But you’re saying to yourself, “Behrle, you said I can become the most important poet in America overnight.” So let’s get back to that overnight part. You may have big plans for tomorrow afternoon. Limousines may need to be rented. Attending this speech is obviously a good start. We must usher in an age in which we more overtly ask for and attain the things we want. It might have been OK to once sit back in this room and dream only of the next poem and which of your friends’ spouses you were going to sleep with or how much marijuana you had at home. Those times are over. Poets must get serious, must get organized, must get five stars on all their books on goodreads.com. Anything with reviews of four stars or less will most likely be pulped and disappear forever from consciousness.
You may be expecting me to encourage you to create some kind of fake writing movement, since those were popular all last century. But who wants to share the spotlight with anyone else? Fake art movements usually involve one really famous person and then a bunch of hangers-on. Like Josie and the Pussycats. Or Jackson Pollock and a bunch of people who drank with Jackson Pollock. Imagine how much better off Josie would have been minus those Pussycats hogging all her fame. Poetry movements usually include a bunch of interchangeable poets with little fame trying to create something famous (or fame-worthy) by pooling their efforts, like all the little lion robots that slam into each other to form Voltron. What ends up happening is that Voltron gets a bum leg and back problems, because some of those lions are lame poets. And then Voltron is defeated and the fake art movement turns into just a bunch of bitter old poets. Not so glorious. I mean, sure, your movement can get a special issue of Poetry magazine, but wouldn’t you rather have an entire issue of Poetry magazine dedicated to you? With you smiling out from the cover? Never take your eyes off the prize, and when you have a chance to do so, beat down all competition with the mallet made famous by Whack-a-Mole.
Jay Leno, not Conan O’Brien, is the future. Why? Because Leno is more devious, sinister, and craven. These are things to aspire to be. Jay Leno would reach through your skin and deep into your stomach to fetch an undigested Skittle if he were hungry for one. That’s the spirit of Ruthless 24/7 Careerism in a strawberry shell. Make a deal with Russia to not invade Russia and then, when Russia least expects it, invade Russia.
Your friends are really just contacts, and you have to think of them that way. If dropping their name isn’t worth anything, you may have to ditch them. But not before you have sucked them dry of anything that can help you get to number one. And once you get to number one you can get new friends, like Brad Pitt and Beyoncé. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is the secret to changing your status as a poet tonight, minutes after you sprint home from this hall? And I will be available for questions after this important speech, but really, shouldn’t you be asking yourself tough questions? Questions like “Am I doing enough to conquer American poetry?” Ask them to a mirror. Or have a pig hand-puppet ask them to you. Are you doing enough? Do you want it enough? Are you willing to kill and be killed for it?
Tonight you can go home, pour yourself a cup of peppermint tea, and then start contacting your contacts, one by one: via smoke signals, IM, Facebook poking, whatever. Ask them, “What are you doing to help me become the most important poet in America? Have you reviewed my book, oh contact you? Can you get me a reading at the 92nd Street Y? Or on the International Space Station?” Have your contacts written critical essays extolling your virtues as an artist or created weekend symposia dedicated to the greater understanding of your work? If not, shouldn’t they, you know, get busy on that?
We might believe that what the media term “buzz” gets created organically—that everyone just starts tweeting about Jersey Shore episodes on their own, without any prompting. But it actually takes a concerted effort across a spectrum of sources to create the phenomena we have come to know and love. I learned this in the publicity office of a big-time Manhattan publisher, where most of my time was spent on my knees. It takes time, effort, and Altoids to generate buzz. And when it appears that others are talking about you, it is easier for you to talk about yourself. “Did you see that exposé about me in Popular Mechanics? I mean, really!”
Negative publicity works just as well. Having the right people hate you is better than having the wrong people like you. Controversy is rare in poetry because poets usually just drink and bottle up whatever is bothering them. If we all just spent a year or two yelling at other poets, we might be better off and have cleaner colons.
So, tonight, get your bass electrified. It’s not bad to also start e-mailing complete strangers who you think have some kind of power and can help you. Send them a poem. Tell them that they’re cute and that you love their poems. That always works; they will roll over and show you their belly.
Friend every poet you can on Facebook, goodreads.com, porn sites—everywhere. You might also want to start Wikipedia.org sites for yourself and your books, but eventually your followers will do that for you. Start imagining everyone else as your unpaid work-study students.
Ultimately, you are responsible for your own obscurity as an artist, and you have only yourself to blame if no one knows who you are. So whine about teachers giving students awards or grants all you want. Grant writing is more important than poem writing, and until you master those intricacies, you will be down and out in the city of your choosing. No one really cares if your poems are any good. That’s beside the point. What’s more crucial in everyone else’s eyes is how much power you have and how it can help them. So use your power wisely.
It’s probably better if your poems are middle-of-the-road or below average: that’s what will attract other middle-of-the-road and below-average poets to fall in line behind you. That’s what will make you their demigod: because you work tirelessly on your own behalf, and people feel that they can ride your coattails to the diner for a little chow. Because you are overtly ambitious in a way they too can admire, being ambitious but maybe more timid. Everyone is overqualified to be a poet. In the 20th century, all you needed to identify yourself as a poet was a quill and a funny hat that could draw the attention of your village-folk hither whilst you prattled on about the fate of dying birds or how happy your marriage is.
Some people think ’tis wise to create power couples to help them gain notoriety. Beware! Share the spotlight with no one! For perhaps they will crush you. And you will be stuck working for them: washing their cars in the rain, doing their dry-cleaning in the rain. That would be like the Bee Gees writing a folk song. You’d be like hunh? Your contacts must work for you, not the other way around.
I hope I’ve exposed some of the machinations behind the facade of poetry and the illusions of a poetic community. One experiences the goodness of poetry only through one’s own work, and feels the warm bosoms of community only if the work serves the bosoms and the bosoms’ interests. I did not become a poet to belong to something bigger than myself, to feel connected to other people, or to find a human substitute for the sublime. I’m here for the fame, the money, and (if there are brownies) the brownies. The need for sex, love, friendship; the desire to create something unique: these pale for me—and, in my experience, for all poets—against the need to make poetry work for me. Poetry substitutes for religion for many of us. And who wants to worship a god that isn’t actually just oneself? Who’s got that kind of time?
You’ll know you’re the most important poet in America, whether it happens on Tuesday, Wednesday, or sometime next week. I’ve got big hopes for members of this crowd to join me on Mount Rushmore alongside Jewel.
Although perhaps only Maya Angelou truly lives the dream of being the most important poet in America. What was the name of the poet who, one year ago, read a poem at President Obama’s inauguration? [A few people name Elizabeth Alexander.] No one knows. But Maya Angelou wrote Clinton’s first inauguration poem and segued that into a dream we all dream. If she comes to speak at a university or college, a car must pick her up at the airport—a car with no poets aboard. I've heard this is literally written into her contract. Whoever is driving, he or she does so without speaking to Maya Angelou. The contract is very specific. She travels to the venue and away without having to read anyone’s poems or comment on any manuscripts. She is driven back to the airport by maybe the same deaf-mute non-poet. And then she is gone, check in hand. That is the dream—a poet so important and renowned that she literally is not contractually obligated to deal with poets or poetry whatsoever.
It is a sweet, sweet dream.
By tomorrow you might have 2,000 Facebook friends; that’s a start. But how do you turn Facebook friends into Facebook fans? That’s the key. Let your buzz saw whir. Attach yourself to famous people, and dismiss anything else—your ability to say no to people is more important than your ability to say yes.
I thank you for braving tonight’s monsoon to be here in the historic East Village, a quaint reminder of how poetry used to be. You’d have to be a millionaire to live in this neighborhood now—poets have been priced out. Mostly because poets were too lazy and not willing to do what it takes to become millionaires. Don’t fall into their despair cocoon.
I’m ending this talk now, but I do not want your applause tonight. Save your applause for yourself; never waste a single clap on someone else. Applause is really just the sound of asking for someone else’s applause. And when you’re number one, you no longer need affirmation. Your silent, chilled fear of me and what I represent will be thanks enough. That’s the kind of applause that never ends.