by Johannes Goransson on Nov.20, 2011
[This article was written by Seth Oelbaum, a Notre Dame MFA candidate and very talented poet. I asked him to write something about this issue after he raised it in a discussion with Alice Notley:]
The Right To Be a Monster : Boys, Girls, and the Stay Puft Marshamallow Man
As a 25-year-old boy composer of poetry I am infatuated with war and am concerned that my interest in violence subjects me to discrimination from the 21st-century poetry populous. It appears to me that boys are expected to abandon violent representations in their poems. Boys have had their turn. We can’t continue the aesthetic of poets like Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. To do so would be sexist and misogynistic. Much of their malice was directed at members of the opposite gender. This is wrong. Girls are humans too! They’re people and you should treat them like everybody else. That’s the just, fair thing to do. “Respect and equality for all!” is a refrain that is constantly penetrating my ears in my present Theories of Justice class. This is claptrap. Poets are not the 99%: they’re the 1%. They’re seers: they’re special: they can do what they want. “Human law,” says the murderous sphinx John Milton, “is the vilest of all.” I don’t want to follow them. Why should I? The girl poets don’t. They commit all sorts of crimes in their poetry and are widely published, anthologized, and blogged about. Shouldn’t boy poets be able to do the same? Where is the boyesque anthology? Why the violence inequality? Does contemporary poetry reward girl violence and condemn boy violence because boys have penises (bad penis!) and girls have vaginas (good vagina!)? Let’s see.
One of my favorite poems of all-time is Ariana Reines’ “NICO SAID EXCREMENT FILTERS THROUGH THE BRAIN. I’S A KIT.” In this poem, Reines breaks into somebody’s house, goes through all their things, masturbates on their pillows, and bleeds in their sink. The poem ends with the declaration: “There’s no malediction. No thought can poison me.” None of Reines’s actions are corrupt. Her violations aren’t wrong. She’s following the edicts of the poet, who, according to the boy Keats, isn’t a single entity, but a capacity to be any and all things. The girl Reines agrees with Keats when, in a later poem, she says, “I have to become everything.” The poet is a monster: they cannot keep their molecules to themselves: they infect and subvert all that they come into contact with. Did the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man care about all the chaos he caused in Ghostbusters? No. Is Reines concerned that the pillows she’s masturbating on don’t belong to her? Uh-uh. Order and property laws are inapplicable to them. Humans, says their deprecating spokesman Alexander Pope, are “so weak, so little, and so blind.” In Mercury, Reines laments: “Oh person / what a bore.” Reines is too bold to be human. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is too unwieldy. I want to be bold and unwieldy too. But I don’t think boys are supposed to be.
A leading publisher of the monster girl poets is Fence. Besides Reines, they publish Chelsey Minnis, Cathy Wagner, and Joyelle (my advisor). None of these girls are law-abiding members of a peaceful community. Minnis assaults elderly men, Wagner compares her motherly skills to Saddam Hussein, and Joyelle is always about to coup. What are the boys of Fence writing about? Does their overall aesthetic reflect that of a pugnacious-tyrant-revolutionary? No. Prior to Nick Demske’s arrival, none of the Fence boys’ that I’ve read feature the same piercing, screeching, hyper aggressive rhetoric of the girls. If a war broke out between the Fence boys and the Fence girls, the Fence boys, like 1939 Poland, would be crushed. Fight back, boys! If girls want to engage in warfare, then they’re certainly entitled to do so. But shouldn’t boys have the right to strike back? If someone attacks you, isn’t a counter-attack justifiable? Reines and her girls aren’t victims. They’re the ones issuing declarations of war: they’re the aggressors! They’re tough, mean: they’re not helpless.
Often I come across articles, many of them published in the New York Times, that ask questions: why aren’t there more female businessmen, congressmen, adulterers, &c? I want to pose a question too: why aren’t their more violent, sassy, bossy boy poets? There are a few. Some that come to mind are Johannes (my teacher), Demske, Dan Hoy. But I feel like none of these receive the latitude that the girls do. In his review of A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, Matt Soucy calls Johannes “misogynistic.” This is a not a term that invites further conversation. A “misogynistic” boy is not a complex boy bursting with ideas. A “misogynistic” boy is dumb and narrow-minded. He’s not worth talking to: he doesn’t warrant exploring. In reviews of the girl poets, their violent sass is a portal to intricate ideas. They’re not “misogynistic”: they’re making insightful commentaries on feminism, bodily representations, and heteronormative ideologies. The girl poet’s violence leads to multiple strands of thought while the boy poet’s bellicosity meets the dead end of misogyny. The girl poet’s violence is intellectual, the boy’s is boorish. The girl is nurtured: Penn invites Joyelle to read for a feminist reading series. But the boy is exiled: he must make his own book tour.
Is the era of the boy over? Is their reign finished? According to B.K. Fischer, a girl poet, it is. “It’s about time,” she says. Boys have been brawling bitches for “several millennia” so it’s the girls’ turn now. But where would the girls be without the boys? In their introduction to the gurlesque anthology, Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg list forbearers to the girl monsters. They name Guest, Plath, Anne Waldman, O’Hara and Berryman. The last two have penises, but I don’t think that the girl poets would have trouble defeating them in battle. The aesthetic of these boys is relatively tame: they don’t pose a threat to the girls: they’re not planning a war anytime soon. But Rimbaud and Baudelaire are. If these Parisians were mentioned then the feminine hegemony of the aesthetic would be threatened. These boys championed force in the catty, angst-ridden discourse of the 21st-century girl monster. Before Minnis began beating up citizens, Baudelaire pummeled poor people; prior to Reines dominance of the cock, Rimbaud grabbed his daddy’s penis. Girls didn’t start the gurlesque: boys did. The gurlesque foundation isn’t pink: it’s blue. Boys are being written out of a club that they made.
Is bringing up this origin sexist? Is it misogynistic? As Cher Horowitz says, “As if!” My interest isn’t in sexism or misogyny: it’s in violence. I want to explore its theatricality, its drama, its intrigue and captivation. I think boys should be able to show their interest in this idea and be assessed by the same attentive criteria that the girls get. I have a penis, but I also have a MacBook and Microsoft Word. If I want to compose poems like my advisor then I should be able to do so without being marginalized. Boys can be monsters too. The 21st-century poetry ethos has made this achievement difficult. But so what? No retreat, no surrender! We must fight for our privilege to be the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.