Article — From the August 2002 issue
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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.
Five days before the convention was to begin, terrorists attacked the United States, but the Famous Poets Society decided to push ahead with its program as planned. It was felt that poetry was needed now more than ever. It was also felt that there would be no full refunds of the $495 registration fee, in the event of a canceled flight or a distraught flier. I flew to San Francisco, rented a car, and drove up into the Sierra Nevadas, over Donner Pass, to Reno.
I arrived at the Nugget and identified myself as a famous poet. The lackluster bellhop, who barely opened his heavy lids, directed me to the second floor for convention registration. There I was presented with my Prometheus Muse of Fire Trophy and Poet of the Year Medallion. My Muse of Fire Trophy was a cheap-looking wedge of plastic with an image of a man in a toga — Prometheus, I assumed — pressed into its back. A sticker personalized this gimcrack. My medallion seemed more valuable, since it was made from a metal into which my name had actually been punched. I also received a red T-shirt and a certificate honoring me as a recipient of both the medallion and the Muse of Fire. I stowed these laurels in my room and made for the Champagne Reception in the Rose Ballroom.
“First time here?” a man asked me. He was wearing a jeans jacket and jeans. He had a bristly brown beard and a long hawklike nose. His name tag identified him as Doc Smith.
“Yes,” I told him. “Yours?”
“Nah,” he said. “I been here before.”
“So you like it?”
“It’s all right.” He scanned the crowd with a sour expression. “Thing that gets annoying is all these thirteen-year-old girls writing about broken hearts, lost love, suicide, that sort of thing. Try going to war.”
Doc’s voice was gruff, and his bearing suggested a long-standing annoyance with the world. He was a Vietnam veteran. Before the war he had been a singer in a band called People whose song “I Love You” had traveled up the charts to number fourteen in 1968. He sang a few bars for me. It sounded like a good song for dancing close with a girl. He gave me his card, which said “Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 290,” in big letters; and in smaller letters, “John Doc Smith, The Poet.”
“This is an okay conference,” he said. “But it’s not as nice as the one the International Library of Poetry puts out. When they have a champagne reception, it’s all the champagne you could want, plus punch and hors d’oeuvres, and top-flight entertainment. Classy.”Based in Maryland, the International Library of Poetry (ILP) is America’s other amateur poetry society. The ILP is older and bigger than the Famous Poets Society (FPS), and stages its conventions in big venues like Disney World. There are, however, similarities between their two shows. Both feature a celebrity host; both dispense medallions. Both give away $20,000 or more to their top poet. Both publish anthologies of the year’s best verse. Suspicion and acrimony characterize their interactions. During my own dealings with the FPS, I was mistaken for an undercover agent of the ILP.
The problems began when I sent Schramm a few questions about the history of the FPS. Several days later his reply arrived. “I have decided that I will not answer any of your questions,” he wrote. “I think you are connected with the International Library of Poetry.” Schramm went on to say that the ILP had attempted to infiltrate a prior FPS convention with a scout “posing as a poet.” Schramm offered as proof of this assertion the fact that at the next ILP convention a bigger cash prize was awarded to the top poet. He assured me that the FPS was willing to let there be two societies but suspected that the ILP felt differently.
“To that extent,” he wrote, “I think they recruited you, or you perhaps approached them.”He looked disparagingly at the tables. “This one’s going downhill.”
It was true that the scene lacked glamour. The Rose Ballroom did not feel much like a ballroom. The walls were carpeted in institutional gray, the floor in a tacky pattern of red and blue. The stage was empty save for an off-center podium. Fluorescent tubes lit the room unkindly. On folding tables covered in red paper, the champagne was lined up in plastic glasses. The supply was sorely insufficient. Mostly, the tables were covered with empty glasses, upside down and on their sides. “They don’t put enough champagne,” I heard an elderly Filipino man in a three-piece suit and snappy two-tone brogues complain.
Doc seemed to know his way around the convention, and I asked if he had any tricks for winning the cash prize.
“Nah,” he said. “Just do your thing. Don’t get nervous. Hardest competition is going to be from the black people. They tend to be more expressive, and that impresses the judges.”
Before Doc could finish his counsel, the emcee of the convention, Alisha Rodrigues, called us to order. Doc had seen it all before and was going to try his luck on the slots. According to the General Schedule, we were to be introduced to the poets who would be our teachers for the next three days. There was Rigg Kennedy, who had a supporting role in the 1982 film The Slumber Party Massacre; Joel Weiss, who played an orderly in The Meteor Man; and Al D’Andrea, who appeared as Lieutenant Wilkins in the short-lived television drama Brooklyn South.
“Please help me welcome,” Alisha said, “the acclaimed author of Riggwords, and a true famous poet: Rigg Kennedy!”
From the front row, a man in a white turtleneck and safari-style pants rose. As he mounted the stage, I noted a strange buoyancy to his bright white hair, as if each follicle housed a tightly coiled miniature spring. He grasped the podium with both hands, leaned into the microphone, and proclaimed, “As poets, each one of you, in your cellular structure, in your brain power, can change the universe.” His hairs trembled. “I’m going to read ‘Kozmic Alley.’ It was first published in Architectural Digest.”
Rigg shuffled his papers with a dignified air, took a sip of water, and cleared his throat. He then began to wail at the top of his lungs. Across the aisle a cowboy poet who had been napping sat up like a shot had gone off. The woman in front of me covered her baby’s ears. Rigg modulated his wail up and down and then started breaking up the wails with some whistles. When he’d had enough of that, he intoned solemnly:
space dust clouds spinning whirling
gushing gases dancing throbbing
exploding indefinites definitely longer farer
than i dare count to kingdom come
Rigg took a dramatic pause to let the first stanza sink in. The silence was partial. Like a shopping mall, a casino is full of hundreds of tiny speakers that play soothing background music in one genre or another. At that particular moment the Nugget’s system was playing a punchy jazz tune, and the piano filled Rigg’s caesura with unwanted gaiety. He did his best to ignore this, then opened his mouth extremely wide and began to croak. He took a drink of water and gargled into the microphone. He did some panting, then finished with more of the wailing and whistling that had gotten him started. Across the aisle, the cowboy poet tipped back his ten-gallon hat and frowned.
I could see that the cowboy’s consternation was widespread. If this was the sort of poetry the judges were looking for, we might be in trouble. Our poems had no sound effects. Did they expect us to gargle?
These fears were allayed somewhat by the next poet, Joel Weiss, a younger man with a thick Bronx accent. When his name was announced, he bounded onstage and began an awkward striptease. “I’m not dressed right for this poetry,” he said, swinging his jacket. Women hooted and rushed the stage with cameras. I recalled T. S. Eliot’s complaint that “the poet aspires to the condition of the music-hall comedian.” Underneath his shirt and slacks Joel sported New York Mets boxer shorts and a matching Mets jersey. “I’m a lifelong baseball fan,” he laughed. “That explains my poetry.” Joel asked that the ladies return to their seats, then recited an original composition entitled “On My Way to Shea.” The poem rhymed and had a metrical structure that he regularly defied. There was a clever twist at the end when the narrator, who you think is a fan, turns out to be a player, but because of the way Joel read the poem this effect was lost. His bungled recitation suggested either that this was the first time he had seen the poem in years, or that it had been composed in haste during Rigg’s bag of tricks. Still, Joel’s verses were warmly received, in large measure because they reassured us that we would be expected neither to gargle nor to pant.
There followed a confused interlude in which Alisha got up onstage, walked to the podium, started to speak, then stopped and went to the edge of the stage to confer. When the conferring was done she explained that Tony Curtis had lost friends in the tragedy in New York and would not be with us today. Alisha told us to hold hands and bow our heads together as we observed a moment of silent prayer for Mr. Curtis and his family. We did, and the theme song from Bonanza filled the ballroom.
After a short break, we reconvened for the Master Workshop, presented by Al D’Andrea. Al affected a professorial demeanor, repeatedly snatching off his reading glasses and gesturing philosophically with his hands. He ranged over a number of poets, from William Carlos Williams to Lucille Clifton, each one serving the overall point of his address, which was called “Saying Yes: Embracing the Life Force of Your Poem.” He closed with a poem by James Scully entitled “What Is Poetry?” Having just witnessed the dramatic opposition of Rigg’s experimental soundscape and Joel’s corny baseball rhymes, and with $25,000 hanging somewhere in the balance, I found the question pertinent. Unfortunately, Scully offered no definitive answers. He posed instead a series of odd counter-questions, such as “if it were a crib/would you trust your baby to sleep in it?” Al added to the weight of these quandaries by chewing on his glasses.
As we filed out of the Rose Ballroom, I thought about Scully’s poem. Samuel Johnson had struggled with the very question before conceding that “it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is, but it is not so easy to tell what it is.” I had little hope that Joel Weiss would be able to top that. To prepare our poems for the judged readings, we had been divided into ten “classes” and assigned “homeroom monitors.” Joel was mine.
“Just to give a brief introduction to myself,” Joel began, as we found seats in a gigantic room we only half-filled. “I’m an actor. I’ve got a movie coming out in October with Wesley Snipes. I’ve been in forty-two films, and in most of them I get beat up or killed. I started writing poetry on trains and stuff. I never really call myself a poet. I just try to get out my frustrations. Who’s got a question?”
“Do I need to cut my poem to twenty-one lines?” This came from Bertha Venson, a small black woman with a lisp from Euclid, Ohio.
“That’s important,” Joel said, dropping his voice an octave to indicate that he was leveling with us. “If your poem’s going over, cut the extra lines. You have one solid minute when you’re up there. I know you care about your poem, but once you’re up there, you’re trying to win the moolah.”
This was true. Whatever Dr. Johnson might think, in Reno a poem was a lottery ticket, and none of us shied from this important fact. Poetry might be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as Wordsworth said, but what good would it do you if it flowed over the time limit? Joel’s caveat sparked an anxious discussion, in which it came out that many of the poets were in violation of the time limits and at a loss for how to prune their verses. Realizing he had caused a minor crisis, Joel hurriedly offered up the best panacea he could muster. “You know what I always say?” he said, leveling with us even more. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This settled things down somewhat. A blonde woman with heavy eye makeup and a German accent stood up. “I have a glittery dress,” she said. “Do I wear my glittery dress before the judges?”
“What about a peach dress?” another poet cried. “Is peach a good color for the camera?”
Joel relaxed a little, sensing that he was out of the woods with having to edit all our poems and back in familiar territory. “Peach, glitters, or whatever you’re gonna wear,” he said. “Figure it out tonight and lay it out on your bed so you won’t have to think about it tomorrow morning.”
We took a dinner break after the first round of readings, and I considered the field. About half of the Class Six poems suggested that poetry was an instructive art, a pleasant way of passing along an uplifting lesson. In this they fit the neoclassical mode outlined by Sir Philip Sidney in his 1580–81 Defence of Poesie, which defined poetry as “a speaking Picture, with this end to teach and delight.” There was “An Imperfect World,” by Anita Jones of Cincinnati, which put forth, in list fashion, all of the things that were wrong with the world, that we might learn to accept them; “Taking Time,” by Lydia Heiges of Kempner, Texas (she of the glittery dress), which reminded the reader to slow down and enjoy life; “At a Time Like This,” by Myra Ann Richardson of Kernersville, North Carolina, a patriotic verse that aimed to rally our spirits; and “I Want to Know Please,” by Lou Howard of Azle, Texas, which used the device of an inquisitive child to illustrate how “it takes both sunshine and rain to make rainbows.” These poems relied on poetic tropes — flowers that stood for hope, sunsets that led to contemplation — and standard formats — the list, the apostrophe, the regular metrical line — to convey certain messages to the audience. They would have pleased Sir Philip, who felt that poetry’s purpose was to appeal to those “hard hearted evill men who thinke vertue a schoole name, and know no other good but indulgere genio, and therefore despise the austere admonitions of the Philosopher.” Sir Philip figured these men would swallow the uplifting message of a poem, “ere themselves be aware, as if they tooke a medicine of Cheries.”
Around 1800, Sir Philip’s utilitarian idea gave way to that of the Romantics, from whom the remaining Class Six poets seemed to take their cue. These poems were meant to convey the rawest inner emotions, most of which turned out to be gloomy. Reena Louis’s poem, “The Lost Letter,” matched up against the most melancholy that Keats had to offer, and Wes Dodrill’s “The Last Race,” an elegy for stock-car driver Dale Earnhardt, was every bit as mournful and sad as Shelley’s “Adonais” or Wordsworth’s “Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg.” For these classmates, poetry was, as Lord Byron had seen it, “the lava of the imagination whose eruption prevents an earthquake.”
My own poem was neither a medicine of Cheries nor a blowhole of the soul. It was called “New York, so often recorded in photographs.” I suppose you would call it modernist.
After dinner I took a stroll around the casino floor. There were famous poets everywhere, easily identifiable by their gold medallions and red T-shirts with the proclamation i’m their most famous poet! printed in black across the back. They stuffed coins into nickel and quarter games with such names as “Quartermania,” “Betty Boop,” “Blazing 7s,” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” At their sides, cigarettes burned untouched in ashtrays. Every once in a while, a machine shouted, “Wheel! Of! Fortune!”
I made my way over to the Aquarium Bar, where in a pale blue light, surrounded by wooden tiki lanterns, plastic banana trees, and red totem poles, I ran into Doc. He was peeved.
“They don’t have the alumni jacket,” he said, shaking his head.
“The what?” I asked.
“The alumni jacket. If you go to one one year you’re supposed to get an alumni jacket the next year. They don’t have them. You know, you get your people who swear by the Famous Poets Society, but to me it’s just amateur compared to the International Library.”The headquarters of the ILP are located at 1 Poetry Plaza, in Owings Mill. I telephoned their main switchboard and laid out my cards. Right away I could tell theirs was the bigger outfit. From the background noise on my FPS calls, I’d gotten the impression that Schramm’s entire operation was crammed into two rooms. At the ILP, I was transferred around and around.
They put me on the line with Steve Michaels, the convention coordinator. Michaels painted me the big picture. He planned his conventions to accommodate more than 2,000 poets; the FPS had, what, a few hundred? He then gave me a detailed account of why the ILP was better than the FPS.
“Where they give out their trophy we give out a real silver-plated bowl,” Michaels argued. “We also give out tote bags and mugs and a medallion. There’s just more to do for our poets. We have two banquet dinners as opposed to their one. We have Florence Henderson, the Coasters, and the Shangri-las, and our celebrities stay the entire weekend. I don’t think Tony Curtis stayed more than the afternoon this year at theirs. Our contests are completely fair. We don’t even judge them ourselves, we outsource the judging to college professors. This year we have a Pulitzer Prize winner, W. D. Snodgrass, as our keynote speaker. So we’re not really too concerned if the FPS has a small convention once a year. To be honest, we don’t really recognize the FPS at all.”
I gave it to him straight. Accusations had been made. Schramm thought I was just one in a line of ILP spies.
“They’ve said similar things about people that went to their convention in the past,” he told me. “I think they’re very worried. You know, I went to their convention years ago when I was still in college. There wasn’t really that much to do, to be honest. You read your poem, sometimes as late as midnight, and you went to one banquet.”
It was hard to believe this business with the jacket alone had set him off, so I asked him if he had been losing money too.
“Nah,” he said, gazing out at the casino. “I’m up eight hundred bucks. Been at ‘Blazing 7s’ all day.”
It turned out that what was really eating at Doc was some teenage poet who had won a prize for the last three years running. The kid was back again, looking for a four-peat.
“Kid doesn’t even change the poem,” Doc complained. “Just keeps bringing the same one back and winning the prize.”
“Well, it must be pretty good,” I said.
“Nah, it’s nothing special. But he does a whole Ricky Martin routine on it. Goes down on his knees for the sad parts. The judges like that crap.”
The Aquarium Bar’s evening entertainment — Darcy on vocals, January on keys — started in on a cover of “Captain of Her Heart.” Through the banana trees I saw a woman run out of coins on a “Quartermania” machine and jokingly try to stuff her Poet of the Year medallion down the slot. “The main problem I have with poetry is this,” Doc said. “It’s totally subjective.”
On Monday morning I woke in a tangle of sheets and lay there turning things over in my head. I thought I should be dramatizing my poem if I was serious about winning the $25,000. Maybe this kid with the Ricky Martin routine had the right idea. I ran over my poem a few times, looking for places where I might go down on a knee. My poem did not seem to lend itself to that kind of theater.
Joel was scheduled to deliver the morning lecture, “How to Be a Poet on Your Feet.” The session was under way when I arrived. “As actors we always deal with being in the moment,” Joel explained 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 doughnut, and even if you like doughnuts it becomes repetitious. But that audience that comes in shouldn’t know that you’ve been eating that doughnut every day, and that, you know, the doughnut’s terrible, because you’re still eating it like it’s the first time you’re ever biting into that doughnut and boy, that is so good, that doughnut! 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. 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 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 a poet. 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 with all his nutty ideas.
“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, he 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”? And had he been speaking literally when he encouraged us to “listen to the conversations of the spirits that live in tree trunks”? But Rigg was curious to hear our poems and opened the floor of the Bonanza Room to all. A bottleneck formed instantly.
The judged readings had been going on since 8:00 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 the stage, making it safe to maneuver the room’s darkness. Gordon Lightfoot had played this room.
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 verse 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 Noël Miller, stepped up to read her poem “The Encounter,” a melodramatic account of a suicide attempt averted at the crucial moment through Jesus’ 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 such gestures were what the Class Six poems had in common. They 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 action she repeated in exactly the same manner every time she read. It had taken a few viewings for me to catch on to this. The poems were spells against time. They put the poet in a trance, within which the much debated time limits were rendered irrelevant.
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. 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 to read:
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.
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.”
My tablemates 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? 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. 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 tuxedos, pink tuxedos, green tuxedos, and black tuxedos; 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.”For all its class, the ILP turned out to have a rap sheet as long as The Faerie Queene. In 1994, Dave Barry had slammed the ILP in his nationally syndicated column. In 1996, the Guardian had exposed the ILP’s U.K. branch. ABC’s 20/20 aired a segment two years later. All three reports had arrived at the same conclusion: in order to increase the number of paying poets registered at its conventions, the ILP sets its poetic standards unfathomably low; possibly, it dispenses with them entirely.
Each report resorted to a secret test of the ILP’s discernment, featuring A-Poem-Worse-Than-Which-Cannot-Be-Imagined, which when entered in the ILP contest automatically won placement in the $49.95 anthology of the year’s best verse. The compositional techniques employed in the production of these poems turned out to be far more interesting than the reports themselves. The Guardian’s report featured “Acclaim,” a dadaist poem composed by juxtaposing lines from advertisements in the Portsmouth Yellow Pages. In the 20/20 piece, reporter Arnold Diaz visited a classroom of second-graders, persuaded them to write poems about their pets, then submitted these. Barry’s poem, “Love,” was an original work, in which he took great pains to write something silly and unpolished.
I had intended to gather information from these reports and lay it out for Schramm, in the hopes that denouncing the ILP would prove my allegiance to the FPS. Unfortunately, the conclusion these reports came to regarding the ILP could just as easily have been the result of a study of Schramm’s outfit. The main reason the FPS had not attracted the gumshoes was probably the much smaller threat it posed.
Across the hall Rigg Kennedy stood at the center of a small crowd. Copies of his book Riggwords were for sale. 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 an Italian. 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 flutes.”
“She’s gone,” Doc muttered.
There was some truth to that, but spending ten hours watching more than 300 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 “5 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 informed me that there would be no respite for the Judge. Because the balloons had flown up at varying times, they were all on different schedules, ensuring pops for at least the rest of her speech. “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 struck up and began to lead 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; it was hard to make her out. Then we let go of our balloons.
“There’s mine! There’s mine!” people 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 they 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. Each balloon became a minuscule dot, then disappeared entirely.
Some of the poets were denied this pleasure. Their poems outdid their balloons. Off to the side they congregated and swapped ideas about how to get airborne. Class Six’s Anita Jones emerged as the leader of this band. It was she who hit on the idea of tying all the drooping poems together. She laid into the task and presently had a craft comprising twenty-one balloons.
“We gonna make this sucker go!” Anita shouted. You could tell by the lazy way the balloons were hanging that those poems were going nowhere. Anita pushed and another girl blew, but that only served to move the poems around on the ground. Anita called for more balloons.
The Famous Poets 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.
Things were tense. 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 poem. 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 with a thin tie 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.
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 the crowd, 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 when I looked out at the crowd. I seemed to slip out of my body entirely. It was a very strange sensation, and I could see how it might lead a person to break down and shout, “World peace!” I held myself together as best I could, referred to my notes, and read my poem.
My chair in the winners’ circle afforded me an entirely new perspective on the convention. Who really gave a damn about what poetry was or wasn’t? 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 an 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’!”
Here was our queen. We looked around excitedly, but no one stood up. Was she gone? The initial applause began to peter out. 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 pillars, where with a look of grim determination Cathy L. Kaiser of Phoenix, Arizona, was slowly advancing toward the stage in a motorized wheelchair.
The applause erupted. 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 was going on. 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. Add to this as many soaring eagles as your imagination can muster. Color it in pinks and purples. 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 with 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.”I could be relatively sure that these allegations were baseless. If the judging was rigged, why had I, a suspected agent of the ILP, walked away with $1,000? The FPS was honest, I knew that much. It may not have had a Pulitzer Prize winner for its keynote speaker, but the FPS ran a straight show. As for the ILP, with its silver-plated bowl, I could not say. Had Dave Barry’s poem proven the ILP to be criminally unexclusive, or just democratic? Or was Barry simply a bad poet? After all, he could have played to win. It is easy to say what poetry is not, but why not at least try to say what it is?
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. 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.”
My plane did not leave until the following morning. I spent Tuesday night in the casino. The Nugget is not actually that big, and most of my time was passed at the Aquarium Bar. The musical entertainment came in the form of a well-oiled duo known as Bobby and Ricky, whose engagement is listed in Nugget literature as “indefinite.” Bobby was a sax player with a genial smile; Ricky, a guitarist in a leisure suit with curly gray hair. When I arrived Bobby was tying up the last few bars of “Secret Agent Man.” When the song was through he grabbed the microphone and shouted, “Have some more tequila!” pronouncing the last word with a lascivious Mexican accent. The mostly geriatric crowd responded with a lusty cheer. I noticed a table of famous poets, all wearing their medallions and drinking heavily. Bobby and Ricky started into “Unchained Melody.” Dancers crowded the floor. An elderly couple stood in the center, barely swaying, locked in a tender embrace. A man wearing a cowboy hat and a shirt patterned with the American flag asked one of the poets to dance. I knew her. She had bent my ear the night before, telling me all about her unhappy marriage that fell apart a few years back and the poetry that had helped her through it. She smiled up at the cowboy and laid her hand on his outstretched forearm. Some of us began to sing along with Bobby. The din of the slots died away. Out of the fake thatched roof descended Apollo, god of song. The waitress stood and watched, her tray full of tequila shots, limes, salt. The muse of the lyre visited Ricky, and he strummed a lovely chord. Time and loss for us seemed distant, made-up things. At the center of the world were Bobby’s lips, singing the immortal verses, and in these verses we took our solace and our hearts were gladdened. This was poetry.
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