There’s nothing as pitiful as a sick poet.
I’ve been tussling with a rather raucous flu bug lately. And I’ve never been one of those stiff-upper-lip sickies, sucking it up and persevering, conquering the malady by refusing to give it power. Pshaw. I like to surrender to my germs and wallow among them. I’m a feverish, whiny drippy snorter, hopelessly addicted to the self-centered drama that is run-of-the-mill illness. It’s probably part of my inane belief that all arteeest suffer for a reason, that in the psychedelic throes of a 103-degree temperature I will listlessly drag my pen across a sheet of paper and happen upon the one line the world has been waiting for. Operating on just one nasal passage, I’ll talk endlessly about my constricted chest, aching joints, itchy eyes and spot rashes. Each ailment makes me more insufferable, more tortured and therefore more legitimate as a writer. Who needs a shotglass or a junk-filled hypodermic when you’ve got loose stools?

If my writing isn’t better when I’m sick, it’s certainly more entertaining—I can be florid, flowery, overcooked or mystically loopy, but I can’t be dull. Also, when I’m feeling icky I tend to tackle impossibly large topics in the mistaken belief that misery makes me more perceptive. I can stop that pesky Iraq war in three stanzas. Need to know once and for all what man’s purpose is here on earth? I’m on it, as soon as I tackle the more urgent question of why that weird Gumby-looking pompadoured Indian guy hasn’t been booted off American Idol yet.
Not only have I been writing very magical things (no, you can’t see them—the human eye is not yet able to process my immense sickly wisdom), but I’ve been getting quite a bit accomplished since the bug’s been in residence. Complaining all the while and popping enough meds to fell a mastodon, I’ve been teaching high school, attending fundraisers, coughing through one way-too-long phone interview, wooing potential publishers and doing this one really freaky thing with Mark Doty.
(A quick aside. You may have noticed that Mark Doty has made a previous appearance in this blog, on the imaginary red carpet at AWP. There’s good reason for this. I love the name Doty as much as I love the word anemone. It feels so American in the mouth, and it’s heaps o’ fun to say. Try it. Doty. Doty.)
Anyhoo, a couple of days before we did our thing, Mark and I had a short telephone conversation and he said he was just getting over the flu that I was just getting. That didn’t bode well for the spirit of our upcoming event. In fact, to prepare I should have been training for the last few months, hopping up and down, Rocky-like, pumping my fists into the air, then dropping into painful but beneficial squats. Or jogging, huffing and dripping buckets. Or at least mediating, becoming one with something. It was time for my face-off with Mark Doty, and I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready at all.
We were part of a series called “Page vs. Stage,” in which poets who write primarily for the page (in this case, The Doty) take the stage with those who write primarily for the stage (uh, I guess that’s me). Although all were assured that the “vs.” in the event title didn’t mean a competition, I imagined otherwise: A steel cage with barely enough room for a metaphor to fly. Audience members, primed with oilcans of pissy draft beer, waving neon foam fingers. A concessions stand selling the bleached bones and vanquished little stanzas of the last poet who dared enter my realm.
(Uh, that was trash talk. Was it OK?)
It’s sad commentary when we must hint at possible bloodshed in order to make a reading sexy, but hey, let’s fill those seats. And it looked like the gentle gimmick was working. The seats were pretty much filled at the Bowery before Doty and I toddled in, looking decidedly unwarrior-like. He had the tentative look of someone who was just taking baby steps toward better health. I was already sniffing, and about to hand myself over to the next available germ. I was lugging along my granddaughter, and Mark was wearing a bubble jacket. We first encountered each other in line at the café while purchasing hot tea. I greeted him with a hug and then, too late, tried to growl menacingly, but neither one of us was feelin’ it. We giggled instead.
I knew why I was there. It was because of my history in the poetry slam, the fact that I took all those stages, spit all those rhymes, won some titles. There was indeed a time when I wrote specifically for the open air, but I hesitate to mention to anyone that that was more than 10 years ago. That’ll be our little secret.
Mark was there because he’s mucho smart and uses many words in his poems that I have to stop to look up. In poetry circles, his name is a noble one. Everyone knows His Dotiness.
What’s all this have to do with being sick? Nothing. It’s the fever talkin’. When you’re sick AND a poet, you’re allowed to meander. Brilliantly.

Originally Published: March 20th, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall...

  1. March 20, 2007
     Jeffrey McDaniel

    Hey Patricia,
    I am totally with you about wallowing in the self-drama of the ordinary illness, milking every ache for each ounce of feeling (self-pity?), but you are WAY more lucid and verbally graceful than I am when the flu has me in in its wooly mitts. Glad the reading went well, especially after that dud you had in DC. I just had a couple duds, and then one good one this weekend in LA. Ciao. Jeffrey

  2. March 21, 2007
     Marie-Elizabeth Mali

    Sorry to hear you came down with it fully but it's good to see that your humor is still intact ("fell a mastodon". . . nice!). I hope you mend quickly. You and Mark rocked! It was less slugfest, more lovefest, as I saw it. You were luminous (a friend of mine told me that!) and I don't think it was the fever either.