The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 2 of 8
A Serialized Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did
By Jake Silverstein on 4.05.10
Now, Part 2 of the serialized excerpt from Jake Silverstein’s Nothing Happened and Then It Did in stores on April 19th. [Miss Part 1? Read it here.]
Five days before the convention was to begin, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands of Americans and plunging the country headlong into the age of terror, but the Famous Poets Society decided to push ahead with its program as planned. It was felt that poetry was needed now more than ever. It was also felt that there would be no full refund of the $495 registration fee, in the event of a canceled flight or a distraught flier or a sinking sensation that the timing was bad for big bets. I flew to San Francisco, rented a car, and took Interstate 80 up into the Sierra Nevadas, over Donner Pass, to John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Reno.
The Nugget started off as a coffee shop, and grew, over the years, into a full-scale operation with its own dancing elephant. Now it was a double-towered stucco giant, huge and labyrinthine, with underground chambers so vast that the pillars in the Polynesian restaurant near the slot machines were actually supporting Interstate 80, or so I read somewhere. I identified myself to the bellhop as a famous poet. It had a nice ring to it, but the heavy-lidded teen was completely unimpressed. Waving a lackluster arm, he directed me to the second floor for convention registration. There I was presented with my Prometheus Muse of Fire Trophy and my Poet of the Year Medallion. My Muse of Fire Trophy was a cheap-looking wedge of plastic with an image of a man in a toga—Prometheus, I assumed—pressed into its back. A sticker personalized this gimcrack. My medallion seemed more valuable, since it was made from a metal into which my name had been irrevocably punched. Once I had the trophy and medallion in hand, I was presented with a certificate honoring me as a recipient of the trophy and medallion. I also got a red T-shirt. Stowing these laurels in my room, I made for the Champagne Reception in the Rose Ballroom.
The room was full of poets. It was difficult, scanning the crowd, to arrive at a conclusion as to what exactly I was up against. Who were my fiercest rivals for the $25,000? The brunette in the revealing blouse with the falsetto laugh? The loner with the black leather hat and the matching black fanny pack? The tan old man wearing cargo pants? The minister? What would the grand prize mean to them? How bad did they want it? My failures in Texas and all the lean months in New Orleans had honed my need. Up in my hotel room, I had a suitcase full of books from my old poet days—anthologies, copies of treatises on versification, anything that seemed like it might give me an edge.
“First time here?” a man asked me. He was wearing a jean jacket and jeans. He had a bristly brown beard and a long hawklike nose. His name tag identified him as Doc Smith.
“Yes,” I told him. “Yours?”
“Nah,” he said. “I been here before.”
“So you like it?”
“It’s all right.” He scanned the crowd with a sour expression. “Thing that gets annoying is all these thirteen-year-old girls writing about broken hearts, lost love, suicide, that sort of thing. Try going to war.”
Doc’s voice was gruff, and his bearing suggested a long-standing annoyance with the world. He was a Vietnam veteran. Before the war he had been a singer in a band called People whose song “I Love You” had traveled up the charts to number fourteen in 1968. He sang a few bars for me. It sounded like a good song for dancing close with a girl. He gave me his card, which said “Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 290,” in big letters; and in smaller letters, “John Doc Smith, The Poet.”
“This is an okay conference,” he said. “But it’s not as nice as the one the International Library of Poetry puts out. When they have a champagne reception, it’s all the champagne you could want, plus punch and hors d’oeuvres, and top-flight entertainment. Classy.” He looked disparagingly at the tables. “This one’s going downhill.”
It was true that the scene lacked glamour. The Rose Ballroom did not feel much like a ballroom. The walls were carpeted in institutional gray, the floor in a tacky pattern of red and blue. The stage was empty save for an off-center podium. Fluorescent tubes lit the room unkindly. On folding tables covered in red paper, the champagne was lined up in plastic glasses. The supply was sorely insufficient. Mostly, the tables were covered with empty glasses, upside down and on their sides. “They don’t put enough champagne,” I heard an elderly Filipino man in a three-piece suit and snappy two-tone brogues complain.
The Rose Ballroom
Doc seemed to know his way around the convention, so I asked if he had any tricks for winning the cash prize.
“Nah,” he said. “Just do your thing. Don’t get nervous. Hardest competition is going to be from the black people. They tend to be more expressive, and that impresses the judges.”
Before Doc could finish his counsel, the emcee of the convention, Alisha Rodrigues, called us to order. Doc snorted. He’d seen it all before and was going to try his luck on the slots. According to the General Schedule, we were to be introduced to the poets who would be our teachers for the next three days. There was Rigg Kennedy, who had a supporting role in the 1982 film The Slumber Party Massacre; Joel Weiss, who played an orderly in The Meteor Man; and Al D’Andrea, who appeared as Lieutenant Wilkins in the short-lived television drama Brooklyn South.
“Please help me welcome,” Alisha said, “the acclaimed author of Riggwords, and a true famous poet: Rigg Kennedy!”
From the front row, a man in a white turtleneck and safari-style pants rose. As he mounted the stage, I noted a strange buoyancy to his bright white hair, as if each follicle housed a tightly coiled miniature spring. He grasped the podium with both hands, leaned in to the microphone, and proclaimed, “As poets, each one of you, in your cellular structure, in your brainpower, can change the universe.” His hairs trembled. “I’m going to read ‘Kozmic Alley.’ It was first published in Architectural Digest.”
Rigg shuffled his papers with a dignified air, took a sip of water, and cleared his throat. He then began to wail at the top of his lungs. Across the aisle a cowboy poet who had been napping sat up like a shot had gone off. The woman in front of me covered her baby’s ears. Rigg modulated his wail up and down and then started breaking up the wails with some whistles. When he’d had enough of that, he intoned solemnly:
space dust clouds spinning whirling gushing gases dancing throbbing divinely exploding indefinites definitely longer farer than i dare count to kingdom come
Rigg took a dramatic pause to let the first stanza sink in. The silence was partial. Like a shopping mall, a casino is full of hundreds of tiny speakers that play soothing background music in one genre or another. At that particular moment the Nugget’s system was playing a punchy jazz tune, and the piano filled Rigg’s caesura with unwanted gaiety. He did his best to ignore this, then opened his mouth extremely wide and began to croak. He took a drink of water and gargled into the microphone. He did some panting, then finished with more of the wailing and whistling that had gotten him started. Across the aisle, the cowboy poet tipped back his ten-gallon hat and frowned.
I shared the cowboy’s consternation. If this was the sort of poetry the judges were looking for, I might be in trouble. My poem had no sound effects. Did they expect me to gargle?
These fears were allayed somewhat by the next poet, Joel Weiss, a younger man with a thick Bronx accent. When his name was announced, he bounded onstage and began an awkward striptease. “I’m not dressed right for this poetry,” he said, swinging his jacket. Women hooted and rushed the stage with cameras. Underneath his shirt and slacks Joel sported New York Mets boxer shorts and a matching Mets jersey. “I’m a lifelong baseball fan,” he said with a laugh. “That explains my poetry.” Joel asked that the ladies return to their seats, then recited an original composition entitled “On My Way to Shea.” The poem rhymed and had a metrical structure that he regularly defied. There was a clever twist at the end when the narrator, who you think is a fan, turns out to be a player, but because of the way Joel read the poem this effect was lost. His bungled recitation suggested either that this was the first time he had seen the poem in years, or that it had been composed in haste during Rigg’s bag of tricks. Still, Joel’s verses were warmly received, in large measure because they reassured us that we would be expected neither to gargle nor to pant.
There followed a confused interlude in which Alisha got up onstage, walked to the podium, started to speak, then stopped and went to the edge of the stage to confer. When the conferring was done she explained that Tony Curtis had lost friends in the tragedy in New York and would not be with us today. Alisha told us to hold hands and bow our heads together as we observed a moment of silent prayer for Mr. Curtis and his family. We did, and the theme song from Bonanza filled the ballroom.
* * *
[Update: Read part 3 here] Stay tuned for Part 3 in which our hero and the other Famous Poets meditate on the subjectivity of poetry…
topics: The Famous Poet's Society