Inflation Poetry: Melodrama, Interiority and Kitsch in Dear Ra

by on Jun.20, 2012

It’s interesting that Danielle mentioned my book DEAR RA in her last post because I’ve been thinking about this book quite a bit for the first time in a long while. In part because of AD Jamesons’ discussions about “sincerity” and in part because of Carina’s discussion of melodrama.This book has everything to do with those topics, and the way they depend on various concept of mediumicity and interiority.

I wrote Dear RA at the end of my MFA stay in Iowa, a few months in Seattle and then a few months up in Spanish Harlem – 2000-2001 (but it wasn’t published until years later). I was inspired by the letters of lunatics and serial killers, by the indie rock mixed tapes various girls had made for me (including notably Neutral Milk Hotel, which is why I was interested in reading Jameson’s interpretation of them on HTML Giant the other day, though I didn’t realize that until now).

I wanted to be sincere. I started writing letters to my exgirlfriend, but my feelings were not correct. I didn’t have an interiority, I had a contagion. I didn’t have agency, I had a plastic doll.

I felt like a loser. And I was a loser. A broke foreigner writing up a debt in Harlem while sweating profusely due to lack of A/C. Every minute I wrote instead of worked, my debt grew.

Poetry as inflation.

I was totally sincere about my writing, but it was with words whose value fell for every minute, it was with an interiority that was fake, it was in media which was running away with the language, it was metaphors that were tasteless. Words not motivated by interiority and sincerity becomes “candy surrealism”, becomes kitsch, melodrama: becomes INFLATION POETRY. So I wrote my inflation words with their crass ornaments until I had no place to stay. Finally I had to quit, move into my brother’s living room and take a job as a landscaper.

It took a long time to get these poems published. I thought about self-publishing, but I didn’t know how, was not part of any literary scene. I asked an acquaintance who was more informed about these matters, and he warned me not to self-publish. “It will ruin your career,” he said. I was working as a landscaper…

Here are some excerpts from TYPO and OCTOPUS from a long time ago.

Here’s a fairly random selection:

Dear Ra,
The only man who truly can read the writing on the wall left town yesterday to pursue a career as a gold rush. The bereaved child wants to paint snatches all over your photograph, but I only have one photograph of you left and I want to keep it clean for my official history of stares. You probably wish I said “stairs” because you like that song by Modest Mouse that goes: “My heart belongs to stairs.” My heart belongs to a drive-by shooting. Your heart belongs to something less melodramatic, such as a cockfight in an alleyway or a hotel where beautiful women get ready to attend a concert where the main instrument will be a cockfight. Your sleep belongs to a ship being salvaged out of the icy Baltic Sea.

My sleep has crumbs in it and sometimes it makes me dream about fascist insects, and sometimes it makes me dream about you…

And here’s another:

Why did you ask me to star in your musical about overpopulation? Why did you cram the whole orchestra into my pit when all you wanted them to do was swallow their violins? Nobody wants to hear songs about panicking fingers or infected mouths. People just want to be told that they’re good and that everything else is a conspiracy theory. I want to be good, but I may be a conspiracy. Once upon a time I had a smile, now I have a grin.

These poems/letters come out of my fascination with certain kinds of letters – crazy “letters to the editor” and crazy letters to a famous person and serial killers’ letters to newspapers (to their readership, ie potential victims). Letters that tend to assume a strange intimacy, even as they are public; written to a public person with an uncanny pretense of privacy. The writer and addressee are both particular, but in the act of writing, the particularities break down. Identities teem open in the public act of writing.

I am/was drawn to the way media and violence interact in these instances, but also how power plays out. As John Durham Peters points out in “Speaking Into the Air” (and others before him), there’s this prevailing anxiety about writing, about dissemination: how the words taken out of direct dialogue creates a power imbalance. In those letters to famous people or whatever, there tends to be this feeling of disempowerment couples with a molesting sense of “coercion”/”hubris”/”monomania” (as the reviewer on Coldfront pointed out about another book I wrote at the same time, A New Quarantine Will Take My Place).

In the book, the speaker stages shows with the addressee, makes her into someone else (John Ashbery, a dead dog, a prom queen, Roland Barthes etc, her identity becomes as proliferative as his), asks her impossible rhetorical questions, he divulges secrets, involves her in the most ludicrous metaphors and similes. In part I wanted all that melodramatic kitsch in there – that stupid “I”, those ridiculous metaphors, the “like” as many times as possible (everything is like something else, continually referring and deferring) etc.

Art is a waste, everybody knows. Art teems, art produces doubles and triples, art makes excess. UNLESS that is, it reflects interiority. Unless it’s good. Unless it is redeemed. Art has to be redeemed over and over because it’s excessive, proliferative, useless, counterfeit. Like a shitty foreigner. Writing inflation poetry in New York City without an air-conditioner.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. the sea inside us all « yellow house cafe

    […] *Inflation Poetry (as coined by the author…a great read addressing melodrama/sincerity) Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Leave a Comment by angela on 2012/06/21  •  Permalink Posted in art, creativity, writing […]

  2. rawbbie

    Dear Ra is one of my favorite books of poetic address. I think Letters to Wendy’s works the same way: create a performance scenario on the page. Some of it comes from the artifice of the epistle. Even if that artifice is removed, the reader is confronted with this ‘I’ talking to them, or watching the ‘I’ in a one-sided demoniac conversation with some unknowable other.
    It’s really interesting hearing the process side of how this book became a book. Thanks for talking about it.

  3. Johannes

    Thanks Rawbbie. Yes, I remember when Letters to Wendy’s came out I recognized a similar MO. I still laugh out loud when I read that book!


  4. Ted Pelton

    I still laugh out loud when I read Dear Ra! I also laugh at that “‘It will ruin your career’/I was working as a landscaper” dialogue. (That sense of seriousness we all formerly fell pray to — or still do…!) Inflation, as you call it, yes, but there are also hilarious mordant deadpan incongruities in all of your writing. Cheers!