The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 1 of 8

A Serialized Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did

By Jake Silverstein on 4.01.10

Editor’s Note: On April 19th, W. W. Norton will publish Nothing Happened and Then It Did, the first book by Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein. Sherman Alexie has called it “hilarious, poetic, lovely, and disturbing.” Annie Dillard calls it “a masterful literary debut.” Like Alexie and Dillard, the Poems Out Loud team has fallen in love with the book. One chapter in particular, about an unforgettable poetry competition in Reno, Nevada, has secured my personal lifetime membership in the Silverstein Forever Fan Club. To help us celebrate National Poetry Month, Jake Silverstein has generously agreed to let Poems Out Loud share this chapter with you, dear readers. So throughout the month of April, in eight parts, we’ll be serializing the story of the Famous Poet’s Society from Nothing Happened and Then It Did. Read along with us and there will be a few opportunities throughout the month to snag a free copy of the book. So now, I turn you over to Jake and Part 1 of the Famous Poet’s Society. Enjoy!

Summer in New Orleans is a long slow thing. Day and night, a heavy heat presides. Rivulets of sweat run down the necks and arms and legs of unlucky pedestrians. Dogs retreat under houses. Waiters stand idle at outdoor cafes, fanning themselves with menus. The unreasonable weather drives off tourists, and as they go, so goes the city’s main industry. Throughout town the pinch sets in. Rents are missed. Bald tires go unreplaced on cars. Couches are torn apart for loose change once, twice, even three times. It is an idle, maudlin time, a time to close up the shutters and tie streamers to your air conditioner; to lie around drinking very weak drinks while you plot ways of scraping by that involve neither exertion nor exposure.

So I was occupied one humid afternoon, when I came across a small newspaper notice that announced in large letters, “$25,000 POETRY CONTEST.” “Have you written a poem?” the notice began. I had. In the nine months since the trip to Midland I’d written little else. A couple were decent, but who knew they would be worth anything? In the past, back when I was trying to become a poet, I had submitted poems to mail-in contests and lit mags all the time. The prizes they offered never amounted to much—three hundred dollars, a year’s free subscription. This was a different proposition altogether. This was real money. Twenty-five thousand for the grand prize winner, five thousand for first place, three thousand for second place.

I needed a break like this. The Palace Cafe had been enough to keep my head above water but now that the tourists were gone it was barely even doing that. The debts I’d incurred casting around the sands of Far West Texas were no closer to being paid, and my plan to become a journalist had stalled completely. I was no longer a roving eyeball searching for truth. I was broke. If I could clear my balance sheet I thought I might move to Mexico and look for stories down there. I figured the chances of getting scooped would decrease considerably the farther I got from the “centers of power,” as the new president had put it. Twenty-five grand would last for years in one of those little fishing villages along the Pacific coast. I submitted my poem that very day.

Two weeks later I had in my hands a letter from something calling itself the Famous Poets Society, based in Talent, Oregon. The Executive Committee of its distinguished Board of Directors, the letter informed me, had chosen my poem, from a multitude, to be entered in its seventh annual poetry convention, which would be held September 16-18 at John Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada. “Poets from all over the world will be there to enjoy your renown,” the letter boasted, “including film superstar Tony Curtis.” A color brochure showed rollicking scenes from conventions past. Inside the brochure, an entry form listed the Nugget’s room rates and the convention entry fees.

It was not exactly what I had imagined. The notice in the newspaper had said nothing about a convention in Reno, and I’d taken this for a legitimate prize and not the shadowy scheme it now appeared to be. Doubtless I was not alone. Poets, it occurred to me, must make very good marks. Even a half poet like myself was still credulous enough to get roped in. You wouldn’t get nearly as far with a convention for journalists. At the first faint whiff of a racket, they’d have their notepads out and their tape recorders rolling. As Lord Macaulay once observed, “Poetry requires not an examining but a believing frame of mind.” My attempt to trade the latter for the former was still a work in progress, but I was no fool. I was about to throw the letter away when it dawned on me that there was still the matter of the $25,000.

The letter was signed by Mark Schramm, the executive director of the society. He informed me that should I choose to make the trip, I would be honored with the “Jake Silverstein 2001 Poet of the Year Medallion” and the “Prometheus Muse of Fire Trophy,” both of which I would find to be “unique.” Schramm continued, “The fabulous Tab Hunter has asked that you personally walk with him in our Famous Poets Parade! As our Grand Marshal, he invites you to bring a poem of peace to release ‘on the wings of Pegasus,’ during our Famous Poets for Peace Balloonathon. Your poem is your message of love to the world…I also look forward to seeing you win our poetry contest! Imagine yourself with a $25,000 check in hand and being crowned ‘Famous Poet Laureate for 2001’! I can already hear the crowd cheering as the laureate crown is placed on your head! How beautiful you look!”

Clearly everyone who submitted a poem in the first place had been invited to the convention (excepting, I would later learn, an incorrigibly obscene few), and clearly Tab Hunter had never said anything to Schramm about my walking with him. But it was also a good bet that the competition at the Nugget for that $25,000 might not be so stiff. You had to figure that the crass marketing pitch would act as a deterrent to the country’s best poets. Factoring in my past writing experience, I pegged it at no worse than 100 to 1 that if I went to Reno, I’d win $25,000 and get to wear a crown. Longer odds are played every day. I wrote back to say I would attend.

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[Update: Read Part 2 Here] Stay tuned for part two in which our hero makes his way to Reno and comes face to face with his competition at the Champagne Reception…

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topics: Columnists / The Famous Poet's Society


Julie Tepper said on 4.01.10 at 3:26pm:

I remember reading this fantastic piece when it first was published in Harpers’ — SO much fun to read, and so beautifully written. Can’t wait to buy the book. Am going to get it for a couple of young writers I know too. He’s amazing!

Jessie Carty said on 4.02.10 at 12:47pm:

I am completely intrigued! Can’t wait for the next installment smile