BY STEVE BAILEY
Copyright is held by the author.
HE FANCIED himself a poet, but editors did not. He wanted so much to be in the coterie of exceptional people who communicated in his language but arranged the words in robust, beautiful, and profound ways that moved the spirit. His friends and family called him a poet, but he dabbled with doggerels and nothing more. And yet, he clung to the cultural myth that a man could be anything he wanted if he put his mind to it.
He worked on his poetry all day and long into the night. Several times he threw out his product and started over. He laboured with all his skill and used all the tools in his toolbox. And when he finished, he looked at what he had done with satisfaction. He called his verse No Heroes and read with delight the last stanza.
I came of age in a time of no heroes,
When no one answered the call.
But heroes always disappear,
When an empire starts to fall.
This, he thought, will be the one that breaks me out of my rejection rut. So he began to send his verse on its way. Then doubts crept in. Did I get it right this time? The poem lacked profanity. Modern poems have the f-bomb. He would have none of that. Still, he stopped after three submissions and waited for the responses. Finally, months later, they came.
“Thank you for your submission, but your poem is not a good fit for our journal.”
“Unfortunately, we cannot use your poem but thank you for thinking of us.”
“Please do not take this as a comment on the quality of your work, but . . .”
Saddened by these rejection emails, he got up from his laptop and lay supine on his living room couch to watch his smart TV. Switching channels, he stopped to watch a news story about refugees coming out of Kenya. Then, inspired, the poet wannabe returned to his computer and began to type.
We went as far as the car would take us,
To the shores of a troubled sea.
The sky was dark, and the winds were strong.
But the boat would help us flee.
The car had done all it could do,
Crossing mountains and desert sands.
It kept us away from dangerous men.
Who moved in marauding bands.
The wind grew fierce. The waves were high,
As we sat in the back of the boat.
Watching the car get small in the distance.
And hoping we’d stay afloat.
The captain and crew unsure of themselves,
Said our chances were very slim.
Depressing news for those of us
Who did not know how to swim!
Then out of the dark, there came a light.
A beam like we’d never seen.
Had Jesus come to save us now?
Or is this a hopeful dream?
The beam came from a larger boat.
They threw life jackets in our faces.
They pulled us off our sinking boat,
These men of other races.
The morning came all bright and clear.
The sea behind us was smooth.
They said that they were sending us back,
And all we gained, we’d lose.
The guards were sloppy. A gate unlocked.
We decided to make a dash.
We ran across an open field,
And hid in a truck full of trash.
Life got good as we made our way,
Up capitalism’s endless ladder.
Now we live in the land of the free,
And could not be any gladder.
Sometimes when life fills my heart
With sadness and ambivalence
I close my eyes and go to sleep
And remember that trip of deliverance.
His hair hanging in long unwashed blonde ringlets swayed slightly as his head nodded back and forth to the rhythm. They surrounded a round bespectacled face part of a body, the shape of which reflected a sedentary life, a stranger to exercise.
Recollection of the heap of rejections that cluttered his inbox tempered his excitement. A plan to try something different came into his head.
The wannabe poet googled for Kenyan names and put together a nom de plume. He morphed himself from some overweight white guy from suburban America to Absko Kipkorir, a black, gay man and struggling refugee from Kenya. He created a new email just for Absko Kipkorir and used it to send out submissions to the same three magazines that had earlier turned him down.
“Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that ‘Refugee’ has been accepted for publication.”
“We would very much like to publish your poem ‘Refugees’ in our upcoming issue.”
“We love your poem and would like to publish it in next month’s issue.”
He selected the one that paid the most, created a Pay Pal account for Absko Kipkorir, and composed a fake biography to accompany his poem.
Requests came in for reprints, something that had never happened before. He used his nom de plume in the byline of several poems previously rejected, added more suffering into his print-ready bio, including a bout of hepatitis, and got favourable responses in return.
Popularity began to grow for the oppressed Absko Kipkorir, and while that made the poet’s Pay Pal account grow, it created problems when it brought requests for public appearances. He tried to present his literary alter ego as a recluse, but the pressure would not let up. Finally, the wannabe poet agreed to a videotelephony interview and kept the camera off, claiming technical malfunction. He affected an accent that sounded more like Jamaican than Kenyan, but he figured no one would notice.
Before joining the call, he rummaged through his collection of National Geographics and found a picture of a young unidentified Kenyan man. He scanned the photo, cropped out everything but the face, and made that man the image of Absko Kipkorir for that video call and other Internet interactions.
One night as he sat in front of his laptop watching competing bids for his work come in, he realized he could not keep this charade going forever. So the poet wannabe decided to be pre-emptive and present his subterfuge as a project to expose the publishing world’s prejudices against his ethnicity, white, suburban males. He wrote an essay detailing his experiences, but rather than submit it for publication, he created a blog and waited for the right moment to post his revelation to the world.
The opportunity came a month later when an invitation from The Perfect Poet Society arrived, inviting him, as Absko Kipkorir, to receive an award. There would be an audience and television cameras. He could imagine the look of surprise when he accepted the award and made his speech extracted from the exposé he would post online that night. He would open with the line: “Obviously, I am not what you expected.” And end referencing his blog. He imagined a book deal coming out of this endeavour.
The non-poet poet rented a tuxedo for the occasion and, on the night of The Perfect Poet party, put it on, brushed his freshly washed hair, stuffed his speech in the inside coat pocket, and marched off to the victory he believed awaited him.
The reception took place in a large ballroom where chandeliers cast a soft eighteenth-century glow. A cash bar provided drinks, but since the poet wannabe did not think to bring money, he drank water. Poets in casual dress milled about chatting with one another. He knew none of them and, none of them knew him. He positioned himself along the wall, closed to the steps that would take him up to the center stage. There he waited like an assassin in shadows.
Another set of steps ran up to the opposite side of the stage. From it, the president of The Perfect Poet Society appeared, walked to the podium, and turned on a microphone. The screech of a feedback loop drew everyone’s attention to the stage as a sound technician made the adjustments necessary to silence the unwanted sound.
“Welcome poets one and all,” the Society’s president said into the mike. “I’d like to read you some lines from my poem recently published in the Perfect Poet Society Literary Journal.”
A wave of jealousy washed over the wannabe. He would soon humiliate this self-righteous ass.
“And now I am pleased to announce the winner of this year’s Most Perfect Poet Award, Absko Kipkorir! “
The audience applauded heartily, and the non-poet poet smiled as he climbed the stairs for his moment-of-truth triumph. He did not notice the tall black man crossing the stage from the opposite side. As the two approached the podium, the presenter gave a puzzled look to the white man.
“You must have misheard me, sir,” the president said. “This award goes to Absko Kipkorir.”
“I am Absko Kipkorir.” The wannabe said.
The audience, believing the Society’s organizers concocted a skit for their entertainment, laughed and clapped their hands with delight. “No,” said the tall black man playing along like the audience and leaning toward the microphone with a broad toothy grin, “I am Absko Kipkorir, and I have the passport and driver’s license to prove it.”
He gave a little wave out to the crowd, and they cheered loudly.
The poet wannabe looked at the man at the microphone and, with a sudden wave of horror, recognized the Kenyan from the National Geographic photograph.
“No, wait! This can’t be. I am the poet who wrote the poems published in the name Absko Kipkorir.”
He tried to get to the microphone, pushing aside the society president next to him and moving toward the podium. The mood of the crowd quickly turned. They began to boo.
“Get off the stage, you fool.”
Trying to push the other Absko Kipkorir resulted in a scuffle ending with the non-poet poet in a headlock where he remained, red in the face and shouting at the floor until two policemen arrived and secured him with handcuffs. As they hauled him out of the reception room, he could hear the award recipient’s voice through the speakers.
“I have come a long way from my escape with the car in the desert, and I have so many people to thank.”
Steve Bailey grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, went to school in Minnesota, and taught middle school for 32 years in Virginia. For the last two years, he has been a freelance writer and has managed to get a small number of stories published, which he’s listed on his website vamarcopolo.com. Steve lives in Richmond, Virginia, and has two novel-long manuscripts in search of publishers.