The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 5 of 8
A Serialized Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did
By Jake Silverstein on 4.15.10
The judged readings had been going on since eight a.m. in the Celebrity Showroom, an old dinner theater with heavy tables and plush cocktail booths. This was the Nugget’s swankiest venue. The railings were dark polished mahogany. Red velvet covered the walls. A gold lamé curtain bordered the stage, bunched in dazzling symmetrical folds around the proscenium. Tiny Tivoli lights outlined the aisles and the steps and the ample round lip of a stage that had been trod by the likes of Dick Dale, Pasquale Esposito, and Gordon Lightfoot.
I arrived in the midst of Class Five’s performances. A pretty young woman with heavy eye makeup and a tight black T-shirt was reading a poem called “Aloha Blue” that made the case for Hawaiian sovereignty. Emblazoned across her shirt in rhinestones was the title of her poem. In the center of the stage, behind the poet, hung a giant movie screen, on which was projected her enormous image, as if she played to a crowd of thousands.
The three judges sat in three cocktail booths, rapidly shuffling through mountains of paper as the readings proceeded. Despite the importance our lecturers had placed on dramatization, the three barely lifted their heads to watch the action on the boards. The top judge, Mary Rudge, wore massive spectacles and a red velvet dress. She was pear-shaped, with curly white hair and big round cheeks, and reminded me a little of Mrs. Claus.
The poets of Class Five finished their readings, and Class Six formed into a line that snaked through the darkness to a door that led to the wings of the stage. I was the final poet in this line, with the best view of the readings. It was not a show I was particularly looking forward to. In the past twenty-four hours, I had witnessed most of the performances four times. When Emma Tutson Thompson of Clinton, Louisiana, began with her poem, “Our Love,” I was able to recite the opening couplet along with her: “Our love is like a dream that comes true. / Really because, I love you.”
I soon found that I had involuntarily committed much of Class Six’s verses to memory. Kevin Banks read his poem, “You’re Not Alone,” which told the story of a supernatural visit from his dead grandmother. The last line was, “Grandmother’s rocking chair is rocking.” One of Doc’s teenage girl poets, Nicole Noel Miller, stepped up to read her poem, “The Encounter,” a melodramatic account of a suicide attempt averted at the crucial moment through Jesus’s intervention. Extensive choreography accompanied her verse. Initially I had found the gestures rigidly theatrical, but seeing them repeated so many times in exactly the same way gave them an almost ritualistic appeal.
As the next poet’s head filled the screen, it occurred to me that beyond their differences in form and content, the Class Six poems were all remarkably similar on this point. They all included at least one verbal or physical gesture that was repeated in exactly the same way at every reading. The gestures might be flamboyant, like Nicole’s; or they might be as subtle as Flora Dozier’s odd way of ending every line with a spondee, or Audrey Soto’s practiced shrug in the midst of her final couplet. Every poet had a certain routine that she adhered to with clerical rigidity. Running through the familiar rhythms of voice and gesture put her in a trance, an eternal swoon within which the much-debated time limits were rendered irrelevant.
The anthologies in my hotel room were full of the same sort of thing. The earliest poems in English were lamentations on the theme of time. To the anonymous poets of the thirteenth century, time was organic and indifferent.
Nou goth sonne under wode— Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode. ("Now goes the sun under the wood— I pity, Mary, thy fair face.")
To Shakespeare it was brutal.
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out Against the wrackful siege of battering days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
In Reno, it was incomprehensible and cruel. Most of the famous poets had begun to write their verses in the aftermath of a great pain. Some were widows. Many had lost children, parents, and friends. Yet in the chanting of their poems, time and loss were forgotten for a minute. Sunsets did not fade. Children kept their innocence. Grandmothers endured.
Some of the first poets to have read began leaving. As they swung open the glass doors I heard that machine cry, “Wheel! Of! Fortune!” It was my turn:
New York, so often recorded in photographs, Must have trouble believing its crows can fly, Or that when snow, in clouds Of misdirection, is falling, it falls. The weight in the withstanding snubs The whitened flakes of logic, flees Wet streets that are streets, scoffs At routine measurements of what is there. New York, so often recorded in photographs, Must have trouble believing its heart can stop, Or that as doves, in nests along the river, forever Swept and sweeping, are hatching, they have hatched.
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Stay tuned for Part 6 in which our hero eats boiled chicked at the Shakespeare Banquet and marches in the Famous Poet’s Parade and Balloonathon.
topics: The Famous Poet's Society