poetry

Tough Questions: What Did You Love as a Teenager That You Can’t Stand Now?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What did you love as a teenager that you can’t stand now?

Rules are simple: what have you grown out of, or at the very least what do you think you’ve grown out of? Everyone is at their dumbest when they’re a teenager, and that’s never clearer than when you consider what you liked as a teen. When you were brooding, moody, and SMARTER THAN ANYONE, what were you, like, into?

Alex Russell

I want you to hit me as hard as you can. I was just leaving my teenage years when Facebook became what it is today, but with Facebook’s boom in the mid 2000s we all learned about the most common things people we knew liked. The answers for “favorite movies” on Facebook were eerily consistent: The Big Lebowski, Boondock Saints, and Fight Club. I’m not going to lie to you, I saw Fight Club about ten times as a teenager. I read the book. I considered the deeper implications of the philosophy of Tyler Durden on my life. The Big Lebowski is a pretty good movie and Boondock Saints is a pretty bad movie, but Fight Club alone represents the terrible nature of a teenager best. What better movie is there to sum up the angst and rage of a teen than a movie about pushing the reset button to wake people up, man!? There’s also The Matrix, I guess, but Fight Club is especially horrible because (myself included) people seemed to latch on to the supposed message. I lived in the suburbs and sometimes drove past one version of a fast food place to go to another version of the same shitty restaurant. I was not bringing down the system. Clean it up, kids that like Fight Club too much.

Jonathan May

Myself mostly. No, all jokes aside, I used to really love coffee, so much so that I worked at three different coffee shops over the course of ten years, from high school up to grad school. I drank the stuff several times a day, and, when I was on the clock, you better believe that black liquid cocaine rushed freely and sweetly through me. That day I quit working at a coffee shop, though, was the day I gave up coffee. It was like flipping off a switch inside me; I just never craved it from that day forward. Also the smell still makes me think of bitchy people.

Andrew Findlay

Admitting that I ever loved something worthy of hatred would be admitting that I ever made bad choices. I only make good choices, ab aeterno.

Gardner Mounce

I started writing and reading poetry more seriously during my senior year of high school. It was my first foray into contemporary poetry, and pretty soon I came across Billy Collins. My poetry education up to that point had been strictly assigned by English teachers, so compared to Shelley and Dickinson, Collins was off-the-cuff, and spoke with honesty and wit. He was so accessible. The reason I don’t read him anymore isn’t because he’s too accessible or because I think he’s a hack. I think Collins writes honestly and from the heart. I believe that. But he is so boring, in terms of both content and sound. Reading his poems out loud will put you to sleep. And the best of them are like diet drink poems. I think his next collection should be called Epiphany Lite.

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Tough Questions: What’s Your Favorite Competition You’ve Ever Participated In?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s your favorite competition you’ve ever participated in?

Rules are simple: You’ve competed. You’ve spent time trying to best those fools that call themselves your peers. When did you get closest to victory? When did you smote your enemies? One of our victories is “eating a lot of ice cream” so we’re not exactly out to one up LeBron James, or anything. But still: Any win is a victory. What’s your favorite one?

Alex Russell

Last year we started a charity event: The Super Nintendo Charity Challenge. Every November we’re dedicating 72 hours to streaming Super Nintendo out of a living room to raise money for Child’s Play, a charity dedicated to buying games and toys for sick kids in hospitals. We raised over $2,100 last year, but my favorite part of it was the $25 I lost on a bet during it. When you play Super Nintendo with nine people for 72 straight hours with almost no sleep, you need to keep morale up. You do this by setting little goals: beat this in X hours, get this done in Y time, etc. I said I could beat Super Punch-Out!!, a weird boxing game I loved as a kid, in under 30 minutes. I put $25 up as a donation, and I fell short by 47 seconds. I’ve eaten spoonfuls of spices and drank gallons of milk and cases of beer and everything else you do when you’re feeling competitive and full of gusto as a stupid kid. Losing that $25 was the best part.

Alex Marino

How can we call this Reading at Recess without a spelling bee story? I was in 6th or 7th grade and had made it to the school spelling bee finals. The whole school came to watch it in the cafeteria. And while it’s not like I would have won the whole thing, I’m still upset about the fact that I got knocked out because of a southern accent. At this point in my life I had lived in the south for only two years, so accents still threw me off. I was asked to spell “repent” but with a southern drawl I had heard “rampant.” And with that, my chances of being a subject of the Spellbound documentary were over. Yes, I could have asked for a definition. Yes, I could have asked for it to be used in a sentence. Yes, I could have asked for the word to be repeated. But this was middle school and I only cared about getting home from school and playing my N64.

Jonathan May

This is going to sound really nerdy, but my favorite competition was German poetry recitation at the University of Memphis Foreign Language Fair for high school students. I competed four years in a row in German, proudly representing Houston High. Our German teacher was this awesome lady who taught me a ton about poetry and life, in addition to the German language. One year in particular, we had to learn “Der Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke, a beautiful poem if there ever was one. I memorized it in this seductive way, as the poem is, on a very simple level, about a panther pacing behind the bars at a zoo. The judge was this very old German professor, I can’t recall his name to save my life. He eyed me up and down sternly, as if I was a horse he was inspecting. He nodded that I start, and I gave the best, albeit weirdly erotic, reading of a poem I’ve ever given. He gave me this weird stare when I finished; I think I was blushing. In any case, I won first place. Erotic poetics win every time.

Mike Hannemann

In college, I participated in a Fear Factor challenge. I was (and am) an incredibly anxious person in social situations and this was an opportunity to not be an introvert. There was the typical nonsense you’d expect at a student-run gross out context. Bugs were involved. I don’t remember how, but whatever happened to them was definitely not humane. I got called up to do a mayo eating contest. I hate mayo. It’s disgusting. But a $20 Target gift card was on the line. I was against two other people and finished the small tub in front of me with 20 seconds left. The crowd was applauding my disgusting display and cheered for me to keep going. So I grabbed the tub next to me, away from my competitor, and finished that too. I won the gift card and lost some self respect. But those frozen pizzas I bought were worth it, dammit.

Andrew Findlay

My favorite competition in which I’ve ever participated is one in which I technically did not participate at all, and in which two of the writers on this site were intimately involved. Vermonster 2k4.

If you don’t know what a Vermonster is, you should probably eat one with 12 of your closest friends. It is two liters of ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s, and it is delicious:

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Two of the most competitive people I know (excepting me) met, planned it out, trash talked like hell leading up to it, and then announced the contest date. Rules were simple: teams of three, no holds barred, consume the entirety of your bucket before the other person. I showed up, thought “Hey, this sounds cool,” and called a couple of my old cross-country buddies to come join me. They liked the idea, so we sprinted to Target to buy giant spoons, got our own Vermonster, and dug in.

On one team, one contestant almost immediately puked, and the other refused to eat the chocolate that impregnated the entire construct. The trashtalker, the only one left, sat there, not giving up, eating alone and full of rage. It was impressive to see one person attack a Vermonster. Alas, they lost.

On the other team, they tucked in ice cream admirably and won the contest with a time of just under an hour.

On my team, we demolished the entire thing between eight and nine minutes (I do not remember the exact time), and then ran and got Wendy’s combo meals that we ate while watching the others suffer their way through two liters of ice cream. We did the Wendy’s thing because we were, all of us, assholes.

One of the other contestants found out we ordered all frozen yogurt and told us that disqualified us. We did it again later, with all ice cream, and set a faster record.

I love this contest because of the impressiveness of my teammates and the joy I felt at ice cream seemingly magically disappearing as the other teams struggled. I love it because we did it a second time, and we did it faster. Mostly I love it because the official winners logging a time of just under an hour and then us coming in with a sub-10 minute time then eating a meal is like Roger Bannister running the four-minute mile and then, while all the television cameras are on him, some dude wearing jeans and smoking a cigarette running it in 43 seconds.

Stephanie Feinstein

The National Geographic Geography Bee. Complete fluke. It was middle school, and my social studies teacher was in charge of the Bee, so he let myself and another student skip the prelims and jump straight to the written competition. We beat out the rest of the school competitors with a tied score. So, as tie-breaker, we had a geography trivia-off. This lasted over an hour, with both of us guessing for the most part. The final question was in relation to canals. He guessed Panama, totally wrong. The ONLY other canal I remotely knew of was Erie, thanks to folk songs about it. I said it, and won the competition. I still have the medal.

Do not try to have me locate anything on a map or globe, as I am a winner by pure trivia, not concrete knowledge. I didn’t have time to be nervous about preparing or competing, and there was absolutely nothing at stake. But I won, and I pretty much haven’t won anything since.

Brent Hopkins

The competition I most enjoyed spanned two days and two competitions, one of which I was a participant in and the other I was a “spectator” in. The first competition was at Bradley University and it was a case race where the music kids and the news kids challenged one another to drink…cases of beer. I wasn’t really a part of either group, but was friends with both so I went to take in the spectacle. One thing you can’t idly do is watch people drink, so my friend Matt and I went to the liquor store and picked up a handle of Captain Morgan. Matt and I have been and probably always will be hyper-competitive, so as we are sitting with our red solo cups we start draining this bottle. This starts off well but as we won’t let the other outdrink the other and we bought far too little Coke to mix with things turn into straight Captain Morgan swallows. Unfortunately, due to this lack of foresight and abundance of testosterone I failed to pay attention to most of the case race and Matt and I managed to finish our handle much much faster than the beer-drinking folk beside us. We managed to be the drinking undercard to a main event of alcoholism, polishing off a handle in around 35 minutes. We were both belligerently intoxicated, yet functioning, and the remainder of the evening was a blur. 

The second competition took place the following morning starring my roommates, and that was a campus wide Guitar Hero tournament. We all looked like we had faced demons the previous night and almost slept through this event. We went on to be rowdy and belligerent at this Guitar Hero competition, goading all comers and naysaying when we lost. We all fell but Matt, and he ended up winning (seated in a chair no less) with all of us being his drunkover cheerleaders. We celebrated with Wendy’s and a Best Buy run which were both the best trophies one could get.

Should I Read This: The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry Winner 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri

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Austin Duck

As the committees announced the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry this month, we find ourselves once again in that season where, all of a sudden, people read a book of poems. Sure, it’s only one (and usually not the best one of the year), but hey one figures, all these poor suckers are writing these books that maybe five hundred people ever read, and if this one has made it atop this year’s pile of dreams (a la the scene in World War Z) we might as well. Maybe we’ll feel something.

If you’re feeling this way, 3 Sections might not be for you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read it—really, it’s astonishing—but, in 3 Sections, Seshadri grapples not with the known, reducing the world to something we can see or hear or think; there are no easy answers or feelings of beauty or satisfaction in these poems. Yes, they’re beautiful, yes, they’re satisfying, but, in some ways, his subject matter is so foreign, so simultaneously abstract and concrete that even when you make it through a poem, or the book, or the book twice, it seems to have been a dream, a dream you didn’t understand, a dream that gestures and satisfies at the very idea that, if you understood something, you’ve dominated, destroyed, and reconstructed it in your own image; that astonishment and beauty and meaning in the world luxuriate all around us inaccessible, and that that is the pleasure, to see and fail to assimilate it, to feel the meaning slip always through your fingers. Like I said, not, conceptually, a very simple book, nor a book in which the author has much chance of succeeding.

I mean, it doesn’t take a philosopher to see the logical problem of making a book in which poem after poem (each, in and of itself, a meaning machine) concludes unable to make meaning, or makes meaning of not being able to make meaning, not being able to know, always just outside of the world taking place before the mind. Add to that the collection itself, 3 Sections, is not actually delineated into three sections and you wind up less with what you might consider classically as a book of poems (title, body, meaning / title, body, meaning), or a logical piece of work, precisely because both logic and “classical definitions” are ways of understanding the world by categorization and rules, both of which assume that we truly know the world. Rather Seshadri crafts a story about failed attempts, of trying and failing to break into what we think of as the “sensible” world in which we know how to make meaning, precisely because we allow our minds to to categorize and sort things we don’t understand.

What we get instead is a book unable to separate itself out, or, in case some of you think about books as put together by an external author, unable to be separated. While it parses like this—a bunch of short poems, then a long prose piece about commercial salmon fishing, and then a really long philosophical poem—and while each of the pieces does have its own title, its own thud of meaning, we have a singular mind working its way through a singular problem so that the “sections” seem formal rather than thematic, new approaches to the same problem, new strategies that land in different, though (in many ways) equivalent valences of failure of access to the world.

I know that I’ve talked about this book very abstractly, and for that, I apologize. Here’s an alternative way to consider this book and its project: Imagine you’re looking at a very beautiful woman (or man) by whom, inexplicably, you’re filled with an enormous amount of feeling and affection. At this point, if you’re in any way conscious of what it means to fantasize about someone, you acknowledge that there are two paths you can take: 1) you can project your dream of them, all of your ideas and fantasies about who they are and what their life means onto them, or 2) you can accept the frustrating, terrifying reality that they are only, exclusively themselves, and that, no matter what happens, or how much you pay attention, all you will ever come to is that what they are, what they think and feel and what makes them beautiful is entirely inaccessible to you, and that that singularity, that inaccessibility, that inability to ever know something well enough to separate out its parts and to theorize it, is exactly what makes it beautiful and astonishing and worth looking at and trying towards again and again.

In many ways, this is a book of prayers, a book of trances, a book in which, ultimately, things can only be seen exactly and perfectly and separately as they are. It’s not a pleasant book because the mind in the world is not pleasant; the mind wants to steal from the world, to make comfort and simple beauty, and to ask god what’s the meaning of life and to get a satisfactory, comprehensible answer, and the world and god refuse. Seshadri’s 3 Sections is a story of how to live in that refusal.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

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What is Reading at Recess? It’s (Popular) Cultural Reading

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Austin Duck

Recently, at a party, someone considering coming to write for Reading at Recess expressed her hesitation to me; she said “Austin, I don’t work in a field where we attempt to elevate things. The blog comes off as pretentious, as a bunch of guys with semi-valid credentials writing as if they actually know something, as if they have the cultural authority to write toward taste and value or the knowledge to sort out this from that,” and, I’ll admit, it took me aback.

I never really considered our project here at RAR to be about superiority or ethos-building, a kind of talking from the Silicon tower (if you will), but maybe it is. I don’t know. But I feel like, and perhaps I’m a bit misguided here, that our project is not so much pretentious (if you take a look back at the majority of the posts [mine excluded because I am, in fact, pretentious] you’ll see that most are just fan-boy diary entries) as it is an effort in cultural reading.

As you may have noticed, our title Reading at Recess has very little to do with reading in the traditional sense. Sure, I normally write about books, and Andrew Findlay writes about sci-fi, and Jon May definitely touches on the literary from time to time, but this isn’t, and has never been, a blog about books. Instead, RAR is about reading culture (well, elements of it anyway) and presenting responses to those readings (which, inevitably, are so intertwined with our particular tastes and our socio-economic positions as middle-class men who came of age in America that it’s impossible to separate the objective (Hah, that doesn’t exist! Suck it, Science) from the subjective). I don’t think, though, that this failure of impartiality or this desire to elevate our topics—video games, movies, television, or other cultural miscellany—is useless, invaluable, or altogether insensitive to the desires of our readers to access, be informed of, or make up their own minds regarding the texts (and I use text in terms of any piece of information that we interpret) we focus on. Instead, you could think of our discussions here at RAR as corollary to your own, as models for personal cultural inquiry (though that, I think, might be a bit of a self-aggrandizing vision on my part), or just as our desire to have these conversations with each other and ourselves, a kind of self-obligation we set forth toward always writing, being critical of what we see, using what we know and where we’re from to make some kind of sense of the element(s) of culture that obsess us.

And that’s what cultural reading really is. It’s engaging what obsesses you, exploring it far beyond what most people have with it, a casual relationship, and, most importantly, not interacting with it passively. At this point, I don’t read a sentence in a book without thinking why is that here? What’s it doing? and it’s not because I think I’m smarter than anyone else, nor because I want to be perceived as that guy who does those things. It’s because, at a baseline, I’ve become so involved with literary texts that I want to see what they really are, how they work, how they’re made, and why they’re made that way. Because, however they’re made (and for whatever reason), I too am made that way; I am a construction of the same language, the same culture—possibly we (the text and I) are separated by history, but in that way I am of it, a response to it, the next (or next to next) logical (or illogical but extant) step in linguistic, grammatical, philosophical, scientific, historical systems.

Sure, that sounds grandiose and crazy, and it is, but I’ve written it that way because it’s important. Because that’s how I experience it. I gave up on reading for pleasure a long time ago because I discovered that, through work, pleasure comes in the cultural (and, by extension, the self-reflexive) discovery of the real-to-me, those iterations and patterns and texts that become more than books or movies or games, that become part of my thinking and thereby reveal (if I’m willing to look) what elements of culture inform me and my decisions, what makes me up and allows me to see (a little) beyond the scope of myself precisely because I’m able to see a piece of my self’s scope.

If you’re starting to think to yourself that this project sounds very selfish, that’s because it is. But be real with yourself. You’re not reading this because you care about the content. Good content lives in straight journalism, where writing disappears and all that’s left are ideas. Go to Vox or The New York Times or something if you want that. You come to these blogs to learn about new things, movies you haven’t seen, games you might want to play, sure, but you come here, likely, not for what we’ve selected but why we’ve selected it; because we care. Because it obsesses us. Because every time we sit down to meet our weekly deadline, it’s not rote or filler or because we have to because we don’t. Each of us, in our own small, sometimes glib way, is engaged in a kind of cultural self-discovery and everything the comes with it: the biases, the crass reality, the meaningless, waste-of-time attentiveness, the existential void that opens up every time you realize your entire life is built on the words of others, TV shows, shitty commercials, and movies you were told were good but just aren’t. Cultural reading, then, fills the void, one text at a time, by making sense of it, at least from one perspective, so that we don’t get even more lost.

That’s not to say we’ll ever be found, or find ourselves, or that RAR specifically will help at all. It’s not about help, or us believing we know something you don’t. Yes, we’re writing to you because you are also we (just look at Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”), but, more-so, to discover why we write, to ask questions we don’t know the answers to, to identify (and, in identifying, attempt to come to some understanding of) the fundamental impasses, paradoxes, hypocrisies, and identifications with the (popular) cultural of our moment that seem, to us, to mean something (or not).

For the love of god come write with us.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image: NBC

Anne Carson’s Red Doc> – An Artwork on the Edge of Sense

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

Where you headed /
bit further along the road /
why

you running / oh I often do
/ are you

meeting someone / yes
/ who / a stranger / how
will

you recognize each other /
in a strange way / strange

to both of you / that

would have been a
problem / it’s no longer a
problem / no

(p. 119)

 

To call Anne Carson’s work, in general, very difficult would probably be an understatement. I mean, it’s not inaccessible nor is it written in cryptograms (though, for a very interesting interpretation of conceptual, cryptographic poetry, check this out), but it’s definitely the kind of work that, if you found yourself on an overseas flight—or stuck on a very long journey—and all you had was Red Doc>, you might be a little upset. But you shouldn’t be.

Red Doc> is a kind of follow-up to Carson’s 1998 title Autobiography of Red, a myth-in-novel-in-verse (thing) retelling Herakles’ tenth labor, to kill Geryon, from a different perspective, instead exploring Geryon’s coming of age, coming to terms with his homosexual love for his pal Herakles, and his artistry as a photographer. What may be most vital to understanding about Autobiography of Red, for my purposes anyway, is that it makes sense. It’s clearly more committed to behaving like a novel-in-verse, a transmission of plot with moments of elevation. It’s coming of age, at times moving, and well reviewed by The New York Times Book Review. Red Doc>, on the other hand, is not. In fact, why don’t you take a minute to peruse other reviews of this book. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Whether you chose to or not, what you’ll find is that, largely, no one knows what to do with it. Daisy Fried of The New York Times praises Carson, recommends you read it, and goes on to call it a failed novel but that it “succeeds at linguistic confrontation” (whatever that means) while The Guardian goes a bit further, kind of paraphrasing the plot (because yes, there is a kind of plot) before ruminating over the title itself. Both agree that the heart of the work (because both reviewers believe poetry has such a thing) lies in Geryon (here G)’s final conversations with his mother at the end.

For the time being, though, I’d like to avoid talking about the ending, the place where we see a somewhat traditional rumination on time, mortality, mothers and sons, etc. because there are approximately 150 pages that deal with all sorts of other, in my mind more vital (and certainly more useful), thoughts, ideas, and tropes. Buckle up; this will be as silly as it is pretentious.

Let me get the kind-of plot out of the way. The book opens on G, middle-aged, having trouble coping with age, the loss of his looks, his friends, while still (sort of) tending a herd of musk oxen. He meets back up with Herakles, here Sad But Great (Sad for short) who’s deeply troubled with post-war PTSD, and they go on a kind of picaresque road-trip with the artist Ida to a glacial lake (which features a glacial rift leading toward a cavern filled with “ice bats” who live in—I kid you not—Batcatraz), and then to an autoshop / clinic, presumably for people with mental health issues. There are volcanic eruptions and riots and eventually G returns to his mother.

The plot, though, comes across as kind of meaningless. And maybe it is. Even Carson, talking through one of the characters in the book (I tried hard to find it; I really did), claims that plot is a house and poetry is the man on fire running through it. So why have it at all? Why waste time jerking us around, forcing us to re-orient ourselves again and again in different, less and less comprehensible situations, obscuring real understanding of G or Sad of Ida or 4NO, each characters who—whether haunted by the past or the rapidly coming future (4NO is a prophet of five seconds into the future)—are unable to access the present moment. Why not just write a book of poems thematically structured so that we may comfortably interrogate the man on fire?

I think that, for two reasons, the answer lies in the poem/section I provided in the epigraph. First (and probably most obvious) is that this book isn’t an interrogation of a single character; it works as dialectic (a conversation between at least two parties). Many of the poems are structured as conversations, and, section to section, character to character, what we are left with is this. Try as we might, there is no patterned similarity or concern linking these various players. They’re just, fundamentally, different. But wait Austin, I’m sure you’re thinking (because I’m thinking it too), what about the fact that none of the mains can access the present moment? That each is driven, in some way or another, by some subconscious concern, be it the past or the future? Isn’t that a pattern?

Yes. Yes it is. Sort of. However, to simply link these characters together—one obsessed with his aging body, his sexuality, his herd, another whose mind is ravaged by way, another who’s only access to the present is only seeing five seconds into the future—under such an abstract pattern is incredibly reductive. It seems that, were we being asked to drop the specifics of each concern, to generalize and lump together each character to fit our idea of coherence, what’s lost is profoundly strange and profoundly real. Yes, I do think that the pattern of similarity is important—it is, after all, what makes us culturally (maybe even ontologically) recognizable to one another, empathizable with one another—but I think that, with the jumps in plot considered against the organization of the book (which poems/sections come after each other), we’ll see a kind of freedom, an intentional strangeness that’s pointing toward itself.

Which brings me to the second reason I chose the epigraph that I did: the lines “how will you recognize each other / in a strange way.” What we’re being pointed toward, even with the goddamned > in the book’s title, is not simply Anne Carson’s I’m a super badass hijinks. Instead, it’s a statement of strange recognition, a new kind of identification that occurs beyond what we, as a culture of people, are conscious of. I’d bet dollars to donuts (because I love donuts) that the majority of you look at the title and think that looks like a file I’d save on my computer, and it is! That’s the whole story of how Carson titled the book. But beyond that, it’s a piece of information that communicates similarity and similar understandings to us despite the fact that, linguistically/grammatically/philosophically, it is meaningless and just plain strange. The surrealist picaresque plot of the book, then, the organization, the characters’ relationships with one another, the fact that this is sort of a novel, doesn’t exist to create what most of us would classically think of as coherence. After all, we all know what a novel does: It uses plot to move a theme toward resolution with characters either furthering or impeding that progress. And a poem: It’s a pattern of language that makes the incoherent cohere. Here, we have those things, but also we don’t. As much as there seems to be a plot, seems to be patterns coalescing toward an identifiable meaning, there isn’t. What we come to instead is a profound strangeness and a profound identification alike (with characters and poems and forms and genres), an experience of the unheimlich, the uncanny, a thing both twisted and recognizable, home and not. We see the human, the mythic, the literary, the poetic, the cultural, and, at the same time, we see none of it, just strangeness, some unidentifiable piece of work existing completely on its own and in a vacuum.

When I made the statement in the title that Red Doc> exists on the edge of sense, I meant that sincerely and even as a kind of celebration. This is not a conceptual poetry that can’t be read, but, at the same time, it certainly isn’t the kind of poetry or novel that you’re likely used to reading. It’s an artwork of the mind and its reality, of the dissimilarity that each of us knows to be true about ourselves and, ultimately, what it means to connect with another, to be alongside them in life, on a journey, in time when this is the case. To never escape our shit while moving forward through time. To be with another and to know nothing of them, to see their cruelty and damage and violence and insanity and their capacity to care, to feel, to empathize and identify. To “be / suspended in the lives of/ others and still not.” This is a book about being.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: Telegraph

Read This or Kill Yourself: The Invention of Influence by Peter Cole

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

“Who wants to read Kabbalist poetry?” asked no one, ever. In fact, when this book was recommended to me (I’m a sucker for New Directions Press and a friend said it was pretty good), I didn’t have any sense of what a Jewish poetry might even look like, much less a Kabbalistic Jewish poetry. Yet here we are, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Really, truly, this book (parts of it anyway) are knock-your-face-off-shit-your-pants good. And I don’t say that often. A drunk and very sad guy I know recently sent me a tweet-manifesto decreeing, “contemporary poetry has stagnated.” Obviously, this is stupid. Fields don’t stagnate.

What this guy was actually talking about (though he was likely far too drunk to realize it) is that his own particular expectation of poetry — his idea of poems — wasn’t being met. And that’s fine; I get that. In fact, on a particularly good day (today isn’t one), I might go so far as to make the claim that if you don’t find that, largely, current poetry (i.e. a body of poetry that hasn’t been eroded to its core by time, if you will) is unsatisfying, (though not stagnant), then you’re fucking stupid, but I won’t because I don’t feel well, and I’m tired of defending myself against the anyone-can-write-poetry crowd who believe that phone books, framed in just the right way, are art. What I will say is this: there’s a reason that, Charles Wright (in some poem I spent half an hour looking for but couldn’t find) writes “make your song/your favorite”; that with something so diverse, so culturally and intellectually and ideologically differentiated within itself as poetry is, idiosyncratic preferences are going to express themselves, whether or not you’re too lazy or drunk to realize it.

I say all this to impress upon you two separate things:

1) that this book speaks to me, my sensibilities and concerns as a poet and a human being, it is the ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside [me] (Kafka) that I’ve been looking for for about six months and, more importantly,

2) my little aside gets at the core of the book’s intellectual project: that (in the Kabbalist idiom) angels, which become synonymous with epiphanies and artworks throughout the text, are the product of influence… but not in a bad way. Rather, the angel/epiphany/artwork is the result of what’s learned, inherited, through blood and culture and socialization, internalized by you, and changed so that, when you see it/speak it/write it in the outside world, it is both you and not, an unknown knowledge you’ve received and re-articulated as your self. It is both you and not you, and, in being so, it changes you.

Now, I know that last paragraph reads like heady grad-school crap. I know it. So, let me try to make a metaphor (though Cole’s are much more arresting): Imagine moving to a new, profoundly regional part of the country (say, Alabama) and moving into your grandmother’s old house. By living there, interacting there, you’ll be inherently changed, you’ll adapt and adjust without even realizing it, but you’ll still retain who you were prior to the move. Some day, you look in the mirror and think: Fuck, I’m not who I used to be at all. That’s the sort of commonplace, everyone-has-experienced-this-thing dulling of Cole’s project. Now, take that experience of moving and internalizing and realizing, and amplify it to mystico-spiritual, super-introspective heights. Are you starting to get the picture?

At the center of this book (literally, section II of III), the titular (title poem) “The Invention of Influence: An Agon” rests, a behemoth of a poem completely obsessed with (and in many parts, comprised of the writing of) the tragic Victor Tausk, a suicide and disciple of Freud who was the first to use the language “The Influencing Machine” to consider a schizophrenic’s perception of his/her own mental capacity. The “influencing machine” Cole-as-Tausk writes “makes them see pictures. It produces/thoughts and feelings, and also removes them,/by means of mysterious forces./It brings about changes within the body—/ sensation and even emission,/ a palpable kind of impregnation,/ as one becomes host.” With this idea, Cole weaves a thread through mental illness, the Kabbalist Jewish experience (which he takes very seriously), and Tausk’s suicide (resulting, it seems, from his inability to stop doing the work Freud was doing, to remove the influence of his teacher and to do his own work, to see that he has his own, individuated vision of psychoanalysis (as opposed to regurgitation of another master’s thoughts)). And what’s amazing, what truly sets all this apart, is, formally, just how well he does it.

I’m sure the non-poetry crowd is, at this point, thinking I don’t give a fuck. Stop talking or I’ll stop reading. They’re thinking please don’t talk about how nearly the entire book is written, classically in couplets or quatrains and then juxtaposed, fragmented, against each other, or how most poems are rhymed (some not quite so silently as I’d like, though maybe that’s the point), how the poem “On Coupling” argues that couplets are used to join unlike things (remember the vision of the angel as simultaneously the self and the internalized influence??) and that rhyme creates the effect of simultaneously going backward (into what we’ve internalized) and forward (into the exterior world in the present moment and beyond), that quatrains, two rhymes set in four lines, are as “Ezekiel’s/four-faced cherubs facing at once/every direction.”

So I won’t. I won’t talk about it. Instead, I’ll suggest that you give a long, hard thought to why Cole might write in such a kind of modern/postmodern, jagged classicism, or in a verse-form itself so dedicated to joining two things at once, so appropriate for moving backwards (in rhyme) and forwards (because we can’t read the same two goddamn lines forever) when talking about influence and artwork and angels.

This book walks a fine line between the pointedly post-modern—pastiche, fracture and juxtaposition, and ambiguity—and the pointedly classical—rhymed, measured, searching for “wisdom” and “truth” and all that shit no one believes exists anymore—, and it’s gorgeous. Really.

What I’ll leave you with is a great, difficult, short poem from the book. If you don’t read the book, kill yourself. If you don’t read this poem, kill yourself twice.

The Reluctant Kabbalist’s Sonnet

It is known that “desire” is, numerologically, … “the essence of speech.”

Avraham Abulafia, “The Treasures of the Hidden Eden.”

It’s hard to explain What was inside came
through what had been between, although it seems
that what had been within remained the same
Is that so hard to explain It took some time
which was, in passing, made distinctly strange
As though the world without had been rearranged,
forcing us to change: what was beyond
suddenly lying within, and what had lain
deep inside—now… apparently gone
Words are seeds, like tastes on another’s tongue
Which doesn’t explain—how what’s inside comes
through what is always in between, that seam
of being For what’s within, within remains,
as though it had slipped across the lips of a dream

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: New Directions

A “Conversation” with James Franco: Celebrity Poetry

James Franco

Austin Duck

To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I get so irritated by James Franco. I just do. Anyone who knows me will tell you that, in general, I’m not a very nice person, and it’s no surprise that I (oh yes even I) have found a celebrity that I use to channel all of my frustrations with personal failures onto. I mean, c’mon, look at this stupid face.

But that’s not what I want to write about. I want to use this space below to try, in some way, to figure out why Franco is doing what he’s doing, to try and get inside his head. Recently, amid all the Facebook and Twitter fire he’s been getting from his newest poem in DIAGRAM and his “book review” that showed up in Vice, a friend of mine, someone whose ideas I take very seriously, asked us (the hungry pack of MFAs who love to trash Franco at every turn) to take a step back, to consider what he’s doing from a different angle. For her:

Uncomfortable as it makes me to admit it, I am interested in [Franco’s] perspective. He’s an actor, and I think he’s a good one. Acting is a delicate and demanding kind of translation. I can grant that he has an aptitude for art, although not so much for the medium he has fifty degrees in. He has the rare (among poets/ardent fans of poetry/scholars) distinction of having a great deal of influence in Hollywood — he’s at liberty to try things most poets/fans of poetry/scholars are not. That has some value to the world… and I’d rather it exist than not, even if he doesn’t please other poets/fans of poetry/scholars with his output. In other words, I think he’s in a position to do some great things, and unfair as that may seem (esp. given the shit-tons of good poetry by non-names that goes uncelebrated, unpublished) I’d rather him try those things and disappoint us than not try.

This got me thinking about what, really, his project could be, what he could be getting at, what sort of aesthetic he’s actually after. Sure, we all know him as the Frank-Bidart-imitating, couldn’t-write-his-way-out-of-undergrad-without-his-name poet who keeps producing less-than-satisfactory work (by poetry culture’s [hahaha like that’s a real thing] standards anyway) to sell to a massive (for poetry) audience, but why? Does he maybe have a grand idea that his writing chops just can’t approach?

I figured the best way to clarify this was by having a conversation with him. Of course, I don’t know him (though we almost went to the same graduate program for a minute), and I doubt he’d talk with me, but he has such a body of work (poems, interviews, book reviews) about writing, that I think his opinions on the matter are pretty much available.

Here we go:

All of Franco’s words come from interviews and poems published in the following places: CurbedViceThe Daily BeastYahoo NewsHuffington PostChicago TribuneDIAGRAM

Austin Duck: At what point did you get interested in poetry? How do you see it relating to your experience in acting? Your vision of making art in general?

James Franco: I was in my first year at NYU, and our assignment was to make a short film that was an adaptation of a short story. They gave us a list of stories to choose from, but at Warren Wilson this teacher I had brought in Frank’s (dark, disturbing, serial-killer driven) poem “Herbert White,” and it was amazing. That was the first time I read him. And I think I have since learned to be awake to those kind of moments, when you get impulses of connection. These impulses are visceral. It wasn’t only because it was about a killer. The killer had been fused with something else. Frank [Bidart] was playing with both sides of the coin. There are moments in the poem when the killer takes down his mask, and the poet shows through.

AD: So you feel like art is a kind of simultaneous masking and de-masking? Both a mirage come up and a human come through? Would you care to say more about that?

JF: Sometimes, I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world. When I was younger, when I had no friends, my mom drove me to school because I lost my license drunk-driving, and we wouldn’t talk, we would listen to Blonde on Blonde every morning, and life was like moving through something thick and gray that had no purpose. And now I see that everything has had as much purpose as I give it, [it carries] less and less of [its] original pain, And become(s) emptier, just [a] marker really, building blocks, to be turned into constructions and fucked with.

AD: So memory for you, then, is what? A marker? A mask? Is the past a kind of costume you slip into when you think you can remake it? I know you’ve done some work in performance poetry as well. Would you say that this idea, the idea of performing a past self, a self othered, is key to the art that you make? I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that the othering is absolutely necessary in acting; even in This is the End, when you play yourself, you’re not really playing yourself. You’re taking a construction and “fucking with it,” right?

JF: I write confessions and characters, and that sort of thing. [Once] I called my class at UCLA, and told them to watch Apocalypse Now, and that it used Heart of Darkness as a model, and that we’d watch Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness, the making-of, the following week, I told them Hollywood and its high and low priests and priestesses become icons that [we] can manipulate to find poetic truth rather than journalistic proof. I guess you can read it as fetishizing, but it’s more of an ironic form of fetishizing. Once I choose a subject, I’m not going to shy away from portraying that.

If you go back to something like General Hospital, it’s because I like that it allows for people to look at something with fresh eyes, or to rethink a situation. If it’s my involvement that does it, and I’m going against tacit beliefs of entertainment hierarchy, if I’m messing with that, that’s interesting to me.

AD: So while you have interests in characters, in the cracks that appear in their personas, you’re more interested in pushing formal boundaries, messing with people’s perceptions of who you are? Can I ask you something blatantly? Are you more interested in the work or in how the work makes the public perceive you?

JF: I’m going to try to not let anyone put me in a box, and that certainly applies to the things I do outside of acting. There’s a tacit belief that actors shouldn’t write books, they’re sort of allowed to direct movies but there will be a lot of skepticism, and they shouldn’t do artwork, or music. There are these invisible roadblocks to gain entrée to these areas for actors, and you kind of have to crash through those invisible barriers. I know why those barriers are there. People are skeptical of anyone who has any bit of celebrity going and doing anything else because they might be wary that they’re cashing in on their celebrity, or that they’re doing these other pursuits not because they’re genuinely into them, but because of their celebrity in other areas. I understand that skepticism, and think it’s valid. But I told myself that if I was going to go back to school and study these other things, I knew I was going to get some shit, and that people were going to be prejudiced without even knowing what I’m doing, and that’s the price I have to pay for doing what I want to do. I think a lot more people that “care” and pay attention to what I’m doing have turned and understand that I take all these other disciplines seriously. I think it’s better now. I’m sure I still have a lot of haters, but I don’t really interact with them.

AD: It seems to me, then, that you’re interested in something a little more “pure” than many people give you credit for. “Poetic truth” I think you called it. How would you characterize that “truth?” Is it the same “truth” that you’re after when acting?

JF: If I were to act in the film about Obama, all I would need to get down, aside from the outer stuff—and I know that’s important—is his essential kindness. Poetry’s just like that, like hearing a performance going on. It is a portrait in some ways of someone trying to make sense of his world. I was taught to grab a reader, not push them away, and, I guess, that’s what I know of how to be a poet. The way I view it, poetry is like the movies, this monster at the center of the room, articulate, and behind it, a poet figure peeks out, a torque that acts as a through-line to ideas. And his ideas came out of a cheap, dime-store, medical case study that came out of Lowell and Bishop and Ginsburg. It goes on and on. Remember that the bricks of LA were mortared with thick Indian blood.

AD: Oh I see, so it’s about history. You seem to see the poet as inhabiting a kind of history that she makes, again, human, that we’re all imitating one piece or another and, in finding what’s human in the work, we find it with ourselves. Your work, particularly, engages in the history of Hollywood, the history of film, just as your films seem to be engaged in the history and the moment of literature. I think I get it: You engage in Hollywood because acting and film, like poetry, are obsessed with moments—of masks dropping, of traditions shattering and becoming alive. The history of literature and film are all about reinvention, about bringing back the dead, and, as I think you know, the only way to do that is with the human, the real. Is that about right?

JF: Hollywood is an idea. I want to get into the thick of it. Movies won’t be around forever.

AD: Do you think you’ve achieved this in your work?

JF: …

——————————–

While I still think that Franco’s written work, ultimately, isn’t very successful, I think that he has a vision and is pursuing a worthwhile project.

Fuck. I have a lot of tweets to delete.

Image source: The Guardian

Tough Questions: What Do you Keep Recommending that No One Will Believe is Good?

question-mark

Every Monday we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What Do You Keep Recommending that No One Will Believe is Good?

Rules are simple: what do you find yourself telling every person you come across to check out that no one will listen to you about? What would totally be someone’s favorite show/book/movie/Chinese food menu item that’s being overlooked?

Mike Hannemann

The thing I love that I find myself never able to convince anyone is good is the tacos at Burger King. I normally hate the guy that goes to a Mexican restaurant and orders a burger but these are LEGIT. They cost $1.19 for two and yet no one takes the chance despite my urging. They’re fried, filled with a meat-like substance, a half piece of Kraft american cheese, and a slice of lettuce, all topped with a weird taco sauce. I can’t explain why they’re amazing. I can’t explain how an airplane flies, either. I just know two things: a plane can fly and these tacos are good.

Alex Marino

I swear if you’re still using that shitty shower head that was there when you moved in you need to get rid of that shit right now. Get on Amazon and order yourself one of these. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s completely worth it. You’ve probably spent $100 on some shitty sweater you wear once every few weeks. Why not spend that on something you do every day? Instead of a shower just being that thing you do before you go to work, you actually enjoy it. You’re fucking WELCOME.

Alex Russell

The funniest thing you don’t listen to is My Brother, My Brother and Me. It’s a podcast on the Maximum Fun podcast network that’s hosted by three brothers. They answer questions from Yahoo! Answers and from people who email them their pressing questions. Want to know what to do if you think you’re in love with a goose? Need to learn to box but refuse to learn how to block? Unsure if shoplifting is really illegal? You need to listen to the brothers. I’ve suggested this to every single person I’ve met that likes comedy in the last two years. “You need to listen to this podcast” is tantamount to asking someone for both of their kidneys, but seriously check out the sampler

Austin Duck

Poetry.

Andrew Findlay

I have been asking my coworkers to watch Breaking Bad for a year and a half. To my knowledge, only one has taken me up on the offer. This is frustrating. The worst part is that a guy I work closely with kept recommending The Wire to me, and I kept recommending Breaking Bad to him. We would have arguments over which was better without us having seen an episode of the show we were putting in second place. I have since watched all 60 episodes of The Wire, and he has not watched the pilot of Breaking Bad. I’m sure everyone believes it’s good, but a disheartening number of people don’t believe it’s good enough to actually sit down and watch.

Brent Hopkins

The thing that I always recommend to other people that no one seems to think is good is a series called The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. This is a fantasy series that keeps you engaged from start to finish and has enough twists and turns to keep you in the dark until the final few pages. There is plenty of action, romance, and mystery in these books and it was one of the best things I read over the last year. I am not necessarily huge into fantasy but I found myself reading until I passed out with my Nook on my chest. I have quite a few friends I think would love it when they started it but they always come up with other things they need to do. READ THIS SERIES, SERIOUSLY!

Jonathan May

Two words: Big Love. That Bill Paxton love-bonanza had its crazy ups and downs. Even Chloë Sevigny described the fourth season (of five) as a telenovela. But fuck if I didn’t cry consistently during the last episode. This show, as Stefon from Saturday Night Live would say, has everything: polygamy, Jeanne Tripplehorn, home goods superstores, Memphian Ginnifer Goodwin, Indian casinos, conversations with God, running for State office, and polygamy (you have to say it at least twice). But no one, besides me and my friend Kyle, seems to have given this gem the time of day. It’s only five seasons, people. I get that polygamy and Mormonism are “sensitive” topics, but the character arcs you experience are incredible. I was blown away by how the women ended up. Utterly blown away. So watch it.

What is Poetry and Why Do We Care?

Austin Duck

“What is poetry” is a question I’m asked a lot and one that I can’t answer. In fact, everywhere I go, every job interview I have, every time someone asks “what’s your degree in,” they follow up with some permutation of that question. You see, I’ve got a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry (along with a few other useless degrees) and, expectedly, I’m constantly bouncing between jobs, looking for the next big thing which requires near-constant explanation of how I got here and why I made the choices I did. And my god, you should see the looks on their faces (unless someone in their family too has made this… choice) when I start stammering and trying to explain myself: pity, embarrassment, amusement that an adult would proudly (sort of) admit that he spent years (YEARS) reading poems, writing about poems, and, most questionably (because academia and the idea of a PhD still hold some cultural capital) learning to write them himself… It’s a dark time to be a poet (though I suspect that, outside of Eastern Europe [where poets are celebrated] it probably always has been).

Not everyone, though, is totally unreceptive to the choice of poetry. For some, poetry still holds its place as a kind of epicenter for literary bad-boy-ness (after all, poets work in shorter bursts of clarity and don’t require the same kind of discipline as someone writing something long-form that is either narratively or argumentatively coherent): hard drinkers, sexers (is that a thing?), druggers and live-r’s that occupy that very thin line between intellectual and indigent, the Jim Morrisons of the not-quite-so-fucking-stupid, the arty guy or gal who, even though they manage social media and blogging at a major corporation (guilty), still has a deeply mysterious and deeply sexual wilderness in their heart.

For others, poetry itself has a kind of heroic capital. It allows one to project the image of hyper intelligence (just look at the number of poets who win MacArthur genius grants and you’ll see that poetry and physics seem to fish from the same pond) and a kind of bohemian “casting off” of economics, of choosing to pursue “art” when really you should have gone into investment banking but this makes you more pure. It sounds fucking stupid, doesn’t it? It is.

The trouble, for me, of people believing these myths—of the poetic bad boy and/or the self-sacrificing genius—is that it creates a cultural expectation of the “poet” as a thing to which young, narcissistic, self-righteous fucking losers (guilty) flock to prove themselves the next Rilke, the next wild Jack Gilbert, the next (ugh) Charles Bukowski, and, in doing so, they build a scene. They themselves (with all of their ideas) create an idea of poetry, promulgate a notion of poetry as sexy or smart, and, in doing so, recreate the culture of poetry.

However, that’s not to say that I’m here to bemoan it; to believe that the state of anything isn’t in flux is naive and prescriptive and hey, I forgot to put on underwear this morning so I’m probably not the best person to make a totalizing statement what is right or wrong for poetry as a whole. I say it’s a trouble for me because it so deeply complicates what poetry is, really. If I had to give a totally uninformative (but accurate) definition, I might say that it’s the silently agreed-upon, written production of a continuously changing group of half-educated, half-myth-drunk twenty-somethings with progressively more impressive resumes continuously reinventing something so fundamental to humans that it existed before God. But that wouldn’t be entirely right.

Sure, that’s the bottom of the scene right now (if you want to think about it hierarchically), but it tells nothing about the multitudes of unpaid apprenticeships with those “living masters”—old people writing poetry who their peer-group agrees is writing the best poetry—of the unpaid publications used to build reputations used to leverage shitty-paying jobs so that one day you and your group can sit among the “living masters” all while under the cold scrutiny of critics who constantly remind you that there are dead masters too, that you’ll never approach them, because history, because craft, because they didn’t get paid to watch Twitter for 8 hours a day while wishing for a different life.

And even that isn’t exactly right when you consider the fact that poetry, for all of its shared resources, doesn’t have a single, unified community; there are groups upon groups, each with slightly different aesthetic- and philosophical-projects, and then there are those who aren’t, exactly, part of groups, who have participated—to some degree—in various groups and projects, have gone through various apprenticeships (or not), who read books that are recommended by friends, or old colleagues, or whose covers and back-blurbs and first poems look appealing at a bookstore (though this is becoming less and less an option) and each one of these people, each one of these groups, is making a case -through-example of what poetry is, can be, does, or (sometimes) what it really shouldn’t do.

So what is poetry (or, really, more accurately, what is American poetry [because each culture has its own organic process for bringing up poets, its own poetics, etc.])? I don’t know. I used to ask my students this question on their final exams just to see their faces fill with terror like mine does each time I’m asked. When asked this question, I usually answer with something along the lines of:

an empathy machine, a text that appears to be written in lines but which actually is a dramatic rendering of a scene, no matter how brief, when the speaker of the poem (usually the “I”) interacts with a specific problem, usually in the realms of nature, language, memory, or culture, outside the self and, in that interaction, is changed, though it’s not enough to tell the reader that the speaker has changed, the mechanics have to be there, the change has to be structural, linguistic, imagistic (made with images), sonic (made with sound), so that, by the end of the poem the audience has had the same experience, their very brain has processed the same images presented in the same way, heard the same sounds, stumbled over the same sentence constructions, and thought the same sentences in the same order so that the speaker and the audience are, for a second, the same person, the other, so that the reader is not confirmed in their own experience but is instead forced into a new one, understanding, yes, both intellectually and emotionally, thinking and feeling as another person. Oh and did I mention that poems “should” almost never go where you think they’re going, that they contain surprise for the reader, the writer, there must be a ghost you didn’t know come to inhabit the body you’re only starting to get a sense that you’re looking at?

I do tend to get sort of breathless (even in writing, apparently) when writing about “what poetry is” because imagine that last paragraph taking place in a single instant; imagine that you were able to achieve what I’ve just described (either as a writer or a reader) and now think about the community differences I’ve described above. To say specifically “what poetry is” is impossible and even to say what it should do is pretty dubious.

In the end, my take on it (above) will yield a pretty classical American/English poem (or, at least, I think that it will), but won’t account for more than 5% of what’s been produced, what you will search through—line by line for some organizing pattern (because poetry is fundamentally [and equally unhelpfully] patterned language).

So why do it at all (reading or writing)? Aside from the fact that some people will think you’re a sexy genius and others will bathe you with counter-cultural social capital, why?

Fundamentally, the interaction of poetry will get you closer to another person’s mind, more fully engaged in empathy, understanding, learning, compassion, joy, sadness, recognition, than literally anything else on the planet. Music for your ears, visual arts for your eyes, writing, particularly poetry which is so often concerned with the instantaneous, the momentous, for wherever your mind and your humanity mix.

For more equally incomprehensible definitions of poetry, go here.

Image source: The Guardian

Kristen Stewart’s Public, Private Poem: Celebrity Poetry and the Sadness of the Watcher

kstew

Austin Duck

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