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The Odd Couplet

The people choosing the next state poet are well-versed in literary tradition. No wonder they overlooked these three poets.

"Anything'll set you off," says garage-door repairman Jerry Sutliff.
It was a conversation in a restaurant that set Sutliff off one day last December. Another man was talking about his mother, who'd just died. "What got me," Sutliff remembers the man saying, "was that Mom's house was full of rooms we couldn't go into, furniture we couldn't sit on. And now I never will." Sutliff thought this was terrible. And in between his next two jobs, he took out his trusty pencil and notebook and began work on a poem he eventually titled "The Saddest Thing That I Have Ever Seen":

About the saddest thing that I have ever seen
Is a Grandparents' house so spotless and clean
That Grandchildren don't feel welcome there,
The sound of their laughter not heard anywhere.

Sutliff continued on for five more stanzas, then did his usual search for "using the same word twice, which I don't like to do," had his poem typed up, and sent it out as a Christmas card.

The response was swift and positive, but then, Sutliff's friends and family have come to expect poetry from him. His poems are as much a part of his personality as the aluminum extension ladders he carries in the back of his truck.

It wasn't always this way. Sutliff unexpectedly became a poet in 1970, when he heard that the one-room schoolhouse he'd attended in rural Wisconsin was closing down. Suddenly and unaccountably--after all, he had never been much of a student--he felt compelled to write a stately, fifteen-verse ode. Twenty-six years later, poems appear to him all the time: on the job, sipping a cup of coffee, contemplating his past or his grandchildren. At the moment, he has three different poems in the works.

"The first one is called 'Jerry's Diet,'" Sutliff says while unraveling a cinnamon roll at a Golden McDonald's. "Here's what I got so far: 'I try to diet but I don't get far/'Cause my hand's always in the cookie jar.' I am also working on one about the cars of the 1950s. Which I love. I got this part put into the middle: 'We had curb scrapers all around/But there weren't any curbs in our hometown.'"

The third verse-in-progress is firmly rooted in the cowboy-poetry tradition--arguably the only respectable poetic form if you are a Western garage-door repairman who does not hold with the more effete side of literature. "It's about a friend of mine who tried to ride a Brahma bull," Sutliff says. "His friend dared him. He had to."

Sutliff pronounces it BRAH-ma, as opposed to the true cowpoke BRAY-ma, but that makes sense, as he is "only a pretend cowboy," he explains. "I listened to a lot of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry as a kid. I can't write a whole lot about real cowboys, except the basic things--do what's right, that sort of thing. Get by with what you have."

Such basic things certainly inspired Sutliff's "Outhouse, John, or Biffy," an ode to outdoor plumbing that he had carefully printed up, complete with the logo of his business, Foothills Door Company. Sometimes he will hand this poem to a surprised garage-door customer, who will usually read it long after Sutliff and his repair truck have disappeared around the bend:

It was called a biffy, toilet, or backhouse
A two-holer, Outhouse, John or Can.
Sometimes you took a leisurely walk,
Then other times you ran...
You could plan great things for your life,
As you tarried on a hot night in June.
Or sing and whistle your cares away,
While peaking out through the quarter moon.

While Sutliff sits in McDonald's, thinking about the sort of drawings he'd like to illustrate his poems--the way he sees it, a cowboy poet has to have cartoons printed next to his poems or he's just not trying--a top-secret committee is considering the top-secret matter of Colorado's next poet laureate.

This state has been without an official poet since Thomas Hornsby Ferril died in 1988. But sometime in late August, the committee will send the names of its top three finalists to Governor Roy Romer, who will choose the poet who best captures Colorado in verse--for the next four years, at any rate, since the new poet laureate, like Colorado's elected officials, will be subject to term limits. During his four-year reign, the honored poet will have an office in the newly restored Denver home of Thomas Hornsby Ferril, soon to be headquarters for the Colorado Center for the Book, as well as a $4,000 annual stipend, funding permitting.

"Really?" Sutliff asks, when he learns of this. "That sounds like a nice deal."

Too bad Sutliff wasn't among the poets nominated for the job. But even if he were eligible for the honor, he says, he's not sure he would serve. "I met this ex-teacher a couple of years ago, doing her garage doors," he says, "and she calls me up all the time and says I should take one day off each week to write. That's easy if you don't have bills to pay. Plus," he muses, "I'm not sure if I could just sit there and write poems all day."

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