Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
Somewhere inside America’s suburban landscape lies the most influential literary salon in the country. It might just be at the Barnes & Noble superstore in Reston.
Depending on your perspective, it’s either a sad commentary on the American cultural current or a great index to the democratization of intellectual exchange.
This afternoon, Dean Blehertpoet, philosopher, man-in-controlis a regular Alexis de Tocqueville. He is the featured speaker the people have come to see. Blehert has just released his sixth self-published book, Please Lord, Make Me a Famous Poet or at Least Less Fat, a collection of parody and satire about poets.
Blehert, an earnest, gentle-spoken man who appears tall and slender despite his modestly drooping belly, towers over the lectern and clutches the microphone tightly. Chapter 1, he says to the audience, asks how poets like Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, William Wordsworth, Geoffrey Chaucer, Walt Whitman, or Sylvia Plath might have said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” How might William Blake have interpreted the aphorism as applied to his poem “The Tiger”? Blehert asks the audience. He reads:
Horsie! Horsie! turning tail
From the fountains of the vale,
What immortal hand or whip
Could force thy horsy head to dip?
It’s clever enough to evoke a few chuckles from the small crowd. The loudest guffaw comes from Pam Coulter Blehert, the poet’s wife, publicist, illustrator, and guardian.
She gets it better than the rest of the crowd.
Blehert’s oeuvre, after all, cannot be described in a logical manner. His latest book is poetry’s answer to Dr. Bronner’s soap bottlesan erratic combination of poems, obscure social missives, academic interpretations, and historical revisionism with a conspiratorial tinge.
“Dean has so much to say that sometimes it’s overwhelming,” says local writer Hilary Tham, who has known Blehert since 1984. “He might overload some people’s sensory [capacity].”
Another colleague, Miles David Moore, a local journalist and poet, adds that “His mind is so overflowing with ideas and he is so eager to share everything that he doesn’t edit any of his work. He puts everything out and sees what kind of reaction he’ll get.”
From his modest home in Reston, Blehert, along with his wife, runs Words and Pictures East Coast, a vanity press created to publish his work, including a bimonthly newsletter, Deanotations. The house serves as the creative center of their venture. Pam illustrates the newsletters and books. Dean does
Deanotations, which has a small but loyal following, is filled with pithy observations, light limericks, and quirky puns. “Impeachment isn’t about sex, but character,” he mused in a recent issue. “Does Clinton care, or is he a great care actor? Did he lie? Sure. (With whom?)”
In another issue, a poem reads:
What’s worse than a giraffe with a sore throat
Or a Serb with a sore Croat
Or a swollen lip on Mick Jagger Ah!
Bill Clinton on Viagra!
“Dean is one of the best writers of light verse in this country,” Moore says. “His mind is lightning-quick.”
Blehert can hold forth with a terse, commanding analysis of James Joyce or Vladimir Nabokov on a whim. He reads Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, and Alexander Pope for pleasure. “The guy had something he knew,” he says, referring to a Hopkins poem. “He let himself tackle more despair than he knew.” Still, Blehert says he enjoys novels more than poetry.
“I think of myself as an intellectual,” he says, “more of a philosopher than a poet. I’m kind of an anti-poet.”
But he does not claim to be an anti-philosopher.
The first philosophy he got into was that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, he says. “The second was L. Ron Hubbard.” Blehert dedicated his latest work to, among others, Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.
A recent review called Blehert a “Borscht Belt comedian.” His background and sensibility are solidly Jewishwhich makes it seem unlikely to find him in Hubbard’s cupboard, as his turn of phrase might have it.
“I became happy after I joined the church,” he says. Before joining, he says, “I had this gap of what I was. I had all these perceptions that were valid, yet I couldn’t explain them.”
Pam Coulter Blehert, who met Dean through the church, abruptly interrupts the interview: “Why are you asking Dean to be the spokesperson for Scientology? He is a brilliant poet. I thought you were writing a story about Dean as an artist.”
Dean continues, unfazed: “[Scientology] increased my persistence….It worked for me. I haven’t seen a doctor in 25 years.”
His particular faith, however, is “not obtrusive in his poetry,” says Tham. “It has helped him in a sense, but also hindered him in that people who know he’s a Scientologist will sometimes be wary.”
Blehert concedes that certain doctrines of Scientology make their way into some of his work. There is a philosophy behind everything he writes, he says. An interest in reincarnation and an obstinate contempt for clinical psychologycommon themes within Scientologyturn up frequently.
In one extended essay in the New York Quarterly, a literary review, Blehert addresses the “Present State of American Poetry.” In it, he attacks the mainstream press for promoting psychotropic drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin, and calls psychiatry “the religion of much modern poetry.” He argues that before 1970, the “World Mental Organization” was run by Nazi-trained doctors; after that time, by the CIA.
“Today their disciples run the Government/pharmaceutical/Mental-Health complex,” says a footnote in the new book.
Blehert grew up in Minnesota and left in 1963 to pursue a Ph.D. in English literature at Stanford University. U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, whose poetry Blehert parodies in the new book, was a classmate of Blehert’s. After several frustrating years at “the Farm,” Blehert left Stanford and left behind an unfinished doctoral dissertation on Nabokov, Franz Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges. “I had this idea that the point of literature was to convey your happiness,” he says. He didn’t find happiness at Stanford.
He made his way to Ithaca, N.Y., where he landed a teaching job at Cornell. After two years teaching in the ivory tower, Blehert, like many of his late-’60s contemporaries, dropped out. “I didn’t enjoy academia,” he says. “It was Mickey Mouse stuff. I didn’t really feel connected to the New Left. At faculty meetings, I didn’t get the language they spoke.”
Blehert followed a path toward spiritual enlightenment. By 1969, after a short interlude with LSD, he began to study Eastern religion and practice tai chi regularly.
A friend eventually invited him down to New York City one weekend. “You’ve got to see the girls down here,” his friend said. The women he met, he confirms, were babesall of them staff assistants at the Scientology center. Blehert attended a communications course at the center and quickly became interested in the movement.
“At first, it bothered me that they called it the ‘Church of Scientology,’” he recalls. “How could I tell my Jewish parents that I was in a church?”
The church’s philosophy nevertheless found
a vessel in Blehert. “Everything I tried worked,” he says. “[Hubbard] was able to state things unparadoxically.”
Blehert found his center and followed an unorthodox path as a New York City cabbie, computer consultant, Scientology counselor, and, eventually, professional poet. He moved to Reston in 1982, shortly before his marriage to Pam.
In 1991, Blehert quit his job at a computer company to focus on his writing. He now devotes much of his time to discussion groups and holds writing workshops in the areathe next of which he will conduct through Reston’s Barnes & Noble.
The crowd who have come out to see him one recent afternoon seem smitten with his smart-mouthed poems and ardent reading style. Between poems, he interposes reflections on life and poetry. He also takes time to explain context unassumingly. Not everyone, after all, has read Plath or Blake or Whitman. He renders the poetry consumableand the modern-day salon crowd loves it. “Poets are not used to fame and don’t know what to do with it,” he tells the audience. “But I’m willing to give it a try.”CP