Newspoetry Conspiracy Theory II:
What is at stake is nothing less than the fate of American poetry, the male voice intoned firmly.
And politics,” it quickly added. Then, his back to the room, the silhouetted figure set the receiver down in its cradle, and turned to gaze through the rising wreaths of cappuccino steam out the window at the quadrangle where a joyous quorum of rosy-cheeked poetry students were building a snowman.
By which I mean tenure,” he chuckled softly. The other poets in the room, seated around the desk with graven, serious expressions, many chain-smoking, burst, one by one, into laughter. That will teach him to write a review that wasn't glowing,” the man snorted.
Yes sir,” one poet stuttered, as long as you keep editing anthologies, those poets are ready to chop each other to bits for you. You'll get this loose canon, er, cannon out of the way, no problem.
And so was launched a coordinated effort among MFA poets across America to take down Newspoetry, through the ingenious tactic of starting a disingenuous flame war on their very email list, which had just been described in a slick national poetry publication as fun.” The scheme was perfect in its cruelty. An ambiguous stanza was chosen, an attack was made, and adrenaline levels rose. From that point on, the MFA students were having the time of their lives, joining the list in droves, as the Newspoets, too weary from defending themselves against personal attacks to read the news, dropped out of sight.
William returned from his Christmas vacation in Philo, Illinois, to an overflowing email account. His eyes grew wide as he saw what was happening.
The Onion? They're saying we're worse than the Onion?” William cried in disbelief, but the Onion has a paid staff! I mean, the purpose of Newspoetry is to publish a poem a day about events in the news! The purpose of the Onion isn't to publish comedy, it's to turn a profit for its owners. We gotta start running banner ads or something, hire some programmers, pay the editors and writers, and get a manager to work them into the ground. And we've gotta get a business person in here. Because, like John Lennon said, 'I don't have a legal mind.' Shit! I guess I'm really playing with the big boys now.
And he had no idea how right he was.
After a sleepless night he got up and began to draft his model: Newspoetry 501(c)(3).
Outreach, he thought, outreach.
With the help of local community leaders, William worked out the Newspoetry in Schools program: to send Newspoets into public schools to get the kids writing Newspoetry. It seemed simple enough, although, due diligence failing him, he slowly began to wonder whether public elementary school classrooms were actually equipped with networked terminals at every desk, as his business plan assumed. Maybe, he wondered, in some inner city schools, they haven't upgraded to Dreamweaver 4 yet. . . .
He tabled that idea and thought up another program. After an analysis of the Newspoetry website's user statistics, with careful attention to those continents in which Newspoetry was underreadmost notably AntarcticaWilliam formulated a project in Saharan Africa in which dedicated Newspoetry terminals would be installed in public places. He erased the word places, and instead wrote spaces, finding it had a nicer ring to it. To pursue this idea, he managed to put in some amazingly expensive long-distance phone calls to African officials, who, in confused interchanges through interpreters, kept asking about medicine. Newspoetry, William screamed through the static, not medicine! Then, suddenly realizing what he had just said, he hung up and lowered his head in shame onto the pile of tax forms on his kitchen table.
Hardworking Newspoetry editor Joe Futrelle, when confronted by William with the 57-page proposal for Newspoetry 501(c)(3), whose mission was more complicated, important, difficult, grandiose, and tedious than a poem a day about events in the news, seemed displeased. The next day, Futrelle suffered a nervous breakdown when an undergraduate slampoet flamed him with the insult (in actuality generated through a sophisticated computer-assisted aleatoric process involving the Fibonacci sequence) stinky doo-doo head liberal hack.
Already, things were not looking good for the new organization.
A board, William thought, a board.
He thought about what he was looking for in a board member. First, he tried to look up Jackson Mac Low. But after an hour of research, he discovered an overwhelming number of both Mac's and Low's in the New York area. After calling a couple of numbers and asking Did you write 42 Merzgedichte für Kurt Schwitters? only to receive a stream of curses in response, he put the phone back down and took out his notebook.
He composed the following list:
Having completed the brainstorming process, he then took the list and reappraised it in light of what he was looking for in a board member:
William went back through the list, and, slowly and thoughtfully, crossed out every name.
Funding, he thought, funding.
Out of desperation, William drove to Chicago for a meeting with Scott.
As William timidly asked Scott whether he could get from Scott's Rolodex the cell-phone numbers of poetry industry leaders, Scott, bemused, let William have it with both barrels. Sell out, eh? he chuckled. The kids, William thought, the kids, you're doing it for the kids, Newspoetry in schools for the kids, but when he opened his mouth all that came out was Damnit! How the hell do you think I feel?! I was hoping to work on a novel this year!
This turned out to be exactly the wrong tack to take with Scott.
Humiliated, William bought a cheeseburger at the McDonald's on Ravenswood, refilled his gas tank at an Amoco on Division (paying in pennies), and started back to Urbana. He knew that by now, people on the list were writing stuff about each other's moms. And somehow, he was sure, they had managed to work Nazis into it, poets being poets.
Outside of Kankakee, his eyelids got heavy.
Suddenly a deer was in the headlights, and William braked, skidded, yanked the wheel to one side, and managed to get the car out of a diagonal skid on the ice and back into the lane. His heart was thumping and the blood coursed through his veins like a flame war.
Breathe, he thought, breathe.
He took it down to 55, 50, and focused on the breathing. As the inside of the car grew bright from the headlights of a semi moving to pass him, he reached over to the passenger seat and fumbled in his backpack for the XTC tape. He looked at the label and tried to figure out which side to play. He really wanted to hear Tissue Tigers (the Arguers). Suddenly he realized that his car was spinning to the left on the ice. As he stared out the windshield, the semi panned before him.
And then a crunching jolt and
Meanwhile, Joe was risking his job, having called an after-hours meeting of Newspoets at the NCSA Electronic Visualization Lab. Via videophone, a committee meeting of Newspoets around the country had gathered to discuss the possibility of either disbanding altogether, or becoming an ineffective political party.
Let me point out, said an exhausted Joe, frowning beneath his beard, that one Lenny Bruce was a comedian, that furthermore one Allen Ginsberg was known to tell a joke or two, and that even, that even, that even Jonathan Swift and Voltaire, who were quite quite serious, who had serious intentions, who did serious things with their writing, even they were not above the occasional belly-splitting laugh.
A giant poet on the left screen, That's not funny, or poetry. You bastard.
Someone mentioned Orwell. Someone countered with Woolf. Someone dragged Robert Frost into it. It came to T.S. Eliot. Then Ezra Pound. Them were fighting words.
A poet on the right said, Shouldn't you be rhyming, or something?
People began throwing rancid vegetable matter at various screens. Joe croaked for order, tears began to well up in his eyes.
It was the Fifth Column's turn to speak. Teleconferencing in from home, he buzzed suddenly to life on one of the screens, waving away a halo of smoke and extinguishing his hand-rolled cigarette. He spoke about the decline of his stock options, about monetizing his interest in the Newspoetry list, about unionizing the Newspoets.
Suddenly his screen sputtered and went dead.
Fucking Windows! screamed Bill.
It was Paul Kotheimer's turn. He strapped on his guitar and began to play a song about wealth and poverty.
Hi everybody. This is a little ditty about the contradictions between art and the market. This is called 'IPO: Independent Poetry Offering.'
You like the phone, man?
Lissendidn't mean to scare you off, Mr. Sensitive.
You don't even know what scared is. Right now I'm in a, a very, a scary scene, a blood bath, a scorched earth scenario, an inferno, a...
Did you tell them how we throw a flame war for the Unknown every few months just to keep each other on our toes, and how much writing that generates? And how you always need to purge a bunch of shit before you shit gold?
Man, that's all true, but that's not analogous to what's going on here. For one thing, we fought about The Unknown mostly in private. More to the point, we fought because we cared about the project and needed to work out disagreements about where it was going. This is different. These poets have no intention of contributing to Newspoetry.
Get a grip, dude. You're talking about Newspoetry, not the fucking Oslo Accords or the, I don't know, like Watergate or like what the Council of Trent
I'm not speaking with you right now, I'm enraged, I'm
Jeezus, when people lose their sense of humor it's like the whole world runs out of ice cream at the same time. You been testy since you quit smokin
And how dare you give me a cell phone. I'm not like that
Yeah, right, whatever, lissen I talked to a guy at the Illinois Arts Council. There's a grant you should apply for. I'll send you the papers.
That's what it all comes down to William. Lots of papers.
For the kids.
Ultimately, always, for the kids . . . and the fun.
Yeah. Even in politics.
Remember the fun.
Where are you, anyway?
I'm in a ditch.
You're in a ditch?
Well, so are we all, my friend.
Eventually, after a long internal argument in which his left brain used tactics banned even by the WWF, William overcame his philosophical objections to cell phones and called for help. Shortly thereafter, a tow truck arrived and extracted his van from the ditch. Miraculously, the van had sustained no serious damage.
Thanks, William said. What do I owe you?
The tow truck driver looked at William but said nothing. He climbed back into his truck and began revving the enormous diesel engine for what seemed an inordinate amount of time, filling the air with exhaust and noise.
Coughing, his eyes watering, William approached the passenger side of the truck and rapped on the window.
Dont you want any money? he asked. What do I owe you?
The driver opened the passenger door and motioned for William to get in.
Now close the door, the driver said.
The driver seemed pensive. Several times he opened his mouth to speak, only to stop and glance around nervously.
Look, he finally said, you dont owe me anything. Its already been paid for. In fact . . .
What? William asked. Whats going on?
The driver looked at William and for the first time William realized that the driver was frightened, very frightened.
Look, man, I dont know whats going on. I got this call . . .
I know, William said, a friend gave me a cell phone . . .
No, man, you dont understand, this call came to my house, woke me up. I was off-duty. And some guy told me he needed me to do a favor for him and that if I did Id be well-paid, actually, that Id already been paid . . .
This isnt making any sense. What guy? William asked.
I dont know. I didnt recognize the voice and he wouldnt give me his name. I thought it was some fuckin crank and I was about to hang up when the guy told me what bank I used and started rattling off my account number and told me that if I checked my balance Id find out that I was a few thousand dollars richer. And that thered be more to come if I did this favor for him.
Pull you out of a fuckin ditch, what do you think? The driver was clearly agitated. He told me where to find you and said it was urgent. I dont know, I dont know, I dont do stuff like this, but there was something . . . something in the guys voice. So, I got up, got dressed, went to my truck and headed for the interstate. The whole time I was arguing with myself, saying this was stupid and what the hell was I doin but just before the highway I saw an ATM sign at a convenience store. So I pull in, go inside, and check my bank balance. And damn if it hadnt doubled since I last checked.
But thats impossible, William interrupted. Even if this mystery caller had the ability to deposit money in your account, theres no way the ATM network would know about it yet.
Im just tellin you what I saw. I dont know how it happened, but it was there. So, shit, I figured the guy had lived up to his end of the deal, so what did I have to lose, right? And you were exactly where he said youd be, and how the hell did he know that?
Whos this guy? Cant you tell me anything? Did he have an accent? What was his voice like?
I told you, I dont know who it was. But there is one more thing. Youre William, right? Your name is William?
The guy told me to tell you, he said, Tell William, We is one.
We is one?
Yeah. We is one. What the fuck does that mean?
It means, William said, Dirks no longer on the sidelines; hes back on the field.
Forget it. Itd take too long to explain. Hey, thanks again. And . . . uh, I dont want to alarm you, but I think itd be best if you didnt mention any of this to anyone, okay?
No problem. I just want to forget the whole thing.
All right. Drive carefully.
Yeah, you too, the driver said.
William got out of the truck, climbed into his van, and began the trip home. He was so preoccupied with the news that Dirk was somehow involved, he didnt even notice another tow truck speeding recklessly toward the accident site.
The flame war burned down understanding, burned bridges, and burned down Paul Kotheimer's Wurlitzer Funmaker organ.
Using crumpled newspapers for kindling, the flame war burned down a willingness to make one's self vulnerable to the world by trying to admit its cruelty.
Propelled by the classified research of cold war psychologists, and internet technology designed for nuclear wartime, the flame war burned a line vertically through all the lines of Newspoetry yet to be written. In a jagged zig-zag, the flame war burned lines in the sand. A prairie was torched, and only hardier plants survived. But the fire spread, and after the blue sky had burned down, and become a sagging, tattered tapestry of ash, the Newspoets would either ascend a rickety staircase to the sky, or scratch their poems in the earth.
Back in Urbana, William considered his options. He tried calling Dirk in Cincinnati but was told by a recording that the number he was trying to reach was no longer in service.
Thats strange, William thought, I just got some e-mail from him the other day. What the hell is going on?
The doorbell rang, startling William and setting off a tremendous caterwauling by Sebastian.
Shut up, William screamed, nearly at the end of his proverbial rope. Goddammit! Its 4 fucking 30 in the morning! Whos there?
The doorbell rang again.
Cautiously, William opened the door and found a tall Native American man, holding a large suitcase, standing on his porch. Without a word, the man pushed William back into the house, put his finger to his lips to signal silence, closed the door, and locked it.
What the hell are you doing? I didnt invite you in . . .
The man stared at William, put his finger to his lips again, and William, now too exhausted and confused to protest, collapsed onto his couch. The man swiftly went through the house making sure all the curtains were closed, then opened up the suitcase. It was filled with electronic equipment, none of which William recognized. The man took out a device that looked vaguely like a metal detector and began sweeping it over everything in the house. William got up from the couch and followed the man into his office. As soon as the device came close to his computer, it began buzzing loudly; the man turned toward William and gave him a knowing look. He unplugged the monitor and opened a back panel.
Hey, William shouted, What the fuck is
A severe glance from the man shut him up. That and the small microphone the man had removed from the monitor and held up for Williams inspection. William got control of himself, found a piece of paper and a pen and wrote: A bug? The man nodded. The man went back to the living room with William close behind. He pulled a cell phone from the suitcase and what looked like a small sleeping bag made of a Mylar-like material. He motioned for William to follow him and headed out the backdoor into Williams large back yard. He handed the cell phone to William and began unrolling the sleeping bag, but it wasnt a bag at all, but rather some kind of tent, which he quickly erected, then directed William inside. The man joined William in the tent, zipped the flap closed, and finally spoke.
Sorry for the mystery, but as you can tell, every precaution must be taken. My name is William, too, William Red Pipe. Dirk sent me.
Dirk? How . . .? What . . .?
All will be explained shortly. Were expecting a call on your new phone, so if you will please turn it on to signal that everything is ready.
Whats with all the cell phones, anyway, William muttered, second one Ive been given today.
Yes, we know. And the first one nearly got you killed. If the tow truck driver Dirk sent hadnt reached you first, I wouldnt be here. And you wouldnt be here. Turn on the phone, please.
William switched on the phone. Within seconds, it began ringing.
Answer it, William Red Pipe said.
Dirk! What in the Holy Name of the Unknown is going on here? And whos this Red Pipe guy? And where the hell are you?
William, please, calm down. We dont have much time. The phones were using are being scrambled through a dozen satellites, in and out of several encrypted on-line phone servers, and the tent youre in helps shield our conversation even more, but given what were up against, Im not sure how long this security will last. Red Pipe is the final source of protection: hes a Navajo Indian and hell be speaking to his counterpart, David Large Cloud on this end. From now on, speak to William and hell translate everything into Navajo to David who will then translate it to me. And so forth. Im hoping that even if they figure out some way to unscramble our signal, they wont have a Navajo Code-Talker handy. Got it?
Code-Talker? Like in World War II?
Right. Now start using William, William.
It was a long and difficult conversation, with all the translation delays, but the story Dirk told was so incredible, William had no choice but to give it some credence.
During the darkest days of the Cold War, members of the CIA and the NSA and other security agencies so secret they dont even have acronyms decided that if complete control of the populace was ever to be achieved, all means of dissent would have to be eliminated. Given the Constitutional guarantees of Free Speech and Assembly, which could not be openly abrogated without causing more trouble than it was worth, it was decided that the only way to completely accomplish this goal was to undermine the very nature of language itself. In other words, Orwell had been right: if the ability of language to communicate fully was erased, thered be no way for any one to think dissenting thoughts, much less act on them. Thus, Operation NoSpeak was born. In order to test the plan, without drawing too much attention to it, the CIA (which had been given administrative control over the operation) decided to limit its implementation to the various creative writing programs that had begun springing up at various colleges and universities. They recruited mostly poets, at first, because by simply waving money in front of the impoverished versifiers, they could easily convince them to become operatives. The CIA also knew that since no one really took poets seriously, there was little risk that the Operation would be exposed even if someone had a change of heart. But that rarely happened. Flattered by the attention, and softened up by the generous stipends provided by the government, the poets were a docile bunch and performed their language-destroying tasks diligently. The CIAs biggest coup was the wholesale co-option of the Language poetry movement. Cleverly, the Language poets dressed up their theoretical positions with a healthy dose of Marxism and post-structuralism, which had their CIA handlers chuckling and shaking their heads in gratified amusement: a better cover-story could hardly be imagined. And when the Language poets baldly announced that the language in their poems couldnt be expected to mean something, in the conventional sense, the handlers broke out bottles of Dom Perignon. The old Purloined Letter Gambit, one of them allegedly said, put something in plain sight, and everyone will miss it. Of course, Language poetry was still a very marginal movement, but the CIA was in this for the long haul. They knew that the thinking in the academy slowly trickles out and seeps into the culture as a whole, and so it was: by the late 80s even stodgy mainstream newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek were solemnly invoking words like deconstruction, even if they were referring to sitcoms and NFL defenses. Eventually, with a little nudge from CIA cash, Language poets left the margins of the academy and took over professorial posts, which gave them an even bullier pulpit from which to preach. Virtually every MFA program in the country had been infiltrated, Dirk told William. Dirk himself had been recruited at the University of Washington . . .
You son of a bitch! William screamed, when William Red Pipe translated this last piece of news. Youre one of them! Give me that phone, dammit! You slimy piece of shit, if I ever get . . .
William, calm down. I said I was recruited; I didnt say I bought into the program. I thought of myself as a mole, a saboteur. Without anyone on the inside, how the hell could we expect to defeat them?
Sure, Dirk, sure. And I suppose you gave the money to charity or something.
All right, granted, Im probably tainted, but believe me, I thought it was better to pretend to work with them in order to figure out how to stop them. Im just asking you to trust me, just a little. Hear me out, and after that, you do what you have to, okay? Now, please, give the phone back to William.
William handed the phone back to William Red Pipe and the sordid story continued.
Dirk had not been one of the more successful operatives in the history of Operation NoSpeak, primarily because he could never get the hang of completely evacuating meaning from his poems. Oh, they were obscure and difficult to read, but they were more Modernist than Postmodernist. Eventually, hed been given a backwater assignment in Cincinnati, and was basically ignored. Until he got involved with Newspoetry. The CIA had been keeping an eye on Urbana, and one William Gillespie in particular, for some time, but had had very little success placing an operative there. Theyre all so idealistic and radical, Dirk had been told. So, when Dirk became the first poet published during the infamous A Poem a Day Until Y2K project, the CIA nearly shit itself with glee. And the no news message of the January 1, 1999 poem earned him a healthy raise and nods of approval from his handlers. But Dirk now saw himself as a double agent, pretending to spy on Newspoetry, while actually continuing to spy on Operation NoSpeak. Unfortunately, he didnt work fast enough to satisfy the CIA. The minor systems failures he caused never lasted long enough, and somehow Newspoetry just kept chugging along. When William turned over the editing chores to Joe, Dirk took credit, which bought him some more time, but even that wasnt enough. The recent flame war had taken him by surprise and he realized that not only was it an attempt to do what hed failed to do, but a test for him as well. His handlers would be watching closely to see how Dirk would respond.
But I couldnt figure out what that response should be, Dirk explained, through William Red Pipe. I thought about coming clean with you and warning you about what was really happening, but I also knew there was no secure way to do it. So I did nothing, and that was a big mistake. Even one email to the Newspoetry list might have saved my ass, but I couldnt bring myself to write anything.
But why Newspoetry? William asked. Talk about marginal. Why do they even give a shit?
You dont understand, William, Dirk said, these guys want total control. Total. Newspoetry is so plain-spoken, so out in the open, so completely contrary to everything theyre trying to accomplish, they feel its got to come down. They understand the virus model: from little things, large diseases can result, and as far as theyre concerned, Newspoetry is a potential plague. Theyll stop at nothing to shut it down so that nothing stands in the way of the eventual triumph of Operation NoSpeak. Look, Ive talked way too long. I just wanted you to know that youre in very grave danger. Rightly or wrongly, they believe youre the linchpin of Newspoetry and they want to pull you out. Watch your back. Watch your front. Trust no one. Im on the lam now, trying to save my own pathetic skin, so I probably wont be able to contact you for a long time. But please, be careful. William will give you a gun, if you want one, though I doubt you will. But think about it. Im dead serious. I dont want you dead. I gotta go. And dont grill William. He doesnt know anything more than what Ive already told you and hes put himself in a risky situation as it is. Take care of yourself, okay? Bye.
After William Red Pipe finished translating Dirks last words, William grabbed the phone.
Wait. Dirk. Dirk, dont hang up. Dirk! Dammit!
The phone was dead.
William Red Pipe took the phone from Williams trembling hands and led him back into the house. He took down the tent, packed up his suitcase, and turned to go.
Do you want that gun? he asked.
William shook his head.
Okay. Good luck. And with that, the tall Indian left as quickly and mysteriously as he had arrived.
William was reeling from lack of sleep and the shock of what hed just learned: he passed out on the couch.
Do your best to find and explain one instance (either from 'Caedmon' or the other poem for which you have composed a thesis) in which you think Levertov's poetic form is being clearly shaped either by the subject matter or by the unit of breath . . . the voice purred.
Futrelle awoke with a start.
Yet there is at our disposal no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yields more subtle and precise effects, than the line break if it is properly understood.
It was black. Futrelle couldn't move his arms. Was he blindfolded? His arms were numb.
Who are you? he screamed.
Yeti! he screamed.
But no dog came to his rescue.
William awoke to the sound of squalling cats. Someone was in his kitchen and Wolfie was demanding to be fed. William began to panic. He looked around for a weapon, but the most dangerous things he owned were books, none of them heavy enough to do much damage.
Finally awake, Sleeping Beauty? he heard a male voice intone. Why dont you join me for a pre-breakfast beer?
Shaking, William made his way to the kitchen. A man was sitting at his kitchen table, an open bottle of Harps on the table in front of him. Sebastian was in his lap, purring like an idling Harley. The man looked familiar, but William couldnt quite place him until he noticed the enormous red stain on his sports coat.
Youre . . . youre . . . William sputtered.
The very same. Like the coat? I wore it especially for the occasion. Mr. Rettberg has been known to exaggerate from time to time, but as you can see, he really knows how to spill red wine. Have a seat. We have a few things to discuss.
William sat down. The man got up, opened the refrigerator and got out another beer.
Here, drink this. It looks as though you could use it.
Look, if this is about the review . . .
The man smiled, but it was not a nice smile. Ah yes, the review. Most unpleasant And in that vulgar hypertext, too. Really, someone needs to teach you some manners. But actually, thats not why Im here. Not exactly. Youve become, shall we say, a liability, particularly now that Futrelle is safely out of the way . . .
What have you done with him?
Well, after his recent breakdown, we thought it best if he recovered in one of our, shall we say, sanitariums. Rest assured, hell get the complete attention of our experts. Electro-shock therapy is so therapeutic, dont you know.
You bastard. What gives you the right to . . .
Rights are for those with the balls to grab them . . .
I ought to grab your balls, you prick.
Now, now. No reason to get testy. Ha ha. This isnt about Futrelle, anyway. Its about you. Newspoetry cant be allowed to survive and we know how you operate: with Joe gone, youd become editor again and, really, we cant allow that to happen.
So what are you going to do? Take me to some funny farm to scramble my brains?
No. Not permanent enough. Your brains already seem pretty well scrambled; theres no guarantee our treatments would have any real effect. As I say, youre a liability, and liabilities must be, shall we say, elided.
What? Youre going to kill me?
Kill is such an unpleasant word. I prefer to think of it as, shall we say, cleansing. And you should be honored. Usually, I dont dirty my hands with such things, but in your case, particularly after that review, I decided to make an exception. I wanted to meet the source of slander face to face. To personally say, ta TA.
The man laughed loudly and reached beneath his wine-stained coat. William saw the butt of a pistol. He tried to run from the kitchen but tripped over a cat. He hit the floor hard. He tasted blood in his mouth, then felt cold steel pressed against his neck.
404: ERROR NOT FOUND
Outside, a crimson-cheeked quorum of Newspoets were marching back and forth in the cold, with signs, chanting.
A shadowy figure angrily jerked the blinds on his window closed.
I hate rhyme. Except my own.