I just happened upon a bad review of the 2008 Blood Pudding Press poetry chapbook w i n g'd by Kyle Simonsen. Personally, I love this book (which I suppose is not surprising since I published it; Blood Pudding Press is my own small press). Indeed, I recently reread it for my own pleasure and liked it just as much as I did more than a year ago. Not so for coldfront reviewer Melinda Wilson. She was very much less than impressed.
The review kind of irked me. At least it was a thoughtful review. I looked at the reviewer's bio--she is the managing editor of coldfront (the reputable and multifaceted poetry book review site where this review was published), seems to be a pretty prolific reviewer who is willing to speak her own truth (and I think that honesty is definitely a good trait in a book reviewer; I don't wish for ass-kissy, back-scratchy, schmoozy book reviewers), and is a published poet herself. All good traits. Still, the review left me with the vibe that she was being a little too quick to dismiss just because the material of this chapbook inhabits a style that annoys her personally. I mean obviously having one's own personal preferences and pet peeves in poetry makes sense, but just because something doesn't mesh with one's own stylistic preferences, does that mean it's weak or bad?
For example, it would seem that this reviewer does not care for artifice or pop culture references and I happen to like that kind of hoopla. She talks about the first poem in the collection and being put off as soon as she hits the Kevin Federline reference. She remarks that KFed was a cliche long ago. Well, I would agree that few people want to see his mug on reality TV these days, but in this case he's in a poem and in a doe's mouth. How is he a cliche in that context? I've never seen him in a doe's mouth in real life. In fact, in real life, I didn't even think that deer were carnivorous or particularly predatory. They're certainly not man-eaters. Yet in the first poem in Kyle Simonsen's collection, we have a deer that is carrying KFed off to some nefarious fate and the speaker of the poem, despite his own mixed feelings, misgivings, and personal disdain for KFed (or what KFed respresents) ultimately saves him anyway. To me, part of what this poem presents is a warped natural landscape infiltrated by media influences, yet at the end humanity rises above--or does it?
To me, this poem and most of the others in Simonsen's collection are a provocative amalgamation of the natural world being encroached upon by more insidious superficial and fictive elements and vice versa. It's a strange fusion of humans and other animals and machines--each of which swap traits at some points and become monstrous in one way or another and encroach upon each other. I think the collection offers some apt commentary on contemporary culture with its confused intersections of reality and fictive media, celebrity idolatry, the steamrolling of corporate rhythms, and an underlying primal longing to get back to a more natural state--but perhaps it's too late; perhaps even that natural state has been corrupted by carnivorous deer and other mutant life forms and giant billboards shedding their skins into the earth like sex-selling snakes.
Of course the landscape of these poems is warped, because they're reflecting a warped landscape. I don't know whether or not KFed is a cliche when it comes to poetry, but I do know that reality TV show culture continues to proliferate and permeate and so I think it is apt that the first poem in this collection makes reference to certain celebrity fixtures, including a rather undesirable reality TV kind of creep and his insidious seep into public consciousness. Are poets just supposed to ignore all the warped stimulus creeping in on us and focus on more serious stuff? I don't think so. What is serious anyway? What is important anyway? Sometimes I like art that reflects the messed up landscape of contempo culture and does so creatively and I think that Simonsen's work fits the bill.
The reviewer also objected to what she perceived as extraneous cleverness in the collection. I don't consider myself a fan of clever either, but maybe we have differing definitions of cleverness. To me, cleverness is kind of like soul-less crossword puzzle wordplay, whereas I find Simonsen's work to be both uniquely visceral and emotionally resonant in its own way. The reviewer read the author bio first and was immediately put off by Simonsen's reference to tentacles. Maybe she thought it was gimmicky. Maybe she likes more serious author bios. She was also put off by the Table of Contents, which she initially read as a nonsensical poem. No, that was just the Table of Contents with a title other than Table of Contents. I like to use alternative titles for Tables of Contents because I think the phrase Table of Contents is boring. Is a fellow poet really so confused by re-naming? I think it's a creative little flourish; she probably thinks it's a bell or whistle.
Another part of the review that really bothered me wasn't even about Simonsen's poetic material; it was this remark in regards to my own copy about Blood Pudding Press:
So, I move on to find out a bit more about Blood Pudding Press. “Interests of the press include horrific confection, provocative frisson, and ribbon bindery.” All bells and whistles. This type of overwrought, flamboyant self-presentation takes away from the art and makes a show of itself in its feeble attempt to be different. All I can hope is that a similar “artistry” isn’t involved in the poems.
Call me an insecure narcissist in the grip of a warped and self-absorbed simultaneous superiority/inferiority complex, but this harsh assessment kind of makes me feel like I'm being labeled as a fake artist who has nothing but gimmicks to rely upon. However, I don't think that's the case. I think my description there is just my style. I think it's poetic, connotative, and evocative in my own weird way. But no matter what I think, I have to admit that the phrase 'feeble attempt' stings and hurts my feelings.
Stylistic differences? Maybe. One woman's opinion? Maybe. I certainly appreciate anyone taking the time to carefully read a Blood Pudding Press offering and devise a thoughtful review even if the reviewer's opinion substantially differs from my own. The tone of the review makes me feel a bit dismissed, though. Even the title of the review is 'bells and whistles' and that seems to sum up the reviewer's assessment--that Blood Pudding Press's style of presentation and Kyle Simonsen's poetry revolve around bells and whistles.
But maybe one woman's bells and whistles are another woman's legitimate artistic flourishes. I just peeled off my lime green fishnet knee highs. Were those bells and whistles? Now I'm wearing my lavender vintage stewardess dress. Is that a bell and whistle? Is the fact that I'm writing about what I'm wearing right now a bell and whistle? If I don't meet certain standards of so-called highbrow academic seriousness, am I a bell and whistle? I don't know. Maybe you can read the review for yourself and let me know what you think. Perhaps it will stimulate some interesting dialogue. Or click the second link to find out more about Simonsen's collection and read that for yourself (only ten copies left!). Or click the third link to read more about my take on artifice. Or click the fourth link and read Kyle Simonsen’s own response to the review. Or eat my stockings and puke up green netting and find out if there's a mangled bird inside.
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And speaking of reviews...
Review copies of the latest Blood Pudding Press chapbook, At night, the dead: by Lisa Ciccarello are now available via The Chapbook Review.
Review copies of a couple of my own chapbooks--MONDO CRAMPO (dusie kollektiv) and PINK LEOTARD & SHOCK COLLAR are also available.
Check out these and other review copies and do consider writing a chapbook review.