Let me repeat that. Sherman Alexie came to town to talk for free.
The man who writes villanelles, those nineteen-line poetic forms that consist of five tercets followed by a quatrain.
And not just one, but six in his last book.
The poetry, fiction and young adult writer who's won most of the prizes available to him flew into Richmond last night, spent the day reading (mostly in the bathtub) and gave a meandering two hour-plus talk at UR's Alumni Center.
I found a seat next to two UR students, one in blue chiffon over a black lace dress and the other busy texting with her Mom.
I tried not to judge.
After an effusive introduction of the native American writer ("his poems have footnotes with footnotes"), Sherman said, "Ryan almost made me cry. I like that white boy. I like saying white boy in the south."
So we knew early on that it was going to be that kind of evening.
He called himself, "a liberal feminist because I objectify women out of the corner of my eye."
He won my heart when he told the crowd of literary geeks and UR students, "You're going to experience a lot of tangents tonight. Tangents are a scared part of the oral tradition."
Be still my heart.
During a wide-ranging talk that covered what he ate last night (a turkey sandwich from room service at 1 a.m.) to his own shift post-9/11 ("I'm trying to be less fundamental about Indians and liberalism") to digital literature ("I'm not sure great writers will embrace it"), he held the adults in his thrall and occasionally even captured the students.
About hating Amazon he observed, "You're trading your liberal philosophies for free shipping. Discuss among yourselves."
I'd rather not.
Because he's been publishing short stories online ("I've been writing short stories that fit on one page of my iPad"), he read us some.
And he won my heart a second time when he read, "Walls, floor, ceiling, thrumming with grasshoppers."
Thrumming? Quick, my smelling salts, I'm getting the vapors.
That one finished with the line, "I closed my eyes and stepped into the swarm," causing him to quip, "That's very Catholic. I'm Catholic. Catholicism and Indianism is guilt squared. The Catholic church can kiss my ass. I don't like fundamentalism among my tribe, either."
Hilarious, right? It gets better.
"Some of these jokes some of you may not get, so look them up on Wikipedia."
Boom. Clueless students put in place.
He read a story called "Analog," about preferring an answering machine with a tiny cassette tape and his friends complaining about his lack of cell phone.
I can relate.
"Call me, leave a message," he read. "I'm keeping count. We're all in this together."
He shared a short story attributed to Hemingway ("For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."), noting, "Killer, huh?"
Dead on the floor.
"Focus on the Family" read, "My ex-husband, my sister, they eloped."
A pattern was developing and Sherman confirmed it. "These stories often function as jokes. Lead-in, set-up, punchline. The pauses make it poetry and stand-up comedy."
And, let me assure, you, Sherman was a master, long a student, of stand-up comedy.
"Richard Pryor was a better poet than Yeats ever was," he intoned. My only fear was that most of the students had no idea who Yeats was and he hadn't reminded them to look it up on Wikipedia.
"He followed her to his house," read "Murder Suicide."
He said the only time he'd published online ("The instant gratification is dangerous") was when "Pachyderm" published in The Awl.
"There was an immediate response," he shared. "I got a bunch of likes. It felt so high school."
Isn't that essence of FB?
He talked some about his upbringing on an Indian reservation without running water or electricity (he was born in 1966), apologizing because, "I became wealthy through metaphors."
I suppose I had never considered that that was a possibility.
He read "Facebook Sonnet," with the line, "Welcome to the endless high school reunion" and closed with, "Let fame and shame intertwine here at the altar of loneliness."
As justification, he spoke of marital law figures saying that 33% of divorce cases mentioned Facebook.
Truly, it is a
Talking about how amazing language is, he stated that, "One of the most beautiful words in the English language is gonorrhea. Now say it together."
And don't you know that a room full of adults and students said it for him?
He took a tangent into sex, saying, "Marriage is blue-collar labor," and talking about having kids and stepping on a Lego at 3 a.m. and screaming in pain.
"That's not sacred. If you want gays to stop having sex, let them get married," he assured us.
Sherman was not hesitant to call out everyone- liberals, conservatives, whites, blacks, browns- and say exactly what he thought.
After a particularly pithy remark directed at conservatives, he said, "You conservatives can discuss that over your liberally-created craft beer."
But what was even funnier was when he said, "That's another complicated joke."
Truthfully, all of his jokes were complicated, as were his stories, truly not an evening for the faint of intellect.
But it was also screamingly funny, as when he began complimenting a woman in the third row.
Addressing her mate, Sherman said, "One of the perks of this job is I get to hit on women in front of their men."
He explained how he walks in two worlds. "It's awesome. I don't know if you've noticed, but I've done it eight or nine times tonight."
Noticed? I'd practically worshiped at his altar for it.
A talk that had been scheduled to run an hour with a half hour reception was now entering its third hour with the reception nowhere in sight.
I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.
Here was a Tuesday evening of poetry, short stories, pithy commentary, philosophical challenges, brilliant humor and devastating self-deprecation the likes of which I haven't seen in many moons.
Just as I was thinking that life couldn't get much rosier, I glanced over at the spiral notebook of the chiffon-clad student next to me.
At the top of the page was Shermans' name, followed by the words, "poetry, short stories, young adult."
Underneath that she'd written in large block letters, "SO MANY TANGENTS!"
And under that, she'd played tic-tac-toe with the Momma's girl next to her.
God help us, these are the golf-playing leaders of tomorrow?
All I can say is, I wouldn't have wanted to be listening to anyone else other than Sherman tonight.
Whether telling a future writer not to care about his audience or challenging a man to bench press more than he could, his words were fascinating, well-thought out and hysterical.
And yes, I could have gone home after so much stimulation, but why would I?
Instead, I stopped by Secco in the pouring rain for no reason other than to tell someone, anyone, what I'd just heard.
Poor things, I told at least three of them about Sherman's wit, the clueless students and the ripping good time I'd had hearing so many of this man's thoughts.
As long as I was there, I enjoyed a glass of Cabernet Franc and a dish of chickpea gnocchi with lamb ragu and preserved lemon.
The delicacy of thee preserved lemon peeking through the earthier flavors was almost as impressive as the six-word short stories that had bowled me over earlier.
As luck would have it, a friend came in and I ended up with a fellow reader who happily listened to tales of having my gray matter prodded, stroked and piqued.
Like me, she was shocked and amazed that Sherman had paid us a visit, but disappointed that she hadn't known about it.
I told her about Sherman's tangents and how some people avoid them to stay on topic.
"No!" she wailed. "Get lost in them instead!"
Truly a woman after my own heart.
While I enjoyed a chocolate budino, we chatted with a nearby couple about wine.
At one point, my friend remarked about a wine that it "tasted like butt," causing the women to gasp and ask if she'd heard that correctly.
My friend went into an in-depth discussion of various terroirs and the resulting wine notes and somehow we end up talking about how horse poop smells.
Apparently it's not nearly as offensive as, say, dog poop or cow poop.
The woman, who worked at a spay/neuter facility, concurred and I realized that after an intense talk about race, religion and sex at UR, I was now embroiled in a passionate discussion of the animal poop notes in some wines.
As it should be. Tangents are a scared part of the oral tradition.
Getting lost in them is as satisfying as listening to the steady thrum of tonight's rain.
I realize that's no villanelle, but then I'm not the one who got wealthy off metaphors.