This Thing Called Courage

Monday, October 20, 2008

Rhthyms of the Road

(This is from today's Boston Globe)

CAMBRIDGE - Cowboy poets may have been the first to pair chaps with literary ambition, writing rhymed verse about lonely horizons and broken-down Western towns. But now they are being joined by men and women who ride Harleys instead of horses, and who pen tributes to the open road rather than the open range.
Loud and Proud straightpipes
Illegal the police say
I don't hear a word
That's a "baiku," something like a haiku, and it's by biker poet Jose Gouveia, a 45-year-old Hyannis resident who rides a red 1991 Harley-Davidson Low Rider FXRS, a bike whose rumbling arrival you feel in your chest.
"When people hear that word 'biker,' they have a certain preconceived notion of what a biker is going to be, and I'm aware of that," he says. "It pushes me all the more to give them something that they're not expecting."
Gouveia smiles frequently, curses liberally, and works construction. He also holds a master's in fine arts in poetry from New England College and just finished editing a collection of biker poetry called "Rubber Side Down."
He knows biker poets don't quite fit anywhere - not among other poets, who turn up their noses, and not among bikers, who don't understand the particular rush that comes with writing a well-crafted line. But the book - which gets its name from a biker's farewell, "Keep the rubber side down" (in other words, explains Gouveia, "Don't tip the bike over, fool") -"kind of legitimizes who we are."
On a recent Monday, Gouveia and five other of the book's 44 contributors gathered in Cambridge to read at Club Passim, the famed folk music venue. Before a small audience of mostly friends and family, they took turns reciting poems about tattoos and grief, heroin and love, George W. Bush and dissent.
J. Barrett Wolf, a bearded and bandana-ed New Yorker who rode six hours to get here, reads from "Appendage Police."
The appendage police came the other day and threatened to confiscate my hands.
They said I was writing subversive songs and anti-status-quo articles and screw-the-system poetry.
"There are people who have a lot of trouble putting 'biker' and 'poet' in any given sentence," says Wolf, whose bike is a shiny green-and-black beauty with custom seats and a license plate that reads RDPOET. "My job and the job of folks in this club is to show that poetry is not what you learned in junior high school."
It can be, instead, what you learned on the road.
Like Gouveia, Wolf is a member of the Highway Poets Motorcycle Club, founded in Cambridge in 1990 by a group of men and women with as much fondness for meter and metaphor as for chrome and smooth-running engines.
"I had always wanted to be in a motorcycle club . . . however, a fair number of the people in motorcycle clubs weren't the sort of folks I wanted to spend time with," says Wolf, who once traded a muffler for a dictionary. "Then I met motorcyclists who write, and I was home."
To join the club, you have to publish your writing at least three times a year - and you have to own a bike. Marc Goldfinger, a 62-year-old drug counselor, joined in 1994. But he couldn't ride his 1957 Honda Rebel until 2002, when he got his driver's license back after decades of heroin addiction and off-and-on homelessness.
"I lost everything I had," says the former editor of Spare Change News, the Boston newspaper published and sold to benefit the homeless.
Goldfinger, who wears earrings and long hair, speaks softly until he climbs on stage. "This is a true story," he tells the audience, and then his voice sharpens as he launches into a long poem about addiction and recovery that the Jeff Robinson Trio, a Boston-based jazz group, used as lyrics for a song on a 1998 album, "Getting Fixed."
The lone woman poet reading at Passim is Betsy Lister, who wears a gray "Harley Rules!" tank top that shows off an impressive pair of triceps. She recently failed to keep the rubber side down and now has the crutches to show for it.
My wild younger days
are catching up with me
I done gone way past
the age of 53
I'm about as washed up
as a woman could be
But I put on a smile, a smile outside
Cuz I gotta do what I got to, to ride!
Kay Ryan is the current national Poet Laureate, but she's got nothing on K. Peddlar Bridges, who has served as biker poet laureate at Connecticut Bike Week and at the Connecticut Super Sunday Expo. Boasting a wild gray beard and a Harvard patch sewn onto his leather vest - he is a proud graduate of Harvard University Extension School - Bridges is the picture of contradiction. He reads from his poem "Bikers," accelerating as he goes:
When it comes to life
We're all just passing through
So you might as well enjoy the ride
Just as there is a national Poet Laureate, there is a National Poetry Month, and they are equally irrelevant to biker poets. April, poetry month according to librarians, is far too cold and wet for riding in New England. Bikers prefer August for its reliably decent weather and have squeezed more than 20 poetry reading events into that month in each of the last several years.
'Cause you know the truth
We're all just passing through
And heaven is just one more gear up.


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