Poet Issues

by Carol Johnson


I have an almost pathological fear of poets. Well, not all poets.

I developed my phobia in a graduate poetry writing class. The visiting poet—a lovely Irishman named Richard Murphy—upon hearing my first poem, told me gently but firmly that my poetry displayed a certain lack of, well, “talent” was I believe the word he used. He saw no remedy but a return to that lower art: fiction. Clearly, my poem’s magnificent dreadfulness caused him some alarm at what I might do if left alone with a rhyming dictionary and a pen. Although this was a traumatic experience, I was flattered when Murphy told another student that, while that student’s attempt at a sonnet was appalling, he had yet to encounter anyone whose work approached the shocking awfulness of mine. I was awestruck, I guess, and why not? Murphy’s words raised my lack of poetic ability to a level all its own.

LISTEN: Hear Carol Johnson read “Poet Issues.”

Since then, I’ve met many poets, many of them during the Nimrod Hardman Awards, an assembly held in Tulsa each October, featuring the winners, runners-up and judges of the literary contest. Poets I’ve met in this intimate setting are generally considerate, accommodating, generous and even charming. Fran Ringold, twice Oklahoma’s poet laureate and longtime executive editor of Nimrod, is one of the most engaging, at times profane, and consequently likable people I know. Mark Doty is kindness incarnate. Ted Kooser’s avuncular nature is endearing. And Billy Collins—labeled “too accessible” by those representing the tunnel-at-the-end-of the-light faction—enthralled a tough Tulsa audience for hours.

Nevertheless, affable poets I’ve encountered are far outnumbered by those who, well, who aren’t affable. One whose name I’ll keep to myself was as well known for his ill humor as his poetry. His whining tortured dogs in a four-block radius: “I can’t drink this waaater. It came from a taaap. Oh! The bacteria. (Shudder) And I still have a headaaache. Probably brought on by dehydraaaation. No, I can’t take that. I specifically said Aleve. I know I said it started with an A. Nothing about d-v-i-l. Of course I’m not taking it.”

By now the muscles in my neck were clenched as tightly as my knees (over-anxious bladder, what can I say). Finally, after he’d removed all doubt about my intelligence and competence, he turned to another volunteer/victim.

“Is that Aleve? You have saved my life.” He patted the new volunteer’s arm. “And some water? In the square bottle. From real springs, not some river in Arkansas?” His withering glance sent me sprinting to the nearest restroom, wishing I had a bucket of pig’s blood to dump over him. Let him make a villanelle out of that.

In short, I have fetched, ferried, carried and copied, retrieved eyeglasses, coats and cheap, but beloved, pens for poets like him, and believe me, that catalog of grievances begins at the baggage claim and ends, at least for me, when that airplane door hits him in the rondeau on the way out of town. So, last fall, I was terrified when I learned that my primary charge for the awards weekend was an internationally known, award-winning poet. I swooned. I really did. I thought I was going to have to lie down. Over the next few days I practiced a self-assured smile and mastered a standing position in which my thighs were not obviously clenched. When pick-up day arrived, I wouldn’t say I was confident, but I felt reasonably certain that urination, driving and speaking would not happen simultaneously.

LISTEN: Poet John Brehm dives beneath the chit-chat and finds his soul in the river.

I stood in the airport with a large sign bearing the poet’s last name (let’s call her Jane), scanning the crowd nervously. When you’re standing in an airport, everybody looks like a lost writer. Try it if you don’t believe me. However, Jane walked straight to me, smiling broadly and looking as if Tulsa was the one place in the entire world she wanted to visit.

“You must be Carol!”

As indeed I was, we lugged her bag to the car and heaved it into my trunk. While we situated ourselves in the front seat, I patted my GPS. “This little gadget is going to save us a lot of time.”

Dubious, but I felt bound to say it. The previous year, my author and I spent 20 minutes looking for the airport exit I’d driven through about a billion times. Once on the freeway, nothing looked familiar. That doesn’t mean I hadn’t seen it. It’s just that most trees, wild flowers, and whatnot bear an amazing resemblance to one another. Seriously. Trees are green and brown and flowers are other colors. And I certainly do have a sense of direction. Sun rises in the east, sets in the west. The moon is purposefully arbitrary. How is anybody supposed to keep up with that?

Long story short, my author and I reached an exit that didn’t look familiar (like most of them). “Over there? On the right?” my passenger said.

I looked. “Your other right, Hon,” she said gently. Sure enough. Downtown. Probably exactly where it had always been. I delivered her to her hotel in less than five minutes. I’ve earned my reputation for missing such looming structures as the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

Anthony Doerr, one of the nicest writers I’ve chauffeured, is probably convinced I’m a congenital idiot since I circled that hotel three times before being persuaded to unlock the doors and let him out. I’m sure he would have hung in there had it not been the fourth time in two days that I had come for him, and, each time sailed serenely past the circular drive, populated with a dozen valets and doormen, even as my GPS squawked, “Destination on right. Recalculating . . . make a U-turn when possible.”

So, as I touted to Jane the time-saving attributes of my GPS, I felt like one of those people who tell new parents how beautiful their child is, but can’t find a single feature on the infant that is even remotely normal.

She patted my hand. “Oh honey, that’s marvelous, but I’ve got to make a stop.”

“Oh.” Did I mention I don’t like surprises? “What do you need?”

“A drugstore.”

“Oh!” It so happened I knew the route—not a direct route, mind you, but a route, nevertheless—to several drugstores, even without a GPS. “Big? Small? Compounding pharmacy?”

Jane studied the landscape. “I need something a bit hard to find.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, I’ll just tell you straight up.” She turned to me. “Feminine lubricant. I need lubricant. Where I’m from—those people seem to think women are just endlessly—let’s say juicy. An absolute delusion on their part. We are not perpetually—well, you get my meaning.”

“No. I mean yes.” Feminine lubricant. Didn’t see that one coming. I knew what it was. In theory. Because, you know, we do have sex in Oklahoma. Maybe Baptists and Pentecostals don’t, lest somebody mistake it for dancing. But I’m a Congregationalist. We do have sex. I hear.

“It’s called ‘Me, Again,’ and it’s fabulous. Truly. It’s like it says. ‘Me, Again.’ ”

Its fabulous nature was not a conversation I felt up to, being close to hyperventilating.

“All righty then.” My breath stuck in my chest, and I took an immediate wrong turn getting back on the highway.

Walgreen’s was first, but I could have predicted that they wouldn’t carry it. Frankly, I don’t believe Walgreen’s approves of women having sex. At least not good sex. A man can buy Viagra and that stuff that makes Bob smile really BIG on the TV commercials. And about 86 different condoms, some of which are boasted to be so thin you could read the Oxford English Dictionary through them. They’re made of lamb skin. Lamb skin! No wonder the lambs are silent. But go in there one time searching for a specific female lubricant and you do get a reputation. I’m pretty sure I’m on a list there.

Next was Drug Warehouse. The pharmacy tech pointed us toward the aisle that held hand lotion, petroleum jelly, and…similar items. The thing about Vaseline (besides the fact that you’re sliding off your chair for weeks afterward because it’s not water soluble) is that in the dark, the container feels an awful lot like a Mentholatum jar. You don’t want to make that mistake. Not that I have. I hear things.

At any rate, we struck out at the first four drugstores we tried. At the following pharmacy, we were met by a young man about 20 with a nametag that read “Jared.” I wanted to go around him, help ourselves. Want in one hand, spit in the other, my mother always said.

Jane smiled. “I’m looking for a particular feminine lubrication product.”

Jared looked as if he knew what she meant but wished he didn’t. “Wrinkle cream?”

Jane and I both burst into laughter and the more we laughed, the redder Jared’s ears became. “Wrinkle cream,” Jane gasped. “Wrinkle cream!”

Even through the laughter, my alarm escalated at the color of Jared’s ears. I poked Jane in the arm. “You’re embarrassing him,” I whispered.

“I’m sorry.” She wiped tears from her eyes. “Jared, I’m looking for a feminine—lubricant. It’s called Me, Again, and it might be near the condoms.”

Jared’s ears had returned to normal, but his gaze couldn’t meet either of ours. He pointed. “Aisle 7,” he said. He seemed to be having a bit of trouble speaking.

Aisle 7‘s first offering was a plethora of flavored lubricants. I stopped. There was blueberry and peppermint and strawberry, probably tasty, but if lubricants were geared for more oral purposes, then why not lubricants with fluoride or teeth-whitening options? There’s a million dollar idea for you. And stop looking at my teeth. They’re naturally white.

“Bingo!” Jane cried, her eyes on a treasure trove of “Me, Again.” Sweeping up as many of the containers as she could carry, she nodded at the shelf. “Can you get the last few?”

As we headed for the checkout, Jared, now at the register, saw us and hastily abandoned the area. A teen-aged girl glowered at him, then shrugged and began ringing up our purchases. Jane tossed a couple of Snickers on the counter with the rest of the merchandise.

In the car, she grinned. “Mission accomplished. An adventure, too.” She tossed me a candy bar. “Chocolate for your troubles.”

“You think there’s a poem in this?” I asked, starting the car.

“Already percolating.” She poked me. “And how about a story?”

“You never know.” I returned the smile. The sweet taste of chocolate warmed me, and I backed from the space. In the growing dusk, I turned left out of the parking lot, and, after a few blocks, sighed and scanned the street for a likely place to make a U-turn.

Note: This article originally published June 24, 2011