Soapy Alabaster Colorants
Dr. Andy deploys his one skill -- writing passable poems quickly -- in an art museum during a Festival celebration.
Most of the poets that I introduce people to when hosting my podcast or my bimonthly reading series write stronger poems than I do, but I have a special poetry talent that most people in the field don’t share: I can write passable poems on the spot.
Most would rightly see this as a questionably useful talent, the way one looks at people who can juggle bananas, braid the stems of sweetbriars, or recite from memory the countries of South America in alphabetical order.
I have deployed this talent most often at a Sunday afternoon poetry series that took place at the Davis Arts Center before the pandemic. Hosted by our then Davis poet laureate, the talented, prolific, and genial James Lee Jobe, the series featured poets who I typically knew well because of my advocacy work in the field. Bringing a large hardback journal that was gifted to me decades previously by my actress stepmother, I would compose a draft of a poem while the featured poets read their works, creating a barely-connected series of images, allusions, and associations. Because the varied stanzas strayed in different directions, I would have to prominently number the sections so that when I read these simplified hypertext works out loud, a new and seemingly purposeful order would be presented.
As the featured poets were friends of mine, the speed-poems I presented often became light roasts, opportunities for me to repurpose lines from their performances in such a way that playfully pointed out their patterns of privilege or pretension. Some lines were improvised while I was reading the new poem, sometimes connecting an element of Jobe’s introduction, or the discovered cause of a quizzical look that I was receiving from someone in the audience. Attendees were likely not as impressed by the quality of the poem produced as they were that I had written it since everyone had sat down for that very event.
The paper notebook was crucial for this exercise, for its large pages allowed me to jot notes to myself, ideas for stanzas, and favorite lines of the roasted poet in different margins of different pages, and then bring them all together for the performance. Phone-composing wouldn’t have worked: nobody wants to see Dr. Andy rudely speed-thumbing on his iPhone during a poetry performance. A paper notebook encourages one to be present in the moment, or deep in thought, while a smartphone encourages one to be preoccupied with faraway distractions of texting or, for some, TikTok, rather than enjoying a performance.
Fast-forward to this past Thursday, and I got to deploy this inessential skill again. As part of The (Sacramento) Crocker Art Museum’s celebration of Festivus, regional poets were being recruited to turn the museum’s members and other attendees’ grievances into poems, written onto paper thought-bubbles about the size of a small plate. This sounded like a mix of an MFA workshop and a summer-camp arts and crafts class. Sign me up, I told the Crocker.
As an undergraduate at Boston University, I switched from Psychology to English not only because of the world-class English Department (where I took classes with a future U.S. Poet Laureate, a Future Oxford Professor of Poetry, and a future Nobel Laureate), but because I didn’t want to spend my professional life listening to people air their grumbles and protests. I agree with Shakespeare that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” and with Robert Downey Jr. that “Worrying is like praying for what you don't want to happen.” Ironically, fielding complaints was exactly my job description Thursday night, and I had great fun fielding these complaints, and turning them into creations.
Of course, I loved this experience in part because I got to attend a boisterous party with live music in an art museum. I haven’t attended an event that fun for years, at least not one that I wasn’t also hosting. I felt like I was traveling back to the carefree days of 2019.
I wore a mask because these days are not, in fact, carefree.
And I wrote a bunch of really short poems. Sometimes they started off as tweets, but then I would add some wordplay or affix an image. My talented poet coworkers, Traci Gourdine and Rhony Bhopla, fit more words onto their paper-plate thought bubbles, but I think I powered through more individual poems. Although Gandhi said, “It is the quality of our work which will please God and not the quantity,” my attitude better matched that of the actor Steve Schirripa: “There's no such thing as quality time; there's only quantity time.”
The quality of my work is debatable – some of my poetry students might call some of these poems “rushed.” Some examples would prove them right. When one party guest directed me to write a flash-poem about menopause, I came up with this:
The heinous hated heat is on.
At night I stare into the dark unblinking,
Like the red glare of my clock.
Sometimes I feel the years are waning,
But my friends and I are all gaining.
Where is the pause button?
At least that one included a simile – the perimeter of my circular writing space mercifully “paused” the poem.
Someone else took a while to explain to me her dislike of soap scum. I asked her the inevitable response question: “Really?” And then I wrote this:
How much soap is too much?
My body is clean,
the marketers tell me,
but now my mind is busy,
much like my tub’s drain,
brimming with soap scum,
vegetable oil and alabaster colorants.
Ask not what soap can clean for you,
but what your whistling Irish Spring I
must shower stall sacrifice
to clean it.
Another lady complained that her FOMO friends check their smartphones too often when out to dinner with her. In my poem, I imagined that her friends were irreligious ketosis fanatics:
A religious couple on a first date.
Bowed heads over keto grain bowls?
Nope! My naiveté rather than their crudités!
Soon I saw their Bluetooth earbuds,
Their vulture necks crooked downward,
Immersed in media, rather than prayer,
Sidetracked by TikTok under the table!
Speaking of tweets, I edited that down a bit to fit into a tweet. Although Rhony and Traci and I had posted almost 100 poems on the wall for museum-goers to review, will any of our lines be remembered? A tweet will make even more impressions. With so many of us feeling snappish this season, social media doom-scrollers expect some complaining.
Every week I write up a 31-question Pub Quiz for subscribers, and I would love to count you among their number. Also, this coming Thursday, December 15th, the birthday of Muriel Rukeyser (1913) and others, I’m hosting a poetry reading with Beth Suter and Bethanie Humphreys.
Thanks, and be well.
P.S. Here are three questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
1. Pop Culture – Music. Composed in 1852, what English language nursery rhyme and a popular children's song whose five-word title includes one word appearing three times in a medley on the 1961 Bing Crosby album 101 Gang Songs?
2. Sports. Babe Ruth’s first and final games as a Major League Baseball player was for teams in what city?
3. Science. Which of the following scientists invented the rubber balloon in 1824: Michael Faraday, Alfred Nobel, Joseph Priestley, Nikola Tesla?
In my most recent podcast, I interviewed the poet Mary Mackey and the Scottish crime writer Catriona McPherson (both have new books out). I also visited with the educational technologist and deep worker Jon Johnson.
Please listen and subscribe to Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour wherever you get your podcasts, or find the show at
https://poetrytechnology.buzzsprout.com/. As I mentioned above, on the first and third Thursdays of each month, I host the Poetry Night Reading Series at the John Natsoulas Gallery, 521 1st Street in Davis. Find out more at www.poetryindavis.com (where you can sign up for the mailing list).
P.P.S. Thanks for reading to the end Now go check out the resources I link to, above!
You are the master of write-now poems—Soap Scum is my favorite! Delightful!