“good artists copy, great artists steal…”
– probably Picasso…maybe T.S. Eliot, or Faulkner, or Steve Jobs. Definitely NOT Banksy.
When I was a wee lad of 12 or 13, right at the age where boys want to start being thought of as men, I used to wear my dad’s work jacket. I’d take it off the hook in our kitchen, slip it on, and run off to the bathroom so I could look at myself in the mirror. I’d see my reflection, wearing a coat that was two or three sizes too big for me, and imagine the day when I would be “all grown up” enough to wear a jacket like that for myself. Obviously it didn’t fit – way too large in the torso, the sleeves would swallow up my entire arms, and it hung all awkward and gangly off my too-narrow shoulders – but I’d look at myself in the mirror and think “damn, I look so much like a Real Man” now.
When I first started being ‘serious’ about my writing (as opposed to keeping sad boy poems in a secret journal that I never showed anyone) I was living in a town in western Pennsylvania, with a population of 480 as of the most recent census. There wasn’t a poetry scene there, no writer’s workshops, no regular readings – for that matter, there weren’t even people willing to openly admit they wrote poetry for fun and pleasure. Poetry in my hometown is something that is imposed on you around middle school; you read whichever stuffy bit of canon your teacher is enamored with this semester, learn JUST enough to pass the class, then hand your book back in and forget all about it. However, while I may not have grown up in a town whose poetry scene flourished, I grew up among the blue-collar-and-red-neck type, which meant I had learned a lot about tearing something apart to see how it worked. It turns out that poetry isn’t much different than an old transistor radio; if you pull all the pieces apart and pay attention to how they fit together, you can figure a lot of things out without a manual.
For the longest time, I didn’t know that “writing a poem in the same tone/structure/format as another poem” was a real thing. I knew that every now and again, I’d read a poem that had the phrase after _______ underneath the title, but I didn’t quite get what that was all about. So in the spirit of my upbringing, I started doing my homework. I’d look up the names that were printed next to the after and read THEIR work, try to figure out what the poets I was reading were up to. Eventually I did enough reading to figure it out. I realized that part of the process of figuring out your own voice is to soak up as much influence as possible. Sometimes you read a poem that’s so goddamned brilliant and perfectly executed that you’re angry you couldn’t have had the idea first, and since even the most green behind the ears whippersnapper can get that plagiarism is a mortal sin among writers, your only course of action is to write YOUR version of that poem, following the footsteps of the giant who figured it all out before you. You then subtitle your poem “after So & So.” Somehow this works. I’ve dipped my toes in these waters from time to time with mixed results. Most of the time, I look back at a draft, and realize I said absofuckinglutely nothing new or different, I just dumbed down the language and made a hick-friendly version of the poem that I just read. Occasionally, though, the system works for me. Sometimes sparks fly and gears click, and a new poem falls out of my face that says something uniquely mine, while paying tribute to the poets who helped me figure out how the fuck to be a writer. Writing one of these poems feels kind of like putting on your dad’s work jacket when you’re still in high school – it doesn’t fit perfectly but it’s damn close, and you can sort of feel like eventually, you could grow into it. The language hangs a little baggy around the shoulders, and maybe it bunches a bit in the neck area, but you feel good in it, and more importantly, you feel like given enough time, you might grow into it like it was yours all along.
In writing the poem Two Letters, which takes its structure and its loose concept from a Rachel McKibbens poem, I felt this coat I was wearing had suddenly sized itself to fit. Rachel’s work is undeniably powerful. It booms and echoes all over the place, and the first time I tried to write that poem, I felt like I had NO goddamn business trying to emulate someone like that. But what Rachel does better than almost anyone I’ve read is makes it perfectly fucking okay to write out your own baggage unapologetically, to confront the thing you’ve been scared to write about head on. I might not have ever figured out on my own how to write a conversation between the healthy and unhealthy parts of myself, but I read Rachel’s “Letter From My Heart To My Brain/Letter From My Brain To My Heart” and suddenly I had a way to address that issue with myself. It was incredibly cathartic, and at the same time rather artistically fulfilling. Like I had just figured out something that the Literary Academy was trying to keep secret.
While Two Letters was the product of having had my eyes opened, Strange Language was an attempt to challenge myself. By the time I made it to the New England, I had developed a reputation – William James writes sad things or punk rock things, then he yells them. It’s not a reputation I dislike, but I felt like I was painting myself into a corner. Being a regular in the Northeast, I’ve gotten to see Sean Patrick Mulroy read a good many times. Sean does this amazing thing where he writes beautiful poems about really intense or traumatic experiences, and does do with an incredibly quiet voice. I read his poem “Strange Weather” and was blown away by how crushing it was. Coming from the punk and hardcore scene, I was always under the impression that the only way to be devastating was with incredible volume and by saying “fuck” a lot, but here was this poem that was almost delicate – and it destroyed me. I wanted to put that jacket on and see how it felt to talk about one of my own past experiences involving my father without resorting to the usual poetry violence that I was accustomed to. I think it might have worked.
I was a music education major for three semesters, so I am familiar with John Cage’s infamous 4’33”. My poem started out as a joke – albeit, a joke created by my frustration at seeing so many different people in my various social circles justifying rape and other forms of sexual assault by blaming the victim. It was going to just be a joke…then I started thinking of the many, many arguments I’d had about 4’33” over the years; Cage’s piece, when you really sit down and analyze it, is a confrontation with society’s expectations as to what qualifies as “music.” Every performance is an uncomfortable silence that forces the audience to deal with their own preconceptions. In performing A Complete List… I began to realize that it had a similar effect. Standing in front of a room full of people, and being totally silent, on purpose, for three full minutes – especially after delivering that title – was making people noticeably uncomfortable, and in a way that I certainly hope caused at least ONE person to reconsider their views on victim blaming. Sometimes, when you’re putting on Dad’s jacket, you gotta get philosophical.
My friend Sam Teitel once told me that “for every one poem you write, you should be reading ten,” which brings us right back around to the quote at the beginning – when you are reading as much as Sam says you should, you end up having a metric fuckload of books at your disposal, from which you can steal a wealth of knowledge. You have so many poems that you can reference, call back to, and pattern yourself after. To bring it back to the weird “poem as outerwear” metaphor I started out with, it’s like having a closet stuffed full of things – wind breakers, thick wool overcoats, hoodies, summer jackets – you can try on. Not all of them are gonna fit well, and some of them you’ll have to grow into, but you get to look in that mirror at yourself, wearing someone else’s jacket, and say “damn, I look so much like a Real Poet now!”
Strange Language after Sean Patrick Mulroy The first time your father curses God, you are three years old. There is a photograph of you – innocent, naked, or wrapped in diapers. You don't remember which but you know that you were screaming. Fist clenched, mouth agape as though your lungs alone could shout down Jericho's walls. Your mother has told you this story many times. She tells you how you always were just like him. How even at a young age you would imitate every motion, every muscle twitch. How your eyes were tiny mirrors. The first time your father curses God, you are too young to realize what sounds are taking shape in his mouth. You have not yet learned the meaning of words like depression, mood disorder, mentally ill. You know sickness as the way your belly cries itself empty, know pain as stepping on an alphabet block or the neighbor's dog nipping at your fingers. You know that sometimes, Daddy turns monster. Yells strange language. You know sometimes your mother cries quiet into breakfast when she thinks you are not paying attention. You do not know why this is sadness, just that it is. You practice imitation for years. Learn his mannerisms. Learn the meaning of words like legacy, bloodline, only son. You remember your sister, half-drowned in the bathtub. How her hair floated peacefully, how her head bobbed under the water held by a sleepy rage. You learn how to turn your viper's inheritance backwards. Point shotguns at your own mouth instead. Dig into your skin trying to prune your family tree. Your mother does not stop crying, but she hides it less often. The first time your father curses God, your mouth is a slow-speed car crash wrapped around his oaths. He takes your tiny fists into his palms. Bends your arms backwards, peels you wishbone crooked. Looks into your tiny mirror eyes, says little one, repeat after me. Say it. Say it just like this. (This poem appears on the track "Most Times" by Native Wildlife) Two Letters after Rachel McKibbens I. From My Fingers To My Wrist You need us all silver- tooth and white knuckle. Chalk line. We keep you honest. Slow blood, hush the snake scream in your insides. Tight pinch. Calm breath. Chew without swallow until you are swimming in bones. Call it cartography, call it resurrection, say our birthright is to tear down the temple walls. Blossom, and rejoice. II. From My Wrist To My Fingers If destruction is more powerful than creation, consider me weak. Consider me limbless if you must, but a limbless oak still stands tall & strong against fierce winds. The woodsman's ax is dulled and rendered toothless by time. If it be blood that calms you, then dig in, & in every slash see my promise painted in skin & sinew: I will forgive. I will forgive. Moshpit: A Guided Tour In Two Parts after Jeremy Radin A. This is blood-eyed madness unhinged & feral. This is a nest of vipers, fangs bared and glistening with death. This is the sound of machinery dying, the last rasping cries of sinners in the hands of an angry god. This is mania. This is dishonor. This is a swarm of arachnids & their dirty webs, this is hyenas gathered around the carrion feast. This is antagonism, this is the unprovoked swing of the fist, the violence for its own sake. This is senseless war. This is bloody pagan ritual or demon hymn, this is the devil's frenzied lust. This is the anarchist in black mask, the molotov thrown, the destruction of the sacred. This is the knuckle always grinding perversely against teeth. This is nothing but spite, and bile, and noise, and noise, always so much goddamned noise. This is valueless, dishonest, shirking responsibility for perpetual youth. This is marred skin & pierced flesh, this is the hoodlums all gathered, nameless & lazy in their slums. B. This is rapture in full blossom. This is a watchmaker's envy. Precise. Sublime. This is a banquet hall full & overflowing. This is the familiar embrace of the sun. This is a panther in sleek satin, alert for the hunt. This is one thousand engines at full rumble. This is the workhorse's determined grit. This is the unbridled joy, the celebration. This is our year of jubilee. This is the sky all ablaze in light. This is the resuscitator of skeletons dancing. This is where the water thickens to blood. This is where we come to find salvation. This is whirling dervish, the sacred rites. This is fine art hung on high tension wires. This is the creation of the tigers' hearts. This is the lightning bugs' parade. This is a forest made of bone chimes. This is the full glory, open throat of god. A Complete List of Every Time In Which Sexual Assault Or Sexual Violence Can Be Excused Due To A Victim's Age, Race, Level of Sobriety, Location, Gender, Orientation, or State Of Dress after John Cage