Of Poetry and Lawyers

“The first thing we do is, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

– Henry IV, Part II, Act IV, Scene II

by W.D. Ehrhart

The first time I ever read one of my poems in public was in 1971 when I was 22 years old. That was over half a century ago. Since then, I’ve read my poems in public hundreds of times in venues ranging from universities to middle schools, union meetings to art galleries, libraries to hot dog shops in countries from Japan and Slovenia to Wales and the Netherlands as well as in a majority of these United States.

But just last week I encountered a situation I’d never run into before. I had agreed way back in May to give a poetry reading at a library in a nearby township (I’ll call it Overkill Township). They even offered to pay me $100, though I often do local readings for free if there is minimal travel and minimal expenses. The reading was scheduled for this September. In preparation for the reading, the library’s PR person asked me for a bio and photo for publicity purposes. So far, so good.

But she also sent me several forms to sign. One of them was headed: “Overkill Township Library System Liability and Photo Release for Volunteer Program.” It is a breathtaking document, epic in its scope, worth reading in its entirety:

“All participants must sign this liability release and permission form and submit the executed form to Overkill Township Library System (OTLS) representatives before they participate in the OTLS volunteer program.

“I, the undersigned participant, voluntarily agree to participate in the program, and that I understand and assume all of the risks of my participation in that program.

“I certify that I am in good health and am able to participate in this program and I hereby acknowledge that my participation in this program involves a risk of bodily injury, including, but not limited to, fractures, head and neck injuries, and the possibility of permanent disability and/or death.

“I understand that no health, workers’ compensation and/or accident insurance is provided for program participants and I accept full responsibility for obtaining the same or for payment of all expenses in the absence of such insurance.

“I grant the right to Overkill Township and OTLS, and I release all of my rights, to use my name, image, photograph and video, including composite or modification, representations in Publications, Website, social media and any other medium relating to Overkill Township and OTLS programs, activities and facilities. I waive any and all rights to inspect or approve versions of any image used or any written copy that may be used in connection with the image. I fully release Overkill Township and OTLS for any liability for the use of my name or image set forth herein.

“NOW THEREFORE, in consideration of the foregoing, and in consideration of the mutual relationship of others participating in said program, and of my participation therein, and intending to be legally bound, I hereby, for myself, my heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns forever remise, release and discharge Overkill Township and OTLS, and its successors and assigns, directors, officers, members, agents and representatives and employees, and their heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns, from any and all of manner of actions, causes of action, suits, debts, accounts, controversies, damages, claims and demands whatsoever, which I or my legal representative may have or may acquire against Overkill Township and/or OTLS, or its directors, officers, members, agents, or other representatives, by reason of any loss resulting from bodily injury, personal injury or damage to any property belonging to me, which may occur during or by reason of my participation in this program.

“I agree that OTLS shall have the right at its discretion to enforce established rules of conduct and/or terminate my participation in the program for failure to follow these rules of conduct, or for actions or conduct detrimental to or incompatible with the welfare, comfort, harmony or interest of the program as a whole.

“I hereby grant OTLS and any of its directors, officers, members, agents, and other representatives, full authority to take whatever action they consider to be warranted regarding my health and safety, and I fully release all of them from any liability for such actions taken on my behalf.”

Did you take all that in? Remember, we’re talking about a poetry reading here. I’m not going to be juggling flaming torches. A lovely young woman in sequined bikini isn’t going to be hurling knives at me. I won’t even be attempting to do a back handspring. I’m just going to—or at least I was going to—stand up in front of a modest audience and recite some of my poems for maybe half an hour.

Does Overkill Township think I’m going to trip over my shoelaces on the way to the podium, fall over in their library, break three vertebrae and four ribs, and then sue the township for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and loss of conjugal pleasure? Maybe have a heart attack and blame it on the stress of having to sign this wildly out-of-all-proportion-to-the-circumstances document? Perhaps they’re afraid my daughter—my heir and assign—might sue the township after my death for paying me the paltry sum of a hundred bucks when my poetry and I are actually worth $5,000 at a minimum.

Heck, I once did a reading in a restaurant kitchen. There were knives all over the place. Knives so sharp you could cut yourself just looking at them. The folks who invited me to do that reading didn’t ask me to sign anything. And no one threw any knives at me. And nobody got sued.

This document from Overkill Township is the sort of thing that gives lawyers a bad name.

Speaking of which, did you know that 30 percent of U.S. Representatives and 51 percent of U.S. Senators in the 118th Congress are lawyers? No other profession in our federal legislature comes close to those numbers. Worth contemplating. But I digress.

Now I have to admit that some of my friends and acquaintances are lawyers, and most of them seem like decent enough people. But there may be some good reasons why jokes like this abound in our society:

Q: Do you know why research scientists prefer lawyers to white rats?

A: There are some things even white rats won’t do.

One good reason for this kind of humor might be the document Overkill Township demanded I sign before they would allow me to read my poetry in their library.

I didn’t sign. And I won’t be doing that reading.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Co.

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