Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wrapping Up Last Night's Poetry Gift Exchange With A Shiny Bow

This year's White Elephant Contemporary Poetry Gift Exchange at Glendale Community College was much bigger than last year. We had a wonderful turnout and people were more daring about "stealing" books that caught their attention. Everyone was polite at the start, but once I started introducing books that were worth coveting, we saw some bold moves and books began changing hands.

Books I handed out this year, included:

Jacques Prevert - Paroles
(CityLights Books)

This man who is dying
these flowers that are wilting
and this money
this money that rolls
that doesn't stop rolling
from "At The Florist"

This City Lights book may have been what got me into poetry, while studying French back in high school. It has the original French on the left page and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's translation on the other side.

Gregory Sherl - The Oregon Trail Is The Oregon Trail
(Mudluscious Press)

I can only carry 100 pounds of bison per trip
so the flies are happy. They prefer the eyes,
prefer to nest on matted hair, crossed like barbed
wire. Today I am selling bison thigh so I can buy
bullets before they rust, so I can shoot more bison.
I am the smallest circle. I am so comfortable
inside myself, these slight progressions of sound.

from "The Oregon Trail sells beef to Winn-Dixie"

An entire book of poems that explores life, love, and dysentery through the Oregon Trail and its metaphors.

Kris Bigalk - Repeat The Flesh In Numbers
(NYQ Books)

I forgive the perfume of clove cigarettes
hanging from your head in curling, frazzled dreds.
Love is carrying water with no rest, despite
the alarm clock, a circle-burnt nerve, the television baby-talking
to itself, endlessly rocking you out of your cradle.
Its shadows wrestle with the distance.
from Absolution

Jeannine Hall Gailey - Becoming The Villainess
(Steel Toe Books)

Practice creative problem solving;
for example, that lipstick could be poisoned,
that spiked heel a stabbing implement.
Remember, you are on the side
of the laws of thermodynamics. Entropy
is a measure of disorder.
Chaos, destruction, death: these are your instruments.
Use them wisely. You are no mere mortal.
Don’t lose your cool if captured; chances are,
you can already control minds, bend metal to your whim,
produce, in your palms, fire.
In the end you are the reason we see the picture;
we mistrust the tedium of a string of sunny days.
We like to watch things crumble.

from “Job Requirements: A Supervillain’s Advice”

Hal Sirowitz - Mother Said

Don't swing the umbrella in the store,
Mother said. There are all these glass jars
of spaghetti sauce above your head
that can fall on you, & you can die.
Then you won't be able to go to tonight's party,
or go to the bowling alley tomorrow.
And instead of celebrating your birthday
With soda and cake, we'll have
anniversaries of your death with tea
& crackers. And your father & I won't
be able to eat spaghetti anymore, because
the marinara sauce will remind us of you.

"No More Birthdays"

Sirowitz' book of Mother poems was a big hit with everyone in the audience who had a mother.

Leigh Stein - Dispatch From The Future
(Melville House)

I can’t go to the East Village anymore
because it is like going on a tour

of my worst dates. I get older, my heart
leaps at the sight of children

who don’t belong to me, I pronounce
everything like an Italian opera title.

I used to listen to songs and have someone
in mind for the you parts

from "Brief Hist Of My Life Part VII"

 Bob Hicok - Insomnia Diaries

If my uncle called it anything
but too many holes in too many bodies

no flower can say. I plant marigolds
because they came cheap and who knows
what the earth’s in the mood to eat.

 from "The Semantics Of Flowers On Memorial Day"

It was also fun to see what books people in the audience brought to share. 

A few books that I ordered didn't arrive in time, so I guess I already have a head start on some of the titles for next year's event.


  1. I really enjoyed the event, Shawnte. I ended up with the Prévert poems, after having had the Luis Urrea book brazenly stolen from me. I was pleased to share The Art of the Lathe, and Barbara seemed excited to win in it in the drawing. Good times all around. I can't wait for the next event.

  2. I love this event of yours more and more. Have you blogged how the evening unfolds? I'm trying to figure out how to steal more of your ideas. If I missed a post, apologies!

  3. That was a powerful piece you chose, Ed. I love how I also end up getting introduced to a lot of great poetry, throughout the evening.

    That's wonderful, Sandy! I'm always jealous that I live too far away to see your series, in person. So I'm excited to think that I might almost be involved in some small way. You didn't miss any important post. I only fully explain it to the audience at the beginning of the night. I will post about how all the details work, later this evening. I will also send it to you in a message, in case you don't notice this reply.


  4. I had never heard of White Elephant Gift Exchanges, until my wife mentioned having one at her office. Apparently, they are common in those circles. I looked it up and the "white elephant" supposedly refers to a gift whose upkeep outweighs its usefulness.

    So I just tweaked what I learned a little bit, in order to create a similar poetry equivalent.

    First, my normal monthly events include an open reading, so I keep that mixed in to my gift exchange night. I also wanted everyone to have a chance to "win" a book, even if they didn't bring anything and just came to listen.

    So I end up with an open reading list of people, who either want to share a book or something they've written (maybe even both). I also have everyone put their name on a piece of paper and throw them into a raffle hat that I use throughout the night.

    I didn't want the people at the beginning of the list to have no choices at all, so I start off putting a few books on the table near the stage. These aren't necessarily favorite books of mine, but at least it provides a few options. They might be a few extra books that I don't need or maybe a few cheap ones that I grabbed from a used book store, but I try not to put anything that I strongly dislike, because my goal is to have people walk away with poetry that they will enjoy.

    I introduce a few of these books, by reading a sample poem from them, before placing them on the table. Then I call up a name from the list. If they just wanted to share one of their own poems, we will listen. If they brought a book for the exchange, they can read us a sample poem or tell us why they like the poet/book. Then they can trade it for any poem off my table, OR ANY BOOK THAT SOMEONE ELSE ALREADY TOOK. So if somebody already got a fantastic book that made them jealous, they can go take it and stick that person with the book they brought.

    In order to make sure there are books worth stealing, I bring 5 or 6 great books that I think people will love (the college gives me a little bit of money and I also chip in a little for this budget, out of the kindness of my heart. I could probably try to write up some kind of grant proposal, but I'm terrible at that stuff and it seems like one more thing that I don't have time for). I try to select a diverse assortment.

    At random intervals I introduce one of these books. I tell the audience a bit about the author or collection then I read at least one sample poem, so they can see what they're in for and why I love it. Then I pull a name out of the hat and the winner can either keep it or exchange it for a book from the table or a book that someone else already took.

    I stay flexible and monitor how things are going. So if we hit a lull, that's when I will introduce one of my good books to get things back on track. If the table gets stale, I might put my book there, instead of pulling a name out of the raffle hat, etc.

    Some of the professors bring books to add to my table (one of them wrapped their book, so it would be a surprise in case anyone wanted to take a chance. I thought that was a fun idea). So if my table starts to gather too many books, I will draw three or four names from my hat to come and take a few books (or take a book from the table and exchange it for a coveted book that someone else already took).

    Toward the end of the night, I draw more names to get rid of the books that are left on the table or I just invite anyone who didn't get something to come and check out the table to see if there's anything they would like.

    I'm sure that looks extremely confusing on the computer screen.

  5. Wow! Even more awesome than I imagined. Inspires me to start an open mic part of the Big Rock Reading Series. :)

    Thanks for taking the time to write this all up. You rock!