Friday, August 21, 2009
by Chelsey Minnis
And here, a young poet slowly approaches herself. It’s a wonderful thing to so clearly be able to mark progress – to see those effusions that push past the promising to become truly memorable. A rocky read isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it has its own distinct share of thrills and pleasures. I found Chelsey Minnis’ first book, ‘Zirconia,’ to be something of a mixed bag. Minnis developed an ingenious form for her first book; the poems of ‘Zirconia’ were predominantly composed of short phrases separated, or more aptly, connected, to each other via long stretches of ellipses. This format allowed a brittle austerity to the lines, while expanding the poems outward, until the pieces approach, while never quite arriving at the prose poem form. It’s a lovely device, but I felt Minnis often sabotaged herself through lurid imagery. Minnis’ over-heated syntax often took the reins of the poem at hand and served itself, rather than the poem’s elemental needs- to the piece’s unfortunate detriment. One would hope, then, for a refinement of this technique in the poet’s future work.
‘Bad Bad’ arrived in 2007 as a proper follow-up to the previous book, and is, like ‘Zirconia,’ published by Fence Books. The two books are very much of a piece, though where ‘Zirconia’ at times felt anchored to the afore-mentioned poetic form, ‘Bad Bad’ is much more expansive. “Preface,” the book’s longest piece at 28 pages, utilizes a more economical trio of ellipses at the end of most phrases. This causes the piece’s declamatory and straightforward statements to trail off, to linger, and even to bleed into each other as a bold attack on dogmatic encryption. Elsewhere, ellipses cover the page in a fashion reminiscent of ‘Zirconia,’ but Minnis lets herself be much more playful here – ellipses break off before reaching the end of the page, occasionally they lapse before resuming their even trail. This allows poems to sway with a limber humor that befits lines such as “…this is bad fluffy thoughts…” and “…I must try not to feel a fake kindness…” The poems are personal, but inquisitively so, and always with a refreshing humor to them.
Both of the above lines come from ‘Double Black Tulip,’ the first poem following Minnis’ lengthy preface, as well as the first written in a furtherance of the mode established in ‘Zirconia.’ The poem plays with certain accepted mainstream stereotypes of poets, especially female poets. Minnis writes “I have emotions and I also have death wishes…,” as if the one leads to the other in a personal poet, that is, in a female poet. Minnis continues, “I like most things because I know I am going to die… my love is like weak… black-legged lambs… I have never had the right to say things that are true and no one does… death is the actual worst hope… I write this poem like a girl in a black wig…” What Minnis is playing with is a popular conception of the death-obsessed female poet, the self-destructive Anne Sextons and Sylvia Plaths who remain the exemplar of ‘women’s writing’ within so many college courses in 20th century American Poetry. Minnis declaims, “…this is the total conciliation of my self with my destined self… or else a great phoniness… that is sung with a ukulele… I feel like I have been posing as a human being... with my eyelids open… and my head at a doll-tilt… it is very sad to have to get up and walk home… the purpose of poetry is to seem as lifelike as possible so that you actually exist…” Ah! Minnis furthers a contemporary poetry of the personal by here dismantling the idea of self-actualization and dramatization – or, perhaps Minnis is configuring a new means of self-dramatization? One drawing on a more diverse pool than the claustrophobic “confessional” poetics of a Lowell or Olds and instead looking to poets such as Minnis’ self-described mentor, Ed Dorn? Is this something like the Hybrid, or Third-way poetics poet Cole Swenson talks about?
I was initially drawn to Chesley Minnis due to the dedication of her first book, which was to Ed Dorn, a poet I greatly admire. In ‘Bad Bad,’ Minnis does more than simply commemorate her mentors. These poems, particularly the introductory ‘Preface’ and the almost equally incisive title piece, have incorporated the irreverence and casually epic scope of Ed Dorn. The best poems in ‘Bad Bad’ continue a poetic tradition of the borderland – an in-between place outside of either the confines of a so-called School of Quietude ethos, or any well-defined progressive camp. Minnis writes that “I am not writing poetry to uphold a tradition…,” and while that may not be her intention, Minnis is continuing a bold tradition. And it’s something she should be proud of.
Throughout the preface, Minnis attacks many of the stalwart characteristics of the contemporary poetry community. But then, Minnis’ militantly isolationist stance must be ultimately seen as just that - a stance. That is, she is making a point, and it is indeed refreshing for a poet to attack the hoary norms of a stifled and shocking careerist poetic community. If ‘Double Black Tulip’ dismantles a conventional conception of the anguished poet awash in their own self-mythologizing, then the ‘Preface’ takes aim at the careerist community that has arisen in the last sixty-plus years around the workshop. Minnis’ antagonistic stance is clear in statements such as “If anyone thinks they need to write reviews, teach classes, edit magazines, or translate books in order to write good poetry… then maybe they should just take a rest from it…” This is followed by, “You should not think of getting a job with your poetry…/ If you do, then you will begin to count your own books…/ Poetry careers are a bad business…” She writes in ‘Preface 36’ that “Poetry writing” is a hardship.” Note the quotes around ‘poetry writing;’ what is being written about is not the simple act of writing, but its standardization in the workshop environment.
Later, she confesses, “Sometimes I am bored by poetry and I am supposed to think it is my own fault…/ But how can it be my fault when I am so trusting-hearted?/ As a young poet I was well entertained by discouraging remarks…/ Now I have to bark like a dog to forget that memory!” And yes, Minnis does bark, that is, she makes many reactionary swipes at the workshop system, but it’s an infrastructure far too complex and multifaceted to simply dismiss out of hand. Still, it’s a treat to read lines like “People will give me a compliment when they don’t know if I’m any good or not…,” which to me sounds like a dig directed at careerist back-cover superlatives. It should be noted, then, the ambivalence of her back quotes, such as “…many won’t find her…acceptable at all…” from Cole Swenson, or Robert Strong’s admission that “…her poems take some getting used to…” How much of Minnis’ cheek is critique and how much is simple insolence is a valid question.
This does set up the book as something of a challenge, as an affront to ‘good’ taste. Take the title for instance. What we have here is not the vapid “good bad” of popular culture and kitsch, of a ‘safe’ irony, but an actual “bad bad.” Like the Flarf poets, Minnis intentionally courts poor taste, and the included illustration of a two-headed deer does have something of a spiritual kinship to Gary Sullivan’s rainbow-shitting Pegasus-cum-unicorn. But it would be a misplaced assertion to align Minnis’ brand of defiance with the conceptual pranks of the Flarfists, a group of poets who possess a much clearer through-line to the Pound-Zukofsky-Stein tradition and postmodernist poetics. Minnis positions her own poetry quite accurately when she writes, “Intellectual, anachronistic, superserious: I’m not going to start crying because “experimental” and I’m not going to start crying because “not experimental” …I just want to piss down my own leg…” Aside from Minnis’ wonderful collapsible grammar in this selection, the above excerpt is notable because she clearly puts herself in the borderland I mentioned before. One of Minnis’ clear strengths is that she fails to respect our conventional idea of a binary poetic tradition.
If only the rest of “Bad Bad” was as cheeky, clever and clear-voiced as “Preface!” The defiance of lines such as “It is very outdated to be so drunk, but my poems will not be outdated…” is infectious. Unfortunately, “Bad Bad” loses steam as Minnis retreats into a lurid kitsch of “…chartreuse ostrich boots” and “marmot fur.” The remainder of the ellipses poems traffic in a similar gaudiness. Take “P-Irate,” which begins with “…the roaring… blouse of the moment… is chiffon… with ruffles… and is a smocked chiffon… that you wear as the… swans walk around you… in a circle… and is simply a stylish pellucid object… which may be held in one hand out an open window… or look good draped over your frail lungs…” The problem is that Minnis’ pose becomes progressively snarky and condescending as the book continues.
A poem like ‘Mildred’ with its emerald-tinged imagery and lavish costumes comes across as decorative and slight. Despite Minnis’ desire to avoid dogma, she excels at ars poetica. Lines from the earlier ‘Preface’ like “Don’t mystify me with poems…” and “If you are a poet then it should be foremost on your mind to say something and not conceal it…” excite to a far greater extent than ‘Man-Thing’s’ “…you are permissive… and I… like it… like nasturtium… I like it like cavil… I come back to you…” or lines in ‘Bad Bad’ such as “…it is tight… to be with you… it is crucifix… it is a butterfly pavilion to submit to you… and a… a star of hate in each eye… and that’s why you have to be spanked…” Perhaps I prefer Minnis when she utilizes an unadorned style to support what she wishes to say than the more lavish poems which seem to favor execution and incremental imagery.
Chelsey Minnis has a fairly new book out, ‘Poemland,’ from Wave Books. I am curious to see how she has further developed. If the creative leap between ‘Bad Bad’ and ‘Poemland’ is anything like the one between ‘Zirconia’ and ‘Bad Bad,’ then it promises to be quite an exciting collection. I may have my qualms with Minnis – she is a poet with glaring flaws, but she is also an incredibly intriguing poet, and an invigorating one.
And thanks to Seth at Fence Books for providing a review copy of 'Bad Bad!' It's much appreciated!
NEXT: Expect a post on 'Illuminations,' Hannah Arendt's collection of Walter Benjamin essays, in the near future. Also, I am considering an essay investigating pornography, seen through 'Lost Girls,' the graphic novel by Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie.