Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Skillet Laureate

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Skillet Laureate

Article excerpt

I've always enjoyed giving poetry readings. To me, each one is a literary entertainment, a chance to hold the attention of listeners in a hospitable way, an opportunity to engage and delight them with some well-chosen language. It doesn't matter if they don't "get" the poem as they would when reading it on the page; it doesn't matter if they only remember a few lines, or a title or two. What matters is that they're hearing a fellow human being who did his best to get the best words in the best order, to arrange them--precisely, inventively, and joyfully--into those charged little worlds called poems.

Almost all of my readings have been afternoon or early evening performances. A few have been scheduled in the morning, including a gig twenty Junes ago for the West Durham Sunrise Rotary Club, whose name suggests the unlikely time at which I was asked to read my poems to area businessmen and community leaders. I've also shared poetry at local churches before the 11:00 or 11:15 service, and at high schools and hospitals before the lunch period.

But my most memorable breakfast gig, by far, was at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, in Oxford, Mississippi, on October 29, 2011.

The SFA is a lively group of food-obsessed souls, and I'd always wanted to attend one of their legendary parties distinguished conferences, which have intriguing themes. That year's was "The Cultivated South," and esteemed food writer and SFA director John T. Edge asked me to serve up what he called "Poetry for a Morning Repast" at 9:00 a.m. that Saturday. I said yes, of course, immediately, because it was John T. asking, and because it was the SFA, and because I love me some Oxford; but the more I thought about it, the more I thought: Uh-oh. After a long Friday night of eating and drinking and making very merry, how many SFA conferees would actually show up to hear poetry at 0900? And of those who did, how many would have heads able to endure twenty minutes of Michael McFee and poetry without feeling even worse than they already did?

I needn't have worried. The turnout, in a large lovely campus hall, was gratifying. Brother Edge gave a fine introduction, during which he called me, overgenerously, "the poet laureate of food." I stepped to the microphone and prefaced my reading by saying: "To me, poetry is like cooking, and a good poem is like a well-cooked dish: both use the freshest ingredients possible, both are distillations that take a while to make, and both should be eaten slowly, savored, enjoyed with all the senses."

And then I began the poetic fun, reading poems about recipes and deviled eggs and pork skins and gravy and saltines and salt and sweet potatoes and (cheers!) champagne. The crowd was responsive, I fed off their energy, and that autumnal experiment in Breakfast Poetry Theatre felt like a success.

Afterwards, I was greeting people at the foot of the stage, gently thanking them for coming out, gingerly shaking their hands, trying to get them back to their strong coffee as soon as possible. A smiling bald man stepped forward, seized my hand, and said, "Mr. McFee, I enjoyed your poetry!" "Thank you, sir!" I cried. He identified himself as the CEO of Lodge Cast Iron, and we exchanged a few more exclamatory sentences before he said, "Know what I think? I think you need to write a poem about a cast-iron skillet." "I want to write that poem," I replied, instantly. And then he made clear that he might be interested in using such a poem for Lodge promotional material and stores, and that some sort of compensation would be involved. "I definitely want to write that poem," I said.

We exchanged business cards--his actually featured a cast-iron skillet, its sunny-side-up egg casting a yellow eye on me--and I promised to be in touch. A commission! I thought. My big break, at last! And then I went off to sober up.

The following Friday I e-mailed Bob Kellerman at Lodge, thanking him for his enthusiasm and kind words following my SFA reading. …

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