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.”

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.”


Kowa-bunga!

“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.”

everything that reminds me of her

 

everything that reminds me of her . . .

wrote Keats of Fanny Brawne, “goes
through me like a spear,” a line that
Housman used to describe how he knew
he was in the presence of poetry.

Poor Housman, who learned nothing of
women except that he didn’t need them
and so could only explain that
in the morning, shaving, when his razor

ceased to traverse his face and he
found himself struck by words flowing
through his brain, that was when
there was a poem in his head,

ready to be born; when the hair bristled
on his face, and there was a shiver down
his spine, the muse had arrived.  The seat
of this sensation, he said, was the pit

of the stomach.  No old man, it’s a bit lower,
and if you had a taste for them, you’d
find in a Fanny Brawne an inspiration
better than shaving, but one who might

also interrupt you, as you were about to
get “Terence, this is stupid stuff” down
on paper, to ask you about the laundry
and what a loss that would have been.

Pity you didn’t know them, though–
they do go through you like a spear,
as you do them, as long as you
haven’t had too much Ludlow beer.

If I Had Money to Give Away . . .

If I had money to give away, you know what I’d do?
I’d write checks to a museum and maybe a zoo.
I’d sponsor research to end the Freedonian flu,
Those are just some of the wonderful things I would do.

Image result for zoo

If I had lots money—just rolling in cash–
I’d buy a table at the ballet’s charity bash.
I’d trade air-kisses with bone-thin socialites
And we’d dance ‘til janitors started flashing the lights.

Image result for charity ball

Victims of mudslides and also tornados,
Would get gifts and grants, and no small potatoes.
Stray dogs and kittens, religious orders,
Groups that want to open or shut borders.

Image result for kitten

No, there’d be no end to my charity’s scope,
My largesse would fuel lots of dreams and hopes.
I’d give to the many, and not just the few–
Which means I wouldn’t give any to you.

My Old Man, Across a Hotel Pool, In the Bahamas

It took my dad eight years to pay off the note he signed
to buy the little store, grandiosely sub-titled
“Mid-Missouri’s Finest Specialty Shop.”
To celebrate, he took the family on a real vacation,
to the Bahamas; white beaches, conch shells,
calypso music and all that, three guys playing
“Cocoanut water, rum and gin” on steel drums,
guitar and bongos outside on the deck by the pool.

Up in my room, I had to memorize 200 lines of poetry,
punishment for some mortal offense imposed
on my junior English class, by the time we got back.
I can’t remember what we did or didn’t do, and
whether I was as guilty as the rest, but I wanted to be
out in the sun, on the beach. I wanted to see a
barracuda, a manta ray, all the creatures of the deep
I’d read about back when I wanted to be a Navy frogman.

Instead I lay on my bed and read about the rude bridge that
arched the flood, and ours is not to reason why, ours is
but to do or die. It’s a wonder I can stand to read a poem
these days, much less write one. I came down for a break
one day and saw him, sitting in a lounge chair across the
pool, staring off into the middle distance, as if saying to
himself, “So this is what it comes down to, my only son,
sitting sullen, alone in his room, reading poetry?”

Her Stars

Doretta taught eighth-grade English, and lived alone, a block
from the school. She was “Miss” Hay to everyone, and
even though the boys never thought twice about it, the
girls in her classes knew that meant she was an Old Maid,
a figure on a card in a game that you didn’t want to end up
holding in your hand. And so they knew she was something
they didn’t want to end up being, not if they could help it.

She would walk home each night to her little apartment,
grade papers for awhile, then make dinner for one or
maybe have another teacher over, either a spinster like herself
or a woman whose husband was out of town or who took
pity on her; an evening not unlike that of nearly every other
household in town, with or without a family, until night fell.
As others turned on their TVs, Doretta turned out the lights

and looked out her window at the stars—her stars!—which
had provided the human race with peaceful and sublime
entertainment for eons, since the Greeks and before. She
couldn’t understand why people would spend good,
hard-earned money on a television when they could look
up at the sky every night—for free!—and trace the images
that had inspired poets, that had transfixed astronomers

and physicists. The stars—that gave man a sense of how
insignificant he was, and yet how there was a grand design
to the universe. She counted herself fulfilled if, out of each
year’s eighth-graders, she could awaken a sense of wonder
at the heavens, if she could cause just one idle or errant
young boy to step outside at night and look up at the skies
and lose himself, as she did, in the infinity he beheld there.

When winter arrived she told her students to look for Orion,
the hunter, with his tri-starred belt and his sword and club.
With his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, behind him,
and Taurus the bull advancing towards him, and Lepus the hare
escaping detection at his feet–that, she always hoped,
would interest the boys, who would sometimes come to class
sleepy-eyed from a night of coon hunting with their fathers.

And yet she was lucky to catch the fancy of even one of them.
The girls would dutifully hand in their reports, with neat drawings
of the constellations, but the boys were a different story.
Some would nod off in the late afternoon, others
would stare out the window, thinking of football or basketball practice—or girls.
Some would hand in nothing, others just a half-hearted stab at
the assignment—incomplete, illegible, incomprehensible.

One day walking home from school she noticed a bulldozer and
a truck on the lot next door to her building, where a small
home sat, fallen into disrepair. What, she wondered, was in store?
Each day as she passed she saw progress in the form of demolition,
then the lot cleared, then a concrete foundation, then a garish
hamburger restaurant—little more than a metal shack–rising
from the dust, its walls bright white and glass and shiny metal.

Then the lot was paved, and lines painted, and an enormous sign
erected. Well, she thought, it might be nice to drop in there at
night some time and pick up dinner instead of cooking.
Sometimes she was tired, and just wanted to close her
eyes at the end of the day before she turned them towards the
heavens. And so she waited for the grand opening, and decided
to treat herself to a hamburger and some French fries and a

milkshake the first night. She took the food up to her apartment
and ate them at her table and thought it wasn’t bad—
not something she’d do every night, but a nice break when
she didn’t want to cook. She finished and cleaned up
and, as usual, turned off the lights and took
her place at her window to look at the stars and saw—nothing.
The lights from drive-in and the sign had turned the sky above to a
milky white instead of a deep blue, and the stars—her stars—were gone.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

Behind Art Blakey, Boston Harbor Cruise

As the crew of the cruise boat made ready to sail,
I took my place behind Art Blakey
determined, like the tree in the
spiritual that’s planted by the
water, not to be moved.

Blakey

As he settled into his kit, I looked at his
graying hair and thought of the
greats who’d played with him;
Clifford Brown, Cedar Walton,
Lou Donaldson to name a few.

Brown

All were as green as he was when he
started out, playing piano, then
giving it up when he figured he’d
never be better than Errol Garner,
and so he turned to the drums.

Garner

The crowd pressed from behind, all standing
because there were no seats, just the
open deck. “Down in front,” somebody
yelled from the back and a man, a gin
and tonic in his hand, simply said

“We all paid the same price, but some of us
got here first.” The boat wheeled about,
the newest Jazz Messengers began to play
Blakey keeping time, rolling a little behind
his young sidemen, like the waves in our wake.

Art Blakey, October 11, 1919 – October 16, 1990

The Poetry Kings

A grey day 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.


“You like . . . trochees?”

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.

So I suppose I should have felt a little frisson of satisfaction at her call, late last night, to say that she needed my help getting the summer 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, at least one (1) of whom shall not have slept with the poet, 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 work in his dad’s business.


Rimbaud: “Spackle?  Aisle 3.”

“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.  We sampled it.”

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.”

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

The Ox Who Broke Susanna Martin’s Spell

            John Allen of Salisbury testified that Susanna Martin put a curse upon his cattle, saying they “should never do him much more Service.” Allen replied “Dost thou threaten me, thou old Witch? I’l throw thee into the Brook,” whereupon Martin flew away. He headed home but unyoked his oxen when one grew tired and put them on Salisbury Beach. A few days later it was found that the oxen had run into the Merrimack River and come ashore upon Plum Island. The cattle resisted attempts made with “all imaginable gentleness” to herd them back and swam out into the ocean “as far as they could be seen,” but one swam back “with a swiftness, amazing to the Beholders, who stood ready to receive him, and help up his tired Carcass.”

            Cotton Mather, On Witchcraft, Being the Wonders of the Invisible World

I know the waters off Plum Island—
they are cold and likely to shock
even beef flesh out of a witch-induced
distemper, but why you alone?

While the others swam on,
cursed for their master’s refusal
to carry a few staves for an old woman,
you came to your senses and swam back to humankind.

They tried to help you out of the water,
but you ran off through the marshes
to Newbury, then into the woods,
and then into Amesbury.

When Allen had brought you the four miles
home, and bedded you down in the
stable, did you then dream of late, lost
bewitched kine kin, now drowned in madness?

 

Or did you envy them their exploits and
their unwonted courage, how they’d chosen
the moment of their death at the behest of a fallen angel,
rather than wait for the blow of the butcher’s mallet?

Where Are the Karens of Yesteryear?

The Megans, the Caitlins, the Courtneys
come blissfully marching along.
I know if I wait then shortly
they’ll be followed by a Siobhan.

Where are the Nancys and Deborahs
I knew so long ago?
I seem to recall lots of Barbaras
and a Karen or three or mo’.

Somehow these names have faded
into memories of the past.
At the time, before we were jaded,
we assumed that they would last.

But they turned out to be merely fashions
that now are out of date.
They once were spoken with passion
but have met a mortal fate.

I suppose it’s all for the better
if it keeps fading gigolos
from penning vapid love letters
and taking off all of their clothes

for there’s no surer sign to a winsome young lass
that she’s dealing with aging men
than to hear these words as they make a pass:
“Er, what was your name again?”