The turn of the year always brings memories. You think back across the years and remember the people who are no longer with us. For me the end of the year is largely focussed around the Society of Minor Poets.
Now you might wonder why I, the leading poet of my generation, belong to the society of minor poets. Indeed I am occasionally asked. The answer is simple. When I was still a very young man, just pushing the frail craft of my talent out onto the great ocean that is poetry, it was the Society of Minor Poets that welcomed me, nurtured me and even, from time to time, fed me. Not only that but in all candour I could never afford the bar bills and other expenses that go with membership of more prestigious organisations.
Amongst other events, every year the Society puts on an afternoon and evening entertainment. It is for the children and the elderly of the Ropewalk area. In theory we collect money, buy food, decorate our hall (which was in its prime a dried grape and carpet warehouse) and then invite our guests in.
Reality tends to diverge from theory. To be brutally honest, the juvenile street thugs who make up the children of the area are far better at raising money and providing basic foodstuffs than we poets are. They do a fine line in petty larceny and extortion which is far more effective than the flattery of poets. Then with regard to the elderly, they are hardly the helpless victims of our beneficence. Two weeks before the event I task various juvenile racketeers and their youthful hoodlums to fund raising and gathering supplies. Then a week before the event I will take the various supplies and buy more and deliver it to the older ladies of the area. This guarantees that we have as fine a selection of homemade cake and pies as one could hope for. So really all that is left for we Minor Poets to do is the decorating and provide the entertainment.
It is the decorating that I find myself dreading at times. Each year we chose some symbolic figure at random and nominally at least the event is held in their honour. I remember many years ago we found ourselves celebrating Notwin the Disembowelled, a figure for Port Naain mythology, perhaps one of the early Princes of the city, back in the days when such things were fashionable. I arrived early to help with the decorating. Most of the others were ladies of mature years who were dab hands at making decorations but were perhaps less agile than they once had been when it came to climbing over furniture to reach high enough to hang the garlands and paper chains. I was valued more because I was lithe and nimble, rather than for any artistic talent I might bring to the event.
I arrived to discover two of the ladies engaged in furious argument. You could tell they were furious; they spoke very clearly, and didn’t address each other directly even though there was nobody else present. Apparently forty years before Notwin the Disembowelled had also been randomly chosen for celebration and the first lady had decorated the place using intestines she’d acquired free from an abattoir, using them as streamers. The other woman was willing to admit the effect had been startling but so, apparently, had been the smell. So much so that barely a third of the food provided had been eaten. Needless to say one wished to reprise her triumph whilst the other was determined that she would not.
I confess that I wasn’t sure my stomach could cope with a hall that looked that a bad day in a slaughterhouse and tactfully suggested that as poets we ought to be pushing forward the boundaries of art rather than slavishly returning to the triumphs of the past. In the end we compromised on streamers which merely looked like lengths of intestine. This met the approval of everybody, especially the children.
Another aspect of doing the decorating is the tales you hear of times past. Middle aged ladies reminisce about clandestine encounters that occurred as sheets were being raised to form a backdrop to the stage. Another would tell of the time she had spent the afternoon carefully arranging dried flowers in vases only to discover her toddler had helpfully gathered them up again and put them back in her bag.
The meals themselves are never without incident. Old Gaffer Brud arrived to discover he’d forgotten to bring his teeth with him. Fortunately calamity was averted which Mistress Erean shared hers with him. This is no small honour, her false teeth are ivory, hand carved and have been passed down within her family as an heirloom ever since the death of her great grandfather.
The other thing we provide is entertainment. Here you would have thought that we Minor Poets would find things easy. But there is a snag. We invite the old and the young, not because they are enthusiasts for the most noble of literary arts, but because in one case they’re lonely and in another they’re hungry. Doubtless some of them have out of courtesy expressed a passing interest in poetry at some point, but even the most obliging are unlikely to wish to partake of several hours of it.
Hence we all dredge our memories for comic ballads, half forgotten jokes about flatulence, marital misharmony and the cupidity of usurers and petty officials. These tend to go down well enough, and if we mix them with the occasional short sketch which involve ostentatiously prosperous individuals getting their come-uppance in a suitably dynamic manner the children are happy as well.
As bands of amateur strolling players go, to be honest I don’t think we’re too bad. Unlike other theatrically inclined societies which I will not name, whose members prance and fuss away their brief moment of glory upon the stage, we eschew the marital adultery and petty feuding which seems to be an essential part of their society’s activities and as a collection of poets our diction and delivery are faultless.
And if we habitually try and upstage each other and steal the best lines, then what can one expect from a collection of even minor poets?
As an aside, should anybody be the slightest bit interested, there is now a collection of Tallis Steelyard stories available for purchase.
Life for a jobbing poet is difficult. You have to be flexible with regard to your art. One day you’re organising an elegant soiree, the next a pie eating contest. Yet all the while you are striving to raise the tone and to ensure that decency, dignity, and an appreciation of the fine arts prevails.
And sadly it appears that the more honest your attempts, the more noble your endeavours, the more likely it is that you end up making enemies. Tallis helps out the family of an old friend, obliges a patron, and does his best to aid the authorities in the administration of justice. Each time he merely manages to upset the powerful, the petty, and the vindictive.
As a reviewer commented, “Any story that contains immortal sayings like “I will merely point out that whilst the little ship did not lack ambience, it was an ambience that clung, and it took three washings before I could get it out of my shirts.” Is well worth reading.
Additionally, this tale refers to maps, missing gems, pie eating contests and even a marimba – what more could a reader want?”