The Famous Poet’s Society, Part 7 of 8

An Excerpt from Nothing Happened and Then It Did

By Jake Silverstein on 4.22.10

Now, Part 7 of the serialized excerpt from Jake Silverstein’s Nothing Happened and Then It Did, in stores now. [Need to catch up? Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3 | Read Part 4 | Read Part 5 | Read Part 6]

The Famous Poet’s Society had impressed upon us throughout the convention that we were all winners: that as far back as the first night when we had put pen to paper we had ceased to lose. But some would leave Reno with less than others. This fact was underscored by the $6,000 in door prizes that greeted our return to the Rose Ballroom.

After this preamble, Alisha made ready to announce the names of the winning poets. Behind her, the stage was set with a winners’ circle of chairs—seventeen for the $1,000 third prizes, and one each for the second, first, and grand prizes, worth $3,000, $5,000, and $25,000. We all stared hungrily at the $25,000 seat, on which lay a red fur robe with a leopard-print fringe and a twelve-foot train; a matching crown in red, leopard, and gold, inlaid with red and green jewels; and a golden scepter.

The ballroom was tense. Muscles stiffened. Nails were chewed. I saw at least one lucky charm brought out. “Extry Sarff for ‘Wild and Free’!” Alisha cried, and the first winner, an old fellow from Ketchikan, Alaska, with a giant white beard, mounted the stage. He read his poem, which was about orca whales, and we gave him a short hand. There was no time to dwell on the relative merits of the verse. Fortuna’s wheel was spinning.

“Saundra Young Obendorf for ‘Celestial Butterflies’!” A woman seated several tables to my left let out a small scream and ran through the crowd, throwing her arms in the air and leaping. When she read the title of her poem she imitated the flight of a butterfly with her hands. “Vanessa O. Sullivan for ‘Born Black’!” A white woman in a cowboy shirt rushed the stage. “This is the second time I’ve been here, first time I won. So to all of you: Keep trying!” Her poem was about being an oddball in a conventional family. “Robert Nielson for ‘Dance’!” Over to my right, a man in a dark suit popped up and pumped his fists in the air, screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Some of the winners let out huge sighs of relief and gazed graciously to heaven. Some were catapulted into frenzies of hugging and crying and clutching of the cheeks. One girl, whose winning poem was entitled “My Elusive Heart,” immediately began to fan herself, as if she were worried she might overheat. She fanned herself all the way up to the stage and then stood speechlessly at the podium for a quarter of a minute. Finally she shrieked, “World peace!” and burst into tears.

The number of empty chairs onstage was thinning when Alisha grasped the edges of the podium and yelled a name so familiar I didn’t recognize it at first. My legs, however, took her meaning immediately and propelled me into a standing position, where I believe I then exhibited all the celebratory tropes that the others had. Blushing and grinning and waving my arms in the air, I stumbled through the crowd while a trumpeter blasted out a here-comes-the-king sort of tune. Along the way I ran into various friends from Class Six, who gave me the thumbs-up sign or snapped a picture. When I got to the stage I met Alisha, who seemed much bigger up close and more freckled. She shook my hand, slipped me a check for $1,000, and led me to the podium, where I turned and looked out at the sea of famous poets.

The third prize meant that I would break even; I had failed to capture the big money. But who cared? I was at the podium, addressing a crowd of hundreds. The dusty plains of Far West Texas and the greasy streets of New Orleans were thousands of miles away. I stared at the audience, my mind as slack as it had been during Rigg Kennedy’s lecture. On Sunday, I had fallen into conversation with an old man who had accompanied his poet wife to the convention. When I asked him if he thought his wife would get nervous if she had to read in front of everybody, he said, “She will most likely have to refer to her notes because she may forget who she is.” This is precisely what happened to me. I seemed to slip out of my body entirely. Who was Jake Silverstein? Some made-up person? Some giant mask? My voice, when I began to read, sounded muffled and far away. It was a strange sensation, and I could see how it might work on you until you broke down and shouted, “World peace!”

My chair in the winners’ circle afforded me a new perspective on Scully’s question. Who gave a damn what poetry was? Poetry was the check in my hand. Poetry was the golden scepter, only five chairs away. Alisha cried out, “Gladys Ogor-Edem for ‘I’m a King’s Kid—Jehovah’s Princess’!” A black woman in a long black dress got up and gave a stirring performance in which she sobbed, screamed, waved her hands, stamped her feet, lost her voice, and then collapsed in her chair completely spent, clutching a $3,000 check. “Calvin G. Benito for ‘Apache’!” A bald Oklahoman read a somber elegy to the great tribe’s warriors with their “long black hair,” and sat down with $5,000. The moment was upon us. Twenty-five thousand dollars.

“Cathy L. Kaiser for ‘I Choose to Dance’!”

We looked around excitedly, but no one stood up. The initial applause had begun to peter out when all at once a buzz swept through the crowd, fingers pointed, and our eyes swung to an unused corridor of the ballroom, behind a series of mirrored pillars, where with a look of grim determination Cathy L. Kaiser of Phoenix, Arizona, slowly advanced toward the stage in a motorized wheelchair.

The applause erupted with renewed vigor. Poets on the opposite side of the ballroom hopped up on their chairs to get a better look at the handicapped laureate. Some held their cameras above their heads and snapped photos. A wave of energetic disbelief passed from table to table. Short people asked their taller companions what the hell was going on. Fingers were pointed and wheelchairs pantomimed. A cowboy poet swatted his knee with his hat. Kaiser motored silently along, her chin pressed to her chest. It was not yet time for her to celebrate. There was still the matter of what she would do when she got to the stage, which had no ramp.

Try to imagine the most melodramatic scene you have ever witnessed. Now add to the tableau as many soaring eagles and galloping stallions as can be mustered. Color it in pinks and purples. Bring up the French horns. Do all of this and more and still you would have no hope of touching Cathy Kaiser’s performance that day in the Rose Ballroom. As she rolled up to the foot of the stage, the trumpeter belted out his last hurrah and fell silent. Grasping Tab Hunter’s suntanned arm, Kaiser took a deep breath and heaved herself up onto her feet. She was standing! Gritting her teeth, she began to struggle up the stairs, one excruciating step at a time. She was walking! Once on the stage, she shook loose of Tab’s support and stood free under her own power. The crowd lost its mind. Alisha’s husband, Bob, rigged out in a jewel-encrusted doublet with a white frilly collar, placed the laureate’s crown upon Kaiser’s head. Tab hung the robe from her shoulders and presented her with the scepter. Her coronation complete, Kaiser began to wobble across the stage toward the podium. Alisha crept along behind her, bearing aloft the leopard train.

Her poem did not disappoint. “A song leaps from my heart at the beginning of each new day,” Kaiser began. “A song with a melody that never plays a sad song.” At several points she appeared near collapse, but clenched her fists behind the podium and pushed on. “If I have the choice of sitting this one out, I will choose to dance!” she chanted. “If you have a choice dance, dance, dance!” As far as raking up the judges’ coals was concerned, you had to admit this was hard to top.

Kaiser gave the crowd a royal nod and fell into her throne. Alisha thanked us all for coming. “See you next year!” she shouted. Poets began to file out surprisingly fast. There were planes to catch. Cathy Kaiser sat in silence, a dazed look in her eyes. Her crown was tilted. Sweat ran down her cheeks. Poets rushed forward to congratulate the prizewinners they knew from their classes, but it did not look like Kaiser had any intention of moving, perhaps for days. While the other prizewinners—her court, I suppose—bustled around the stage taking pictures and shaking hands and even signing autographs, Kaiser, whether from exultation or exhaustion, remained seated on her throne. Hers was a quiet reign.

Within twenty minutes it was over. All in all, the glory was, as the man on the balloons put it, “too like the lightning, which doth cease to be / Ere one can say, It lightens.” Out in the hallway, I ran into Doc. I asked what he thought of the winners.

“Dunno,” he said. “I left. As soon as I heard that crap about dolphins and butterflies I left. I could see where the judging was going.”

“We feel,” another man said, “furthermore, that the time limits were unfairly imposed. There were some on the stage who should not have been there.”

“She could walk!” said a wiry little guy with a Hawaiian shirt and tattooed forearms. “We all saw her walking across the stage. I been to L.A. I seen how the panhandlers do it in their wheelchairs and with their crutches.”

“Gentlemen,” said a man with luxurious dreadlocks, “we have been duped.”

The man with the dreadlocks proceeded to make an allegation that I had some trouble swallowing. He claimed that Cathy Kaiser was an employee of the Famous Poets Society, the idea being that by awarding her the prize money they could fold it back into their revenue, with maybe a little coming off the top for Cathy’s show.

“Following the tragedy in New York,” he explained, “a man whose acquaintance I have made here in Reno called in to the office. Today when Ms. Kaiser read her poem, he recognized her voice as the same one he talked to on the phone that day. We’ve been had.”

The tattooed man let out a long low whistle. “I knew something was up,” he said. “I could tell the fix was in from the way the judges were acting. They weren’t even paying attention. Why not? Because they knew who was gonna get the prize. I went down for my group, just trying to wake them up. When my turn came, I says to the guy behind me, I says, ‘This is for you, buddy,’ and I went out and took a nosedive, yelling at them, doing my best Pee-Wee Herman routine, jumping around on the stage like a retard, you know, just to get them to open their eyes. Well, it worked, one of the guys in my group won a prize. But I got the shaft, and I got the shaft from this other society too. I came out here with just my shirt on my back, all the way from Jersey without a penny, and now I’m gonna have to ride the train cars back, which I don’t mind because a freight car is a fuck of a place to write some poetry.”

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BONUS: See photos of all the winners from September 18, 2001 in Reno, Nevada.

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Stay tuned for the final segment of Jake Silverstein’s story in which he reflects on what he’s learned from The Famous Poet’s Society.

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topics: The Famous Poet's Society