A writer, a poet, a word artist, and a self expressionist walk into a bar...The writer walked across the hardwood floor of the sprawling bar/concert venue/billiard hall. Had he been wearing high heeled cowboy boots, his footsteps would doubtless have gone clock clock clock clock, but as he was wearing sneakers, he moved as silently as a ninja... although nearly anyone could have, under the blare of some hairdo on the multiple TVs musing on just how much Tim Tebow might be able to do for his new team during the upcoming football season.
In the back room where the Made In River City Creative Writing Contest was being held, an affable fellow held out his hand to the writer. "Here for the contest? Great! Sign up here!"
The affable fellow proffered a sheet, which the writer filled out -- name, address, phone number, email, name of piece being performed -- which phrasing bemused the writer for a moment, as, well, he normally didn't 'perform' his 'pieces'... but he plunged gamely on.
After filling out everything to the affable fellow's satisfaction, the writer tendered a crisp ten dollar bill, hot out of the ATM in the bar's front room. The affable fellow put the tenner in a cardboard cigar box.
The writer wandered over to one of the small wooden tables and hoisted his well fed form up onto one of the wooden stools placed there. He had a short story in a manila envelope that he planned to read. The short story was about a man with the ability to travel backwards in time, which he used to solve other people's problems for them. He hoped this short story would be original enough, and well written enough, to win him this contest. First prize was $500, which wouldn't even cover the writer's rent, but it also included a publishing contract with a local publisher (that, admittedly, the writer had never heard of prior to becoming aware of this contest). And a publishing contract... well, that might be worthwhile indeed.
The writer eyed the others seated around the room. Some were dressed eccentrically, others almost formally, most were very casual. The writer himself was wearing blue jeans and a pullover black shirt... a step up from what he would normally have worn, a t-shirt with some kind of comic book or sci fi movie logo on it.
The writer had done a little bit of research on the contest and those behind it, and was not... complacent... regarding his chances of doing well. For one thing, the local publishing company offering the contract was so small it did not, as yet, have a website, merely a Facebook page. The woman running the company, such as it was, was a local poet and self styled 'word artist'. And the other permanent contest judge was not a writer at all, but, rather, a man who owned a local art gallery that seemed devoted to using art as a medium for social change.
The writer had nothing against poets, 'word artists', or art gallery owners who saw themselves as some sort of aesthetic guerillas, but he was reasonably sure that such people were not going to like the sort of things he wrote very much.
Still. The writer had been out there banging on brick walls for twenty years. He'd written ten or eleven novels, thirty or forty short stories, collected the usual bale of rejection slips, gone the usual electronic self publishing routes at Amazon Kindle and various other sites. He had, over the past 36 or 40 months, probably sold a few hundred electronic copies of various of his works. Spread out over 36 or 40 months, though, that didn't amount to much.
Selling a few hundred copies of one particular novel, all at once... or maybe even just getting a bound hard copy of one of his books to put on his bookshelf... if that was all he got out of it, well, still, it would have to be an improvement, right?
And at least the 'word artist' with the apparently almost entirely hypothetical publishing company, and the social guerilla art gallery owner, weren't the only judges. There were guest judges, too. Every week the contest ran, there would be at least one guest judge.
Of course, the guest judges so far had all been poets, too... or painters. Or performance artists. Or maybe topiary sculptors or even animal trainers, he couldn't be entirely sure. None of them seemed to be 'writers', though.
And this was the thing that troubled him the most, so far... this was a 'creative writing' contest in which the words 'writer' and/or 'author' never seemed to be uttered by those who were managing and administrating it. The participants were referred to as poets. Or performers. Or were 'word artists'. Or, God love and take them all to his dear sweet Godly bosom, 'self expressionists'.
But no one ever said the word 'writer'. It was a taboo word. It was verboten.
Well. He was here, he'd paid his ten bucks... might as well stick around and roll the dice, however loaded they apparently were.
It would, at the very least, be an experience.
The contest's advertisements had all claimed that the contest would begin at 8 pm. But there were many delays, which the writer cynically suspected might well be typical of these sorts of events, as most of them seemed to have to do with the people running the contest not knowing their asses from holes in the ground.
Which might not have been entirely fair, as the judges, at least, seemed quite adept at finding the bar and procuring drinks for themselves.
Finally, at 8:45, the affable fellow who had taken the writer's ten bucks walked over to a station with some electronics equipment set up at it, mercifully cut off the ska/pseudohip hop/crytoreggae/whatever the fuck non music had been blaring out of the speakers for the past hour, and said "All right, let's get this party started. Our first performer is a young lady who calls herself Twilight's Last Gleaming."
The writer firmly stifled his immediate impulse to bury his head in his hands and groan, or, alternatively, to mime the act of vomiting.
A woman took the stage wearing a horned Viking Helmet, with an American flag hanging from her shoulders like a cape, accenting the oversized men's Hawaiian shirt she was wearing, buttoned lopsided in such a way as to show off at least half of her ample cleavage. The lower halves of the Hawaiian shirt hung down, one to mid thigh, the other past her knee. Other than the shirt, the flag, and the Viking helmet, all she seemed to be wearing was purple plastic flip flops.
She stepped to the microphone and breathily intoned, "This is a poem for all of us, for each of us, for every one of us... and..." She paused melodramatically. And then: "...for none of us."
The writer resisted the urge to take the straw out of his Pepsi and use it to rupture his own eardrums.
The eccentrically dressed woman began:
"I am no punk
ka dunk ka dunk
nor am I shrunk
ka dunk ka dunk
I'm not a lunk
ka dunk ka dunk
yet in a funk
ka dunk ka dunk..."
The recital went on for an endless droning eternity, during which the writer did the following things, in sequence:
(a) stifled the urge to beat his head against the small wooden table in front of him -- ka dunk, ka dunk -- until he lapsed into blissful unconsciousness
(b) wished the eccentrically dressed woman in Hell, or, at least, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, or, at the very least, anywhere that he himself was not currently at
(c) wondered if he himself might have died and gone to hell and simply did not know it
(d) wished to God he could, immediately, if not sooner.
At some point during the woman's performance, she took off her Viking helmet and donned a sombrero. At another point, she did a brief but enthusiastic can-can. At yet another point, Bill Paxton came into the bar and announced that he and his vampire family were going to kill everyone in it... no. The writer opened his eyes. That last had just been wishful thinking.
When she finally finished, the room hooted and hollered and applauded its enthusiastic approval for the ka dunk ka dunk'ing performer. The writer applauded even more enthusiastically, pretty much entirely because she was finally finished.
The writer could never clearly remember the sequence of events after Twilight's Last Gleaming took the stage. The blurriness of his recollections had nothing to do with alcohol, because the writer did not drink, nor with the writer inflicting various injuries upon himself to lessen or entirely obviate his perceptions of the events occurring around him, because he was far too big a baby about pain to really do shit like that.
No, it was mostly just the merciful defense mechanism of a psyche overloaded with a constant bombardment of pretentiousness so utterly overwhelming that, had it been converted somehow into artillery fire, would have leveled every structure standing between the Ohio River and the Preston Parkways 16 Movie Theater out near the Bullitt County line.
The writer dimly recollected that many of the 'performances' seemed to be rather angry in tone. This didn't surprise the writer very much. He had started to read voraciously sometime prior to beginning kindergarten, he had started to write somewhere around the age of 10. Now in his early 50s, he had learned over the course of his life that all serious artistic expression, regardless of the medium it is expressed in, can be concisely summarized by four short words:
God The World Sucks.
If one is artistically expressing any other sentiment, but, especially, any sentiment that is optimistic or cheerful or even, worst of all, designed only to (God forbid it) entertain people, then one is clearly not doing Serious Art.
And just as clearly, this contest was all about Serious Art.
So as various performers took the stage and began to leap about, shaking their fists in the air and shouting about injustice and inequality and the plight of the working man and the existential horror that was life itself in the insectile vacuum of a universe abandoned to entropy by an uncaring God, the writer just sort of stared into space and wished they'd get it over with. It was not that he was unconcerned with such things. It was just that, in general, he felt that if someone was really all that angry about serious matters like injustice and inequality and the plight of the working man, there was probably something more effective they could do with their time than compose free verse poems about it and then leap about in a bar/concert venue/billiard hall shaking their fists while shouting their free verse poem to a crowd of generally spoiled, overfed, somewhat inebriated and enormously overstimulated middle to upper class Americans twaddle-junkies.
The crowd, however, seemed very enthusiastic about the angry performers, and the writer had to admit to himself that it was very possible he just didn't get it... or perhaps he was just a surly motherfucker who had no taste in art whatsoever.
There was also a woman who did a poem about taking her brain out and dropping it in a canister of oil, which the writer thought was really very good, and another womanl who (other than the writer himself) was the only person there who actually read a story. But it was a very long story having to do with four different women from four different tribes in some weird fantasy world who left their tribes and went off into the far ends of the Earth and sat around a fire together and realized that they were all exactly alike although they were actually nothing alike at all and went back to their tribes reassured and empowered by this realization. Or something. The writer could never clearly recall the details of the story, but at least it hadn't had a sombrero in it, or anything about the injustice or inequality or the plight of the working man (although, as to that last, the writer could not help but reflect that maybe Bill Paxton and his vampire clan could well have livened the story up a little, had they been allowed to put in an appearance).
The writer did recollect his own 'performance'. His name had been called, there had been a perfunctory round of applause, he had approached the microphone in a state somewhere between paralysis and full on cardiac arrest, because he generally wrote his work with the intention that people would read his words on a page, and experience it that way. 'Performing' his work aloud, in front of a live audience -- this was nothing he'd ever done before, or, really, ever wanted to, and, was, frankly, terrifying.
But he stepped up there and read his story. Somehow. Fearing at any moment that he would simply faint dead away or have a stroke. Yet still, through that fog of sheer raw funk, he read his story. The story about a person who could travel backwards in time and change the immediate past, and who used this gift to help others.
When he finished, there was silence.
And then, again, polite applause as he walked back to his seat.
No hoots. No hollers.
The writer wondered if people would have liked his story better if he had read it while wearing a Mounty hat, and setting a small cardboard box full of styrofoam pellets on fire, which he had first labeled in big black Magic Marker letters, "AMERICAN IMPERIALISM".
Or maybe he should have brought a dwarf along with him, to accompany him on the bagpipes while dancing a spirited jig.
And then there were a few other performers. One fellow had painted a sequence of pictures to illustrate his story, which was about a seed nurtured by a caterpillar until it grew into a giant sunflower, a tale which he recited in Dr. Seussesque doggerel. The audience hooted and hollered for him, too.
Seeds and caterpillars were, apparently, awesome. As were angry leaping poets upset about the plight of the working man. As was ka dunk ka dunk.
Time travellers using their powers to help their fellow men? Not so much.
When the winners of the contest were announced, the writer was not surprised to discover that his name was not among those so listed.
Which was fine, really.
Because if he'd won, and gone on to the next round, he would have had to come back the following week and listen to MORE people leaping and shouting and waving their fists in the air while wearing sombreros and Viking helmets.
Ka dunk, ka dunk.