Another tablemate, Carmen Rivera of Delaware, who was escorting her 17-year-old poet daughter, Meshal, said she was suspicious before coming. Whenever she had called for information, "The person in charge was never there. I didn't know if it was a scam or if there'd even be anything here when we got to Florida." But now she was pleased: "I think it's good for people who write because it gives them a place to come and meet."
Also on the bill for Sunday evening was "critically acclaimed entertainment ... produced by National Celebrities." Translation: Campbell appeared onstage in a flowing black robe and puffy hat to recite Shakespeare for 45 minutes while an electronic keyboard purred in the background.
And the winner is ...
On the convention's final day, Rudge took to the pulpit brandishing newspaper headlines about baseball. "Poetry deserves all the cheers that sports get," she said. "This convention is, as far as we know, the Olympics of poetry.... Consider yourselves as the bringers of a new poetry to society."
When she finished, a Dixieland band marched in to lead us outside for the Parade of Peace and Balloonathon. Grand marshal Mickey Mouse was a no-show, so Rudge took us on a loop around the parking lot. We tied our poems of peace to red, white or blue helium-filled balloons and released them into the sky.
After basting in the tropical heat, we shuffled back indoors for the awards ceremony, which started with "20 cash door prizes worth $500 each." The cash turned out to be a $5 bill; the remaining $495 came in the form of a certificate for admission to next year's convention.
Finally, it was time to announce the poetry contest winners. The robe and crown were whisked in. Then 17 third-place victors were summoned to read their poems and receive $1,000 checks. The poets at my table liked one about a drunk father beating and killing his daughter. And a British woman's lighthearted verse ("When entertaining kin, I always need a double gin") got a standing ovation from many in the hall. Another popular entry was "A Cowboy's Prayer" ("Lord, thank you for the stars across the sky tonight"), a simple petition to God read by a guy in cowboy hat, boots and T-shirt.
The first Sept. 11-related winner was a 13-year-old boy from Pennsylvania: "My heart is full of hatred and sorrow / I don't know what will happen tomorrow / I live in a house like most people do / and do my best for the red, white and blue."
Mickey Mouse finally made his entrance in time for the big prizes. The $3,000 winner was a 9/11 tribute titled "Going Up When Everyone Else Was Coming Down," about New York firefighters. The $5,000 prize fell to a poem about the joy of feeling alive ("Sweet God can you taste this air? Ambrosia on the tip of a trained soul free at last").
Drum roll, please.
The $25,000 check went to a college biology instructor from Palatine, Ill., for a poem about drinking coffee. After she was crowned and swathed in the royal robe (both of which were retrieved by Famous Poets employees after the show), she read her poem to enthusiastic applause.
Except at my table, where the troops were incredulous. "That is scandalous," snorted a 29-year-old Texan. The poem wasn't my cup of tea either, but now that I know what the judges are looking for, I've got an idea for my next entry:
Many things rhyme with coffee
Including a hot dog company called Hoffy....