Beautiful Loser: Poetry at the Mall

Guest Post

By Daniel Bowman Jr.

Pray for one good humiliation every day.

–Richard Rohr

I sit by the podium as an earnest arts administrator I just met gives me a long introduction. She must’ve pulled it from my website; it’s a full bio. She works through the names of magazines where my poems have “appeared,” and I wonder what that word conveys to the uninitiated. Some of the journals are obscure, what poets call “little magazines,” while others are better known. But in this space, all the titles are preposterous.

I was invited to read at the Artsgarden. What I don’t know until I get there is that, on weekdays, the Artsgarden is glorified overflow seating for the mall food court. This is fine, but requires a quick adjustment of my expectations.

Looking at the crowd, I get the sense that anyone listening waits for a triumphant finish to my publication record, such as The New Yorker or Time. When the index is done, though, their expressions are pitiful. I’ve disappointed them, and I haven’t even begun to read.

Our host tells folks that I was, in fact, born in Delaware but raised in Mohawk, New York. My discomfort increases. I try to ignore it. I fantasize that someone experiences the shock of recognition: “Ah…now I see the significance of the ocean imagery in his early work!”

Approaching the podium induces a bead of sweat to trickle from the pit of my arm down my right side. I think of Hardy’s line: “Down their carved names the raindrop plows.” I feel absurd likening iconic Victorian calamity to sweating in the food court at lunch hour in Middle America. Yet even that leap seems reasonable compared to reading poetry at the mall.

I hold up my book, as if showing them something material will render me innocent of wrongdoing. I attempt a word on the relationship between poetry and place, a link that deeply informs my work, but here the subject takes on a palpable irony. Out of options, I proceed toward the unthinkable: I read poems.

Since the space connects skywalks from corporate buildings to the mall proper, many people are passing through without stopping. A trio of businesswomen traipses by, right in front of the podium, heels clacking loudly beneath pantsuits. The people at the tables are trapped—waiting for an opportune moment to slip out. Some appear visibly annoyed; others look curious, maybe even grateful. Most seem mildly embarrassed for me.

Poetry is a beautiful loser here. There’s the sense it’s a nice gesture, but the awkwardness overwhelms whatever glimpses of truth it might make available.

At some point in the reading, something clicks and I find myself at the other extreme, embracing the strangeness, warmed up and ready to have fun. Might as well, since, as I read, I discover that: a) I truly have no user-friendly poems anyway; and b) I write about death much more than I ever would have thought.

To hell with it then: I get right up in the microphone to boom and echo my verse as far as my high tenor will allow. I read the most surreal dreamscapes I’ve written; I emphasize the weirdest phrases.

I read a poem where a man eating at a burger joint on the shore sees four of himself (one of whom is dead). The poem contains the lines, “I sold my feet at a trading post / in Lexington, Kentucky.”

I look up innocently when I’m done. There’s a table of Indian men in polo shirts and Dockers. They have all stopped eating and are staring at me with equal parts confusion and contempt. I look back down at my book and read until my time is up.

Four people clap: the arts admin, another poet, and two people sitting in the front who–I will learn–actually came for the reading.

Okay. I might have exaggerated some aspects of this anecdote, and my notorious oversensitivity surely can account for others. But what a strange exercise: bringing poetry to an unsuspecting public.

Poetry goes deep. The subject of death might come up. As I learned in Indianapolis, death probably shouldn’t be considered at length in the food court on a Monday afternoon.

In a talk on why poetry matters, Mark Doty said, “poetry…marks the place where one human being stood, bound in time, reporting what it is to be one. In the age of the collective of mass culture and mass market, there’s hope in that.” Insofar as the American shopping mall represents “mass culture,” maybe it could use some poetry after all.

Maybe hope and humiliation are related. I’ve long claimed to want to make art that, as Finley Peter Dunne has said, can “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Only I never imagined I was the one who needed to get uncomfortable. I assumed I was fine. And I am—as long as I’m in my classroom, where nothing I say will be questioned in any elemental way. A student may disagree with me, but no one asks, “Why are you doing this?”

And why not ask it? It’s an important question I don’t often consider anymore from inside academia or the book world or whatever you call the place where I (mostly) live. It’s a question that may cross the minds of people at the mall.

It’s a question I need to confront anew if I want to avoid gaining the whole world but losing my own soul. That’s the wrong kind of loss.

Rohr said, “I tell holy people to pray for one good humiliation every day. I tell them to keep careful watch over their reaction to those humiliations. That is the way to avoid religious grandiosity and know that you are seeking God and not yourself.”

The loss of ego: that’s the right kind of loss, the beautiful kind, filled with hope.


Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (VAC Poetry, 2012) and the forthcoming novel Beggars in Heaven (Antler, 2014). He is Assistant Professor of English at Taylor University.

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