Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thirteen Stereotypes about Poets

by Gary Soto
excerpted from Why I Don't Write Children's Literature (March 2015)

It’s a disappointment that I’m not invited to parties more often because I possess an extensive social armor in the form of twelve suits, including a rare Paul Smith three-piece—rare in that there is only one other like it in the United States. To my mind, it’s very close to “bespoke,” meaning that a tailor, working from my slender measurements, made it just for me. I’m disappointed because I want to be present at a party where a midlevel techie—wine glass in his right hand, cracker in his left—asks, “What do you do?”

“I’m a poet,” I would answer, nibbling on my own cracker, sipping from my own drink. “Gee, this is a nice party. Look, there’s more food coming!”

And you live where? the techie might wonder, in his semi-vegan heart. But aloud he says, “Interesting. I read a short poem about black birds 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. He turns away.

Still, I get to mingle with others at the party. I scan the scene and sip my wine. It’s good stuff—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—even if it’s by foot. If you call with an invitation to us older poets, on a landline, we will make every effort to come.

Poets Wear Berets
We are no longer partial to berets, though we’ve all seen them tilted smartly on heads, both male and female. Admittedly, they’re attractive head coverings, but only for the generation before 1960, 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. When we do don hats, I’m afraid it’s the dumbed-down baseball-cap look—or a beanie, like that guy in U2. People assume that’s what poets look like—like the beanie guy. But no, that’s more like a rocker with a really expensive guitar.

Poets Are Silent and Reflective 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 can get really loud. He might collapse to his knees, roll onto his side, and keep talking, even while the brain has given up and the eyes resemble salmon eggs. The collapsed poet does not go quietly into the night. Though crumpled on the floor, his lips are still moving slightly.

“Bush,” the poet mumbles, “George Bush started it all . . . Rosebud, rosebud . . .”

Some smarty remarked that we poets come into the world not knowing a single word. After we have honed the ancient craft, however, we won’t shut up. But we also come into the world expecting a proper drink, right away. “Where’s mommy?” the newborn poet asks, then wails.

Poets Like Flowers
Sniffing them, we think of our future funerals, when an organ moans and the mourners, other 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, on half-price calendars, and when presented to us with the Nobel Prize for Literature. This big daddy of all awards most likely doesn’t happen, however, and we will have no 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 would wear a red boutonniere, the color of the blood we spilled getting there.

Poets Vote Democrat
Yes, most darken those zeros in the voting booth in favor of Democrats. But a few vote Republican. Generally, these poets iron their jeans and then re-iron them, with sharp creases. Republican poets are always men.

Poets Don’t Work
We are apt to work hard—as long as we don’t have to bend over too much. We work for figures just north of minimum wage, correcting college papers that often begin, “In today’s society,” and teaching creative writing workshops where babyish students complain, “You just want us to write like you.” We appreciate work that ends 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 paystub. All those taxes never benefit poets.

Gary Soto, not unbalanced.
Unbalanced, Poets Must Hang onto Things When They Walk
Sylvia Plath put her head inside an oven—we know at least this much about her. Delmore Schwartz drank himself to death, and so did Dylan Thomas. Virginia Woolf, a prose writer with a poet’s sensibility, put rocks into her apron and walked into a cold river. In short, the public thinks that we’re unbalanced and steps back to give us room. But poets are well balanced. Consider how poets start off the 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 was a’gonna fall / before the call / but big beautiful doll / hecka pale and tall / you feel me, y’all?” After some soft clapping from the audience, the poet swings his hair from his right shoulder to his left. Then 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 at about 7:00 p.m. and end when we turn about twenty-five.

Poets Drink Too Much Coffee
Like the regular Joes and Josephinas of the world, wesavor our morning brew. We drink two cups, get that sweet vibe going, then head to work on BART. In our office, we’re blasted by fluorescent 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 cheapo rental, poets may cruise the radio stations, halt briefly at NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and growl, “Oh, yeah, a station for the Volvo crowd.” When a reporter begins, in an urgent voice, “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 gave a shit.” Poets search for a station with loud music.

Poets Need Sensitivity Training 
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. “I’ll bury in it in his forehead.”

Poets Understand Dreams
We sleep in narrow or wide beds and we dream narrowly or widely. To our analysts, 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.”

Analyst (tapping pencil against his leg—so Freudian): “Were there ice cubes involved?”

Poets Live on the Top Floor of 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 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 take tally of the Royal Copenhagen china. We seldom dwell in large houses with more than two bathrooms. When we do, it’s because our wife or husband or lover is the one with money. Even then, we feel a little embarrassed when we show our guests the view from the great room.

Poets Smell
Ghastly rumor! We shower and we wash our fleshy mitts. Some solitary days we contemplate the grime under our fingernails, grime that if analyzed in a lab would reveal pencil lead. We write poems that work and poems that don’t work. When we sweat, we provide the world with an unusual odor. “What’s that?” a curious business-type might ask, as he sniffs the confines of an elevator. Dogs howl at our sides as they recall from their canine past some primordial longing that involved the first Neanderthal poets. People hurry out of the elevator before the poet can say, “It’s me! I’ve just finished a poetry manuscript. The perfume is called ‘Essence of Limited Edition.’”

Why I Don't Write Children's Literature, by Gary Soto, is available from ForeEdge on March 3rd.

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