When I sat down this morning, I didn’t intend to write about celebrity poetry (because who cares), but, after a brief glance at my long-neglected Twitter account, one thing was clear: Kristen Stewart wrote a poem and everyone thinks it’’ bad.
And, well, it is, it’s really bad (you can read it here), riddled with the self-obsessions and obfuscations that litter beginner poetry—private poetry, really (but more on that in a bit)—and thrust onto center stage (via Marie Claire and Entertainment Weekly and the dozens of other blogs that have picked it up to garner a little viral attention for something other than talking shit about Sochi [the irony that I’m writing about it right now is not lost on me]). But why is it here? That’s what I’ve been wondering all morning. Why does anyone care whether an actress writes a bad poem?
If you think this will be a large-scale condemnation of audience by some high-minded, poetry-for-all douchebag, you’re sadly mistaken. Remember that Twitter account I mentioned? I almost exclusively use it to tell James Franco to kill himself. Instead, what I’m interested in knowing is why, why is this a spectacle? Why does the production of a poem in general—usually so unnoticed that I dare you (MFA-holders excluded) to name three poets writing today or even to tell me who the last poet laureate was—create so much buzz when it’s bad? I mean, I know why James Franco’s does; it’s because it’s absolutely mind-numbing how he buys his way into the poetry community, gets thousands of people to buy SHORT STORY collections or pick up avant-garde poetry journals like Lana Turner to read his work, and then it reads like someone who wasn’t listening in school, who’s never read a poem before, who’s never thought to themselves holy shit! There’s so much I don’t know. Rather than just getting my work out there, I should take a minute to learn how to make it worth being out there because poetry isn’t just personal expression, it’s a fucking public performance made in language that other people need access to!!! (Alright, truth time: I feel some feelings about James Franco.)
I feel though that, K-Stew’s (can I call you K-Stew?) case is different. I don’t think that anyone actually believes she thinks she’s going to become a poet, hold NYU, Stanford, and Warren Wilson hostage while she shoots movies, etc. Instead, this seems sensational precisely because it is, because it is a first-class American spectacle, and one that has pretty serious implications.
The “theory” of spectacle that I’m using, though, doesn’t come from newscasters tweeting about shitty water in Sochi (take that SEO [Editor’s note: totally tagging this with Sochi now]) or from some super high-minded critical theorist; instead, it comes from what I intuit in David Foster Wallace’s story “Mr. Squishy” (from the collection Oblivion) to be an actualization of spectacle, one that I have a hard time articulating except by giving you one of the story’s plots. In this particular plot, there is a man, possibly carrying a gun, climbing a very tall building, while, in the plaza below, people watch. No one can really make out what he’s carrying, why he’s climbing, or even what he’s wearing, but they keep watching, making up stories, and hoping for a clue. But that isn’t all. There are also those inside a department store in building he’s climbing who can’t see him, but who can see those on the plaza reacting; they watch with equal amazement at the inscrutable intention of the reactions of those watching the climber because they can tell they’re watching someone watch something important, but they don’t know what.
It’s a pretty heady metaphor, I think, for how we might begin to talk about K-Stew’s poem (and public reaction) and why it’s here as “news.” Let’s start from the top (bad pun intended): K-Stew (already such a celebrity that I feel no remorse about associating with thick soup) publicly releases a private poem. Why she does it, we have no idea, but that she does it, we are certain, and, when we read it, it becomes clear—to those of us who are such assholes we say we read poems regularly—that this is what we might talk about as a “journal” poem, or a “private” one. This type of poem is one that isn’t meant for the public, not because it contains too much personal information, but rather because it is inaccessible. It doesn’t create a pattern for the audience to interpret. Instead, it jumps around using private references, phrases that are meaningful to the author but are totally unclear/uninterpretable to the audience. What I mean is that there’s no frame of reference through which all the metaphors (the devils, the sucking of bones, the pumping of organs, and the digital moonlight) become meaningful (that’s what public poetry does). Instead, we have someone really high up doing something that we fundamentally can’t understand.
But we are not the ones watching from the ground. Remember that. K-Stew didn’t come to your house and say “check out this poem I wrote.” Instead, she wrote something she was excited about, something she thought was “really dope” and shared it—seemingly offhandedly—in an interview. The interviewer, along with all requisite editors, publishers, and the like, then, make up those on the ground, those looking up and determining the spectacular, the that-which-must-be-named-and-in-naming-must-be-acknowledged-as-exigent. But what is it about a college-age girl writing a poem is exigent? Nothing. So, instead of telling us what they saw—which they didn’t because it was either a) uninteresting [as an event] or b) unintelligible [as a poem]—what we are given are reactions, judgments, “fan-annotations” as something to snark about (because, let’s be real, we’re a snarky bunch). But the worst part, and I do mean the worst, is not that we are laughing at a girl who attempted to make something and failed, but that we are accustomed to, expect, even rely on arbiters of “spectacle authority” to tell us that publicly sharing a poem is “embarrassing,” that the poem is “bad,” to point upward and react so that we know we should.
Obviously, I know that I’m not saying anything new about celebrity journalism, the divide between the celebrity and the non, or about what it means to “produce” or to “be produced by” news (and, to some extent, language itself measuring the world [sorry, I know I’m being a jackass here]); that’s not my aim. Instead, I want to talk about the profound sadness that comes with being in the department store, with not having access to the spectacle, with not really knowing whether the spectacle exists. I don’t mean this to demean, nor do I mean it to be ironic. What I’m talking about is the kind of sadness that comes from hearing an ex-lover singing in the shower just after you’ve emotionally (though not physically) separated, the song so far off that you can’t make it out, but you know she’s singing because, every once in a while, a note comes through, and you dream of the time when you could lay at her feet, stand next to her, and hear the singing, and though it didn’t matter, maybe even the song was bad, there was something spectacular about the moment. Even though you didn’t get to choose the song—maybe you didn’t even like it—you chose the spectacular; you weren’t locked out of the world quite yet, and sincerity wasn’t completely lost on you. You wanted to tell her she was beautiful, that her song and the water and the chill of the air was enough; you were reacting. And all you want now is the right to react, to be included in the song of a life you don’t have access to twice over—first because you never really know who someone else is and second, because now there’s something, spoken or otherwise, mediating your experience.
So our snark, then, becomes the boot that kicks the lever that sends the cage falling down onto the mouse in the mediated mousetrap of our experience of celebrity, specifically K-Stew and this rotten poem, but more generally with whatever else. And it’s easy to kick the lever without the context that comes with the actual creation of spectacle (as in subjectively spectacular rather than, as I’ve come to think of it, watching the gleam off another’s glasses and using that flash of light, that bit of the song, that obfuscated poem to determine how we react, what we say, what we participate in); we’re fighting for human engagement, to be part of a community, to be like girl, that’s not a great poem but what’s going on in your life and are, instead, moved farther and farther from where we started. That’s the sadness of watching in culture, what we are moving through, even K-Stew… even James Fucking Franco.
Image source: Us Weekly