America’s Next Top Poet
So, I’ve been watching America’s Next Top Poet. If you haven’t seen it yet, there are things I don’t want to spoil for you, so I’ll just give you the basic premise. You can catch up on Hulu if you want – there are only two rounds left this season but each one’s gonna be a doozy.
Basically, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, this is a spin-off of Tyra Banks’ wildly successful show, America’s Next Top Model. Alas, our version is a little less picturesque. First of all, a model is lucky if her career lasts until she’s 30 or 35, which is (by contrast) more or less when a poet can expect her career to begin. There are a couple of just-starting-their-MFA youngsters on the show. There are also a couple of contestants who came later to poetry. But for the most part, the baker’s dozen original contestants are emerging or recently-emergent poets in their later twenties to mid-thirties. The host and judge, aka the Tyra Banks of the poetry world, is a well-known writer whose career is by no means over, but who has begun to enter what can best be described as the retrospective phase of that career – a Collected under contract, maybe on faculty still but not really teaching much, starting to talk to an editor about what to do with all that correspondence. Somewhere, a grad student is writing a paper that features their work. I’m not telling who it is – you can guess, but I think you should just watch. I’m also not telling you who on the panel of judges is poetry’s counterpart to ANTM’s eccentric but likeable drag queen runway coach, Miss J. But I will tell you that apparently Paul Muldoon is the Nigel Barker of the poetry world, so you’re not totally in the dark.
The show was originally going to film in New York City, but after the “NYC vs. MFA” debate, the producers didn’t want to be seen as weighing in too heavily one way or the other, lest they should alienate viewers. Instead, they decided that America’s Next Top Poet should be set in a small city on the Gulf Coast, ravaged by hurricanes and oil spills, in hopes that the presence of poets in that community would raise visibility and support economic prosperity. As you’ll see when you watch the show, as noble as this sentiment may be, this has mostly resulted in a series of ill-advised encounters with beleaguered locals that’s created an insurmountable town-and-gown antagonism between those attached to the show, and those attached to the town in which it currently takes place. There was one incident in a downtown dive bar involving a concealed weapon, a live chicken, a thermos of gin and tonic and a bad karaoke rendition of Erasure that has since become the stuff of reality TV legend, as well as an SNL sketch and a John Stewart punchline. Perhaps you saw the “Poets Gone Wild” parody that posted to YouTube? Well, then you know what I’m talking about.
About these contestants. Apparently, it was harder than the producers originally thought it would be to find thirteen poets who would be willing to accept criticism publicly and who would also be willing and able to commit themselves to a single project (the show) for at least two or three weeks in a row. Rumor has it that barely enough people showed up at the cattle-call auditions to get the show off the ground, let alone cull out the requisite drama-inducing cross-section of diverse pathologies that makes reality TV so great. To get more people to audition, they even waived the twenty-five dollar entrance fee. In the end, though, they got a good number of interesting people and decent poets and more than enough pathology to keep things running. The heavy drinkers weren’t hard to come by, but the problem was, the producers only needed like one or two of those and the rest of the poets had to be moderate drinkers prepared to judge the alcoholics with impunity. But really, this one guy from Idaho made an ass of himself nearly every show, and all the other contestants got really tired of having to babysit the girl from Boston every time she gets so wasted she fell over. The dude didn’t last long, but the girl stayed in the competition for awhile – she was a pretty good poet, just a hot mess. Then there was this one guy from Denver who was a total poser, pulled from an MFA program somewhere by the producers because they needed someone conventionally handsome on the show. He dresses like old pictures of Jack Kerouac; clearly, he’s only ever read Bukowski. He tried valiantly to sleep with everybody else on the show but succeeded only in sleeping with his female counterpart, who makes herself up to look like Anais Nin and has read only the Twilight series, and some Kafka she never finished. Together, they were always outside smoking. They got a little too far in the competition on their photogenic personae, but were booted off in a double-elimination because they sucked at the early Troubadour tenso (or debate poem), which was that week’s challenge. Loren Stein, that week’s guest judge, was resplendently, viciously disdainful. Everyone was pleased.
There is one poet who has left his family at home, and keeps more or less to himself, obviously a little regretful at having taken this big risky career move and hoping the hearthfires will still be burning when it’s all over. During the portion of the show that follows the poets home from the competition, this poet is always on the phone. Here’s the thing, though – everyone might imagine that this poet, distracted by family matters and homesickness, will lose focus and do badly in the competition, but it’s not the case. The feeling that there’s so much at stake, the reality in this reality TV, means this poet is earnestly driven to do well in the competition. Though not the flashiest of the contestants, he has slowly gained the viewing audience’s sincere and devoted affection.
One of the poetry contestants has a background in slam poetry and performance art. None of the other contestants this person, but she does well in every challenge. In one of the later challenges, when asked to create a “remix” of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” she videoed herself making a giant graffiti mural on the side of an office building, even painting over the windows. Everybody, including the people inside that office building at the time, thought it was pretty cool.
Among the original contestants there was also a sensitive boy poet with a beard and an abrasive boy poet with a slightly Southern accent, and they got to be friends, though actually the sensitive boy poet turned out to be kind of an arrogant prick, and inclined to hold a grudge. The abrasive boy poet is one of the show’s most dynamic characters and during the live chicken-karaoke incident I mentioned earlier, he revealed that underneath all that loud-mouthed posturing, he is a good and philosophical soul. However, he keeps winning challenges that other poets were just as good in, and that is starting to get a little old, frankly. Though, in fairness, that’s more the judge’s fault than his. There is an older woman poet from Chicago; she is sometimes gratuitously morose. She and the abrasive boy poet have become friends because he makes her laugh and he brings out the quick-witted bitch in her, which was amusing at first but has become a little tiresome. Those two hang out with the shy girl, who also turns out to have a strong snarky streak and who is, despite the performatively unpretentious wardrobe and hipster glasses, the real vixen of the show. At first she liked the sensitive boy poet, but it looks like she wised up. Among the original contestants, too, there was a guy from Jersey who had a terrible childhood; there was a pretty redhead overcoming some kind of illness; there was also a young guy for whom English, the language of the competition, is not his first language. There has been much pathos surrounding these last three, which is what televised poetry is all about.
This brings us to the weekly challenges and eliminations. Most of the challenges resemble creative writing workshop assignments, though more explicitly designed to make you fail. Like, there was the week they had to write a poem which, in size and shape and content, could be tattooed on the guest judge Jorie Graham’s inner thigh. The winner not only got immunity in the next challenge, but Jorie Graham actually tattooed the poem on her leg. Losers of each challenge are not actually fed to alligators, but in a theatrical gesture of rather Medieval rejection, the judge does pull a lever and a trapdoor opens and the loser falls through. (No polite “auf wiedersehen” for poets, I guess.) Sometimes the challenges are really elaborate, like when Christian Bok was a guest judge and you could only use words made up exclusively of letters also found in your own name, and it had to be exactly 117 syllables and about a cyborg. Sometimes the challenges have been a little more open to interpretation, like the one where everyone just pulled a different epigraph from The Inferno out of a velvet bag and has to write a poem occasioned by that epigraph. But consequently, there’s a lot of kvetching among the contestants about how you never get to show what kind of poet you truly are. Of course, there’s always the jerk (and it’s usually the lady from Chicago) who complains that everyone’s complaining, and claims that any really good poet should be able to perform all of the various Sisyphean tasks laid before them. She talks frequently and rather pompously about “craft” and whenever she does, everyone gets really annoyed. But she got ousted the week Don Revell came in as a guest judge and announced at the beginning of the show that he would not be judging based upon the quality of the poets’ craft, but on the quality of the poets’ souls. The main host and Paul Muldoon disagreed with him about who to eliminate, but the other judge sided with Don. This created terrific controversy, but the call-in audience ultimately disliked the lady from Chicago for always dissing the other poets’ less rigorous sense of prosody, and thusly, she got the alligator pit that week. Last week it was down to the abrasive boy poet, the family poet, the slam poet and the shy girl. The shy girl made it into the top three over the slam poet by writing a perfectly rhymed but rhythmically unorthodox half-crown of sonnets about her blossoming love for the abrasive boy poet and Duchamp’s “Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors”. The viewing audience just could not get enough of that drama.
So, when finally we have a winner, what do they win exactly? Well, how about this: A thousand bucks, the publication of their poetry collection by a small University press based in the Southeast, and a three-week residency at an artists’ colony in Maine during the first half of January. For the residency, room and board is provided, but the winner must arrange his or her own transportation. Of course, the real prize here is that they get to put on their CV that they are, in fact, America’s Next Top Poet. Until next season, when somebody else takes that crown.
The final episode of each season of America’s Next Top Poet will be the reunion episode, when all thirteen contestants return to the scene of the crime to tell each other candidly what the show meant to their development as poets, how much they all secretly really disliked the sensitive boy poet, how much they all owe the slam poet an apology, and to tell the American viewing public where they are adjuncting now.
(Except for the people named, for whom I have the greatest respect (and in some cases genuine big affection), any resemblance to actual poets, real or imaginary, is really and truly coincidental, though I am sort of depending on it working out that way for some of the “humor”. No chickens, alligators or poets were harmed in the making of this blog post. Please, please feel free to comment, roast, object, elaborate, etc. Tomorrow, for those who were wondering: Some brief and hopefully aphoristic thoughts in list-form on teaching, reading, writing "difficult" poetry, since the Modernism survey I'm teaching with Craig Dworkin is, all week, dedicated to Ezra Pound's Cantos.)