Are Poetry Books Cursed?

To curse your book print “Poems” on the cover. I kid you not. At flea markets and library fairs I’ve displayed copies of Walking Woodstock and Love in the City of Grudges side by side, and I’ve watched people’s eyes linger over the blonde in the red dress on the poetry cover but inevitably reach for the green trees and church steeple on Walking Woodstock. The essay collection outsells the poetry by five to one. Why is that? Am I not the same writer in both? Do line breaks make such a difference? Do these cheapos just want more words for the buck? Truth is, the poems pack the real punch. How can you resist one that begins,

Let’s star with the bark-faced woman
hugging the matching bark of tree
to devour a beetle with an appetite
verging on lechery…

But they don’t know. They won’t even open the cover poisoned by the word “Poetry.” But, of course, they’re the general public who’ve come to the library fair to eat quiche and green tea, or they’re flea market mavens in search of old vinyl or Guatemalan pullovers. What would they know? Their next stop is the village green to listen to the eternal hippie on fuzz box guitar. That’s Woodstock for you. IQ 1969.

It’s the poetry crowd that kills me. They’ll show up, oh yes they will, especially if the evening costs $2 in the donations basket. They’ll be a dozen or two at the typical coffee house/church room/library basement monthly poetry group, or even three or four dozen for a special art gallery event. They’ll sit rapt if I read well, which I’ve spent the afternoon rehearsing to do. They’ll find themselves transported by a zombie poem of all things, which is, after all, the point of poetry: to lead people into new places and feelings.

….Did her daughter
grow up to be a serial killer, cannibal,
pet torturer, guest sicko on Springer,
at least?…

Yet afterwards, after the most enthusiastic listeners have clustered around me to offer congratulations and thanks, I’ll find that I’ve sold no more than a book or three. How easy they find it to shake my hand and drop not a penny. Is $16 too outlandish for a poetry book? That’s four stops at Starbucks, if you’re not splurging on Ventis. Or, to really be crass, that’s not even half a tank of gas. Does the world really think Exxon is more deserving than poets?

…. Or did she become ordinary?
A manicurist, bank teller, or better,
a hospital nurse in rural Pennsylvania
where you’d think nothing every goes wrong,
but does—with chain saws, ladders, deer rifles,
&, of course, alcohol, men, & vehicles…

I’ve considered the “Bob Dylan goes electric” route. Putting my books on for digital download and charging $2.99 or $1.99 or $0.99 or $0.09. I’m tired of failing as a book salesman. I found Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale marvelously entertaining, but I still remembered my three weeks as a teenage door-to-door vacuum salesman, a formative failure to sell anything. The first woman I got to sign a contract lived the projects. My supervisor showed up before we were done to whisper in my ear, “She’s on welfare,” and kibosh the deal. Then I succeeded at last. But only for a few days. A key part of the deal was to carry their old vacuum out of the door so they wouldn’t suffer buyer’s remorse before the new vacuum arrived. One afternoon I happened to be seated on the front steps of our sales headquarters, a brick bunker next to a bar that had opened its doors to air out the beer odor, when a taxi pulled up. I’d been watching the softball game in the city park across the street played by retarded kids who’d arrived in a group van. The center fielder wore what looked like a medical white goalie’s helmet, making me wonder if he did terrible things to himself. Out of the taxi climbed the elderly lady who’d bought my first vacuum days earlier. She pushed forward on her walker followed by her husband determined to seek justice. Apparently, they’d sobered up. They wanted their vacuum back. I spent the rest of the summer mowing lawns and painting garages.

she’s seen miracles—fingers sewn on,
hearts shock back to beating—
but never the dead reawakening,
not like her her mother in bark makeup.
No, the dead simply looked a size or two
smaller after losing all prospect of moving

So I tried zombie crawls. Wouldn’t this be like hawking the Bible to Christians? Alas, no. Zombies proved no better buyers than civilians. Rosendale, Saugerties, Albany, Kingston. White faced and bloody, hair teased out like a tumbleweed, they limped and groaned and raised their arthritic claw hands in a threatening gestures, dozens of them owning the sidewalks but not one called to poetry. Zombies, I should have realized, came out of the movies. Where no one reads books.

After work she volunteers at a church pantry,
sticks to Weight Watchers, & keeps all regrets
about not marrying to herself. For videos,
she prefers romantic comedies & anything
with Steve Martin, but every so often rents
Night of the Living Dead to watch her mother.

Yet afterwards I remembered a moment. It had happened in the late afternoon in Rosendale in the raggedy picnic park behind the parking lot where the band stage had been set up. After the female arm wrestling competition between bands, I had my ten minutes of glory at the microphone, reading my poems to an audience of maybe a dozen scattered far and wide across the beaten-down dirt and grass. Another creative attempt at guerrilla book marketing come to naught. The huge crowd from the early afternoon march up and down the main street led by a dead bride in a gown and her black eyed groom had scattered to wherever before reassembling for the 5 o’clock movie theater screening of Night of the Living Dead. I did my best, reading “A Daughter of Zombies” and other favorites to the dozen or so curious listeners, though I was competing against the breeze gusting through the microphone. Mostly, I was eager to be done so I could leave. I had an evening reading to Unitarians in Poughkeepsie, whom I hoped would be more receptive, though I’d skip the zombies to read naturey pieces about the Catskills.

Yes, her mother, the school librarian, who insisted
on Sunday dinner with linen napkins & grace,
plunges to her knees to savor that beetle

Back at the display tables, where a fellow who sold goth jewelry had kindly given me space for my books and poster, I was gathering my wares when a zombie lurched up to ask in a brusque voice, “Hey, have you got your literature for sale?” Literature. I liked that. And I’d noticed him over the course of the afternoon , a large guy but a loner who joined in the crowd without talking with anyone. My brother was the same, big but without friends, drawn to social gatherings at his own Unitarian church but ill at ease in casual conversations. And what was my compulsion in writing zombie poems if not wrestling with that shadow in myself? Zombies are nothing if not socially awkward loners who travel in packs. Their sole goal is to drag you into the clan. The fear that I’d explored in my poems was that I too shared the zombie gene. Good at failure and family dysfunction, but little else. Yet this fellow had walked out of nowhere to ask for a book. It was as if my brother himself at my moment of failure had come to lend his support. He was sincere. His white shirt couldn’t have been more drenched in blood that spilled down to his long shorts. His recently shaved short-haired head sported a dried glop of blood. Over his right eye he wore what seemed like a flesh crater with a volcanic black hole hiding his eye. I couldn’t have felt prouder for him. Now he was handing me a twenty. And I was handing him four singles for change. Isn’t it always a small miracle when a complete stranger buys your book ? It isn’t the money. It isn’t even the book, really. It’s their willingness to read the piece of your heart that you’ve worked so hard to share on the page. It’s a connection that goes much deeper than merely receiving a compliment or a thanks. Then he said something I’ll never forget. “Mister, have you got a bag? I don’t want to get blood on your book.”

Her back face twists beyond pain
into ecstasy. What did the director say
to give her mother such freedom?

This entry was posted in Poems and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.