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Jose Padua: In Proclamation to the Emperors of Agony

Notes on Bart Plantenga’s List Full

Publisher: Spuyten Duyvil

ISBN-13 978-1-952419-54-6

Pub date: June 21, 2021

Retail Price: US$18.00

One of the longest of the poems in Bart Plantenga’s List Full is a roster of nearly a hundred specious COVID cures. Titled “The Crazy Corona Cures Offered By Humans Who Claim To Be Sentient Beings of Some Evolution In The Information-Is-Power Era,” the poem presents fake cure after fake cure created for profit of some kind, whether it be personal, political, or the base desire to be one-up over one’s fellow human beings. Among the more extreme cures are ones involving Lysol, bleach, cocaine, cow dung—the list does, indeed, go on. Obviously, one way to create a world where you can be king, queen, potentate, empress, lord, etc., is to create a cure. And one way to procure that cure is by means of finding a list which—if you’re lucky—will lead you to it. I didn’t find a cure for COVID in List Full, of course. What it did do, on the other hand, was help me find a way back to poetry.

*     *     *     *

One of the most horrible attempts to label performance art as “poetry” came from a revue that called itself Tourette’s Without Regret. I stumbled upon them a number of years ago while idly surfing the internet, which is how I always start my day whenever I have work to do. Supposedly a show where reality can be presented “unfiltered,” Tourette’s Without Regret is more a sad case of self-consciousness outrageousness masquerading as artistic freedom and rebellion. What’s more, the name itself is based on the misunderstanding that Tourette Syndrome is, simply, an uncontrolled desire to spew obscenities in public. In fact, Tourette’s presents itself (and yes, here’s the list) as eye blinking, facial grimacing, shoulder shrugging, head or shoulder jerking, head twists, sniffing, the touching of objects, jumping, throat clearing, grunting, repeating others’ words or phrases, etc. Rarely does it present as coprolalia as in the sudden blurting out of obscene, vulgar, language, or inappropriate observations. I know this through my own experience, as I myself am among the small percentage of adults with Tourette Syndrome. I am not, however, among that number of Tourette’s patients who have no sense of humor about the condition. But, if you are going to use Tourette’s in the course of telling a joke or as a means of describing your own non-Tourette’s experience, it had better be fucking funny or remarkably insightful. Because, more often than not, if a person with Tourettes is screaming obscenities at you it’s because you’re a noxious asswipe.

*     *     *     *

The poems in Bart Plantenga’s List Full seem like an attempt to take the list and transform it from statistic, survey, or commodity, even, into something of much more human stature and quality. This is probably where List Full is at its most subversive—when at the end of say, “List of Mystifying Details, Ann Arbor, 1978” or “List Salvaged From Waste Paper Basket of Another Ex [1980]”, you realize the joke, humor, or furtive mystery behind it. And although it most assuredly moves toward the subversive, it does so subtly and in ways that aren’t always obvious. You don’t need to laugh or go “oooh” or “aaaahh” to come to grips with sudden revelations of List Full. And the emphasis is always on revelation rather than eliciting a shocked response.

*     *     *     *

I met Bart Plantenga in the early 90s, shortly after I’d moved to New York City. He’d just come back to town after having lived in Paris and was a friend of some of the writers I knew who gathered regularly at one downtown bar or another. This particular gathering was at Milady’s on Prince Street in Soho, and soon after I first spoke to him he started running down the list of some of the things he’d seen and done in Paris. I was impressed, but it wasn’t bragging on his part, being more along the lines of “going to Paris is something you could do too.” Much of the time, whenever I found myself at the other end of such a talk, the speaker would be bragging or else condescending. To be spoken to as an equal was still something of a novelty to me, and I remembered that time in college when I wrote a paper for a freshman literature class. In it, I discussed James Joyces’s Ulysses in relation to Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, and instead of being impressed that I’d read Joyce’s difficult novel, my professor concluded that my comparison of Ford Maddox Ford to Joyce was the product of plagiarism. I didn’t have the attitude or confidence at the time to make the pronouncement that my professor was a massive asshole. Now, four decades later, I could make a list of what made him an asshole. As for what Bart Plantenga was telling me about Paris, I probably should have been writing it down. Perhaps I would have been inspired and found a way to visit that great city by now.

*     *     *     *

When I moved to New York in 1990, didn’t have to go through much of a search to find an apartment. One potential landlord turned me down over the phone right after I told him my name was Jose. I wrote a poem about the incident for which I won a prize, so I suppose I got my revenge, in a way. But the first time I went out to look at apartments I’d seen listed in the Village Voice, I went to a building on Avenue B, between 3rd and 4th Street. Bob, the landlord, ran the flower shop on the first floor storefront, and before he showed me the apartment, he talked about the neighborhood, starting with the nightclubs. “You got The World, you got your Save the Robots, you got The Gas Station just down the street.” He went on to talk about getting breakfast after those late nights—“You got your Leshko’s, your Veselka, Kiev, Odessa.” Bob went on, “you can get your eggs, your sausage, your toast…” When he walked me up to the fourth floor to show me the apartment, I saw that it was tiny but had a separate bathroom (most of my New York friends lived in those narrow railroad flats where there was a bathtub in the kitchen and a toilet in a closet space. I said I’d take it, but what sold me on it wasn’t the real bathroom, but Bob’s lists.

*     *     *     *

A person is either outrageous or is not. And although self-conscious attempts at outrage may result in crimes of one sort or another, said crimes have little to do with true rebellion. List Full, in turn, can be looked upon as a compendium of crimes against poetry, but there is nothing self-conscious about it. Eschewing the standard “poetic” qualities of meter, metaphor, mellifluous language, lush imagery, etc. etc., it creates poetry without resorting to any of the usual spectacles upon which most poetry depends. Even when the speaker in one of the poems is feeling pain or distress, Plantenga makes no attempt to make the reader feel it too. This isn’t to say he doesn’t want the reader to feel anything, but an emotional response, plain and simple, isn’t what he’s after, nor is creating a poetic spectacle the means to his ends.

*     *     *     *

French author Guy Debord began his classic 1967 work, The Society of the Spectacle, with the observation that “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” It wouldn’t be surprising if the post-punk band the Mekons had this in mind in their 1991 song titled “100% Song,” which begins “This is a simulation of a song/ are you ashamed or what?” The implication being that in singing this song, despite a cognizance of one’s self-consciousness—and the tenuous assurance of adding the “100%” label—one inevitably remains inauthentic. And that there is, due to the overarching presence of these modern means of production, nothing we can do about it. List Full, however, in its own subtle way, attempts to do something about it.

*     *     *     *

When I got COVID this past spring, I couldn’t read much poetry. My breathing wasn’t affected much, but I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life, experienced fever and chills, and my body seemed transformed into one discomforting ache. With my diminished sense of taste and lost sense of smell, food wasn’t the great pleasure it usually was for me. I was able to watch a film or two, including Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (for about the fifth or sixth time), but reading poetry was another matter. Books of poetry by some of my favorite poets from Bob Hicok to Natasha Trethewey would actually fall from my hands to the floor (or on my face on those occasions when I was reading in bed). In my sickness, the dense language of poetry triggered me somehow, making every ache that much more penetrating, my fever more intense, my chills like a New York City winter. A couple of weeks later, when the worst of my COVID symptoms subsided—the transfusion of COVID antibodies I’d received as an outpatient at Virginia Hospital Center helped immensely—I still couldn’t bear to read poetry. Rather than relax, entertain, or enlighten me, it filled me with dread, or else bored me so much I thought my brain was becoming a mass of inflamed cells being pricked by the horrible and unceasing efforts of language to tell me something I didn’t want to know. What’s more, after a creative burst earlier in the year during which I wrote poem after poem, I found that I couldn’t bear to write it either.

*     *     *     *

In his seminal work, The Revolution of Everyday Life, Belgian writer Raoul Vaneigem notes, “Poetry is  always somewhere. If it leaves the realm of the arts, it is all the easier to see that it belongs first and foremost in action, in a way of living and in the search for a way of living. Everywhere repressed, this poetry springs up everywhere. Brutally put down, it is reborn in violence. It consecrates riots, embraces rebellions and animates all great revolutionary carnivals until the bureaucrats place it under house arrest in their hagiographical culture.” While I appreciate the idea that poetry can be inspiring, enlightening, healing, therapeutic, or, on occasion, simply entertaining—what interests me more is the possibility of using it as a weapon or as a drug of sorts. I know, many might consider poetry to be autotelic in nature or, if not that, something of an “anti-weapon.” But still, I often feel the need to defend myself and I don’t want a gun for my weapon, I want something else. Something I know how to use. Something like poetry.

*     *     *     *

According to published setlists, The Mekons performed the following songs when they played in New York City as part of the Central Park Summerstage series on June 29, 1991: “The Curse,” “Club Mekon,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “Waltz,” “Sheffield Park,” “Blue Arse,” “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian,” “Secrets,” “I Am Crazy,” “Lyric,” “Memphis, Egypt,” “Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet,” “Amnesia,” “Hard To Be Human,” “Brutal,” “Big Zombie,” “Last Dance,” “Having A Party,” and “Sorcerer.” I was there in the audience, I could swear they also played “100% Song,” but none of the setlists I’ve seen online agree with me on this. One thing I do remember with certainty, however, is that during a break between songs, Jon Langford (who most would probably say is the leader of the band, although he himself would probably deny being in that position, with all the original songs they perform credited to the collective known as “The Mekons”) took a Polaroid camera and pointed it toward the audience. Imploring them to give him the finger, the audience obliged as Langford pressed the button on the camera. The photo he took appeared on the back cover of the next record they released, I [Heart] Mekons.

*     *     *     *

Seeing an audience in Central Park holding up their middle fingers in unison is one of my fondest memories—even though I wasn’t among those for whom the finger was intended. I realize the audience was simply complying with Langford’s request, but it nevertheless provides a vivid illustration of my own love/hate relationship with literature and any other art. I love the art that moves me, while at the same time I hate the powerlessness it has over others or in certain situations. I love how a long slow, early film by Wim Wenders, for example (Kings of the Road) totally encompasses me, yet I hate how it seems to wither in a world at large that insists on things moving swiftly, rising high into the atmosphere full of plot and immediate consequences. I recall one poetry reading I did where, afterwards, a man in the audience came up to me and said, “Man, you changed my life!” (It’s a line that gets said quite a bit at these events when they’re going well). Although I admit that it can be pleasing to hear these things from time to time, I would have felt more comfortable had he said—as another poet, a woman I knew slightly, once said to me after a reading—“You’re funny.” She left it at that: “You’re funny.” I had no idea whether or not she got the darker side of my sense of humor, but I believed her.

*     *     *     *

In his introductory essay to List Full, Plantenga notes, “Never having been conceived as poems makes lists interlopers, unbeholden to poetic law, perhaps serving as poetic justice, as antidotes to the overly self-serious dictates of poetry, where purveyors insist a poem can DO so much: regime change, paradigm shifts, illuminate the dusky, voice the unvoiced, rouse the masses, transform lives…” Similarly, I tend to believe that solemnity in art is something like church—it reinforces the faith in the already faithful, but as for the rest of the world it goes right over or through their heads. There’s nothing more subversive than a chuckle, nothing more transcendent than a guffaw that makes you feel like you need to catch your breath, and nothing more eye-opening than a joke that connects two very disparate entities.

*     *     *     *

Right after the observation regarding lists as interlopers to the world of poetry, Plantenga goes on to add, “The list poem confronts the self-aware and haughty poem in the same way that punk rock originally confronted the pomposity of classic rock.” One could go so far as to describe the poetry in List Full as punk rock poetry. It wouldn’t be wrong to call them that, but why limit them this way? It’s the same issue I have with the sixteen personality types in Myers-Briggs. I mean, sixteen basic types in the Myers-Briggs seems to me like an asinine approach to the ontological. Which brings me to another problem I have with Myer-Briggs—the names for the personality types. A subject who is Extraverted, Intuitive, Thinking, and Prospecting is known as an “ENTP.” What does “ENTP” really tell me? Plus, is there anything quite as descriptive of certain types of persons you cross paths with (preferably without too much frequency) as the word “asshole”? Which then brings us to the counter-argument that, “Don’t the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types comprise a list? And doesn’t that then make the list of the sixteen personality types a kind of list poem?” If I were teaching a class and someone asked me this I would simply reply, “Fuck you!” Only later, when I’m at home with my wife and children having dinner, would I realize that a better response would have been, “Yes, it’s a poem—a list poem—but it’s a bad list poem.” But I wouldn’t have said this off the top of my head—I would have just said “Fuck you.” Which is why I am not a teacher. I am a poet. A real poet.

*     *     *     *

August, for the past few years, has been the month of the Sealy Challenge. Started by poet Nicole Sealey, the challenge is to read a book of poetry a day for that month. I wish that a few of people taking up the challenge would include Bart Plantenga’s List Full. Because in it they’d find the elegance, humor, and political insight in varying combinations—all in a refreshingly singular book of poetry, a book that doesn’t approach these things the way so many other poets would. I know that if I were to pick thirty books of poetry to read for the month of August, List Full would be among those that moved me the most.

But even though it’s good to encourage the reading of poetry, I think the challenge would be more interesting if it were more about disseminating poetic perspectives, as well as fostering new ways of creating the poetic. To be invariably empirical in one’s approach to craft and narrative, musicality and rhetoric and so forth, and then do the opposite, whether precisely or sloppily.

*     *     *     *

One thing you never hear from folks who are encouraging you to read more poetry is that there are going to be some works that are just a total fucking downer. For me, that’s when the poetry is either too perfect, too clean, too correct, too earnest, etc., etc. I’d rather read interesting work from a writer who is kind of an asshole than dull work from a writer you wouldn’t mind having as a neighbor. Sometimes the nicest people can make incredibly dull art. I know some poetry readers probably think I’m a jerk, or still think I’m the same person I was when I wrote drunken, angry poems and reviews that I was hoping to make money from. I’m not that same person. I have evolved. I also don’t care if some people don’t like me. In fact, I think that if there aren’t at least a few people who have an intense dislike of me and my work then what I’m doing can’t be all that interesting. I mean, I can’t stand the work of pop poet Rupi Kaur. But that’s what I like about her. I like that I don’t like her work. There has to be work that I don’t like, because if I liked everything—I mean—Jesus, I would be such a poseur. If I loved everything in the world, how on earth could I even begin to love myself?

*     *     *     *

I can see how some might perceive List Full as a kind of anti-poetry, but for me it’s an attempt to push the boundaries of verse—an endeavor I wish more poets would undertake. Take these lines for example:

  • from “List of Absurd Statements by Morgan Stanley Employees, 1994”: Takes a leadership role in pushing pile forward in a number of control-related issues
  • from “Odd Yodelers Have Weird Nicknames” (Plantenga, by the way, is the world’s foremost authority—on yodeling): The Male Mockingbird – Charles Anderson/ The Yodeling Dominatrix – Manuela Horn/ The Singing Puzzle – Harry Torrani
  • from “List For Self-Improvement With Partner”: Know mixed drunks/ Pluck nose hairs/ Bend a religion to your own desires
  • from “15 Suggested Poem Titles For Jose Padua On His Birthday”: The School Bake Sale That Never Happened When A Fight Between Rival Clubs Broke Out Over A Parking Spot Turned Ugly & The Parking Lot Looked A Lot Like A Jackson Pollock Painting Done In Sponge Cake & Weird-Ass Colored Icings
  • from “List Living on East 13th Street 1981”: a filthy filth/ a fervent following/ an amorous aim/ a righteous handshake/ a broad blue lake

Furthermore, after I’d read List Full and loved it, I found that—since COVID had made intense, precise language and acute vision seem like the ugliest thing in the world—I was able to read poetry again. The book had revived my ability to focus on detail—on the implicit and explicit connections that sickness had taken away from me like my sense of smell.

*     *     *     *

Poetry. It will tear you apart like Tommy Wiseau. It will make a Hallmark moment last longer than an old lady from Portland’s Subaru Outback. It will eat you up from the inside like a flesh-feasting virus from the global south. It will plant you like a tree’s roots to a patch of fertile land on top of a condo near Miami Beach. It will slash you like a butcher’s knife in a slaughterhouse in the Bronx on Good Friday. It’s a slow train of blossoms like a stoned soul picnic in the 60s when Richard Nixon was in office. It’s an endangered species like thirsty snow leopards sipping spilled Coca-Cola left behind by eco-tourists in the Gobi desert. It’s an exquisite sip of absinthe in the snottiest café in 19th Century Paris. It’s a slug of Kool Aid in your right hand on a Kentucky morning with a poisonous hissing snake in your other hand. It’s season 57 of The Bachelor. It’s man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree, Sing Heavenly fucking Muse! It’s your neighbors the Astro Twins from next door and they’re here to read your horoscope, sweeties. It’s the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. It’s a really big deal. It’s the shit. It’s the real fucky fucky. In closing this hallucinatory, viral-sourced paragraph, let me say that poetry will find you like a criminal past catching up to your pleasant, small town life. Poetry: find it before it finds you.

*     *     *     *

The trajectory of American history is built upon various applications of greed, from sloppy to precise. The course of American poetry, however, has remained independent from this—at least up until more recent times. The most important work of the American poet is to maintain and increase the divergence of this path from America’s history. In other words, to be invariably empirical in one’s creative praxis and approach to lyricism, musicality, rhetoric and so forth—and then do the opposite, whether precisely or sloppily. To think carefully about one’s role as a poetic artist—and his or her or their place among societies and hierarchies, dependencies and independencies, the dynamics of intersectionality and the relationships that exist therein or else develop therefrom. And then forget all that shit. And just fucking do something for Chrissake. Write your goddamn poems.

*     *     *     *

Lists: when I am ready I will present, in proclamation to the emperors of agony, my full list of demands. Poetry: it will continue until these demands are met; it will continue after they have been met. None of us has any choice in this matter. This is both blessing and curse.

Copyright 2021 Jose Padua

Jose Padua is the author of A Short History of Monsters, Winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Prize.

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