Archive for the ‘Readings’ Category

Oh Say Can You Twee? : Heather Christle’s “The Difficult Farm”

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Heather Christle

If The Difficult Farm were a human girl, it would have bangs and roller skates and carry a lunchbox as a purse. But that’s not to say that this book is hipstery. It doesn’t come off as hipstery in the slightest. It’s just twee—you know, “aggressively cute.” But I say that in neither an insulting nor a dismissive way. In fact, I think it is a strike against other MTV-Generation poetry that it has so far not succeeded in being quite this balls-to-the-wall twee. Twee has been a defining attribute of the Other Arts for the past decade, and poetry has been out of the loop. At least, until now, because The Difficult Farm is as twee as a remake of Juno in which every part is played by one of the Ditty Bops. It’s like the unholy love child of Zooey Deschanel and a LOLcat. Why is this a compliment again? Because The Difficult Farm is one of the only contemporary books of poetry I’ve read that feels like the time it is from, to the same extent that music and movies do.

I’d like to try it again. You give me
your native handbag collection, and I will give you
my lilac soap. Later we can get carried away
and perhaps even employ a tombola. I will not,
I cannot remain in charge of prizes. Please,
you must look quickly at our fellow citizens
and tell me, do they not seem unwell? I feel so
concerned.
        —from “Pale Lemon Square”

You could show these poems in 20 years to someone who has never seen them before, and they would be like, “Wow, these poems feel like that time in the late Aughties and early Teenies when everybody wore those glasses and every movie trailer had that one part from that Arcade Fire song that’s like Oohhh-OOHHH-Oh-OH-Oh-OH-OOOOHHHH.” But don’t worry—it’s not an ironic, calculated twee like the Progressive Insurance Girl. It’s more an organic, slightly unhinged twee like those Sony Ericsson commercials with Kristen Schaal.

It bears mentioning that I saw Ms. Christle read, at Bushwick’s Poetry Time series, before I ever read any of her work. I bought her book immediately and enthusiastically after the reading, which is rare for me (and no, it wasn’t because of Ms. Christle’s looks, although she probably thought it was, because someone probably told her that, so whoever told her that, thanks a lot, ASSHOLE). I bring up the reading for two reasons. One, in order to mention that Christle is a phenomenal reader, with possibly the best stage presence I’ve observed in a poet of my generation; it’s obvious that she has put a deal of thought not only into developing a vocal persona that suits the work, but even into the business of commanding a room and playing with and off of an audience, decidedly a rarity in living American poets (before one poem, she entreated the audience to stand and spin around for 30 seconds, as she felt the poem was best appreciated while dizzy). If you have the opportunity to see Heather Christle read, make it a top priority to do so, even if it requires travel.

The second reason I bring it up is that, as a result of experiencing the reading before the work on the page, I was powerless during The Difficult Farm not to hear the poems in Christle’s unforgettable stage voice. This was very much a good thing, but it begs the question: would I have enjoyed the book as much if I had never heard the poet read? I believe so, but as a point of honor I must admit that I can never know. I suppose it also begs the question of whether this is even a problem: if I like poems more because the poet is a good reader, then—provided that I feel no disappointment when left alone with the page, which I definitely did not in this case—why should anyone feel that this is problematic? I think the question makes us uncomfortable because it cuts to the heart of how we fancy poets distinguish ourselves not only from slam poets, but from more popular arts generally: one cannot be accused of sliding by on personality if one has no personality, so many contemporary poets simply get rid of their personalities—especially while reading, during which they. Just. Stare. Straight. Ahead. And. Talk. Like. This. Until. You. Want. To. Punch. Them. (I have addressed this before.) I must get back to discussing Christle’s book, but be aware that this question is only going to get louder. The internet, with its rich multimedia opportunities, is indisputably the friend of the rising generation of poets, and the stronger that friendship gets, the fainter the distinction between our words and our voices is going to become.

Readers of this blog are probably sick of hearing me say that people are influenced by Dean Young, but I tend to review poets of my generation who are good, and poets of my generation who are good tend to be influenced by Dean Young. Examine these lines from Christle’s “Variations on an Animal Kingdom”—

People love to come up to me and say
Hello, you enormous, vibrating bird,
but they are just confusing me
with my invention, an invention
I regret. Yesterday a whole tree
emptied itself at once and my garden
was large, sad and full of evidence.
You can do so many bad things
and it is so easy. It takes only
a little research and 90% perspiration.
It takes funding and love for the thrush.
People like to say that when I issue
apologies like this it only teaches
others how to modify birds
to their liking. I say very little
for the most part because I am
shaking and very hungry all the time.
It’s like there is an actual alarm clock
in my ribcage. It’s like an angry harp.

The difference, to me—and it is an important one—is that unlike Young, with his affinity for the French surrealists, Christle does not seem to be trying to subvert anything. As vibrant and fun as Young’s poems are, he is of the academic generation, and his corpus is inseparable from literary theory—this is, to his credit, largely because he looks down upon and mocks literary theory, but the fact remains. The rising generation of American poets seems largely to be characterized by having absorbed the dissociativeness and stark irony of the Academic Era, but jettisoned the self-important political origins and reprogrammed the robot as homo ludens. In short, fun is a priority for American poets under 40—especially, I am happy to say, the ladies, who are gleefully torching their gender’s association with 80s/90s academic humorlessness—and Christle is a fabulous example (Matthea Harvey is another). Mark my words: the poets of the MTV Generation who end up with their faces on the cover of the anthology are going to be the ones who put the most work into obliterating the art’s thralldom to inside-baseball post-structuralist tenure-battle nitpicking, and those who allow themselves to backslide into the dead marshes of Theory do so at the utmost peril to their legacies.

The overall tone of TDF is one of little-girl-lost imperiled earnestness tenuously constructed out of hilarious observations that upon closer inspection may not be hilarious and upon even closer inspection may not even be observations—it’s like if Christina Rosetti got extremely, extremely high.

Troll 2

                                      So is 'Troll 2'

At one point, while reading The Difficult Farm, I lost my place because I actually squealed and bounced up and down in my seat and clapped. I forget where. It may have been here:

The article said it helps to look for one thing,
as a way of accidentally discovering something else.
I picked bears. I was looking for bears.

I didn’t work. I mean,
All I ever got was bears.

The secretary at the elementary school
which had recently seceded
from the Governor Wentworth District
was a bear, and also a steamboat enthusiast.
        —from “The Avalanche Club”

The above, like any number of other poems in TDF, expertly walks the line between being an ironic appropriation of childlike attitudes and imagery in a complex poem for adults and being something that would, you have to admit, work perfectly well as an actual children’s poem if someone decided to give it to some actual children. This, I’ll point out again, is another compliment, as evidenced by the fact that the assessment applies equally to a goodly bulk of Wordsworth, Blake, Frost, Dickinson, Yeats, Roethke, and the Shakespeare of the Comedies and Romances, among others. All told, there have probably been fewer poets who would not consider it high praise to be informed that children would enjoy their work (Pope and Pound spring to mind, though I love them dear, as do any number of living poets, though I do not).

This is not to say that TDF is merely pleasant. Far from it. In fact, one of the chief advantages of a childlike (as distinct from childish) voice—especially in women poets—is that it allows you to express rage in a sympathetic fashion. Consider:

Democracy stinks. My classmates
elected the hamster. Teacher
doesn’t vote and can’t change
anything. Hamsters die all the time
for good reasons. Once I was
a hamster who loved waterparks
but nobody ever knew. Secrets
are also for presidents.
Teacher knows very little.
        —from “Five Poems for America”

The poems in TDF are allegorical but not, sexual but not, psychedelic but not, cutesy but not, and of course, about nature but not. How can a poetics be about nature when it has to spend all its time just figuring out what does or does not constitute nature in the world in keeps finding itself waking up in? And that’s how poems so indisputably fun locate their imperilment: this voice desperately wants to know what’s going on, and why it isn’t surprising anyone else. It’s been denatured out of everything save its own bright-girl-in-the-front-row wryness, like Lisa Simpson Through the Looking Glass. The only thing that keeps you from falling in love is the sneaking suspicion that once you do, the joke will be on you.

You should buy Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm. It came out over a year ago but I’ve been writing this review for that long because I liked it so much that I couldn’t think of what to say. Then there was a thing with my computer and I lost the original review and had to start over. I can’t guarantee that the poems in it will make you feel better or that they are even intended to, but they will make you angry that you not only didn’t write them but can’t even figure out how to write poems like them after you’ve read them. They will make you say everyone wants to hold these poems but in a respectful way so maybe I should go around acting like these poems. They will make the things around you, buildings mostly, and ideas, easier to deal with, to bend; matter more and matter less. You should buy Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm. It runs around proving that all sorts of things are surprising and a great time.

You Shouldn’t Let Other People Get Your Kicks for You

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books.

………………………………—William Butler Yeats

There’s only two types of people in the world:
The ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.

………………………………—Britney Spears

.

Like a lot of people, I still have my ticket stub from every concert I’ve ever been to, from Paul McCartney at Giants Stadium when I was twelve, to Bruuuuce doing Born to Run in its entirety at the Spectrum last October.  My November ’93 stub from Nirvana at the bygone New York Coliseum got so soggy in my pocket as I sweated through my jeans that it’s unreadable, but I know what it is.  The regular-piece-of-paper-with-a-big-bar-code-on-it ones from shows where you purchase tix online and print them yourself are not nearly as romantic, but I saved those too.  As fun as they are to take out and hold in my hand, though, the stubs are only physical representations of memories I’d never need any help to hang onto.

Music, of course, is not the art form I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to.  Poetry is.  Accordingly, I’ve been to way more poetry readings in my lifetime than concerts.  These are inevitably held in considerably more intimate venues, involve a tighter focus on the art itself, and are more often than not followed by extended personal interaction with the artists themselves.  I’m not sure how many poetry readings I’ve been to exactly.  Well over a hundred, usually sitting as close to the front as I can.

And—with a few notable exceptions—I remember nothing about any of them, because poetry readings are boring as fuck and I hate them.

This is not surprising, because everyone else feels the same way too.  It may be surprising that anyone is saying so, but as for the fact itself I can’t imagine anyone will deny that (once again, with a few notable exceptions, who deserve to be commended, and whom I would commend if this were about naming names, which it isn’t, at least not yet) poetry readings are simply not enjoyable to be at.  But this is neither a letdown for the audience, who after all do not expect to have a good time, nor a failing on the part of the reader, who after all is not trying to make them have one.

The fact is, people do not attend poetry readings to be entertained (or whatever word you would use in its place, if you object to entertained) by the reading.  We go in order to drink after the reading—whether because we are poets ourselves and want to schmooze the reader (whose reading we happily pretend we could stand, or even paid any attention to), or just because we think it is cool to get drunk with a poet, independently of networking.  This is in fact why it is automatic that everyone retires to a bar when the reading is over—not because, as we like to pretend, that we are all such tortured bohemians we can’t go another minute without a neat whiskey, but simply because if it were not guaranteed that a poetry reading is immediately followed by drinking, no-one would ever go to a poetry reading.

Ever.

Just consider the few times that you’ve gone to a reading and not managed to find out what bar or house party everyone was going to after.  What happens?  You are pissed off for the rest of the night.  Pissed off that you got tricked into going to a poetry reading just for the reading.  And you are supposedly someone who likes poetry.  Would anyone feel cheated by going to a concert and not automatically getting to drink with the band afterwards, or going to a movie and not subsequently getting to party with the actors?  No.  This is because people actually like concerts and movies, rather than merely pretending to like them for lack of a better idea.

This is not your fault, of course.  It is the poet’s fault, for not being the slightest bit entertaining or interesting.  And really, it is barely the poet’s fault either.  He or she has probably never seen another poet be entertaining or interesting, so where in the world would he or she get the idea that this was expected, or even permissible?  I can think of several famous (relatively speaking) poets whom I do not know whether I have seen read.  I probably have, but truthfully it’s all a blur.

Most poets today read, regardless of subject matter, as if they were declaiming a speech about AIDS in high-school forensics league—the same formalized wide-eyed faux-breathlessness in their faces, the same mannered woundedness in their voices (the major difference being the inexplicable addition of making full.  pauses in.  odd.  places as if you were.  doing a bad.  impression of an.  actress from the.  1930s).  And if your poem were in fact about AIDS—or 9/11 or the Holocaust—this might be appropriate.  But most poetry is not about those things (or indeed about an identifiable event at all).  And though through its ubiquity we have come to read this manner as simple de rigueur poetic politeness, it is absolutely not, or at least by no rights should be.

What we have allowed ourselves to forget is that it is actually obnoxious to read a poem that is not about human tragedy on an grand scale as if it were about human tragedy on a grand scale.  If your poem actually is about genocide, then you are absolutely entitled simply to stand stone still and declaim it in a ghost-robot voice with odd pauses, because the audience has no right to expect to be entertained by utterance on the subject and is ethically obliged to do nearly all the work of listening.  But if your poem is about being stopped at a traffic light and noticing how a styrofoam cup on the side of the road perfectly exemplifies a point from the semiotics lecture you gave that afternoon and you still read it that way, then you are a dick.  And if your poem is not even about a comprehensible damn thing at all and you read it that way, then someone should walk up to the podium and punch you.

Then there are the poets who, wanting to show that they are not pretentious like the ghost-robot readers, read their poems like… well, like nothing.  Just jam their hands in their pockets, look straight down, exhale like they can’t believe it either, and then zip through the words on the page as fast as they can.  And then look at you and raise their eyebrows like, I know right, what the heck are we all doing here?  Well, why don’t you tell us what we’re doing here, asshole—it’s your reading.

What I am suggesting, and what I cannot believe is something I even have to suggest, much less something that will get people pissed at me for suggesting, is that if you are giving a poetry reading, you are just as responsible for showing the audience a good time as if you were a stand-up comic or a rock musician.  You are not showing them a good time in the same way of course, because you are not telling jokes or playing songs.  You do not necessarily have to make them laugh or make them scream.  But you should be trying just as hard to make them something.  And if they fail to experience whatever that thing is because they found it hard to pay attention, it is your fault.

It’s not like this idea is so radical or so foreign to poetry.  It is only foreign to contemporary poetry written by people whose poetics were formed by academia.  Do you think if you had a time machine and could attend a reading by Frank O’Hara, you would have to try really hard to pay attention?  Or Anne Sexton?  Or Ginsberg, Yeats, Millay, Whitman, Rimbaud, Dickinson, Byron, Pope, Donne, or Chaucer?  Every great poet is a personality.  What the audience should experience at a poetry reading is what we all once dreamt of experiencing at one, before we went to graduate school and learned that such expectations are neither intellectual nor modern: to feel that we are witnessing the daemon of the work made flesh.

I know we are supposed to act surprised when someone comes up afterwards to say they enjoyed the reading.  But we should not actually be surprised.  (If we’re not surprised, it’s only because we have come to understand that I really enjoyed that is just a polite way of asking So, what bar is everyone going to now?).  If it elicits genuine shock to find that one or two people in attendance at a poetry reading were anything other than miserable, then just what the hell do we all think we are doing?

What we think we’re doing, I imagine, is writing poetry, and then reading it as an afterthought, a matter of custom or ceremony.  We imagine readings as part of the business, but not of the craft, just as, say, the filming of a music video is not an aspect of music proper.  And yet, we acknowledge that a live performance very much is.  Perhaps not for Mozart or Beethoven, who composed in notation on paper what was then performed live by others, but even composers who are also performers (the norm for music during the lifetime of everyone reading this) still put thought and energy into the performance.  Though it may have been the custom in the culture of Homer or of the Beowulf author, no poet now writes with the intention that the work will be performed by professional readers trained in showmanship as a duty separate from composition.  If you do not perform your work, no-one else is going to.  But the fact that you “have to” do it yourself is no excuse to suck at it.

The fact that we do not consider reading to be a part of the job—or at least not an honorable part of the job, or one that obligates effort or training—is maybe best evinced by the fact that, to my knowledge, no MFA program mandates or even offers a course or seminar in how to give a good reading.  Although I’m certainly not suggesting that half of a poet’s training should be in showmanship, I think it both curious and telling that the giving of a good reading—or even the existence of a difference between a good reading and a bad—is never so much as mentioned at any point in the training.

Cal Bedient once said that a poem should always be pleasurable but that it should never be the first duty of a poem to entertain.  I not only agree, but consider the distinction to be one of the most valuable things I have ever heard anyone say about poetry.  But a poetry reading is not a poem.  To say that a reading should be genuinely engaging on the level of a musical performance, and that poets should work to make this so, is not to say that poetry should be composed with an eye towards wowing a crowd.

This, of course, is the error of Slam.  I have seen Slam poets who are unquestionably talented, but unfailingly the poems would be better poems had they not been composed with performance uppermost in mind.  The foreknowledge that a poem must take five minutes to recite while talking as fast as you can does not aid one in becoming a scrupulous self-editor.  On the other hand, I have never seen anyone fall asleep at a Slam either (pass out yes, but fall asleep no).

Just as Slammers are afraid to be accused of being too academic, poets who live and who compete for attention in academic circles (even if not actually employed as academics) are afraid to be accused of being too Slam.  The reason our readings are boring may not be because we do not know how to be interesting (most poets I know are not only avid rock fans, but can pontificate at length about rock history and aesthetic), but because we’re afraid to be accused of being a better reader than a writer: if you read your poetry in the most boring manner possible and people can still sort of stand it, that must mean it’s good.

This is not to say that a poetry reading should seek to emulate a rock concert.  Male poets need not read shirtless and in leather pants, nor female poets in coned bustiers (indeed, in the cases of most poets, this would be something very other than an inducement to attend).  But it is simply pathetic for us to persevere in our bizarre denial of the fact that, while giving a reading, a poet is a performer before an audience and should be held at least to some standards of what this supposedly entails.

The idea that our art is inherently more performable is supposed to be one of our advantages over people who write fiction.  If there is a joint reading where one reader does a few poems and another reads an entire short story, and people have less trouble not spacing out during the short story—and the short story is not about sex—then something is very wrong.

I do not see how it can be considered obnoxious for me to say this.  The alternative, after all, is to side with those poets who regard what they do as too special for the idea of putting thought into entertaining an audience even to occur to them, or to be taken seriously if it does.  Especially at a reading where people actually had to pay money to get in, this attitude is obnoxious far beyond anything I’ve ever said, and I say obnoxious things with no little regularity.

I admit it may justifiably seem somewhat obnoxious for me at such length to criticize poets for not giving entertaining readings, without offering one piece of advice on how to make their readings more entertaining, but I refrain from doing this for a few reasons.  One, all the ways I know of making my own readings so fabulously entertaining are mine, and you can’t have them.  And two, even if I felt like giving them to you, they would be useless to you, as you are not me.  Likewise, the most engaging readers I have seen did not necessarily engage in ways I could simply steal, as the most engaging poets are always engaging in ways specific to their work.  Not everyone’s reading avatar should be funny, or sexy, or angry, or baleful, or fragile.  But everyone should be something.  You need to look at what your stuff is doing and think of a way to create a personality around this that you can then act—yes, act—at readings.

And if you cannot imagine how your poetry could ever possibly be entertaining to an audience, no matter who is reading it or in what manner, then you might do well seriously to consider the possibility that you just suck at poetry, and ought not be writing it either.