‘We are at a party that doesn’t love us‘ – Tomas Tranströmer
We are at a thing. Not a poetry thing, a thing in someone’s house. Glasses are being chinked, light in them, light glinting from the poured liquids within. Laughter. Music in another room. The gang.
We edge in, as you do. Familiar faces greet us, the first hellos for months in some cases. The kisses which follow. More pouring. It is midsummer.
Some of the faces belong to strangers. Which is to say, we know who they are, but they do not know us. Introductions follow. Pouring. Light. A gap in the music.
People are gathered around one of the strangers, people we know. We edge further. The people we know. Laughter. But I am not paying attention. I am at the back of the class, scribbling on a blank sheet some words, trying to connect them with the fascinating nothing going on outside the window.
From three hundred yards two feet away I hear a person I know say the words I dread. ‘… a poet.’
At the back of the class I do not know and do not know the squared root of the subjunctive at Flodden Field. I opt for honesty: ‘I don’t know, Sir.’
And then these words, twice as dreadful: ‘Should I have heard of you?’ Quickly spoken, no sooner thought than uttered. A woman. She has cascading hair, lots of it, artfully arranged to appear she has made no effort. Her clothes likewise. Large sections of her bosom are visible. She leans over to grab some nuts. A tilt of the head, the nuts thrown to the back of the throat, where they are joined by a slurp.
‘What are you, Wilson?’
‘An idiot, Sir.’
‘An idiot. Fifty times before lunch, on my desk.’
Sound has gone missing in the day. I try to think of Churchill, of Oscar Wilde, what they would have said. I try not to think of bosoms. The class roars with laughter. Permission having been granted by the teacher, a chant of ‘Iddy-ott, Iddy-ott’ goes up. He raises a hand and it stops.
For two hours a millisecond I consider my response. I choose honesty. Always the best. (Another gap in the music. Laughter).
The eyes of the woman, the slurp-crunch now nearing its conclusion, reptilian. But as I make my reply, my considered and witty riposte, she turns her head and begins talking to her friend.
I have already said to her ‘Of course’, but she is gone, immersed in a conversation about house prices.
At break time a boy comes up to me and asks to swap my conker with him. I ask him what I get in return. He looks over my shoulder, then into my eyes.
‘You can join my game. No one else is going to ask you.’ He starts to walk away. ‘It’s your choice,’ he says, without looking back.
Hilarious and anxiety-inducing in equal measure! Maybe that ‘Should I have heard of you?’ deserves the zen-style reply ‘Only if you are who I think you are!’, which, if not taken as a bon mot,will at least wrest the initiative from your impertinent interlocutor. But probably best to practice the retort in front of the mirror a bit so that your timing is as near spot on as dammit!
Hello Brian. I will take hilarious and anxiety-inducing.
About three months later I came up with a much better reply: If you need to ask you’re not that interested.
I’m not very good live.
As ever with thanks
Oh, Ant, you evoke feelings of anxiety, rejection and inadequacy in me! I find this really uncomfortable. Such a brilliant bit of writing.
Hi Gwenllian. Thanks so much for your encouragement. Anxiety, rejection and inadequacy pretty much sums up the ‘career path’ of poets.
Nearly all parties are like this for me.
Alice said ‘Oh I know Ant Wilson, from Exeter Uni?`She is a trainee psychologist who did her first degree at Exeter and was helping at the `Art Cafe`. I was asking a patient if she had written any more poems and mentioned that you`d written one about `saying good bye to your cancer` She`s going to look you up on line! See how special you are!
Thank you so much Caroline. I appreciate this deeply x Ant
Chilling – that feeling of hanging onto a purring phone waiting for the witty reply to come through. And it doesn’t.
Perhaps it’s just where I am emotionally at the moment, Anthony, but this wonderful piece of writing brought tears as I recalled the times I’ve been at the same parties with the same people and heard that same question. It’s always worse when I hear myself outed by a friend or spouse who proudly introduces me as “a writer!” as if having “a writer!” for a spouse or friend is somehow particularly elevating. Like good auto mechanics and worthwhile plumbers, I am a toiler in the vineyard and prefer to keep it that way. (And most of the folks I know find a good auto mechanic worth a lot more than a poet any day…)
The Transtromer quote is wonderful and more apt than you can imagine.
It’s always great to hear your response. I’m so grateful that you take the time. Thank you, Anthony
Oh my goodness. This is SUCH good writing. Chillingly good. Soon everybody will have heard of you. Haven’t they already? 😉
Thank you Nell! X
Just opened the laptop. Charlie had this up. Poetry I thought…mmmm, shall I bother or go straight to BBC Sport.
I’m glad I read it now! Good with elements of outstanding!
Hey, Anthony. I’m a big fan of Transtromer, as you know, a big fan of you, as you know, and a big fan of this fella, whose song is a perfect companion to this piece:
p.s. your great one-liner can always be used next time. The trick to those responses is to always start them just before the person ends their stupid question, so they have to stand there and hear it.
Hi Jeff. Thank you. Again. This is great.
A more than lovely piece of writing, Anthony, on your blog which so consistently features beautiful pieces – in fact my favourites are all about your feelings of inadequacy in the poetry world. But on this occasion I think that much of the angst could have been avoided by your answering the woman’s question with the simple answer “No” and then asking her about herself – women always complain that men talk too much about themselves, particularly as they get older (a treat in store for you), and she could then have tossed her bosoms and nuts around a bit more for your and our amusement!
Thank you! I do think inadequacy is quickly becoming my subject. Or always has been. As ever, Anthony