As National Poetry Month draws to a close, I’ve talked about persistence in writing poetry (losing your job for it), punishment for poetry (being beaten for writing it), and poetry as a tool of healing…but now it’s time to lighten things up a bit. Because while poetry can be mysterious and serious, it should also be accessible and fun…and sometimes when the people who write it get together in a group, interesting things happen…
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It is not to my credit that in junior college I chose to write poetry over my usual fiction simply because it was shorter and, therefore, presumably easier. Of course, I now know better. But there you have it. And, perhaps not surprisingly, that early poetry was pretty bad stuff.
Although I achieved the goal of completing my first chapbook last year, these days I’ve eschewed poetry for prose, in the form of this blog, the occasional freelance article, and an in-progress novel. But a recent spell of poring over months-old emails from the Academy of American Poets, which provides subscribers with a “Poem a Day” five days a week, had me thinking about poetry once more…and how I still intend to write two more chapbooks…and from there it was merely a hop, skip and a jump to recalling the first Palm Beach Poetry Festival in Boca Raton, which I attended with my friend Terry Godbey in 2005.
I didn’t really know what to expect of the festival, but it was quite the experience, from the dead hotel guest on our first night, to…well, read on.
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The festival began on a Friday evening with a panel of guest poets – former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Thomas Lux, Sharon Olds, and Patricia Smith – speaking on the application of poetry to our lives. The next day we had two “craft classes,” one on poetry and riddles, the second on rhythm and sound in poetry (something sadly missing in a great deal of modern work). Terry and I were both blessed with epiphanies that day, mine occurring at the first of the two major readings when I saw nationally acclaimed slam poet Patricia Smith for the first time. In theatrical, straight-from-memory delivery she celebrated everything from making cornbread with her father to a group of women who stripped in public in honor of Pablo Neruda; her “persona poems” appropriated the voices of Olive Oyl and an undertaker with equally electrifying realism. It was unlike anything this gal, accustomed to relatively sedate college open mics, had ever heard, and Patricia was so popular that all her books sold out by the end of the evening. I hardly envied Tom Lux following such a performance, but his distinctive voice took me from laughing about a 1957 refrigerated jar of cherries to, in a breath, watering eyes as he eulogized a quadriplegic friend.
The next night’s reading with Sharon Olds (does anyone write about sex like Sharon Olds? Seriously, does anyone?) and Billy Collins (who else would channel the spirit of a deceased dog…who didn’t like his owner?) left both Terry and I with further inspiration, to the point that Terry was drafting a new piece by dinner time. But you could say the highlights had actually begun on Friday…when she entered our room around midnight to announce that a state trooper was at the front desk, other officers were milling about, and she’d ridden in the elevator with two men carrying stretchers. I was left in a state of mystery until she appeared a second time after running into a fellow wearing gloves and a badge that said “Removal Services.” (Hint: he wasn’t removing garbage.) Had someone died? Terry inquired. “Yes,” but he didn’t know the details. A few minutes later he was bringing a body out of a room on the fifth floor, and the next morning we learned that an elderly gentleman had passed away in his sleep.
I couldn’t help wondering if that was a sanitized version, but told myself I’d probably seen too many movies.
On the second evening of the festival, prior to the guest poet readings, a group of attendees met for dinner at a local restaurant. While waiting for the food to arrive, festival marketing coordinator Maria (name changed to protect the blogger) announced that she’d dreamed, two nights before, that she had, um, male parts. Someone asked her for details. Said Maria: “Are you sure you really want to hear this?” They were. Next thing we knew, she was recounting with gusto how she’d dreamed that she, as a woman, was performing a certain act in a bathroom, and while she was marveling at how different it felt from anything she’d experienced as a woman, a second, um, part began growing out of the first. Then she suddenly remembered that her boyfriend was coming over, and thought, aghast, “I need a lady part!” (Okay, that’s not exactly how she worded it, but I’m trying to keep this post relatively family-friendly.) Whether she magically acquired said part or not is unknown, as the dream apparently ended there.
And I couldn’t help wondering what Freud would have made of that one.
Highlight #3 occurred at the same dinner, also courtesy of Maria. As moderator of a weekly poetry slam, she described a memorable occasion on which a girl who was next in line to perform suddenly announced she had to go to the bathroom. Maria informed her that she’d forfeit her place in the lineup if she did, since the rule was to go before you were due on stage, or hold it until you’d finished. Unable or unwilling to choose between her limited options, the girl announced to the audience, “Excuse me, I’ve gotta pee,” and proceeded to do so in a bucket on the stage. This matter of business over, she carried on with her performance.
As Maria said, you just wonder who raised some people. And I couldn’t help wondering the same thing.
Our final highlight of said dinner came to us via a quirky gentleman known herein as Bert, who at one point remarked to Terry, “I’ve been thinking of writing a book for men on how to make love to a woman, because in my experience, most men don’t know how.” (I observed to Terry later that I wasn’t sure I wanted to know how he acquired said experience; she had her own pithy observations on the subject.) Bert’s advice on writing wasn’t much better. Noticing Terry working on her new poem, and her mentioning that she had reached a block, he suggested something to the effect of “Put your beginning at the end of your middle” and “Think of your poem as a spider’s web.” But that was nothing to his next conversational salvo, fired at Terry’s friend, who lived in New York City: “Have you ever smelled a New York subway bathroom?” The poor girl replied that she wasn’t sure there were any. All I recall after that, since I wisely tuned out the rest of the topic, is something to the effect of how “an opened bottle of Mr. Clean couldn’t compare.”
And I still can’t help wondering why anyone would consider the foregoing topics appropriate for mealtime conversation.
Our next two highlights transpired at the open mic reading on Sunday afternoon. Perhaps I should point out here that the festival audience was predominantly late middle-aged to elderly, and one could be forgiven the apprehension, as Patricia Smith mentioned to me while signing a copy of her book, that some poems might be “a little over the top” for said audience. I remembered this when Maria introduced her work by saying it was “for any woman who’s ever been called a whore, and for every woman who hasn’t followed her bliss for fear of being called a whore.” In spite of mentally rolling my eyes at “follow your bliss,” I prepared to listen with interest…and it was indeed interesting, sprinkled liberally with profanities and opening with a shouted “WHORE!”
Due to the large number of readers, Maria, as moderator, had limited each to a single poem. While the majority of them were quite good, several obviously disobeyed the 30-line maximum rule. We all, however, obeyed the one poem only rule…except for the lady who regaled us with a piece opened by a shouted, rapid-fire line in a language which might have been Eastern European. (Bert told us later it was intended to imitate the sound of approaching tanks). She then spoke in a subdued, gloomy fashion about war, etc., followed by another shouted line of incomprehensible language…followed by more gloomy war stuff…ending with a third line of incomprehensible shouted stuff. Dramatic pause. Then, in a girlishly sweet, light, smiling voice, she announced “This is my light one.” Maria quickly reminded her of the “one poem only” limit. “But it’s a short one”… One poem only! “But it’s really quick”… One poem only! She finally gave in, but not without protest, putting me forcibly in mind of those old vaudeville routines involving a giant hook wielded from offstage.
Then there was the lady whose cell phone rang during one poor guy’s reading. There’s nothing like being treated to a canned performance of “Hello, Dolly!” while you’re trying to read your work to a large group of strangers – especially when it’s your first time reading in public. The audience instructed him to start over. He did.
The final highlight I’ll mention belonged to Sharon Olds. Introducing one of her newer poems, she began by, “in deference to the title,” removing her hair scarf and letting her long ponytail fly free.
Poem title: “First Condom.”
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“Good Lord, that sounds like something out of the sixties,” commented one friend upon hearing the unexpurgated version of this story. I was born a bit too late to speak to that, but I suppose it’s just what happens when you put a crowd of creative souls under one roof. And while I only started one or two new poems that weekend, neither of which came to fruition, the wildly distinctive voices and talent, the laughter, tears, and even awe are as fond a staple of my memory as the wackiness, even if the latter is more immediately memorable. Technical issues prevented DVDs of the featured poets from being developed, but the CDs received in their place have brought me enjoyment on many a long car trip or work commute. I’m glad to report that the festival thrived and has been held annually for nearly a decade, lengthening and adding more workshops and guest speakers, and I’ll never forget being a part of its inception.
I used to be a poet. Someday I’ll be a poet again. Someday I’ll get around to that second chapbook…and, I hope, a third. Someday I’ll find myself feeling wistful for another dose of hijinks-laced inspiration…and maybe I’ll find myself receiving another epiphany at another meeting of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.
Maybe I’ll even find you there. Just do me a favor – don’t invite Bert to dinner, okay?
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How about you? Have you ever been to a poetry festival? If so, what were your most memorable experiences? Did you get an epiphany out of it – or a new poem? Would you even go to a poetry festival? Write me and let me know.