By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
The clink of glasses. The murmur of the crowd. The smell of newsprint and cigarettes. The pregnant pauses. The flecks of spittle arcing through the smoky air toward a waiting microphone. The creak of stretching similes. The rumble of mixed metaphors. The thud of thematic anvils. The screams of tortured syntax.
The one-sentence paragraphs.
Yes, it can only be the Fifth Annual South Florida Columnist Poetry Slam, brought to you by the good folks here at New Times.
You say you never heard of this prestigious event, which celebrates the stylings of the prolific pundits who constitute Florida's fourth-greatest contribution to American culture? (The others being, of course, personal injury lawyers, cosmetic surgeons, and dining establishments with "oot" and "uck" in their names.) Well, that's probably not surprising, given that the previous four events were little covered. OK, so they got no coverage whatsoever, even in New Times. That was at the insistence of the four-time repeat champion, Miami Herald sports columnist Dan Le Batard, who thought that having his name associated with this publication might not sit too well with the ESPN brass. But now that he's a fill-in on Pardon the Interruption and a regular on The Sports Reporters II, we figure he's nigh-untouchable up in Bristol, so we can give credit where credit is due: "The Ricky Williams Story: Parts I-LXIII" should be ranked right up there with Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene as one of the truly, profoundly long poems of all time. ("Lift your hands/Up, up, up./Toward the joy." The stuff of legend!)
Once Le Batard told us he was just too darn busy to participate this year, we moved the event out of its undisclosed location and into... well, a disclosed location: Dada, the Victorian home/restaurant/bar/music venue/hippest joint in downtown Delray Beach. And Le Batard's absence gave hope to a legion of aspiring slam-masters, all of whom believed that their talking-head stylings could now reign supreme.
After sifting through dozens of offerings from every yahoo from Stuart to South Beach whose mugshot runs with his or her byline, our panel of judges (OK, it was Dan Sweeney, so please direct all hate mail to him) winnowed out all the work that was, well, actually about something. We weren't looking for solid reporting or insightful analysis or relevance to the community. We were looking for the finest examples of good ol'-fashioned bloviating, the kind of writing that requires nothing more than the jerking of a knee, the stepping up upon a soapbox, the retrieval of a certain something lodged in one's nether orifices.
Applying these criteria, we narrowed the field to eight contestants and pitted them against one another, head-to-head, all-the-way live. Then we told them that, if they wanted the big prize, they had to step up to the mic and read their natterings aloud. And they did, on a recent Saturday night, in front of a big fireplace, armed only with words culled from their own published columns. So pull up an imaginary barstool, tuck into an imaginary plate of butternut squash ravioli, and watch the line between journalism and self-indulgent, middlebrow, semi-literary onanism disappear.
He is dressed in black. His professorial glasses and long hair give him a poetic edge, as if his garb had not done enough for beatnik cred. City Link's Jeff Rusnak(we like to call him "Lefty Jeffty") steps quietly to the mic, but his voice is anything but whispery.
"No epoch is spared the worst of our kind, and there is no ideal time to be born!" Rusnak thunders, the fire in his belly stoked by his bleeding heart. Then there is a hush. "I was born when children were trained to hide under their school desks in case of nuclear attack," he whispers. And with that introduction, the real magic starts.
Massive increases in military spending... tax cuts for the rich. Bush drives alone in his Lone Star presidency. The pigs have the best chance of getting constitutional relief come November. Bush drives alone in his Lone Star presidency. Out of the blood and fire and anger of... kamikaze attacks on the United States came the unmistakable and dreadful fact that we are now a nation at war: Us vs. Them, whomever and wherever they may be. In a country where ³us vs. them² is the prevailing Zeitgeist, she didn't want to be categorized as one of ³them.² Bush drives alone in his Lone Star presidency. ³You should be supporting Bush instead of writing what you write,² she insisted. ³You're Taliban.² We now live in a world where we sniff out bombers because we've seen what they can do, and we know we can't possibly capture or kill them all. Bush drives alone in his Lone Star presidency.
Jeff steps away from the mic then and... is that a tear in his eye? Perhaps it is.
"Wow," whispers one of the judges, "He actually makes it uncool to despise Dubya. Neat trick."
He looks a little out of place in the hipster setting, but at least the Sun-Sentinel's Ralph de la Cruz has the goatee thing going for him as he makes his way through the semicircle of comfy couches to center stage, muttering something about "561" and "17-digit dialing" as he frowns at his cell phone, stabbing at it with his index finger. He then quickly folds it up, clears his throat, and begins.
I grit my teeth in exasperation. Strange how life can sneak up on you. It's important to maintain perspective. I think I'll stay fat and ugly. I've always had a thing for science. Whooooaaahhh. What a revelation. Seems people appear better-looking the more you drink This is definitely my kind of science. Duh research. I'm going to go out on a limb here. A kegger in space. For the public good, I would suggest not. We're back to wonderfully wacky. South Florida normal. I've become a cold-blooded killer. I've never been partial to mosquitoes. Although those scoundrels certainly seem attracted to me. I pleaded and begged. I smiled. Cold-blooded satisfaction. I was beginning to feel really uncomfortable about all this. I love this country. It saved my life. I have an immigrant's unrestrained patriotism. I wasn't even going to write about this. It was so obviously nutty.
The frenetic, abrasive Tom Jicha of the Sentinel clearly doesn't want to be here. Says he has to leave early to fill in for Ed Kaplan on the late shift at WQAM-AM (560). Still, he manages to bark out this appropriately Dadaist little ditty.
Do you have a canasta or mah-jongg game? Does the early-bird special no longer run in your neighborhood? To borrow a phrase from Gary Coleman, ³What you talkin' about, Willis?² The answer is not complicated. There is television and there is real life. You really should work on learning to separate the two. Don't fret your achy-breaky heart. The medical drama starring Billy Ray Cyrus figures to be around for quite awhile. You have a point, but for the wrong reason. James Michael Tyler resembles Tim Conway about as much as I resemble Pee-Wee Herman. Are we talking about the same Tim Conway?
You can tell from his nervous smiles at the mic that the Sentinel's Michael Mayo wants this one bad. Perhaps there is still some lingering, sports-scribe jealousy toward Le Batard. Perhaps that's why he confines himself to drawing upon his work as a "real" pundit, not his jock stuff.
There's cruel coincidence -- or maybe perfect poetry -- in that the first printed day of my new job comes on the favorite day of my old one. The minute I stepped in, I knew I was in the right place. They came into Mills Pond Park in Fort Lauderdale under the noon sun, wearing pink ribbons and pink hats and T-shirts with scanned photos of departed loved ones. Despite all the nitpicks, this is an event worth cheering. The neighbors greet reporters with all the enthusiasm of a tax dodger welcoming the IRS. Another dead baby on West Elm Lane, and the neighborhood just wants to be left alone. You've got to hand it to Weston, the swampland that became the American dream. Even if it means fake neon. It's easy to get a skewed impression of the young from the media. Yeah, I play some violent video games, but I also play some games that have made me a little smarter. There are terror suspects and there are terror suspects. More like suspect terror. You'd expect this from some touchy-feely New Age actor or experimental artist, some psychedelic scientist like Timothy Leary. An ending that's not splendid at all. At first it seemed amusing, one of those only-in-South Florida stories. If this is justice, it's not only blind but tone-deaf and dumb. Is there gold in them there sandy hills? Sometimes, a treasure hunt is its own reward. Where's Rilya? Where's Rilya?
He is shouting at this point -- he just keeps repeating "Where's Rilya?!?!" -- so finally we all start applauding wildly, just to get him to shut up. Still four poets to go, after all.
Gliding through the assembled BoBos touching them gently on the shoulder, offering a sunny smile and a kind word, the Sentinel's Sherri Winston lights up the darkened room, which is buzzing. Everyone knows that Winston's consistently cheery and even more consistently vapid meanderings make her the odds-on favorite. The crowd falls silent as she begins.
Lightning shredded the inky black clouds, and thunder growled above the belly of the Earth. Exit. Bridge up. Traffic not moving. Hot, hot, hot. Pulled over. Car cooled. Child whined. Crept to school. Delivered child. Child sulked. Prayed car only needed a radiator flush. God was laughing at me. She could barely breathe. She was... getting closer. And closer. She was... so close now. So very, very close. I wore a pastel smile and spoke with fruity optimism. Inside, however, my mind rattled more than the typewriter in Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. I can only imagine the tap-tap-tapping by the clickety cows much resembled my mommy Morse code of distress. Gloria Rothstein wants children to write a letter to Mr. Blueberry and ask him about pigs or puppies or pelicans, whales or wildebeest or wild turkeys. But my utter contempt for rules became legendary in my high school. They were waiting for her now. The whole town... Oh, I do hope you find that the children haven't been naughty, just nice. I know how happy, happy, happy most of you students are to return to the classroom... Go on with your bad self. Show the book burners you know what's hot. We held hands and chatted, oooed and cooed, but we were both tipping around the big CHANGE that was coming. ³Hey, world, you can't stop me! I'm bad to the bone, and I'll read it again!²
The audience erupts. There is even some Arsenio-esque woofing. Devastating. Winston is the one to beat, for sure. Then someone on the judges' panel shrieks, "You go, girl!" We all look at one another. To this day, no one has admitted to this breach of our veneer of impartiality, but we're almost sure it was Stratton.
From the back of the room walks an ordinary-looking, regular guy with a broad, doughy face and soulful eyes. He clutches a messy sheaf of papers, some bearing the distinctive letterhead of pilfered Heraldstationery. As Fred Grimm shambles, well, grimly to the front of the room, everyone knows that Winston has set an almost-impossibly high standard of piffle. But when Grimm grabs the microphone and speaks, the crowd is cowed into wide-eyed, bovine-like silence. Or maybe they are preparing to stampede the podium and reduce the poet to cud. Grimm clears his throat. "'Monkey Butt,'" he declares. And then he reads.
Morning's first fissure was still hours away. Something was wrong. No owl monkeys were around Monday morning. Not a single renegade cell phone. No bings, tings, ring-a-ling-lings. No intrusive electronic ditties. How was this possible in an age when cell phones have become anatomical extensions of the human body? No pithy text messages ricocheted around the room. John Ashcroft gonna kick some monkey butt. Instead an incessant crowing infiltrated my subconscious and reprised, by way of a dream, the haunting childhood memory of my grandmother dispatching a rooster, wringing its neck like a cowboy twirling a lariat. As I lay in bed, even as you're reading this, the morning brain fog as thick as last night's pitcher of Guinness Stout, the old semiannual question haunted me: Spring back? Spring forward? Fall back? Fall down? Slowly, it dawns on me that dawn has crept backward in time. Some thief, while I slept, stole an hour of daylight from my life. And I want it back. For days, I'll be wandering about lost in time, wondering whether the 5 p.m. SpongeBob SquarePants begins at 4 or 6 by my clock. This does not have to be. Our modern, high-tech society ought not be chained to the lactation cycles of moo cows. John Ashcroft gonna kick some monkey butt.
Think of Pembroke Pines as some kind of parallel universe, where cosmic laws and negative forces have been strangely thwarted into some sickly, haunted, decrepit structure, a bunch of bungling muggles. John Ashcroft gonna kick some monkey butt.
"Jesus," mutters one judge to another as Grimm plows ahead. "This is like the fucking Waste Land or The Divine Comedy or something. When is it going to end?"
"I think he's just getting warmed up," whispers another.
In the interest of brevity, then, we jump to the exciting conclusion.
Her travel wardrobe includes long spandex halter-top gowns and matching thongs in fluorescent pink, red, and leopard-print, silver metallic thigh-high boots, white patent-leather, thigh-high boots, Day-Glo orange-and-black zebra-stripe bikini, clear Lucite platform mules, body glitter, fruit-scented body sprays, silver glitter nail polish, hot-pink bikini with white polka dots, trimmed with white bows. John Ashcroft gonna kick some monkey butt. If you can't find 'em, you can't smite 'em. You can't bruise 'em. You can't raise welts on their sinful little bodies if they've vanished in a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Don't touch that clock. Don't fall back. End the untimely tyranny of the milk cow. Get out. And kiss my aspersions goodbye. Shut the F-- Up and Dance. I had stumbled into the Great Island Chicken War. The chickens were winning. Hunched here over the computer. Alone. Very, very alone. John Ashcroft gonna kick some monkey butt.
He stops. There's silence. Grimm surveys the napping masses, then skulks out the door.
The audience awakens to see Emily J. Minor of the Palm Beach Post step onto the stage with a crumpled page from a legal pad in her right hand. She straightens her hair with her left palm. She smiles from the microphone and begins an apparently unrehearsed monologue, ignoring the poem she had promised to read titled "Why the 'J' Says So Much about Me."
"I wrote my first column for Accent in May 1995," she begins. "It was about Marcia Clark leaving court early during the O.J. trial because she had child-care problems. And now -- unbelievably so -- it's been six years since I brought you the story of my son's first day of kindergarten.
"During these seven years, I've written about baseball, aging parents, the tests we know as the FCATs. Cell phones, Beanie Babies, the annual spring torture of trying on bathing suits. I've stayed up until 3 a.m., faking that I'm Martha Stewart. I've worked as a secretary, worn a protective cup in my pants, and sashayed down Dixie to see if anyone thought I was a hooker -- all in the interest of great journalism," she says, putting her fist over her heart, Celine Dion-style.
"I hope you laughed." She pauses, apparently waiting for the audience to agree. "Thank you for calling and e-mailing and writing me notes on pretty stationery with pink scalloped edges.
"When you write a column like Real Life, one of the best things about your workday is the people -- both the readers and the story subjects. George Chalhub was one of my favorites," she says, pulling from her pocket a photo of a wrinkled man sitting on a rickety front porch. Minor is sitting on his lap, blocking most of his face from the photographer.
"There have been so many others," she says, emphasizing that she has used the word I in 621 columns.
She raises her voice and spread her arms, as if making an important proclamation. "Now, I invite you to follow along as I start another chapter of writing at the Palm Beach Post. I am leaving the features department."
Then Emily puts her head into her hands, the crumpled poem soaking up tears. Exiting without reading her poem, she exclaims, "I wanted humor and sweetness."
The crowd is confused. There's some sporadic applause. "Well, I guess that was her poem," one judge declares.
Things have definitely taken a turn for the weird. Still, it seems that Winston has the Slam title in the bag when Buddy Nevins, the Sentinel's political columnist, steps up to the mic. Well, he steps next to the mic -- it is set too high for him to reach, and it appears to be stuck. Undaunted, he pulls over an empty chair, clambers up on it and says the name of his poem: Short Columnist's Blues.
This is a tale of political revenge. This is a tale of interference in the justice system. This is a tale of raw political power. It's not a pretty story: A hero is supposed to stand tall on a backbone of steel. At five feet, three inches tall, the Public Defender's Office's Howard Finkelstein is hardly a formidable figure. Also at five feet, three inches tall (without the cowboy boots) is Fred Lippman, one of Florida's most powerful legislators. Full disclosure: I'm five feet, four inches and very happy. I am five feet, four inches tall now and was shorter in school. I was often picked on. In politics, what goes on in public is often being manipulated from behind the screen like that scene in theWizard of Oz. Don't look behind the screen. You might see Sheriff Ken Jenne pulling the strings. He is doing this quietly. He is doing this from the background. But like theWizard of Oz, Jenne is the man behind the screen controlling everything. A snub by Jenne can destroy careers. He has a well-deserved reputation for political revenge. He is a master of the well-placed rumor and the unspoken threat. Few have the guts to stand up to him. I know five feet, eight inches. You're no five feet, eight inches, Sheriff Jenne. I can look you in the eyes. Maybe five feet, five inches, but no five feet, eight inches. Don't underestimate the pettiness and jealousy. Critics accuse Jenne of turning the whispered smear, the shouted threat, and backbiting into a high art. Now Jenne's machinations are coming back to haunt him. The quid pro quo -- you do me a favor and I'll do one for you -- greases the wheels of politics. Shouldn't we have special classes to teach tolerance for the short?
The audience leaps from their seats, as does the entire panel of judges, all clapping, snapping their fingers, cheering. The judges all look at one another: We have our winner. And Nevins just stands there, soaking it up, feeling ten feet tall. Well, at least five foot eight.