Suicide by Chicken Liver: Why I Chose to be a Poet.
I can’t remember not loathing numbers. For instance, one of my earliest memories is of sitting at a desk in a classroom, near tears as I stared at my workbook, utterly baffled as to how many nickels equaled one dime. Who cared?
Nor did I see the need to spend even one second — much less the days it might take my mathematically phobic brain — to calculate how long it would take Train B to catch up with Train A or Farmer George’s bag of potatoes to equal Grocer Ben’s.
It was out of my control; I had no immediate plans to travel or take up farming… and, meanwhile, Barbie needed to get ready for her date with Ken.
Yet, for all that, I still somehow managed by bell, book, candle and some skillful tutoring (thank you, Dad) to graduate cum laude with a degree in Business Administration. Not to mix metaphors or anything, but it’s my own, up close and personal version of the Red Seas parting.
Moses may have thought he was shocked as he led his people through corridors of salt water; but, trust me, somewhere the universe is still reverberating with stupefaction over the fact that earthling Jenine Baines made it out of UM-St. Louis with a 3.50 GPA. And even if the Universe isn’t, I am.
As you might suspect, today I remember virtually nothing of my business school course work.
The moment my A was posted in Econ, Accounting or (shudder) whatever class it was that attempted to teach me some sadistic concept called the Present Value of Money, I promptly voided my brain of every last theorem of it, flushed it away with a flourish, and buried myself happily in my English electives’ reading lists.
One dictum, however, I do remember. If supply out equals demand, watch out. Trust me, if you think the corporate world is rough, you ain’t seen nothing till you’ve tried submitting a poem somewhere.
Once, for instance, I entered an opinion poem on chivalry in a poetry contest sponsored by the LA Times Opinion page. It was pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.
It was decently creative, not too poorly crafted, and relevant — or at least I thought it was. Entitled The Knight, it described a scene on a plane, when a man helped me hoist a heavy bag into overhead storage.
Considering the Times had just run a prose opinion piece on the death of chivalry, I thought it had a shot.
Naïve me. 20 poems — none of them mine — were selected as finalists/winners. Over 3,000 were submitted.
Now, if there is one thing a poet learns early on, immediately after discovering the joys of online Thesauruses, it is not to take rejection too personally. I scanned the winning entries so I wasn’t a sore loser, permitted myself a small sigh, and promptly posted The Knight on my own blog.
I also went WTF and submitted The Knight to The New Yorker. (More on that brazen move later.)
But, alas, even on my very own blog the response wasn’t exactly the stuff of my dreams. Worse yet, the readers who commented, commented not on the poem itself but on the essay I wrote to accompany it.
Such rejection, I must confess, is a struggle to process. It’s not that I take the lack of comment on the poem personally.
As I intimated earlier, my Queen for a Day crown was sent out for recycling years ago — the moment I realized in gym class during my turn at bat that the universe doesn’t give a fuck how insecure I am. It’s more that I worry that Auntie Destiny is smacking me upside the head.
Am I off course? Am I deluded?
Am I creatively masturbating rather than hauling myself out of my warm, comfy bed of fantasy and doing something constructive?
Yet I can’t quite shake the words of my grandfather either. “Opera is like chicken livers,” Grandpa informed me when I was about 12 and squawking that Maria Callas was no Paul, John, George or Ringo. “An acquired taste.”
Oh, it may have been different once upon a time — like circa 1600.
But I would bet dollars to donuts (a nice poetic image, eh?) that the ratio of poets to readers over 400 years later, in an era soaked through for generations with verse ranging from Why Don’t We Do It In the Road? (Beatles) to Can you lick my Skittles, it’s the sweetest in the middle (Beyonce), is roughly 900,000 to 1.
And, really, who watches PBS anymore? Did you raise your hand? Then you might read poetry. Maybe. If you were bored, or the television and radio were on the fritz, and a crazed, unpublished poet was holding you at gunpoint. Then, yes, you might give Auden or Billy Collins a cursory read.
Some of you, of course, might choose death instead.
Which reminds me of whose head I’d like to hold a gun to — to every high school English teacher whose insistence on one right answer destroyed what could have been an inexhaustible love affair with an art form of sheer wondrousness.
A form of prayer that can, once you open your heart to it, change your life in an instant… and, then, for instants after, continue to change your life, as a myriad of new sights and newer insights assault you from less than, say, a dozen lines.
Wow, that’s one mouthful of sentences. Let’s poeticize it and see if that helps…
Which reminds me of whose head
I’d like to hold a gun to —
To every high school English teacher
whose insistence on one right answer
destroyed what could have been
an inexhaustible love affair
with an art form of sheer wondrousness.
A form of prayer that can,
once you open your heart to it,
change your life in an instant
and, for instants after,
continue to change your life,
as a myriad of new sights
and newer insights assault you
from less than, say, a dozen lines.
Please don’t think I am whining. I am not. I am simply stating what is.
In choosing to write poetry, I have thrown in my lot, not with the cool, rich kids on the top of the hill like Stephen King or JK Rowling or that chick who wrote Fifty Shades, but with the dinosaurs — yeah, with those beasts with the big bodies and purportless brains too minute to adapt to life after an asteroid or comet fell some place in parts south 65 million years ago.
Will I adapt? I don’t know.
In some ways, however, I am trying. For instance, look what I am spending my time on today. But is blogging really any more profitable than poetry?
Arianna Huffington, Matt Drudge, or that gal who had the pash on Julia Child and turned it into a movie deal aside, most bloggers are as pitifully recompensed as Third World street sweepers. Actually worse. Many earn not one red cent, and we’re never tipped.
Which brings me full circle. Zero still = 0, correct?
So I scribble a verse here, futz with a stanza there, and have a blast. I have a blast even though I know full well that damn near no one, not even my adult children or some of my closest friends, will read whatever bauble at last emerges from the lump of coal in the bin of my brain.
Yet I am nothing if not inconsistent. Recently, for example, I promised my dear friend Bonnie that I would write a book. Nothing high level, nothing literary, nothing deep. Why? Why do you think? Because, as another pal, Jim, just reminded me this week, Money is nice.
Yes, money is nice, and it’d be nice, for a change, to earn some. And the most sure way for that to happen, let’s face it, is for me to whip up some frothy predictable concoction as lowbrow as a Bud at the bowling alley, as sex-drenched as Beyonce’s lyrics, and about as believable as Cinderella.
Yet while Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts may pop out these suckers by the litter, the only litter I’m generating is the burgeoning pile of discarded Chapter Ones in that cute little trash can on the lower right corner of my computer screen.
So then I give up in disgust, resign myself to fiscal failure and artistic ignominy… and write another poem.
“I like your stuff,” someone told me not too long ago. “It’s as good as what they run in the New Yorker.”
Praise indeed, and you can bet it went to my head. Alas, however, after, oh, say, four submissions, perhaps five, to that august publication — I’ve lost count — I have come reluctantly to the conclusion that the poetry people there do not at all agree with my friend’s assessment.
And sometimes — not always, mind you, but sometimes — I sulk a bit. I mean, who wouldn’t want to announce blithely on Facebook that one of the most respected weekly magazines in the world not only read your poem but wants its 1,043,792 readership to read it, too?
Moral of story: the Universe does not reward those whose motives are ego-driven and impure.
Well, not unless they are running for public office or selling something it doesn’t.
Obviously, thus far, I am hawking the wrong goods. But, hey, I am one helluva dinosaur. And, like my ancestral cousins, I may very well be doomed because I’m too stupid to duck and adapt as the asteroid strikes. But oh well. So be it.
I can no more not write poetry than a cloud can not rain or the neighbor’s dog not bark.
And guess what? I’m grateful I’m that way. Yes, grateful.
As the philosopher Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint.”
Chicken livers, anyone?