Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Poetry Phenomenon

It began with an invitation from JGenius on Monday, 
May 14 to join him at the big poetry festival happening 
in the county south of here. “Let's scheme of a way to 
do that poetry reading and soak up some poetic beauty 
next weekend.” And later on, he repeated:
“Can you do the Saturday reading? We'd each read 2 
or 3 poems. 10:45-12:00 in a brilliant old giant haunted 
mansion. I even have 2 poems, maybe a 3rd. Then 
maybe some time to frolic La Conner or see a poet? 
What say you?”

On Friday, when I said I would, he returned:
“Let's plan tomorrow, eh?  Are you bringing the 
family or flying solo? And what time would you 
like to meet? The open mic thing is at 10:45 so we 
should get there no later than 10:30 -- but I'm up 
for meeting at any time you feel ready -- we could 
meet for biscuits and gravy at the diner in MV at 9. 
What are you thinking, logistician?”

So I agreed:
“Yeah the diner at 9! I’ll bring my ‘Northern Exposure’ 
script and we can practice.”

“Excellent. I'll start practicing my Maurice 
Minnifield-isms. That guy was pitch-perfect. 
Of course, I had him in class…If the class were 
marooned on an island, he'd be the first to secretly 
bring up the topic of cannibalism with me.”

“Can you give me the directions to that diner 
again? Exits and whatnot coming south on I-5. 
I think I remember but I could also end up like 
Amelia Earhart.”
“Right-o. Take the Kincaid Street exit, and 
turn right at the end of the off ramp. Go 
straight for three blocks (I think there are 
two sets of traffic lights) and take a right on 
1st street (it's kind of screwy, because if you 
go right, it's 1st, but if you go left it's Cleveland). 
Then you just stay on first street a few blocks 
until you see the good old Skagit Valley Co-op 
on your right -- the Mount Vernon Cafe 
(the diner) is across the street from the Co-op 
-- so it will be on your left. You can park in 
the Co-op parking lot, but there should be 
spaces around. Call in case you get Amelia'ed. 
I will be there in my derby and short pants 
at 8:57, grousing about like an expatriate.”

That morning, I left Bellingham at 8:30, 
first stopping to get gas. I couldn’t find 
anything good on the radio, even on A.M. 
where I hoped to find a 1950s oldies station. 
Finally I tuned to Spanish music just as I 
pulled off the highway. Driving down 1st 
Street, I happened upon JGenius daydreaming 
along the sidewalk. I rolled down the window 
and bellowed, “Hey Dummy!” startling him 
out of his thoughts. Once I parked and met up 
with him, he told me he was thinking of a 
poem. We went into the diner, found a booth 
and caught up for it’s actually rare that I sit 
with friends and palaver. When it was time to 
move on to the poetry town, we took his 
truck, through the farms. 

Up on the hill, the ancient mansion loomed 
like a pair of wooden crooked praying hands 
gnarled together. We parked around the 
corner. There were clucks of people fluttering 
about on the tipped sidewalks. The houses 
all have gardens that lean out over. Up the 
 creaking stairs, we entered the mansion. 
A waxwork woman at the desk in the 
doorway pointed our way to the reading 
room. But before it started, JGenius took 
me upstairs to look for the ghost. We 
found a room with a spinning wheel and 
clouds painted on the ceiling. Outside, 
below, the town bent in the windows. 
JGenius tried to trick me by starting a 
rocking chair and pointing out the ghost. 
There was a door with a Staff Only sign 
on it.  A peek inside revealed boxes, 
shadows and sun motes and a mannequin 
draped in a sheet. It was 10:45, so we 
went back downstairs on those splintery 
steps and found our chairs. 

JGenius appraised the room and immediately 
said, “Everyone who’s here is going to read.” 
It was true. There was no audience, only 

I read ‘The Shepherd from Iran’ ‘Fox Subway’ 
and ‘Bellingham Coal Train.’ I have to say, 
I’m not much a fan of poetry readings. 
The 1891 room creaked with heavy time. 
I watched the tapestry rug with its dramatic 
rendering of a leopard ripping into a deer. 
JGenius read a ray of sunshine, a truck ride 
with his son and The Beatles on the radio.  
Because it was so uncomfortable in that 
old house, it reminded me of the castles 
I visited long ago, where you could feel 
the ghosts watching you. It wasn’t hard 
to imagine a muse for every person, 
wandering the festival streets with them, 
some joyfully and skipping or floating, 
others dragging along this mortal plane 
like the ones in this room, harbingers of 
death. At the end, we both stared at each 
other after the podium crashed over and 
books flew. There really was a ghost!  
Once it was over, I needed the doorway 
outside. The street was very quiet. 
We were both wiped out. Across the 
channel I could see three shelters shaped 
like cedar hats on the Swinomish 
reservation shore. We needed to be 
near the water. “Is there any way of 
getting over there?” I asked. I followed 
JGenius, stumbling the town, half thinking 
we’d run into Tom Robbins in his Spam 
tshirt. He wasn’t around. You can’t even 
get to the water in this place, the dock 
has a No Trespassing sign. In not too long, 
we found the little white pickup truck, 
got in and crossed the red rainbow bridge 
to the other side. Past the cemetery with 
fresh cared for flowered graves, we 
parked in the asphalt lot. We went under 
the wide rim hat of the closest shelter 
and there were some plastic chairs. 
Maybe, we thought, we could borrow 
a couple and set them out on the sand? 
But all the chairs had been broken. 
So we walked to the beach and found 
a log to sit on. A crow watched us, 
made a sound then was gone. 
What is it about poetry readings? 
We couldn’t figure it out. (Still thinking 
about it later, here’s my idea: poems are 
a sort of spell, and when you use poetry 
for pain, like those flowers of Baudelaire, 
that’s what appears.) I wished I had read 
my short story ‘Bucket Head’ instead. 
I even brought it along just in case. 
Oh well. After a while, sitting on the log 
watching the riverlike flow, we felt better, 
it was time to go. Leaving Swinomish, 
a yellow dog tied by a rope, Jughead’s 
Fire Works, old trucks and boats buried 
in vines, a totem pole on top the hill. 

It was fun to drive around the farmland 
outside of town. The tulips have dropped 
their petals, there’s a purple crop of iris 
still, but I like the big farm trees, the 
poplars and those wide rhododendrons. 
JGenius pulled into a narrow road that 
took us to a field he wants to buy. 
It’s all filled in with tall green weeds. 
He wants to sell his house and move 
here and I can’t blame him. 
There’s Mt. Baker and all the hills 
of Skagit Valley. We crawled over the 
barbed wire fence and waded through 
the grass. There’s even a pond. It’s got 
a silver metal bridge connected to a 
rocky island. Taking steps out on it, 
a big frog hopped off into the thick 
water. JGenius wants to plant a stand 
of douglas fir and cedar, have his house 
facing south for the sunlight. It’s a 
good dream, a big open field and you 
can just picture the vast array of stars 
turning on at night. 

While he drove me back to Mt. Vernon 
where my car was waiting, he told me 
a joke about a man who ate a lot of 
dogfood. I sort of did a terrible thing 
and ruined the punchline. Actually, 
his punchline was ruder than what I 
predicted. We got out and strolled over 
to the bookstore. There was nobody else 
in the place, we were all alone. 
Somehow we were drawn, ending up 
at the back wall, looking at the poetry 
shelf. We both agreed those old Laurel 
pocket editions are great, but honestly 
by now I’m a bit poetry’ed out. 
today, I received this card with 
the frog that jumped into that pond

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