Literati: Not So Much
In 1991 I read a poem to a group of a liberal arts college’s intelligentsia. The poem was shit and they hated it. Let me rephrase: the poem was about shit and they really hated it.
Indeed I have embarrassed myself more times than I wish to enumerate in this small space, but I will tell you of one time that still makes my ears flush hot while also causing the corners of my mouth curl up in a perverse smile. That moment is, for me, something I should pretend never happened. I imagine the faculty would agree with that sentiment. It should be lost somewhere, erased from time’s great chalkboard, but instead I bring it up here, nail after myopic nail screeching out this awful noise.
We were in a hall that was full of faculty and students. A podium with a microphone was set up front. Dozens of chairs lined up in neat rows and dozens of people sitting in those neat rows and there were many more people standing, like me, on the edges. We were like paparazzi gravitationally locked around the room focused on the minutia of celebrity that was a small microphone.
Faculty, upperclassmen, and graduate students stepped up to the podium with great seriousness and they opened their folders and looked at their work with such concentration and care it reminded me of a drunk focusing his unsteady hand on a beer bottle cap. Each in turn parted their lips, and spoke into that plastic so their words projected out into space and the congregation nodded.
And it was there, in that packed room on Otterbein’s campus that I took to the podium to read poetry, or a semblance of it; and it was there, in that room, that I made it impossible for me to ever step foot on that campus again.
Although I would like to blame my Otterbein reading on some crazy wonderful Blue Unicorn induced screed in the footsteps of true greats like Hunter S. Thompson, I just can’t. I was sober. But, I had not been sober long and my brain was still not used to seeing the world like everyone else. That and, I suppose, I still had the maturity of an 11 year old kid.
Otterbein is located in the dry town of Westerville, Ohio. It is a private school that I could not afford but I worked hard and paid my way through with loans and Pell grants.
I was going to school full-time, working second shift as a waiter at Pizza Hut, and doing 3rd shift at a Shell gas station where I dutifully got my school work done between taking money from strange people at 3:30 am.
We were robbed twice. I say we, as if I were a part of Shell Gas Company although I am not and do not have any association with the place now, and it, the corporation, while having rights of personhood in the courts, did not have a gun pointed at it one night by a man shaking off some god awful drug fix. So “we”, is a misnomer, but it does show a certain degree of team thinking or a perverse syndrome of some sort that I exhibited. I believe they, the corporation as person, cared about me and my well being, which is important in any successful team, as proven by the obligatory phone call I received from the home office.
The male voice excitedly asked, “was it live one?” I said, “yes, we were robbed” and the voice instructed me to talk to the police. It is a sad day when a person at the home office in Texas somewhere monitors alarms so he can call up the stores and tell employees who just had guns pointed at their chests to call the police. That is the state of things, I suppose.
The cops were there fast and had guns drawn when they entered. They searched the 4 aisles, even though I told them the man had fled out the side door. They came back to tell me they did not find anyone, to get a cup of fresh brewed coffee, and to joke a bit with me by telling me to get the “license plate” of the getaway car next time. He ran away on foot. I didn’t feel like reminding them.
The next day my manager, a short, rotund woman who swayed from heel to heel when she walked, checked the camera and videotape. There was nothing. “Malfunctioned equipment,” she said. The detective, a 6-6 350 pound walrus of a man said that malfunctioning equipment happens quite a bit and told me I was lucky. I said, hmmm. I was 18. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. He stared at me for a moment then left.
My manager lit a cigarette and grumbled not too subtlety about resetting the alarm and the god damned paperwork.
All this build up and the moment is probably going to be a significant let down for you. I apologize ahead of time. I find myself apologizing quite often to people. After a few perfunctory readers, the MC of the event, a senior English major, opened it up for anyone to read. Everyone seemed to look about the audience, necks craned and eyes scanned the faces around them – You? No, you? And then I moved up to the podium. I did not say my name, but I did pull out a couple of crumpled typed pages from my back jean’s pocket and briefly looked out into the audience.
After going to a number of readings since that first one, I now realize how inappropriate it was. How uncultured and inane. But, as it was, if I had known then, this would not be one of those moments.
I focused on this older woman, a faculty member from Biology I believe. She had short gray hair streaked black, glasses, a faded skirt, and kind eyes. I would like to think she nudged me along because I stood staring out at them like some drunk whose just been caught in a checkpoint. Once I began, I never looked up.
It was two pages of iambic pentameter. And it was good thing I did not look up until the end. Somewhere I heard my voice reciting the words on the page, getting into the sing song rhythm, like reading a children’s book, and the room was quiet while I read. I read about a young boy, 5 or 6, who having woke up in the middle of the night to piss, stumbled by nightlight to the bathroom only to discover a turd so massive it would not flush down.
I described in great detail the amazement of such a shit and the befuddlement of the child as he gazed upon the porcelain bowl. I explained how he insisted the scat must go down before he could relieve himself. It was two pages of rhymes involving a sister’s hair clip, the end of a hairbrush, and small hands. It ended with the boy triumphantly going back to bed, having forgotten to pee. I was proud. They were silent.
I shuffled to my spot along the wall. Some glared, some shook their heads, some, embarrassed for me I’m sure, pressed their fingers into their forehead, between their eyes, and stayed that way for what seemed to be many minutes.
The MC valiantly shared one of his own poems to get things back on track and I snuck out wishing I hadn’t given up drugs.
Unfortunately I know I will always be that man, sweaty and shaking; I will always be holding up a cold reality, pointing it at their chests, singing them a sweet song of shit. I’ll always be the one hoping they will need a call from some distant voice to tell them “remember that kid…” but there will be nothing there, memory erased, equipment broken. Then I really would be lucky.