By Steve Brykman
“Why?” she said.
“Well, they said they needed ‘Flash Poets’ and I volunteered.”
“Why would you do that?”
“It pays $25. How many poets you know are making $25 an hour?”
“But you’re not even a poet!”
“How hard can it be? People write down some words and I make poems out of them.”
“So, you took poetry workshops at your MFA?”
“Not really, no.”
“I think so. I might have. I don’t really remember.”
“This is what I’m talking about.”
“I do remember Shahid’s* fabulous parties! Also, there was that time Allen Ginsberg hit on me…”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“It counts! Anyway, I’ve written plenty of poems. I wrote you a bunch. Besides, I’ve always found the key to good writing is to not think too much. At least at first. To let your subconscious speak for itself.”
For whatever reason—I’m guessing because they needed more dudes—Sonya emailed and said I was on for the event. The next thing I know, I’m sitting in the middle of what might as well be a castle—Isabella Gardner’s old home—typing on the same manual typewriter Poe used. Not the actual one, I mean (it wasn’t that cool), but a similar model, apparently. A red Royal de Luxe.
I picked up my first list of visitor-submitted words, and began. Immediately, I realized I had completely forgotten how to use a typewriter. I spent five minutes trying to find the Enter key before finally remembering that’s what the giant lever on the side was for. And whatever mistakes I made had to simply be XX’d out and typed over.
Twenty minutes later, I understood why Poe was so grouchy all the time. It was the f**king typewriter. After ten poems, I was considering entombing myself alive right there in a wall of the museum—which was just the place for that sort of activity. Whenever I was rolling and got up any degree of speed, I would be suddenly halted as my fingers slipped inextricably between the keys, or as two letters became bound to each other.
I had assumed that at some point a seductive older divorcée would be so moved by her poem that she would suggest we slip away to make surreptitious love in Isabella’s boudoir. Sadly, as is often the case with life, this did not happen. Instead, the word “Velvet” kept showing up on people’s list. Odd, I thought, until I realized that rather than use words with personal resonance and meaning, people were simply jotting down things in the room. One guy wrote “REI”—in all-caps like that—so I assumed he was referring to the store, and appreciated what I took to be a kitschy challenge. Tragically, it turned out Rei was his name.
Aside from the physical challenge the typewriter itself provided, and aside from the smart-ass sesquipedalian teen whose list included words of fifty-plus letters, I had not realized what a Zen experience the whole thing would turn out to be. I had meant to snap a picture of each poem with my iPhone but due to the long line of people eager for free verse in a down economy, there wasn’t time. So I simply handed them off, one after another. Just like children. We raise them and then we let them go. Or life itself. We live and then we wave goodbye.
We think we own the things in our lives but we really don’t. They just happen to be near us while we’re here. We don’t even own our own bodies—really, they’re just rentals. We rail against the media for their depictions of the ideal human physique, but in the end, who gives a shit? The beauty of life is that before too long we all stop looking good and then we completely fall apart and there’s not a damn thing anybody can do it about it. Not even Calvin Klein.
One Asian gentleman, again working off the objects in the room, wrote “India, tapestry, velvet.” I aligned my platen and stretched my aching fingers and suddenly, Shahid was in my head, laughing and whispering, “Kashmir.” I thanked him silently and wound up with a last line that declared something to the effect of ‘the rapturous fabrics of Kashmir notwithstanding, there will never be a tapestry as intricate as you.’ Not bad for a minute and a half, I thought.
“Shahid sends his regards,” I said, handing the man the poem. He looked at me quizzically and took a long time to read it and in the end he just nodded and slipped away.
* The late, great, flamboyant poet Agha Shahid Ali.
Steven Brykman left medical school to write fart jokes as Managing Editor of National Lampoon. His work has appeared in Playboy, Cracked, Nerve, and The New Yorker where he was featured in Talk of the Town. He has written for and/or appeared on Prairie Home Companion, Comedy Central, G4TV, and the Food Network. As a writing fellow at the University of Massachusetts, his fiction was awarded the Harvey Swados prize. He has been thrown out of both the 2000 Democratic National Convention and the Smithsonian Museum and has on more than one occasion performed standup comedy naked.