Writing That Makes You Feel Like You’re Being Groomed
When John Ebersole reads work he terms “Grocery Store Poetry” (GSP – which includes also, for John, Linda Pastan, Billy Collins and, most immediately, present-day Thomas Lux) he says “I also get the sick feeling like I’m being groomed.” This quote comes from a little Q and A I recently did with John because when I read his review of the new Thomas Lux book (you can read it here on HTMLGIANT) I was struck by (hello, Paul Cunningham) how upset, how disturbed John seemed to be. And this reminded me of how I feel when I read certain people. Disturbed. And sometimes, for sure also, like I’m being groomed. (shiver, shiver).
This is particularly the case when I read Whitman and experience not just the great POETRY but also the feeling of a clammy arm slipping around me over and over in a cheap movie theater, of a pale tongue in my ear, of a breathy voice trying to massage my entire being into submission. Nice, easy and compliant. And that’s creepy, yeah. And creepy, also, to think (and know) that while I’m reading Whitman and experiencing the tremendous virtuosity of imagination and spirit that a part of him’s masturbating in the row behind me.
But, you know what, it’s ok, because it’s Whitman and I accept the fact that he’s grooming me. That he wants and needs me to surrender to his voice, his work, his divine right (yeah, he thought he was a new Jesus for America). But, for Christ’s Sake, we’re talking now about writing like late-career Thomas Lux!
Rauan: I believe you’re suggesting that “Grocery Store Poetry” written by Lux, Pastan, Collins, etc, isn’t attractive and vital because even though the world’s always been in turmoil “the way we apprehend that turmoil has changed and changed dramatically.” And you’re suggesting then I think that we need more a riskier, stronger sort of poetry (a poetry of derangement?) because “globalization and the relentless whiplashes of information rearrange us.” Your thoughts on this please?
John: Wittgenstein once wrote – I’m fucking kidding. I’m less advocating for a certain kind of poem (deranged or otherwise), and more charting my response to a certain kind of poetry. When I was reading Lux’s Child Made of Sand, the Syrian government was bombing its own people and the juxtaposition between that event and Lux’s poems freaked me out. There was zero entanglement between the two. One would rightly ask: what poetry “juxtaposes” satisfyingly with chemical weapons being used against children? Alien vs. Predator comes to mind. But hearing Lux tell me “They gave me a choice: rubber hose/or the Yellow Pages” as news broke on my phone about the violence in Syria made me shudder. But ultimately, I was moved to write about Lux and Co. because their work exudes a terrifying matter-of-factness. I’m genuinely scared of their poetry. When I read it I have a fight or flight response. Behind the congenial veil of hospitability, I sense a gang of fanged demons brandishing whips. Usually salivating and standing on broken glass. And I feel writers leave their work alone because they’ve dismissed it as inconsequential or harmless. I feel the exact opposite. I think poetry like that is as dangerous as ESPN The Magazine is to a young man’s conception of male beauty.
RK: yeah, i hear ya, and this sort of poetry does have a scary cold-zombie fear factor sort of thing for me also. Like you’re walking through the frozen foods section of Costco and all the cows and pigs and horses (??-ha, ha– who knows?) are going to come to life and kill you and feed on you right there on the cold concrete floor. For me, in a way of course, it’s kind of exciting (Costco, or this sort of poetry–Like standing in a Cathedral–stone blood sucking behemoth) but really creepy too.
But, do you think it’s just systemic laziness (or systemic disease) that gets stuff like late-career Lux published? Or that it’s out of some “obligatory gratitude for years of service?” Or, perhaps, is this sort of Grocery Store Poetry (GSP) getting published as a way to try stamp out more interesting writing and thinking? To try to impose it on younger, developing writing-minds?
JO: Talking about Costco made me think of a suicide I witnessed. Not at Costco, but it involved a hard floor. A skull. The slur of blood and hair. You know, I found the Pastan poem, “3AM” (Gettysburg Review/Winter 2012), baffling and couldn’t understand why it got published. A sinister plot to suppress innovative writing? Nah. Laziness? Perhaps. Or more troubling: the editors at GR truly liked that poem. Conversely, my reaction to Lux was more in the context of being disappointed by his stylistic and vocal stasis. Twenty years ago I liked Lux’s work. But while the world and I have changed, I’m confused why his work has not. Maybe this phenomenon is a no-brainer for others. Reviewing Louis Gluck’s A Village Life, William Logan in The New York Times wrote: “Poets, being creatures of routine, tend to settle into a style… by a poet’s second or third book…you will see the style of his dotage. Poets restless in their forms, unwilling to take yesterday’s truth as gospel, are as rare as a blue rose…” Logan attributes self-parody to mere routine. Hm. That’s it? Logan said Gluck’s A Village Life was a “subversive departure” for the poet. I’m frustrated that we don’t see more subversive departures in Lux and a few others.
RK: I guess it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks. Or for those dogs to teach themselves. And dogs, trained, are so well behaved in Grocery Stores. We need more crazy little puppies bounding through the aisles, I guess. And how refreshing now and then to see a dog mad with rabies, foaming at the mouth, pinning a couple of terrified hipsters against the wall where they’d been waiting for their dubious flu shots. But, really, I like the violence of your reaction to this sort of “GSP,” to the demons, to the insidious-ness, to the ingrown toenail and its “harmless” marble-pus writing (that sounds exciting, actually). And even though I think it’s difficult to tug those sort of old dogs “back into the light of this world” I wish more people were open and honest about the sort of violence that certain writing breeds in their souls and bodies (it’s visceral, yeah) because I think there’s something really refreshing (yes, I just used the word “refreshing”), truthful and helpful about your saying:
“I’m genuinely scared of their poetry. When I read it I have a fight or flight response. Behind the congenial veil of accessibility, I sense a gang of fanged demons brandishing whips. Usually salivating and standing on broken glass.”
And I go back again and again (as though to a temple, really) to the almost homicidal feelings that strained in me as I read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”: I mean, really, reading that book I actually (not almost) wanted to kill the voice, the force, that had created what I was reading and reacting to. I’m not advocating gratuitously mean or negative reviews, but I do think it’s important for us to stir the bodies (including our own), the corpses, the Grocery Store as a whole. To get our hands dirty. To roll around in it a bit. Your thoughts, plz?
JO: I know the feelings you’re describing. And I agree – conflict refreshes. There should be a journal devoted specifically to reviewing and writing about poets who have crested some advanced age and whose bios are bursting with credentials and that keep on publishing. Call it The Hospice Review. The violent reaction I have to GSP is intensely personal and it’s so REAL I’m not entirely sure it represents an objective criterion to judge anyone’s work by. But what are objective standards anyway? On Twitter recently someone said a work of art is good based on whether it is interesting or not. Ok. Anyway, I always saw the Lux and Co. piece I wrote as a visceral response to an anger that lurks behind their work, anger toward deep time, anger toward human history, anger at atoms. When I read their work I also get the sick feeling like I’m being groomed. First, they gain the reader’s trust by being so accessible and harmless. Then they fill a reader’s need by telling them that instead of poetry having to be difficult, it can be funny and charming. Isolating us is easy because we’re reading. I don’t know. I feel personally hated when I read their poems. Just thinking about them right now I feel like I’m being lathered in void.