Poet #1: Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty

“I write because I’m too afraid to steal, too ugly to act, too weak to fight, and too stupid in math to be a Cosmologist.”
— Paul Beatty

And thank the good lord for that. Had Carol Jago not introduced me to Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle during my senior year of high school, I may never have taken up poetry. I had just written a short story – highly derivative of Kurt Vonnegut, of course – called “Joey Jordan, And So Forth.” It was about a basketball-playing poet who never missed a shot. Amazingly enough, so too is The White Boy Shuffle. Ms. Jago saw the similarity, recommended I read the book, and I became a poet. It was really that simple.

Like the good Reverend King
I too “have a dream,”
but when I wake up
I forget it and
remember I’m running late for work.

— from The White Boy Shuffle

I was raised on Dead White Poetry. Although my curriculum included the otherworldly creations of Jack Kerouac, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Estlin Cummings, my distaste for most things dead and white kept me from embracing poetry as my own. It was an art form I never competed in, as opposed to music and calculus. Besides, it just wasn’t black enough for me.

Born to a father who spent his twenties and thirties writing scripts intended for Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, I could not escape my fate. I was doomed to be the kid who showed up the first day of junior high decked from head to toe in Cross Colours gear and talking like a Boyz n the Hood redshirt. I fetishized basketball, hip hop, and enormous pants, although I found little success with any of them. A boy with my disposition wanted nothing to do with John Keats and William Carlos Williams.

Paul Beatty turned my fetish on its head.

Stall Me Out

why you no rhythm

afraid of women asexual pseudo intellectual
bald mt. fuji shaped head

no booty havin big nose
size 13 feet pigeon toed crook footed

taco bell burrito supreme eatin
day dreamin

no jump shot can’t dunk
comic book readin
nutrition needin

knock kneed sap sucker
non drivin
anti fashion
constantly depressed clumsy no money mutherfucker

take your weak ass poems
and go back to los angeles

While simultaneously channeling his id, ego and superego, Beatty wields metaphors like a battle rapper and apologizes for nothing. As one critic put it: “he makes you laugh in self-defense.” The White Boy Shuffle challenged my notions of poetry and of myself. Beatty’s words were “verse” enough to count, but cool enough to convince 16-year-old me to try playing with poetry.

TWBS and Joker, Joker, Deuce (Beatty’s second published collection of poetry) inspired me so much that the former became my go-to referral for friends and loved ones in search of an interesting read, and the latter a gift to anyone I felt needed a little poetry in their lives.

In addition to re-calibrating my life, Paul Beatty has also remixed the haiku. Like Jack Kerouac before him, Beatty writes poems that – while not adhering to traditional haiku form – accomplish the lots-of-meaning-in-a-little-space goal first mastered by Matsuo Bashō in seventeenth century Japan. Some of these poems feel tongue-in-cheek.

Why That Abbott and Costello Vaudeville Mess Never Worked with Black People

who’s on first?
i dont know, your mama

Others are profound (…and mildly profane).

Mickey Mouse Build a House

don’t you ever feel
like in the game of life

you was the last motherfucker to say


It is entirely possible that I may have stumbled into poetry eventually without Mr. Beatty’s help, but writing conditionally about the past seems beyond the scope of The Poetry Project. What happened, happened, and I will always thank Paul Beatty for helping me get my head on straight (at least at the time).

NF with Paul Beatty

Yours truly, age 18, with Paul Beatty.

Beatty is the author of three novels and two books of poetry. His most recent work, Slumberland: A Novel, has been available for about ten months and makes an excellent gift.


One Response to “Poet #1: Paul Beatty”

  1. […] The Poetry Project Just another WordPress.com weblog « Poet #1: Paul Beatty […]

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