Tyler Gobble’s chapbook Other People’s Poems was released recently by Radioactive Moat Press and is free to download. Yesterday, my fellow Actuarian Evan wrote a short email to me and Beth bringing the book to our attention. The gist of the email was: what is going on here?
For me, there are a few things going on. It seems to be a book written in multiple voices. Gobble apparently took the styles and voices of other small press contemporary writers and wrote poems as if he were them. As far as I can tell, each poem is written entirely by Gobble himself, and only the voice/register is borrowed from the poets. That conceptual conceit was the most interesting part of this body of work. It brings up some interesting abstract and academic issues, which I’ll discuss more below. One large part of this piece of writing is knowing who these writers are and how these poems emulate their stlylistic quirks. Not knowing them, then, makes absorbing the full impact of the collection difficult. As poems divorced from the conceit of mimicry/imitation/homage, I found them mediocre at best. But, taken as a piece of conceptualism, Gobble’s collection does raise some pretty interesting issues.
For example, is Gobble imitating these poets or is he rewriting them? What does it mean to adopt someone else’s voice? And, for that matter, is it plagiarism when you adopt someone else’s voice? “Find Your Voice” is the entry level workshop standard for most forms of writing, but I’ve never been sure what that actually means. Our voice is never actually our voice; if it were, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to develop it. Instead, our voice is a deep creepy amalgamation of everything we’ve read and everything we’ve retained and everything we’ve actively destroyed. We can’t really have much claim to our voice, since it’s only ever a pastiche of every other voice we’ve stolen from and every other voice we’ve actively negated. More than that, it’s a combination of all of our experiences. Because of the huge number of constantly shifting variables, voice creation is an incredibly complex and evolving event, one which couldn’t be so easily diagrammed or mapped despite how rudimentary I’m going to make it seem below. Even still, it isn’t some magical form of muse-inspiration. When Gobble takes on the voice of these poets, is he creating a soulless doll, an empty imitation? I would argue yes and no. Yes, in the sense that his form of that voice is always slightly off. Gobble’s adopted voices are always echoes and not the shout because he can’t recreate the specific events and moments which lead to a particular poem. In this there is the suggestion that voice is just an illusion brought on by repeatedly similar thematic elements in a relatively large number of poems, but I’m not going to develop that. On the other hand, it’s also no, because not even those first writers have any shred of originality. It’s always a lego block castle growing on top of the bones of those before us.
“Singer sat solemn and timid, his face turned fully toward the window. The great sweeps of space and the hard, elemental coloring almost blinded him. This kaleidoscopic variety of scene, this abundance of growth and color, seemed somehow connected with his friend. His thoughts were with Antonapoulos. The bliss of their reunion almost stifled him.”
- Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
There are a handful of writers (Judy Blume, Theodore Roethke, etc.) who had a profound impact on me as a writer and reader. And perhaps no credit for my development as someone engaged with the English language is more deserved than that I might owe McCullers. I first picked up McCullers’s 1940 novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, when I was thirteen years old. That was a strange time in my reading history, as I had long outgrown children’s novels and had not found YA fiction that I particularly liked (the YA world in 2000 was not nearly as strong and diverse as it is now, and the librarians at my middle school were not particularly good at buying or recommending interesting YA fiction anyway). I had dipped my toe in adult fiction but mostly found it alienating at this point. So when I found The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at the Urey Middle School media center, I wasn’t exactly sure it was going to work out. But within pages, I became absorbed by it. I walked around with that book tearing at my insides constantly. It made an incredible mark, and after that, I dived into reading other American classics.
————home———you-will-go-away———-away————–- Johan JönsonMy Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -In Corners – till a DayThe Owner passed – identified -And carried Me away -- Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson is not considered a working-class writer. In fact, her lack of work is largely her defining autobiographical note – beyond her garden, her poems are the only labor of hers we can quantify as having existed. However, you might find arguments that she is a worker poet, that her untiring dedication to craft, to writing poems upon poems, is a kind of comment on labor. We may not consider her working-class but we would certainly consider her productive. I would like to take that one step further and add that there are formal qualities in Dickinson’s work that speak to an aesthetic choice often seen in contemporary working-class work as I am attempting to define it. Dickinson’s work is a foremost example of poetry that works with what I’d like to call the “sound of interruption.”
(After reading Beth’s awesome post on sad young man poetry, I’ve been thinking about the aggression, both passive and violent, that broods inside ‘sensitivity’. This is me trying to think through my own place within that place of male privilege.)
Despite the schooling, the break-ups, the nieces and nephews born, the moves, the projects, the weather—a parade of micro and macro life-changes that have shaped the last five years of my life—the depressing constant underlying these swells and dells is my love of microwaveable vegetarian food. Faux-meat patties made from soy: they taste almost like chicken, almost like sausage, almost like hamburger. The almost is important, the almost is conditioning. When I think about the McNuggets I really want—and they’re the only meat products I ever crave—I think of that almost and all the animal misery writhing beneath it. I imagine the sea of debeaked chicks convulsing on the assembly line, shocked and shivering in their little yellow coats, and then I conceive of them insane, maturing in dark dreams, and I get out of the drive-thru.
In my last post, I looked at how the stream can be seen to function as a modern version of the turn of the century periodical. I argued that the stream exists both in time and out of it and establishes its own set of genre expectations to help readers engage quickly with the content. I also looked at some critiques of the stream and suggested that more interesting critical moves would be ones which provide alternate modes of creating. In this post, I want to look at one example of a genre-twisting piece from writer Matthew Simmons, and to think about how the stream plays a role in their success.
The first post by Simmons that caught my eye was called Deaver’s Great Chain of Being. Having been around HTMLGiant for awhile, I’m relatively familiar with Matthew Simmons. I know he’s a writer and I know he’s involved in the community that surrounds HTMLG. The article (article, for a lack of a better word; it’s not an article, exactly, or a story or a memoir; more on that later) immediately takes an autobiographical stance. It talks about going on a book tour, something I’m sure Simmons would actually do, and names real people he likely could have done readings with. These are real names and real places, things which can be easily verified with a quick Google search. The story veers away from these details in the fourth paragraph, but they act as very important framing information for what follows.
It has been a strange, depressing week to be a woman who loves art. Paul Auster is using the phrase “boy writer” in the least ironic way possible. Dylan Farrow’s brave New York Times piece about Woody Allen is unleashing all the creeps on the internet. And, in much quieter news, Gregory Sherl has been accused by multiple women of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. This being contemporary poetry, the Sherl story has not gotten the type of press other stories of abusive creative geniuses have received the last few years. However, it is no less important, not least because of how much less attention it has received.
The thing that makes the Sherl story interesting and terrible is how it clashes with what the contemporary poetry scene has imagined Sherl to be: a sensitive literary darling. His work is painfully sentimental; Sherl wears his poetic voice with a beating heart on its sleeve. And he plays to the image. The first descriptor on his Twitter profile is “Dreamboat Poet.” Gross. Sherl’s fundraising campaign to seek help for his OCD is part of this whole image as well. It asks other poets and poetry readers, most of whom probably also have shitty health care coverage and no expendable cash, to help a literary darling with a disease that is often characterized by over-sensitivity, with caring too much about germs and order and mental welfare. OCD is a horrible and debilitating disease, but if Sherl has it, that does not excuse years of domestic abuse. The recent explosion of women finally coming forward to speak about Sherl’s abuse towards them will hopefully shut that fundraiser down.
But I do not want to talk about Sherl in this piece, not directly at least. I want to talk about a move I have seen in poetry (and frankly, everywhere else; see some of the critical backlash to Catching Fire and how it says so much about the way society views the worth of the emotions and preferences of teenage girls) to praise “sensitive” men who write about emotions but ask that women poets perhaps tone down their emotions.
In January 2013, I posted my very first piece here on Actuary Lit. It was an essay about the need to redefine what we consider “working-class” poetry. I argued that Philip Levine, while certainly passable as a chronicler of the working class, lacked the kind of dissonance and aesthetic possibilities that I feel better embody the working-class experience. At that time, I suggested a better alternative would be the music of Modest Mouse, where the factory-like aural experience and lyrics of bitter day-to-dayness might better match what we think about when we think about the working class as a socioeconomic or cultural signifier.
In the year since writing that piece, I have not stopped thinking about it. Recently, as I now find myself being a practicing poet and no longer just a “student” of poetry, it has become just that much more important to me to define ON MY OWN TERMS what I want a concept of working class poetry to look like. I recently received a copy of The Arcadia Project, Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep’s anthology of the “postmodern pastoral,” in the mail. As soon as I held it in my hands, I began to wish that someone would come along and help redefine working-class poetry with a new anthology. And then I realized, Hey, why not me? Unfortunately, I do not have the publishing or political clout to put such a thing into material action, but I do have this blog. And so I have decided to develop what I am calling The New Working-Class Anthology.
“Welcome to the world of permanent change—a world defined not by heavy industrial machines that are modified infrequently, but by software that is always in flux.” – Lev Manovich
What is the stream? It’s a hybrized monstrosity of never-ending motion, of ceaseless updates with no goal or ending. It’s the point of no return. It’s a self perpetuating system with only the desire for continual updates. Unlike the traditional newspaper, it has no fixed locality or temporal existence; instead, it’s amorphous and heterogenous, a sedimentary amalgamation of image, voice, text, link, and whatever else is technically possible to submit. It’s the interplay between continuation and temporality. The stream is the ever-forward motion of a supposedly future-obsessed people. Really, it’s more proof of the power of the present moment. The stream is only good for the now; anything else is irrelevant or just an insubstantial forecast. Ceci Moss and Tim Steer, from their introduction to MOTION, provide what looks like a pretty good definition of the stream:
“It doesn’t have an autonomous singular existence; it is only ever activated within the network of nodes and channels of transportation…Both a distributed process and an independent occurrence, it is like an expanded object ceaselessly circulating, assembling, and dispersing.” - Ceci Moss and Tim Steer, MOTION
But it’s also a kind of genre. Genre is itself an identifying marker for the reader, a socially organized abstract structure that allows for a quick interpretive move. When we interact with the stream, we know exactly what we’re getting because we’ve worked out how it functions and what its genre actually is. This is why the stream has become to popular. It’s a convenient genre structure that allows for a quick interpretive act on the part of the viewer. When we open our Facebook or our Twitter, we know what we’re looking at because we’ve become accustomed to the shape and the movement of the stream. While the information is updated quickly and aggressively, the basic abstract structures of what the stream is doing remain the same. Regarding Victorian periodicals, scholar Jim Mussell notes that,
Recently, I was trying to write an Actuary piece about the writer who does the weekly Teen Wolf recaps/reviews at the AV Club website. This writer is notorious for apparently not caring that much for the show, or even paying particularly close attention to it. His reviews have basically just become three-paragraph recaps, leaving the fans in the comments section irate and frustrated. Unfortunately, he is the only AV Club writer willing to recap the show, and so everyone is kind of stuck with him. What bums me out about this problem is the lack of good television reviewing in general for genre shows like this. So originally I was going to write about what I think a reviewer “owes” the show he or she reviews. Like, you know, actually watching it and taking notes and stuff!
But instead, I began to think more about how I do reviews and how I want to improve as a reviewer, especially for the Actuary. This led me to come up with a list of principles that I hope to follow as the year goes on. Most the items in this manifesto are obvious and things I already do (such as number one). However, writing them out acts as a kind of promise. I hope this acts as two things: 1) a guide for my review work in the next 12 months and 2) a guide of what you readers can expect from me as reviewer. So, without further ado, here is My 2014 Reviewer’s Manifesto: