City Paper is not for tourists
Andy Carroll shoulders a box of books and strides into a classroom in J.O. Wilson Elementary, a public school in Northeast. Thirty-seven second-graders sit cross-legged on the gray linoleum floor and peer at him with open mouths. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, smiling. As the children clear a path for Carroll, their teacher tugs at the blinds; through one cracked window is the Capitol dome. A fan wheezes in the corner of the room, flapping the faded Winnie the Pooh and “I can read” posters. Carroll is here to do his thing: give away books.
Carroll wipes his forehead with his palm, grabs a book, and introduces himself to the class. “Know how when you go to the library you have to give the books back?” he asks the crowd of small faces. “Well, these are all for you to keep.” The children edge toward Carroll until they are tightly packed on the floor. “You guys ready?” he asks.
“Yes,” the children answer in unison.
“You want books?”
“Yes,” they chant, louder.
And then, mayhem. Seventy-four arms grope at Carroll’s pile of books. The floor twitches with activity. The volume rises. The classroom temporarily resembles a sale at Filene’s Basement. “You’re going to get one, I promise,” Carroll calls to a girl just out of arm’s reach, her head dotted with colorful plastic barrettes. Another girl asks a teacher’s aide to read her book aloud, and a cluster of four children listens in. A small boy in a Nike T-shirt with blue rosary beads around his neck tries to balance his new book on his head.
Carroll looks across the teeming, 4-foot-high crowd, grins, and shakes his head. He’s used to such chaoshis life is a busy tangle of events like this one. Carroll, who grew up in Georgetown, is the tireless director of the American Poetry & Literacy (APL) Project, a nonprofit group based here that distributes free books to schools, prisons, supermarkets, and car inspection stations. Carroll, 29, has scattered poetry in the Yellow Pages, in night stands of Doubletree hotel rooms, and, this April, to celebrate National Poetry Month, in the glove compartment of every brand new 1999 Volkswagen.
Last August, Carroll called Volkswagen with the idea of planting a copy of the APL-edited Songs for the Open Road: Poems of Travel and Adventure, in every new VW. “Usually my phone rings with multi-million-dollar deals,” says Clark Campbell, promotions and events manager for Volkswagen, “but this was such a simple request for us.”
Carroll spends his days concocting simple requestsfor grants or for free books from publishers. “Andy always has his own scheme in the works,” says Deborah Baker, editor of Carroll’s book Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters (Broadway, 1997). He schemes for his three causes: literacy, poetry, and letter writing. “He cares about the right things,” says Neal Tonken, Carroll’s former English teacher at the Sidwell Friends School in D.C. “The guy is not a capitalist. He’s an idealist. He’s a romantic.”
Unfortunately, idealists don’t sleep much. Carroll says he works in his cramped Adams Morgan apartment until 5 a.m. every day, and then sleeps only five hours. He is constantly in motion. Even his hair looks windblown. When he talks, he uses his hands as if he’s seizing something invisible. He doesn’t consume sugar, fat, or caffeine. “My friends have used the word ‘freak,’” Carroll admits. He maintains the hyperkinetic whirl of the Tasmanian Devilincessantly making phone calls and dreaming up new ideas. “I just feel like my mind is on fire right now,” he says at one point.
Carroll’s momentum pays off. Next month he’ll ship 4,000 copies of Songs for the Open Road to the Mediterranean for the Navy. When it isn’t National Poetry Month, Carroll works on promoting his other lost cause: letter writing. Last year, he launched a campaign called the Legacy Project to encourage people to write and save letters in the age of e-mail. Last year, to celebrate Valentine’s Day and encourage people to write love letters, Carroll persuaded Amtrak to stock its overnight trains with hundreds of letter-writing kits: Levenger stationery, pens, stamped envelopes, and copies of Letters of a Nation for inspiration.
His finagling of deals with the likes of Amtrak and Volkswagen has required artful ingenuousness. “He presents himself as an ordinary Joe Schmo, and people are charmed by him,” says Baker. With equal ease, she adds, “He can talk to a nightly newscaster or some man or woman on the street.” He’s been on the Late Late Show with Tom Snyder three times, ABC World News Tonight, Fox, and National Public Radio. Even Tom Brokaw refers to him as “Andy” on the evening newswhen NBC called, Carroll told them to call him Andy. “I don’t want to say, ‘Talk to my publicist.’ I want to talk to them, let them understand why this thing means a lot to me,” he says.
Carroll admits he “wasn’t a big poetry person” until he met the late U.S. Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky in 1992 through what he calls “a fortunate conspiracy of events.” At the time, he was a junior majoring in English at Columbia University, where he read one of Brodsky’s speeches about his plan to make poetry “as ubiquitous as nature” and distribute free books to the masses. Intrigued, he wrote to Brodskywhom he knew to be famous, although not just how famousoffering to help with the book giveaway. “I really did it on a whim. I didn’t know who he was; I thought he was a cosmonaut or something,” Carroll said.
Much to Carroll’s surprise, Brodsky wrote back in two weeks. On the way to their first meeting in a Greenwich Village cafe, Carroll stopped in a bookstore and noticed the small print on the cover of one of Brodsky’s books: “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Even so, when they met, Brodsky decided Carroll was the one to help him launch the American Poetry & Literacy Project in 1993. As only a two-man outfit, Carroll and Brodsky convinced Doubletree to place poetry books in its hotel rooms and persuaded phone companies in hundreds of U.S. cities to sprinkle poems in their phone books. Later, they planted poetry books in New York jury waiting rooms and Boston subway stations. When Brodsky died of a heart attack in 1996, Carroll took on the American Poetry & Literacy Project alone, personally handing out books or delivering them in his cluttered hatchback.
Last spring Carroll borrowed a Ryder truck to help him carry out Brodsky’s plan to scatter poetry across the country. “At some point,”
Carroll says, “you’ve got to close the book, and you’ve got to go outside.” A year ago, Carroll closed his books and hit the road in the truck, stuffed with poetry books that he gave away to every American he saw. Some books were donated by publishers such as Knopf and Harcourt Brace, but most of the 100,000 books were paid for by the Washington State Apple Growers, so Carroll’s road trip was named the Great APLseed Giveaway.
As with any road trip, there were a few misadventures. Carroll was frequently lost: He clocked 6,500 miles on the one-way trip across the country. In Nothing, Ariz. (“population four,” Carroll says), a woman asked him why he was giving away free chickens.
“No, not poultry,” Carroll replied. “Poetry.”
After his 33-day trek, Carroll launched the Legacy Project, an outgrowth of having completed Letters of a Nation, which was released in paperback in February. Carroll had begun the project after his family’s home in Georgetown burned down in 1990. “The thing about a fire is that it’s so overwhelming because everything is gone at once,” Carroll says. “You find that the mind can’t take it all in. For months afterwards, I’d be in the supermarket picking out grapes and I’d think, ‘Grandfather’s pocket watch.’ Or the trophy from sixth grade. It’s this weird process, almost like water torture, just drip by drip.”
He missed the letters the most, he realized, so he began working on a book of great American letters. He researched, collected, and paid permissions fees for 200 letters by everyone from Benjamin Franklin to Malcolm X and, in the process, got a crash course in history. “I almost hate the word ‘history’ because it’s so bogged down,” Carroll says. “When I was in school, history was a tedious litany of names, dates, and events. What I realized is that letters in particular can bring these stories alive so that you’re right there,” he said.
Letters of a Nation includes a few epistles that have never been published, including one from a Navajo “code talker,” one of the Native Americans commissioned in World War II by the U.S. Marines to devise a code based on their language for use in secret operations in the Pacific. In another first-published letter, an ambulance driver describes the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The book also includes a letter from Bill Clinton to his Reserve Officers’ Training Corps officer following his avoidance of the draft, a letter from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and an angry letter from a former slave to his master.
“It’s the most democratic art form there is,” Carroll points out, “because anyone can pick up a pen and paper.” In one of his lesser-known masterpieces, a letter to his gas company, Mark Twain uses the word ‘goddamned’ three times in one sentence. Elvis Presley wrote to President Nixon on American Airlines stationery in December 1970, offering his help in the war on drugs. “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse,” Presley wrote, noting that Nixon could contact him at the Washington Hotel, Rooms 505, 506, and 507.
Though Carroll works as an evangelist for literacy, poetry, and letters, he most of all just likes a good story. It’s the stories that matter most, he says, because history is a jumble of stories. “It’s all about human nature. It’s the one mystery that fascinates all of us. And we may not think about it in conscious terms, but it’s the reason why we watch the news and we listen to gossip. In some ways, I think life is just a constant searching for stories.”
When children grope for storybooks, Carroll is there to provide them. In the storm of rapid-fire publicity moves and book giveaways, Carroll seems calm. “I think that the worst thing, aside from boredom, is to think that the world is dead. Consciously, I don’t think many of us would admit to that. But I think subconsciously a lot of us feel that way: that human nature is bad, that the world is this sort of decaying place. And it’s the oppositeit’s the absolute opposite.” CP