The literati are like aliens. Some are cute. Some are hostile. All talk funny, and all require diplomatic outreach. (Daniel Nester recently described this phenomenon in his riotous, depressing takedown of the New York poetry scene, "Goodbye to All Them.")

I here present the strategies I have observed and developed at literary gatherings, in hopes that you, reader, will not someday find yourself lying on a couch in a grungily chic neighborhood of San Francisco at 4 a.m., claiming, along with a bald, 13-year-old Norwegian you've just met, to be a Macarthur Fellow.

1. Describe a poet as "entirely disreputable." Utter the judgment with sorrowful certainty. Utter it knowing full well that your interlocutor adores this poet. Observe her grow dubious—is anyone "entirely disreputable"?—and then uncomfortable—what does it mean for her to adore an entirely disreputable poet?—and then tragically determined—she understands her mission will be restoring faith in aforementioned disreputable poet. Express your solidarity with her cause. Then get her number.

2. Demand whether something even EXISTS anymore. This trick works equally well for concepts (i.e., patriotism) and objects (i.e., peanuts).

3. Variation: Demand whether something—patriotism or peanuts would be appropriate here—isn’t just BEGINNING, whether what we’ve seen thus far isn’t just the PROTOTYPE of what we THINK we’ve been seeing.

4. Clarify that you’re totally ignorant of something. Just make sure it’s nothing important. Declare your ignorance in a confident manner, so as to seem rakish.

5. Shock and allure interlocutor from (1) by quoting an entire sonnet from the supposedly disreputable poet. Quote it really loudly, so that the entire party pauses to observe you.

6. Err in your quotation. Err in an embarrassing yet metrically impeccable fashion. This will disorient your audience such that no one will dare correct you. Consider replacing two consecutive syllables with "pizza" (“My heart leaps up when I behold / A pizza in the sky”), four consecutive syllables with "hurdy-gurdy" ("I think that I shall never see / A hurdy-gurdy, or a tree"), etc.

7. At some point in the recitation—a point no sane person would consider touching—start weeping. Be sure interlocutor from (1) is standing nearby so she can comfort you if she is so inclined.

8. Exit, very slowly. Continue weeping for the duration of your exit, even if you must utter uncharacteristically banal comments ("Is it still raining?").

9. Leave an ethereal reminder of your presence. A skull will do.

Originally Published: November 3rd, 2009

Abigail Deutsch, the winner of Poetry magazine's 2010 Editors Prize for Reviewing, lives in New York. Her criticism appears in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, n+1, Bookforum, and other publications.

  1. November 3, 2009

    Re: #5, the reciter must stare at the interlocutor intensely, never breaking eye contact, and grin, so as to add to the creepiness. Then await applause, approval, and commendation.\r

    Proposed #10: I also like hearing casual evaluations of ouevres that contain contradictory and bi-polar assessments: I can’t stand Poet X, though of course her Poem A is a masterpiece. I think it’s important to use the word ouevre/s in literary conversation, to pronounce it so authentically French as to make it un-recognizeable to a normal ear in a room full of other pretentious conversations, so your interlocutor must either ask for you to repeat or to go along with the conversation having no idea what you just said. Also, one much always italicize foreign words (genre), especially when they’re mostly adopted into English or have perfectly acceptable English synonyms.\r

    Proposed #11: Make sure to keep looking around at others in the room, to ensure you’re talking to the most important person available, and that any opportunity to talk to a better, more connected player is not lost (e.g., when someone makes the mistake of parting with Seamus Heaney, giving him a moment to eat a small square of cheese). Then abruptly stop the conversation you’re in (this is typically done mid-sentence while the interlocuter is talking to you by simply leaving lesser-person's conversation without saying anything, to elope with more important acquaintance, announcing your intentions with “Hey, Seamus!...” Beware, however: be sure you have prepared your seemingly original though still banal encomiums for the greater-than, or else!\r

    Who's got others?

  2. November 4, 2009
     Wyn Cooper

    Alternate to proposed #11: I learned this one by watching Joyce Carol Oates. Stand in the center of the room, very slowly turning in circles. Listen to every conversation in the room, and when you have something brilliantly witty to add, simply walk into that conversation, make your comment, and walk immediately back to the center of the room. Continue spinning.

  3. November 4, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Proposed #12: The 'Dylan Thomas' option:\r

    Pass out. Sleep on floor until awakened at end. Go to bar.

  4. November 4, 2009
     Don Share

    You forgot to add: "Inscribe the letter 'O' on a blank sheet of paper and call an end to a full day of writing."