Guest Post, Jim Daniels: Poetry Hickie

Jim DanielsI am currently working on my fourth screenplay—wait, wait, I’m not going to try and sell it to you. Everybody’s got a screenplay in the freezer these days, to protect it from fire. The house can burn down, but they’ll be rich once they sell that screenplay.

My screenplays result in no-budget independent films with odd lengths like 38 minutes or 64 minutes. Our movies are like scavenger hunts where the prize is going into debt.  When I wrote the first one, “No Pets,” back in 1994, an adaptation of my own title short story from my first collection (book still available!), I thought that film could maybe be a gateway drug to poetry sales.

Yeah, I know, that’s pretty naïve, looking back on it. While I’ve continued to write screenplays, I do so with the full knowledge—no, certainty—that these little films will result in zero additional sales of my books of poetry and fiction.

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I wonder how many copies celebrity poets like Jewel, Leonard Nimoy, Suzanne Somers, John Boy Thomas, Jimmy Stewart sold. Maybe I don’t want to know.

We sold out the “world premiere” of “No Pets” at the Fulton Theater (now the Byham) in downtown Pittsburgh, seating capacity 1300, at $10 a ticket (including reception with food, live music, and many cookies cooked by director Tony Buba’s aunts and cousins), I stood in front of the theater under the marquee and said to Tony, “If this was a poetry reading and we were handing out $10 bills instead of taking them, we still wouldn’t be able to fill this place.”

I asked my poetry publisher then, the University of Pittsburgh Press, to set up a table at the reception to sell my latest book, M-80. I believe we sold zero copies, though someone might have felt sorry for me and purchased one before the end of the night. 1300 people who came out to see a movie, and none of them curious about the poetry of the guy who penned the script? Hmmph.

As this, and later films, “Dumpster” and Mr. Pleasant,” made the rounds of minor film festivals, I took fewer and fewer books with me until I stopped taking them all together.

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Last summer, my wife Kristin and I were in Montreal, staying at a B&B on the outskirts of the city near a lovely park when we noticed as twilight descended that people were beginning to gather near a small outdoor theater. It was free movie night in the park! We entered, following the flow of the crowd. Of course, the program was in French, so I wondered if I was misreading it—it said something about a poet reading before the movie.

Sure enough, a very polite older man walked out onto the stage in a flowing white robe to polite applause and read about a half dozen poems. I heard a line that I translated as “the bowling ball of death,” but I suspect I was wrong.  He didn’t look like a bowler.  He exited the stage to the same level of polite applause, then they turned out the light on the stage and started the film, a gripping story of a civil war in some faraway land.

How cool is that, I thought. Maybe we should start having poetry readings before films in the U. S. of A. A park near our home in Pittsburgh shows films on the hillside during the summer. They often have a local rock band play until it gets dark and the film starts. But somehow poetry doesn’t seem to go with Frisbees and dogs. The old hippies who seem to appear at every free outdoor concert in Pittsburgh might have trouble dancing to most poems, despite how rhythmically we read them, despite when we sweep up our voices at the ends of lines in the patented poetry voice.

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.

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I think I’m trying to write about my frustrations with the limited poetry audience in this country. I know, I know, some people like it small, but I’m not one of them. I’m still stewing over my mother-in-law’s recent comment that she likes my new book better than the last one because she didn’t understand that one at all. That’s what I get for trying to be “experimental” in my fifties. I want her to understand my writing, despite her being my mother-in-law and all.

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Ask a friend, “Hey, you wanna go to the movies?”

Friend: “Sure.”

Ask that same friend, “Hey, you wanna go hear a poetry reading?”

 See the look your friend just gave you. Your friend doesn’t have to say a word with a look like that. If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, this picture might be worth a thousand and one.

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I love movies, and I love getting my words up there on the BIG SCREEN spoken by people much more talented than me in speaking. I believe we call them actors. I love sitting in the dark. I think more poetry readings should be held in the dark. Wouldn’t it be great to make out in the back of a dark room while someone is up front reading poetry?

“Oh, this hickie? I got it in the back row at the poetry reading the other night.”

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The problem is that I have a permanent poetry hickie.

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We can’t all be polite Canadians. When I lived in Detroit, we used to drive across the border—over the bridge or through the tunnel—just to meet some polite people and exchange pleasantries with customs inspectors about our Canadian plans.

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Everyone’s a critic. At the sold-out Byham nee Fulton, one of my university colleagues came up and said, “Nice crowd.” Not nice script, or nice film, not great dialogue, memorable characters, not four stars or even three. “Nice crowd.” It’s now a catch-phrase with my wife when we’ve attended some dull event that we need to be polite about.

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Canada has the best national anthem. I used to sing it as a lullaby to my children when they were younger. I even looked up the words so I could sing the whole thing. If you run into me on the street, ask me to sing “O Canada,” and I will, at the drop of a hat, at the drop of a coin, and, once I start, it will get so quiet that you can hear that hat or that coin drop. In the distance, dogs will begin to howl. And you will say, “Great crowd.” And I’ll say “The bowling ball of death.” And you will say, “Is that a hickie on your neck.” And I will say, “Wanna buy a copy of my new book of poems?” And you’ll say, “I’ve got a movie to catch.”

Roll the credits.

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