I admit I am an extremely superstitious man, but not about ghosts. And this is not a ghost story. But the back of the house at Clouser and Shady Lane has a vibe. There's no getting around it. I knew Jack and his mother hadn't occupied the whole digs; they'd only lived in the finished porch at the rear of the property. But somehow, this knowledge escaped me as we pulled up to the front of the house. In those first few moments, what my senses gave me was only fresh and unexpected information. So I had no idea why I wanted to be in the back so badly. But I wanted to type on that desk, look out that window, sleep in that bed.
it's why Sarah, her Basset Hound,
Of course I'd read about the Kerouac House, even seen it in pictures, but I was still surprised by the scale of the structure. Sure the roof was cheap and nailed-in tin, but it still looked like a real house, hardly the
abode of a poor boho author and his peculiar mother. Mind you, I'd never seen pictures of the actual living quarters Kerouac and his mother holed out in. There were no shots of it on the Kerouac Project website (those photos were all of the front rooms), and I'd yet to read Bob Kealing's book "Where The Road Ends: Kerouac In Florida," or see the photos Kealing had unearthed of Kerouac in his writing room: at the typewriter, or flipping through his pocket notebooks. But the sloping ceiling, the green-and-white checked linoleum, the stiff train-engineer-striped sheets on the prison-cot-wide bed; it all just felt so right. There was a delectable claustrophobia at work in those rooms, and it was love's nervous addiction at first sight. Not to mention that the 1928 Underwood I'd brought down to work on was nearly identical to the model resting on the shelf to my left as I entered the main room. I can't say the space
felt familiar-there was no déjà vu at work-but it definitely felt, I don't know, appropriate. I don't think I went past the kitchen for the next three weeks, except to use the front door for leaving, which I did very
little of in those first amazing days.
To back up a bit, my name is Christopher Watkins, and I am the Fall 2006 Writer-In-Residence at the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida. By the time you read this, of course, I'll have moved on, gone back to New York, but right now, what this means is that I am living and writing in the house where Jack Kerouac was living when On The Road was published, and where he later wrote The Dharma Bums and his long poem Orlanda Blues. Put another way, and to paraphrase an old girlfriend of Kerouac's, this is the last place Jack Kerouac ever slept unknown. Little did he know that when he paid his Greyhound ticket to New York from Orlando with thirty borrowed dollars, on that fateful day back in 1957, he would return to Florida not as the poor and forgotten author of The Town And The City, but as one of
the more noteworthy, and soon to be most influential, writers in modern American literary history, as well as, much to his eventual regret, dismay, and possible ruination, The Father of the Beat Generation.
It was under the sloping ceiling of this awesome, intimidating, and somewhat frightening legacy that I first sat down to my 1928 Underwood Standard Four-Bank portable manual typewriter to see what I was made of. The first words of the first poem I wrote, on my second day at the house, were "Great," "Uncle," and "Oak," in exactly that order:
Great Uncle Oak,
wisps of grey-green hair
dripping from your cracked brown skin,
what day, what year
does it sound like today?
Who makes that cheeping sound,
and who makes the longer, lower chrill?
Last night, when the wind brushed
a tendril from your sleeve,
it drew across the roof
and I recalled the sounds
of squirrels back home.
The massive, magnificent, tremendous, astonishing, wondrous, breathtaking, stupefying, exalted, spiritually re-calibrating presence of the oak tree in the front yard is inescapable. To say it is alive is a disservice, to anthropomorphize it an insult. To call it God, or the manifestation of, would be ridiculous in the West, obvious in the East. To call it a testament to God, or perhaps the proof thereof, is maybe closer to the median truth, though still grossly inappropriate. This oak tree, forever Great Uncle Oak to me, is part time-traveler, part dinosaur; part bodhisattva, part mountain; part wing, part tail; part Koan, part enlightenment. It is the Bodhi Tree of Orlando. And those wisps of grey-green hair were of course the Spanish Moss:
Spanish Moss. It just
feels good to say it. Spanish
Moss. So beautiful.
(from "Haiku I")
There is a photograph, from 1957, of Kerouac standing in front of this oak tree, and it is an oddly affecting image. Not because Kerouac looks any particular way, but because, in a strange fashion, Great Uncle Oak appears somehow, I don't know, younger.
To settle myself in, I put three different typewriters in three different places in the house; the 20's Underwood on the main desk in the main room in the back of the house, the 30's Remington in my bedroom, which was where Kerouac both wrote and slept, and the 40's Royal in the living room
up front. I could then make my rounds as emotional and creative necessity dictated. And yes, I did manage to force myself up into the front portion of the house to work, though not until more than a month after arriving. The Royal got pretty lonely through those first days and weeks, but then I discovered that I do very well typing out revisions while baseball is on TV. It was the American League Championship Series, the National League Championship Series, and then The World Series. And much as I was genuinely conflicted about being up front, concerned that I was compromising the spirit of the experience, I rationalized it all by telling myself that, as described in Desolation Angels, Kerouac had a
thing for baseball.
Nights at the Kerouac House are the most intense. Being alone, and having nowhere to go, my internal clock has gone all to hell, and I have become far more nocturnal that I could ever afford to be at home. I regularly work the keys of my various typewriters well into the morning hours, often racing the first touches of dawn to see who'll reach my bed-sheets first. I listen to a manic soundtrack of jazz with sturdy compulsion; anything else coming through the speakers bothers me immensely. It is all Miles, Monk, Parker, Mingus, Coltrane, and the rest of the bop/post-bop/hard-bop/cool-bop cadre, all the time. As I twitch, type, and tap my way through stanzas, I flip back and forth between wine and tea, up and down, tea and wine, down and up, folding and unfolding my fingers through whatever I can get down on paper. Each time I finish a draft, I type up a second copy to send home to my wonderful missus Amy. The
original I tape to the wall. By these, my last days in the house, there is very little open wall space left. I suppose you could say I really have been living inside my own brain.
I've lived in a great many rainy places: San Francisco, California, Seattle, Washington, County Clare, Ireland; even Denver, Colorado has amazing big-sky storms. But nothing, and I mean nothing, prepared me for the eardrum shattering, sky-filling spectacle that is a Florida rain squall:
On the roof of the carport across the street,
spatters bounce by the thousands,
moving like beer-sweat on a snare drum,
but looking exactly like skaters on an ice rink
seen from a great squinting distance.
As I marvel at this glinting candle bed
this is the mad pellucid pageant,
a thunderclap smacks
so hard it makes my ears ring.
Now the winds rise,
and shreds of Spanish Moss swing from the oaks-
Nearly every poem I wrote, for as long as the remnants of the summer hurricane season persisted, was laced with references to storms. I am an unapologetically environmental writer, in that I inevitably write about wherever it is I am, and where I often was, was on the porch of the Kerouac House, trying to capture the rain on paper. For the first time in years, I was able to read "Sea," the poem that closes Kerouac's Big Sur, without giggling uncomfortably at what I'd once thought to be the infantile and awkward nonsensicality of his anthropomorphically phonetic prose. But finally, I think I was able to understand what he'd been up to; chasing the grail of the ocean's inner language. For me, it was the rain,
and the holy southern triumvirate of Spanish Moss, Lizards, and Great Uncle Oak.
What else does one write while living in Jack Kerouac's house? Well, for one thing, I have written a lot of Haiku. In fact, I stumbled into sort of a new twist on the form, without quite realizing I'd done so. I'd sent off some Haiku to my good friend the poet Robert Lavett Smith, and he commented on how he'd never seen "Linked Haiku" before. I hadn't intended them to be a unified set of works, but looking back on what I'd sent, it was clear there were associative links running through the pages; some obvious, some obtuse, but always there, and he'd seen it right away. Having had my eyes thus opened to my own essentially unrealized methods, I from then on specifically tried to write "Linked Haiku"; often at the side of either Lake Adair or Lake Ivanhoe, both only blocks from the house. I wrote my tenth set of Linked Haiku just days ago, while sitting at a table on a sidewalk downtown. It includes the following three Haiku:
Far above the tan
buildings, three cranes, looking three
From four directions,
homeless men converge on the
library to bathe.
Two pigeons inspect
a pile of cigarette butts
then move on, hungry.
I have also written quite often about Helen and Sarah. Helen lives across the street with her three-year old Bassett Hound Sarah, as sweet a dog as ever lived. She was actually still two years old when I arrived; she turned three in October. For her birthday, I bought her a box of "healthy" dog snacks called Zen Treats. This seemed somehow appropriate. One evening, while scrolling back through some of the blogs posted online by previous writers who've lived at the Kerouac House, I found an entry about
Helen and Sarah, which I eventually incorporated into a poem (complete with now ubiquitous references to Great Uncle Oak and Spanish Moss):
Lately, I've been preoccupied
with what isn't:
here, around, there.
The air without the Spanish Moss
whirring in it; that part
of the porch where the No-See-Ems
aren't; in between the ridges
running Great Uncle Oak's
I found a letter by a woman
who used to live where I am now...
Today I met the neighbor's dog, an unnaturally short, big-headed, big-pawed and unbelievably
adorable creature known as a basset hound. I was petting her through the fence when her owner
came out, an older woman, who as she proceeded to tell me, had just lost her husband. While the dog killed a chameleon in the lawn, the owner (Helen or Ellen, I can't remember) described to me
how the dog had mourned for her husband, how she was a kind and loving dog, and how she
loved to torture chameleons (which Helen or Ellen pronounced "Camellia," like the flower.)
I know this story too. Helen says
is so fond of me, because she misses
having a man around.
I cup my hand
for her to smell what isn't there:
a husband, a woman, a flower.
(The indented narrative excerpt above is quoted from a blog entry on the Kerouac House of Orlando's MySpace site. It was written by former Writer-In-Residence Carrie Hall.)
Despite my basking in these days and nights at the Kerouac House, I nonetheless miss my home on Long Island intensely; the beautiful curmudgeon horses our landlords stable behind our cottage, the chronic
brogue of the insomniac crickets, the crisp fall air and the warm palette of autumn on the trees, the regimented lines of naked grapevines standing at attention on The North Fork. But I have grown to love being in Orlando as well. The house is truly magical, the nearby lakes idyllic, Great Uncle Oak incomparable. I am especially grateful that my missus could visit, albeit briefly. Her coming to spend some time with me here somehow served to finalize my bond to the house. She is so much a part of me that I couldn’t completely lay my claim to the experience without her having also been moved by these vibey digs. And she was. She is a painter and charcoalist, and unsurprisingly, she couldn't wait to have a go at Great Uncle Oak.
Anyhow, as a conclusion to this essay, I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to my being able to spend such a wonderful three months in this astounding house: my missus Amy, without whose love, patience, and support I couldn't have braved the experience;
Brad, Summer, Marty, Jan, Bob, Charlie, Mike, Kim, and everyone on the various arms of the Kerouac Project Board who offered me the residency, and who have been so supportive during my stay; and the friendship and community of so many writers in Orlando, especially Joseph Reed Hayes and
Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor, and Susan Lilley and Philip Deaver. And I suppose I should even thank Jack Kerouac himself. Not for the presence of his ghost, I've never seen it, but for the vibe he left behind in these rooms; the rooms that he once wrote in, the feeling I'm so fortunate to have now inherited. If, as so many great musicians have suggested, the blues is a feeling, then let me attempt to summarize my time here by quoting the line from which Kerouac's long poem, the one written right where I'm sitting now, takes its name:
"These are Orlanda Blues."
Christopher Watkins is a poet and songwriter. His chapbook "Short Houses With Wide Porches" is forthcoming from Shady Lane Press. His poems are appearing or have appeared in The George Washington Review, Euphony, Talking River, Red Rock Review, and the anthology "In Our Own Words: A Generation Defining Itself" (MWE Press), among others. He was the Fall 2006 writer-in-residence at The Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence Project of Orlando.
As a songwriter, he has released five albums under the name Preacher Boy, and has received a gold record for his songwriting work with Grammy-Winning artist Eagle-Eye Cherry. He currently lives in Port Jefferson, New York.