Not every poem is a gem. The problem is each eye sees a poem differently and to some eyes the poem is a jewel of clarity and translucence without flaw and to another, little is seen but stone, dull and rough all around.
Published, non-published, well-known and not, opinions vary and there is, alas, no set of rules and measures, clear and objective by which to judge.
Those least favorite of my own writing are those which win awards and those I consider gems often sit quietly, lingered over by only a few who see them as I, while those lesser children of my creativity are fawned upon by masses.
It was years before I would read publicly. I saw people clapping for everything and anything and the applause seemed all the same. I thought, why bother if there is no discrimination between trash and treasure, gravel and gold. If rant and screed, angst-fests and treasure-chests were all received with the same enthusiasm, why read at all? There would be no way to say if my poetry was good or bad.
Yet, finally, I was pulled up to stage to read. Of course, as you know, gentle reader, my first time taking part in a public performance was a clothing optional poetry reading with over two hundred people in attendance pressed into a standing room only venue. There was little clothing in sight and all I had for cover was poetry. Eight and half by eleven doesn’t cover much.
I have had reviews. Most of them good, I am delighted to say. Many are superlative. I have taken to not believing any of them. If I believe the good ones, soon, I would think them real. Then, if I get a bad one, when I get a bad one, I might believe that as well.
There is definitely bad poetry. I know it when I read it. Poetry that, by comparison, makes Vogon verse seems pleasant and melodic. Yet, for the most part, I see good and bad poetry depends on trends, fashions, what is in vogue with those in the know and currently taught in the towers and bowers of academia.
I have, as late, received an abysmal review. My first. It’s from Bryan Roth. Mr. Roth says he represents the Colorado Poets Association.
“The only thing worse than a really bad poet, is a really bad poet who promotes himself shamelessly. You should get some shame. There’s already enough bad poetry in the world.”
His website is a free Geocities page at www.geocities.com/bryan_roth/index.html. It has been under construction for some long time now and is not quite up to date. I won’t review his work. He must be good because, otherwise, he could scarcely critique others with such depth and skill. His schedule says he gives a reading a month and they take place in Colorado. Few of the readings give any more specific a location than the entirety of that state. He must require a great deal of space.
His bio says he is the founder and executive director of the Colorado Poets Association and I wonder how many members it has. He also points out all the important people he studied with and I have heard of a few. He has no degree listed, specifically points out he hasn’t an MFA. He has no books in print.
By the way, the Colorado Poets Association website is under construction. If you like, you can reach Mr. Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org in case you should wish to join.
Have I written bad poetry? Of course I have. Horrendous poetry, in my own humble opinion. Sometimes for fun, sometimes because not every idea works well even after countless revision and such poetry I scrap except, sometime, someone sees it before hand and, horror of horrors, likes it. Likes it!
And I get asked to read it. In public. Often.
This happens each Yuletide when I know I’ll be asked to read ”M&Ms”, a poem about my daughter growing delicious melt in your mouth, not in your hand, candy-coated miniature holiday-hued chocolates. This is a terrible poem I have actually deleted several times but my wife has radar for it, has dug it out of e-oblivion and sent it around via the persistant insidiousness of the Internet. I revise, rewrite, revamp it each year starting in November and, by December, it is still horrible. And I am asked to read it again and again and again.
My first award was for my least favorite poem, “But the Son of Man, or Respite.” It won the South Florida Book Club Award. This means Dave Barry liked my work. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. It does, however, prove he got over that elbow in the ribs I gave him when we were the last two in line for the one remaining copy of Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at a Douglas Adams book signing. I hope he healed quickly.
At the reception, I was asked to read some of my favorites. I did. The Broward County Main Library auditorium was full of confused faces bending forward, tilting sideways. After the second poem, the coordinator leaned over and asked me, shielding the microphone, if they were mine. I said, mic unshielded, no, she had asked me to read my favorites. That’s what I was doing. She then asked me to read the poem for which I won the award. Why, I asked. I thought you wanted me to read something good?
Over the space of December 26th through January 1st, I attend a sort of Winter Camp in South Florida. It’s geek-central and full of artists and the like. Among the creative types are singers, guitarists, fiddlers, flautists, painters, sculptors, but no writers, or so it always appears, save myself. And so, I end up being poet-in-residence.
This year was no exception and I took the role gladly, even managing to set up a reading in Wellington while I was away, deep in the Everglades of the western-most reaches of Palm Beach County beyond where roads become failed sand paths and fade to suggestion in the bush. If you have never taken a swamp-buggy to a performance, I recommend giving it a try. One arrives in true high style and with barely a mark.
At a small outdoors venue I performed poetry designed to fit the themes set for the event: spirit and ecology. Under a pavilion, behind a mic I read poem, after poem, sometimes taking requests and sometimes, though I dislike doing so, letting some requests go when they would toss us too far off the theme. But, as the poetry turned more humorous – as there is much humor in spirituality and ecology and, if one looks not even deeply, much more needed – I gave in to a request repeated, repeated, repeated.
“Read the Panty Poem.”
As that is not what the poem is called, I, at first, ignored it. Then, “Read the Underwear Poem.” Drats. It’s harder to ignore it when they know the title, but I managed.
“We want to hear The Underwear Poem. Unless you have your own swampbuggy, we suggest you read it.”
Here in the Glades, literature met deliverance and poetry met survival. Since that survival was mine, I quickly changed my mind. And why not? I was there for them, not me. They wanted to hear it. Why not?
Why not is because it is terrible. It is horrible beyond my own ability to describe. Written as a joke, I first read it as a joke. Known for taking poetic challenges, having just finished an epistle to John Gotti in the style of Alexander Pope, on a dare, I thought I would poke a bit of fun at a new challenge I had received at a Barnes and Noble Writer’s forum after a hamper-full of panty poems by several female participants. Cute, short and, to a poem, devastatingly horrendous. I had none, of course but was told there was no reason not to have one of my own next time and I set out to show the ladies exactly why I should not; the manifold reasons I shouldn’t write about undies. And I copied their style as best I could from my one evening’s listen.
I read it at the next meeting to, aghast as I was, applause. But it was bad. Apparently it was so bad as to be funnier than I had anticipated. It was, after all, bad on purpose. Had I done such a good job at making it so bad it was actually good? If I made it worse yet, would it be better still? I set out to revise it and make it worse, hitting as many sour notes and worn contrivances as I could. I sent it to a friend. Brilliantly awful.
And so, once in a while it was requested. Then a bit more often and then, nearly each event, it is asked for and, if they ask by name, who am I to tell them no? If not reading it means I am to find myself stranded in a field surrounded by wiregrass and alligators, refusing seems a singularly bad idea.
So read it I did. And this much I read:
I have some acquaintances
Who, at a poetry reading
Each read cute, short
Pieces about their underwear.
Panty poems. I had none
But was told that next time
There was no reason I should
Not have one of my own.
True enough. But try as I
Might, nothing. I just don’t
Pay attention to my underwear.
I’m a guy and I just don’t care.
So I ask you
Give me yours.
Then, suddenly, I heard a rustling and noticed color in the air, fluttering objects heading toward me, audience arms raised and swung. The space before me was full of small bits of cloth and I jolted back a step, but a moment later, the ground around me, my shoulder, my right arm, all were decorated with panties. I was being showered with underwear.
I am not new to this. I have weathered theatric adversity before and wish I could say I was fully nonplussed and continued being the consummate professional I dream I am but not this time. I’m told I had a smile on my face and cannot imagine I did not. I’m told I paused and cannot imagine I did not. I know these things because I asked, not because I remember and, I should add, I’m told I had a bit of a look of shock on my face and, in truth, I cannot imagine I did not.
In a moment, which seemed to me much, much more, I continued:
Large, small, granny or mini
Full or thong,
Hand it over.
Someone quickly spanned the ten feet between the audience and myself and put a pair of grannies on my head and I immediately realized some of these were not coming to me directly from the drawer.
I have had readings where women sat directly at my feet, knees at my toes, set after set, listening, staring up, requesting, between poems, I wear shorts next performance and showing up at each and every reading to check whether I had, sitting again at my feet. Performance after performance.
I have had readings where youngling students of mine showed up and I have had to redesign a set and self-censor on the fly. I have had school board members and those above me in the district food-chain attend my performances having previously reminded me I am not to be an ‘embarrassment’ to the board or my school lest I face dismissal. All this, I take in stride.
But, this time, I ceased. Momentarily, but cease I did. I know it showed on my face. I left the pair of granny panties on my head, picked the pair off my right arm with my left hand and put them in my pocket. Bending at the knees, I scooped up a pair beside my left foot and held them in my hand. I read on and as I read this:
You’ll be more comfy and I,
I’ll have underwear to write about.
I’ll describe how they’re stretched here around the leg
And the elastic is bare of cloth at the waist,
How one is discolored so some of the small roses
Seem an odd hue
Like a new hybrid
And I can name them, these new roses,
After your panties.
I can name the flowers after
And I’ll line all the panties up in a row
And all the sizes and shapes and colors
Will remind me of all of you gals
And your poetry.
I expect this will be the end of their poetry suggestions.
A young lady from the audience, swayed up with a thong, holding it out-spread for me to see even as I read. A black pair with a well-placed pentacle and, around it, the words “Worship here.” And I did not stop my reading. Oh, no, not this time. I finished as she tucked it, fully half of it, slowly, into the front waist of my dungarees.
If you do not have groupies, you need them. Trust me. You do. Groupies could make nearly anybody smile. Even, perhaps, Mr. Roth.