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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Creativity: An Interview with Poet Michael Czarnecki

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An Interview with Poet Michael Czarnecki

20 Days on Route 20: Poetry and Life on the Road

By Aubree Cutkomp

Michael CzarneckiIt was Michael Czarnecki’s junior year high school English teacher, Mr. Kerr, who first encouraged him to start writing poetry. Not only has he not stopped writing poetry since, but sixteen years ago he decided to quit his “make-a-living” job to pursue a career in poetry full-time. Today, Michael is a poet, founder of the poetry press, Foothills Publishing, oral memoirist and encourager. He has worked with thousands of students in schools as a poet-in-residence, conducted (and continues to hold) various writing workshops and programs all over the country, and has written seven books of his own. He has gone on many purposeful journeys in his lifetime, both hitchhiking and driving the longest routes in the US, including the actual longest route, ie Route 20. At 3,300 miles long, it spans from Boston to Newport, Oregon. His journey across the country was chronicled in his book [amazonify]0941053016::text::::20 Days on Route 20,[/amazonify] and is written in the form of Haibun, a Japanese-style poem. Michael will present a multimedia travel program about US Route 20, at 2pm on Saturday, November 5, 2011 at the Guilderland Public Library.

I spoke to Michael last Thursday night, on the night of the first (and premature) snowfall of the year – the kind of night that can bring the poet out in anyone.

The Free George: After reading about your poetic epiphany, I started attempting to write my own Haibun poem. And I know that many have said that reading your work has made them want to write poems and share their stories with you. Was sharing your experiences with others always one of your intentions as a poet, or was it more of a cathartic thing?

Michael Czarnecki: Yes – sharing with others. I think that’s important because we’ve all lead interesting lives, and for me, my creative writing comes out of my life, and not of my experiences. It’s something when you read an author or poet from a hundred years ago or even sixteen-hundred years ago (one of my favorite poets is Dao Chen, a Chinese poet), and you realize that no matter where in time, or where in geography, there are certain things that we all just have in common as human beings. Those are the things that are worth sharing. Very little of our life is a wow-experience. Most of our lives are made up of, you know, pretty ordinary things, like getting excited about seeing the first snow fall and all of that is worth sharing. And I’m stuck with words – I can’t draw, I never played music, I can’t sing, so I’m stuck with words and that’s my way of creating.

TFG: Your junior year English teacher first inspired you to write poetry. On all your travels, has anyone else stood out in particular as a major influence as to why you do what you do?

MC: One of the key influences of mine, in fact which changed my life, and I tell this story often – happened to be up in Ticonderoga, back in the old hitchhiking days. I ended up getting a ride from a woman who lived up above Lake Champlain, Ma Stickney – and I won’t get into the whole story now, but I ended up spending a whole week with Ma, her husband and their son, and it forever changed my life… They were poor, but they were openhearted and kind people; she picked me up as I was hitchhiking and said I could stay the night and I stayed a week… but what was interesting, the first night I was there, after dinner some neighbors came over to the house and Ma pulled out a gallon jar of homemade doughnuts, put a pot of coffee on the stove and we all sat around the round-oak table telling stories. I didn’t have any stories to tell–what did I know–this nineteen-year-old kid from Buffalo; but they told stories….wonderful stories. And I came away thinking, that was marvelous! We didn’t need to turn on the TV for entertainment, go somewhere and spend money. People shared stories, and that was the first real moment I realized that storytelling is important. I think that’s a big influence on why I do the oral memoirist stories too. I learned about oral storytelling from Ma, just from sitting around that old oak table and she’s part of my stories now. (Click here to read more about Michael’s experience with Ma Stickney)

TFG: Wow, if only hitchhiking was a good idea nowadays. I think I was born into the wrong generation…

MC: Well, I was really hoping [because it was the 25th anniversary of my own hitchhiking] that I would be able to pick up a hitchhiker – and I didn’t see a single one. All the way out to Oregon and all the way back, and not a single hitchhiker. Once in a while you see somebody, but it’s certainty not like what it was. One of the stories I tell in the oral memoirist workshops is a performance called See, It Was Like This, and it’s about growing up in the 60s into the early 70s and is just a great example about how common hitchhiking used to be back then. I was coming from Boston going back to Buffalo with my girlfriend at the time and we got let off at the 87/90 exchange there, (the busy place with all the tolls) and there were over 30 people waiting for rides.

TFG: That’s incredible. I think I’ve seen two, maybe three hitchhikers in my whole life.

MC: That’s how it was back then. You just did it and you met wonderful people along the way. Today, hitchhiking may not be the best idea, but even now I still barter for rooms when I’m traveling across America. It’s what I started doing on the Route 20 trip, and even on the latest trip I went on, I’ll trade a few books for a place to sleep at night. People are still pretty good out there, and interested in stories about life – and there’s stories to hear from people out there as well.

TFG: What, or who, inspired you to take that first drive along Route 20? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?

20 Days on Route 20 by Michael CzarneckiMC: My car broke down in 1996 and I had to hitchhike to get to the school I was working at. So I put my thumb out and [being in town] someone knew me and gave me a ride. But the next morning, when I was hitching again–I hadn’t hitchhiked for a number of years and I realized that it was the 25th anniversary of when I bought my backpack, tent and sleeping bag–I felt I should do something to commemorate that time.

A few weeks later I was driving on Route 20, (and I knew 20 goes to Boston), but as I was driving I thought, “I think 20 goes all the way to the West coast,” but I wasn’t sure. I immediately thought I’ll go West for the first time – 20 days on Route 20, and that would be the event to commemorate the anniversary of my hitchhiking. I got home and pulled out the atlas right away, and sure enough – traced 20, paralleling 90 to Chicago, and Dubuque and the Mississippi River, Sioux City, Missouri, Nebraska, Cody, Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, all the way out to Newport, Oregon, and I thought, I was going to do it.

That was the first time that I went away from home as a poet – (I mean away from home, like more than 200 miles). It was a life-changing event for me at middle-age, as much as hitchhiking was for me as a young adult. And since then I’ve gone on a lot of purposeful journeys across America – Route 2 across Maine, eventually all the way out to Washington, Route 62 from Niagara Falls to El Paso, Texas. I spent another thirty days traveling down the Mississippi River from Minnesota all the way down to the Gulf, as far as you can drive. It’s in my blood. It goes back to my hitchhiking days. I try to do these journeys once or twice a year.

TFG: Through your website I’ve read about your travels and looked at your pictures. Your poetry chronicling your experiences matches the beauty of your photographs. I’m sure you’ve come across a thousand memorable sights, but I’ve got to ask – is there any experience, person or place that sticks out to you in particular?

MC: How many days do you have to talk to me? [Laughs] First off, just thinking geographically, I think any place is fascinating, for at least a little while. And there are certainly some places that you know are special and are more meaningful for you than others. One of those places, (which has nothing to do with Route 20) for me, is Acadia National Park up in Maine. I showed up in Acadia my first year hitchhiking and I call it my spiritual home. It’s a place I have to go to every year. It’s just one of those places that if I don’t get there in a year, something’s missing from my life.

And the Adirondacks are a special area for me too. Mountains are. Mountains and ocean. And another place I’ve recently been drawn to is New Orleans. And that’s scary to me because I’m not a city person, but New Orleans is fascinating. I’ve been down there twice now giving readings and the people and the city are just great. I didn’t know New Orleans before Katrina, but certainly my experience since then, the last couple of years has been wonderful.

And then you mentioned people too – one of the things I love about what I do, besides the traveling, is the people I’ve connected with – meeting old friends, making new ones. There are so many good people around in the world. I could never tire from going out and traveling and meeting people. Doing the readings and programs I do, you connect with creative folk. Sometimes it’s a small turnout and sometimes it’s a large turnout. Even a poetry reading with three people in the audience can be pretty special.

TFG: Let’s talk about the Haibun form. You use it often, and I’ve never heard of it until I read your work. The form and its rules seem to be a complex, yet very organic process. (The range of Haibun is broad, but at its core is basically prose paired with a haiku). What does the Haibun form mean to you as a means of expression?

MC: For me, I learned of Haibun back in the 70s reading about Basho and his travels and I loved the form especially since it was related to travel. I never used it before I did the Route 20 trip, but I knew that I would write a book in Haibun form, and it works perfectly. It’s such a great form for travel writing. And it is real intriguing, because a lot of people still aren’t familiar with the form. The prose sort of moves you along, and the haiku is this sort of resting spot. So it’s like you move, and then you stop.

I write a lot of haiku as well, just separately from the haibun connection and a haiku is a poem in the moment, an experience of now – and so, as you’re traveling, the haiku grounds you to an experience. And for me I’ve written a lot of haibuns since my first Route 20 travel. I recently was just on a 20-day Western journey and I wanted to write one haibun for each day. Each haibun sort of speaks for each experience…haibun is a wonderful way of capturing an experience, but it’s a little more than just a narrative piece. It’s hard to describe it exactly – it’s different than prose too, it’s condensed prose…My favorite definition of poetry is: real simple words under pressure.

TFG: I don’t write much poetry, but your definition is dead on. Speaking of Basho, what other poets/authors have influenced your work?

MC: In the Route 20 Workshop, I start out with two pictures that aren’t of Route 20 –they’re from Walden Pond. I realized that first time, when I left (from Boston), I knew I would go right by Walden Pond and I just had to stop and check it out, because Henry David Thoreau has been such an influence on my life. And there are two quotes of his that I quote in the program right in the beginning, that I first read in high school – the first one is, “If you’ve been building castles in the air, fine, that’s where they belong. Now put the foundations under them” and “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unequaled in common hours.”

TFG: I’m a really big admirer of Thoreau as well. What a powerful way to begin your program.

MC: Yeah, and [those quotes] changed my life. I knew when I read them in high school, that this was important, and I’ve always been a dreamer. And fortunately, a number of the dreams have turned out. I’m not just a dreamer; I’ve tried to build some foundations under them.

TFG: You’ve been quoted as saying, “Sometimes I think that the most important thing we do in our lives is to create–whether poems, stories, artwork, music, children or love.” And you also identify yourself as an encourager–what advice do you have for people out there trying to find their own creative voice?

MC: Listen to the voice inside. Listen to your heart – if we all really listen to what our insides are telling us, we will know what we should be doing. It can be complicated, because you also have to be able to make a living and it’s tough. Maybe you don’t do what I did and quit the other work just to do your creative work, but I think it’s sad if you have this creative interest and you don’t pursue it and you put it aside because the rest of life is too busy. What I tell writers from my workshops – one of the tips I have is, saying you don’t have enough time is just an excuse – it’s what you do with your time. Everyone can find a little bit of time every week to create – whether it’s food or art. Make a special meal if you like cooking, make something totally from scratch! We all have some area that we’re good at in terms of creativity. Just make some time for it in your life and I think you’ll lead a much more balanced life then.

Click here for more info about Michael Czarnecki’s travels and poetry.

Click here for more info regarding Michael Czarnecki’s November 5th lecture at the Guilderland Public Library.

Aubree Cutkomp is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.





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