By E.C. Kelly
With the rise of the #MeToo Movement, we have seen many artists fall to their past and present misconduct, a dismantling of their reputations and careers (and rightfully so). But what do we do about the work they leave behind, which are so often works we as an audience have loved and learned from? Is that work, too, now tainted, or can it exist beyond its creators to remain a viable piece of art to cherish and in which to find meaning? Through her experience with the film American Beauty, writer E. C. Kelly gives her thoughts on the matter.
I was 11 years old, and I had been hunting for my brother’s R-Rated movie collection for three months. He was home from college, and when I asked him about it, he said, “Mom made me hide it. You shouldn’t watch stuff like that.”
The night before he left for college, I was painfully aware that there were exactly 13 hours for me to find and watch as many R-rated movies as I could. I waited until everyone was asleep, and then I went through all the boxes he’d packed. All I found were three books on computer coding, a Minnesota Twins parka, and like 35-five New Order albums. No movies.
Then I had a revelation. If I were hiding those movies, I’d want them somewhere near the TV. The bookshelf by the TV in my parent’s basement was filled with books my mother had alphabetized to cope with her oldest heading off to college. I pulled out a big fat book (it may have been a Bible) and saw two DVD covers behind it.
I became electric. Vibratory. I became the raw joy of Catholic rebellion.
I had to stop myself from ripping the books off the shelves; I knew they had to be put back in exactly the same order or someone would know what I’d discovered and what I’d done. I carefully laid the books on the floor and took in the beauty of 20 titles—20 windows into worlds I’d wanted access to my entire life.
I did the math. It was midnight. I could fit in two, maybe three, movies before my dad woke up for work. I picked Trainspotting because my brother had a poster of it, Pulp Fiction because it had cleavage on the front and the guy from Grease on the back, and American Beauty, because I’d seen the picture of the naked girl on a bed of roses.
I put American Beauty into my parent’s DVD player. I got a Sprite, snuggled into the couch, and waited.
Very early in the film, Lester Burnham--played by Kevin Spacey--describes how miserable his life is. He wakes up legitimately disappointed that he didn’t die in his sleep. I watched him fit his feet into cushy slippers and deliver the line, “And in a way, I’m dead already.”
Then the camera cuts to his face, eyes shut, pushing into a perfect stream of water from a fancy showerhead. The camera pans out to show Burnham from the back, and it's clear the character is touching his dick.
“Look at me. Jerking off in the shower,” the voiceover entreats.
I am looking.
“This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.”
This scene represented a turning point in my sex education. Sex Ed Part One was discovering I had a clitoris because of a detachable showerhead. Sex Ed Part Two was realizing I could experience that feeling without a detachable showerhead.
This essay used to include a section where I deconstructed and explained how I felt connected to Kevin Spacey’s character. He wasn’t supposed to find a 16-year-old girl attractive, and neither was I. The difference between us was this: I was an 11-year-old girl repressing her bisexuality, and Kevin Spacey is a middle-aged man who had been sexually harassing young (and underage) men for decades.
I can’t say American Beauty is my favorite movie anymore, because I’m unable to reconcile the film itself and Kevin Spacey’s behavior.
The feeling is similar to how I don’t like to step on the grass in front of grave stones, because it’s impolite to walk on dead people. But what if I didn’t know I was walking over a grave? What if someone planted a tree as a grave marker, I missed the plaque, and ate a sandwich in the shade? If I don’t know I’m dropping crumbs on a dead lady’s foot, then in a relevant way, I’m not dropping crumbs on a dead lady’s foot.
I think I’m saying I wish I could eat a sandwich on a dead lady without knowing I was eating a sandwich on a dead lady. I bet there are some people who can still separate Kevin Spacey’s work from his serial assaults. That’s certainly what Roland Barthes would do. “The Author” (or here, “The Actor”) “is Dead” he claims. The important bit is “The Observer.” The art isn’t art until someone (not the artist) holds the piece to their heart and feels something. That’s the creative act. That’s the ball game.
But I can’t hold American Beauty to my heart anymore. So I’m ending this essay with a message for filmmakers and script writers. There’s a space in our hearts that needs filling. We need a suburban, dead-inside woman to experience an awakening. We need middle aged moms flipping off their bosses and masturbating in showers. There is space in our hearts for you to fill and 11-year-old girls that you can save.
By Kathryne Lim
Dorothea Lasky’s writing on color and poetry is what sparked my own interest in the use of color in poetry. Colors are interesting in that they are descriptive words that can be interpreted differently by different people. For instance, the color green may make one person think of a rainforest and another of a green Mustang. Yellow may evoke feelings of calm in one person, anxiety in another. Looking at color can be an interesting way to experience a poem in a new and different way.
The following is a writing exercise around color that I like to use with groups. It’s a good way to think about how colors affect imagery in a poem. It can also be used as a tool to uncover different layers of meaning within a poem.
First, distribute a poem that contains a lot of colors or color words. Wallace Stevens’ mysterious “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” is a good one to use. Next, ask the participants to circle all the colors in the poem. Have the participants circle all the color words as well. Color words may not be direct colors, but words that suggest colors, such as rainbow, peacock, cloud.
Have a discussion with the participants about what those particular colors represent and what emotions they evoke in them. Discuss whether any of those colors or color words are used in surprising ways in the poem.
Lastly, assign the participants three colors that they must use in their own poem. When they are finished, have them circle the colors and color words used. Just for kicks, have them switch around the colors in the poem. Ask them how this changes the meaning of the poem and whether it offers new insight into their own thought processes.
Do you listen to music when you write? Have you ever thought about setting your words to music, and if so, what would that sound like?
Knowing how susceptible I can be to influence, I’ve become more careful about what I listen to during my creative process. Gloomy music on the stereo can steer a poem into melancholy. Too often, I find lyrics heard in the background make their way into what I’m typing. When I write, I don’t listen to music with words at all--I want all of the words to be my own, as much as anyone can own words.
Despite distancing myself from it when writing, I love music and spent years wondering how to bridge the gap between my musical and poetic passions. Unfortunately, I don’t have a great singing voice, and though I have respect for spoken word, I’m not a performer. In the mid-90s I gave a poetry reading at a rave, crouched behind the leg of a folding table the whole time, whispering into a microphone and begging the DJ to turn down the mic gain until my voice was virtually inaudible.
However, I discovered that the accompaniment of music is a welcome addition when performing my work and not just because the focus isn’t all on me. When words and music work together, they can create a whole that’s greater than its partial sums. Music is capable of transcending linguistic differences, expressing feelings that can’t easily be translated into words. I wanted to be able to access that power, though I’m still playing with various ways to do so.
Last winter, I was asked to collaborate with Stratus Chamber Orchestra here in Denver for their Dreams and Aspirations-themed concert. I eagerly accepted the opportunity but realized it was a challenge. How could I create a new, longer poem centered around a theme that could easily veer into cliché and have it ready for rehearsal in only a couple weeks?
Though I have written a few poems for friends’ weddings, I’m not comfortable with writing poetry on demand, so I took guidance from CAConrad and created a poetry ritual. I wrote down my childhood dreams and my current dreams, which was more difficult than I expected. I then cut them into strips, and each night, paired a childhood dream with a current dream, rolled it into a scroll, and put it under my pillow. I did this for four nights, until I ran out of dreams. In the morning I’d wake up and immediately write down everything I could about my dreams and what I was feeling. I then combined those notes with other texts I’d written about the ritual and dreaming, cut about 80 percent of it, and shaped the final orchestral piece.
While compiling the long poem, I listened to the music I’d been assigned over and over again: Charles Ives’s “The Gong On The Hook And Ladder,” a discordant, somewhat atonal piece that drove my partner out of the house and sent my dog into hiding for the several hours it looped on my stereo. It was an important part of the process, as I wanted to absorb the work’s frenetic energy, hoping that it would infiltrate my poem.
When it came time to rehearse, the conductor handled the hard part of deciding how and where the vocal sections would be interspersed with the orchestra. Unlike some of the other writers in the show, I didn’t read my work overtop the orchestra playing; instead, the words framed the music. I loved watching the other performers, seeing how different people found their own ways to convey their work. Everyone had a different approach, some more narrative, some more abstract, each creating a gorgeous atmosphere for reflection heightened by musical accompaniment. The two nights of performances felt like quite a success, with the immersive seating night (where the audience is seated within the orchestra, as shown in the video), almost selling out.
The orchestra piece made me want to experiment more with setting my words to music. When my friend Carl Ritger—who records and performs under the moniker Radere—mentioned a poem of mine that he loved, I suggested we turn it into a song, and he readily agreed.
The first step was to record the vocals. I spent an evening with a mic in hand, reading a couple poems over and over again while Carl ran the feed through various delay pedals and effects, all the while fiddling with settings on his modular synth setup.
I read each poem more than 20 times. It was more fun than I had expected. The repetition enabled me to loosen up and try various ways of reading: Poetry Voice, NPR Voice, Spoken Word Voice, and many others, until I settled into a voice that felt authentic and mine.
My favorite way of reading the poems was at a whisper—it seemed to fit the theme and tone of the pieces. I was inspired by a poetry performance given by a couple friends of mine, Gabrielle Lessans (who has poems forthcoming in Inverted Syntax) and Danielle Ferrara, at a salon in Boulder last winter. The two of them read their work over William Basinski’s Watermusic (coincidentally one of my favorite pieces to play in the background while writing), as their act Pop Philosophy. They sometimes whispered, sometimes raised their voices, and usually spoke at the same time, which created a weaving effect. Their performance wasn’t rehearsed, yet it worked: the themes from the different poems played with each other as they intertwined, created a third meaning out of two separate pieces. It felt like an invocation—spellbinding and almost witchy.
There are many ways to play with integrating words and music, all you need is a phone or a laptop. You don’t need to spend years mastering an instrument; instead, spend a couple days getting to know a program like Ableton, GarageBand, or FL Studio. Use the mic on your phone and play with layering. Think about the soundtrack your life would have, what your poems or stories would sound like interpreted musically.
Would writing with the intention of setting your work to music change what you write about, or how you write it? Do you care about rhyming and meter, or would your song be more freely constructed? I’ve been asking myself these questions lately. I may never arrive at a final answer, but I’m having fun playing around to find out.
Listening list (some things I listen to when writing):
Monolake: Hong Kong
Silent Season: Campfire Stories series
Mysteries of the Deep series
GAS: any album, but especially Königsforst and Zauberberg
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works Vol II
Windy and Carl: any album, but especially Consciousness
The Caretaker: any album
Jo Johnson: live sets and albums
Pole: CD1 or CD2
A Winged Victory For The Sullen
By Kathryne Lim
Poetry is the only art form that aims to engage its audience through three distinct areas, or modalities. Those modalities being visual, the form or shape a poem takes on the page; textual, or the creation of meaning through written words; and auditory, or the formation of sounds and how a poem is heard. While aware of these areas, many poets fall short of exploring all three with an equal level of skill and attention. Though not Diana Khoi Nguyen.
I recently heard Nguyen read from her debut book, Ghost Of--which won the Omnidawn 2016/17 Open Poetry Book Prize--at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver. I knew then that I was listening to something different, something that blurred and tested the limits of what poetry can do. A few days later, I ordered the book and was not disappointed.
In the book, Nguyen abandons regular stanzaic form, opting instead for sprawling lines, floating fragments, and justified blocks of text. Additionally, she creates forms--circles, shards, silhouettes--from the words on the page. These forms often appear directly beside the images from which they were taken, such as haunting images of family photographs, out of which Nguyen’s brother had cut himself before taking his own life.
The text of the first Triptych that appears in the book mirrors the shape of the family photograph appearing on the preceding page. Within the text, as within the photograph, is a white space where Nguyen’s brother’s form is missing. In appearance, the block text looks structured and contained. But the words themselves create long rambling prose that has no clear beginning or end.
When Nguyen read from the Triptych, her voice was measured and clear. When she came to the white space within the text, her voice dropped off abruptly, remained silent for every missing beat, and then returned with the same measured assuredness. The silence in the middle of the poem was unnerving, captivating the audience. The silent beats came unexpectedly and often in the middle of a word, creating even more jarring breaks, such as:
I am list ening
dropped th e needles
my hands encl ose the environment
I don’t believe I have ever experienced white space at such a visceral level, and the auditory experience ultimately led me to purchase the book. It taught me how to hear Nguyen’s poems in my head, how to take my time with them, how to read them.
While absence and grief are the prevailing themes of the book, Ghost Of is filled with an undeniable spirit. In trying to make sense of something that cannot be made sense of, Nguyen utilizes a variety mediums and is not afraid to be messy or playful or new. Near the end of the book, a sort of revelation can be seen in the poem “Reprise” when Nguyen writes, “Like some strange music: the world started up again around him.”
Ghost Of leaves readers with gives me a feeling of hope--Hope from the fact that art is evolving and our own role in creating it is evidence that we are alive. The experimentation and breadth of Ghost Of is proof that poetry is still very much alive and is even better when shared with its audience in multiple forms.
By Jesica Carson Davis
I used to loathe political poetry, found it to be tedious and lecturing. Too often, it seemed to focus on the outrage and demands, a didacticism that results in rhetoric of lyricism at the sacrifice of the poetic. Political poetry also didn't feel like it had much to do with me. Perhaps I had been previously looking in the wrong places, attempting to connect with protest poems from the 1960’s, written before I was born. No wonder I didn’t feel an emotional, creative, or intellectual connection.
However, in the months after the 2016 election, a majority of the writing that came out of me could be tagged as political poetry, and I haven’t been able to stop writing it since. I process thoughts through the written word, so I turned to poetry in an attempt to make sense of a world that felt like it was crumbling around me. I wrote with no attention to form or meter. I wrote to work through—and work out—a feeling of impending doom, chaos, and persecution.
Eventually I looked at my notes, all those rough drafts, and wondered if I could turn them into poetry by emphasizing images and elements, balancing emotions and concrete situations. Could I make something potentially beautiful from the ugliness I saw and felt? Even if I couldn’t, my attempts made me feel less stuck. I’ve written a sonnet on birth control, poems on the prison industrial complex, and made a poembox about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, among other things.
Creative writing, especially the language of poetry, has the power to transform thinking and is a testament for the necessity of poetry in times of crisis. Amidst walls erected in the name of public safety, children interned and separated from their families, people of color who are shot by police, the erosion of health care and impending loss of choice over our own bodies, poems of protest and resistance can empower us to transform our world. When we the people resist being categorized by politics, we cross the boundaries imposed upon us, and we are open to accepting our differences.
And as Chad Bennett says in his piece, “Why Are More Americans Reading Poetry Right Now?” “…poems often nourish questions more than answers. Poems tend to foster uncertainty. Poems cultivate mixed feelings.” Poetry can help us become more comfortable living in an uncertain space, teach us to hold and evaluate conflicting beliefs without our heads exploding. In times of crisis, poetry is there for us.
As most of life is more gray than black and white, there is another option between these diametric poles: make some art. Try doing it outside of your chosen form(at) or genre. If you’re a writer, try painting. If you’re a photographer, make an assemblage sculpture about what’s coming into your life right now. Write a Villanelle about how the world feels like it’s on fire, then write a Tanka about that gorgeous, looming moon. Then rewrite them breaking the forms. Get together with other creative people and talk, create things while you are together, plan and execute projects to keep you making art. If you’re open to it, do a poetry ritual, or cast what could be thought of as a spell, which brings us back to the power of language. Just keep creating and talking, especially about the hard stuff. Invite a change, or at least attention, pour light where before there was darkness.
Creating something against inhumane policies takes strength and means standing up and saying who you are, that your life matters, that others lives matter.
Sometimes we have to write things just to get them out to help ourselves—focus on the process over the product and make something new without worrying about how it’s going to look when it’s finished. Now is your time to get your creativity out. Turn it into a force of reckoning.
So this July 4th, start a creative revolution in your life. It’ll be a revolution for you as much as for others. You never know who will be paying attention. You may bring something into the world that someone really needs. Speak to your power. Do something creative, begin by doodling or a writing a journal entry. Write a poem in a notebook, sketch your own face in the mirror, play with clay or paints. Express what the hell is going on in and around you.
It is easy to feel defeated by current policies and decisions, but you can resist through your creativity. Keep making noise and practice using your voice. Figure out how to listen, how your own voice might be best expressed, and what you want to say. Then say it, say it again, and keep saying it until you see change begin.
Further reading suggestions:
Look, Solmaz Sharif
Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
Nature Poem, Tommy Pico
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker
The January Children, Safia Elhillo
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong
Seam, Tarfia Faizullah
Milk, Dorothea Lasky
Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith
#NoMorePresidents at Heavy Feather Review
Learn more about Jesica Carson Davis and her work here.