Hartford Poet Takes On Connecticut Diners
It was almost exactly a year ago that Brett Maddux first "slid into my Instagram DMs," if you will. He sent me a black and white photo of the exterior of a diner and asked if I would be so kind as to post it, or at least head down there to help get the word out about "their wonderful existence and delicious food." I politely declined to post the photo, (sorry), as it wasn't on brand for my Instagram account, I but promised to visit. A few months later I was met with a Facebook friend request and a message inviting me to meet him at Quaker Diner that week for breakfast. And it was there that I learned the true reason behind the diner tour.
Brett has been traveling to diners around the state for the better part two years now and for the past year he has been documenting his journey on his Instagram account, Diners of Connecticut. Sometimes alone and sometimes with guests, he visits and guzzles coffee while writing poetry. While the diner tour is far from over, it has come to a culmination of sorts: this month he published his first book. Filled with over one hundred poems, the book, titled "regent", touches upon the trials and tribulations of his life. I went to breakfast with Brett again recently to talk about the book and diner tour.
"regent" can be purchased at silkhousepublishing.com, at Hartford Prints! storefront, by sliding into Brett's DM's on Instagram or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He promises to hand deliver it if it is the latter.
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in 2008, I think. Maybe it was 2009. I had spent most of my writing-life up to that point writing short stories, and then I met a lovely and amazing and inspiring woman named Haley Thompson who asked me to write poetry. So I did. And I had never felt anything that felt that way before. It felt like my whole body was exploding out of my skin, like every part of me was on fire. It felt like the way they say it feels when you find the thing you love. So Haley gave that to me, very suddenly, and I’ve been writing poetry ever since.
How did you decide to make diners the home base of your writing?
Diners was probably accidental. It basically came down to a choice I had to make about how I wanted to continue to challenge myself. I used to be a teacher, and then I started another job where I still wanted to feel like I was a poet. So I decided I’d write a poem every day for as long as I had this job, for better or worse. And for a year or so, year and a half maybe, I did that. I’d go to a coffee shop or Elizabeth Park or sit on my stoop and write. And at a certain point I realized I had to get out of my comfort zone and write in other places if I wanted to engage different aspects of the process. There is just something different about writing in an unfamiliar setting, it triggers different means of perception. Going into a place where you’ve never been and being surrounded by people who don’t know you, often in places where everybody knows everybody, and you walk in and you’re a strange tall man they’ve never seen before, it heightens what you notice and the way people interact with you. Of course this is not always the case, but occasionally it is. And just being in public places and overhearing random things, seeing strange sights or strange exchanges, being present and being aware, that influences a different kind of writing. To bring it back to “why diners?,” I’d say it’s mainly just because I started doing it each morning just to try it out, I don't sleep much so I needed something to do at 5 or 6 in the morning, so I decided I'd go to breakfast places and start writing. And I liked what I was writing and what it was doing to the voice of the narrator in the poems, so I kept going. I remember once actually I was at a diner in Manchester called Fani’s Kitchen and my friend Ony texted me. He’d seen a black and white photograph I’d posted from the diner and he just said something along the lines of “Hey man, I really dig the photos. Keep it up.” He had no reason to say something kind, he’s just a kind person so he instinctively operates in a way that puts warmth and loveliness out into the world. And something about him saying that made me think “well, if Ony likes it, I may as well keep going.”
What is your favorite diner in each county?
That’s a fantastic question. I’ll do my best to narrow it down.
Hartford: Man, this is brutal. I’d say Quaker Diner only because it’s the spiritual home of the diner tour, but there are so many good ones here. Shady Glen, Olympia, Allegro Café, damn. Whoa, and Berlin is part of Hartford County? So Josie’s is also one of the greats. But I’ll gowith Quaker.
Fairfield: Hmmm, damn. This is strangely difficult. I’d say Lakeside Diner and Olde Bluebird Inn are the two I resonate most strongly with, both from a food perspective and also based on what I wrote in those places. And the milkshake game at Elm Street Diner is unsurpassed. If I had to pick one, I’d go with Lakeside.
New London: Probably Carson’s Store or Noah’s. I also personally really love When Pigs Fly, mainly because they let you serve your own coffee and to me that’s the dream.
Tolland: Track Nine Diner.
Litchfield: Dottie's, for sure. Although for aesthetic strangeness purposes on the writing front, I’d go Winsted Diner in a heartbeat. It’s a weird shotgun building that doesn’t even have tables, just a counter and a grill, and there’s just something lovely about what is happening there.
Middlesex: Wow, two of the best ones are in this county. O’Rourke’s, which is an obvious choice, and Sarah’s On Main in Portland. Sarah has the same birthday as I do, which I only know because I went to her place on my birthday. But from a purely food perspective (which admittedly, the diner tour itself is openly unconcerned with the quality of food) Sarah’s On Main is one of the best places I’ve encountered in my travels.
New Haven: The Pantry has my favorite pancakes in the state, with almost nothing else coming close. This is such a strangely huge county, Southbury is in New Haven County? Leo’s in Southbury is amazing. And Georgie’s in West Haven. But I think if someone put a gun to my head and said “you have to eat breakfast in New Haven County, where are you going?” I’d say The Pantry.
Windham: For my money, Willimantic and Manchester have perhaps the two strongest breakfast scenes per capita of anywhere in the state. So if Willimantic is in this county, it’s hard. If I’m ignoring incredible places like Not Only Juice (since it’s not a diner, but I love it and so I count it in the diner tour,) I’d say either Thread City Diner or That Breakfast Place or Aero Diner. Thread City more so for the writing I did there, That Breakfast Place more so for the food.
How do you decide what to eat at each diner? Do you have a go-to meal?
What I eat at each place depends on how many places I’ve gone to in a specific day. If I’m traveling out to like Kent, or down to Stamford, I feel like I have to eat at least three breakfasts that day to make the drive worth it. So I’ll go to a bunch of spots and eat and write. If I’m at a lot of places in one day, I typically just flip back and forth between a desserty-type breakfast (pancakes or French toast) or a savory breakfast (veggie omelet or breakfast quesadilla/egg and cheese sandwich.) But if I only go to one place, I’d say the majority of the time I’m ordering either blueberry pancakes or veggie quesadilla, those are my go-to vegetarian diner staples. If the place is notably good at something, though, I’ll definitely try that.
What is the best donut you've eaten so far?
The best donuts are at Dixie Donuts in Bridgeport. It’s like eating a cloud, but the cloud is made of infinite happiness and unlimited joy. It’s like sugar is blossoming into your mouth in a way that isn’t overwhelming, a perfect soft lovely sweetness that fills your soul. Whatever those ladies do is literally the most perfect donut I’ve ever eaten. There are lots of great donut places around though, so my honorable mentions would be: Donut Crazy (obviously,) King Donut in Manchester, Dotties in Woodbury, Neil’s in Wallingford or Whitney Donut in Hamden.
What diner would you consider a hidden gem?
Hidden gem, that’s a fantastic question. Honestly, Sarah’s On Main in Portland and Olde Bluebird Inn in Easton are two that I feel people don’t know exist, but they should because they are amazing. But I mentioned those in the county ones, so I feel like I should do something else. Let’s do Ken’s Corner Breakfast & Lunch in Glastonbury. I feel like if you live in Glastonbury you know that place is wonderful, but otherwise you probably don’t know it exists, and it’s fantastic. Also the last time I was there they told me Jason Segal had stopped in, so it feels blessed by the gods of Freaks & Geeks.
What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you or around you at a diner?
There’s a poem in the book about this, but I was at a diner once very late at night, and this guy started going on and on about how pickles caused infertility. And everyone kept telling him that wasn’t true, but I’m fairly sure he was drunk, so the truth was largely open to interpretation to him at that point. So I participated in a long conversation about pickle-based infertility at a diner, and then wrote about it.
How many cups of coffee have you consumed while writing this book?
Well, I’ve been to over 500 places, and I’ve certainly consumed between 3-6 cups at each place, if not more. So that’s anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 cups of coffee over the lifetime of this book. Though when you factor in the coffee I drink at home, work, and on the road, that number probably reaches as high as infinity. Infinity cups of coffee is my answer.
What are the poems about?
The poems are about a lot of things, I suppose. Some of them are about love, either being in it or being out of it or hurting people or regret, some are about my mother dying, some are about the simplicity of morning, some are about what it feels like to be happy, some are about what it feels like to run over animals in the road, lots of them are about the stray cats who live in my neighborhood and haunt my lesser decisions. Love, sex, regret, happiness, sadness, dead mothers, you know, all that.
How did the book come to be?
My friend Emily Berregaard decided to start a publishing house, Silk House Publishing, and she reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in publishing some of my work. She’s been my friend since we were young, and I was honored that she’d think of me. She’s been reading the bad poetry I’ve written for many years, so maybe she asked just so that I’d stop bothering her with terrible things for no reason. This way she can say “hey, I published a book for you, leave me the hell alone.”
What is your favorite poem in the book?
Ah, wow. I don’t know if I can answer this. I feel personally close to a lot of them for many different reasons, so it’d be hard to say which one I like best. Some I like because I think the writing is good, some I like because the place itself inspired something I never would’ve written otherwise, some I like because I think they’re funny. The last poem I wrote for the book didn’t end up making it in, but I love that poem very specifically and if anyone is ever foolish enough to make another book of the bad things I write, I’m sure I’ll include it there. It was about Hartford and about what makes something feel like home.
How many poems did you sort through in order to narrow it down to the finals?
I probably personally started with about 400 poems or so. Of those, I sent maybe 250 or 300 to Emily. She stripped away all the ones that weren’t any good, so then we were down to 0. No, I’m kidding. She probably narrowed it down by half or more, and then we set about trying to align her vision of what poems should be in the book with my vision of what should be included. She and I had this conversation often, and I think her perspective is remarkably valuable, since she had no immediate connection to the poems themselves and so she could judge them far more accurately from an independent reader’s point of view. But she generally advocated for more of the “nice” poems, the poems about love or me feeling bad about doing bad things, or about my family or my mother. And I advocated for the poems that dealt with sex, me feeling good about doing bad things, or about how I’m a terrible poet and this is a terrible poem. I just wanted to paint a full portrait, which is to say that the more gentle poems are definitely true of who I am as a person and a writer, but the more graphic and morally ambiguous poems are also who I am. So I wanted both things to be represented in a way that felt true to the entire experience of writing this book, the ebbs and flows of two years of life. I also just, quite frankly, didn’t want to have an entire book of poems about my dead mother. That felt like it’d be exhausting for someone to read, and also if I ever have to read these things out loud, I want to be able to read funny things that people can rally around and say “yeah man, that guy really is an asshole. But not in a fun way, not in ‘oh what a rascal, he’s a scamp with a heart of gold’ type way, he just genuinely seems like a person I wouldn’t want to spend time with.”