Tuesday, March 14, 2006

my brush with poetry fame

From sixteen to eighteen I wrote poems by the dozen, by the hundredweight, poems penny each, a dollar ninety-nine per pound. Every day, for nearly 900 days, I wrote and signed and faithfully dated at least one piece. Sometimes I'd write two or three in a day. And much like Spiderman's juvenilia, it all started over a girl. The first poem I wrote actually netted her, so why I continued long past the point of impression and into the realms of irritation, I can't say. All I knew was that I was in love and that the smoke of hormonal fire seemed to emerge as words.

At first I wrote free-form breath unit lines in the manner of Ginsberg, because I had a notion that I was good at it. All sixteen year old poets, it turns out, write free-form breath unit lines in the manner of Ginsberg. Who knew? After a while I found more formal masters to imitate, and I started to mimic - oh, everyone. I probably wrote poems in the styles of menus, the unique metrics of highway signs, the sly voice of the absence slip. Eventually I just ripped off the style of Wallace Stevens all the time, and those who'd never read Stevens really liked it.

In the summer of 1989, when I turned eighteen, the turbine of iambs stopped spinning, and my output dropped from one a day to one a month. This made my friends and family very happy, since no one had to deal with me thrusting a wrinkled rag of looseleaf into their hands with a few lines scribbled down from an inspirational burst at 4 AM. Every so often someone would say, Hey, Mr. Node, are you still writing poetry? And I would say Yes, but I would avoid going into detail like I used to, with its commentary, backstory, oral footnoting and soliciting of praise from the poor bastard dumb enough to ask in the first place.

In 2000, I was avoiding work by nosing around on the internet (has the internet been making our lives useless for that long? Man.). I went to thespark.com, which at the time had not been bought out by B@rnes & N0ble,* and was therefore interesting and anarchic in a college-y way, with a huge portion of its content devoted to cruel jokes and news parodies. During a day in which I could choose between interviewing a woman about her dead infant sister or poking around on the internet, the latter fell into the category of more fun.

The site featured the heavy metal poetry stylings of Ernie Morrison, which you can read here (go on and read a few. I'll wait here. Done now? Okay. Funny, hey?) At the end of the poem selection, the site invited people to send in their "heart-felt poems and Ernie will include them in his next anthology". I gave my knuckles a crack and then, because I'd had a sandwich for lunch, wrote the following:

the ham-fisted man

he was ham-fisted, true
and heavy-handed, yes, for sure,
with ham so dense it must have been
Compressed; he was ham-fisted
by Carl Buddig meats. He wondered
if Carl Buddig was real, sent
letters, threw emails through
wondered once again:
was he ham-fisted, heavy-handed,
or was he kind of hungry?
You know what I'm saying?
Carl Buddig never answered.
He went south, was eaten by hogs.
They left the hands.

I included my name and address for some reason and forgot about it.

A few months later I received an envelope from the International Library of Poetry, those parasites on the body of literature. Their letter was so cool that I couldn't throw it out:

Imagine... a hardcover coffeetable book with "the ham-fisted man"? A chance at ten grand for making up a few lines about a guy with meat for fists? Usually I'm as gullible as the next, but this seemed wrong somehow.

It didn't get less wrong when I saw the intended title of the book.

A man with meat hands obsesses over the identity of a packaged pork provider, then gets devoured by pigs. Ironic? Oh my but yes. An echo of nature? I doubted it somehow. I pictured a nation of homemakers and sad rejects from literary magazines cracking open their copy of Nature's Echoes to find their tender piece about the Wind Through the Grasses plunked down next to my two-minute joke. If they looked closely they'd realize that all the flattery piled on them by the International Libray was a grab at their Christmas money. I didn't feel like sending out my ham-fisted messenger to tell them the bad news.

Mind you, here was a chance to do what I would have jumped at a decade before: convert my utterly pointless poetry into a chance to harass people. On fine-milled paper, no less. I came close to accepting publication, but I knew that I would have to throw down ridiculous amounts of cash for what would amount to a bad joke. And for the next few years I'd be fending off letters from vanity presses looking for an amateur with a few hundred dollars to spend.

The International Library must have smelled my indifference, because they sent me an even better offer a few weeks later:

I don't know what I can add to that. I imagined some actor in some studio somewhere putting the right weight on "reconstituted," or holding a beat before breathing a final, wistful "Alas". Would they want me to provide the promised commentary? Or would they drag in some sessional prof for a game attempt at framing "the ham-fisted man" alongside the western canon?

Now that I'm older and better paid, I could definitely afford both the book and the CD, instant classics both. Maybe I should submit the poem again.

*This statement is probably a gross oversimplification of whatever it was that happened to The Spark to make it less interesting and sadly useful. But gone are the days when you could read about the Stinky Feet Project or find the recipe for Hot Damn.


The acceptance letter.

The further adventures of acceptance letter.

The motherfucking Sounds of Poetry!

They sent me an "Artist's Proof," intended to "prove" that I was an "artist".

The reverse side of the artist's proof. If they didn't want me to write in that space, why'd they write all over it?.


palinode said...

To their credit, they actually got the spelling of my name right.

me said...

too amusing: i had the very same experience. i too used to write copious amounts of 'poetry', well more just mere rubbish ramblings..and now believe that all teenagers should never be allowed pens or paper. well i submitted one to a very similar sounding poetry institute- my own local version. im sure they are all the same institution as the letters are freakishly similar. it was accepted (as i think all of those who bother to submit are), yet i was stupid and naive enough at the time to BUY the book! so now here i sit, several years later, with this leather bound, never-to-die coffee table book with my rubbish printed for all eternity. ha, at least you arent that lucky!

Dav said...

Oh my God, that is actually brilliant.

As a fan of poetry, and indeed a budding author (please see my website for more detail...), I must submit my heartfealt congratulations. Well done! I am, of course, entriely jealous.

Maritza said...

You must get the CD of your poem but only if they can get that guy from the Actor's Studio to narrate. Can you work in the word "gravitas" into "Ham Fisted Man"?

palinode said...

...but hogs, no fans of gravitas,
Set upon him, ate him whole,
left his hammy hands. Alas.

Gaunilo said...

How well I remember back in the day, the day of 'free-form breath unit lines in the manner of Ginsberg,' when I was, in fact, sixteen myself.

Poetry stuffed with faux clever references and impenetrable obscurantisms...ah, my youth. Actually, I guess nothing's changed.

I got one of those acceptances too. I think it was an alarmingly depressing poem about my alarm (ha!) clock written in the manner of Sylvia Plath run through Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Or something. I, sadly, did not pay the money to have my immortal verse bound in a handsome, coffeetable collector's edition. I rue the day.

mathew said...

i've received two of those letters, in the past from Poetry.com

i had a chuckle and then i threw it away, although i do remember wondering if the hamilton mint contracted work from these marketers.

Lynn said...

Excellent work, Mr. Node. I like your ham-fisted messenger. Just don't send him my way.

schmutzie said...

I have always loved the hamfisted man.

Anonymous said...

that was funny IMHO

Gemini6Ice said...

I'm surprised you left your IRL name visible in the letters. Also, to be honest, that poem was a hell of a lot better than most "works" that would appear in such a spurious publication

palinode said...

My first name is easily accessible on this site - you can visit my 'aboot me!' entry and see it. I removed any reference to my last name and address.

Several people have told me that 'the ham-fisted man' is better than all those poems that start off something like "I beheld a rose" or "I saw two sets of footprints in the sand". Thank you. Mind you, I didn't write it to be particularly bad so much as silly. Had I known that the clever joes at The Spark were going to route it to the International Library of Poetry, I would have attempted a parody of the sentimental family and nature poems that usually bedeck its pages. It was way funnier to me, though, that the Library clearly wasn't paying attention to the content of this piece. It made me wonder if they scan for obscenity and let all else pass.

CarpeDM said...

Yeah. I also got suckered into buying the coffee table book. Can't remember the name of the book I ended up purchasing but I'm sure that my poem about some girl committing suicide (written when I was 16) really fit in with nature's echoes or dust in the breeze or whatever the heck it was called.

They still try to get me to submit more poems to them. I never got the sounds of poetry offer though. Dang them.

jessica said...

wow, i found this post because i was googling ernie morrison. his poems on thespark.com were my absolute favorite things ever, and i still dream about the e-cards they were offered as whenever there's a special occasion.

they NEVER should have shut down that website. RIP.