There's no denying the fact that many of the images in Scott Poole's poetry are quietly hilarious. In one, it's a slice of lunchmeat suddenly giving rise to thoughts of Andy Warhol. In another, a man comforts himself post-vasectomy "holding a bag of frozen peas in one hand and a bottle of painkillers in the other." And in yet another, a narrator contemplates all sorts of grisly medieval revenge upon the car that has suddenly stranded him outside The Dalles. But to call his poetry "funny" seems a rather risky proposition. Not because the poet is in any way dangerous, but because "funny" is such a limiting word for describing what it is that Poole does.
"There's not a lot of humorous poetry out there. There's been a bit of a renaissance in the last couple of years -- for instance Billy Collins, the poet laureate, writes humorous poetry. But up until now, most light verse has been simply light. It's not deeply felt material," he says. "I write how I think, which tends toward the humorous, but at the same time, I've always had this darker, more serious side."
In his new book Hiding from Salesmen (from which he reads on Tuesday night at Auntie's) and in his debut collection The Cheap Seats, Poole has shown a keen ability for conjuring up what feel like miniature short stories, using seemingly disparate elements and a healthy appreciation for the absurd. Take the poem "Why I Love My Garage Door Opener," in which the speaker decides to grow corn in his garage as "a cure for dumbness." The speaker is suddenly musing on whales and how they might dream of corn, and playing with his garage door opener the way he imagines a whale might blink its enormous eyes. It's a leap, but in Poole's hands it becomes much more than just fiddling around with illogicalities.
In fact, this poem and the others that comprise Hiding from Salesmen exhibit a subtle intelligence. While whoever's speaking might be willing to play the "fool" card over and over again, there is a sense of overriding wisdom in that the things that are truly important -- love, family, friendships, work -- are a constant no matter what craziness ensues.
Poole's verse is so well wrought, and his ability to combine the embarrassing and the sublime is so well-developed, it's hard to believe his introduction to poetry was almost accidental. As a psych major at WSU, he happened to take a writing elective from Carlos Sanchez.
"He was kind of the grandfather of Chicano poetry in the U.S.," says Poole. "He was by far the most inspiring teacher I've ever had."
Poole switched majors and stayed on another year at WSU. He got his Master of Fine Arts degree from Eastern and took over the helm of EWU Press when its long-standing director James McAuley retired in 1998. That same year, Poole and his colleague Christine Holbert launched the first Get Lit! festival, where Poole read a few of his poems and ended up getting a publisher on the spot.
"All these people, some of them editors and publishers, were coming up afterwards and saying all these great things, and then Christine marches up and goes, 'I want to publish your book.' "
Holbert's Lost Horse Press published The Cheap Seats, and Poole went on about his work of making Spokane a safe place for poetry to live. Get Lit! will celebrate its fifth year this spring and is already on the brink of gaining national recognition. In addition to his continuing work with the EWU Press, Poole has a weekly poetry newsletter and records his poems for broadcast on KPBX every Monday morning during Morning Edition.
"I thought they'd put me on in the middle of the BBC broadcasts, like between 1:01 and 1:02 in the morning," says Poole. "But they've got me on during drive time, which is pretty cool."
Pretty cool, indeed. It's safe to say that his poems are heard by thousands of people every Monday, and he routinely hears from people who remember not only specific images from his work, but sometimes even entire passages. But even though his verbal inventions are sometimes breathtaking, in fact, even though he can take a simple Monopoly game and turn it into a sweetly affecting love poem, he remains a study in self-deprecation.
"I've always felt that there are two kinds of poetry. There's the big, beautiful kind with important ideas and Shakespearean language," he jokes. "And then there's the kind that I'm good at."