Orlando, Fla. — Lightning crackled in the night sky, West Nile virus-infected mosquitoes buzzed in the distance, and a woman with a camel puppet roamed the hotel lobby. It was the eve of the Famous Poets Society convention, and things were just starting to get weird.
I would soon learn that poetry, once the noblest of human endeavors, had become a cutthroat enterprise, replete with poetry spies, IRS investigations and a once-bankrupt Shakespeare scholar.
A few months earlier, I had entered one of those "free poetry contests" advertised in newspapers and on the Internet. I wrote the lamest poem I could think of and sent it in:
"Jumping Through Hula-Hoops for a Rhyme"
Many things rhyme with hula
Including the Greek food tabbouleh
And ex-Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula
Who used to earn plenty of moolah.
There's also a sheik named Abdullah
Who never sang be-bop-a-lula,
And a brain part known as the medulla
And the Montana town of Missoula.
Could any word be any cooler?
In June, a letter arrived from the Famous Poets Society, inviting me to the group's eighth annual convention, in Orlando. "You enrich our world with every poem you write," it cooed. "To honor you for your influence as a poet, our Executive Committee has elected to present you with the Roy Rivenburg 2002 Poet of the Year Medallion. Your medallion -- suspended from a stylized red, white and blue ribbon, like an Olympic medal -- will be exclusively handcrafted for this occasion only."
I had also been handpicked to receive the Shakespeare Trophy of Excellence, said the letter, and Bay Area poet Mary Rudge had "personally" asked that I walk with her in a Famous Poets Parade led by Grand Marshal Mickey Mouse. "She invites you to bring a poem of peace to release 'on the wings of Pegasus' during our Famous Poets for Peace Balloonathon." Hundreds of balloons -- with poems attached -- would be turned loose simultaneously, creating "a rainbow of poetry in the sky."
The cost was $495 (not including airfare and hotel), but that would be pocket change compared with the $25,000 I was sure to win in the writing contest. As the letter from Famous Poets executive director Mark Schramm noted: "I also look forward to seeing you win our poetry contest! ... I can already hear the crowd cheering as the laureate crown is placed on your head! How beautiful you look!"
Another letter said my verse would be included in an anthology ("truly a milestone in publishing history"), which I could purchase for a "special pre-publication discount" of $39.95, plus additional fees to add a biography, photo or dedication.
I ordered a copy and booked a flight to Florida.
Hopes, and some sad reality
Stepping out of the airport into Orlando's suffocating humidity, I boarded a jampacked shuttle to the convention hotel. As we drove off, a blond in the front row piped up: "Are y'all going to the poetry convention?" Nearly every hand in the van shot up.
The girl was Tasha Clark, a cheerful 16-year-old from Tecumseh, Okla. That night, she and her grandmother joined me for dinner, where Tasha asked if she could read my poem.
"Um, it's not very good," I protested. "I only entered the contest as a lark."
Her response was heartbreaking: "Well, it must be good or they wouldn't have invited you here."
What Tasha and most of the other poets I met didn't know is that the Famous Poets Society is a vanity publisher that heaps praise on even the worst poems to sell anthologies and convention tickets. The letter about the coveted Shakespeare trophy and poet-of-the-year medallion went to roughly 20,000 people, 500 of whom made the trek to Florida, according to figures supplied by Schramm.
Some of the poets, thinking this was a once-in-a-lifetime honor, paid for the trip with help from church groups, city councils or Rotary Club chapters. Amy Kelpine, 17, of Georgia, whose mother recently died from a brain tumor, said her dad footed the bill using the last of her mom's life insurance payout.
Some big guns in poetry circles defend these conventions. Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. poet laureate, said for-profit poetry businesses are just as vital to the evolution of poetry as college English classes, bohemia and literary fellowships. "These different kinds of institutions, all imperfect in their various ways, may correct and counterbalance the defects of the others," he said. "It would be regrettable if poetry in our country became a guild, based on the credentials of a creative writing program."
Then again, has Pinsky ever met Famous Poets Society impresario John T. Campbell?