The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 3 of 8
A Serialized Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did
By Jake Silverstein on 4.08.10
After a short break, we reconvened for the Master Workshop, presented by Al D’Andrea. Al affected a professorial demeanor, repeatedly snatching off his reading glasses and gesturing philosophically with his hands. He ranged over a number of poets, from William Carlos Williams to Lucille Clifton, each one serving the overall point of his address, which was called “Saying Yes: Embracing the Life Force of Your Poem.” He closed with a poem by James Scully entitled “What Is Poetry?” Having just witnessed the dramatic opposition of Rigg’s experimental soundscape and Joel’s corny baseball rhymes, and with $25,000 hanging somewhere in the balance, I found the question pertinent. Unfortunately, Scully offered no definitive answers. He posed instead a series of odd counter-questions, such as “if it were a crib / would you trust your baby to sleep in it?” Al added to the weight of these quandaries by chewing on his glasses.
As we filed out of the Rose Ballroom, it suddenly occurred to me that despite all the time I had spent trying to become a poet, I’d never once tried to formulate an answer to Scully’s question. What is poetry? How could I have expected to get anywhere if I’d never even tried to solve this riddle? There were twenty minutes to kill before the next activity, and I spent them upstairs, thumbing through my books, looking for someone who had. What is poetry? For that matter, what is journalism? I’d never tried to solve that one either. No wonder my plans kept foundering. The closest I got to an answer was Samuel Johnson, who had struggled with Scully’s very question before concluding, “It is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is, but it is not so easy to tell what it is.”
How would Joel Weiss field the query? To prepare our poems for the judged readings, we had been divided into ten “classes” and assigned “homeroom monitors.” I’d landed in Class Six with Joel, a lucky break. He was no Dr. Johnson, to be sure, but the feeling among Class Six poets was that the chance to study under him, if only for several hours, would give us a considerable advantage over the poor slobs whose monitors had not even been deemed worthy enough to speak at the opening ceremony.
“Just to give a brief introduction to myself,” Joel began, as we found seats in a gigantic room we only half filled. “I’m an actor. I’ve got a movie coming out in October with Wesley Snipes. I’ve been in forty-two films, and in most of them I get beat up or killed. I started writing poetry on trains and stuff. I never really call myself a poet. I just try to get out my frustrations. Who’s got a question?”
“Do I need to cut my poem to twenty-one lines?” This came from Bertha Venson, a small black woman with a lisp from Euclid, Ohio.
“That’s important,” Joel said, dropping his voice an octave to indicate that he was leveling with us. “If your poem’s going over, cut the extra lines. You have one solid minute when you’re up there. I know you care about your poem, but once you’re up there, you’re trying to win the moolah.”
This was true. Whatever Dr. Johnson might think, in Reno a poem was a lottery ticket, and none of us shied from this important fact. Poetry might be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as Wordsworth said, but what good would it do you if it flowed right over the time limit? Joel’s caveat sparked an anxious discussion, in which it came out that many of the poets were in violation of the time limits and at a loss for how to prune their verses. Realizing he had caused a minor crisis, Joel hurriedly offered up the best panacea he could muster. “You know what I always say?” he said, leveling with us even more. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This settled things down somewhat, even though it didn’t make any sense at all. A blond woman with heavy eye makeup and a German accent stood up. “I have a glittery dress,” she said. “Do I wear my glittery dress before the judges?”
“What about a peach dress?” another poet cried. “Is peach a good color for the camera?”
Joel relaxed a little, sensing that he was out of the woods with having to edit all our poems and back in familiar territory. “Peach, glitters, or whatever you’re gonna wear,” he said. “Figure it out tonight and lay it out on your bed so you won’t have to think about it tomorrow morning.”
We took a dinner break after the first round of readings. I brought my books down to the Golden Rooster and, over a plate of fried chicken, reconsidered Scully’s question in relation to the Class Six poets. About half the class’s poems operated on the understanding that poetry was an instructive art, a pleasant way of passing along an uplifting lesson. In this they fit the neoclassical mode outlined by Sir Philip Sidney in his 1581 Defence of Poesie, which defined poetry as “a speaking Picture, with this end to teach and delight.” There was “An Imperfect World,” by Anita Jones of Cincinnati, which put forth, in list fashion, all of the things that were wrong with the world, that we might learn to accept them; “Taking Time,” by Lydia Heiges of Kempner, Texas (she of the glittery dress), which reminded the reader to slow down and enjoy life; “At a Time Like This,” by Myra Ann Richardson of Kernersville, North Carolina, a patriotic verse that aimed to rally our spirits; and “I Want to Know Please,” by Lou Howard of Azle, Texas, which used the device of an inquisitive child to illustrate how “it takes both sunshine and rain to make rainbows.” These poems relied on poetic tropes—flowers that stood for hope, sunsets that led to contemplation—and standard formats—the list, the apostrophe, the regular metrical line—to convey certain messages to the audience. They would have pleased Sir Philip, who felt that poetry’s purpose was to appeal to those “hard hearted evil men who think vertue a schoole name, and know no other good but indulgere genio, and therefore despise the austere admonitions of the Philosopher.” Sir Philip figured these men would swallow the uplifting message of a poem, “ere themselves be aware, as if they tooke a medicine of Cheries.”
Around 1800, Sir Philip’s utilitarianism gave way to the unkempt ravings of the Romantics, from whom the remaining Class Six poets seemed to take their cue. These poems were meant to convey the rawest inner emotions, most of which turned out to be gloomy. Reena Louis’s poem, “The Lost Letter,” matched up against the most melancholy that Keats had to offer, and Wes Dodrill’s “The Last Race,” an elegy for stock-car driver Dale Earnhardt, was every bit as mournful and sad as Shelley’s “Adonaïs” or Wordsworth’s “Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg.” For these classmates poetry was, as Lord Byron had seen it, “the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake.”
My own poem was neither a medicine of Cheries nor a blowhole of the soul. It was called “New York, so often recorded in photographs,” and so far, I hadn’t heard anything I thought would beat it. I shut my books and took a stroll around the casino floor. There were famous poets everywhere, easily identifiable by their gold medallions and red T-shirts with the proclamation I’M THEIR MOST FAMOUS POET! printed in black across the back. They stuffed coins into nickel and quarter games with such names as Quartermania, Betty Boop, Blazing 7s, and I Dream of Jeannie. At their sides, cigarettes burned untouched in ashtrays. Every once in a while, a machine shouted, “Wheel! Of! Fortune!”
I made my way over to the Aquarium Bar, where in a pale blue light, surrounded by wooden tiki lanterns, plastic banana trees, and red totem poles, I ran into Doc. He was peeved.
The Aquarium Bar
“They don’t have the alumni jacket,” he said, shaking his head.
“The alumni jacket. If you go to one one year you’re supposed to get an alumni jacket the next year. They don’t have them. You know, you get your people who swear by the Famous Poets Society, but to me it’s just amateur compared to the International Library.”
It was hard to believe this business with the jacket alone had set him off, so I asked him if he had been losing money too.
“Nah,” he said, gazing out at the casino. “I’m up eight hundred bucks. Been at Blazing 7s all day.”
It turned out that what was really eating Doc was some teenage poet who had won a prize for the last three years running. The kid was back again, looking for a four-peat.
“Kid doesn’t even change the poem,” Doc complained. “Just keeps bringing the same one back and winning the prize.”
“Well, it must be pretty good,” I said.
“Nah, it’s nothing special. But he does a whole Ricky Martin routine on it. Goes down on his knees for the sad parts. The judges like that crap.”
The Aquarium Bar’s evening entertainment—Darcy on vocals, January on keys—started in on a cover of “Captain of Her Heart.” Through the banana trees I saw a woman run out of coins on a Quartermania machine and jokingly try to stuff her Poet of the Year Medallion down the slot.
“The main problem I have with poetry is this,” Doc said. “It’s totally subjective.”
* * *
[Update: Read part 4 here] Stay tuned for Part 4 in which our hero learns “How To Be a Poet on Your Feet”…
topics: The Famous Poet's Society