Falling standards of poetic living
Poets have a different definition for the phrase, “standard of living.”
I keep 12 dozen extra quatrains in a non-taxable, offshore Caribbean account and have a closet full of hauntingly sleek haikus I’ve only uttered once.
By Dian Sousa
I work as a poet. Sometimes I even get paid for my work. This year so far, from readings and book sales, I have made 275 dollars. That’s approximately 45 dollars a month—twenty bottles of Two Buck Chuck and a bag of Cheetos. By the surreal standards of most struggling poets, this makes me rich—a high rolling, power elite. I keep 12 dozen extra quatrains in a non-taxable, offshore Caribbean account and have a closet full of hauntingly sleek haikus I’ve only uttered once.
However, as most responsible people know, this means absolutely nothing, except that poets have a different definition for the phrase, “standard of living.” There are two main reasons that cause the poet to deviate from the shared cultural/economic understanding of this term. The first one involves a pre-pubescent initiation into the sensuality of language spread out in imagery and metaphor like a sweet babysitter ensconced in a barely legal cotton sheath, leaning against a cellar door offering succulent spoons of caramel sauce. From this miraculous moment on, the poet (who will also develop a cotton fetish and a sugar jones) craves and responds to language on a visceral frequency. It is the same frequency that affects dogs who hear the universe speaking through a razor thin high whistle and howl, and birds who feel their lullabies in the air currents and ascend. Say the word “liquefaction” to the nearest poet and see what happens.*
The second reason which prevents most poets from having, sharing, comprehending the “normal” meaning of “standard of living” is that most poets practice an unsafe, alternative math. Tests conducted on participating poets in a double-wide, wide awake, dream state using algebraic textbooks identical to those used in Tallahassee junior high schools and Texas state prison camps, showed that even though poets recognize numbers, 99 percent of them do not register any soulful manifestations until numbers are forced into unnatural relations with words in order to form word problems.
Although I could not participate in the study because I was sleeping that day, I do understand enough basic math to quadruple the recipe for peach cobbler and, when absolutely necessary, I can also formulate an equation for measuring the rising velocity of my frustration in ratio to my mounting anger in order to calculate the force of their convergence and the radius of the ensuing detonation. If I take a high enough dosage of pain reliever, I can even write it down and try to solve it. From the soft, gently echoing chambers of Vicodin, here is my newest word problem:
If two men in pleated-front khaki Dockers and one man wear beige, no-iron Hagar slacks are sitting at an oval table somewhere in downtown San Luis Obispo fantasizing about their golf stats and stock dividends, while discussing cultural grants and how the city could gain more money for advertising by cutting the money previously used to pay poets and other artists, will the affect of their narrow, nincompoop vision make the whole city deaf, dumb, and blind? X=lack of imagination + Y/soulless chicanery. Quickly, before the thriving poetic community dies, solve for P=(poets)(artists).
For over 20 years the SLO Poetry Festival has provided this community with a forum for listening to the original voices of talented local, as well as nationally and internationally recognized poets such as everybody’s favorite Beat uncle, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the celebrated Irish poet Eavan Boland. For approximately 15 years, this non-profit festival has received a cultural grant from the city with fundable expenses allotted for advertisement and payment to poets. Paying poets for standing all alone on a little stage, summoning all their medicated or non-medicated courage to read the poems they worked on day and night, for weeks or months or years, muttering under their breath, rewriting the same line a hundred times, deleting the same word and putting it back in ninety-nine times keeps a community linked to its soul and a culture rooted in its humanity. Fifty bucks is a million dollars, is a Nobel prize, is validation for many poets diligently practicing “their art and sullen craft” while working their day jobs and doing all the other annoying things they are required to do in order to approximate the aforementioned semi-non-weird “standard of living.”
The promotional Coordinating Committee (PCC), made up by the three ecru nincompoops in the word problem, administers the city’s cultural grants program with money earmarked from the Hotel Bed Tax (HBT.) One of the purposes of these grants is the creation of local Cultural benefits for the residents of San Luis Obispo. An event receives a grant determined by its popularity, its accessibility to residents, its affordability and its uniqueness in the community. The incalculable amount of poetry whispered in hotel beds notwithstanding, the Poetry Festival is always well attended, is certainly—sometimes insanely—unique, and at $2 a ticket, always affordable (even for most broke and broken down, starving poet.)
So, what will the PCC in all its clandestine neo-connery advertise with money it steals from the poets? Pottery Barn? Tri-level parking? Gentrification?
I don’t know who the men on the PCC board are. I don’t know if they really do play golf or wear ugly pants. And most importantly, I don’t know how or why they have come to their unwise decision. Maybe they just love San Luis Obispo so much and are so exuberant about inviting tourists to fill hotel beds, they just forgot that the bottom line of humanity is not profit and that at the heart of every thriving culture beats a vibrant respect for its artists, philosophers, and poets.
The poet—doctor in his spare time—William Carlos Williams, wrote, “It is impossible to get the news from poetry, yet men die every day from lack of what is found there.” Dear PCC, before you die and before all the tender poets pack their little hobo sacks and jump the next blazing train in search of a more civilized terrain, please grant me enough money to advertise Dr. William’s anti-stupidity prescription on a 50-square-foot, 100-watt backlit billboard. §
*What poets whisper to each other in hotel rooms: “When in silks my Julia goes, then, then me thinks how sweetly flows, the liquefaction of her clothes…” —Robert Herrick
Dian Sousa is the co-founder of SLO Code Pink. Her most current book of poems is “Lullabies for the Spooked and Cool.”