(Not a) Poem Addressing How Harmony Discovers Poetry
For Peter Davis
I am the fiction fellow at Emory University, where the other faculty are famous and older than me and do not typically want to hang out. I have found myself attending numerous poetry readings this semester, because some guy named Bruce Covey puts on a “What’s New in Poetry?” reading series in the campus bookstore, which is a fucking Barnes & Noble. I go because I have no reason not to go. I go because I accidentally turned my roommate into a poet. I go because we share his car now that mine is dead. The poetry readings are always after I teach and have office hours, so I extend a few of my already extended Thursdays each month and go.
I go to the “What’s New in Poetry?” reading series run by Bruce Covey, and I hope it won’t suck. I tell my fiction students to go. They tell me they don’t understand poetry. I tell them I don’t either. I tell them we should all go. I tell them we can go together—we will have each other. I tell them it won’t suck.
I hope I haven’t lied.
I show up smelling like a pack of cigarettes. My students walk in and scan the crowd for me. I don’t know why they look for me, but they do. When they see me, their shoulders unhunch and they smile. Then I look away before they take my eye contact as an invitation to speak to me, or worse, sit by me. They frown. They find other students I am no longer looking at to sit with. They all frown together.
I sit in a crappy folding chair that is too close to the crappy folding chairs around it. My spare tire rubs against my roommate’s spare tire. I sit on the aisle so my spare tire does not rub a stranger’s spare tire.
The readings are all scheduled to begin at 8:00 p.m. Sometime after 8:00 p.m., Bruce Covey arrives with the poets who are reading, the poetry fellow, and other people whose names I am supposed to know. I get up to say hi to the poetry fellow. When we found out we were going to be the new fellows together, we assumed we would be friends. We are not friends. We do not understand each other, and we are both the sort of people who are unwilling to put effort into understanding people we do not immediately understand. We force smiles at each other and attempt to exchange pleasantries. We look at each other’s shoes. We look at the crappy folding chairs. I look at my students, who smile hopefully until I look away. The poetry fellow and I are going to share a hotel room for AWP.
I awkwardly return to my seat, since I have run out of things to mumble to the poetry fellow. Now that the poets have arrived from the pre-reading dinners they don’t invite me to, the reading might start. I think the poets are assholes for not inviting me to dinner with the visiting poets. If they invited me, I couldn’t go to dinner with them, because, as I’ve mentioned, I teach and have office hours before the readings. This is a very good reason why they should invite me. I can’t go, but if they invited me, then they would not be assholes because they’d invited me. Instead, they are assholes who do not invite me.
Around 8:20, Bruce Covey puts together his crappy microphone that always falls apart and isn’t necessary for the thirty of us in our crappy folding chairs. Then he introduces the poets for the night. This confuses me because there are usually three or four poets, but I try to keep them straight. Sometimes all I hear is “Gulf Coast” and “made-up magazine” and “chapbook” and “press….press…press.” Sometimes I hear “Coconut,” which I pick out because that is Bruce Covey’s literary magazine. He likes to invite poets whose work he likes to read in his series, so they are often poets he has published in Coconut. I have gone to the Coconut website. It is hideous. I think it was birthed in the ’90s—the era of bright fonts and tiled backgrounds. His website basically has Progeria, so it never properly matured. I cannot read poems on a site that ugly.
By the time Bruce Covey is done introducing the poets, I am in a meditative state. I am ready to hear poems. I am ready to listen, to understand, to analyze, and hopefully, to enjoy.
Sometimes, I am thwarted.
Sometimes a poet comes on after Bruce Covey sits down, and I do not understand what is happening. I imagine nudging my roommate’s spare tire and whispering, “I have no idea what’s going on,” but I don’t do that because I sit in the second row, and I don’t want the poet who is confusing me to know I am confused, so I look right at their eyes and put a small smile on my lips. Sometimes I nod, just in case they look at me. I want to look like I am enjoying their poems and that I understand. I do not want to be mean to a poet just because I have no idea why they are saying the words they are saying in the order they are saying those words.
This happened the second to last time I was at one of Bruce Covey’s readings. The first lady poet of the night was speaking, but I could not comprehend her words. I kept thinking about her very short hair and how she had similar hair to me, how maybe I could get someone to cut mine right. I could sport short hair like hers as a means to get rid of all my hair that I ruined with hair color because I got really tired of everyone talking about how both of the new fellows were blondes, so I dyed my hair red-brown and now it is fried and ugly.
The lady with a good short haircut sat down, and another lady went up. I don’t know their names because Bruce Covey introduced everyone at once. The second poet wanted to read from a 55-page poem. I thought, oh boy, fuck me. I tried to pay attention, but she was asking a lot. I liked that she was angry and pretty, but I went in and out of focus. I wanted her to pause and crack jokes. I wanted her to do anything that was not reading the same poem about how awful the world is for fifteen minutes straight. I suspect my students were sending all the evil they felt in their black hearts through their eyes to the back of my head.
By the time she was done, I thought I might collapse. I was exhausted. First I’d been confused, then I was asked to run fifteen miles through war-torn cities and over dying whales with my smoker lungs. I slouched in my seat and wouldn’t let myself look at my phone. A cute man walked up to Bruce Covey’s crappy microphone and said, “Hi. How are ya’ll?” I wanted to kiss him for including us—we were all sitting there trying to be part of something. He said, “I want to read you a poem about Spider-Man.” I sat up in my crappy chair. I nudged my roommate in his spare tire.
I hadn’t known it, but a poem about Spider-Man was exactly what I needed.
He read his poems. I was enthralled. I was enraptured. I could see Nightcrawler at a bar with Wolverine as his wingman. I understood. I understood comics and heartache and not belonging, and I loved it. I laughed. I thought about having his babies, having his poems. I figured out his name: Gary Jackson. I bought his poems. I shook his hand. I thanked him. I thanked him again.
At Bruce Covey’s most recent poetry event, he introduced six poets up front, and I almost fainted. I did not pretend to listen to all the introductions and bios. Instead, I looked at a display of “Best” anthologies and thought about Gary Jackson’s Missing You Metropolis and hoped one of the six poets would take me away.
The first three readers were really high. They all had darting, glassy eyes and weird facial tics. I wondered what fun drugs these poets were on, which made me extra angry that those assholes didn’t invite me to dinner where I could’ve taken fun drugs with bizarre poets (even though I couldn’t have gone).
The fourth lady had red eyes and seemed really mad at her poems. She scared me. I thought she might throw the crappy microphone into the crowd, that she might lunge for me and scratch the skin from my face with her fingernails. I nodded a lot in an effort to reassure her that everything was okay and there was no need for violence. I figured the drugs the poets did at the dinner I wasn’t invited to were wearing off in the worst sort of way.
The fifth lady turned the audience against her when the first thing she said was, “I’ll probably go over eight minutes because I didn’t find out about eight minutes before dinner.” I wanted to slap off her ugly head. She did not respect me. She did not respect my ass in that crappy folding chair or my spare tire rubbing my roommate or my brain that was putting in every attempt to consider six different poets in one hour. She did not respect my students who were at a poetry reading instead of playing beer pong. She did not respect her fellow readers, particularly the one who set her cell phone to make sure she didn’t go over eight minutes, then read a sonnet about Bikram Yoga. How hard is it to read fewer fucking poems?
That fifth poet was a greedy poet. I did not listen to her poems. Instead, I examined her pockmarked skin and her lower teeth that converged in a point, the way a rodent’s teeth do. I stared at the run in her black hose. I contemplated her skinny arms hanging by a pudgy torso. I considered her ill-fitting black dress draped with a pastel purple cardigan. I noticed she was wearing silver cowboy boots. That made me feel sorry for her.
I was ready to leave by the time she scurried off stage, but there was only one more reader, so okay, fine.
I almost missed him. He was short. Very short. It was hard to see him, even from the second row. Bruce Covey’s crappy microphone towered over his head. He was very attractive, but very short. I thought it was unfair of his parents to make him so short. He only needed another foot. He really needed another foot. I thought he would have been a popular guy if he hadn’t been so short. But then, if he had been a popular, attractive guy, he would probably not have become a poet. I felt bad for the short poet and thought about how my roommate is lucky because writers are mostly ugly (a fact I am often reminded of at readings). My roommate is above average for looks, which makes him all but Brad Pitt compared to other writers. He’s not as attractive as me, even though I have bad hair right now, but hey, who is?
The short poet—Bruce Covey introduced six poets all at once and not knowing his name was not my fault—wanted to read me a poem about Hitler’s mustache. I was cool with that. I was more skeptical of poems about Hitler’s mustache than I was about poems involving Spider-Man, but certainly poems about Hitler’s mustache would not be a series of questions squeaked in a rodent voice about what time it is in different cities.
I laughed manically at the mustache poems. I noticed the poet kept using his left shoulder to fight his left arm and kept trying to cram his left hand into his pant pocket, presumably to keep it from flying around while he was reading. He was shaking, as many readers do, but because of the arm and a stutter in his speech, I wondered if he had Asperger’s. I remembered he was on the drug the poets had done during dinner without me.
He read many funny poems. I like funny poems. A poem that interests me probably does not involve cathedrals or birds or break-ups with holes pricked in souls. A poem that interests me is probably, though not necessarily, funny.
For some reason, I didn’t realize anyone was writing funny poems before I heard Gary Jackson’s Spider-Man poem. I certainly didn’t know anyone had written an entire book of funny poems (besides John S. Hall, and most of his poems are not very good).
The short poet could have gone over eight minutes, and that would have been fine with me. But he didn’t because he is not a greedy poet with rodent teeth, and he does not wear silver cowboy boots. He is a generous poet who happens to be short. I wanted to buy his book, but I had purchased two books of poetry the week before. I let my roommate buy a book with my cash that he had left in his wallet.
I was excited to read Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! The title alone tells you how seriously Peter Davis takes serious matters like poetry. I found out that’s his name, no thanks to Bruce Covey. I read it on the cover of the book my roommate bought with my money.
I spoke to Peter Davis briefly and thanked him for not sucking. I left. My roommate and I do not go out for drinks after the poetry readings anymore. Not since we went once and I wouldn’t stop making fun of Daniel Nester’s small hands, even though I was only drinking water. Plus, Bruce Covey didn’t buy me a drink that night, and he should have. I was only drinking water, so it would have been really cool of him to buy my free tap water, but he didn’t. He never offers to do things for me that he wouldn’t even have to do. I don’t know what’s wrong with him. I hold this shortcoming against him, but I still go to the readings he puts on because I am trying to be a better person.
I don’t know why most poets make it so hard for me to be a better person. It’s like they don’t want me to like them. I’m pretty sure most of them don’t want me to like their poems.
Today, when my roommate ran away to walk our dog in the mountains because I was working on an essay and playing songs he hates loudly and on repeat, I took my first “poetry break” ever. I could have watched the new episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but instead, I took the book of Peter Davis’s poems from my roommate’s room, and I read it.
I read almost half of the poems in one sitting. I felt bad because in his book, Peter Davis kept asking me to write a review of his poems, but I don’t do that. Even if I wanted to do that, I couldn’t, because I wouldn’t know how, and I am very lazy about learning new things that are not fundamentally about me.
I go to poetry readings so I can learn about poetry through osmosis—without reading it. It’s only lately that I’ve been tricked. First I read Gary Jackson’s collection, and now I am reading Peter Davis. I think this makes me a better person. I think I am a better fiction fellow than other fiction fellows and I am better fiction faculty than other fiction faculty because I will go to poetry readings and sit in crappy folding chairs even though no one invites me to dinner. I am better because I invite my fiction students to poetry readings. I tell them to go and they show up even though I am mean to them. The fact that I like Peter Davis’s poetry means I am a good person, a noble person, an insightful, thoughtful person who appreciates The Arts. It’s true that I won’t write a review and publish it in a reputable journal because a review wouldn’t be about me, but isn’t this essay (published in a reputable journal) better, Peter? Don’t you think?
All rights reserved to Harmony Neal.