The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 4 of 8
A Serialized Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did
By Jake Silverstein on 4.12.10
On Monday morning I woke in a tangle of sheets and lay there turning things over in my head. The confidence I’d felt after the first homeroom session was shaken. Clearly I needed to be dramatizing my poem if I wanted to win the $25,000. This kid with the Ricky Martin routine was going to walk all over me. How would it feel to come all this way and lose to a dance routine? I ran over my poem a few times, looking for places where I might go down on a knee, but my poem did not seem to lend itself to that kind of theater. The clock was ticking. Class Six was scheduled to read before the judges at three p.m. I threw on some clothes and headed downstairs for Joel’s morning lecture, “How to Be a Poet on Your Feet.”
The session was under way when I arrived. Classes Five and Six were both in attendance, and rows of poets sat listening studiously to Joel’s discourse. “As actors we always deal with being in the moment,” he said, speaking quickly in his Bronx accent. “As famous poets, we do the same thing. When we read it, we want to make the feelings and everything happen just like when we wrote it. Just to go back to the acting thing for a minute, we do a play like ninety times, and every night we eat the same donut, and even if you like donuts it becomes repetitious. But that audience that comes in shouldn’t know that you’ve been eating that donut every day, and that, you know, the donut’s terrible, because you’re still eating it like it’s the first time you’re ever biting into that donut and boy, that is so good, that donut! Or apple or whatever.”
Joel referred to this as “In the Moment,” the second of the poet’s four basic tools. The others were Focus, Emotions, and Life Experiences. In the Moment, however, was the most important of the four, and to get us there Joel had devised a game he called “How to Be a Poet on Your Feet.” The idea was for each famous poet to take three random words from the audience and just rattle off a poem, employing the words like verbal stepping-stones. No one volunteered, and Joel had to jump-start us with a few demonstrations. By the time he’d banged out his fifth poem-on-his-feet, the Ponderosa Room was boiling with volunteers and people trying to get their words chosen. “Sex!” yelled a man in a T-shirt with FREE SPIRIT printed across the front. In a matter of minutes the whole thing had devolved into a rancorous competition between Classes Five and Six over who had the best poets. As each poet took the stage and announced his or her allegiance, the audience responded with cheers and taunts.
“Class Six! Class Six!”
“Class Five represent!”
“You’re the best, Class Six!”
When Bertha Venson of Class Six took the words “strawberry,” “pancake,” and “nugget,” and turned them into, “In the morning I love to eat pancakes / And with them, I love to eat nuggets. / But the best of all is when I eat strawberries,” the crowd went wild.
“That is Class Six!” the German woman screamed.
A woman from Class Five stood up, shaking her head, and said, “Class Five is ‘bout to take home the cash money, though.” Pandemonium ensued. Joel was pressed for a verdict. “Enjoy your next class!” he shouted. “You’re all winners!”
We headed across the hall for Rigg’s talk, “The Importance of Being a Poet for Life.” Today he had on a blue turtleneck, with the same safari pants as before. I recalled that he had been photographed wearing a black turtleneck for Schramm’s color brochure. This run of turtlenecks seemed in keeping with the whole Rigg Kennedy persona. Perched atop a stool at the head of the Bonanza Room, he looked like some sort of eccentric zoologist, on tour to promote his unorthodox theories about natural selection. As we filed in, he stared thoughtfully at the ceiling, nodding periodically as a familiar face drifted by. The program was as different from “How to Be a Poet on Your Feet” as “Kozmic Alley” was from “On My Way to Shea.” Whereas Joel’s style as a lecturer had been to challenge us with fun games, Rigg’s was to confound us with weird philosophical questions.
“How do you spell a sound like this?” he asked, crumpling his lecture notes into the microphone.
“Crumple?” offered a woman.
“Crinkle! Crinkle!” shouted a man.
Rigg stroked his goatee meaningfully. “Crinkle, crumple. Okay. But what is the sound? The sound is not saying, ‘Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle.’ It’s saying…”
“Rumble!” someone yelled from the back.
It was hard to know what Rigg was driving at. He nodded his head as if we had hit a familiar wall. “I don’t know if we’ll get an answer today, but I want you to think about it. You, as poets, have the godlike privilege of inventing words. I find that pretty amazing. Can you imagine the person who created the word ‘peace’? Or the person who created the word ‘war’?”
There followed another baffled silence. It occurred to me that baffled silence might be Rigg’s primary goal as an artist. He told us about the numerous Eskimo words for snow; the possibility of using extrasensory perception to compose poetic verses; the parallels between writing poetry, acting, and doing cancer research; and aliens. “What do you think?” he asked us. “Do extraterrestrials enjoy the power and pleasure of poetry?”
The whole lecture seemed to be built around questions that caused the mind to go slack. They had the opposite effect on Rigg, however. He had worked himself up into a lather.
“Adventure awaits!” he exclaimed. “Once I let a blind person lead me to a poetry class in West Hollywood. I drove several elderly poets there, but when I parked the car the rest was up to her. She used her cane and her superior instincts, and I held her arm, with my eyes closed, trusting her to navigate the busy boulevard.” Here, eyes closed, Rigg fumbled about, dramatically enacting the scene. “Tires were screeching, horns were honking. The blind leading the blind to a poetry class! It was a beautiful afternoon. And when, my colleagues, you let go and trust that a spontaneous creation is about to happen, then you will have become twenty-four-hour-a-day poets for the rest of your lives.”
The lecture came to an abrupt close. It mystified me on many fronts, and I hoped he would take questions. What had he meant by “Many poets have been proven to have six senses”? But Rigg was curious to hear our poems and opened the floor of the Bonanza Room to all. A bottleneck formed instantly.
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[Update: Read part 5 here] Stay tuned for Part 5 in which our hero performs his poem “New York, So Often Recorded in Photographs” for the judges.
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TIME TO PLAY “HOW TO BE A POET ON YOUR FEET”!!!
We’re going to play our own version of Joel’s poetry game and the best three entries will win a copy of Nothing Happened and Then It Did. Just compose a short poem using the words “happened”, “book”, and “texas” and post it in the comments section below. We’ll notify the three winners by April 15th. Poems Out Loud readers represent!
topics: The Famous Poet's Society