The young woman in my office was good-looking… I think. Her shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle, was green on one side, purple on the other, her thick mascara made her eyes raccoonlike, and her lipstick was black (kohl black, I mentally punned). Her tee-shirt proclaimed: “Poetry is ode to everyone.” She held out her hand and as I shook it, the heavy bracelet on her wrist rang like the Peace Tower carillon at noon. “I’m Emily Browning, Mr. Tuff. I’m Prime Poet – that’s like the President – of the Blandsville Poetry Society.” That explained the artsy look. “Do you write poetry?”
“Not for publication,” I said modestly. I hoped that she was not going to ask me to join the BPS or to give a public reading. Everyone who teaches or has ever taught English literature, however, has probably had a brief time when he or she hoped to surpass Shakespeare or emulate Eliot.
My first effort, a grade six assignment read:
Roses are red
Violets are blue;
I am not Shakespeare-
Who aren’t you?
And when the teacher suggested that the first two lines weren’t really original, rather than arguing that they were a quotation, I changed them to read:
Radishes are red,
Bruises are blue.
“I saw you moderate the debate for the candidates for mayor last week and I was impressed.”
Impressed! Well, it had not ended in a riot and I left unscathed. But flattery never falls flat with me and I decided that I liked Ms. Browning, two-toned hair, black lips and all, so that when she said: “We think you’d be the perfect person to emcee our third annual poetry contest this Saturday,” I instantly agreed.
“It’s called Vying for Victory in Verse and it will be held in the high school gym at two p.m. The five finalists have already been chosen and they’ve drawn for order. All you have to do is to introduce each one and read the bios they’ve provided.”
“How is the winner chosen?”
“Well, two years ago the audience voted by ballot, but not everyone was satisfied.” The people who didn’t win, I guessed. “Last year, voters ranked the contestant, but it took a long time to calculate and again not everyone was happy.” Again, the losers, I conjectured. “So this year, we bought an applause meter.” And still, I thought, not everyone will like the result.
Ms. Browning did not mention any payment and I thought it would sound mercenary to ask. Besides, it would be good to return to the school and not have to teach.
At one forty-five, I entered the gym. I had tried to find a suitable tee-shirt in my small collection, but the closest I came was one reading “poets go from bad to verse.” Not really appropriate, I decided, and settled for a sweater and slacks.
At the back of the gym, tables held a coffee urn, trays of cookies and sandwiches, and copies of collections by members of the Poetry Society: at the front, another table had seats for the readers and me, with a microphone, and a lectern with a mike for the contestants. I spotted Ms. Browning, now wearing a well-tailored dress made of the proverbial, but obviously faux, potato sacks. A surprisingly large crowd occupied the rows of uncomfortable folding chairs. They wore a variety of styles, but none more outré than Ms. Browning’s outfit.
Shortly after two, Ms. Browning opened the event. She explained the rules, then introduced me. There was no applause or booing, so I concluded that none of my former students were present.
I introduced the first contestant: “Libby Müller is a poet who moonlights as a waitress at Hamburger Heaven. She is the author of two chapbooks: Murdering the Muses and Mozart Was Tone-Deaf, both published by Solecism Press.”
Ms. Müller used the microphone, but she didn’t need to as she boomed out her poem, “To My Ex-husband,” like a Wagnerian opera singer:
I hate your guts
Your heart is as hard
As the stone you live under
You’re lower than low-life
I’d call you a chauvinistic pig
But I don’t want to
The best thing you ever did
Was marrying me
The worst thing I ever did
Was marrying you
So screw off
I was afraid that the explosion of applause from the predominately female audience might break the applause meter which registered 83. People are often flattered to be the subject of a poem or story, but I wondered how Ms. Müller’s ex-husband would feel about her “tribute”.