The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 6 of 8

A Serialized Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did

By Jake Silverstein on 4.19.10

Now, Part 6 of the serialized excerpt from Jake Silverstein’s Nothing Happened and Then It Did, in stores today! [Need to catch up? Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3 | Read Part 4 | Read Part 5.]

That night at the Shakespeare banquet we hashed out the odds on the twenty-five grand. From the open field a few favorites had emerged. At my table a dental hygienist from Dallas advised that the smart money liked a man from her class. “His name is James Stelly,” she said, “and he’s given his whole life to going around and telling what drugs did to him. He can bring tears to anyone’s eye that hears him.”

We chewed on that one for a minute. A Brownsville poet wanted to know what Mr. Stelly’s poem was about. The hygienist explained, “It’s about how if every time zone in the world would pray for one hour we could have a week of solid prayer. Or two weeks. I can’t remember, but he had it all worked out with a chart. Some people were crying just from the chart.”

A silence fell over the table as we readjusted our own hopes in light of this new information. How were we to contend with this man and his chart? No one had told us that visual aids were allowed. Charlotte Partridge, a fellow Class Sixer from Trinity, Texas, said, “I have a poem called ‘You Are My Everything’ that is awesome, but it was too long.”

Irregularly enforced time limits had become the convention’s dominant controversy. Apparently, a number of the recitations had exceeded one minute without incurring any sort of penalty, and this had troubled those honest entrants who had cut their poems or changed them entirely to comply with the rules. I myself had been well within the minute.

After dinner I ran into Doc outside the ballroom, and we stood off to the side for a while, watching the poets promenade. Many had seen the banquet as a chance to air their finest soup and fish. There were red tuxedoes, pink tuxedoes, green tuxedoes, and black tuxedoes; satin ball gowns and ruby slippers, strapless evening dresses and short skirts with red spike heels. Some poets wore Elizabethan-era costumes with bodices and billowy sleeves; some wore great African robes with matching turbans. They paraded back and forth in the hallway in front of the ballroom, admiring one another’s drapes and reciting their verses aloud.

Doc was still in his jeans. He had some complaints about the banquet.

“First of all, at the International Library they bring you into the dinner with trumpets,” he said. “Then they have a real fucking meal. None of this boiled chicken.”

“People get pretty dressed up, though,” I said.

“Nah, this is nothing. The International Library is much-classier. It’s got real class.”

Across the hall Rigg Kennedy stood at the center of a small crowd, hawking copies of Riggwords. I told Doc I was going to go see what Rigg’s lyrics looked like on the page.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m gonna check out the slots.” He had lost about half of the $800 he won the night before.

The crowd around Rigg was mainly older women pestering him to reveal his age. Although we had never met, Rigg seemed overjoyed to see me. I asked for a copy of his book. On the front cover, there was a psychedelic drawing of a tricycle floating over a moonscape under a lunar eclipse. The back cover was entirely filled with a photograph from Rigg’s second wedding, which took place on the set of Jesus Christ Superstar.

“She was a dentist,” Rigg explained. “I didn’t stick around too long. But that front cover, that is art. It’s done by R. Cobb, who did the cantina scene in Star Wars and the national ecology logo. George here remembered it all these years and just came over here, didn’t you, George?” He turned to a large oafish man with a video camera standing outside the inner circle of women. Many years ago George had been a ship’s librarian in the Navy, and one of the books on his shelves was Riggwords.

“A couple of my shipmates came in,” George said, “and they copied love poems out of this book and sent them on home to their girlfriends. Then later they got married.”

Rigg’s expression was beatific. “It transcends time and space,” he said, turning to his tiny audience. “You all know how I believe that poets can change the world, and here George tells me that these people got married. I only hope they’re still together.”

“You can’t be expected to control that,” I pointed out.

“No,” he said, a faraway look on his face. “But I can control time and space.”

By Tuesday morning the Famous Poets staff had managed to fill the Rose Ballroom with hundreds of colorful balloons bearing the words FAMOUS POETS PARADE AND BALLOONATHON. Under these words was a caricature of Shakespeare looking like a Spanish fencing master. A misstep in balloon layout put the words TAB HUNTER GRAND MARSHAL directly underneath the caricature, as if it depicted Hunter. Each chair in the ballroom had one of these balloons tied to its back with a long shiny ribbon. Now and then a balloon would slip loose and float up to the ceiling.

I found balloonless Doc standing off to the side with his arms crossed, staring critically at the stage, where Annette Ackerman, one of the assistant judges, was singing “The Rose” but with her own words, which tackled the war issue. Next, Judge Rudge climbed onto the stage in her Mrs. Claus suit (some said she had been up all night deciding the winners) and launched into a wild sermon that ranged over the Big Bang and “eternal sound vibrations” and eventually got to: “Oh, you day beyond dawn mist, beyond comets and night-falling creatures, and those who even by rubbing their legs make rhythm sounds. Oh, you brilliant, rose-surrounded day of fingers and lips, of hearts, of flute…”

“She’s gone,” Doc muttered.

There was some truth to that, but spending ten hours watching more than three hundred poets recite their verses, and then staying up all night long trying to pick the best of these while around you a casino rings and dings, would likely have devastated even Doc. Frankly, it surprised me to see Judge Rudge holding it together at all. Gesticulating with her right arm, she went into a jag about “my Super Bowl” and “five billion souls.” Just as she was winding up to the meat of her idea, however, a balloon popped loudly, causing a ripple of nervous laughter. She stopped to acknowledge the interruption and then continued, but had not completed more than two sentences before another balloon went off. This time she pretended not to notice. The crowd was buzzing now, and Judge Rudge had to raise her voice to be heard: “I’m gonna shine like the stars, the moon, the sun,” she yelled, “which are the microphones of the gods, through which they recite their—” Two balloons burst at the same time, and we did not hear any more about the gods.

I looked up at the ceiling. The balloons up there had been heated by the light fixtures and were going off like popcorn kernels in a skillet. A quick count of the unpopped balloons revealed that there would be no respite for the judge. Because the balloons had flown up at varying times, they were all on different popping schedules, ensuring a continuous barrage. “In universal mind you can really be anything you truly want!” she hollered, as three balloons exploded above. “You are like a golden child!”

Doc shook his head. “The balloons always cause problems,” he said. “Last year the hotel was right next to the airport, and when they let them go in the balloonathon a big gust of wind came and blew them straight into the flight path. Runway was full of balloons.”

Judge Rudge finished to kind applause. Everyone felt bad about how her speech had gone. During the clapping, I asked Doc what his poem of peace would be.

“I’m not sending one up,” he said. “That’s just for the people who haven’t been here before.”

The program continued illogically. Alisha, decked out in a purple velveteen Renaissance gown and matching coronet, introduced the Famous Poets Society Dixieland Band. Tab Hunter appeared and gave a short forgettable speech. The band led the Famous Poets Parade through the casino. Not all of the bleary-eyed gamblers glanced up from their games. Outside the Reno sky was clear. It was a warm day. Judge Rudge formed us into a huge circle and said a prayer. Her voice was hoarse, and it was hard to make her out, but she was certainly praying for peace, and possibly sanity. In unison, we released our balloons.

“There’s mine! There’s mine!” poets shouted. A few of the balloons got trapped under the Nugget’s eaves, but most of them made it, and for a quarter of a minute or so the bobbing, multi-colored orbs filled the sky. It was something. The Dixielanders played. Tab Hunter signed autographs. High above it all our poems of peace fluttered and waved. They floated so deep into the blue that people put down their cameras and just stared, trying to keep their eyes focused on what they thought was theirs. Awe quieted the ranks. Each balloon became a minuscule dot, then disappeared entirely.

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[Update: Continue to Part 7] Stay tuned for Part 7 in which the winning poets names are announced…

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topics: The Famous Poet's Society


Jason Crane | said on 4.19.10 at 10:19am:

Who knew balloons were so useful?

This whole chapter has been brilliant. Great work, Jake.

Jessie Carty said on 4.19.10 at 3:20pm:

Man i have been to too many readings where things like coffee maker compressors come on a such. I feel for the judge!