- Benjamin Aleshire
Summer in Paris: The Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
photo by Robbie Quinn Photography
A fallen-angel of academe who's crawling back up the ivory tower on his hands and knees, last year I won a poetry prize from the University of New Orleans. But then my mother died and my family and love life was ripped apart. I hid in the mountains of northern California, I hid in the mountains of Quetzaltenango, I hid in plain sight on Calle de Obispo in Havana, writing poems for pastry sellers to give to their girlfriends, and to fat tourists in Panama hats, and to everyone in between.
This summer, I was finally able to use the prize money: I blew it on a plane ticket to Europe, to live penniless with nothing but my typewriter and a change of clothes, and make my way from Montreal to New York to London to Paris to Barcelona and back, accumulating stories for a non-fiction book I'm slowly working on, called POET FOR HIRE. (For a more complete record you can follow my Instagram, where I posted photos and poems and stories almost daily.)
I shivered in the spring Montreal rain and made love inside a 1950's time machine, I hung out with the chessmasters in Union Square and yakked with the bohemians in Village basement bars - I was hounded by the fascist private police force in London and was saved by the kindness of strangers.
But Paris was where I nested, in the rafters of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop on Rue de la Bucherie, Kilometer Zero, where the arrondissements radiate out from the Seine swollen with rain and the Notre Dame clangs celestially on her own strange algorithm: 9:41, 2:37, 12:08. When I arrived the river was higher than in decades, the sky wouldn't stop weeping, the city was rocking with protests and strikes, preparing for the Euro cup tournament and snickering at the impossibility of Brexit.
After a few days in a magical chateau in the suburbs sleeping beneath jaguar skins and blunderbusses mounted on the walls where an eccentric clarinetist friend was housesitting, I finally earned a spot in the bookshop as a 'Tumbleweed' - which is how the original owner George Whitman referred to the wayward writers, artists, intellectuals, and vagabonds who he hosted at his 'Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart' since it opened in 1951. In exchange for a spot on a narrow, suspiciously itchy cushion bench which served as seating during the day for patrons, I worked in the shop a few hours a day shelving books, helping with events, and occasionally working the cash register.
For money, I sat in front of the shop with my typewriter, writing poems for strangers, rain or shine, beneath the awning. By night I prowled the city drinking exquisite cheap wine and reading at the various underground poetry venues like Au Chat Noir, Le Bistro des Artistes, Culture Rapide, the LOFT Sessions, and one night I even snuck onto the bill at a reading for the University of Kent.
I had intended to only stay for a few weeks before hitch hiking to Marseilles, but the lifestyle and the scene in Paris kept me there for a month and a half; it didn't help that I had almost no money. After Sylvia Whitman -- George's angelic daughter and the owner of the bookshop -- commissioned me to write some poems for her friends, she mercifully let me move into her father's old apartment on the 3rd floor. There I had a real bed, a desk, a solid office typewriter, an actual kitchen and bathroom, a library, and a few hours of precious solitude - there was no way I could leave until I absolutely had to, saving just enough money for an overnight bus to Barcelona.
Spain was a hot fever dream: the Barceloneta boardwalks and boulevards and beaches, the cathedrals and labyrinthine streets. But there was no time to dig very deep there - my flight left a few days earlier than I had remembered, and soon I was back in Vermont at the peak of summer.
Vermont is where I was born and bred, and Burlington is where I came of age in the buzzing hedonistic bohemian art scene that makes the town so special. Sometimes it seems like everyone is a musician, a farmer, a poet, an activist, or all of those things simultaneously. After a few years in Louisiana, I still get a bit of culture shock coming back, though (I've never heard so many people talking so inexhaustibly about hoppy beer and juiced kale and their yoga practice). The corn's getting high and it makes me all misty-eyed - old friends, old stomping grounds.
I have just a couple holy weeks here, where I'm switching gears from poet to publisher - every summer I teach an intensive course with writers called Integrated Book Arts, where poets learn how to set lead type, configure layout, and bind books. This year I've been lucky to meet a new friend and fellow printer, John Vincent of A Revolutionary Press, who has kindly let me use his gorgeous studio on his gorgeous property in New Haven, to print the covers for the next two books coming out from Honeybee Press, the publishing cooperative I founded back in 2010.
Then next week I'm off to the Breadloaf Writers' Conference in Ripton, VT, where Robert Frost used to farm - I was awarded one of the coveted scholarships where you also work at the conference as a waiter. Then back down to New Orleans just in time for hurricane season. See you on the street.