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Style Conversational Week 1432: The winsome wisdom of Melissa Balmain

The poet -- and 174-time Style Invitational Loser -- whose new book inspired this week’s contest

174-time Style Invitational Loser Melissa Balmain fractures fairy tales in a sometimes adults-only way in her new collection, “The Witch Demands a Retraction.” (Courtesy of Melissa Balmain)
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This week’s Style Invitational contest, Week 1432, challenges you to come up with a fresh, not-necessarily-for-children angle on a classic folk tale, nursery rhyme, children’s book or children’s song. (I’m not going to be doctrinaire about what’s a genuine anonymous folk tale rather than one with a known author, especially for children’s classics.) I was inspired to do this contest when I saw a tweet from Melissa Balmain that her book “The Witch Demands a Retraction: Fairy Tale Reboots for Adults” would be coming out this very week.

While Melissa has a long résumé as a newspaper and magazine humor columnist, University of Rochester writing instructor and, since 2012, the publisher of the poetry journal Light, Washington Post readers probably know her best through her 174 blots of Style Invitational ink (so far) through her decade as one of our funniest Loserbards, snarfing up the ink through 10 years of every kind of poetry contest as well as a variety of others.

The Invite first encountered Melissa’s work back in 2011 when she got ink in a non-poetry contest: It was to come up with a quote that some particular person would not say. And Melissa’s was: “I’m just gonna try my best and hope I don’t embarrass myself.” — Muhammad Ali.

A few weeks later, Melissa won the whole contest, plus three honorable mentions, with more non-poetry: The contest was to channel the old “Devil’s Dictionary” by Ambrose Bierce with some new cynical definitions. Her winning entry, an Invite classic, was “Hero: Someone who, in a crisis, exceeds our lowest expectations.”

But it was actually in an honorable mention that week that Melissa first showed us the flair for the humor of the home that’s become one of her strongest suits. “Kitchen shears: Perfectly weighted, precision-ground scissors used for cutting open bags of brownie mix.”

And by January of 2012 Melissa got her first Invite poetry ink, in the genre she’s shown in every year since: the obit poem. This one, a sort of Dr. Seuss of Threnody, got her second place that year; Melissa later included it in her first (fabulous) poetry collection, “Walking In on People.”

Winner of the Annoy-a-tron, a little box you hide that beeps every few minutes:

“Jackass” daredevil Ryan Dunn (1977-2011):

When it came to wild stunts, he was second to none —

So who’d have predicted that Ryan M. Dunn

Would die not by catapult, cannon or cougar,

Or Russian roulette with a dung-coated Luger,

Or by tying himself to a runaway moose,

Or snorting ground glass off a lion’s caboose,

But by drinking and driving? How could he succumb

To something so horribly, commonly dumb?

Melissa could publish an anthology of just her obit poem ink, but here’s just one more, from 2017, once again drawing humor from the home hearth (is there any other funeral poem to mention Farberware?).

*Margaret Vinci Heldt (1918-2016), creator of the beehive hairdo*

You have to figure beehive gals

Kept plenty hidden in their hair.

(A pack of Kents? A Jell-O mold?

A handy set of Farberware?)

They'd never even tell their pals

Precisely what was stashed in there.

But Margaret's clients — her, they told.

And now, alas, she’ll never share.

Melissa still blots up the ink regularly with humor of all genres. She’s particularly proud, she told me, of her winning user-reviews of everyday products sold on Amazon. Here are two that won the contest in different years. The first, in 2012, was just in time to dig at the seven-house-owning presidential candidate Mitt Romney:

“Coats & Clark Dual Duty Thread 400 Yards — White”: As a Mormon Republican, I wear a lot of white shirts. And because I’m “just folks,” when one of them gets a hole I never throw it out, or hand it to an assistant to fix, or have my personal tailor, Alessandro, weave me a new shirt immediately from the hair of an albino yak. Gosh, no. I mend it myself, using this humble thread and . . . some sort of thread-attaching device. By golly, I do.

And two years later:

*“Universal Paper Clips 72210”: One star

Universal paper clips, my tentacle! Instead of neatly fastening documents here on Naxerine Bb, these paper clips instantly melted due to the heat of our binary suns. Amazon’s delivery service, however, was surprisingly good.

When I asked Melissa for a short poem from the new book to use as an example, she sent me a few. I chose the Jack and the Beanstalk fart joke, because it was shorter and not risque. But I think I like this one even more — and I’m eager to see the cartoon that illustrator Ron Barrett (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) provides as well:

Not So Snow White

Things started so well: found a chick in a box,

got her out, and days later, we wed –

such a snap because, speaking of life’s pleasant shocks,

my stepmom-in-law turned up dead.

Home that night, after finally fooling around

(happy endings for both!), I sighed, “Heaven.”

But my wife simply stared at the ceiling and frowned:

“Is that it? I’m accustomed to seven.”

Rack-tile dysfunction*: The ScrabbleGrams neologisms of Week 1428

*Headline by Jesse Frankovich from our 2017 ScrabbleGrams contest

The Royal Consort knows by now to roll his eyes when I’m judging a Style Invitational contest and wringing my hands and saying, “Ugh, these are terrible. Nobody is funny! These are the worst ever! What am I going to put on the page?”

What’s usually happening — as it did with the Week 1428 neologisms found in ScrabbleGrams letter “racks” — is that I’m wading through more entries than usual in an Invite contest; this time it was more than 1,500, from almost 200 people. And so if I’m hating on 50 consecutive entries and slashing my pen down the page of a printout in a big gesture of nope! three times in a row, I tend not to sense until the end of the process that, oh, yeah, I only hated 1,420 of them: Here are 80 good ones — and that’s way more than I can use.

Often I’d come across interesting ideas for a word, but they weren’t funny, in either concept or execution. Only in the Land of the Bureaucrat do people send jokes like this to a humor contest: (CDEEKLR) “DECLERK: To eliminate positions rendered obsolete by automated records management.” I hope the writer isn’t contemplating a career in stand-up.

But, as virtually always, there was plenty of funny to go around in this weekend’s results — much of it from the Invite Obsessives, but also a number of names you don’t see every week. I bounced my shortlist off three trusted advisers this week, asking them each to choose their top half dozen: my Czarist predecessor, Gene Weingarten; my co-admin of the Style Invitational Devotees on Facebook, Alex Blackwood; and Thing Two of my Royal Scions, Valerie Holt. But their lists proved almost comically different, a Venn diagram of three freely bouncing beach balls; each of today’s “above the fold” winners, however, did appear on one or another of them.

You don’t have to explain “funny” to this week’s winner, Danielle Nowlin, who takes her 16th first-place win for Pap Art — in the hands of an expert gynecologist, more than just a “smear.” Danielle also won her first Clowning Achievement trophy four weeks ago (for the neologistic phrase “Foible File,” where your brain pulls out all your embarrassments just as you’re trying to get to sleep), so this time she’ll receive a supplementary little flag with a Roman “II” to place next to her disembodied clown head. Danielle also inked with another laugher, God-rip — “You know how when you were a kid they told you that thunder is the sound of the Lord bowling? Well, it’s not.”

While runners-up Frank Osen — king of the neologism entry quotes — and, more recently, Eric Nelkin are familiar Invite names, we last heard from Deanna Busick of Knoxville, Tenn., in one contest three years ago ... and before that, two others all the way back in 2007. She did, however, win one of those contests, for the neologism “Riminal: A man who doesn’t clean up his toilet dribble.” This time Deanna scores with “Repant,” taking the wordplay in two directions.

What Pleased Ponch: Also weighing in this week, as he’s been doing lately, is Ace Copy Editor Panfilo “Ponch” Garcia, who read the whole list last night (all of them made the print page as well as online): Ponch’s faves included Danielle’s God-rip; the triple-credited Antibag, “someone who’ll carry 20 items out of the supermarket in his hands rather than paying the nickel”; Jonathan Jensen’s GPaSs: The guy who insists that his phone knows better than you how to get to your house [the weird capitalization was the best solution I could come up with to have it read “gee-pee-ass” rather than something about GPA’s or GP doctors who were asses]; Peatrap (Richard Franklin), a daintier piehole; Gramnet, what your kids call Facebook (Milo Sauer*, Mark Raffman); and from First Offender Kate Baughman, Analyst, a professional who can explain why the first thing you saw in this ScrabbleGram was ANAL STY,

*Tim “Milo” Sauer gets his first blot of ink since he retired from the Invite in 2009 after reaching the 100-ink mark. What Milo only recently fessed up to was, also in the mid-2000s, scoring another 100 blots (including four wins) under the name Elwood Fitzner; the surname is from his wife’s family, the first name made up. All is forgiven, but please don’t enter under pseudonyms.


I’m all vaxxed up! I was relieved that I’d decided not to write this column last week, as I briefly came down with Ye Olde Moderna 2 Fever and Lot of Fatigue about 20 hours after I got the second shot. Though the fever briefly hit 102, I was totally fine the next morning.