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essay by

Arthur Mortensen

Copyright © 2001 by Arthur Mortensen
& Expansive Poetry & Music Online

At a recent party, a poetry publisher remarked that she was tired of living hand-to-mouth with grants and subsidies from universities.  What she really hoped for was a revival of the Cold War.  "Those were the days," she hissed, her tongue darting into her martini glass to claim the olive.  "Every year you could depend on some poor bastard jumping the Wall, and with him a manuscript of poems ridden with metaphors of imprisonment, terror, hope, love and salvation.  It was work for our best translators, publicity for the house and its poetry imprint for rescuing a refugee, and most of these poets found interviews on the morning shows less difficult than interviews with the KGB.  Book awards, the odd Pulitzer, and, for a while at least, every other Nobel prize went to some Czech, Russian, or Hungarian.  Now, what do we get?  After Heaney and Walcott, the pickings are pretty slim."  As she struggled not to choke on the olive, I thought back to those halcyon days of the nuclear threat and emigre poetry when Slavic giants shook the earth, or at least Kaufman Hall at the 92nd Street Y.  Is it perhaps true that we have forgotten those benefits we knew when threat boards at the Strategic Air Command were watched as carefully as the fall of the NASDAQ is now?  And what kind of poet might take that mighty place?  A few offerings are given below:

One possiblity would be a dot com survivor poet, a refugee from a Silicon Valley bankruptcy who, fleeing the Internal Revenue Service in a battered Ferrari, arrives at a publisher clutching a manuscript written on the backs of  twenty million dollars worth of  worthless stock options.   Drafted on a Palm IV, and true to the modern notion that one should only write about what one has experienced firsthand, the poems would speak of 24/7 weeks seated in front of a computer screen, calculating the potential worth of potential customers most of whom, sadly, had never found the company's Web site and, if they did, had complained about late delivery and damaged merchandise.  Part 2 might be comprised of poems about the difficulties of learning inventory maintenance, cost accounting and other old economy skills.  And in Part 3 might be found poems generated from the ad agency's billing reports.

Or perhaps there could be a Clinton survivor poet, a refugee from a White House basement desk who, fleeing voicemail messages and subpoenas from a prosecutor in West Virginia, arrives at a publisher clutching a manuscript written on tattered and stained underwear.  It wouldn't be the first manuscript whose appearance suggested an editor ought to use rubber gloves.  The difficulty would be in determining how much the condition of the manuscript, particularly the stains, contributed to the overall meaning.

Another might be a Florida Ballot poet, a refugee from Tallahassee who, fleeing the prospect of being called back to recount another election, arrives at a publisher's gripping a manuscript made up entirely of holes punched in quarto-sized cardboard ballots. The editor's job would be to follow the overlay markings which, properly aligned, would select the correct sequence of words from the Oxford English Dictionary (unabridged).  Given the high likelihood of errors, a statistician would be called in to decide what the poet had actually intended.

Or we might have a Russian insurgency poet, a refugee from Queens who, fleeing the arrival of fifty thousand former Soviet bureaucrats from Moscow (each of whom wants to open a nightclub or a delicatessan), arrives at a publisher with a clutch of poems about the Queens that was:  an east coast Los Angeles, replete with no there there and endless, identical brick apartment houses whose tenants emptied out at exactly 7AM each morning to travel to work for the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Board of Education while their children went to schools where they learned to read maps, histories and geography that guided them to other cities as adults.  These would be easier to classify than Florida Ballot, Clinton Survivor or Dot Com Survivor poets; one assumes they would be put next to William Carlos Williams.

Further excitement might be created by a  rolling blackout poet, a refugee from California who, unable to flee Los Angeles because of gridlock caused by switched-off traffic lights, sends an e-mailed manuscript via cellphone to a publisher in New York.  However, because of a new law mandating that Internet time must be sold at below cost to California consumers, the manuscript is cut off after the introduction as the Internet service provider cannot afford to both operate and make a living.   The editor, undeterred,  would bring in the house legal team to analyse the introduction for clues as to what the contents of the poems might have been.  This would introduce a new technique to poetry, possibly a school, called legal prosody.  In the current environment, this would probably be inferred as being free verse essays on what the poems might have been.  Not only would this enrich a house with a new product, it would allow lawyers to serve in place of both poets and critics, thus providing the expertise for avoiding torts actions from groups or individuals offended by the possibility of certain words and phrases.

From a variety already common, there might be a corporate burnout poet, a refugee from a money center bank in Delaware who, fleeing to Pennsylvania in a rented Ford, presents a publisher with a collection of poems about the life she had to give up in order to be the scion of a movement that, as yet, only she is aware of.  Bolstered by skills learned at the wheel of office politics, and by steady withdrawals from a multimillion dollar separation agreement from her former employer, she soon finds herself as a highly paid guest lecturer, generally on the subject "The Education of a Poet's Superego in the Last Century."  Sadly, her poems remain known only through all-night readings in a 7-11 where some patrons, in between using the bathroom and arguing about the price of canned soda, have described her poems as soporific.

For the younger reader, there might a video arcade poet, a refugee with a hearing deficiency who, fleeing a hostile change machine whose artificial intelligence has detected the presence of counterfeit twenties, arrives at a publisher with a CD-R disk filled with JPG images of his highest scores and with MP3 tracks of his improvised narratives that he shouted while playing  Slaughter the Infidels.  For editors seeking to develop an audience outside of public schools or of higher academia this title would be a godsend, permitting them to write off the school and university audience altogether, where even references to such aggressive games are forbidden, except in faculty meetings.

Somewhat suspect, perhaps, would be the disposable white male poet, a refugee from an urban area in the eastern or western United States, who, fleeing a stick of census reports dropped from an airplane traveling between Los Angeles and New York, arrives at a publisher holding a manuscript in a plastic, Duane Reade shopping bag.  Disguising his gender by using only his initials, and his ethnicity by adding an e.z. to the end of his otherwise Polish name, he brings a book entitled The Middle Manager's Age of Anxiety, comprised of poems about the consequences of his layoff by General Electric in 1985.  Working undercover as a bicycle messenger, he leaves the manuscript with a receptionist whose qualifications for working at the publishing house include a Ph.D. in comparative literature.

That should be enough suggestions for now.  Of course, there's always the chance of a resurgence of the Cold War.  On that day, however, the refugee Slavs are likely to be running from the University of California.

                               Arthur Mortensen

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