Writing satire about the poetry world is like shooting similes in a barrel. Line for line, there's no more fertile subject than the black turtleneck crowd clutching their foundation-funded chapbooks in the student lounge.
A debut novel from Debra Weinstein scans this oeuvre with deflating wit. In fact, "Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z." should be required reading for anyone who uses the word "oeuvre." Annabelle, a wide-eyed undergraduate at New York University, opens the novel by telling us, "This is the story of how I came to momentary prominence in the world of poetry and, through a series of misunderstandings, destroyed my good name and became a nobody."
Annabelle's trajectory is propelled by her dream job: working as an assistant to the legendary Professor Z., author of "the first poetry book ever to land on a national bestseller list." Although the job involves far more stress than unstress, Annabelle comes to it like a pilgrim to the holiest of holies. Professor Z. wrote the flower poems that once saved Annabelle's life, and she's determined to savor every drop of nectar from the petals of Z.'s brilliance.
Perhaps one of the reasons Weinstein's book has been so well received is that so many book reviewers are survivors of graduate writing programs. Annabelle's cheery voice, so full of breathless wonder and unconscious satire, allows us to reexperience our lost innocence, while confirming what we suspected all along: We were better than those aloof professors we fawned over desperately.
The appeal here, though, is broader - broad enough to include anybody who appreciates the absurdity of intellectual pretension or the comedy of imperial bosses.
Z. admonishes Annabelle that "a keen eye is essential in a poet," but unfortunately, Annabelle is a better reader of verse than personality. With unflappable naiveté, she keeps wondering, "What is poetry?" while slaving away at Professor Z.'s menial assignments, such as finding just the prescribed shade of fountain pen ink. "I want the blackest ink you can find," Z. says with somber gravitas. "Jet black, not midnight black, not shoeshine black."
In this brilliant elegy to the abuse of subordinates, all of Z.'s requests rhyme with "absurd." She'll sign her letters only in a particular order.
She sends Annabelle back to the Salvation Army to paw through piles for her favorite pair of shoes. The buttons on her blazer must be replaced because she can't "live with the constant jangling." Several times, she castigates Annabelle for failing to keep sufficiently close watch on the supply of hand towels in the bathroom. "I like the paper to be thick and textured," Z. cautions. "The feel should be more cotton than paper."
"A less noble person would feel degraded," Annabelle says without missing a beat, "but I take Z.'s assignment as a challenge." In fact, she's flattered to be "the guardian of Z.'s psychic space," thrilled to be enjoying status unlike anything she's ever experienced before.
Typing Z.'s manuscripts, she can hardly believe that the master actually asks for her advice:
my arthritic half-moon, far-reaching thought (?), spine (?)
Before long, Professor Z. is asking Annabelle to steal flowers from public gardens around New York City and write descriptions of them for $2 a pop:
Wisteria: like hysteria, only it clings to a building
a bunch of purple flowers hiding a sturdy vine.
When her own couplets show up in Z.'s celebrated poetry, Annabelle is full of secret gratitude that she could help great art blossom. But her humiliation is rounded out by some particularly bizarre sexual abuse at the hands of another depressed graduate student whose mentor died and left him in eternal academic limbo.
What's sharpest about Weinstein's well-metered wit is the way she sinks down into this elite subculture. The whole shameful business has been presatirzed for decades, but Weinstein, a published poet herself, knows where all the bodies are buried. In the Rube Goldberg world of verse, academics nominate their sycophantic colleagues to serve as judges of poetry foundations where they can reciprocate by awarding prizes to those professors. And this leads to more prestigious departments of creative writing that can hire more friends who have favored them with glowing reviews in journals edited by their lovers.
Weinstein saves some of her most brilliant moments for scenes of the poetry workshop, a lush garden of posturing and veiled hostility. (If you've ever endured a poetry workshop, you may want to skip this section - could cause anapestic laughter.)
Even as her innocence fades into experience, Annabelle never grows bitter, and one suspects that Weinstein, despite the precision of her satire, hasn't fallen into that refrain either. To the last beat, Annabelle retains the goodwill that brought her to Z.'s door so full of hope and appreciation for the real power of poetry. And ultimately, she sees the act of telling this story as a way toward liberation. Even for those of us beyond the clutches of tenured taskmasters, this is freedom worth celebrating.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.