A self-published poet who focused on homelessness in her work has resigned after only a week on the job as North Carolina’s poet laureate following criticism of the governor’s appointment process.
As I sat staring out the window, wondering how to jump-start my career as a poet, I automatically, involuntarily lapsed into verse:
I think that I’d feel more secure
If I could get me a cozy political sinecure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m doing . . . okay. Since my first poem–Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night in a Kosher Vegetarian Commune–was published by plangent voices, I’ve been anthologized twice. It’s not as painful as it sounds, really, you just get jammed between the covers of a book with a bunch of other poets, sort of like the Green Line at rush hour.
But there seems–and I don’t want to come off as paranoid–like there’s a conspiracy against me, led by my high-profile poetess and ex-girlfriend elena gotchko. She and I parted amicably enough–she dumped my stuff out on the sidewalk, I graciously carried it away–but I’ve been troubled by a pattern of commenters with suspiciously similar-sounding names lighting into me with vituperation on-line and in print. NeLa K. Chetogo, Klanee Gootch, Cheona Kloget–the natural wit that continually creates the world anew was always missing from elena’s poetic makeup. That’s why she’s become more of a poetry professional than a professional poet. Editing little journals, pontificating about the importance of poetry, charging high three-figure sums to schmoes who think, if they take a course from somebody who spells her name without initial caps, they’ll magically be transformed into poets.
No, if I was going to get anywhere, I needed juice. There’s an old saying–it’s not what you know, it’s who you know–and that applies in spades in Boston, a town where, as a slightly newer saying goes, the three major industries are politics, sports and revenge. So I dropped in on my state rep and asked him if he could get me on as Massachusetts poet laureate.
“I got a long list of people who wanna be poet laureate,” he said, looking at his watch after we’d been together for ten seconds. “Tell me why it should be you.”
“Well, I’ve self-published a book of poetry, and I’ve written a book about poetry.”
“That meta-stuff don’t cut it. You can’t write that kinda junk until you’re at the top of the poetry heap.”
I jabbered on about the one poem I’d actually sold, to The Christian Science Monitor–just like Sylvia Plath! I told him how I’d won a poetry prize, only to see the publication that awarded it go under before they ran my poem. I started to tell him how I’d won honorable mention in the Somerville Press poetry contest. “Somerville!” I exclaimed. “You can’t throw a brick without hitting a poet over there!”
He looked at me as if I was a pack of cold cuts that had passed its freshness date. “You’re goin’ about this all wrong,” he said with a glint of cynicism in his eyes.
“But you’re my elected representative,” I said. “Aren’t you supposed to . . . you know . . . pull strings for people in your district. In the name of ‘constituent services.’”
He shook his head slowly from side to side, apparently amused at my naivete. “You’re in the big city now,” he said, then he reached in his desk drawer, pulled out a business card and handed it to me. “You need to call this guy.”
I looked at the card. Francis X. Shaughnessy. “Who’s he?” I asked.
“A registered lobbyist.”
“What does a lobbyist do?”
“He comes to talk to me about good things I could do for people like you.”
“But . . . I’m here trying to talk to you about good things you could do for people like me.”
“It ain’t the same.”
“If you give me money, it’s a bribe. If you give him money, it’s compensation. If he throws a ‘time’ for me, that’s everybody’s free speech petitioning government. You give to his PAC, he gives it to me. It’s in the First Amendment–you could look it up.”
“So–I have to pay money to get somebody else to say things to you I can say myself for nothing.”
“On the nosey.”
“He’s ‘well-connected.’ It’s in the papers. Every time they write his name they say ‘The well-connected Francis X. Shaughnessy.’”
“You’re just an ordinary voting schlub.”
Dawn broke on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts. “Nice talkin’ to ya,” I said, with a trace of bitterness.
“Nice talkin’ to you!” my rep said.
“Where can I find this Shaughnessy guy?”
“Down the hall, out the State House door, cross the street. His office is right above Guertin’s Bar and Grille.”
“How . . . convenient.”
“Ain’t it though?”
We shook hands and I took my leave, which I’d left by the door. I was across the street and walking up a flight of stairs to Politico Strategies LLC in less time than it would take you to recite the Miranda Warning.
“Is Mr. Shaughnessy in?” I asked the receptionist, who was holding her hands out at arm’s length to let her nail polish dry.
“Whom shall I say”–she began. Apparently she went to Katie Gibbs Secretarial School on Marlborough Street.
“Mr. Chapman,” I said, interrupting her.
“Who’s he?” she asked.
“Not you,” she said, clucking her tongue. “Whom shall I say sent you?”
I was losing my innocence with every tick of the clock. “That would be Representative O’Kiley,” I said.
She smiled for the first time and said “Have a seat.”
The reading materials available in the reception area consisted of a big picture book of Boston, so that those in the Athens of America who don’t like to read would have something to look at; the two daily newspapers; and a selection of recent magazines. Newsweek seems to think Howard Dean has the Democratic nomination sewed up, but Time likes John Kerry.
Shaughnessy emerged from his office, his hand apparently attached to the back of someone whose deserving cry for help was next in line in front of me.
“So I think if we came up with a “Nuts of the Red Sox” series, with one each devoted to Bernie Carbo, Jim Piersall, Bill Lee, Gene Conley and Pumpsie Green, it could be a real winner.”
“I’ll talk to my colleagues on the Joint Committee on Vanity and Commemorative License Plates and we’ll see what we can do.”
“Thanks, thanks an awful lot,” the guy said. He looked hopeful, so I figured he wrote a big check.
“What do I have next,” the guy asked the receptionist.
“This man here–O’Kiley sent him.”
“Well in that case, come on in Mr. . . .”
Again, I felt humbled by my lack of importance. After introductions, I was shown into the inner sanctum, where I was offered a chair and initial cup of coffee, gratis.
“So,” Shaughnessy began. “What can I do for youse?”
“I’m looking for a job,” I said.
“As are so many of my constituents in this dreadful economy brought about by greedy Wall Street bankers and mean old Republicans. What kind of work were you lookin’ for?” he asked, but before I could answer he finished the sentence for me. “Indoor work and no heavy liftin’ I presume?”
“I guess you could say that. I want to be the state’s poet laureate.”
“Jeez Louise–that’s a tough one. The pay is lousy but the hours are good.”
“It’s an important position. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
“That’s a great line,” he said as he gazed wistfully out the window. “Who said it?”
“I thought so. So what’s your angle?”
“My . . . angle?” I had passed through 19 years of schooling without ever being told I needed an “angle” to be a poet.
“Sure. Are you . . .”–he picked up a laminated sheet that listed the currently favored racial/sexual/ethnic/gender categories of the Commonwealth and began to tick them off starting with “Aleutian Islander.”
“No, can’t say that I am.”
“But O’Kiley sent ya, huh? Okay, well, let’s think about it. Can you give a bunch o’ money to my friend Mr. O’Kiley?”
“Not since my wife found out political contributions aren’t tax deductible.”
“Okay–can you raise a bunch?”
“Don’t think so. My friends tend to be apolitical.”
“Okay, well it’s gonna cost you then.”
“A $2,000 a month retainer, and a $10,000 success fee . . .”
“I thought that was illegal.”
“Excuse me. I meant if you get the job, you hire me as a consultant to the State Office of Poetry for $10,000.”
I glared at him with eyes that I narrowed to grim, little slits. “You don’t look like a poet.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “Tell me a little bit about your verse,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and made a little church-and-steeple with his fingers.
“Well, I’ve self-published one book of light verse about women–The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head.“
“Is that like ‘chick lit’,” he said without contempt, just an air of honest appraisal.
“Not really–it’s more like anti-chick lit. It’s dedicated to my wife and it’s a bunch of poems about the women I dated before I met her, and how they compare unfavorably to her.”
“Smart husband, dumb poet.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You gotta have a sympathetic political theme, like that poet laureate who got hired in North Carolina the other day.”
“What was her–angle?”
“Homelessness. Very sensitive. That’s the beauty of political art. You pick the right topic, anybody who criticizes you looks like jerk. Some critic pans you, you get your friends to write angry letters to the editor sayin’ ‘Oh, so your hotsy-totsy poetry editor don’t like that chapbook, eh? I guess the cruel son-of-a-bitch don’t like homeless people, neither.” Pretty soon the guy’s busted down to writing about the spring performance of Lion King at Miss Cynthia’s School of Tap and Ballet.”
It was as if the clouds had parted and rays of light shot down to give me inspiration. “Okay, I’m gonna write the most poignant, sensitive, morally unassailable collection of poetry the world’s ever seen.”
“Whatta ya gonna call it?”
“The Don’t Club Baby Seals to Death Poems.”