I am a senior in highschool and I am one of thirty finalists that have to perform a spoken word poem in front of a packed high school auditorium (600 people? 700? 800?). Each competitor has been farmed from an earlier competition in which they defeated many others. The winner of this whole shebang gets $1000, box seats to a Knicks game, an appearance at half-court during half-time, and the illustrious privilege of being featured in a Knicks marketing video/commercial.
Poetry as a competition is one of the most confusing concepts I’ve ever tried to wrap my head around. Ostensibly, you should be writing poetry to express yourself as well as possible, to be as true to your feelings, to be as true to your message as possible. But making it a competition? With prizes? With judges? It incentivizes you to cater your feelings and your message to those who judge you—but doing that may cause you to write with an affectation, which is the most hated of all things you could do in a world where raw emotion is supposedly king.
And who are our judges for this competition? LL COOL J (this is awesome) and Allan Houston. Allan Houston? What? Why is this man qualified to judge how effectively we’ve been sad and soulful and precise and uplifting in our poetry? He’s not even a worshiped celebrity at this point—this is post injury, post 100 million dollar contract signing—this man has ruined the Knicks’ future and people of New York feel really iffy/depressed when thinking about him.
Whatevs, they judge. I read a poem about how it sucks to be an Asian-American teenager and people love it. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve made an awesome point, or because I’m a gimmick—angry asian kid that shouts out “MOTHERFUCKER” and citing Beau Sia when I scream “OUR DICKS ARE IN FACT GIGANTIC” to which a girl in the audience screams “LIAR!” and to which I respond, somehow, without thinking about it, “You just want me to prove it to you. We can do that.” It is not witty, it is reflex and empty, but everyone eats it up, and I am loved more than ever and the cheers are showered at me. A girl comes back stage and kisses me on the cheek and gives me her AOL Instant Messenger screen name. She is tall, white, and very pretty, with a Russian accent and I am taken aback too much to really respond coherently. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten the only fan of my life, and the only fan kiss of my life on top of that. It is awesome.
I win. But after I win, I find out that they have picked four more winners, one conveniently from each borough, and we are conveniently diverse. One Asian male, one black male, two black females, one Latina female. I enjoy my victory, but it feels lessened by sharing. I feel bad for feeling this greedy, but god-damn-it, I was the best one there, I was the most worshiped I was the most loved. Probably. Right? Maybe this is all in my head, but it FEELS SO TRUE to me. I was an Asian boy that was kissed by a stranger-pretty-white-girl damn it! This should mean more than sharing this podium with four others. But the poor sportsmanship subsides.
I talk to LL Cool J. He went to my junior highschool, so he talks about that and one of the security guards there that he remembers fondly. I do not remember that security guard at all, and I am only 4 years removed—maybe he quit?—but I pretend to know him anyway so that I could chat with LL Cool J. We chat about more random stuff and he seems legitimately interested in what I have to say, if not also a little high and smelling like cologne over weed, but it is cool, because I am talking to LL Cool J and keeping him engaged, and he is a CELEBRITY, and I must be at least a little interesting for him to keep talking to me. He generally ignores the other contestants and I feel validated. Maybe I am special! He leaves, and I have fantasies for weeks about how I could’ve figured out to befriend him and join his entourage and live an awesome life. Somehow, this never happens.
I do receive a 1000 dollar check with his signature on it, though.
Before the game, I’m brought into the Knicks locker room. I see Stephon Marbury’s jersey, and in a moment of impulse, I go up to it, and turn around, and lay a thick fart onto it. I do it for two reasons: 1) the satisfaction of knowing that I have farted on Stephon Marbury and that he may, at one point, sniff his jersey, and wonder why it smells; 2) for the purposes of having a story to tell one day, and it turns out that I invested well with that fart, because, well, here we are.
The box seats are amazing. I am a highschool kid from Queens and I do not know much about bougie ass stuff. But this is awesome. I invite my friends Rich and Jon to the game, and I sneak them up to the box. There are television screens inside our box! We can watch the game while watching the game! We have unlimited buffalo wings! We have exclusivity! We can look down on the plebes for once, and it is so glorious. We meet Ja Rule. No one likes him now though, because of his feud with 50 cent. So we all pretend like it’s not that cool to us, but it IS SO cool. We’re just some nobody kids and we’re sitting in box seats, hanging out with celebrities and farting on their possessions, getting served buffalo wings and vegetable and cheese plates, and I feel like I’ve made it. Life only goes up from here, I think. More money, more prestige, more exclusivity, more celebrities, more service! Somehow, this never happens either.
The Knicks game itself is not memorable. The other contestants and I appear at half time on the jumbotron reciting our poetry. We get mild applause, which is disappointing, but then we also get signed basketballs, which makes up for it. When we leave Madison Square Garden, someone yells at me “HEY, IT’S THE NEXT EMINEM! NOTTTTT” and I breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t a jab at me being an Asian kid.
The filming of the marketing video is awkward and forced. They make us each write a stanza about our borough. I write the most derivative AFFECTED garbage I have ever written. I feel dirty, but I am obligated to do it. They film us from extreme camera angles, and the director keeps telling us to act more “urban” and we all know what that means, and it is offensive, but we do it anyway, because even though we are vocal, political, articulate, passionate high school students, we are still high school students, and these people have just given us a lot of stuff, and they are all adults, and everyone is acting like nothing is wrong.
I hear from friends that they see the video on the MSG network, or during timeouts in Knicks games, and for a small while, I feel like a mini-mini-celebrity and it is pretty good. The mini-mini-celebrity fades, and I go on with my life.