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Writing on the Train. Romance of the Rails. Amtrak to Offer Writer's Residencies

Old workshop and grad school buddy, poet, author, father, ale drinker, and quip master--Eric McHenry posted on this Facebook this week: Inside Amtrak's (Absolutely Awesome Plan to Give Free Rides to Authors) but I didn't get around to until Sunday, when March, my wife and compatriot, nudged me into actually reading it.

It's a smashing idea, of course, and the old brain started to scheme and plot, plan a way to get a ride, test run another leg of the old Amtrak grant! Of course, all to help Amtrak work out the kinks of course! Where would I go? What could I write!?!

Trains and American culture have long been involved. A pair of old lovers who meet after a long spell and enjoy hasty drinks and long greasy sleeps.

George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue after taking a train to Boston--hearing its rhythms and music influenced the syncopated rhythm that he believed defined American music.

One of the most exciting passages in American poetry is about trains, and is smack in the middle of Hart Crane's The Bridge. The poem "The River" opens with the harker's line "Stick your patent name on a signboard /brother--all over--going west--young man...the telegraphic night coming on Thomas//a Ediford--and whistling down the tracks." Crane's poem travels the rails, the river, playing the hobo vagabond music that touched his outsider soul and allowed him to effectively fuse America together, by breath and diction, what only the river or the rails had done before.

And of course Crane was just having a conversation with Walt Whitman about trains, and America. Whitman's own verse fusing together disparate parts of the land, "I see trains of cars swiftly speeding along railroad tracks, drawn by locomotives, I see the stores, depots, drawn of Boston, Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans.."

Music of the rails, the harmonics of gliding on steel.

William Carlos Williams took short train rides into the city frequently, and in the autobiographical (trans)script, I Wanted to write a Poem, Williams briefly touches upon his love of the stage. The lights of Broadway were a short train commute from Rutherford, NJ, and the whole of the experience, the travel, the anticipation, the stage, certainly inspired Williams throughout his career.

With Jason Wheeler, the motorcycle madman of Emrerson, Maastricht, Boston, and environs, I traveled Europe by train and wrote tons of scribble notes, journal details, and pseudo-beat poems on trains.

I saw New York for the first time by Amtrak. It's sprawling juggernaut beginning where the graffiti shoulders the concrete overpass tunnels. The smells of hot air, hot steel, industrial strength cleanser a moth ball to my green lungs.

Trains are great. Heck, where I live grew fat on trains, the tourist spillways used to open from Philly, New York, and Boston, and the Eastern Shore of Virginia would fill up with sportsmen, and wildlife enthusiasts who would travel down to enjoy nature's treasures. Unfortunately, those trains do not run anymore.

If Amtrak were to gift me a residency, I'd hoof it to Wilmington and take a northern route, New York, or Boston, writing and watching, writing and watching. What a great way to experience the country inside and outside yourself.


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