One summer I attended a huge party in rural Indiana hosted by science-fiction fans and writers Buck and Juanita Coulson. When the party was down to about 20 people, Buck pulled out a book of poems and offered a prize to anyone who could read through one of them without cracking up. Nobody made it.
This event, when I was a teenager, was my introduction to great bad art. The poet, who is still unknown even to most connoisseurs of inadvertent humor, was Violette Peaches Watkins. The book, her second, was “My Dream World of Poetry: Poems of Imagination, Reality and Dreams.” Mrs. Watkins was “a popular radio announcer on Station WHFC, Chicago, and a prominent patron of the arts,” according to the dust jacket. (I’ve guessed this means she was a gospel music DJ, since many of her poems have a religious theme, but I have no evidence.) My friend Marianna Boncek has done some research on Mrs. Watkins and discovered that she was apparently well known in black artistic circles in Chicago.
I searched for a copy of “My Dream World” for four decades, even though I had a photocopy provided to me, years after the party, by Buck. I used to tell people I was confident I would die without ever finding a copy, but I was wrong. Eventually an Internet search turned up two copies from the same seller, and I bought them both. Hey, you never know.
Incidentally, when I first told Marianna about the book and the contest, she told me with great confidence that she was certain she could read one of the poems without problems, having read plenty of awful poems produced by the students she teaches. She got through three lines of Mrs. Watkins and started laughing so hard she couldn’t go any further.
Mrs. Watkins has the qualities required by artistic inadvertent humor: ambition, incompetence, and gradiosity. They’re all necessary, and when done “right” they add up to a kind of anti-genius. I have seen plenty of movies made more ineptly than those of Ed Wood. Mill Creek Video has issued three 50-film collections of amateur horror movies, “Catacomb of Creepshows,” “Tomb of Terrors,” and “Decrepit Crypt of Nightmares.” The ones I’ve watched are incredibly awful but few of them are funny.
Mrs. Watkins’s “best” poems go on for several pages. But I want to quote one complete, so here is one that shows off her typical qualities:
The Cure for Juvenile Delinquency
You must start, from the beginning of time,
Praying hard daily, at least three times,
Thanking Almighty God for what you’ve got,
To be sure He will take care of that.
If your prayers successfully reach God’s throne,
Your child will be trained before it’s born;
For the Almighty God, who made heaven and the universe,
Will guide your child while it’s on this good earth.
Both parents should be faithful, loyal and true,
Because your child will have characteristics of you;
This much you owe to your child before it’s born:
To be brilliant, healthy and have a happy home.
Pray that he will be a blessing to humanity
And won’t lead a life of crime and insanity;
Pray hard that he will walk in God’s light;
Pray that he will always live upright.
And somewhere, sometime, the day will come
You’ll be repaid for the songs you’ve sung,
The prayers you’ve prayed, your toil and patience,
For being faithful and true, and your kind consideration.
There’s no reason to point out all the many reasons why I consider Mrs. Watkins the greatest bad poet I’ve ever read–even funnier than the legendary William McGonagall. All I can say is that if anyone ever finds a copy of her first book, “Violette Peaches’ Book of Modern Poetry for All Occasions,” let me know. I’m offering serious money!
I can think of only two other producers of legendary bad art whose work makes me laugh a lot. One is the singer Florence Foster Jenkins, who in her brief career managed to convulse thousands of music lovers, without ever realizing that people were laughing at her. Jenkins’s rich husband wouldn’t allow her to perform in public. After his death, though, she started a series of salons which eventually grew to concerts in hotel ballrooms and finally, in her last great moment of triumph, a sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall. No doubt such recitals would have become annual events had she not died soon afterwards.
Listening to Mrs. Jenkins carefully–which is, I admit, difficult–you can actually hear some suggestions of musicianship. And she doesn’t sing consistently out of tune. (If she had, she would have been less funny.) But hearing her grasp for the notes in the famous aria of the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” is an experience which continues to crack me up even after having heard it for more than 50 years. It’s also fun to hear her accompanist, one Cosme McMoon (his real name!), trying to keep up with her. We are fortunate indeed that Mrs. Jenkins decided to immortalize her art on private recordings, which she sold only directly to individual music lovers after interviewing them and making sure they were sufficiently educated in music to appreciate her work.
Mrs. Jenkins’s recordings are most conveniently available in a reissue from the Naxos label. My friend Gregor Benko’s collection “The Muse Surmounted” includes an interview with McMoon as part of a collection of other bad singers whose work he has enjoyed. One of them is Vassilka Petrova, whom operaphiles generally consider the worst singer to record a complete opera role. (She did two for the early bargain-priced Remington label. Rumor has it that she was married for a time to Remington’s owner.) When I was a dealer in classical LP records, I always rejoiced when I found a Petrova recording. They sold for very high prices. Follow the link above and you will be able to buy all of Petrova’s LP recordings on CD!
Then, of course, there’s the great bad film director Edward D. Wood, Jr. His “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is often cited as the worst film ever made, but it’s definitely not. His first feature, “Glen or Glenda,” is even worse (and perhaps even funnier), and the 1930s films of Dwayne Esper (probably best known for “Maniac”) are certainly worse in all respects. But it’s the grandiose stupidity of Wood’s dialogue that makes his films among the greatest examples of inadvertent humor ever produced. You can demonstrate this by seeing movies like “Orgy of the Dead” or “The Violent Years,” which are hilarious even though Wood only wrote the scripts and did not direct them.
Since most of Wood’s work is now in the public domain, it’s relatively easy to find. Two useful collections of Wood’s worst have now gone out of print, and the new “Big Box of Wood,” as wonderful as it is, doesn’t have “Glen or Glenda” in it. If you’re curious try “Plan 9″ or this collection.
What do we gain by laughing at the ineptitude of others? Well, the most useful element I can think of is the way bad art illuminates the difficulties of creating great art. Seeing how badly Wood’s films demonstrate elements of film making we usually take for granted, I realize just how hard it is to make even a competent run-of-the-mill film. But the hell with that. Mostly what we gain are laughs, which are always useful. I still remember the experience of my old friend Sasha Gillman, who unwillingly accompanied her husband Jerry to my house for an Ed Wood Night. (I still do these!) She said she wouldn’t find anything to laugh about in a bad movie, and she wound up laughing so hard she literally fell off the couch.