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Cover of Caldiero’s book

Alex Caldiero- Poet? {format} {format} 5:41 Scott Carrier

When is a poet not a poet?

Broadcast: Apr 27 2004 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Poetry Month Subjects: Art, Literature

Profile: One artist's effort to define himself and his work

April 27, 2004 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The news is too much with us, dear listeners. Here are a few moments to elevate the day, a protest poem from the 16th-century English writer Edmund Spenser. He'd sent something to Queen Elizabeth. She liked it. She told her treasurer to pay him. The treasurer forgot, or said he did. Anyway, months later, Spenser sent this: (Reading) `I was promised on a time to have reason for my rhyme. From that time unto this season, I received nor rhyme nor reason.'

Well, they did pay him after that, but that's how it is with artists, especially poets. First, they get creative, then they want to get paid. In Spenser's time, and today, too, no matter who you are, you gotta get by. Here's a story from a writer friend in Salt Lake City, Scott Carrier.

Mr. SCOTT CARRIER (Writer): My friend Alex Caldiero came by the other day.

Mr. ALEX CALDIERO (Friend): What's going on?

Mr. CARRIER: He's a poet and a scholar, a man who knows every story that's ever been told, and usually he's in a good mood, making jokes. But this time, he was looking like he'd just seen a ghost.

Mr. CALDIERO: I don't know.

Mr. CARRIER: Or maybe he'd shot somebody.

Mr. CALDIERO: You know, it's a sense of frustration. I apply for grants and I can't describe the categories. I can't fit the category.

Mr. CARRIER: He'd been turned down again by the Utah Arts Council.

Mr. CALDIERO: You know, I sing, and I'm not really a singer.

Mr. CARRIER: He's missed it three years in a row now.

Mr. CALDIERO: You know, I do poetry and I'm not really a poet.

Mr. CARRIER: I know the director of the Arts Council, and he told me one reason Alex's proposals get rejected is because he won't call himself a poet. He makes up new categories like word shaker and Sinocipher(ph). This confuses the selection committee. They give money to fiction writers, dancers, photographers, but what's a word shaker?

Mr. CALDIERO: You know, they have to think in soundbites. They have to think in thoughtbites. And everything has got to be two-dimensionally stated, you know. And real art and real poetry is not like that.

Mr. CARRIER: Then, according to the director, there's also a problem with giving public money to individual artists because the individual artists sometimes do things that upset the public. The director didn't come right out and say that maybe what Alex does upsets people--and maybe this isn't the problem at all--but in March, for example, for the anti-war protests on the steps of the state Capitol, Alex put on a white gas mask and banged on a mortar shell with a stick and made gasping noises into the microphone while two women in blue Afghan burqas spun in circles, one to either side. It scared people. It scared me, and I knew he was gonna do it. And he's right, I can't think what category to put that in.

Mr. CALDIERO: You know, and so what's going on?

Mr. CARRIER: Here's an example of one of his poems.

Mr. CALDIERO: (Reading) `This is a lie. This is a secret. This is a lie. This is a secret. This is classified. This is a lie. This is confidential. This is a secret. This is a lie. This is a lie.'

Mr. CARRIER: Sometimes he speaks in tongues; sometimes he sings.

Mr. CALDIERO: (Singing) The money's gone out the window. The monkey's walked out the door.

Mr. CARRIER: Sometimes he tells his dreams.

Mr. CALDIERO: A dream, February 7th, 2001. I'm with George W. Bush, president of the United States of America. We are by a lake and it is winter. Papa Bush is there and Mama Bush is there. It's a family gathering, and I'm one of the family. We are all by a lake and it's winter and it's a Bush family tradition to play the diving in game. So George, President W. Bush, gets up and dives into the icy water and goes down deep and then surfaces and leaps right onto the shore. `That looks dangerous,' I say. `Why do you do it, George?' He answers, `You got to go in to get out.'

Mr. CARRIER: I told Alex not to give up hope, maybe next year. I said, `You know, if you don't make up a new category, just call yourself a poet and propose something that sounds safe; no burqas, no gas masks, maybe just say you're gonna stay home and look at your belly button.' But I doubt that's gonna happen.

Mr. CALDIERO: Nomenclature. `Belly Button' is the US military code name for the one who makes the decisions. Hence, the phrases, `He can't find his belly button,' `We don't know the belly button,' `There is no belly button,' `Where is my belly button?' etc.

Mr. CARRIER: This is Scott Carrier.

CHADWICK: Scott's story was produced with support from our friends at And did we say that this is National Poetry Month? It is. Happy poems to you.