Noxious, Depressing Poetry Movement Threatens to Obscure Hard-Won Clarity of Dominant "New Statesmanism"
Santa Fe--He looks like an aging biker who lost his way (and, apparently, his Harley) somewhere between Barstow and Vegas. Dressed in faded, baggy cargo pants, a T-Shirt emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and a slogan--"Write to Live, Live to Write"--wraparound sunglasses and a flame-emblazoned do-rag, Chuck Calabreze could not look less like Dana Gioia, the man Chuck Calabreze says is destroying American literature.
"Hey, I've got an idea," Calabreze croaks in a voice half-Tom Waits and half-Hermoine Gingold. "Let's invigorate American literature by performing Shakespeare's plays on U.S. military bases!" Calabreze pauses, then after a moment of muddled silence, during which he appears genuinely puzzled by virtually everything, he starts up again. "Wait. I know. Let's have a contest to see who can recite 'Charge of the Light Brigade' best!"
In Chuck Calabreze's alternate universe, he's making plans for when he gains control of the reins of state. "You know," he says, his arms flailing, then settling--both of them--atop his do-ragged head, "the reciting thing ain't half bad. But." In a typical radically-enjambed Calabreze moment, a long silence--a Robert Creeley-style line break-- follows the "but." "But," he finally begins again, eyes skyward now, as if the poetry grail is being revealed to him above the nearby mall, "but, I think it'd be cute to see sixth graders reciting Charles Bukowski poems. That's it. A nation of sixth graders reciting Bukowski! Now that's building good citizenship!"
In the unlikely event that Chuck Calabreze ever achieves power in the U.S. poetry world, the dress code would have to change. "Yeah," I can't see myself in the blue suit and red tie power-dressing mode," Mr. Calabreze says. He lifts one foot off the ground and pulls his pants leg up to reveal a battered, unlaced Doc Martin. "They'll want me to tie these things, huh?" he says, swatting at the loose laces. "That," he says, pointing bootward, his voice climbing several registers, "is a bad example for the children, Mr. Calabreze."
"My next book," Calabreze says, "is going to be about farm implements and Christmas pageants. It'll be a celebration of xenophobic life in small-town America. I'd pre-order on Amazon right now, if I were you." He pauses to swat at an imaginary fly. "Some people will say I'm pandering to the lowest common denominator." He trails off, seemingly spent, then suddenly re-inflated, bellows, "But I prefer to think of it as my Trojan horse."
The image of Mr. Calabreze emerging from that Trojan horse at the center of government in Washington, DC, sends chills through many poets, Mr. Gioia included. "Mr. Calabreze represents the worst anti-social traits associated with poets," Mr. Gioia said over coffee and croissants at the Nancy Hanks Center. "He dresses poorly, smells rank, and has sub-par dentition. He's a throwback to the fifties when the Beats and their fellow street poets--all of whom I've been diplomatic about in my public pronouncements and my writings, I might add--felt obliged to rub ordinary Americans' faces in their ordinariness. Do I think a Calabreze laureateship would be good for American poetry? In a word: no."
But the ground is swelling for just such an appointment. Followers of Chuckismo, a poetry movement founded by Mr. Calabreze, have approached all of the major presidential candidates with petitions--and complimentary T-shirts--encouraging the appointment of Chuck Calabreze to the position of Poet Laureate. Some observers report that Hillary Clinton was spotted wearing the Chuckismo T-shirt during a recent campaign stop in Rapid City.
Aware of the campaign, Gioia is resigned. "All the work I've done," he laments, "convincing people that poets are reasonable, well-groomed, patriotic citizens with neither firm convictions nor axes to grind, will evaporate the minute Mr. Calabreze ascends the dais."
Mr. Calabreze, informed of Gioia’s concerns, fell into a long, troubled silence. “What,” he finally said, “is a dais?”