Women in evening gowns mingle with men in jeans and cowboy boots. Everyone wears ribbons and badges with their name, hometown and the word "poet." They nibble on Goldfish crackers and celery sticks, and sip a red "champagne punch."
This is the "lavish reception" promised in letters inviting National Library of Poetry customers to the International Society of Poets' annual convention. The letters guarantee a plaque commemorating the customer's induction as an International Poet of Merit and a chance to win cash prizes.
On a summer evening, about 2,000 amateur poets from all over the world gather at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington for the society's 1997 convention. Among them: a New Zealand woman who says she spent $5,000 to see whether she'd be named "Poet of the Year."
The poets break into groups and read to one another. Johnny Cash and Florence Henderson provide entertainment. Another attraction: a darkened room where a laser show allows poets to see their names in lights.
Nehla Zikria, 36, a physical therapy student from Virginia, says the convention was enjoyable and worthwhile. "I did not win any contests or anything, but it was a great experience for me to be able to share my work with other people and have them review it and give constructive criticism.
"People got to meet other nice people from around the world, and you got the chance to listen to what people think and how they view the world through their poetry," she said.
Others say the convention doesn't live up to its billing. Several years ago, a group of poets drawn by the notion that they were on an elite list of finalists for Poet of the Year compared notes -- and angrily realized they had received identical form letters.
John A. Coghill, 67, a retired college professor from Ontario, was disappointed.
"It's not quite what many of us expected. I thought there was going to be an award ceremony to present the awards, and instead you just go in a room and pick them up," he said, adding that writers were not allowed to showcase their work in the quest for prizes.
"To have people put out that kind of money for a trip and get there and have their poems just cast aside casually without having a real chance must have hurt a lot of people. Other than that, it was a couple of nice days in Washington."
Pub Date: 12/30/97