My Short Career As A Black Poet

Once on a dare my friend Brad asked me to come to an open mic poetry reading with him.  He had introduced me to this kickass alcoholic writer, Charles Bukowski (who also wrote the screenplay for the Mickey Rourke film, BARFLY), who inspired me to write some of my own stuff.  I told him my stuff was pretty sucky, but he assured me, "Believe me, Robert, these guys REALLY suck!", and he was right.  You hadn't seen so many depressed victims of abuse in one place since The Cure stopped touring.

These events were hilariously awful.  Everyone would scribble their names on a sign up sheet, and take turns reading their babblings to get meaningless courtesy applause when they were through.

I was nervous, but after about 4 beers, I went up to the microphone, and read the lyrics to the Spider-Man cartoon as if it were the greatest poem in the world.  I was moving my arms around and even making little web-shooter motions at the crowd during my performance.  I was hooked.

Unlike most poets, I was employed, bathed regularly, and had sex more than once a month, so I found it difficult to write about the same stuff that crowd was dwelling in.  Typically I wrote about toys, cereal, and movies...pretty much the same pop-culture stuff I dwell on here.

There was all sorts of characters there.  One guy wrote a poem about getting sexually assaulted by his father, and wrote that he "cried a milky white tear."  I laughed out loud at the bizarre imagery, and everyone thought I was the biggest ass in the place.

Then there was this old lady with missing teeth that would read graphic sexual poetry that'd make Caligula blush.  There's something just wrong about women pushing 70 that talk about swallowing.

Brad and I would attend these things weekly, as the heckling opportunities were like nothing we'd ever seen.  One night, a hideous guy introduced a poem saying, "This was going to be a poem about heroin, but since I've never done any, I decided instead to make it a poem about women."  Too easily, I shouted back, "Yeah, like THAT'S any more believable?"

Once, I went to an special reading in Davis, CA, which is an extremely liberal college town.  There were about 80 people there, and nearly all were women who looked like they hated men more than shaving their legs.  When it was my turn to read, I got up and proceeded to recite my epic "Tabasco Lady".  Just imagine the looks I got when I rattled out these first lines:

"Tabasco Lady, Tabasco Lady
Why does your pussy sting?
Tabasco Lady, Tabasco Lady
Your hot breath makes me want to sing..."

It got far more pornographic than that.  When I was through, I lifted my eyes up from the paper and not a single lady in the audience was clapping.  Every single eye was burning holes through me with a unified hatred that I could feel.   I was proud of it.  I mean, it was probably just as hard to get everyone to hate me that strongly, as it as to get a standing ovation.

I got sick of the whole scene and stopped going altogether after a while.  It seemed like the sole function of these poetry readings were to selfishly inflate their egos, and I thought it was time to move on to other things.

But I still read a lot of stuff, and I came across some copies of a black poetry publication called NEW POETS REVOLUTION.

As you can see, from a few of the copies above, it's a  politically extreme publication to say the least.  The copy on the right featured a poem titled "RUN O.J." that featured a picture of Simpson wearing a Messiah-like crown of thorns.  I almost died reading lines like:

"Run, O.J., Run!
America's favorite son,
Run with a gun!
Our national hero
in a bucking Bronco media show..."


"Your Fourth Amendment rights
in the Bill of Rights
abused by whites..."

Classic stuff!  It inspired me so much that I wrote a "black poem" about how black people are unfairly portrayed as food spokespeople. I sent it in, half-jokingly, thinking they'd realize it was a joke and simply toss it in the trash.

Two months later I got an excited letter from their editor, and was referred to as "Brother Robert".  Apparently they were excited about this great new black poet from Sacramento and wanted to showcase my work in an upcoming issue of their paper.  They also wanted me to send in my picture! 

I never wrote back, figuring that would be the end of it, but another month later I got their latest issue in the mail, and opened it up to find THIS...

There it was for the 14,000 lucky subscribers to see.  I felt bad, that someone was gonna wise up to me, but they never did, and ultimately I thought it was funny enougheven if they found out that I was a mere white poet after all.  Here it is for your reading pleasure:

40 Acres and a Shopping Cart
by Robert A Berry II

Consider the plight of the Supermarket Negro.
There's never been a black character
representing a food product
that's been considered a role model by anyone.

There's no little girls saying,
"Mommy!  I want to be like Mrs. Butterworth
when I grow up."

And would any 8 year old boy be caught with a poster
of Uncle Ben hanging in his bedroom?

In a vain attempt to make Aunt Jemima less "slave-like"
they got rid of her red bandana
and Gone With The Wind clothes
and made her a woman of The 90's
by giving her a perm,
so she could shuck waffles
with the class she deserves.

There is a double-standard to say the least.

Consider the white men and women in advertising:
the proud and strong Mr. Clean,
the stately and regal Captain Crunch,
the tough Brawny paper towel lumberjack,
and the beautiful lady on the Ivory Snow box.

With the exception of Orville Redenbacher,
there's nothing but pristine specimens to represent
Caucasian Americans in the grocery store.

There's a cartoon character hawking Cocoa Crispies
with a Caribbean accent, but he's a MONKEY!

For one fleeting moment, we had a Reggie Jackson candy bar,
but it went away, leaving us with that smilin' chef
from Cream of Wheat boxes, and Steve Urkel cereal instead.

Of course, blacks aren't alone in this.
Fill your brown paper bags with
Eskimo Pies, Big Red Chewing Tobacco, Cheese Nips, and
Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, while you're at it.

This is not acceptable!
Give Malcolm X his own brand of chewable vitamins!
James Brown condoms!  Public Enemy chewing gum!
Even Frosted Farrakhan Flakes would be a start!

There's a cross burning in Aisle 12
between the mayonnaise and the marshmallow cream,
and it's time to put it out.

Brad and I cracked up about this and decided to try to fool even more folks.  I created a new identity, "James Compton", and started writing hardcore "gangsta" poetry that our friend Gary published his magazines "FREETHOUGHT!"  In fact, one issue features work from Compton, a fictionall gay poet Brad created, and a collection of work from a Hispanic street gang that wrote poetry called Freeport Loco, right alongside poems that had our own names on it!   We just sent it to him from other cities, and used different fonts on the printouts (one was even in crayon) so he'd be none the wiser. This diverse sampling of Sacramento's greatest poets, turned out to be mostly us writing under pseudonyms!

Though I haven't written much poetry since then, as the web is a much better outlet to spew, I've always missed pretending to write as other people. In fact, while writing for the (now defunct) last year during a very slow period when the other staffers weren't pulling their weight, I was writing as no less than FIVE different people!  It was a riot to read email and forum comments like, "Robert sucks, but this new guy is awesome!" and vice versa.

Sometimes I miss the days of writing those poems, but I just don't have the time anymore.  Anyway, time to put on my Wil Wheaton hat and go update that website.