The CBC is generally pretty bad about this kind of thing. When I was in Saskatoon on my book tour last winter, I met Holly Luhning, who was competing in the CBC Poetry Faceoff in Regina, and was told by the local producer that she couldn't use the word "vulva" in her poem. She agonised over this some, but decided to leave it in and read it anyway. When the poem was broadcast, the offending word was bleeped. Now, I might concede that CBC had a valid objection if she had used the term cunt, or even pussy [that should spike traffic on the site!], but Ch-ee-rist, vulva is an anatomical term! And the CBC has plenty of daytime programming with more contraversial content than this. Why can you have something in a drama, but not in a poem? I guess poetry's supposed to be genteel...
The previous year, 2005, I'd been invited to take part in the Faceoff. I accepted, even though I had serious concerns about the rules against bad language and sexually explicit content. Every year, the Faceoff has a theme, to which the competing poets must write an original poem. The theme in 2005 was "play." So I decided to play a game with my poem. Here it is:
It happens maybe once in a lifetime,
Happens with the caustic burn of quicklime,
And when it happens, you won’t have a clue—
Very little at least—why it was you
Exempted from verse’s struggle in vain,
Not someone else. Your taut portraits of pain?
Or was it all the long hours of study,
Fiddling with syllables in the ruddy
Unbaffled glow of a beeswax candle,
Cursing your abject failure to handle
Kindled verbs, adjectives, improper nouns
In your too-proper paws—no ups, all downs,
No mercy, just grief dogging your black pen’s
Gouge across page after page, whats and whens
Inked in, crossed out, those crucial hows and whys
Dim in your mind at best. If you were wise,
Every false step would bring you closer to
Arriving at the conclusion that you
Weren’t fit to play this kind of idle game,
Heaping lines in a twisted, crooked, lame
Acrostic code—but wisdom doesn’t come
To lovers, lunatics, poets. The sum
Total of your fraught work is a big fat
O, a totem pole of bent beasts. So what?
Write it anyway. If all the world’s a page,
Rip it out. Start clean. Ex nihilo, rage
Inside that tight white frame, engage the pain
That cripples most to strut you over plains
Erupt in flame, corrupt with shame, on stilts
Five feet above the bluish air that wilts
Ozone-smothered poets, pets and flowers.
Rip it out again. One line might take hours
To justify its life from all the dreck
Harboured by your draft like sharks in a wrecked
Empty vessel that just circle, circle,
Circle, waiting inside their nautical
Breakfast nook for unsuspecting divers
Combing the site for florins and stivers.
Pace most poets, poetry’s a game
Of chance that can’t be learned or rendered tame—
Except if you play it by a set of rules.
Then you may pen lines to please the smug fools
Running the magazines, teaching in schools,
Yearning to make friends, longing to belong,
Fit in, be cool—but such lines won’t last long,
Afloat like flies on a pond full of fish.
Cup a hand to ear for the whoosh, splash, splish
Efflorescing the stagnant pondwater’s
Orange face, rejoice in the small slaughters
Filling the gullets of salmon and trout.
Feed on it. And don’t for a second doubt
Brutality’s claim to beauty and truth—
Unless the law of a tooth for a tooth
Turns your sensitive lily-white stomach,
In which case, get thee to yon wee hummock
To record sweet lines on bee and butterfly’s
Mating dance, or any other white lies
Upsetting to no one. You’ll make more friends
Spouting liqueur than logging the quick ends
That animals suffer— But that is not
How this game is played. In case you forgot
Allegiance is due to none but the Muse;
Verily, verily, life’s but a ruse
Ending in death: the loyal worker bee’s
Stinger embedded in flesh, apiary’s
Overflowing culmination in swarm,
Monarchs frozen in millions seeking warm
Empires south of the snow— Verse is a game
That we play for keeps, no sanction for shame,
Hurt feelings or sleep. Like Dante, descend
Into hell. You may bring with you one friend,
No more, so choose well from the queued-up dead
Groaning past on a belt of smelted lead
Trays. Keep your head. Let your eyes needle out
Over featureless waste. Accommodate doubt.
Doubt is the only sure sign you’re alive,
One length ahead of the bees in the hive
Worried about their health plans and pensions,
Income tax, mortgage debt, hypertension.
This dead pledge to the devil ends when paid,
Heaves its last sigh when the last card’s been played,
Played, played in multiple takes, bread and wine
Laid out for your mourners to snack on—thine
Allowance of grace, Muse, nickel and dime;
Yet it made me a rich man once in this lifetime.
When I submitted my draft to the CBC Halifax producer, I hid the acrostic by not capping and bolding it and by deleting all the stanza breaks. At the live event, however, I passed out photocopies of the poem, with the acrostic in plain sight, to members of the audience. The producer approached me and said, "Can you do that?" I told her I wasn't sure, but I could check the contract--which I knew full well said nothing about providing the text of the poem to the audience. No one listening to the poem on the radio would have the slightest clue about my little game, but it felt good to pull a fast one on the Corp.--and get paid to do it! The producer also didn't appear to get the poem's not-so-subtextual mockery of the idea of writing a poem for pay.
I'd like to leave you with a poem whose offensiveness is much less subtle: one of my favourite pieces of anonymous doggerel, "The Ballad of Eskimo Nell," which really takes the piss out of Robert Service, in a loving sort of way. Well, maybe loving ain't the mot juste... Here's the text. And here's the audio.