It wasn’t until after I had published my first two novels that I realized: (1) People think my hero is me; (2) People think that most of the events in my novels actually happened to me.
For example, because Frank Dragovic, the protagonist of Dirty Proof, states that he doesn’t like pizza for breakfast, all kinds of people have come up to me and said something akin to: “What’s wrong with you? Pizza for breakfast is delicious!”
There’s nothing wrong with me. I happen to love pizza for breakfast. It’s a character in my book who doesn’t like it. That character is somebody I created. I gave him some of my likes and dislikes, some of other people’s likes and dislikes. In fact, to make myself work harder to develop his character, I made sure he wasn’t identical to me. Likewise for other characters, major and minor: I feel free to have them live events that happened to me, and I feel even more free to invent for them their own events.
In the poem below, which I wrote in 2010-11, some of the events happened to me, and some didn’t. I’ll explain after the poem itself.
Crossing the Skyway: 1968
The Greyhound drones, Madison to Cleveland,
ferrying the poor, a few of them students destined
to demonstrate against the state-spawned war, fewer
thinking about French students on strike, fewest conjugating
French verbs for practice. Laboring toward the Skyway,
clever construct of Mayor Daley to circumvent laws
prohibiting toll bridges on land, the bus lurches
up the long, high arc of roadway. Belching black smoke
it slows, jolts, stops. In the back a wraith-like stranger
in worn denims and cowboy boots looks up from the marks
he’s been carving into his saddlebag and summarizes:
This animal done staggered.
The hindered and jostled board a replacement and continue
to their destination, as does the state continue to wage war,
not just that war, but more wars, repeats of wars, wars
that were, wars that are, wars to come. L’etat, c’est maw.
Despite its Vietnam defeat, despite race rebellions,
despite assassinations, the state survives, cruising
its own skyway, declaring the good life for all.
But the century turns and the bus begins to lurch —
capacity overloaded with cluster bombs, war planes,
battleships; engine clogged with devalued currency,
costly bailouts, bankruptcies; tires blown by unemployment
and homelessness. The skyway, too, is crumbling, potholes
more than roadway, and as the black smoke of human misery
spews out the bus sides, a specter awakens, pulls a dusty
Marx from his saddlebag and repeats: This animal done staggered.
How much of this poem actually happened? My bus ride from Madison to Cleveland happened. My fellow riders were students and working class. Some were indeed going to a place where they could take a bus to Washington DC to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland to join friends and together we would take one of the antiwar-rally busses to DC.
The Greyhound did indeed break down on the Chicago Skyway, exactly like my poem describes it. In the back of the bus was a man dressed in a cowboy shirt and jeans and cowboy books. He had with him some sort of leather satchel that looked like a saddlebag, though I’m not certain it was. He did indeed utter, This animal done staggered.
You can see why such an event would imprint itself on my mind. It stayed with me, and eventually it came out as a poem.
How much of this poem didn’t happen? Well, the bus I was riding broke down in 1965, but in the poem I changed the date to 1968. Why? Because by 1968 the war had intensified, with President Johnson sending more and more American troops to try to quell the Vietnamese liberation struggle. By 1968 more and more students and others were protesting the war. In May of 1968 French students rose up in rebellion against capitalism; French workers staged general strikes. In the poem I wanted to tie the US protests against the war to world-wide events: hence the 1968 date
The cowboy-type character in the back of the bus was not carving marks into his saddlebags (at least not that I was aware). But I wanted an allusion to Karl Marx and to his famous statement that “a spectre is haunting Europe” (hence I made the stranger wraith-like). For Marx, that specter was communism. It was the specter of an economic system yet to be born.
When the event of crossing the skyway on a doomed bus happened to me, it was finite: it occurred, a replacement bus was sent, and the event was over with. But in the poem I move from the skyway event through the next forty years, ending in the awakening of the forgotten, dormant, wraith-like stranger who now, instead of making marks, pulls Marx out of his saddlebags, offering to the world once again the analysis that capitalism has not only outlived its usefulness, but has dragged us all downward, downward into unemployment, poverty, and war.
In poetry and in fiction, writers use what they need (from what really happened) and invent the rest — in order to tell the particular story they want to tell.
“Crossing the Skyway” is the title poem in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.