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Creature of habit

Poet David E. Thomas finds his daily zen



Victor Hugo wrote in the nude. William Blake wrote only when the spirits commanded him. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maya Angelou has reportedly had the same habit for years: checking into a bare-walled hotel room with a Roget's Thesaurus, a Bible and a bottle of sherry. For Missoula poet David E. Thomas, ritual is a weeklong affair, which always involves spending some time at Charlie B's bar. Every weekday morning he heads down to the local watering hole, which is known to host writing veterans as well as a good mix of local characters and college kids.

"That's kind of how I get started on the day," Thomas says. "I walk across the bridge and it usually gets me woken up and then I read the paper, which doesn't give me much but every once in a while I might find something out. And I just kind of hang around, see who survived the night, you know?"

Thomas says weekends are for relaxing and catching up with friends. He spends Friday nights at Charlie's drinking beer with his pals, and he usually heads down there again on Saturday afternoons during football season to watch the Grizzlies play.

"We like to sit around there and moan and groan and cheer," he says. "I usually hang out until I'm tired and then I go home. Sunday I sit around and read a mystery novel and then I get my head back into writing again. And that's what I do."

Thomas, 63, is part of a generation of straight-shooting Missoula artists that famously included crime novelist James Crum-ley and printmaker Jay Rummel, among many others. Thomas' most famous poem, "The Ten Thousand Things," was anthologized in The Last Best Place and read by Garrison Keillor in 1995 on the National Public Radio show "The Writer's Almanac." He's had four books of poems published including his latest, Waterworks Hill, which is part of a Montana Poets Series published by New York editor Craig Czury. It's not so different in style from his last three—Fossil Fuel, Buck's Last Wreck and The Hellgate Wind—except for its abundance of elegies.

"I think there's more dead people in this one," he says. "I find myself doing that kind of writing as I get older because people keep dying on me. But to offset that I like to get out and walk around and see what's going on around town, get up on Mt. Jumbo, Mt. Sentinel, Waterworks Hill, keep my legs in shape a little bit. I don't know how long I'll live, but I figure I might as well stay in some kind of shape as long as I can."

Thomas was born in Havre and raised in Chinook. He came to Missoula and the University of Montana in 1965 on an army scholarship to be an ROTC cadet, but the Vietnam War changed his mind.

Longtime local poet David E. Thomas recently published Waterworks Hill, a book of poems mapping his decades of experiences living in Missoula. In “Poem for Debby,” for instance, Thomas writes about the Top Hat and Lee Nye’s portraits of bar patrons now covering the walls at Charlie B’s. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Longtime local poet David E. Thomas recently published Waterworks Hill, a book of poems mapping his decades of experiences living in Missoula. In “Poem for Debby,” for instance, Thomas writes about the Top Hat and Lee Nye’s portraits of bar patrons now covering the walls at Charlie B’s.

"The longer I was at it the less I felt like doing that," Thomas say. "I had a harder and harder time believing in the Vietnam War. I don't think [the ROTC program] was all that sad to see me go. We both got a little disillusioned with each other."

Thomas drifted into life as a hippie, finally convincing his draft board that he was a conscientious objector. He spent time at places like Eddie's Club (now Charlie's), which, he says, was a cross-section of hippies—musicians, writers and artists—and blue-collar workers. After his buddies began getting blue-collar jobs, he took on a series of labor jobs including laying railroad with a tie gang in Paradise (only lasting a week, he admits) and working on the Libby Dam, during which time he wrote "The Ten Thousand Things," about all the things a common laborer must keep track of.

Over the years, his time at bars like Charlie's has dwindled.

"I just about used to live in there," he says. "I had to sort of curtail my time when I realized I couldn't drink as much as I was. I've watched enough people drink themselves to death that it's kind of lost its glamour over the years."

Thomas has a Zen quality about him. It's an approach to writing that, along with other routines, helps him keep on track with his writing.

"I've kind of drifted into Buddhism, even though I don't seriously practice it," he says. "The sitting still, detaching yourself and reassessing your desire, living your life without getting snarled up in it."

Still, it's not just his attitude, it's his ritual of walking around town (he's never owned a car) that keep the themes of his work constant. The poems in Waterworks Hill often focus on the natural world: He writes about the Milk River, cedar waxwings drunk on berries and Glacier Park. It also has an urban streak, set firmly in Missoula. In "Poem for Debby," Thom-as writes about the Top Hat, Lee Nye's portraits of bar patrons now covering the walls at Charlie's, country pickers, biker chiefs and "Higgins Avenue traffic, wild and noisy with lust."

Perhaps most striking about the book is how populated it is with the people of Thomas' life, some of whom happen to be essential characters to local culture. The elegies include tributes to renowned artist Rudy Autio and Butterfly Herbs' founder Bruce Lee. But there are also dedications to his parents, and to friends who are still alive and well, including writers Mark Gibbons, Ed Lahey, and Roger Dunsmore. The drawing on the cover is a portrait sketch of Thomas by artist and good friend Dirk Lee. It's called "David Thomas Listening" and it captures Thomas with his characteristic long beard, long ponytail and glasses, leaning against a table with his head slightly tilted.

Considering all his experiences and the people populating his life so far, Thomas' most recent project of writing his memoirs seems ambitious. So far he's working on the part where he meets artist Jay Rummel. But as it turns out, it might take some time to get there.

"I started writing about Rummel right after he died," says Thomas. "I thought I'd probably better get into a little more background about how I got to know him."

He stops and laughs.

"But 400 some pages in, I still haven't met him yet," he says.

David E. Thomas reads from Waterworks Hill at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 7 PM. Free.


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