Monday, February 4, 2013

My First Time: Jan Richman

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is novelist and poet Jan Richman whose book, Thrill-Bent was recently published by Tupelo Press.  Her poetry collection Because the Brain Can Be Talked into Anything (LSU Press, 1995) was chosen by Robert Pinsky for the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets.  Richman received an NEA grant in Literature, a Nation/Discovery award, and the Celia B. Wagner prize from the Poetry Society of America.  She lives in Oakland, California.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Literary Scandal
and Subsequent Disgrace

Like Truman Capote, I met with literary fame at a ripe young age—complete with the requisite pomp and circumstance.  For me, it was not Bennett Cerf who crowned my talents with a laurel wreath and a Random House contract, but Mrs. Aisles, a nice old lady who smelled of Aqua Net and tuna fish (not necessarily in that order).

In second grade, we had been learning to scan poetry for rhyme and meter—mostly haiku and Jabberwocky—when Mrs. Aisles suddenly threw down a gauntlet: prizes would be given for the first, second, and third place winners in a limerick-writing contest!  This declaration elicited exaggerated eye rolls from many in the class, and the cross-talk quickly drifted off-topic to tetherball face-offs and Knox Blox, but I vowed to reign supreme at Friday’s awards ceremony.

Truman Capote taught himself to read and write before he was five, at which point he could often be seen carrying around a dictionary and a notepad.  My mother had given me a copy of his award-winning roman à clef “Old Mrs. Busybody,” which he wrote when he was eight, along with a fancy flowered journal and an astronaut pen.  I think she was trying to encourage me to aim high, but so far I had mostly just traced my hand while lying on the floor of the living room.

Frankly, I don’t remember trying to write a limerick that night.  I have no memory of struggling with anapaestic meter or alternate punchlines.  I remember only balancing atop the headboard of my parents’ bed so I could snatch the Big Book of Limericks off the top shelf.

Lest you think I was lazy, let me assure you that choosing a limerick that was neither too ribald nor too sophisticated for a child credibly to have written, not to mention trying to discern which ones might be known to Mrs. Aisles, was its own kind of hard labor.  Eventually, I found one by Anonymous that featured a French town I doubted Mrs. Aisles had been to:
In a house in the town of Champagne
Lived a very thin lady named Jane
In her bathtub one night
She received quite a fright
For she found she had slid down the drain.
I adored the off-hand hyperbole of the last line.  I copied it out carefully with my space pen, intentionally misspelling “Champane.”

By Friday morning, I was sure I was about to be kicked out of school. I sensed that my parents’ forced smiles hid a painful knowledge of my plagiaristic ways.  And Mrs. Aisles had been adorning my homework with uncharacteristic smiley faces all week.  But when she announced my name and pinned the blue ribbon on my dress, she was gushing with pride and awe.  She told the class that she’d never read such a wonderful limerick by a student, and that I was clearly destined to be a great writer.  Then she bade me to perform my masterpiece aloud, and I gladly obeyed, making sure to alter my cadence and interject a playful pause before the final phrase.  Some kids laughed, and a few even seemed puzzled and/or impressed.

The “Scandal/Disgrace” part of this story refers only to my private reaction when I remembered the scenario many years later.  Disgrace, outrage, followed almost immediately by a shiver of recognition (I can’t believe I… yeah, that sounds like me), and the vague feeling that Mrs. Aisles might not have been the sharpest tool in the shed.

Truman Capote slowly killed himself with alcohol and tranquilizers after the massive success (and some have said deception) of In Cold Blood, trading the writing life for the talk-show circuit.  My own trajectory from the heights of my first literary success has been less pharmacological and more ink-stained.  Today, I try to employ my (ahem) ingenuity toward more authentic fictional ends, but I still struggle with punchlines.

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