Article — From the August 2002 issue

What Is Poetry? And Does it Pay?

In song oracles were given, and the way of life was shown; the favour of kings was sought in Pierian strains, and mirth was found to close toil’s long spell. So you need not blush for the Muse skilled in the lyre, and for Apollo, god of song.
— Horace, Ars Poetica

Summer in New Orleans is a long slow thing. Day and night, a heavy heat presides. Waiters stand idle at outdoor cafés, fanning themselves with menus. The tourists have disappeared, and the city’s main industry has gone with them. Throughout town the pinch is on. It is time to close the shutters and tie streamers to your air conditioner; to lie around and plot ways of scraping by that do not involve standing outside for periods of any length.

I was so occupied one humid afternoon when I came across a small newspaper notice that announced in large letters, “$25,000 poetry contest.” “Have you written a poem?” the notice began. I had written a poem. I had even considered submitting it to contests, but the prizes offered never amounted to much — a university might put up $100 in the name of a dead professor — and I hadn’t sent it off. This was a different proposition. With $25,000 I could pay off my debts, quit my jobs, and run the air on hi cool for a while. I submitted my poem that very day.

Two weeks later I had in my hands a letter from something calling itself the Famous Poets Society, based in Talent, Oregon. The Executive Committee of its distinguished Board of Directors, the letter informed me, had chosen my poem, from a multitude, to be entered in its seventh annual poetry convention, which would be held September 16–18 at John Ascuaga’s Nugget hotel and casino in Reno, Nevada. “Poets from all over the world will be there to enjoy your renown,” the letter boasted, “including film superstar Tony Curtis.”

This was not exactly what I had imagined. The notice in the newspaper had said nothing about a convention in Reno, and I had expected simply to win, or not. I felt almost foolish. Poets, I suspect, make good marks. In his study of Dryden, Lord Macaulay observed that “poetry requires not an examining but a believing frame of mind.” Evidently the same conclusion had been reached in a rented boardroom in Talent. I was about to throw the letter away when it dawned on me that there was still the matter of the $25,000.

The letter was from Mark Schramm, the executive director of the society. He informed me that should I choose to make the trip, I would be honored with the “Jacob Silverstein 2001 Poet of the Year Medallion” and the “Prometheus Muse of Fire Trophy,” both of which I would find to be “unique.” Schramm continued: “The fabulous Tab Hunter has asked that you personally walk with him in our Famous Poets Parade! As our Grand Marshal, he invites you to bring a poem of peace to release ‘on the wings of Pegasus,’ during our Famous Poets for Peace Balloonathon. Your poem is your message of love to the world. . . . I also look forward to seeing you win our poetry contest! Imagine yourself with a $25,000 check in hand and being crowned ‘Famous Poet Laureate for 2001!’ I can already hear the crowd cheering as the laureate crown is placed on your head! How beautiful you look!”

I knew that everyone who submitted a poem had been invited to Reno,Later on I was to learn that a few of the entrants are not invited to the convention. As Naythen Harrington, Schramm’s assistant, explained it to me, “You can’t put limits on poetry, but at the same time we’re not going to offend a bunch of people if someone’s like, ‘I fuck goats five times a day and I’m gonna piss in my eye.’”and I knew that Tab Hunter had never said anything to Schramm about my walking with him, but the fact remained that someone was going to win $25,000 and get to wear a crown. I wrote back to say that I would attend.

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