The Poetry Reading
(Carl Wendt, autodidact, professional cynic, flaneur, conman, outlier outlaw,
and last of the hardboiled poets actually attends a memorial poetry reading
at which he is one of the scheduled readers.)
from Ode To Sunset, A Year in The Life of American Genius,
a fiction by Pat Nolan
Wendt dreaded pushing open the auditorium door. Empty folding chairs in a cavernous space were always bad news. Slowly, as the evening progressed, the empty chairs would become emptier. For now there were clots of listeners scattered throughout to give it the air of being well attended. Fifty or more pairs of buns perched uncomfortably on metal ledges. Divided by the number of poets on the bill, it averaged out to about three and a quarter persons per poet. There was a stage and a podium, as might be expected, and most of the light in the cavernous acoustic nightmare was focused there. He stood at the back to let his eyes adjust. That’s where Irma found him.
“You’ve actually made it to a reading.” She hooked an arm through his. “That’s an event in itself.”
“When do you go on?” Wendt stared at the person at the podium trying to remember his name.
“I opted to get it over with early. That way I can listen to the poets without stressing about what I’m going to read.” She gave a pained smile. “Though I don’t know why I get the feeling that at large readings like this I’m committing public hari-kari.”
“Sorry I missed it. Self-evisceration can be quite a spectacle.”
“Carl, don’t try to be polite, it doesn’t suit you.”
In spite of himself, Wendt’s concentration focused on the reader. He wasn’t tuning Irma out. That would be impossible. She could be counted on to provide a running commentary of the reading and the readers.
The pace at which the poem being read, stately, metered, languid, sonorous with a clinical monotony as if it were being methodically inserted into the listener’s brain which required intense concentration from both the poet and the audience, was all too familiar. If he’d learned anything in his nearly forty year experience as a public reader of his own words, it was that the poem spoken is comprehended differently than read silently on the page. Sense wins out over meaning. Words passed without immediate understanding. Sometimes the pace and the rhythms were oceanic, hypnotic, leaving the listener comatose. On the other hand, the random soundscape of experiment was too often littered with the ponderous boulders of self drama. Some poets tried to read their poems with a tone approximating the neutrality of the page or with stentorian bombast brow beat the listener while others believed that approximating a hacksaw cutting through sheet metal was the best way to inculcate the masses. And yet still others, linguistic sadists, used words as turnbuckles. Fortunately every so often there were those who rose above the drone and caught the ear with their liquid colloquy, a honeyed speech being just that. Regrettably, the level of amateurishness was embarrassing. To an outside observer foolish enough to wander into such an event, there could be only one conclusion: they’d stumbled into a nest of losers.
The poet walked off the stage to a scattering of applause.
“Tom Rowley’s chatty poems are ok. They’re clever in a brain tweaky sort of way,” Irma opined, “but afterwards they always leave me feeling a little cheap between the ears.”
David Bloom, the MC, thanked the preceding poet and announced the next reader, a name Wendt was not unfamiliar with.
“Ugh,” Irma grunted, “Norma D’Monde! Her poems are so bad she’ll probably end up as the head of a writing program some day. And can you believe that dye job?”
It only took a few poems to prove Irma right, clearly writing program verse, anecdotal with barely a hint of music, labored wisdom, false epiphany, no chances taken, no surprises.
“That’s not poetry, that’s high fructose sentiment,” Irma’s snorted elegantly. “I was over at a friend’s apartment and I guess they ran out of cinderblocks because they were using Norma’s trilogy to prop up a corner of the bookshelves.”
“I’d read it as much as I’d read a cement brick” she answered to “Did you read it?”
And so it went, poet after poet, poem after poem: quasi-surreal cross-culture wake-up calls, declamatory lists accumulating momentum and achieving crescendo but then dropping off into bottomless illogic.
According to Irma, the next reader, Ann Tacit, author of Approval and soon to be published long poem entitled Earn, represented the catalog school of poets, which, as she explained, “contrary to what one might assume are not poets of compilation but poets who appear in slickly produced small press catalogs to create their own web of snobby literary assumptions. They’re also known as the California Cuisine School of Poetry—nice to look at but there’s not much there.”
“Ah,” Wendt breathed in comprehension, “overeducated middle class twits.”
There was never any quickness of mind. Some poems were like being stuck in a traffic jam of mirror images reflecting endlessly speculative details of what could have been done or was done or not. Woulda coulda shoulda as the old Indian chief used to say.
He knew Wallace Tambor from years before, still beating the drum of his associations in poems about meeting various famous poets and what he said to them, and they to him, most of them now dead and unable to contest his allegations. The halting sly wit of Ben Gunn’s dignified decrepitude and the desire to be present and accounted for overshadowing any regret. He was someone who reveled in anonymity and wrote a poetry to enforce it. Then Celia Thornbush, which, according to Irma, was an appropriate name for a feminist, and married to Bruce, a severe aesthete with a perpetually pained expression, but “should one wonder as he’s given his name to a woman who exemplifies, figuratively, the image of vagina dentata.”
It may have been a city ordinance that any multi-poet event had to include on its lineup a harangue with saxophone hipster staccato post-beat jive. Enrique Hermanos, aka KK, so his poem stated, offered the notion that music had returned to poetry in the form of a back beat. He was followed by Reggie Sides and some hip hop revolution poetry.
One of the readers, a woman rather elegantly attired but with the nervousness of a novice, read some surprisingly good poems which caused Irma to remark “she has a chin like a bottle opener.” Irma was never one to hold back from casting aspersions on the competition. One line unfortunately undermined all the poet’s good intentions. “The centrifugal force of the poetry whirl flings me to the periphery.”
“That’s not poetry,” Irma scoffed, “that’s just posturing.” And after Art Penn’s reading, “I know so many guys like that whose psychic turmoil makes for great poetry but really shitty lives.”
“It’s not a vocation for the insecure.”
“Yet they’re drawn to it. Moth, meet flame.”
“One does with what one has.”
“Who said it, the life of a poet, less than 2/3ds of a second?”
All the poets for the most part had that lean and hungry look of those who desired more than anything else to take their place in the spotlight and be the center of attention for even the slightest and most insignificant fraction of their allotted fifteen minutes of fame. He’d come to the conclusion that however well-intentioned, most poets belonged to the dissociative school, not that you could call it a school. More like a shark tank. “What was it William Carlos Williams said?” Irma asked, reading his mind, “There are a lot of bastards out there and most of them are writers.” Their factionalism and social ranking was tiresome. That was another problem with poets. They always want you to choose sides.
The next reader was Savannah George, real name Christine but Savannah was revealed to her during a trance. This was only after she had married the university economics professor whose last name she took. She held touchy feely writing seminars for women. Her own writing, homily laced pseudo-epiphany and gratuitous portraiture of women in history, was pedestrian at best. She was, on the other hand, one of the nicest people, saintly in some respects, with a wide-eyed intransigent innocence, nice and warm like the glow of coals but barely a flame above a flicker. Still, people like Savannah made him uncomfortable. They were like lampreys, psyche suckers. She was followed by a handsome young gay man. Funny how, among poets, it was the gay men who were physically appealing, the women mostly homely and severe, Irma and Val being among the few exceptions. His prancing O’Hara-esque faux camp preceded Taz Stevens (not to be confused with Cat or Wallace), an old snake oil salesman who crooned, with deep English sonority, signifying a pulpit gravity, the laments and lessons of an intemperate man.
“Yuk!” Irma exclaimed, “Flypaper poetry!”
Wendt had been thinking of when and where he’d first run into old Taz. Probably at the Blue Unicorn open readings back when any of them had to shave only a couple times a week and were still wet between the ears. Hadn’t changed his tune much since then. “Say again? Fly what?”
“Flypaper poetry. And poets. You know, the feel-sorry-for-my-sensitive-soul, pleas-for-attention school. Crass manipulation of emotions, sticky self-serving self-satisfied cloying sentimentality. Nothing is more boring than a poet left over from an era people have already forgotten.”
Wendt laughed. “Don’t hold back now, let it all out.”
“Did you know his wife ran off with one of her former kindergarten pupils? She’s like twenty five years younger than her!”
“Alright, now you’re just going to make me feel sorry for him.”
Caveat Lector: Ode To Sunset is satirical fiction, not a roman à clef or veiled autobiography. No actual poets were named in the writing of this fiction with the exception of dead poets who serve as historical or literary markers as is often required of dead poets. To read more of the scurrilous and louche peregrinations of the last of the hardboiled poets go to odetosunset.com
Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels. His most recent books of poetry are Exile In Paradise (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2017) and So Much, Selected Poems, Volume I 1969-1989 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society. He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.