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Thanks to my newspaper-days writer friend Hank Henley for this guest post. He's hot in process on his own novels, and I can't wait to read the college-based murder mysteries! For more of his wit and wisdom during his Best Year Ever and future tales of Constantinople, visit him at


You learn something new every day.

I don't think the old platitude is true--in fact I'm convinced it's just crap. There have been plenty of days in my half century on this earth where where I'm certain I was just taking up space and didn't accomplish or learn a single damned thing. And I personally know a bunch a people who haven't learned or done one useful thing in decades.

Learn something new every day? Give me a break.

Last weekend I made up for a bunch of the wasted days and wasted nights of my life when I attended the Alabama Writers' Conclave. Over three days I filled up a fresh composition book with all the new things I was learning. A lot of the things I learned were kind of writery, so you probably wouldn't be interested in hearing about them, Discerning Reader.

But four of the lessons learned over the weekend were so powerful I had to add them to my personal Rulebook of Life. These four discovered precepts belong in the "general societal hazards" chapter of the rulebook, and I've decided to share them with you today as a public service to all mankind. Now pay attention and commit these four rules to memory.

Are you ready?

1. Never hand a poet a microphone.

2. If you are in a room containing a poet and a microphone, the two will inevitably find each other over the course of the evening.

3. If you are trapped in a room containing both an aggregation (or barista, see post above) of poets and a microphone, you will soon experience both disorientation and discomfort. This is also inevitable.

4. The only thing worse than a poet with a microphone is a drunk poet with a microphone.

A significant minority of the people attending the writers' conference over the weekend were poets.

I've always been fascinated by poets. I'm challenged by their intellect and mastery of the English language. I'm in awe of their talent--at their ability to weave words in a way that stirs and illuminates the soul. I admire the civility and sincerity I've observed in every poet I've ever met.

Mostly I'm amazed these people are so dedicated to creating things so beautiful yet so undesired.

Most people today don't seem to care about poetry, and, other than in Hallmark greeting cards, you don't find a lot of it out there in everyday life. A reality show about trampy housewives can get boffo ratings, but of the hundreds of cable channels on my television, I can't think of a single place where poets and poetry are celebrated, featured and discussed.

Poets know the world ignores them, but they pursue their craft anyway, laboring in determined obscurity to create masterful works of art that have no hope of ever being seen by more than a handful of people.

To be a poet you've got to have a day job. Even if your self-identity is "poet," you need to find some other way to pay the bills. Poet is not a viable career path. A lot of poets are (or were) English teachers, which is about the closest one can come to being a poet full time.

Can you name the Poet Laureate of the United States? Me either. But I can now name the Poet Laureate of Alabama--a charming, energetic, whip-smart and frighteningly talented woman named Sue Brannan Walker. I met her over the weekend. In a room. With a microphone. They found each other. It was inevitable.

Even Dr. Walker has a day job to support her compulsion to write and disseminate poetry; she's a professor at the University of South Alabama.

I think you must be born with some sort of practicality gene missing in order to become a poet, and Dr. Walker embodies that spirit. When the microphone found her on Friday, of course she shared a few of her own poems. Poets are powerless to stop themselves from reading their own work. Between poems she spoke about an initiative she's leading to teach the homeless people of Mobile to write poetry. Everyone in the room, including me, heartily applauded the sentiment, positive energy and pure motivations behind this cause, but was I the only one to wonder if it is wise to expend resources and energy teaching unemployed people the single least financially useful skill on earth?

They may be accustomed to a world that ignores them, but poets crave affirmation and recognition too; so when the "open mic" times came after the day's formal activities were completed, the poets were irresistibly drawn, like flies to honey, to fill the available slots and share their work with an actual willing audience.

The open mic times were a sort of karaoke for writers. Anyone who wished to read from their works had five minutes and the microphone. A handful of prose authors and essayists read, but the vast majority of the presenters on both nights were poets.

Most of the poetry I heard was very good and crafted from words strung together like bright beads around a pretty woman's neck. Hearing those poems reminded me how much I like poetry when I accidentally bump into it. Some of the poetry I heard over the weekend was incomprehensible and quickly forgotten but I clapped for every single reader anyway.

Two of the poets were tipsy. Liquored up poets don't become aggressive or mean like drunks at a biker bar, but their condition does compel them to deliver rambling introductions to each poem they read and leads to the unfortunate decision to read poetry composed moments before on the back of cocktail napkins. When a poet introduces her work with the words "this is going to be a little rough," you can be sure a few incoherent moments are just ahead.

In case any poets stumble across these words, I'm not mocking you. Okay, I am mocking you--a little--but only because I love you and admire you for possessing a talent and a way of seeing and sharing your world that is absent in me.

The world may not respect them, but the world needs poets more than it could ever know. I am comforted they are out there hiding in plain sight among us and carefully tending and protecting words like gibbously on behalf of the rest of us. You never know when we'll need those words back.

Here's to poets. I love you all. Now will someone please switch off the microphone?