March 2, 2014

Why was Bikeman written this way?

The question arises often, why was Bikeman written in this way? 
“Why write it in verse?” I am asked.  “It sounds like poetry to me,” I’ve been asked,  “is that even done any more?”
Well, we’ll start with the question: is it poetry?  The short answer is, yes.  It is in verse. It was in fact written originally as a narrative poem and adapted as a play.
The longer answer starts on the morning of 9/11, 2001. The play (and the original book) tells the story of what happened to me during and just after the collapse of the towers.  But not what followed.
After my escape and my walk with the other survivors out of that hell, I rode my bicycle back to the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street where I worked.  I appeared on the set with Dan Rather recounting the fall of the south tower. It was the first eyewitness account on television.
I then went up to my office. First I washed up a bit (I was still coated in ash and dust).  The next thing, I called home and left a message that I was okay and called my daughter who was at college then. 
Then I wrote up the events of the morning.  If you are at all like me, then you probably forget the details as time passes.  I wanted to get it all down on paper (or in the computer) before I forgot any of it.  What the military calls a data dump.  Nothing fancy, just one recollection after another.
I set aside those pages for some time.  In 2005, I pulled them back out.  I had recently left CBS and now had time to read and write.  I was actually re-reading Dante’s Inferno which I had read in high school.  I remembered it fondly but didn’t remember it well.  So I pulled out my high school copy and began it once again. At that time, I also pulled out those pages of details from the morning of September 11th, having not looked at them for more than three years.  I reviewed the notes and thought about writing the story.  I don’t think I asked myself what form it would take.  That happened because of the unplanned and co-incidental timing of the re-reading of  The Inferno.  Every morning I rode my bicycle for about ten miles. For exercise.  What happened during those morning rides was the two stories began to merge.  I began to tell the story of 9/11 in Dante’s voice…or more accurately, I began to hear the story of 9/11 in Dante’s voice as I rode. After getting home each day, I went directly to the computer and wrote out the lines I had written in my head.  It was in poetry and uses many of the poet’s devises: Metaphor, allusion, rhythm, alliteration and many more that I couldn’t even tell you the names of.  But it was the right way for me to tell what happened.  Take for example the collapse of the south tower and what it looked like. It was a huge cloud of black dust moving quickly from the collapsing structure and headed down and out towards me.  But how to best describe it so that the readers (and now those in the audience) could see it better in their minds.  I have Dante to thank.  He wrote in the first person/present tense.  So do I.  What that does is draw the readers/audience into the story completely.  It becomes their story. And then I used the poetic devices to help give a more vivid description:

It is a boiling brimstone avalanche cascading from the tower, billowing up toward me, a blaspheming wave, a tumbling wall of darkness. It looks as if thousands of horses and millions of soldiers are stampeding across a desert, threatening clouds rise at their hooves and heels, pushing the frightened air ahead.

It took two years to complete the poem.  It is a demanding style.  First writing an initial draft and then re-writing and re-writing and re-writing and on and on.  You get one line right and the next is a stinker.  You get one canto right and the next is terrible. Every word, every bit of pace demands attention. But in the end, it is a most satisfying result.  I am asked if I ever regretted writing Bikeman this way.
The simple answer is: No.  That’s the longer answer too: No regrets at all.