Dallas Morning News: Ben Fountain on Robert Trammell

Sunday Essay: Dallas poet Robert Trammell marched to his own meter 

By BEN FOUNTAIN / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Published: 31 July 2010 10:19 AM

Robert Trammell, Dallas poet, died in May 2006 of cholangiocarcinoma, vulgarly known as cancer of the bile duct. That, at least, was the official cause of death. Some who knew Bob suspect that cancer was merely the proxy for the disease that actually killed him, the same disease that has been known to kill American writers and artists (and a great many others, too) – anxiety over money.

Bob was that rarest of contemporary creatures, an independent poet. He made his career outside of academia, with scant, intermittent support from the public and private arts institutions that help to sustain a handful of writers in the United States. To function without that official validation – to live off the rez, as Bob saw it – a writer has to have a strong sense of himself, and Bob had that essential knowledge by the truckload. Tall, lean, bearded, his long hair usually braided or cuffed in a ponytail, Bob would have fit right in at a Hell’s Angels convention, but he was a wild man of an entirely different order, a renegade who went looking for truth.

We Came Out of the Night

made the left at Rocksprings

and hit the South Texas heat

wave in a ’49 Mercury, lowered with skirts

&leadedin front hood, roll’d & pleat’d & built

for fast trips to the border. It was black.

Outside Del Rio the air shimmers white

shattered into pastel & red afterimages.

The heat decides everything. Suspends

thought. Cactus dominate.

“We Came Out of the Night,” from No Evidence (2001)

The outlines of his biography are standard enough: born 1939 in Dallas, raised in Dallas and East Texas, graduated from Woodrow Wilson High and SMU. His Texas roots reached back five generations, and among his ancestors he counted cotton planters and speculators, circuit-riding preachers, and one Nicholas Trammell, a.k.a. “Hot Horse,” who ran horses of suspect provenance for Jean Lafitte along a trail eventually known as Trammell’s Trace. Bob planned to go to law school, but a different vocation beckoned in the form of what the novelist Gore Vidal has called “the curse” – the irresistible compulsion to write.

“Of all the insane things to do,” Bob once said. “To be a poet in Dallas.”

He had as much desire as anyone for money, status, professional standing and the pleasures that might be lumped under the catch-all category of “the good life.” He had a dude’s taste for fancy boots and urban-cowboy clothes. Cars were a lifelong fetish, his aesthetic firmly grounded in the styles of the ’40s and ’50s. As far as material desires go, he was a rock-solid 20th-century American citizen, and certainly no less so for being from Dallas, which may be the most American of all American places in its allegiance to the virtues of consumer culture.

But that other thing, the compulsion, that was stronger. To do the kind of work he wanted to do, Bob had to turn his back on most of the things that this society wants us to want. One could go even further and argue that by aspiring to do serious writing, Bob placed himself in opposition to mainstream society, a society in which the existential question – how am I supposed to live my life? – is essentially an economic question, a matter of justifying one’s existence based largely on the money one makes and the things one owns. To be a poet is to chart a different course entirely, where developing a certain cast of mind – the moral imagination, one might call it – takes precedence over economic self-justification. You read certain books and seek out certain works of art. You commit to acquiring rigorous powers of reasoning, inquiry and critical analysis, the ability to see things for what they are, not just the surfaces but what’s below and behind.

To be the kind of poet Bob set out to be, he had to achieve an independence of mind that would free him from accepting at face value the things we’re told by our government, our corporations, our media, our bosses.

as I hear it now in the fire

in my head

out there.

at night, in the cold, as some

people hear other places, summer.

I can hear

the deepest part of their song.

not the crescendo cranking up

attack but the heart of

the song when all the

world vibrates with cicada


I turn up the fire.

“c.7,” from Cicada (1993)

It makes for a scrambling sort of life, the poetic vocation. The best literary magazines pay a dollar a line, and most poets consider 10 lines to be a good day. To keep body and soul together, Bob winged his way through an eclectic career that included stints as warehouse manager, cabdriver, insurance adjuster, DJ, staff writer for a jazz magazine, hack writer for a magazine conglomerate in New York City, counselor at a home for boys, arts advocate, bookstore clerk, grocery stocker. Whatever it took. A job was something Bob did to support his writing habit, the main consideration always being whether the job would leave him sufficient hours to get his writing done.

There are no pensions for independent poets, no 401(k)s, no employer-funded health benefits. Being a freelance poet in America is to be the societal equivalent of a crustacean without a shell. Bob knew that if he’d gone a more conventional route, he had the abilities to be a success as it’s defined in Dallas – financial security, the big house, all the toys and goodies and stuff – but he was after bigger game, the original shock and awe of truth and beauty. For this he had to live his entire life as a gamble, and there’s a terrible thrill in that.

The day-to-day work of learning to write is punishing. It takes discipline, endurance, concentration, dedication to a long apprenticeship with no guarantee of success. But by the same token it’s a powerful way to live, because it demands nothing less than complete engagement in life. No poet ever wrote a decent line by phoning it in. The good poems require a surgeon’s focus and a physicist’s clarity of mind, plus a cardsharp’s gut feel for the play, but poetry is harder than all of these, because the variables are infinite, and the mystery of being human has no bounds.

Poetry is the work of comprehending human experience through the deliberate and maddeningly difficult labor of finding language equal to the experience. But why bother, especially in Dallas, which has everything? Why even bother to read anymore, much less write? In a society saturated with “media,” with movies on demand, cable and satellite TV, the Internet, iPhones, iPads, texts, tweets, downloadable music from virtually every era and culture, why mess with that old-economy artifact, the book? We have so many other sources besides books these days that we can look to for entertainment and information, and in any case, the content found in books is surely too slow, too quiet for our restless appetites. The profession of poet seems hopelessly obsolete, the old work of trying to describe human existence in all its complexity, with all its confusions and ambiguities.

These days we get what we need from the screen; that is we think we do until we’re hit with a genuine crisis in our lives, the kind of tragedy that leads us to ask Why? but has no clear answer. Crises in marriage, crises with children, sickness, death, economic disaster or perhaps a collective trauma such as occurred on Sept. 11 almost nine years ago – in other words, the hard stuff of life as it’s actually lived.

To look reality in the face and not blink, that’s the poets’ job. There are times in our lives when their unflinching vision is as close to comfort and understanding as we’re ever going to get.

Bob wrote, always. His work appeared in more than 200 magazines, and he published over a dozen books of poetry. Love and lust were constant themes –

He sat down his beer at 3 in the morning

and asked how she got those knife cuts

across her breast. She answered I did it

myself. He asks her to spend the night,

putting down the bottle. She says Yes

&shows him the rest of her scars.

By morning they both have fresh ones.

“He Sat Down,” from Things That Hammer, Things That Cut (2001)

and family –

One swing,

after the fight,

and the ax bit deep

into the upended

oak log leaving

enough of a cut

to fit a wedge in.

Another swing with the maul drove

it deep, deeper until

he felt it shatter her heart

into sticks of firewood that the boy

took into the house to build a fire with.

“Marriage,” from Things That Hammer, Things That Cut

And, of course, Dallas. He found much to push against in a city that encompassed, as he’d cheerfully point out, an Arts District with no artists, large numbers of multimillionaires and chronically broke public schools, and grand plans to build a billion-dollar toll road BETWEEN the LEVEES, where it’s SUPPOSED to FLOOD, duh! He turned the yard of his house on Mecca Street into a mini-version of the Big Thicket; when city inspectors threatened with fines, he led them on a walking tour of the yard and named off every bramble, bush, vine, grass, weed and bamboo type. The code inspectors relented, and Bob wrote a poem, of course.

if it were French

sauvagerie, pillowcase

lions with soft golden tresses,

unicorns and what we do

with Hollywood myths, languishing

man. They were not ready

for all the damn work.

Say I let my city yard

go for two years. Plants

will blow in, plants that

have slept in the earth for

centuries, the memory of

plants haunts, invades the place.

“In the Woods,” from Cherokee Book 2 (2001)

Bob insisted that pushing poetry into the public realm was part of his job. “I want to show the people of Dallas that they have more alternatives than being a banker or developer,” he once said, and whether the people of Dallas wanted it or not, he showed them. For several years he published a magazine called Hot Flashes. His wind panels can be seen at the Lovers Lane DART station, and with his wife, Adrienne, he co-founded the nonprofit arts organization WordSpace, which continues in operation to this day. His Barnburner Press supported several local writers, and the arts festivals he organized from the 1970s until his death were anarchic mash-ups of theater, music, dance, poetry and fiction.

He brought James Kelman to Dallas all the way from Scotland, LeAnne Howe from Minnesota, Ray Wylie Hubbard from off the road, and ancient survivors of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys out of retirement. He brought the poet and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu to Dallas for an event; that evening, the Romanian-born poet and master of sardonic lyricism could be found on the roof of the Trammell house with Bob and Adrienne’s son Clinton, the two of them eating mulberries straight off of Bob’s tree.

Bob wasn’t in it for the money, because God knows there wasn’t much. He did what he did for the most useful and honorable of reasons: for devotion to art; for dedication to clear seeing and thinking; for the enlightenment that language properly used offers us. Contrast that with our daily diet of media saturation, the “feed” that’s mostly advertising of one form or another, somebody trying to sell us a product, a lifestyle, a political agenda. Developing, and keeping, the fierce independence of mind that Bob Trammell cultivated seems to take more effort with each passing year. Why bother, we might ask. Why not just give ourselves over to the easy life of letting others do our seeing and thinking for us, an attractive proposition, perhaps, until we start to consider the stakes.

What is our independence of mind worth? Every July Fourth, Veterans Day and Memorial Day, little flags are placed at all the gravestones in our military cemeteries, and politicians speak to the sacrifice of the American war dead, but perhaps we should question the wisdom of trusting politicians to speak for the dead. Birds sing, girls dance and politicians spin: This is no less than the nature of things. Perhaps we would be better served if speaking on such occasions were left to the poets, those among us of genuinely independent mind who’ve devoted their lives to clear seeing and thinking, to finding the language that’s true to experience. Perhaps, in the end, we wouldn’t have as many war dead to mourn. It’s hard to imagine that the poets could do any worse.

The Hole

that Sputnik punched in the sky

dreams of invasion. We could feel

the paranoia, we could hear the music. The music won.

from Jack Ruby and the Origins of the Avant-Garde in Dallas (2001)

Dallas resident Ben Fountain is the author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (Stories), which won the 2007 PEN/Hemingway prize; a contributor to The New York Times and This American Life; and a past president of the board of directors of WordSpace. All selections from Robert Trammell’s work reprinted with permission of Barnburner Press.In this essay, Ben Fountain looks at one of Dallas’ legendary independent spirits and challenges us to learn from his approach to living.


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