I'm saddened that I'm not invited to parties more often because I possess social armor in the shape of twelve suits, including a rare Paul Smith three-piece--rare in that there is only one other suit like it in the United States. To my mind, it's very close to "bespoke," meaning that a tailor, working from my measurements, made it just for me. I'm saddened because I want to be at a party where the mid-level techie--wine glass in right hand, cracker in left hand--asks, "What do you do?"
"I'm a poet," I answer directly and nibble from my own cracker, sip from my own drink--"Gee, this is a nice party. Look, there's more food coming!"
"And you live?" the techie might say in his semi-vegan heart. But verbally, he says, "Interesting. I read a short poem about a wheelbarrow once. Didn't understand it at all." Cracker crumbs fall from his lower lip. His cell phone lights up and I disappear from his thoughts for seconds--no, for good as he turns away.
Still, I get to be at a party. I scan the scene and sip my wine--good stuff with a blend of silliness, with just a touch of hilly ravine. Got to get a case of this, I remind myself.
In short, poets are misread. We're like others in that we have hearts and lungs, money and then no money, and places to go. If you call with an invitation to us older poets on a landline, we will make every effort to come.
Poets wear berets
We're not partial to berets that we've seen tilted smartly on heads, both male and female. They're swell head covering, but only for the generation before 1940, and only if you were European with an owl-shaped face. Still, if a contemporary poet wears a beret it should be made of wool and smell of tobacco and worry--worry for the next poem and the next meal. If we do wear hats, I'm afraid it's the dumb-downed baseball-cap look--or a beanie like that guy in U-2. People think that that's what poets look like--the beanie guy. No, that's more like a rocker with a really expensive guitar.
Poets are reflective and silent types
If drinks are free for more than two hours, and if the party extends to another venue offering more of the same, a poet will get really loud and may collapse to his knees, roll onto his side and keep talking, even while the brain is giving up and the eyes resemble salmon eggs. The collapsed poet goes not quietly into the night. Though crumpled to the floor, the poet's lips are still moving slightly.
"Bush," the poet mumbles, "Bush started it all... Rosebud, rosebud..."
Some smarty remarked that we poets come into the world not knowing a single word, but by the time we have honed this ancient craft we won't shut up. Also, we come into the word wanting a proper drink right away.
"Where's mommy?" the new-born poet asks, and wails.
Poets like flowers
Sniffing them, we think of our future funerals when an organ moans and the mourners, poets in out-of-style ties, are keen to the aroma of vittles in the adjacent room. Flowers, of course, are beautiful in a vase, in half-off calendars, and when presented to us at the Nobel Prize for Literature ceremony. This most likely doesn't happen, the big daddy of all awards, the occasion to shake hands with a real king and bow to his wife, the queen thin as a tulip. But if it should occur, we could wear a red boutonniere, the color of the blood we spilled getting there.
Poets vote Democrat
Yes, most will darken the zero in the voting booth in favor of Democrats. But a few vote Republican. Generally, those poets iron their jeans and then re-iron them with sharp creases. Republican poets are all always men.
Poets don't work
We'll work hard as long as we don't have to bend over too much. True, we work for figures just north of minimum wage. We correct college papers that often begin, "In today's society..." and teach creative writing workshops, where babyish students complain, "You just want us to write like you." We appreciate work that ends at about five o'clock and committee meetings that take no longer than the time in which to eat a sandwich. We like paychecks, but fret at all the deductions on the pay stub. All those taxes never benefit poets.
Poets are unbalanced and must hang onto things when they walk
Sylvia Plath put her head inside an oven--at least this much we know about her. Delmore Schwartz drank himself to death, and so did Dylan Thomas. Virginia Woolf, prose writer with a poet's sensibility, put rocks into her apron and walked into cold water. In short, the public thinks that we're unbalanced and steps back to give us room. But poets are pretty much well balanced. Consider how poets start off our day. We put on our socks first, then our pants, or maybe the other way around--pants first, then socks. We're able to dress ourselves.
Poetry slams are for everyone
Poets in a slam rhyme like this: "I wasa gonna fall/before the call/but big beautiful doll/hecka pale and tall/you hear me y'all?" Soft clapping from the audience before the poet swings his hair from his right shoulder to his left. He begins another: "Skinny but mad/fruitfully glad/mom and dad/like frowned at 'Brad'/but my words, sugar babe, ain't that bad..." These slams start about 7:00 PM and end when we turn about twenty-five.
Like the regular Joes and Josephina's of the world, we savor our cup of morning brew. We drink two cups, get that sweet vibe going, and head to work on BART. In our office, we're blasted by florescent light bulbs, but on our desk we have a potted plant to soothe our eyes.
"How's it going?" a workmate asks.
"I stapled my tie to the desk--that's how it's going," the poet answers. "You seen the scissors?"
We don't sit in cafes jotting down ideas for poems that may or may not happen. Poets like their coffee with lots of cream and with sugar--two spoonfuls will sweeten the day.
Poets listen to NPR
While driving a cheap-o rental, poets may cruise the radio station, halt briefly at NPR's "All Things Considered" and growl, "Oh, yeah, a station for those people who drive Volvos, maybe a wimpy Prius." When a reporter begins, "Today in Australia, a kangaroo was found sitting among rocks at low tide..." poets snort, "Yeah, but what about me? I sat there and no one cared." The poets then search for a station with loud music.
Poets are non-violent
We're soft-armed, we're flabby beneath our shirts and blouses, and we close our eyes when hit.
Not, so, I'm afraid. We are weightlifters and jumpers of rope, prepared for the great fights.
Poets can be violent. Let our noses spark blood, and let our knuckles meet squarely the smirky smile of a novelist whose first book is already facing the remaindered bin. When pushed, we push back. When kicked, we kick back. Like Byron, we die preparing for battle.
A famous poet and his semi-famous friend commiserated over a prestigious prize that neither received. It instead had gone to a very famous poet.
"Get over it," the famous poet scolded. "Bury the hatchet."
"Good idea!" the semi-famous poet roared of the one who won. "I'll bury it in his forehead."
Poets are from New York City
Yes, some are holed up there, blinking in their small apartments across from a park where congas play 24/7. They write by overhead light and fear natural light when they leave their apartments for the corner store. But poets are from Fresno, too, like Jon Veinberg for instance, a poet we envy. He came up with this dazzling language:
Why do they shake their fingers at me--
those dead clocks
full of mysterious nods.
Poets know the meaning of dreams
We sleep in narrow or wide beds and we dream narrowly or widely. To our therapist, we report with mild urgency dreams such as this: "When I went into the bathroom I saw a polar bear drinking from the toilet. He raised his face with little drops of water dripping from his chops, and chased me down the hallway. We both ran in slow motion, but since he was more powerful he caught me and, well, gave me a bear hug."
Therapist (tapping pencil against his leg--so Freudian): "Were there ice cubes involved?"
Poets have the top floor in the ivory tower
We live in houses with lots of windows, or apartments with some windows, or shared spaces with only one window, which we use to climb through when we've forgotten the key. We live in tents when the going is hard or with our parents when the going is really hard. No poet lives too richly. We don't shine the silver or dust the chandelier or in spring take tally of the Royal Copenhagen china. But we don't live in large houses with more than two bathrooms. If we do, it's because our wife or husband or lover is the one with money. And even then, we feel a little embarrassed when we show our guests the view from the Great Room.
Ghastly rumor! We shower and we wash our hands. Some solitary days we contemplate the grime under our fingernails, grime that we discover is really pencil lead. We write poems that work, and some that don't work. We sweat and, thus, provide the world with an unusual odor--"What's that?" a curious passerby may ask as he sniffs. Dogs howl at our side as they recall from their canine past some primordial longing that involved the first Neanderthal poets.
People hurry by before the poet can say, "It's me! I've just finished a poetry manuscript. The perfume is called 'Essence of Limited Edition.'"