I had the pleasure of hearing Patrick Lawler read this piece at the Copper Nickel post-(Denver) AWP shindig. It was one of the highlights of my trip to the convention. Lawler’s prose poem, “Dearest Akeem,” is written as a first person epistolary. It begins as such:
Thank you for your email explaining your dire situation:
The death of your father. The 9.5 million dollars.
Your request for my private bank account information
In order to transfer the funds to my account.
And your generous offer of 5% for being the guardian
Of the bank account. Thank you for trusting me (53).
According to Lawler, he had, in fact, received an email from a Nigerian scammer a few years back. Most of us have had the pleasure of reading such emails: My father has passed away, I’m a Christian missionary in Nigeria; I can sell you a car but still need to “mail” it to you. What is the internet good for if not bringing people together? In this case, Lawler exploits the potential exploiter and does so in a way that is as entertaining as it is meaningful.
The narrator responds to Akeem (as seen in the example above). But, instead of falling victim to a scam-artist, he uses Akeem as an virtual/international therapist of sorts. What the narrator reveals to Akeem through the emails helps Lawler develop a fully round character. We know nothing of Akeem, we never will. We read no replies by Akeem. It’s assumed that Akeem stopped responding to our narrator after the third or fourth email, that he possibly asked the narrator to please stop hitting the reply button. It’s clever, certainly, but Lawler never takes that cleverness too far. Instead, he evokes a kind of pathetic sympathy as his emails to Akeem become more and more personal. Below are two passages that show how Lawler utilizes the epistolary format (albeit a modern version of) to reveal character:
I sought the psychotic student out for conversations
He asked me, “Do you ever feel you are turning into a bee?”
Afterwards, a person from Continuing Ed at the college asked me,
“Do you think he is paranoid schizophrenic?” I said, “Well, he didn’t used to be” (53)
Here, we learned that the narrator is a professor and that he has a psychotic student. We also learn that he has a sense of humor (“he didn’t used to be [schizophrenic]). Lawler continues to develop the character:
Now I must solicit your deepest confidence.
This is by virtue of its nature as being utterly confidential.
When I was following the psychotic student home,
I wasn’t sure it was still him.
For all I knew he could have been my father—
And now even yours (56).
Lawler’s narrator is eccentric to be certain (perhaps a bit sinister), but is never too aware of himself as a fictional narrator. I was never distracted by the character’s ability to poke fun at a scam artist and found myself wavering between believing the narrator’s correspondence and going “all in” on the big joke. I wanted to believe the character was fooling around. I wanted to believe he was making dangerous confessions to a man in Africa who was only interested in his bank account. Both were as pleasant a thought as I could muster, especially given the convention of the form itself.
Though this is poetry, I found it extremely helpful in terms of illustrating how a writer can exploit a given form (epistolary letter format pushed into the modern internet era). It puts the “creative” back into “creative writing.” Inspiring and entertaining.
“Dearest Akeem” can be found in The Copper Nickel Vol. 12