john cotter

STARK WEEK EPISODE #3: “The Reality of Moths” — John Cotter on City of Moths


Episode Three of STARK WEEK finds John Cotter flying around with the moths in City of Moths, the first section of King of the Forest, the first book of The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather. John begins with an excerpt from City of Moths:

There are constantly packs of wolves in the city wandering around abandoned monuments and subway stations without any sense of fear or resistance. As long as you mind your own business, they too will ignore you. But should some tourist acknowledge their existence or a young girl, sensing their animal presence, make a sharp movement, they will immediately swarm the victim…

What I love about this is the way the sentence beginning with “But” sounds like a translation from some forgotten surrealist poem. “But should some tourist” is suspiciously elegant but unusual. How often do you begin a sentence with “But should”? “Acknowledge” was probably more casual and familiar in the original. Was “young girl” joven or jeune fille? And was “animal presence” some kind of common phrase back then? Is that why they’d inject themselves with monkey glands?

I’m only half kidding. One of the pleasures of Starkweather’s poetry is the way he can seemingly discover original lines by Lorca or Apollinaire by writing them into existence. Jack Spicer, one of Starkweather’s heroes, could do the same.

And like Spicer, Starkweather uses the numinous to negotiate the real, as late in City of Moths, where he writes “The IRS is after me again. I mailed them Lorca’s ‘The Ballad of Weeping’ with my W-2.” That’s a beautiful idea, but we’re caught up short when we realize the title of “Casida Del Llanto” has only been published once in English as “The Ballad of Weeping” (usually it’s “The Weeping” or “Song of Lamentation”), and that was by Spicer, who famously took liberties with the texts. So was that a Lorca poem in the envelope at all?

This idea that mailing a poem to the IRS would matter is at the heart of what The First Four Books are saying. “The problem with fiction,” he writes in Self Help Poems, is that it “is predicated on the idea that there is a real.” Poetry, on the other hand, “has no pretensions of being real, it doesn’t care if you believe, it doesn’t even believe in itself.”

But these lines don’t believe in themselves. Or do they? When Obama is elected, the poet is astounded because “it had nothing to do with politics or humanity or any of that shit, it was simply the fact that language did this.” Hope is the last word in the book, books. On the other hand:

I want to say what Nicanor Parra says after every reading: I take it all back.

Let’s propose for a moment that we can’t read without creating some kind of narrative (we can move our eyes over the words without creating a story, but that’s not reading, it’s scanning). So, to test this hypothesis, can we locate a story inside City of Moths?

If all of Starkweather’s poems are either epistles or apostrophes, Moths is both. The poems could easily be read as a series of letters to a former lover, letters never sent. “Okay,” the poet tells us early on, “for the sake of full disclosure, I’m afraid a woman has split my heart like firewood.” Their division isn’t the only cause of agony (or pleasure) in the book, but it’s profound. “Do you still live in the city we made?” he writes her. “You are a genius for leaving me.” And so the wolves in that opening passage are both the torments of the poet (could they tear him apart, as they did the girl) and the poet himself (he tore her apart). The surrealist pastiche becomes a way to rephrase loss. It’s also a method of wishing it away (“Hell is merely a series of images you can’t shake”). And it’s a needed distraction. And it’s all there is.

“I believe in scarecrows,” he writes, “They’re more convincing than people and much less frightening.” When he looks at them he thinks the word fire, the word Pascal sewed into his pocket against “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces.” Starkweather is the scarecrow and the king of scarecrows. He’s scared a woman away. He goes alone to the woods.

You can have your fucking city back. Just writing that feels like confessing a sin. Do you ever feel that guilt is our religion? I used to tell my mom, “My religion is that I love you.” Foolish boy, king of straw. Don’t tell anyone, but some of the scarecrows made a mistake and were real.

John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His novel Under the Small Lights is published by Miami University Press.

Author Spotlight / Comments Off on STARK WEEK EPISODE #3: “The Reality of Moths” — John Cotter on City of Moths
July 16th, 2013 / 2:19 pm


STARK WEEK EPISODE 1: “The redonkulous and the sublime” — An interview with Sampson Starkweather

starkweekWEEKS: A lot can kill you in a week. Even more can eat you at your weakness. A whole week of hair growth depends on, uh, genetics? Weeks contain a finite series of burritos and an infinite burrito of choices. Hoopla, regrets, collapses, dancing so hard you have to pour a cup of ice water on your dome, other times that feeling like you have to drag yourself so hard by your own collar your shirt might tear. Huge trucks at night carrying turned-off, unblinking versions of those normally blinking signs that say CONSTRUCTION AHEAD or SLOW LANE ENDS, except the signs are big so the trucks themselves say OVERSIZED LOAD and are blinking, themselves, even though their cargo’s dark. What I would like to do is nominate Sampson Starkweather to rewrite the entirety of America’s highway marginalia, to be the official roadside spokespoet for all of America’s restless feelings. I don’t have shit to do with those decisions, so what is happening instead is that this week will be Sampson Starkweather week here at HTMLGIANT, aka STARK WEEK.

THE BOOK: Sampson’s debut book of poems, The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweatheris out now from Birds LLC. It’s really big. Like almost 400 pages. Who does that? It’s what it says it is. 4 books. All the feelings enacted in the opening paragraph happen inside of its four books, which are categorized as “poetry/life.” Sure, yes, yeah.

WHAT’S IN IT: It’s a book I’d give to someone just coming to poetry and to someone who feels totally burnt out on poetry. Those are kind of the same readers, I think. That’s why the whole week. Starkweather’s poetry is the existence of a nonexistent photograph of Andre the Giant jumping off the top rope. In his introduction, Jared White mentions “bass-voiced sexy soul-singer slow jams” and “punch-drunk Harlequin-robocop masculinity.” The poems have angry leaked dreams and love before roads and a pistol-whipped desire and the world’s saddest TV and offensive hurricane names and corpses wrapped in huge tropical leaves on islands named after them and that’s just in the poems you can read on the excerpt page.

WTF IS GOING ON: Over the course of this week, we’re going to feature a series of guests talking about Sam’s work in each of the books within T4B—1) King of the Forest, 2) La La La, 3) The Waters, 4) Self Help Poems—and also we’re going to hear from the awesome artists who made the covers for each of these four books. There will be criticism, talk of process, grand sweeping theories, tiny insightful scalpels. You’ll get to read some of Sam’s poetry. There will be some talk of what goes into, in 2013, putting out a 400 page book of your poems that is actually 4 books. Maybe there will be some interaction, multimedia, surprise. Buy a copy of the book if you want to follow along closely. I promise it won’t feel like being stuck on a brokedown bus at a rest stop in Connecticut. There are poems that feel like that, but not in this book. Here’s a list of who’s coming at you: Matt Bollinger, Ed Park, Bianca Stone, John Cotter, Melissa Broder, Eric Amling, Elisa Gabbert, Jonathan Marshall, Amy Lawless, Sommer Browning, and Jared White.

WHO IS SAMPSON STARKWEATHER ANYWAY, IS HE THAT GUY WHO DID THAT THING GUYS DO: The reason a lot of people want to share and talk about Sam’s huge ass tree-killer is because he and his work (which are impossible to unspoon from each other, which is how it should be) is like getting the best high five of your life from Teen Wolf. He is loved and easy to love and easy to mistake in rural supermarkets for Javier Bardem. He’s a longhaired poet surfer with a heart of messy pizza and manic kindness. Thank the exhausted fucking stars he is with us and with poetry. Enjoy STARK WEEK.

HOW DOES STARK WEEK BEGIN: To begin STARK WEEK, I talked to Starkweather:

1) Hi Sam. Welcome to Stark Week. This is how it starts, with an interview of you. Our interview starts with the “who is Sampson Starkweather and what’s going on, what is this stuff all over my arms, is this sap” portion of the interview. So let’s start at the start. Four books? Why? Why buck the prevailing model of slim little precious supermodel books? More importantly, why buck it in this beautifully thunking doorstop fashion?

Sorry about the sap “this forest / is unusually horny.”

cowboysamIn the end it came down to precisely the opposite of your question: “Why not?”  Why not 4 books in 1? Why not a 328 page monster poetry collection that sounds like a seminal lifetime work by some famous, award-winning, about-to-die poet who now tends a garden, published by some big-ass conglomerate press like Penguin, but is actually by some dude with a ridiculous name that no one has heard of (and sounds like a character from Game of Thrones) and has yet to publish a full-length book, on a small indie poetry press that, oh yeah, he just happens to be a publisher/founding-editor of? It seemed ridiculous, audacious, absurd, unheard of, taboo, laughable—in other words, perfect.


July 15th, 2013 / 1:28 pm

Here comes two very worth-your-time reviews that are about reviewing: John Cotter on John Cotter at WWAATD and Ray McDaniel on Elyse Fenton’s Clamor at the Constant Critic.