Tuesday, December 3, 2013

3rd Annual White Elephant Contemporary Poetry Gift Exchange happening has happened

Big-time thanks to everyone who helped make this year's event the best one yet.
I love how much support I get from the English faculty at Glendale Community College (esp. Johnnie Clemens May, David Nelson, and Kimberly Mathes). They are fantastic and are always willing to go out of their way to do cool things for the community. I hope their collective karma is getting aggregated somewhere.

I wanted to post a record of the books we gave away, because people were trying to write down and remember some of the books that caught their attention. Especially the people who were so happy to get certain collections, only to have them stolen a few minutes later.

That's the main thing I am hoping to accomplish. I try to introduce some fantastic poetry books that can make great gifts for the friend who is hard to shop for (or even yourself. Go ahead, you deserve it).

I was sad that two books I ordered didn't arrive in time, so I began with one from last year that didn't arrive in time to be included. I wanted to include a Dorianne Laux book and I wasn't sure which one to pick (I was leaning toward Facts About The Moon), so I asked Johnnie which one was her favorite because I know she is a big fan and occasionally goes to Laux's workshop retreats.  Johnnie's favorite is "What We Carry," so that was how we started. I read The Job and Finding What's Lost (click here to read that one).

Then I brought out a book that I also gave away last year. I wouldn't normally do that, but its original press went out of business and Gregory Sherl's "The Oregon Trail Is The Oregon Trail" just got reissued in a wonderful new edition from Write Bloody.

This is a crowd favorite and rightfully so. I think this was the only book that got stolen TWICE last night. There was loud joyous christmas music and carols coming from the next room, so it only emphasized the loneliness and desperation of the sample poems I read, which were The Oregon Trail Is A Lonely Place To Die Of Syphilis (click here to read) and

The Oregon Trail Is Undergoing Photosynthesis

I want to write a sad poem but I’m not sad.
I am less than sad. Negative sad. I am looped
television laughter. I move through the trail
cloaked in bath water & the water never gets cold.
I shouldn’t be sad or sleep all day, I should lie
under the floorboards of our wagon, tell the spiders
to mind their distance, just swallow the poison.
i want to wrestle the bear that haunts your dreams
& eats our children. They are beautiful children,
in their hiking boots, climbing hills like they’ve
done this before, like they know why we sleep
on top of each other, so precious all of us humming
last spring. I want to lust for lust & your tongue
over my shoulder blades, but all I can think about
is building a snowman with your face on its white
frame. Your teeth look the best when you’re naked.
I close my eyes, count to ten thousand. I close my
eyes & forget why I closed my eyes. On the trail
everything smells green. You tell me I always want
to smell naked. A thief comes in the middle of the night,
leaves wild fruit, a note that says he found God
in a Wal-Mart parking lot. When we’re older I’ll lock
the front door of our house so tight the calcium
in our bones won’t be able to get out.

I also included Kelli Russell Agodon's "Letters From The Emily Dickinson Room" and read
Helping My Parents Shop For His And Her Coffins to the crowd, as well as this one:

What the Universe Makes of Lingerie

It’s impossible to see a black bra
directly as no light can escape from it;
still there are supernovas, dark matter,

meteorites in its path. The black bra
understands its usefulness is overrated.
It’s problematic under a white

shirt of a white woman, unprofessional
peeking out of a blazer. To see
observational evidence of black bras

you do not need to borrow
the Hubble telescope to view the Hourglass
Nebula, their existence is well-supported,

a gravitational field so strong
nothing can escape. Black bras
can be found in the back of a Vega

between the vinyl seats. It is the star
the boy wishes on—he is never the master
of the unhook, Orion unfastening

his constellation belt. Let it remain
a mystery, something almost seen,
almost touched in a Galaxy. I’d call it

rocketworthy, but there is cosmic
censorship, naked singularities
to consider. The black bra has electric

charge, too close to the event horizon,
a man disappears in its loophole, escape
velocity equal to the speed of light.

Then I did something a little different for this year. Since I was involved earlier in the year with both a workshop and a panel about the performance aspect of writing, I decided to burn some CDs of my first and most influential "spoken word artist." So I put together some of my favorite William S. Burroughs recordings. Some from live recitals, others from studio sessions where he was backed by symphony musicians or bands like Sonic Youth. I read The Mummy Piece because it's one of my favorites to perform, but I also love this collaboration with Kurt Cobain for The Priest They Called Him:

Of course, his Thanksgiving Prayer is also a classic.

Then I gave away Scott Woods' new book "We Over Here Now" because his poem Whuppins was also a big hit at that performance workshop. This book was also brought in by someone else last night, so there were two copies circulating and getting stolen. First time that's ever happened. If you want to know how many good poems are included in this book, just consider that this one (my favorite) didn't even make it into the table of contents:

I was also gave away a copy of Diane Lockward's portable workshop "The Crafty Poet" which includes insight and writing exercises from 56 top poets and two sample poems for each prompt so you can see what other poets come up with. I didn't read my poem that was one of the sample poems based on the Richard Jones prompt. But  did read Cecilia Woloch's Fireflies (click here to read) and Jeffrey McDaniel'

Compulsively Allergic to the Truth

I'm sorry I was late.
I was pulled over by a cop
for driving blindfolded
with a raspberry-scented candle
flickering in my mouth.
I'm sorry I was late.
I was on my way
when I felt a plot
thickening in my arm.
I have a fear of heights.
Luckily the Earth
is on the second floor
of the universe.
I am not the egg man.
I am the owl
who just witnessed
another tree fall over
in the forest of your life.
I am your father
shaking his head
at the thought of you.
I am his words dissolving
in your mind like footprints
in a rainstorm.
I am a long-legged martini.
I am feeding olives
to the bull inside you.
I am decorating
your labyrinth,
tacking up snapshots
of all the people
who've gotten lost
in your corridors. 

The final book I gave away was Denise Duhamel's latest book Blowout (click here for a good interview at The Rumpus) and I think the crowd loved it almost as much as I do, after I read the poems "Madonna and Me" (click here to read) and especially this one:

How It Will End

We're walking on the boardwalk
but stop when we see a lifeguard and his girlfriend
fighting. We can't hear what they're saying,
but it is as good as a movie. We sit on a bench to find out
how it will end. I can tell by her body language
he's done something really bad. She stands at the bottom
of the ramp that leads to his hut. He tries to walk halfway down
to meet her, but she keeps signaling Don't come closer.
My husband says, "Boy, he's sure in for it,"
and I say, "He deserves whatever's coming to him."
My husband thinks the lifeguard's cheated, but I think
she's sick of him only working part-time
or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.
The lifeguard tries to reach out
and she holds her hand like Diana Ross
when she performed "Stop in the Name of Love."
The red flag that slaps against his station means strong currents.
"She has to just get it out of her system,"
my husband laughs, but I'm not laughing.
I start to coach the girl to leave the no-good lifeguard,
but my husband predicts she'll never leave.
I'm angry at him for seeing glee in their situation
and say, "That's your problem—you think every fight
is funny. You never take her seriously," and he says,
"You never even give the guy a chance and you're always nagging,
so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?"
and I say, "She doesn't nitpick!" and he says, "Oh really?
Maybe he should start recording her tirades," and I say
"Maybe he should help out more," and he says
"Maybe she should be more supportive," and I say
"Do you mean supportive or do you mean support him?"
and my husband says that he's doing the best he can,
that he's a lifeguard for Christ's sake, and I say
that her job is much harder, that she's a waitress
who works nights carrying heavy trays and is hit on all the time
by creepy tourists and he just sits there most days napping
and listening to "Power 96" and then ooh
he gets to be the big hero blowing his whistle
and running into the water to save beach bunnies who flatter him
and my husband says it's not as though she's Miss Innocence
and what about the way she flirts, giving free refills
when her boss isn't looking or cutting extra large pieces of pie
to get bigger tips, oh no she wouldn't do that because she's a saint
and he's the devil, and I say, "I don't know why you can't admit
he's a jerk," and my husband says, "I don't know why you can't admit
she's a killjoy," and then out of the blue the couple is making up.
The red flag flutters, then hangs limp.
She has her arms around his neck and is crying into his shoulder.
He whisks her up into his hut. We look around, but no one is watching us. 

Not only was our audience much more eager and brave enough to do more stealing, but they also brought some really cool books. I wanted to write down what people brought to give away and exchange, but it was happening to fast for me to keep up while hosting.

I am already looking forward to next year. I like keeping an eye out during the year, for books that might make good end-of-the-year gifts. At least I have a headstart with two already in the mail. 


  1. Wow! this is such a fantastic event. And so many great poems. It's refreshing to hear about people getting really excited about poetry. Good work, Shawnte! (I wish I lived near enough to attend this party).

  2. Thanks again, Shawnte, Kimberley, David, and Johnnie. I had a great time (I always do), ended up with two terrific books (The Oregon Trail and the Dorianne Laux), and met some new poetry aficionados. At this event last year, I said that you were "our shaggy apostle of contemporary poetry," and I still believe that's true. Thanks for all that you do to keep the spotlight on poets and poetry.

  3. Yes, I wish you could attend one of these, Drew. You would fit right in.

  4. You made out like a bandit, Ed. Literally, as you were able to steal that Gregory Sherl book right out from under the guy who already stole it from someone else. I'm so glad people thought these books were worth stealing from each other. Hopefully some of them will order ones they couldn't keep hold of.

    And thanks for the kind words! I should use that shaggy title as a blurb.