a session with my poetry coach

It was the form letter that sent me over the edge.  “Thank you for submitting your poem to plangent voices,” it began.  “Please excuse the standardized response, but due to the volume of god-awful submissions that we receive, we do not have the time to crush the spirit of each writer personally.”

elena gotchko:  Had her capital letters surgically removed in 2009.


Signed–elena gotchko, editor-in-chief, the lower-case poetess who I’d help to catch on with the little rag in the first place!  I thought to myself, if I couldn’t call in a personal favor from someone like elena, who I knew back when she was cutting her own hair to show the world how disaffected she was, I might as well hang it up as a poet.

Self-haircut:  “Which side do you like better–the short or the long?”


But that would mean giving up on the art form that I’ve been enamored of ever since I noticed, as a mere lad of twelve, the couplet so beloved by young boys on the wall of a bathroom stall.  You know the one:  

Here I sit
all broken-hearted
Paid a nickel to shit
and only farted.

The fierce beauty of those lines, their startling honesty, the possibilities they opened up to me–how could I forsake that epiphany?  Dammit–I wasn’t going to give up that easily!  My kid has a hitting coach, my wife has a fitness coach–I was going to get myself a poetry coach!

I opened up the Yellow Pages and flipped to the “p’s.”  Poetry, Anthologies.  Poetry, Brokers.  Ah, here we go–Poetry, Coaches.  There were three, but only one in my area code.  Buy local, I figured, and gave the guy a call.

“You have reached the office of Elliot Wurzel, Poetry Coach, turning poetasters into masters for over a decade.  If you have a question regarding assonance or consonance, press 1.  For issues regarding meter, press 2.  For problems with your account, press 3.  For all other matters, please stay on the line or press zero.”

Valerii Yakovlevich Briusov, Neo-Acmeist poet and housecleaning fanatic


I held while Valerii Yakovlevich Briusov, Russian Neo-Acmeist and the only poet with four i’s in his name, read from his justifiably-obscure oeuvre.  Finally, a sonorous voice came on the line and introduced himself in blunt fashion–”Wurzel here.”

“You call yourself a poet?  Drop down and give me ten Alcaic stanzas–NOW!”


“Uh, Mr. Wurzel, I’m looking for a poetry coach.”

“Umm.  What seems to be the problem?”

“Well, I can’t seem to get out of the slush pile.  Can’t even win Second Runner-Up in those contests with prizes in the high two figures.”

“Poetry is like maypole dancing,” he said cryptically.

“How so?”

“It’s one of those art forms that has far more practitioners than spectators.  You’re up against very long odds.”

“I know–that’s why I’m calling you.”

“And it is well that you did,” he said.

“Don’t you mean ‘good’?” I asked.

John Milton, Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Blank Verse


“Never use a nickel word when a dime word will do,” he counseled me.  “That’s the last free advice you’re getting, by the way.”

We haggled a bit over rates–I didn’t want to sign up for a long-term membership like at a health club and then have him commit suicide, the occupational hazard–if not the occupation–of versifiers.

“Okay,” he said.  “Let’s get started.  Read me the first poem you ever wrote.”

I cleared my throat and launched into “Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune”:

This is kosher, this is trayfe–
One unclean, the other safe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.

Actual Kosher vegetarian commune


“Hmm,” he hmmed, as he considered my complex a-a-a-a rhyme scheme.  “Not altogether bad–but you need to accessorize.”

Heidi Klum, accessorizing.


“Isn’t that what women do when they want to complete and complement an otherwise humdrum, pedestrian outfit?”

“You seem to know a lot about fashion,” he said.

“My dad was in women’s clothing.  Don’t duck the question–what’s that got to do with poetry?”

“Think of your poem as it hits an editor’s desk.  It’s like a woman standing in line outside an exclusive night club.  It’s got a lot of competition.  You’ve got to tart it up a little if you want to get past the doorman.”

“Sorry sweetheart.  Come back when you’ve fixed that godawful spondee in the third verse.”


I was starting to appreciate my coach’s wealth of experience.  “Like how?”

“First of all–dedicate it to someone.”

“Like who?”

“It helps if it’s a foreign name, somebody obscure, somebody the reader will be ashamed to admit he doesn’t know.”

“Gimme a for instance.”

“That’s an add-on,” he said,  “Five bucks for access to my exclusive database of hitherto-un-dedicated-to names.”

Zsa Zsa Gabor, with Porfirio Rubirosa


I grudgingly agreed–what choice did I have?–and listened as he flipped through some papers.  “I’ve got just the thing,” he said with satisfaction.  “Porfirio Rubirosa!”

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“See–proved my point.  Sounds foreign and romantic, but you can’t quite put your finger on him, can you?”

“Shortstop for the Minnesota Twins?”

“You’re thinking of Zoilo Versalles, who’s also good–don’t get me wrong.  He’s just not right for your poem.”

I felt gratified that I was getting personalized attention.  “So who’s Porfiri–”

“Rubirosa was an international playboy, polo player and race car driver, legendary for his prowess with women.”



“Okay–sounds good.”

“During his heyday, large pepper grinders were sometimes referred to as ‘rubirosas’ among the fast-living international set.”

He’d lost me.  “Because?”

“Because of the voluptuous shape of the grinder, the sensuous . . .”

“Okay, I got your point.  So what else needs fixing?”

“You need to strike a more outraged political tone.”

“But–it’s a little comic poem, just a pun that I . . .”

“Listen–do you want my help or not?” he fairly shouted at me.

“Well, you are the coach.  But what if I’m . . . not outraged.”

“If you’re not outraged–what are you?”

“More like–amused.  The Human Comedy.  As Mencken said when asked why he lived in America if he found so much unworthy of reverence here, ‘Why do men go to zoos?’”

H.L. Mencken


“That’s not going to help your career,” he said.

“What if I take a bi-partisan approach–criticize both sides?”

He considered this for a moment.  “Might work–what did you have in mind?”

“Well, I’d go after both Dick Cheney and Joe Biden–a Democratic and a Republican vice president–in one stanza.”

“Okay,” he said with a skeptical sigh of impatience.  “Hit me.”

Here comes the fat man, emerged from hiding place–
“Gee, I’m awful sorry if I shot you in the face!”

“That’s a start,” he said grudgingly.  “Now wrap it up.”

Old Joe Biden,
squeaks like a door hinge,
Schooled at Syracuse,
whose mascot’s an orange.

There was a silence at his end of the line.  “Un-freaking–believable.”

“Thanks,” I said, a bit surprised that I’d broken through his reserve.

“This is a major upheaval in poetry!” he exclaimed.

“What–what’d I do?”

“You’ve solved a problem that has bedeviled poets for centuries.  You’ve discovered a rhyme for ‘orange’!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”


The Thing About Millennials

A problem that’s recently developed–
I hope it won’t become perennial–
is the chronic self-absorption
of the people known as millennials.

There are many such in my building
who take the elevator down
at noon for prandial excursions
around about Boston town.

Instead of politely debarking,
when they arrive at the ground floor,
they stand there and stare at their phones
and won’t come out the door.

I have to gently remind them
exactly where they are;
not back in school in their dorm rooms
or at a singles bar.

Then finally they look up from their reverie,
and deign to exit the car.
I’m telling you these young geniuses
are certain to go very far.

When they return from getting take-out
each mid-twenty-something eats a
salad (God forbid) made of kale
or worse, a single-slice pizza.

While they fly through the air to their high-rise lairs
they munch like a bunch of drones
you’re stuck with the smell of their mid-day repast
while again, they stare at their phones.

It makes one feel slightly aged,
and that’s why this lyric is sung,
I ask myself, quite enraged,
Why is youth wasted on the young?

Pity the Poor Scrivener

Pity the poor scrivener, the guy with the pen
who goes back to his office when the confab ends
and tries to make tails, or maybe it’s heads,
of what happened in the meeting, what everyone said.

“Put something in there,” says one son of a gun
“like we did in another deal, I don’t remember which one.”
A prim matron hands him some notes that can’t be deciphered,
and asks him to add them, and he’d like to knife her.

He sits at his keyboard, trying to divine
what others were thinking, while they’re drinking wine,
and dining on veal, or salmon or mutton,
and saying “His job’s easy, you just push a button.”

His only revenge is to transcribe precisely
their illegible scribbles, and do it quite nicely
so that they’re confronted with their cryptic writing
which looked to him like a herd of snakes fighting.


          I slept in a boarding house full of somber retired accountants who drank vin-rosé with their wives under the dim light of weak electric bulbs.

                    Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

There’s nothing that makes me feel more fatigué
than to drink vin-rosé with CPAs.
Those masters of figures, of debits and credits,
cause me to succumb, they just don’t get it.

When they call for another round of their drinks
my head upon my sternum slowly sinks.
Their wives, while charming, alone or in numbers,
can’t keep me from falling into my sweet slumbers.

Perhaps it’s the glow from les bulbs of soixante watts
that makes me start nodding, or the fact that it’s hot.
While the accountants imbibe to forget all their cares
I find myself snoring, then I climb the stairs

leaving all and sundry to wonder why
I’m not a regular accounting guy
whose cuffs at the elbow are splattered with ink
and who stays up all night drinking wine that is pink.

Well here’s the truth, plainly dressed;
those accountants–they’re all retired!
Trying to keep up would make me stressed
when all I am right now is tired.

An Offensive Acquaintance

Is he disingenuous, or just obtuse?
Is his ignorance for real, or just a ruse?

I can never quite tell,
it beats the hell
out of me,
how anyone could be so dense
and yet to take offense
puts you, yourself, in the wrong;
he calls the tune, and you sing the song.


I give the fellow a wide berth,
and not just because of wide girth.
He’s not a pet, he’s a peeve
and so before I take my leave
I let drop with a look that could kill:
“You do a splendid imitation of an imbecile.”



The People Who Won’t Get Back to Me

Literary agents, also editors,
But most assuredly not my creditors,
Someday they won’t mean jack to me—
The people who won’t get back to me.

Old girlfriends I find on the web—
One’s named Robin, the other’s a Deb.
I wonder whatever attracted me—
To the women who won’t get back to me.

Publishers, magazines, infamous authors–
I’ve sent them all emails, they can’t be bauthored.
Their silence speaks loudly this fact to me,
The people who won’t get back to me.

The people who’ve said to me “Let’s do lunch!”
Over the years I’ve collected a bunch.
There may be a hundred, I don’t know exact-I-ly.
The people who won’t get back to me.

Prospects to whom I’ve sent urgent wires
Urban mass choirs that I’d like to hire
Black, white or brown, they all turn their backs to me,
The numerous people who just won’t get back to me.

Love Among the Sporks

In Clinton, Mass., there’s a factory,
straight outta the Industrial Revolution.
It cranks out product merrily
while it spews foul air pollution.

It was there while walking the streets one night
I spotted a wan factory girl;
her skin bleached white from lack of light,
her face the saddest in the world.

I couldn’t be a witness to such tragedy
without letting my heart have its say;
I stopped her right in front of me
and asked “Are you okay?”

She sniffled a bit, then began to cry,
I felt like a helpless dork;
The tears began to fall from her eyes,
and she told me about the spork.

“I work all day from dawn to dark
on a fiendish dining tool;
it’s not a spoon, it’s not a fork,
and the bosses are so cruel!”

I asked what kind of instrument
might this strange object be?
Was it a bowl-like implement?
or did it have tines of three?

She said “It’s neither fowl nor fish,
it’s betwixt and it’s between;
it cuts by a third the silver on your dish,
it’s something you’ve never seen.”

And then she reached into her purse
and from it drew a sight,
that shocked my eyes from bad to worse
on that dark starry night;

It was—a spork! A hybrid thing
that you could use to eat with;
It would pick up soup or anything–
It’d work to chow down beets with.

My joy worked wonders on her mood,
she brightened up a bit.
I guess she saw what it meant for food
and how people struggled to eat it.

“So you don’t think it’s the work of the devil,
This cross-bred thing of plastic?”
“Why no,” I said, and I was totally on the level.
“Au contraire, it’s a godsend, it’s fantastic!”

And so she linked her arm in mine,
we’ve been together since that day;
we went and bought a bottle of wine
and sporked the night away.

Moral: If you love what you do, it isn’t work.