APPRENTICE TO THE FLOWER POET Z.
By Debra Weinstein
Random House, $23.95, 242 pp
Reviewed by MINDI DICKSTEIN
Ah, the cruel ways of fame and famous artists. Especially artists who are famous in fields, such as poetry or, as in my experience, lyric writing (a form of poetry), that have the distinction of being marginalized in our society. But to the writers and their fans who swoon and fight to the death over the placement of an "and" or a "the," nothing holds a greater power to awe and inspire than the work of a famous poet. Such is the setting of the comic gem that is Debra Weinstein's first novel, Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z.
Starting with the title and the eponymous poet's single-initial first name, it is clear that Weinstein writes from experience. At some point in her life, I have no doubt, this writer lived this world first-hand. Like Annabelle, the young woman who becomes the poet's "apprentice," Weinstein must have lived and worked in this rarified territory. I recognized it well, having once, myself, assisted a famous artist (in my case a New York-based avant-garde theater director, little known to most Americans, who was so famous in Europe that fans were known to chase him down the street for his autograph). My experience may have been different from Annabelle's in the specific, but Weinstein conveys an overall authenticity that is a perfect, hilariously on-target cameo of the world of New York arts and letters.
From the novel's first line to its delicious conclusion, Weinstein delivers a wide-eyed innocent's view of a dirty, complicated world that is, rarely, about art. "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 tells us.
Annabelle, an undergraduate would-be poet who lives with her mother (divorced) in Long Island and attends a community college there, wins an Edgar Allan Poe Fellowship to the English department of a major New York City university (which sounds a lot like New York University, my alma mater). The fellowship comes with the opportunity to assist Z., a poet famous for a book of poetry called Flowers of Fate; in fact, all of Z.'s poetry is about flowers. Of course, Annabelle has read and worshiped Z. for years in the quiet of her pink, second-floor bedroom in her mother's home.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Annabelle is thrilled to get so close to a woman she has long admired. Better yet, soon after her work begins (which includes tending to the needs of an aging art critic, on the poet's behalf, who was the woman who put Z.'s career on the map), she becomes Z.'s personal assistant. Yes, Annabelle is invited to enter the temple: Z.'s home, her creative center. "The world will know you as my assistant," Z. assures her, "but I will know you as my apprentice."
From there, Annabelle's job is a nightmare, or would be if she weren't so smitten with the poet and with the growing sense of notoriety she herself begins to enjoy, thanks to her association with Z. The daily list of things to do runs from the ridiculous to the sublime, from bringing clothes to Goodwill, to buying presents for Z.'s lover, to spying on Z.'s daughter, to doing flower and weed "research" (Z. asks her to write masculine flower metaphors!). And it becomes clear quite early how Z. will steal from Annabelle's writing. Peppered with poetry, some deliberately and hilariously awful, some quite good, Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. is an auspicious debut.
Mindi Dickstein lives in New Jersey and is currently writing lyrics for the Broadway-bound musical Little Women.