First off, a proviso. I am no fan of pop poetry, ie. poems on popular culture, whether artifacts, characters, TV shows or even buildings. I struggle to sink into such works as Stephanie Bolster’s White Stone: The Alice Poems (on Alice in Wonderland) and pretty much resist reading books at all on subjects like McDonald’s or the Titanic (both subject matters expostulated by Billeh Nickerson). Historical figures, wonderful, but start making Joan of Arc go to the mall, consider Pa’s from Little House on the Prairie’s penis or pretend you get to take Emily Dickinson’s clothes off (the latter is actually horrendously achieved by the American poet BIlly Collins) and I begin to cringe, shudder or feel more than slightly nauseous. In an Event interview with renowned Canadian pop-culture poet, David McGimpsey, he expands on why he writes the sub-genre and why perhaps snobs like myself resist its appeal:
SM: Your writing is often—notoriously—infused with an overt appreciation for pop culture. Being educated in and working within a traditional university setting, I would imagine that these pop culture sensibilities might have been met with some resistance. I wonder, have you always been drawn to use these symbols of our popular culture in your work? Can you recall a point where you began focusing your writing on these interests?
DM: I suppose it has met resistance. Not as often to my face, but I imagine so. There are people, apparently, who are always worried somebody is trying to “push” a lifestyle upon them. They pride themselves on not knowing who Dolph Lundgren is or not knowing how to operate a can opener so a poem about Dolph Lundgren using a can opener can make them feel bad. To be fair, I imagine things like burgers or episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are alluring as metaphors insofar as their value is derided by the elite.
[Photo of “The Guardian” by Paul Saturley]
The elite, eh. This is not I. I was just a kid who wasn’t raised on pop culture but on other kinds of culture, that’s all. However, despite my socially-conditioned resistances (and because I have enjoyed many poems by Mr McGimpsey) I must conclude that, as always, it’s what you DO with the material, the metaphors, the narrative, that matters, ie. how it manifests in language, and not it, in and of itself, that’s problematic or of little inherent interest. I think it’s damn tough to write good poems about pop culture precisely because much of it is so superficial that one’s poems too skate around on that surface. But then again, it’s hard to write poems about deep stuff too for the opposite reason. And these two books, after all, do mash up key feminist concerns with the typically banal genre in a compelling manner. So let’s consider these new pop-culture poetry titles shall we:
1/The Last Temptation of Bond by Kimmy Beach (The University of Alberta Press, 2013)
What Shines: The cover design with its shiny feel is luscious though I resist the clumsy French sleeves. The font, yes! Interior pages: divine. Now, onto content: James Bond, his dastardliness, his exploits, and his eventual demise at the hands of….shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I don’t want to give anything away, Beach’s book treading the difficult line between merely replicating the filmic spy genre and adding spicy new feminist elements that lead the mimetic man of mystery to his just doom. The story is well-written, evolves with a deft touch and successfully traces Bond’s metamorphoses, hidden domestic existence, multiplicities and debonair abjections. At first, I experienced the irritation and tedium of Bond’s martinis and seductions, then the thrill of his comeuppance followed by startling sympathy for his plight. This is what I liked most – the complex subject position this seemingly simple subject matter places the reader in. For that, bravo, Ms Beach (aka ONE).
What Stumbles: Writing with fresh language about such a familiar character is a challenge. At the same time, one needs must use some cliches to make the story believable, given that it explores a predictably evolving genre film. This balance is not always achieved, leading to an awkwardness with diction and phrasing at times, especially in relation to sexy scenes, of which there are a plethora. Are words like vagina, emasculatory and masturbate appropriate for Mr Bond? I’m not entirely sure but it didn’t feel quite right. A few endings drop off disappointingly. And there are typos on several pages that irk me of course. Maybe too, Bond’s death could have been a bit more cutting, descriptively speaking that is! 🙂
What it echoes: Well, James Bond films. Duran Duran. St Sebastian. Thelma & Louise. Dallas or As the World Turns. Tarentino’s Death Proof. Chris Issak. “The James Bond Movie” poem by May Swenson.
2/Archive of the Undressed by Jeanette Lynes (Wolsak & Wynn, 2012)
What Shines: I’ll say it again, terrific design. Has a sexy woman on the cover, her body appearing in its desirable fragmentation across a stack of girly magazines. Superb paper & font. I didn’t resist the content of this book as much as Beach’s, being less of a fan of Bond and more of a questioner of how women’s bodies are portrayed, historically speaking, in a variety of media, but I still wondered how Lynes would handle such material effectively. Through language of course! In the strongest pieces, such as Four Playmates with its delectable line “Her radial chlorine-slubbed Burbank nipples evoke sand dollars”, Imaginary Letter from the People to the Early Playboy Centerfolds, Burlesque for Canadians and S & M in the Queen’s Bush, the forms are taut, the diction scrumptious and the era of innocent smut sashays off the tongue with strut and flair. Others I loved for their sense of humour like Notes towards a Canadian Equivalent of Playboy with its list of questions: “Has Poutine replaced Sex? Has Knitting replaced Sex? etc.” But what takes this book beyond fun fluff is its linking of the burlesque and girly culture with agriculture through the nexus of the actual place “The Queen’s Bush” where Lynes was raised, emphasizing how land and body can’t be separated in terms of the crude way women are constructed historically and culturally, the cruelty in this fusion etched most harshly in her elegy for Dorothy Stratten who is seen devoured by red ants or Yvette Vickers, dead for a year before discovery. A brave merging of burlesque and brutality.
What Stumbles: I wanted a tighter structure here, an order that made more readerly sense. Perhaps alternate sections on girly mags and burlesque to better witness the distinction in those worlds. Some pieces fall apart at the end, starting yummy, as in How to Read Playboy, with an image of a woman reading it “girdled with scrutiny, one boxing glove/stuffed inside each bra cup” and ending with the flat declarative: “Every reader needs a method.” At times the puns get a little much but I suppose being over the top is where it’s at in a book about taking it all off. Emily Dickinson reading Playboy though? Come on. Even strippers have to know when to stop.
What it Echoes: Some Like it Hot (1959). Edith Piaf. For Men Who Dream of Lolita poems by Kim Morrissey. Lady Of Burlesque (1943). T Rex & their song “Bang a Gong.” Robert Palmer. Cotton candy on a Sword 🙂
So as you can see, even this hardened snob can revel in a little pop culture from time to time, poetically speaking anyway.