Oct/Nov 2000 Humor/Satire

New Artistic Directions

by Sarah Goff

Paul Newman stepped up to the podium at the 2001 National Poetry Slam in dark sunglasses, rumpled jeans, and with a cigarette between his fingers. People picked their programs off the floor. He didn't look a damn thing like Lucille Clifton, so it quickly became clear that someone special was being added in.

Paul Newman brought his papers with him. They were a little crumpled, a bit sweaty. He cleared his throat, and then lifted his chin towards the mike.

"When I watch TV, I don't want to see ads for treatment of genital herpes! I am a potato thrown against a white bedroom wall! Buy my salad dressing! There is nothing for me on the shorelines of purple sunset mad monkey love! Soon you can see me on my new Newman-Os cereal, because I'm Paul Newman, damn it! And I'm exploring new artistic directions! Thank you."

It took the tabloids a while to pick up the story, since none of their reporters had ever even been to a poetry slam. They had to buy their Newman pictures off broke language poets who couldn't get published. But, once The Post, The Star, and The National Inquirer got the photos and ran their headlines, "Paul Newman storms the poetry scene," poetry became a national obsession, and the new pet cause of Hollywood. Stars went to fundraisers titled, "Raise Money for Starving Poets!" where the Who played and Robin Williams opened with outlandish beatnik comedy. In dark cafes, Jack Nicholson screamed of his misunderstood metatarsus, Susan Sarandon groaned of fantasy sex with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Winona Ryder belted her slamming scat into the fainting mike.

Times were good for already published poets, especially those who happened to look famous and sexy on their jacket covers. Robert Pinsky sold well with the middle age crowd, Sharon Olds and Denise Duhamel with college kids, Mark Doty with teenagers and the gay estranged. But it became even harder to be a start-out. Poets needed a big name to get into an open mike anywhere, even in bars that had karaoke Wednesday night and poetry Thursdays. Those who used to be buddy-buddy with the local cafe owners got thrown on their asses when they asked for free coffee and the stale biscotti nobody wanted anymore. There was trouble on the streets outside libraries, where smoking writers angrily flipped through the pages of the latest Paul Newman chapbook, muttering, "Crap, utter crap."

Paul Newman read at the Dodge Poetry Festival, after Stanley Kunitz. "I don't need your bathtubs of urine and ice cream! I am loneliness and dirt-stained ankles, but I still do not want your grandmother quilt affection. Take your vagina elsewhere!" He took a sip of his water, frowned at the taste, and died before he could read his newest haiku.

It was the structuralists who took most of the blame for Paul Newman's death. Protest signs quoted them, "Newman wouldn't know rhythm if it sat on him" and "His metaphors are old cream cheese thrown in a stagnant pond." Paul's audience launched a boycott of their work. No one dared write a pantoum, canzone, or villanelle. There was backlash to even previously written structure poetry; "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" was dropped from the college curriculum. Even Shakespeare sales took a downturn, because it was said that sonnets and iambic pentameter had killed Paul Newman. Instead, the new audiences came to gatherings and recited their Newman favorites in gazebos. Naked women bowed before his likeness and offered their wombs for his return to earth. "Bless me with your spawn, Paul! I love you so dearly! Like the praying mantis cries on a ski slope as man's blades rip though his leaping legs, I offer myself to you!"

The poet who killed him, a lover of sestinas and internal rhyme, hid in shame, sleeping in New York dumpsters and covering himself at night with newspaper stories of the harm he had done. Even in daylight, he was afraid to come out. He wrote using ripped words from magazines, gluing them on the insides of dumpster walls with old gum. As he ran out of printed words and the lighter he used to see with ran out of juice, he composed in his head and recited the words so he'd remember them, for that day when he could come out and write again. As time went on, his words sounded more and more like Newman's scatty poems.


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