A rainy Saturday afternoon in the offices of plangent voices, the poetry quarterly I helped found nearly three decades ago, and from which I was summarily ousted in a hostile takeover in the early 80′s by Elena Gotchko, the Emily Dickinson-wannabe whom I had taken under my wing when she was still a naif young ingenue, cutting her own hair and not doing a very good job of it.
Elena had marched in to announce that she’d become “elena gotchko”, and with her new boyfriend, daniel de la sota, a hulking Frankenstein’s monster of a poetaster, had commandeered the only electric typewriter in the joint and proclaimed that a new era of poetry was about to begin. I was out and she and her lumbering companion were in.
“You like . . . trochees and spondees?”
So I suppose I should have felt a little frisson of satisfaction at her call, late on Friday night, to say that she needed my help getting the winter edition out. Her body’s immune system had apparently rejected the lower case “g” she’d added to her last name, and she was groggy from the antibiotics. The doctors were fairly sure she’d recover, but the botched transplant meant that she might have to live out the rest of her days as elena Gotchko.
Back in the saddle!
An ordinary editor would have cringed at the submissions stacked high on the desks, tables, floor, air conditioner and kitty box for the magazine’s mascot, Neruda, a male tuxedo cat who’d started as an unpaid intern five years ago, and had since been promoted to the position of reader. We’d sit him down on a manuscript and if he . . . uh . . . relieved himself, it was returned to the author with our form rejection letter saying it did not fit our needs at this time.
“Your sonnet sucks!”
As I say, the slush piles heaped around me were daunting, but I was undeterred. I was just glad to be back in the game again, shaping the course of American literature. Maybe it wouldn’t mean much to somebody like Archibald MacLeish, who said poems shouldn’t mean but be, but I was happy just to be where I was.
MacLeish: “What I mean is, a poem should not mean . . . anything. I think.”
Until I looked up and saw Sound E-Fex and Back Wurdz, two rappers who struck fear in the hearts of poetry editors everywhere. The modern branch of their posse was known as The Poetry Kings; the classical branch was called The Latin Poetry Kings. In either manifestation, they were a poetry quarterly’s worst nightmare; men who were determined to git published or die tryin’. When they submitted a hard-hitting, slice-of-life, straight-outta-Bloomsbury tranche-de-vie, somebody usually went down ’cause of all the hyphens flyin’ around.
“You gonna publish our stuff, or we gonna have to go crazy on you?”
”Yo,” Wurdz said. I recognized the two from the picture that appears above ”Pimp Yo Poem,” their monthly verse column in The Source, The Bible of Hip-Hop.
“Hi there,” I said, playing dumb, a game I’d perfected in grade school when I’d hide behind my hardbound copy of “Our American Government” and crank out crude couplets. “The submission deadline for the winter issue is past, if that’s what . . .”
“We got our stuff in before yo deadline,” Sound said. “We wanna know whether you gonna publish it, or we gonna have to go crazy on you?”
elena Gotchko: Nice job on the bangs.
“We have a fairly rigorous review process here,” I began. “After initial consideration by a reader, a poem must be approved by two editors, then it goes to our board of–”
“I don’t wanna hear ’bout yo board of academic advisors,” Wurdz said. “Eggheads ain’t never done nuthin’ good for poetry.”
I nodded my head reluctantly–I had to agree with him on that one. Rappers may not be everybody’s glass of sherry, but they’ve added more life to the world of poetry than a thousand professors. They’re the 21st century’s version of Arthur Rimbaud, who produced his best work while still in his teens, and gave up creative writing before he turned 21 to become a shell-washer at an escargot bar.
Rimbaud: “With the help of a green plastic bottle, a Tupperware container emerges, the blood-like tomato stains–gone!”
“Okay, well, I guess since you’ve made a personal visit to the office, I could take another look at what you’ve written,” I said. I knew this would be unfair to the hundreds of other versifiers who’d submitted the products of their late-night waking dreams, who’d torn their tortured lines from their hearts, their souls, and in some cases their spleens; but the men standing before me were bearing Glocks.
“Let me see, what was the title of your work?” I asked.
“The Land of Counterpane”, Wurdz said.
I gave him a look that expressed volumes, or at least an epic poem. “You realize, don’t you, that Robert Louis Stevenson has already used that title?”
An angry Stevenson: “Don’t you go infringin’ my s**t, you waffle puffin’ punk!”
“So what if he did?” E-Fex asked. “Copyright done run out.”
He was right, but that was hardly the point. A reputable–or semi-reputable–poetry quarterly could hardly publish a known plagiarism. Unless The Poetry Kings were going to make a substantial tax-deductible contribution, I allowed myself to think in a moment of mercenary madness.
I flipped through the reject pile and found what I was looking for. “All right, let me give it a second read,” I said. “But I can’t promise you anything.”
I leaned back in my chair, turned on my hand-held scansion device, and started reading.
Hand-held scansion device: Don’t start reading without it.
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
With several bullets in my head,
Around me all my firearms lay,
To keep me happy all the day.
“You’re off to a good start,” I said. They smiled at me, showing their grillz, the hip-hop orthodontic devices that are purely cosmetic in nature. I read on.
And sometimes for an hour or so
I’d watch my leaden homies go,
Tricked out sick and lookin’ good,
Among the bed-clothes through the hood;
“You’ve spun a rather elaborate conceit,” I said, hoping to manage their expectations. “It will be interesting to see whether you can conclude in a manner that makes the work into a literary whole.”
“Wus he talkin’ ’bout?” Wurdz asked Sound.
“He wants to see whether we game or lame.”
“Testing–a-b-b-a, c-d-e, c-d-e.”
I nodded. He had divined the essence of my task. I picked up the paper–I noticed it was scented with Courvoisier–and continued:
I’d sometimes send my Escalade
‘Neath knees bent upwards, spreading shade;
A sound–a shot?–bestilled my heart,
‘Twas but an under-blanket fart.
“Nice touch, that,” I said with admiration. “And now,” I announced with upraised eyebrow, “let’s see if you can nail the dismount.”
“Wus he talkin’ bout?” Sound asked.
“Like Mary Lou Retton,” Wurdz replied. “Anybody can git up on da pommel horse, only a champ can git down off it clean.”
“On the nosey,” I said, then looked over the top of my glasses and continued.
I was the gangsta great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
Yaddida, shaboopalaboopy pain.
It was, to say the least, a letdown. “What happened with the last line?” I asked. “You just trailed off without completing either the sense or the form of the poem.”
The two co-poets seemed embarrassed. “I’ll be the first to admit,” said Wurdz, “that it needs more work.”
“What the hell is a ‘shaboopalaboopy’ anyway?” I asked.
“It’s a neologism,” Sound said. “It originated with Bay Area rappers, the hyphy movement. They used it to . . . make their raps better by”–he hesitated, apparently chagrined–”filling in spaces.”
“So basically, it’s the hip hop equivalent of ‘Yadda yadda yadda’,” I said, a bit scornfully.
“We thought we’d have a better chance if we submitted something on our forearms.”
“Thass right,” a woman’s voice said from the doorway. It was Pho’Netique, a stone fox who was known to contribute to Pimp Yo Poem when the guys couldn’t get their copy in on time.
“I’m afraid we’re going to have to pass on this,” I said to the 2 Jive Crew in front of me. “Take another crack at that last stanza. You’ve got something there, but it needs a little work.”
They were crestfallen, having been shown up for what they were–poetic wankstas–in front of a woman. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of manuscripts . . .”
“Wait!” It was Pho-Netique’s turn to whine. “I submitted some confessional poems a while back and I was wondering if you’d had a chance to read them.”
“Uh, I don’t recall,” I said. “What was the title?”
“The Bell Jar“.