My first published poem or, don’t judge a contest by its money.

There was a college poetry contest. Submit up to 3 poems. First prize: $100. Two more $25 prizes. Your poem printed in the spring literary magazine. Having switched majors for the third time (Education, Psychology, Creative Writing) I desperately needed this win. I craved acceptance from the other writers, real writers whose rucksacks were two years heavier than mine, containing the hard copies that proved they were writers. We didn’t have hard drives, the five and a quarter inch floppy was just a vision, and everyone carried everything they ever wrote, with them, everywhere they ever went. You could have a fire, you know.  

I had been writing since second grade, where I received accolades for my poem “Johnny Tremain”  Johnny Tremain was a figure in American History and my gritty poem about his severely burned hand got an “A”. I enjoyed the praise of my teacher. After we read our poems she gave us cookies.

Another incidence of praise: Seventh grade, first day, the dreaded Miss Gaskins explained her grading system . ”All papers will get a number, from one to eight. But be aware, I don’t give eights.” (This was great preparation for corporate performance reviews, where there is always a top number to strive for but the number has never appeared on anyone’s performance review that you’ve ever known). I got one of her precious eights, and to me it equaled the Pulitzer.

The contest money would be fun to have, but I wanted to see my name in print on the shiny glossy page of the literary mag. My peers would cheer!  My high school chess friends, all halfway through their engineering majors by now, would cheer! My parents….well…they would never read this poem!  In their view, poetry was nice, but wasn’t I going teach? It didn’t help that this particular poem was rated M for mature audiences.

As The Albert Howard Carter III Memorial Poetry Contest deadline loomed near, I readied my two poems, plus a third, a lengthy, full-page poem that lived in my notebook and in my chest.  Everyone was talking about the Roe Vs Wade decision, and I thought a timely poem that included birth control as its main theme would certainly get my writing enough attention to catch me up to those in junior class.

When the announcement came that I won second place, I was elated. I quickly adjusted my expectations – I was going to see my poem in print! And not just mimeographed!  Peter Meinke  would be proud of me, he was like a beloved Uncle to all of us, and I loved him like a family friend, if that family friend sat you outside under the blooming jacarandas and fed you beer. Howard Carter  would be proud of me! I loved him because he “walked the talk.”  Sterling Watson  would be….well…Sterling would always be Sterling. I valued his opinions like no other. He had written a book I loved, Weep No More My Brother,  and he was reading words I wrote. It was all very heady stuff for a 20 year old.

Loyal readers have probably guessed by now that I didn’t get to see my poem in print. Only the first place poem was printed, a poem written by a girl I didn’t even know. I went to school with less than 1500 kids, we all knew each other! They gave me my $25 in a check I couldn’t cash. (Checking accounts for students were novelties. You had your laundry money).

Although by now I was going by Jaye full time, I signed the poem by my legal name, Janet.  I needed to make sure the Pulitzer committee could find me. This is not sarcasm.  I still have these poems, typed on semi-transparent onion skin paper. We couldn’t erase but we did have correct-o-type. Ask your grandparents. It took hours to get it right, and even now my musty, yellowed onion skin copy has a single typo in it.

Without further doodoo, I give you:

The Pill Obsession from Three to Midnight

the mommy takes a pill

counting, one more time,

to be sure there hadn’t been two

or three, and three

flashing amber lights disturb an otherwise

black and white afternoon

the children, filling the neighborhood with noise

pulling dandelions for mothers

the bus sighs, relieved of its burden

and at four,

she timed the roast

dried the socks

and mopped the bathroom floor

child number one

banged Indian chords on an untuned piano

as number two rubbed the cats hair

the wrong way

and the mommy ponders,

did  I take my pill today, my pill

and at five the daddy comes home

and turns up the anchorwoman loud

beer tops form tinkling little sounds

the cans, white ringed scars, as

Eastern Standard takes its toll

the sun sets and the phone rings at six:

“it’s Grandma!”

shouts the daughter (number two)

“and she says you said you were

thawing a pork today”

mommy swallows Anacin

“and she says to tell you

To make sure you cook it good”

after the phone clicks the mommy screams

over the timer TV snoring

“TELL GRANMA IF SHE WANTS TO EAT A GODDAMNED OLD DRIED UP PIECE OF MEAT…”

the evening crawls up quick, dark,

quieter, now that the crickets have gone

and the children, boy one, girl two

burn themselves out, sleep

and the daddy

climbs the stairs

penis smiling a little from the slit

in  his chessmen boxers

and the mommy

snaps off the oven light and counts the pills once more

and follows him, to bed.

Janet Sorby  a.k.a. Jaye Roth, Spring, 1979

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