forever change how we view that thing and we change how our mind reacts to it. Once you name someone "lover," they are different to you than they were when they were "friend" or "crush." To name may not be necessary for transformation, but I do feel that it carries with it a profound power and weight.
On an ever-so-slightly less serious note with regard to naming, when I was spending a great deal of time at the Grand Midway Hotel in 2006, we were watching the movie Gothic a lot. For those unfamiliar, the film tells the (fictionalized) story of the night that Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and John Polidori told ghost stories together at Byron's castle and Mary Shelley conceptualized Frankenstein. While only Mary and Claire borrow their names directly in Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel, Byron, Polidori, and Percy absolutely show up in the poems, if more subtly.
DGM: You talk about spiritual traditions with regard to naming. The spiritual side of this collection is of interest to me. It feels like there are undulations throughout the collection in this regard, toward what I interpret as a more cohesive, developed spirituality, one inclusive of both body and mind. I know from our personal conversations that you've also been moving over the past few years in the direction of deeper spirituality. Is there a correlation between your work and your collection in this regard?
MB: Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel spans five years of writing. When I first began working with these poems, I would say that I was absolutely agnostic, but that is something that has shifted quite dramatically since then, in part due to experiences I've had at the hotel. Stated very simply, my spirituality now combines certain practices and beliefs from the Native American church with Buddhist philosophy and I think that probably comes out most clearly in Meditation on Ichthyosaurus at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, which is perhaps the second or third newest poem in the collection.
It's hard, sometimes, for me to talk about my spirituality – I see it as an incredibly private thing for the most part – but at the same time, as a poet it sort of busts out all over the place. Even when I was more of an agnostic, I was very interested in poetry as a shamanistic practice, the poem as invocation or spell.
The poems in this chapbook are very much based on my personal journey and the journey I saw others around me taking. As a result, as the collection and its timeline progress, I would say that I personally feel like the ideas of interconnectedness, the possibility of the spiritual, and spiritual/personal revelation crop up and inform the later poems. If I've ever written a "coming of age" set of poems, these are they – I feel like each character has his or her own realization, though that is not what I intended when I began writing. I honestly think it would be impossible for me to have taken the spiritual journey I've taken over the past five years and not have it come out in this set of poems.
DGM: Some people might say five years is a long time to spend writing a chapbook, especially in a time when the writing/publishing cycle seems to be accelerated more than ever, with ever-greater pressure to further accelerate that cycle. Did you know going in that you would spend so much time with these poems? And do you have any plans to expand the series into a full-length collection?
MB: I have never been a high output poet – I'm writing more now than I ever have before, but at the same time, I still do not write nearly as much as many of the poets I know. In the past few years I probably have averaged a poem a month. Sometimes the amount of time between poems is embarrassing.
I was writing other poetry, too, while I worked on these poems. In 2009, my first chapbook came out from Tilt Press, and I am presently working on finishing up a full-length collection and a third chapbook – so this project was one of a few that I was at work on.
I honestly take issue with this idea that we all need to produce, produce, produce as poets. Would I like to be writing more? Absolutely. Do I think that to be a poet I need to be writing a poem every single day? I don't. There is a sort of a strange warping of time that occurs in the poetry world, I think. My chapbook from 2009 is "old" now. There are publications that will not review it due to its age. It's two years old. That's not actually very old if you think about it.
This chapbook and getting it "right" were very very important to me. There were a few times that I almost sent it out half-finished, but each time ultimately made the decision to wait until I really felt like it was done, like the characters I was creating had finished their arch. As for extending it into a full-length manuscript, I have vague plans regarding that. I do have a second chapbook I'm working on right now that I feel could be seamed together with this one as a sort of two-part collection. I've also been kicking around the idea of asking two to four of the other poets and artists who spend time at the hotel if they would like to put together a collaborative collection of poetry and art inspired by the hotel. I feel like, while the story of the characters in Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel has been told, there is a great deal more for me to channel from that place, from the profound effect it has had and continues to have on me as a person and as a poet.
DGM: On the hotel's website is written, "One of the cool things that just struck me about this place is this: hang around here for any amount of time and you're going to end up in a movie, a character in a book, or in someone's art. We all become each other's canvas." Aside from the work you've created based on your interactions at the hotel, how many books, movies, and pieces of art do you think you've made your way into through your presence at the Grand Midway?
MB: Oh my goodness. Directly, I've been in four films over the past six years via my time at the Grand Midway Hotel.
• Coolsville – a documentary about Kerouac Fest by Blair Murphy
• Dead Beat – a short film by Jaemi Elia
• Screen Tests from Enormous Hotel by Skot Jones
• and am currently acting in Blair's new film, Zombie Dream, which is completely amazing and absurd. I'm more or less playing myself. I even get to beat down a zombie with a typewriter!
A friend of mine has done numerous light paintings of me (though really, I am probably the world's worst model), including one that hung in the Beat Museum in San Francisco for a while.
The TypewriterGirls Poetry Cabaret project that I've been a part of with Crystal Hoffman since 2006 was in part conceived at the hotel, and our first performance was at Kerouac Fest in 2006. Crystal writes sketch comedy for each show, and the characters we play are more or less exaggerated versions of ourselves.
I also may very well end up on a cable television show as a result of my time at the Midway, but I cannot say anything more about that because I signed a nondisclosure agreement. Really.
Indirectly, Damien Youth has said that all of us at the hotel appear in some way in his album The Underground, A Hobo's Opera, which pleases me immensely as I adore the album and Damien. And I'm in the thank you section of my friend Jason Kirin's latest chapbook, which he wrote in its entirety at this past Kerouac Fest at the Midway.
Other than those projects, I'm not sure if/how my presence and existence have touched the artistic creations of any of the other hotel regulars. I do know that Pittsburgh-based jazz singer Phat Man Dee has written many songs based around the hotel and Blair in particular, and that many other poets who are friends of mine have spent time writing at the hotel. There is a constant enchanted flow of art and creativity in this space, and if you spend enough time there, it is absolutely true that it is impossible not to get caught up in it all.
DGM: Outside of those at the hotel, who are your influences, and why?
MB: Yusef Komunyakaa has been a huge influence on me since I came across his book Talking Dirty to the Gods while browsing through the poetry section of the local Borders when I was a sophomore in high school. I fell in love with his use of the mythological in that collection and am constantly blown away by the unsettling beauty of his work. I also found a second connection to Komunyakaa through his writing on his time serving in the army during the Vietnam War. My father was drafted as an army ranger into the Vietnam War, and reading Komunyakaa's poetry helped me connect with my father and his experience. His poetry has helped my father and I understand each other more fully.
About two years ago I began reading the transcripts of María Sabina's mushroom veladas and those have had a huge influence on a lot of my more recent poetry. I deeply respect the work that María Sabina did as a curandera and, perhaps inadvertently, as a poet. The chants that arose spontaneously from her have more poetic weight and beauty, I feel, than poems I've spent hours and hours on.
Frank X. Walker's collections When Winter Come and Buffalo Dance had particular influence on the writing of Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel as in both of the aforementioned collections, Walker takes on various voices, characters, and personas to tell a narrative through a series of poems that each can stand beautifully alone. When Winter Come is one of my favorite collections of poetry that I've read in the past 5 years.
I'm also still, I think, pretty strongly influenced by the poets I first started reading in middle school and high school, like T.S. Eliot, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. They were my first forays into the literary canon and their work stays with me – I have a poem by Plath and one by Sexton hanging on my wall at work.
Honestly, and this might sound a little kumbaya-ish but I don't care, the poets I see as being within the community I have found myself lucky enough to be a part of, not only in a physical sense, but online, have had a huge influence on me, including you, Dana, and poets like Juliet Cook, Mary Biddinger, Susan Slaviero, Renée Alberts, Sally Rosen Kindred, Susan Yount, and so many other lovely people who I will kick myself later for not naming. It is one of the most encouraging and inspiring things for me as a poet to be able to read all of this poetry being created now and immerse myself in it and hope that in some small way I can contribute to the dialogue and enchantment. I have been incredibly lucky, not only in the community that I have involved myself in at the Grand Midway, but also in this community of poets who have all found one another. I am constantly amazed.