Tue 11 Feb 2014
Dear Kristen Stewart,
I’m a poet and professor at UCLA, and thought you might be interested in what some of my poet friends (most of whom also teach and are otherwise very accomplished) and I have been writing on Facebook about your recent poem published in Marie Claire. This is partly to address the apparently universal opinion by journalists – most of whom seem to not know anything about literature – that this is a terrible poem.
My own initial post went like this: “The second stanza isn’t horrible. Worst part of the poem are those awful adjectives! Stupid Beats.” What I meant by this was that the words “digital” (applied to moonlight), “scrawled” when linked to “neon” (neon is a much overused word by poets who want to sound like Beatniks) and “abrasive” (applied to organ pumps) weren’t working for me. I also didn’t like the word “ubiquitously” especially since everything up until that point was in the singular – ubiquitously seems to suggest some sort common element among many parts. Not a big fan of “Whilst” either.
But I thought the second stanza was very delicate with sound play – “parked” and “Marfa” are good off-rhymes (I heard the word “barf” in there somehow) and there is some nice alliteration in “Devils not done digging / He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle / and this pining erosion…” etc. And I like the broken syntax and quick movements in perspective – there’s little to no punctuation and most people can’t pull that off. And the line “He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle” is very evocative to me – and seems to explain some of the eccentricities of syntax and vocabulary in the first verse!
Anyway, so some of the other comments that came in here quite interesting. I’m not going to give the poets’ names since I haven’t asked their permission for this (I’m writing this quite quickly), but a female poet in New York wrote: “I don’t think it’s bad at all. It’s better than 90 percent of the poems in the first batch of my intro to creative writing class. I just read three different poems about a football game. Three different young men.”
Another poet here in Los Angeles – he studied linguistics and works at Google – wrote “For someone who never went to high school, I think ‘Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps’ shows a pretty promising imagination.” I think what he means is that there is genuinely Surrealist element in the first stanza – “abrasive organ pumps” could have been written by Antonin Artaud – and has some real shock value. This same poet wrote (in response to some negative commentary on the FB feed):
Not sure why folks are hating on this poem. It’s young, but the more I read it, the more I like it. For someone just starting out, it isn’t overly freighted with expectations of what a poem should do or be. If it’s ‘beat’, it’s more Bolinas or young Bernadette than hortatory elder beat. That first line is weird and inspired. And moonlight strafing the foothills, nicely observational.
[“Bernadette” is Bernadette Mayer, a prominent New York poet associated with the Lower East Side.]
Another poet wrote: “I like the title!” That’s pretty cool since I’m not sure if I can get behind the title (unless I read it as extremely pop/campy in that Jeff Koons way). He actually wrote earlier on his own FB feed that he liked the title (that’s where I learned about your poem).
The defenses continued to roll in, even for the unusual adverbs. One poet, a teacher at a prominent college and co-editor of a major publisher of poetry, wrote: “Hm. I actually like the weirdness and energy and if you’re going to have an adverb at all why not go with ‘kismetly.’ I say go for it Ms. Stewart.”
This same poet later wrote – in response to a post that compared you to James Franco (Franco’s writing took a lot of digs on our feed, with no defenders): “No, honey, this is yards better than the few Franco pieces I’ve seen. But there’s lots of different types of poets and poems in the world.”
You found your strongest defender in a poet, editor and teacher at a major university in the Midwest. She wrote:
I actually think this poem is TERRIFIC. I guess there’s something wrong with me. It has a great punchy energy, it’s strange, and I never know where it’s going next. I would put stars all over this poem if it were turned in in my class… Also the language isn’t boring – kismetly and ubiquitously have a nice feel to them. I think this is pretty great.
So you see, there are a lot of qualities to your poem that really come out when you think about them. I’ve come around to liking your strange adverbs, and love it when people invent words. (The great Russian poet Mayakovsky once wrote that the creation of a neologism is a revolutionary act.)
My advice would be – if you really want to do something with poetry – is stay away from that terrible tendency in Hollywood (not just among actors writing, but mostly) to litter your poems with decadent sex and booze stories – Charles Bukowski is not the only one to have ever written a poem, and happily, much as I like him, your poem has none of his qualities. It seems that a lot of male actors in L.A. when they get down to publishing – and they usually publish way too much – seem to think they have to prove they know what a bad hangover or an abusive relationship is.
I would also suggest that you read a lot of crazy shit – i.e. look at the Surrealists and even earlier French poets, some of the more “experimental” work in the U.S. (I could help you with that), read philosophy if you have the time, books about insects and ancient cultures and Japanese horror movies and roofed bridges and, well, anything – it can all go into a poem provided you really care about what you are reading. Conversely, don’t be afraid to be small – William Carlos Williams wrote a major poem about a cat that was only 27 words long.
And lastly, don’t be hung up with trying to make your poems make too much sense. Yes, you don’t want to sound deranged (necessarily, though Arthur Rimbaud argued for just that – but he wasn’t being trailed by paparazzi) or like you have no control over the language. Actually, it’s good to have language have some control over you – I think that’s what we all liked about this poem, you were really going with it.
With enough revision, you can make a poem that has a clear emotional intent without necessarily telling a story or having a clear “message.” An American example would be Hart Crane – many of his poems would (to a journalist) appear completely impenetrable and gibberish, but those of us that love him know exactly what he means. But you can find a lot of examples of this in the movies – David Lynch, obviously, was never kept up at night wondering if everyone understood what his movies were trying to “say.”
I think you were really brave to publish this poem, especially in a magazine in which you can’t merely hide behind their literary credentials to help it pass. Keep going!
Brian Kim Stefans (and a bunch of other poets)