By the Slice
Contributors: Amy Berkowitz, Jennifer Jackson Berry, Sarah A. Chavez, Marissa Crawford, Carrie Hunter, Becca Klaver, Courtney Marie, Carrie Murphy, Alexandra Naughton, Alina Pleskova, Jaclyn Sadicario, Nicole Steinberg, Zoe Tuck
Spooky Girlfriend Press, August 2014
22 pages / $8 Buy from Spooky Girlfriend Press
There is a lot of pizza in this anthology. That’s obvious given the title, but poetry and pizza aren’t always thought of on the same wavelength. Poetry is serious, its nouns get capital letters, it explores deep and dark life mysteries through the brilliance of language, or something like that. Pizza is a delicious food. More than that, pizza is a cultural signifier of everything fast, cheap, and delicious about American culture. Pizza is just one huge carb covered in more carbs. It’s one of the greatest foods we have. But what’s so interesting about this anthology is how easily these poems break down the binary between high and low, pizza and poetry, and presents a group of texts that make fuzzy the boundaries between them. The fatty delicious pizza contrasts nicely with the self-serious reputation of poetry and mixes on the palate to create this new thing, this pizza poem.
It’s safe to say that the line between high and low culture has always been an issue with poetry. The dominant poetic culture is constantly wiggling back and forth between these two poles. The argument comes in different a form with new jargon every decade or so but it’s always along the same lines: low culture is bad and crass, high culture is good and uplifting. Or, low culture is emblematic of the real lives of humans while high culture is elitist and closed off. It may seem obvious that an anthology dealing entirely with pizza would skew strongly in favor of the low, and it really does in a lot of ways, but almost all of these poems deal with subjects worthy of any Serious Poet. There is plenty of fun and humor moving its way through here, but it isn’t a humor anthology. Instead, it’s an anthology that combines pizza-fueled jokes with sincere meditations on what it means to be a depressed person or what a local pizza joint can mean to family.
The very first poem in this collection lays out this high/low distinction and sets the tone for what follows. “Pizza v. Theory” by Amy Berkowitz and Zoe Tuck seems like the perfect poem to begin a pizza poem anthology, one that takes serious the idea of being very unserious. It says, “I am trapped inside a pizza with no hope of escape, / Except for Theory.” It is interesting how theory gets its nice capital “T” here, giving it a sense of importance, but also mocking its self-importance. It continues,
But theory won’t hear me. It’s big, hairy.
Its hair feels spiky if you pet it the wrong direction.
The problem is knowing which direction is right, given
That Mission is that way and this is Valencia and the toilets
At the BART stop always face west.
Theory bites back. You need to know the proper configuration of theory. In this poem, theory is built from some strange ritualistic toilet configuration and to not know is to somehow insult theory. Despite that, theory is set up as the thing that saves the speaker from the encapsulating pizza in the first line. Or not, or maybe it’s just an absurd methodology for diving the next closest crapper. This mix of pizza and theory isn’t simple; it’s not that one is better than the other in some easy binary way. Instead of giving a nice and neat hierarchy further on, the poem dissolves into a Smurf novelty card with a mirror inside the Smurf’s face. The poem says, “Which means: You are a Smurf. Relax into it. / This card is for you. It’s what you asked for. Your face a Smurf face.” It’s both funny and poignant: just relax into it. The theory is there, still spiky and potentially worth knowing, but arcane and alchemical and full of ritualistic jargon that keeps the world at a distance. But you’re a Smurf now, and that’s OK too.
Pizza may be a signifier for mass/pop culture, but it’s also an incredibly affective and physical thing. In America at least, pizza is deeply a part of the food culture, and ranges from gross chain to gourmet. It can be argued, and maybe not convincingly, that physical, affect-centered poetry is often associated with low/mass culture, whereas the high culture is usually given over to intellectualism and idealistic pursuits of some sort. Whether or not that’s true in the historical, there’s a clear breaking away from this mindset via pizza. In the poem “Dear Carole, For Hours it’s been burning” by Sarah A. Chavez, taste acts as a central anchoring point for the wider discussion of depression. The first few lines:
a hole in my gut, the shame
of never saying thank you
twelve years ago for that fucking pizza
you bought with SSI back pay.
It tasted so good: the grease,
the sweet of the tomato sauce,
the alt from the olives prickling
my tongue—I could actually taste it.
They don’t say on those Cymbalta commercials
depression takes away taste.
This is the kind of complexity that pizza can bring out. We often think of depression as a mental issue, but it’s also supremely physical in many different ways. Here, it’s the flattening of taste that the speaker is stuck with. She tries eating whole loaves of bread but finds it “thick and waxen.” But the pizza is good both in the sensual enjoyment of its cheesy goodness but also in the kindness it represents from the Carole character mentioned in the title. This gesture from Carole means so much to the speaker, even if it is just pizza. It means somebody cares enough to dip into “SSI back pay” and it means food can actually taste like something again. Pizza can be silly and fun and cute, but it can also be the difference between feeling lost, stuck, and alone eating bread on a kitchen floor and sharing a meal with someone who cares about you.
At the other end of the spectrum is “Pizza Coven” by Alina Pleskova. It’s arguably the funniest poem of the batch and takes as its central premise what seems to be goth chicks engaging in satanic rituals around piping hot za. “Our burnt tongues nightly / chant, Deliver unto us / this rightfully-owed / free side of hot wings.” Nothing strikes me as more intense and interesting than spiritual rituals mingling freely with the potentially body-harming hotness that is newly cooked pizza cheese. There’s absolutely a sense of tongue-in-cheek joy in this poem, but also a kind of body acceptance message comes through in the end:
With brew pints
we cackle louder
than the women
harder than those
in yogurt commercials
with their sensible haircuts
with their mortal flesh.
Or maybe it’s just a call to arms for those that love to eat unhealthy foods because they want to and can with the full knowledge that a salad will not save anybody’s life. Still, the central focus is how funny it is to mock those that work so hard at staying fit. Reveling in the live-fast-die-young mentality that pizza induces, the poem manages to be profound at the same time it pushes back against an increasingly judgmental food culture.
Finally, “Bernard’s Buseto Bay Shore” by Jaclyn Sadicario comes toward the end of this short anthology to reinforce the central ideas of food and family. In contract to Pleskova’s poem just a page before, Sadicario engages in pizza less as a hilarious cheesy treat and more as a familial signifier and memory-inducing object. They say that smell is powerfully linked with memory, and this poem agrees. But it’s more than that: here, food is linked with cultural memory, in the sense that generations have come and gone and every one has eaten the same kinds of food prepared the same general ways. The poem says,
In the womb I already knew
their ziti slices, my mother craved
their crust. My grandfasther would drive from
the Bronx just to taste the melt. It meant
so much when my mother was living, we’d
sit & sip on the same root beer, split
assorted slices, everything smooth like Formica
It’s the family lost that pizza brings back. It’s something simple, mundane, cheap, and often supposedly meaningless, but when we look at all the moments in aggregate we spend eating slice after slice with friends and family, the food becomes something more than just a delicious gross pie we fill our bodies with. Here, Sadicario shows us how it’s not exactly the place or even really the food, but it’s the people that share a simple pleasure with each other. In the poem, the original restaurant is changed and renamed, but the lingering times spent at what it once was still remain.
That’s the single best part of By the Slice: one poem can be funny and the next can be intensely sad. Pizza stays with it through everything, always there in its saucy and bready imagery, sometimes more central and sometimes less central, but always engaging and always wide ranging. There is even a concrete poem in the shape of a slice, which also happens to be one of the better poems in the collection. This little book rocks against expectations and brings out the many different configurations of the holy za. It gives us the pizza witches but it also gives us glimpses into depression and family. By the Slice is about pizza but the pizza does so much more than just feed our starving faces.
Drew Kalbach is from Philadelphia. He is the author of Spooky Plan (Gobbet Press 2014). See more stuff at www.drewkalbach.com.