My first anthology, co-edited with Ryan Fitzpatrick, hath been unleashed upon the world! It’s called Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry in English Written by Canadians for Canadians (or American Bodysnatchers) in the Early Years of the 21st Century with an Overly Long and Not That Clever Subtitle the Publisher Rightly Refused to Put on the Cover and contains almost 300 pages of writing including some new work by new authors, alongside recent work by established authors.
Here is the contributor list:
Annharte • Oana Avasilichioaei & Erín Moure • Elizabeth Bachinsky • Gary Barwin • derek beaulieu • Gregory Betts • Christian Bök • Louis Cabri • Lindsay Cahill • Stephen Cain • Margaret Christakos • Jason Christie • Brian Joseph Davis • Dina Del Bucchia • Jeff Derksen • Jeramy Dodds • Nathan Dueck • kevin mcpherson eckhoff • Mercedes Eng • Chris Ewart • Jon Paul Fiorentino • Aaron Giovannone • Helen Hajnoczky • Susan Holbrook & Nicole Markotic • Ray Hsu • Bill Kennedy & Darren Wershler • Jake Kennedy • Dorothy Trujillo Lusk • Suzette Mayr • David McGimpsey • Maurice Mierau • Kathryn Mockler • Garry Thomas Morse • Nikki Reimer • Stuart Ross • Jordan Scott • Colin Smith • Jonathon Wilcke • Ian Williams • Daniel Zomparelli
Each selection is prefaced by a short contextual note about the poems by Fitzpatrick & I. Also, for your reading pleasure, I present the book’s introductory essay. Enjoy!
“TAKE THESE POEMS — PLEASE!”: AN INTRODUCTION
Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball
“I had to let in the comedy, and not just for laughs’ sake, but because it undoes things.” — Robert Kroetsch1
“Why does poetry suck?” This question echoes down the ages and is echoed by undergraduate students, eyes glazing as they gaze upon their reading lists. “It doesn’t,” we tell them, but in our hearts, we know different. We know it does.2
What sucks about poetry? The short answer is the words, and their combinations. The longer answer has to do with how so few of those combinations include the pairing “Nacho Tuesdays.” Yes, poetry seems to lack nachos, and, aside from that, it seems to lack humour. Indeed, no literary genre appears less funny than poetry, where conventional wisdom has it that a “good poem” must move the reader to some epiphany through the subtle revelation of some aspect of the human condition, the least funny condition of all.3
If poetry’s condition seems serious, then is experimental poetry in critical condition? Carmine Starnino, constant critic, has declared that “humourlessness” is “the most galling failure of our current crop of experimental phenoms” in an essay otherwise surprisingly generous to experimental phenom bpNichol.4 Complaints like Starnino’s are common and, in many ways, true. While poetry as a cultural activity is funny,5 and the idea that we should take poetry seriously is funny, actually taking poetry seriously isn’t very funny at all — and neither are most poems.
At the risk of not being funny,6 we should complain that Starnino is correct only in a technical sense. Humourlessness is the most galling failure of experimental poets, because it is the most galling failure of poets and poetry overall. We balk at Starnino’s implicit suggestion, which is that experimental poetry is, in a general sense, more humourless than conventional poetry. In fact, when conventional poetry is funny, it is often funny because it has incorporated lessons from experimental poetry (usually, earlier avant-gardes). Often, these avant-garde movements and authors take themselves seriously, or too seriously, but then lighten up and begin to fall into self-parody as their assumptions and techniques are incorporated (or mocked) by the mainstream — Surrealism is the most obvious example. More recently, we have seen the opposite trajectory with the American post-avant7 Flarf writers, who began by parodying bad conventional poetry but ended up taking the joke more seriously and more politically as bad conventional poetry became a primary way to address the national trauma of 9/11.8
In other words, galling humourlessness is not a defining trait of experimental poetry — the work is often intentionally funny, because it uses humour in particular ways, or unintentionally funny, due to its relative strangeness or how removed it seems from something we should take seriously. As a result of its emphasis on attentive and playful work with the material of language, experimental poetry may even have a different, perhaps closer, relationship to humour than so-called “conventional” poetry. But why? Where’s the beef?
When people criticize experimental poetry, in essays or reviews or bars, they often criticize the work on one of two fronts (aesthetically speaking): either (1) it’s dry and boring, inelegantly flaunting its theoretical foundations to become robotic and joyless — in sum, it takes itself too seriously; or, (2) it’s gibberish, fraudulent, pointless — the writer is just playing around, being silly, and the whole thing is just not serious enough. Either humourless or “just jokes,” experimental poetry can’t win. Submerged here is the notion that writing can include humour (if it has to) but not too much or it ceases to be “literary.” Either there’s nothing human in it (no humour, no emotions, just theory-speak) or it’s all too human, an idiot pleasure, one not worthy of being called “poetry.”
If poetry can’t be funny when it’s poetry and can’t be poetry when it’s funny, what can be done to rehabilitate comedy’s public image in the literary world, not to mention in experimental poetry? If comedy can’t win an Oscar, how will it ever win the Griffin?9 Throughout literary history, comedy has had its defenders, but something always seemed to go awry. Aristotle dropped the ball by not backing up the second volume of his Poetics (the one about comedy) in the cloud or on a flash drive. Freud started to make a useful connection between humour and language in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious but then became more interested in cocaine.10
Help comes from an unlikely hero: Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky. Shklovsky theorized that art makes use of a fundamental technique he called defamiliarization:
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.11
Both the joke and poetry operate in this way, by making our language and our social operations strange. Thus, de- familiarization is, arguably, the basic gesture of poetry — poetry takes language and pushes it past the limits of its quotidian use, to estrange us from language and its transparent, communicative capacity (i.e., how we typically encounter language in our everyday lives) — poetic techniques, from the use of rhyme to line breaks and so on, typically have this purpose of manipulating the language to estrange it so that it means more. The effect of this estrangement could be to heighten its power of expression (as in most lyrical poetry), engage with its materiality (as in much experimental poetry), or to attach its signifiers to inappropriate but (il)logically justifiable signifieds (as in jokes predicated on wordplay). Similarly, jokes not predicated on wordplay generally work in the way that (according to Shklovsky) Leo Tolstoy works: by describing our social or political activities, or unexamined assumptions and ideologies, so that what only a minute before the joke seemed natural and normal now seems nonsensical and bizarre.12
This tension or gap between the familiar and the poet’s or comedian’s attempts to estrange us from it often works like the experimentalist technique of the Situationist détournement (altering the already existing in a small way, to reveal or otherwise subvert its hidden operations) or by producing a gap between our expectations and their demolition. Let’s get super unfunny for few minutes.13 Working from the Lacanian idea of the point de capiton or quilting point, the idea that meaning is retroactively determined by the final word in a statement, Alenka Zupančič frames the punchline in terms of this Lacanian operation.14 As the sentence moves forward (“Dick and Jane were exposed to …”), the meaning of the whole statement changes depending on how it ends (“harmful radiation,” “foreign languages,” “their uncle the exhibitionist”).15 For Zupančič, humour can serially chain in this way, altering the terms of discourse to comic effect through continual additions (like when comedians add “tags” after punchlines) — the sentence never really ends; it just keeps mutating. The joke becomes an elaborate game of misdirection, setting up the audience for one outcome and then delivering another, producing a surprising surplus for the reader — an answer to a question that was never asked.
The classic example of this misdirection in comedy (one now so conventional that it’s easy to overlook the actual subversive logic of how this joke operates) is comedian Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife — please!” Youngman sets us up to believe that he is about to use his wife as an example of the sort of foolishness he’s just been discussing (“Now, take my wife for instance …”), but he’s trying to pawn her off on us instead, suggesting rather than stating the reasons why. The key to this is his timing, turning the anticipated outcome of a textual or situational thread into something else entirely. Comic timing, then, becomes the act of delivering the blow when the audience is most vulnerable, tipping the world over into disorder at the audience’s point of highest comfort. The punchline trades in a kind of affective disorientation, a powerful example of language creating effects on the body. Playing out as a gentle trauma, comedy both scrambles our discourse and provokes a physical reaction. If we are unable to speak in the face of it, it’s because we’re rolling in the aisles.
Both comedy and poetry can exploit this “quilting” ability of the punchline to work in resistance to dominant social codes. Both practices are able to produce short circuits that lay bare hidden ideological operations. These hidden operations are composed of material processes and assemblages that, for one reason or another, we are unable to see — the classic comedic example being Karl Marx’s observation of the hidden labour embedded in commodities.16 The production of this gap, and of a short circuit that seems to close but really exposes it, is key to most satire, from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to Sacha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary film Borat, as well as politically minded experimental poetry. In other words, comedy and satire expose how something appears to make logical sense even when it doesn’t, exposing a gap in understanding as it tries to hide it, like someone scrambling to get an elephant out through the bedroom window so their partner doesn’t see it.
Consider, for example, “The Last Temptation of Krust,” a 1998 episode of The Simpsons that slyly comments on the role of comedy as political critique.17 When Krusty the Clown performs at a stand-up comedy benefit against soil erosion, he launches into a routine of hack jokes about, primarily, TV dinners. Antiquated and unfunny, his jokes bomb. In response, Krusty turns to an ugly display of yellowface dripping with every stereotype imaginable (buck teeth, deep bowing, r’s replaced with l’s). The crowd is stunned at his old-fashioned racism and begins to boo, so Krusty pulls out his “A-material”: a flapping dickey. After failed attempts to reform his act, Krusty decides to retire from comedy.
Until he doesn’t. After a press conference where reporters explode with laughter at his raw, snarky dissatisfaction with contemporary comedy (he complains that people no longer want to listen to “time-tested jokes about women drivers and doctor’s bills”), Krusty announces his triumphant return. He proceeds to “tell it like it is” — in other words, to speak truth to power. He delivers blow after blow to the very consumerism once integral to his personality: “So, I’m watching TV today, and all I keep seeing is dead celebrities hawking products. They got poor Vincent Price floating around on a toilet cake telling me about the horrors of an unfresh bowl!” The on-screen audience is moved to a shared moment of anger, lighting cash on fire at Krusty’s suggestion. For the off-screen audience, the humour in Krusty’s joke comes from the contrast between his two stage personas. In “retirement,” Krusty becomes an inverted version of poor Vincent Price, killing his product-hawking prior self to re-emerge as a critically minded political comedian. Order soon returns to the program, and Krusty returns to his unfunny product-shilling self. For a brief moment, however, Krusty seems like he might present a minor threat to capitalist undertakings, forwarding a counter-consumerist discourse that has social effects.18
Key to the second Krusty’s more critical approach to humour is a sense of the joke as a kind of attack — an understanding central to both radical and reactionary senses of humour. In other words, the rearticulations humour is capable of can be used to violently upend situations and understandings. In his discussion of “tendentious” jokes, Freud sets up an encounter where the joke becomes a means of exclusion.19 Let’s set up Freud’s serious social analysis as a kind of joke to underline how funny it’s not. A man walks into a bar. Across the room, he sees a woman and is immediately smitten. He approaches her, and they strike up a conversation. A second man walks up to the same woman. She finds herself more attracted to him, turning away from the first man. Angry, the first man insults the woman, and the second man laughs.20 Rather than being read as the attack it is, a joke is born out of this homosocial interaction, where the two men connect over their mutual exclusion of the woman. For Freud, “[t]he smut becomes a joke and is only tolerated when it has the character of a joke” (100).21 This structure of attack and exclusion isn’t limited to attacks against women, but it is an effect of power and privilege, meaning the attack can also be directed at race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Remember that what sends Krusty into his critical tirades is his anger over the fact that he can no longer be successful as the white patriarchal clown, since jokes about flapping dickies and women drivers (and other “classics”) get shouted down in disgust.
Let’s turn now to a June 2012 stand-up set by Daniel Tosh at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood.22 A woman in the audience calls Tosh out (“heckles” him) during a part of his act where he asserts that anything, including rape, can be funny. In the woman’s account,23 she yells out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” and Tosh, in response, poses a hypothetical question/threat: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like, right now? What if a bunch of guys raped her …?” Let’s answer Tosh’s question quickly: It wouldn’t be funny if that woman got raped by five guys. So why does the audience laugh? It’s not that men are essentially jokey, high-fiving rapists. Instead, the laughter is the result of a larger structural problem (i.e., “rape culture”) that allows for the patriarchal status quo to go unchallenged (or, at least, for its challenges to be the very thing that social codes of con- duct, the “unwritten laws,” are meant to suppress — since “everyone knows” that it’s all “just jokes” and, in the structure of the setting, the woman in the audience is supposed to find the idea of rape, like any idea presented by the man on stage, funny). In the context of the comedy club (where you go to laugh) and the ugly and discomforting irony of Tosh’s boundary-pushing, there emerges a solidarity between men (and likely some women) akin to that in Freud’s analysis. In a context like this, it becomes very plausible for victimization to turn funny as long as you’re not the victim (or can’t empathize fully). As Tosh castigates the woman who dares interrupt him, because she assumes both the role of the heckler and the role of the feminist killjoy, we can imagine the audience siding with him as the protector of their privileged good time. After all, they’re only jokes.
It’s also easy to see how Freud’s model can be flipped by comedians, where the joke can be a kind of attack as critique depending on the power relations of those involved. Examples of this are as far-reaching as Dave Chappelle’s explications of contemporary race relations or the self-critical reversals of Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K.24 The political ugliness of the joke as an attack can be rerouted into critique as long as the parties involved are careful not to produce or reproduce (except perhaps ironically25) inequitable or hierarchical relations. In short, humour provides an opportunity to ask how we might open up sites of resistance, providing opportunities to begin to rearticulate our social field. Avant-garde practice works similarly, aiming (as the military term avant-garde implies) to be at the forefront of artistic and social movements. Historically, avant-garde practice aligns itself with social change (for good or ill), attempting to bring art and everyday life together in a transformative way, allowing people to conceive of new ways to materially and collectively organize. Comedy shares with avant-garde practice this revolutionary potential, since both use techniques that can challenge, short-circuit, and alter dominant practices.
Or — and this is important — how comedy and the avant-garde fail to do this. Literature professor and poet Gregory Betts has argued for the use of the term avant-garde in its limited/historical context and has injected a cautionary politics and a much-needed historicity into poet Ron Silliman’s term post-avant, while distinguishing experimental modes of contemporary poetry from modernist and postmodernist modes with radical or reactionary political agendas. It’s a hoot! In other words, Betts argues that a belief in political progress through art is a defining characteristic of the avant-garde, but he suggests that much contemporary poetry is post-avant in that it shares many of the aesthetic qualities of avant-garde art as it has been traditionally defined but “without much tangible faith in progress or revolution.”26 Similarly, postmodern comedy often appears to waffle between these poles — between the conviction that it matters and the knowledge that it doesn’t.
Hoping not so much to write Aristotle’s missing book, we instead present Why Poetry Sucks27 as our attempt at a grand PR stunt, parading out the participants in a literary world where the joke is suddenly something important, something that produces real effects. Rather than produce work that is too silly or jokey, the poets in Why Poetry Sucks draw from deep traditions in both poetry and comedy, often challenging the rigid literary and political impasses they encounter. We want to argue that, in our cur- rent social and cultural game of Blockado (the game of barricades), humour can act as an important sledge, taking a swing at the places and institutions we might wish changed, while acknowledging our apparent inability to change them.
When we began to gather material for this anthology, we planned a wider historical frame, considering the field of English-Canadian poetry starting with the first rumblings of postmodernism in the ’60s. We saw in figures such as bpNichol, George Bowering, David W. McFadden, and Dennis Cooley a strong undercurrent that had wound its way into the writing of our contemporary moment. The project quickly became untenable, and not only because of our budget. What we didn’t anticipate was the sheer amount of contemporary work that, in one way or another, picks up the legacy of poets like these, leading us to tighten our frame. The result is an anthology that loosely collects from the first decade and a half of the 21st century, with a knowledge that our collection is not a fixed whole but rather a sampling, complicated by bleeding edges and frayed threads. We have chosen to highlight a handful of poets and poems that cut across the spectrum of contemporary experimental work. Our aim is to showcase an array of both literary and comedic techniques by selecting poets less for their cultural presence or canonical heft than for how their poems exemplify some particular approach to experimentation-with-humour. We have included, where possible, multiple poems from each poet to give a sense of their general approach and style. What we haven’t done is made a case for how these poets are the poets to pay attention to when it comes to humorous experimental poetry. We’ve opted for a cross-section and a snapshot, rather than issue some authoritative statement and feel quite confident we’ve missed something.28
Though we’ve drawn a line around a specific period, geography, and language, the poets here are most firmly drawn together by shared techniques and tactics, which can be defined by but are not limited to period, geography, genre, or medium. Each poet here operates amongst wider assemblages of texts, writers, politics, and power structures both inside and outside their immediate geographical and temporal spheres. These poets not only work within specific literary geographies but also exceed them, reading and working across national boundaries even as they work within them. They are likely to be influenced by George Bowering as much as Charles Bernstein, Russell Peters as much as Sarah Silverman, SCTV as much as SNL, or Ezra Levant as much as Bill O’Reilly. It’s hard to imagine Stuart Ross’ everyday surrealism without David W. McFadden on one side of the border and the New York School on the other. It’s hard to imagine Susan Holbrook and Nicole Markotić’s playful proceduralism without both the experiments of Oulipo and the serial punning of bpNichol. We originally planned to use the more specific (and, frankly, preferable) terms avant-garde and post- avant as Betts uses them, but, despite its horrors, the more vague experimental does a better job of describing these disparate poems as a group (which experiment with form, play with convention, and otherwise tap into various subversive strains of literary history) and of simply communicating the thrust of the anthology without subjecting the works within to overly academic compartmentalizing.
Looking at humour and poetry together is a messy proposition, and we have decided to proceed messily. The poets collected here draw from deep wells that exceed poetry, moving into the worlds of stand-up and sitcoms, slapstick and pranks. They assert strong connections between poetry and comedy. We wish to assert that this connection is important, but it is not enough to simply say that poetry is funny and then point to funny poetry. We’ve asked why the connection is important and noted what is useful in the combination of poetry and humour, what led us to this soapbox we’re standing on. We’ve noted what we see as the particular social and affective powers opened up in language by the joke and other comic techniques that draw poets and comedians to crack wise.
Only one more thing remains: Nacho Tuesdays.
- Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson, Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch (Edmonton: NeWest, 1982), 178. ↩
- Yes, we know footnotes suck too. Give us a break! ↩
- Even leprosy has its lighter moments. Look, Ma, no hands! ↩
- Carmine Starnino, “bpNichol,” Lazy Bastardism: Essays & Reviews on Contemporary Poetry (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau, 2012), 165. ↩
- Really, what’s more hilarious than all those loser poets taking them- selves so seriously, sweating about whether or not they should employ an Oxford comma? ↩
- We’re already well under the sitcom standard of three jokes per page. ↩
- More on this term below. ↩
- Not to mention the fact that cloyingly idiotic poetry gained a political timbre in the face of one of the most celebrated idiots in presidential history. ↩
- And how could it accept the award with a straight face? (Acknowledging that, yes, some of the folks in this book have ac- cepted awards with straight faces. Isn’t that funny?) ↩
- Jonathan insisted that we cut Ryan’s joke about Freud’s sexual hang- ups on the grounds that it was too hacky. Is it Ryan’s fault Freud liked to have sex with wolves? [The answer might surprise you: Yes!] ↩
- Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917), The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, ed. David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford, 1989), 741. ↩
- Shklovsky notes that “Tolstoy described the dogmas and rituals he attacked as if they were unfamiliar, substituting everyday meanings for the customarily religious meanings of the words common in church ritual. Many persons were painfully wounded; they considered it blasphemy to present as strange and monstrous what they accepted as sacred” (Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 744). It’s not hard to imagine comedian David Cross doing the same thing, for the same reason, and getting the same reaction. ↩
- Slap yourself in the face a few times to sober up your thoughts. ↩
- Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge: MIT, 2008). ↩
- This example is paraphrased from Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004), 89- 90. ↩
- What a riot! ↩
- “The Last Temptation of Krust,” The Simpsons: The Complete Ninth Season, DVD (1998; Los Angeles: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC, 2006). ↩
- Underlying all of this, of course, is a critique of anti-consumerist experimental comedy as unfunny and hypocritical at its core, “selling” the idea of not-buying. In fact, it is because Krusty pushes the crowd to burn money with his anti-consumer tirade that some executives approach him to be the spokesperson for an unsafe station wagon. ↩
- In Chapter 3 of Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (London: Hogarth, 1960), ed. and trans. James Strachey. ↩
- Freud’s narration is far more serious and analytical than this. His work points to seduction, its failures, and its homosocial successes: “When the first person finds his libidinal impulse inhibited by the woman, he develops a hostile trend against that second person and calls on the originally interfering third person as his ally. Through the first person’s smutty speech, the woman is exposed before the third, who, as listener, has now been bribed by the effortless satisfaction of his own libido” (100). ↩
- This is a strength of humour as well, allowing us to confront the traumatic through the relatively safe lens of the joke. Unless we’re talking about 9/11 — then we need the inspiring seriousness of poetry. Or Gilbert Gottfried. ↩
- We’d like to acknowledge Kim O’Donnell here, who helped us break some of the ideas we’re working through on the dangerous topic of the rape joke. ↩
- While there are multiple versions of the unfilmed set, including assertions that Tosh was misquoted, we’re following the woman’s initial account, originally posted at [http://breakfastcookie.tumblr.com/post/ 26879625651/so-a-girl-walks-into-a-comedy-club](http://breakfastcookie.tumblr.com/post/ 26879625651/so-a-girl-walks-into-a-comedy-club) (accessed March 11, 2014). ↩
- Sarah Silverman in particular likes to twist a joke through multiple offensive poses: “Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people that believe it was the blacks.” Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic (Interscope, 2005), DVD. It’s worth pointing out that Silverman, like Tosh, thinks rape can be funny … if the joke is that it’s not funny. In a bit from her 2013 HBO special We Are Miracles about how she “need[s] more rape jokes,” Silverman examines some of the complex power dynamics that come into play: “Rape jokes are great. They make a comic seem so edgy and so dangerous, and the truth is it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Because who’s gonna complain about a rape joke? I mean, I would say rape victims, but they’re traditionally not complainers.” Silverman develops the joke, pushing further while expanding the context to clarify her position: “I mean, the worst thing that can happen is someone comes up to you after a show and is like, ‘Look, I’m a victim of rape, and I just want to say I thought that joke was insensitive and inappropriate and totally my fault and I am so sorry.’” Here the “joke” is that a rape joke re-victimizes the offended listener while securing the comic’s sense of superiority — the rape joke as a sort of metaphorical rape. Sarah Silverman qtd. from a video in Rich Juzwiak, “Here Is Sarah Silverman’s Rape Joke,” Gawker (26 November 2013), available at http://gawker.com/here-is-sarah-silvermans-rape-joke-1472012603 (accessed March 11, 2014). ↩
- But even then, the idea of an “ironic racism” or “ironic sexism” is problematic depending on who is making the joke and at whom the punchline aims. ↩
- Gregory Betts, Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2013), 20. ↩
- An alternative title for the ideal Canadian anthology was suggested by Dave McGimpsey over Twitter: Buick Presents: Better Than You! ↩
- Please text any complaints about the anthology or its inclusions to Aaron Giovannone, who has helpfully offered his cell phone number in one of the poems. ↩