For several years now, Clebo Rainey has been called "poet emeritus of Dallas" or "the father of Dallas poetry" or--most recently in these pages--"the Papa Bear of North Texas poetry." From hosting poetry nights at Club Clearview, the Dark Room, and the McKinney Avenue Contemporary to organizing virtually every reading for area arts festivals, the 48-year-old former small business owner currently reigns as the kingpin of Dallas' fertile poetry scene.
"Some people accuse me of being a relentless self-promoter," Rainey says. "In my classes and workshops, I try to teach these young poets to do just that--get out there and sell themselves. Poetry should be an event, a big show that gets people excited. And there's nothing wrong with making money if you can; I made 12 grand last year on poetry alone."
"But I am not a sellout or a censor," Rainey continues. "I like the word 'fuck' as much as the next guy, but yelling it at a reading doesn't make you a poet."
Rainey is on the defensive these days, shielding his reputation from the criticisms of a self-styled "white trash garage poet" from Fort Worth named Robert Howington. Rainey yanked Howington, a 'zine publisher and occasional co-host of the Wednesday night poetry readings at Fort Worth's Dogstar Cafe, offstage in mid-reading the day before Easter at this year's Mandalay Arts Festival in Irving. Howington claims it was censorship, pure and simple; Rainey insists the notoriously confrontational poet hadn't tailored his message to the Mandalay audience, which tends to be family-oriented.
Howington, whose 'zine and website are called "Losers Are Cool," admits he deliberately ignored Rainey's request not to use the word "fuck" while reading his poems to the Mandalay audience. Clebo had passed along this warning to all the poets assembled; Steven Milard, the man from Main Events Inc. who gave him a budget to hire and organize the poetry part of the Mandalay Arts Festival, had asked Rainey to request that the poets censor themselves.
"I hated it as soon as I got there," Howington confirms. "Have you ever seen that movie Rollerball? There's this industrial complex where people are supposed to be having fun, but there's something really twisted about it. That's how I felt about the Mandalay Arts Festival. It was yuppieville. And I decided the only way I could have some fun was to break the rules."
Howington says the first poem he read contained a couple "fuck"s, but Clebo didn't mount the stage and seize the mike until midway through the second, a ditty called "You Southern Fried Refried Enchilada Taco Motherfucker."
"If you're gonna have poetry somewhere, then let the poets express themselves," Howington says. "Otherwise, don't have poetry. Can you imagine if someone asked Ginsburg or Bukowski not to say 'fuck?'"
Some heated words were exchanged offstage, but the afternoon continued without incident. More as a goof than anything else, he says, Howington continued the feud at the next major Dallas arts festival--last April's Deep Ellum Arts Festival, where, Clebo says proudly, "The poets could say 'fuck' as loud and often as they wanted to." Howington walked through the crowds near the poetry stage with his wife, Christa. He wore a big green sign that said THE LOSER--ONLY FORT WORTH POET BANNED IN DALLAS--CENSORSHIP SUCKS. Shortly after Clebo recognized Howington, a confrontation ensued that required intervention by a Dallas cop.
The accounts by Rainey and Howington concur--the person who escalated the incident was Howington's wife, Christa.
"When I see him there, I say something like 'Man, you just can't let it go, can you?'" Clebo remembers. "And then he said something else, but his wife jumps up in my face and starts waving her finger and shouting 'Fuck you! Fuck you!'"
"My wife's a little spitfire," Howington says with a chuckle. "She's from Erie, Pennsylvania, so she's got that Yankee feistiness. Plus, she'd had a few beers by then. We both had. She originally wanted me to wear a piece of tape over my mouth that read 'censorship' instead of the sign."
Clebo said something to the effect of: "Get your bitch out of my face," raising Howington's well-lubricated ire ("What's a husband supposed to do when someone insults his wife?" the poet wonders). Before blows were actually traded, Clebo pulled a Dallas policeman over to ask the Howingtons to leave.
"I've won almost every fight I've ever been in during my life," Clebo testifies. "But I'm not getting any younger. These days if I try to fight, I break a hand or a $300 pair of glasses."
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The policeman listened to both sides of the story, and Robert Howington says, "He was trying hard not to laugh at us. He said, 'This has been a peaceable event so far. I wasn't expecting trouble from the poets.'"
In the end, Robert and Christa left willingly, though Howington got a good story out of it for the last issue of his 'zine (a version with photos also appears on the "Losers" website). Clebo, meanwhile, says he'll be happy to work with Howington again if the guy will stick to the rules of an event. "But he's pissed me off too many times before," he says. "I don't know."
"I think Robert and some of the other Fort Worth poets are frustrated," Rainey offers. "Because that city has only one public place there where they can say whatever the hell they want, and that's the Dogstar. You can say 'fuck' a million times at most of the Dallas readings and no one cares."
For his part, Howington maintains he doesn't really care what people in the Dallas poetry scene think of him; except for the occasional hosting gig at the Dogstar, he's practically retired from the local circuit. Now he wants to concentrate on spreading the "Losers Are Cool" gospel via modem and mail: "I'm already known all over Dallas and Fort Worth. Now I'm working on independent bookstores across the country. You can buy my 'zine in Australia.