“Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst”
—Jorge Luis Borges—
Wendt laid out Jeremy’s notebooks on his bed. Some had been curled, tube-like, for so long they looked like the Dead Sea scrolls. The newer ones were merely creased down the middle. Jeremy didn’t date his entries but he did date the beginning and end dates on the cover of each spiral bound. Wendt ordered them and then discovered that some notebooks were copies in a better hand rather than random jottings, drawings, scribbles and notes. There was a method to the madness but it would take an archivist to figure it out. Among the notebooks were typescripts, some from a typewriter and others, by the faded script, the product of a computer printer low on ink. They were certainly more legible. Wendt freed a page from a folded sheaf and read.
The radical question posed by poetry is circumscribed by the interest linked to membership in the literary field, that is to say, the very existence of this field and its corresponding censorships. That field is an historical product of the labor of successive poets who have defined poetry by forcing on it commentary, discussion, critique, and polemic. But the problems, theories, themes, or concepts which constitute objectified poetry impose themselves as a sort of autonomous world on would-be poets who must not only know them, as items of culture, but recognize them as items of belief—failing to would disqualify them as poets. All those who profess to be poets have a life or death interest, as poets, in the existence of this repository of consecrated texts, a mastery of which constitutes their specific capital. Thus, short of jeopardizing their own existence as poets and the symbolic powers ensuing from this title, they can never carry through the breaks which imply a practical suspension of the existence of poetry —that is, a denouncement of the tacit contract defining the conditions of membership in the field, a repudiation of the fundamental belief in the conventions of the game and the value of the stakes, a refusal to grant the indisputable signs of recognition—reference and reverence, obsequiousness, respect for convention even in their outrages—in short everything which secures recognition of their membership.
Wendt found that one of the notebooks was stuck to the back of another by the syrupy residue of spilled soda. Separating the two he saw that Jeremy had written a long Ginsbergian poem a la Howl entitled Bay. It was dedicated In Memoriam Angel Headed Hipster, and began I am the beast mind of my generation, wool in sheepish clothing. . . . Wendt chuckled and read a little further then gave a brow raised low whistle. “Well, hello Rimbaud.”
Disquieting were the names on the inside cover of an apparently newer spiral notebook. They were a list of dead poets, very old dead poets whose names underpinned literature, as well as the obscure though remarkable in their day, and more recent names that meant something to Wendt personally. Paul Simon Legris, Dee Dee Wrell, Cornaio Gibaldi, Mark Broms, Dick Granahan. Morgan Tilson, Ian Blake. It saddened him to see Val’s name. Reg Meyer. Andy Porter’s name had been penciled in. That didn’t scan. As was his.
Wendt arrived late for the Ian Blake memorial reading at Golden West Hall. A young woman in pink transparent framed glasses sat self-consciously at the display table set up by the door to the auditorium. She had a nose ring that by the throbbing red halo looked new and an accommodation to hipness. There were a few other youngsters standing around in the foyer affecting nonchalance, the men with baby face beards and goatees they had yet to grow into, the women with multiple piercings and tattoos that would eventually be regarded as immoderate. Why can’t they just take up watercolors, Wendt mused, forget all this Bougnik-hipster-superhero-chic crap. Of course, he was the one out of step in his natty silk Armani jacket, the gold chain, the gray microfiber collared shirt, the pressed faded jeans and tasseled oxblood loafers. He sighed. A shaman will be clothed in a garment that is a comment on the apparel of others. That didn’t make him feel any less conspicuous or out of place.
On the table were books for sale by the poets who were slated to read at the memorial with a placard explaining that a portion of the proceeds were going to fund the publishing of a posthumous collection of Ian Blake’s poetry, Ode To Sunset. Obviously they had been unable to dig up copies of his own Synthetic Lament. Obviously, because the press had gone bankrupt shortly after publishing the book and who knew what had become of those thousand of printed copies minus the bundle he’d managed to prize out of the printer who was probably still waiting to be paid. There was a stack of Irma Maurice’s selected poems, As If. Irma was due for a new selection or even a collected. Her name was one he immediately recognized. The others were vaguely or not at all familiar. There was also an assortment of arty broadsides, one of which was of Ian Blake’s title poem, Ode To Sunset. It was dedicated in memory of Carl Wendt. Wendt looked at it again, bringing it close to his nose to make sure he was reading it correctly.
“That’s a limited edition handset letterpress broadside from Ian’s soon to be published book.” The young woman seated at the table said it with an expression that looked like she was apologizing for having to explain it to him. It was the condescension that the young have for the old. Paybacks are a bitch. “They’re twenty dollars each.”
“Can I get one signed?”
Now the look was one of mortification. She sputtered a bit trying to match her indignation. “Don’t you know. . .this is a memorial. . .for Ian. . .who was killed. . . .”
“Oh good, Carl, there you are!” Courtney LaRoche appeared at his elbow. “David will be so relieved. He thought you weren’t going to show up.”
“I’m here. I didn’t say anything about reading. Not until I see some currency.”
Courtney gave her signature pout and glanced at the young woman at the table who now, if anything, appeared confused. “Jenny, this is Carl Wendt. He’s the featured poet reading tonight.”
“But. . . .” She was looking at the broadside Wendt had set down.
“Yeah, Courtney, clear up the confusion before this young lady starts believing in ghosts. Why does the dedication say ‘in memory of’ yours truly?”
Courtney pursed her lips which seemed to have the effect of making her face turn red. “That’s just a huge misunderstanding, Carl. It’s the printer’s fault.”
“It’s always the printer’s fault, isn’t it?”
“David gave him the copy of the poem to typeset, it was a rush job and he didn’t have time to proof it. He just assumed that the printer knew not to use the dedication, that you weren’t dead.”
“But Ian Blake thought I was dead?”
“No, no. David explained it to me. Ian’s humor could be dark at times. It’s just a joke.”
“That must be why I’m laughing.”
“David will explain it to you, Carl, don’t be such a prick about it.”
“I’m only a prick when I’m surrounded by cunts.”
Maybe the real reason Wendt had stopped giving readings was that they attracted all the same poetry deadbeats, dead heads, and brain deads. And the women who attended were mostly his age or older, usually the wives of his friends, fans, and or patrons. Not that that ever made the slightest difference. Or the occasional neurotic grad student with absolutely no social skills, and awkwardly sexual besides being an angry feminist covering for sexual timorousness, insistent that she be respected for her brain, not her pussy. The retort could have been “listen honey, I’d fuck your brain but my dick is too big to fit in your ear hole.” He wasn’t that crude or ever that drunk. Well, he’d never be Dashiell Hammett.
Wendt dreaded pushing open the auditorium door. Empty folding chairs in a cavernous space were always bad news. Slowly, as the evening progressed, the empty chairs would become emptier. For now there were clots of listeners scattered throughout to give it the air of being well attended. Fifty or more pairs of buns perched uncomfortably on metal ledges. Divided by the number of poets on the bill, it averaged out to about three and a quarter persons per poet. There was a stage and a podium, as might be expected, and most of the light in the cavernous acoustic nightmare was focused there. He stood at the back to let his eyes adjust.
That’s where Irma found him. “You’ve actually made it to a reading.” She hooked an arm through his. “That’s an event in itself.”
“When do you go on?” Wendt stared at the person at the podium trying to remember his name.
“I opted to get it over with early. That way I can listen to the poets without stressing about what I’m going to read.” She gave a pained smile. “Though I don’t know why I get the feeling that at large readings like this I’m committing public hari-kari.”
“Sorry I missed it. Self-evisceration can be quite a spectacle.”
“Carl, don’t try to be polite, it doesn’t suit you.”
In spite of himself, Wendt’s concentration focused on the reader. He wasn’t tuning Irma out. That would be impossible. She could be counted on to provide a running commentary of the reading and the readers.
The pace at which the poem being read, stately, metered, languid, sonorous with a clinical monotony as if it were being methodically inserted into the listener’s brain which required intense concentration from both the poet and the audience was all too familiar. If he’d learned anything in his nearly forty year experience as a public reader of his own words, it was that the poem spoken is comprehended differently than read silently on the page. Sense wins out over meaning. Words passed without immediate understanding. Sometimes the pace and the rhythms were oceanic, hypnotic, leaving the listener comatose. On the other hand, the random soundscape of experiment was too often littered with the ponderous boulders of self drama. Some poets tried to read their poems with a tone approximating the neutrality of the page or with stentorian bombast, brow beat the listener while others believed that approximating a hacksaw cutting through sheet metal was the best way to inculcate the masses. And yet still others, linguistic sadists, used words as turnbuckles. Fortunately every so often there were those who rose above the drone and caught the ear with their liquid colloquy, a honeyed speech being just that. Regrettably, the level of amateurishness was embarrassing. To an outside observer foolish enough to wander into such an event, there could be only one conclusion: they’d stumbled into a nest of losers.
The poet walked off the stage to a scattering of applause.
“Tom Rowley’s chatty poems are ok. They’re clever in a brain tweaky sort of way,” Irma opined, “but afterwards they always leave me feeling a little cheap between the ears.”
David Bloom, the MC, thanked the preceding poet and announced the next reader, a name Wendt was not unfamiliar with.
“Ugh,” Irma grunted, “Norma D’Monde! Her poems are so bad she’ll probably end up as the head of a writing program some day. And do you believe that dye job?”
It only took a few poems to prove Irma right, clearly writing program verse, anecdotal with barely a hint of music, labored wisdom, false epiphany, no chances taken, no surprises.
“That’s not poetry, that’s high fructose sentiment,” Irma’s snorted elegantly. “I was over at a friend’s apartment and I guess they ran out of cinderblocks because they were using Norma’s trilogy to prop up a corner of the bookshelves.”
“I’d read it as much as I’d read a cement brick” she answered to “Did you read it?”
And so it went, poet after poet, poem after poem: quasi-surreal cross-culture wake-up calls, declamatory lists accumulating momentum and achieving crescendo but then dropping off into bottomless illogic.
According to Irma, the next reader, Ann Tacit, author of Approval and soon to be published long poem entitled Earn, represented the catalog school of poets, which, as she explained, “contrary to what one might assume are not poets of compilation but poets who appear in slickly produced small press catalogs to create their own web of snobby literary assumptions. They’re also known as the California Cuisine School of Poetry—nice to look at but there’s not much there.”
“Ah,” Wendt breathed in comprehension, “overeducated middle class twits.”
There was never any quickness of mind. Some poems were like being stuck in a traffic jam of mirror images reflecting endlessly speculative details of what could have been done or was done or not. Woulda coulda shoulda as the old Indian chief used to say.
He knew Wallace Tambor from years before, still beating the drum of his associations in poems about meeting various famous poets and what he said to them, and they to him, most of them now dead and unable to contest his allegations. The halting sly wit of Ben Gunn’s dignified decrepitude and the desire to be present and accounted for overshadowing any regret. He was someone who reveled in anonymity and wrote a poetry to enforce it. Then Celia Thornbush, which, according to Irma, was an appropriate name for a feminist, and married to Bruce, a severe aesthete with a perpetually pained expression, but “should one wonder as he’s given his name to a woman who exemplifies, figuratively, the image of vagina dentata.”
It may have been a city ordinance that any multi-poet event had to include on its lineup a harangue with saxophone hipster staccato post-beat jive. Enrique Hermanos, aka KK, so his poem stated, offered the notion that music had returned to poetry in the form of a back beat. He was followed by Reggie Sides and some hip hop revolution poetry.
One of the readers, a woman rather elegantly attired but with the nervousness of a novice, read some surprisingly good poems which caused Irma to remark “she has a chin like a bottle opener.” Irma was never one to hold back from casting aspersions on the competition. One line unfortunately undermined all the poet’s good intentions. “The centrifugal force of the poetry whirl flings me to the periphery.”
“That’s not poetry,” Irma scoffed, “that’s just posturing.” And after Art Penn’s reading, “I know so many guys like that whose psychic turmoil makes for great poetry but really shitty lives.”
“It’s not a vocation for the insecure.”
“Yet they’re drawn to it. Moth, meet flame.”
“One does with what one has.”
“Who said it, the life of a poet, less than 2/3ds of a second?”
All the poets for the most part had that lean and hungry look of those who desired more than anything else to take their place in the spotlight and be the center of attention for even the slightest and most insignificant fraction of their allotted fifteen minutes of fame. He’d come to the conclusion that however well-intentioned, most poets belonged to the dissociative school, not that you could call it a school. More like a shark tank. “What was it William Carlos Williams said?” Irma asked, reading his mind, “There are a lot of bastards out there and most of them are writers.” Their factionalism and social ranking was tiresome. That was another problem with poets. They always want you to choose sides.
The next reader was Savannah George, real name Christine but Savannah was revealed to her during a trance. This was only after she had married the university economics professor whose last name she took. She held touchy-feely writing seminars for women. Her own writing, homily laced pseudo-epiphany and gratuitous portraiture of women in history, was pedestrian at best. She was, on the other hand, one of the nicest people, saintly in some respects, with a wide-eyed intransigent innocence, nice and warm like the glow of coals but barely a flame above a flicker. Still, people like Savannah made him uncomfortable. They were like lampreys, psyche suckers.
She was followed by a handsome young gay man. Funny how, among poets, it was the gay men who were physically appealing, the women mostly homely and severe, Irma and Val being among the few exceptions. His prancing O’Hara-esque faux camp preceded Taz Stevens (not to be confused with Cat or Wallace), an old snake oil salesman who crooned, with deep English sonority, signifying a pulpit gravity, the laments and lessons of an intemperate man.
“Yuk!” Irma exclaimed, “Flypaper poetry!”
Wendt had been thinking of when and where he’d first run into old Taz. Probably at the Blue Unicorn open readings back when any of them had to shave only a couple times a week and were still wet between the ears. Hadn’t changed his tune much since then. “Say again? Fly what?”
“Flypaper poetry. And poets. You know, the feel-sorry-for-my-sensitive-soul, pleas-for-attention school. Crass manipulation of emotions, sticky self-serving self-satisfied cloying sentimentality. Nothing is more boring than a poet left over from an era people have already forgotten.”
Wendt laughed. “Don’t hold back now, let it all out.”
“Did you know his wife ran off with one of her former kindergarten pupils? She’s like twenty five years younger than her!”
“Alright, now you’re just going to make me feel sorry for him.”
Next Time: Wendt reads from his work in progress and leaves everyone stunned which leads him to be celebrated at a local hipster dive where he hooks up with Grace Niklia, the police inspector. To review what has transpired so far, reference the episodes listed in the sidebar, or click The Complete DAY & WEEK to read the pdf file.