There is a scene in Vagabond Song where writer Marc Beaudin has to spend some time with a wealthy, inept, American journalist wannabe in Tapachula, Mexico. The journalist is there, allegedly, to report on the Zapatistas, whom I would describe, in the grossest of oversimplifications, as a group of Mexican revolutionaries. But this journalist doesn't seem interested in going anywhere near the Zapatistas or talking to people who may know anything about them. He doesn't speak Spanish and thinks using an interpreter would just be a waste of time. About all he wants to do is visit Izapa, a small, nearby site of Mayan ruins. Beaudin accompanies him, if only to get him to pay the bus fare. When the visit concludes, Beaudin writes, "Somehow he survives and, fortunately for all of us, he soon returns to the States with his souvenirs and rolls of film and nothing at all to write about. In fact, his entire existence has been reduced to a brief scene as a clown in an unpublishable book by an unknown poet. Serves him right."
I got a chuckle from that second-to-the-last sentence. That I'm holding Vagabond Song: Neo-Haibun from the Peregrine Journals in my hand is proof that the book is indeed publishable. Then again, it is from Elk River Books, the imprint of the Livingston bookstore that bears the same name, and of which Marc Beaudin happens to be co-owner. So, while Beaudin's statement maybe was a bit prescient, I don't care who ultimately published his book. I'm just pleased to have the opportunity to read it.
Beaudin is originally from Michigan and before settling into a remote writing cabin along the Yellowstone River in Livingston, he spent a couple decades post-college traveling all over the United States, as well as long periods in Mexico and Central America. Some of this traveling was via near-broken automobiles. Most of it was via the dying art of hitchhiking. Vagabond Song found its genesis in those travels, literally, through the journals Beaudin kept along the way.
The book takes an inspiring approach as a combination travelogue, memoir and collection of poetry. Beaudin's poems, many of which have seen previous life in various poetry journals, are interspersed throughout the narrative. Sometimes they serve as interludes between sections and sometimes they follow a scene in which he initially describes the event that inspired the poem in the first place. I appreciate the intimacy—and immediacy—that approach lends to the reading.
Hitting the road with no money and counting on the kindness of kindred spirits is a risk Beaudin seemed happy to take. Those odd characters he meets along the way keep the stories interesting beyond the thrill of the quest to find the next meal and the next place to crash. He describes those magical people, who seem to appear at just the perfect possible time, as "vagabond angels." Most he meets only once before they are on their way. Others, like a farmer-turned-truck driver named Clyde, he ends up seeing multiple times. They all have their own stories, which Beaudin relates—some sad, some with just a hint of lunacy.
Beaudin employs dry wit throughout the book. He isn't above poking fun at himself or at like-minded folks he encounters. Describing a dilapidated attic space he inhabited for a time in a house full of musicians, he quips, "It is a sad state of affairs when drummers are given better accommodations than poets, but such was life in those dark days." However, Beaudin is just as willing to aim his pen at things he disdains. That list clearly includes interstate highways, meddling "peace" officers and soulless cities.
I wish more publishers, particularly the big ones, would pay closer attention to books like Vagabond Song. It's not memoir, it's not an essay collection and it isn't a book of poetry, and publishers seem to prefer to separate all of those so that they occupy their own neat little sections of the bookstore. Yet Vagabond Song is all of those books at once, the result making it special and something that is more than just a sum of its parts. I'd like to see other collections like it from folks as interesting as Beaudin.
Marc Beaudin reads from Vagabond Song at Fact & Fiction Wed., April 13, at 7 PM.