:: Article

The new poetics of confession

By Marcus Slease.

Airplane Food, Gabby Gabby, NAP Press 2012

I think it was perhaps the NY School poet Ron Padgett who expressed his excitement for poetry when he realized he could actually use the word cheeseburgers in a poem. NY School poetics is a never ending project that is updated with every so-called generation. And there is still a lot of potential with using these frameworks of immediacy and the everyday in interesting ways. Going on your nerve, as Frank O’Hara would say, is a method that is just as interesting today as it was in the 1950s. The first generation of NY School poets used both high and low culture, classical music and popular film in the case of Frank O’Hara, and subsequent generations of NY School poets, like Ron Padgett and Bernadette Mayer and Eileen Myles, are even more immediate in their contemporality and immediacy. This immediacy has become more and more intense as technologies like Twitter and Facebook allow us immediate access to confessions and off-handed observations and reporting. So how does a poetics respond to these pervasive technologies?

Some poets retreat to 19th century romanticism and a specialised poetic diction from a few hundred years or so ago. Some poets mix word salads and ask the reader to make meaning. Some poets, and musicians, do terrific mashups. And some poets dive right into the contemporary world we find ourselves in. The world of confessionalism. Or mock confessionalism. At its best this confessionalism is playful, sad, witty, and layered. Sometimes the confessionalism is direct and sometimes indirect. Some of the most exciting poetry being written in the United States (or anywhere else for that matter) fits broadly into this new confessionalism. In books such as Letters from Robots by Diana Salie, Coeur De Lion by Arianne Reines, and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy by Tao Lin, for example. Or the new journalism, post gonzo, in places like the magazine Thought Catalog.

Enter Airplane Food by Gabby Gabby. Gabby has certainly inherited some of the possibilities of poetry opened up by NY School poetics. We have references to popular culture like Dunkin Donuts and Bruce Springstein and Taco Loco and Jay Z and Bed Bath and Beyond. We have the everyday in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (eating Quavers in a British poem might be equivalent). We also have the immediacy and use of colloquial speech (especially typical of second and subsequent generations of NY School poetics). We also have a version of the “I did this I did that poem” (which started with Frank O’Hara and was used in diverse ways by Ted Berrigan among others). On page 13 of Gabby’s Airplane Food (none of the poems are titled) we get a version of the “I did this I did that poem.” The speaker reports what they did on two different days. The poem begins: “I woke up at 7 a.m. to the door muffled sounds of my mother / yelling at my sister.” The speaker then drives her sister to school and sees the irony of a large truck, guzzling oil and adding to our environmental crisis, with progressive bumper stickers. Then halfway through the poem the speaker reports what happened on another day: “I woke up at 8 a.m. to pull the Band-Aid off of my shot.” The poems goes on to confront and confess the feeling of death in life. Where the speaker’s body feels like someone has sliced his/her throat and left the body “behind a dumpster in January” but they are still alive and feeling it. The last line of the poem ends with yet another time on perhaps the same day. The speaker factually reports: “I have to meet my mother for lunch at 10 a.m.”

While NY School Poetics certainly informs the collection, it is the new confessionalism that brings us a fresh poetics. The speaker of one of the poems casually confesses: “I am silently having a nervous breakdown / while trying to run regression equations.” There is a tension between this detached reporting and emotional confessionalism. And it is this tension that gives emotional resonance to the collection.

In the poem on page 8, the speaker quotes someone asking: “Why was she taking a picture of a window.” Not what is out the window. But the window itself. An object that often frames what we see and how we see. But then a little later the speaker of the poem declares: “When I’m crying on the steps of The Mall because I missed / the last train to Fredericksburg and this seems like a metaphor.” This is neither the confessional poetry of an earlier generation, such as Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell, or the identity parade of most British mainstream poetry. This is a different kettle of fish altogether. The poems are not expansive like an Eileen Myles poem, or most of the poems of the Beats or NY School – the voice of these poems are more subdued and flattened – but there is that anything goes of an Eileen Myles poem. That attempt to confront life as directly and as honestly as possible through the medium of writing. There is also a playfulness within the sadness. On page 11 an unnamed speaker is quoted as asking us as readers to join him/her: “Let’s sit in the sad and just say stuff like ‘wow I am getting / sad all over myself‘ but not in an upset way. Just like a factual way.’”

Sometimes these detached quasi scientific observations are almost like Beckett’s stage directions. The Beckett of obsessive stage directions. Repetitions empty of metaphysical weight (but I would argue still significant). Here is a description of “a tanned bro” throwing a frisbee, Where “every motion is a still frame:”

Arm extends (pause)
Fingers curl to prepare to grasp the plastic lip of the Frisbee (pause)
Skin to plastic contact (pause)
Arm retracts (pause)
Arm extends (pause)
Fingers uncurl in preparation (pause)
And release

There is sometimes a Beckett-like paralysis in the poems as well. In the opening poem of the collection, what we might expect to be extraordinary, a romantic date, is reported in a factual objective tone. A 23 year old male from California goes to the movies with a 19 year old female from Virginia. The speaker of the poem reports that his hand “will stumble over the arm / rest to hold her hand in the dark” and “they will use the full expanse of their lungs to laugh like they are made to do.” But instead of bringing us into a whirlwind of romance and heightened emotions the poems ends with: “They will stay like that for at least 90 minutes.”

Are these poems a sad romance? Well yes. I think that is part of the energy contained in these poems. Romance, alienation, loneliness. The framework of the collection keeps shifting from detached observation to an active participant in the unfolding drama(s).

But these poems are also about travel and movement. The title of the collection suggests this sense of travel and movement with the word airplane. But there is no flying here. The speaker tells us: “I usually don’t take planes anywhere.” A part On the Road but without the whooping and hollering and male camaraderie of The Beats. A more subdued On The Road. A skeptical On the Road. The poems are in motion in various places and sites.

The speaker tells us the layout of Portland: “SE is the ghetto, / NE is the suburban mom and pop area, / NW is the cute smaller-downtown place.” But we don’t stay in Portland. We are in the Swem library at the college of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. And a medical spa. And a sushi restaurant. There is Portland and San Francisco and Virginia and a New York Alleyway (among others). There is movement with cars and vans and trains. But there is also the alienation. As suggested by the title of the collection. Airplane food is not communal. It is lonely eating. Shrink wrapped and processed into little single servings. And this alienation is much more direct and brutally honest than Kerouac’s epic road travels. The main speaker of the poems on page 16 tells us: “I will sleep alone tonight next to the warm hum of my MacBook / where all my friends live.”

Comparisons to the films of Miranda July are also apt. Like July, Gabby’s work in Airplane Food has emotional resonance in its flattened language and framing. As I was reading Airplane Food I was often reminded of Miranda July’s film Me and You and Everyone You Know. The attempt to bridge the gap between art and life. To make art like life and life like art. And also the flattened language and framing and bleak landscape but also the beauty and hope within those framings that is unflinching, rare, and brave. And like July, Gabby also makes room for play and deadpan humor. In the last poem of the collection, the speaker moves from factual observation about the hotness of the laptop against his/her thigh to: “my laptop is the only thing that has been so hot against my thigh in ~ 2 months / it feels like my laptop is peeing on me. / Or it feels like my right leg is in a community kiddy pool that a ~ 4 year old has / just peed in.” The last lines of the poem, and the entire collection, end with warm pee water: “I am left alone in alone in a kiddy pool. / The water is slightly yellow.”

Airplane Food, like life, has many tracks. Many frameworks. Pop culture, NY School poetics, some of Kerouac in his restless journey across the U.S. But it is the fresh use of the confessional, in response and conjunction with popular culture and the technologies of confession, that make Airplane Food fascinating, moving, and necessary.

Marcus Slease was born in Portadown, N. Ireland in 1974. He is a nomadic poet and has lived and worked in various places across the globe. He is the author of six books of poetry. His latest book is Mu (So) Dream (Window). Currently he lives and writes and teaches in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 11th, 2012.