Maybe Aim For Not Bad

When the LEGO Movie 2 came out last year (Jesus, was it really only last year? I had to look that up), we saw it in the theaters, twice. Remember when that was a thing? It’s a terrific movie, but the one moment that has really resonated with me is the song that comes on just after the first fake ending. (Don’t complain to me about spoilers. It’s been out over a year!) It’s titled “Everything’s Not Awesome,” and after seeing the movie, I believe I tweeted something to the effect that it should be an anthem for our times, and I feel that even more so now than I did then.

The song’s second verse goes like this: “Everything’s not awesome / but that doesn’t mean that it’s hopeless and bleak. / Everything’s not awesome / but in my heart I believe / we can make things better if we stick together” and so on. And that’s really at the heart of the movie, that cooperation is how you improve things. It’s a response to the first LEGO movie where the emphasis was on becoming a Master Builder and imposing your personal will on the world around you.

But it’s in the second half of the song, where the music goes from sad piano to dance club synthesizer and the tempo speeds up about 50 times, where the real lyrics really speak to this moment we’re living in. Here they are:

“Everything’s not awesome. Things can’t be awesome all of the time. It’s an unrealistic expectation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, to make everything awesome, in a less unrealistic kind of way. We should maybe aim for not bad, because not bad, well that would be real great.”

This is our politics right now. I almost wrote this post way back during the primaries (remember those?) but it didn’t feel quite right at the time. But now?

Things are absolutely not awesome right now. As Lucy/WyldStyle would say, this is a heckish place. And if we’re honest, things have never been awesome for a lot of people in this country, even when they were way better. So we don’t want to look back and say we want to recreate that.

But we also want to be clear-eyed about what we’re facing and what our options are going forward. The clever line in the song is “because not bad, well that would feel real great” and it’s absolutely true, especially lately. I would kiss not bad on the mouth in a second.

But the important line is “we can make things better if we stick together.” What follows that in the song is “side by side, you and I, we will build it together.” We’re in a deep hole right now, the deepest I’ve seen in my life, and it’s going to take a lot of work to fill that in and get some new structures built. We can build them, though, as long as we’re working together. Not bad is a good first goal on the way to awesome.

Donald Trump and David Duke

Back in 2016, when it looked like Donald Trump was going to win the Republican nomination, but before he drew an inside straight into the presidency, my partner Amy and I were talking about what the Republican party was doing to itself and how it didn’t have to be this way. As I remember it, she said basically that the Republicans as a party could choose to not give the nomination to Trump, that they could deny him and thus save themselves. I agreed, in theory, but didn’t think it would happen.

I’ve been thinking about this, and our subsequent conversations about what Trump being at the head of the Republican party means in larger terms for politics in this country, ever since I finished listening to season 4 of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast, which is about the rise of David Duke in Louisiana. Duke won his first and only election in 1988. I was not long out of high school and wasn’t politically inclined anyway because I was still a Jehovah’s Witness, so I missed a lot of the specifics. I knew who he was and I remember being surprised that he’d been able to win given his Klan and Nazi background, but I didn’t follow it all that closely since I wasn’t going to vote for religious reasons. I was glad he lost both his races for higher office but it wasn’t until I was a good bit older and more politically aware that I thought at all about what Duke represented in a larger sense.

There’s a story in episode 6 of Slow Burn, though, that I hadn’t heard before. It’s 1991, and David Duke has just finished second in the primary for the Louisiana governor’s race, beating incumbent Republican Buddy Roemer and trailing former Governor Edwin Edwards but not by much. Duke had reason to be excited, because between him and Roemer, Republican candidates had gotten 64% of the vote in the primary. And while Edwards had been wildly popular after his first two terms in the 1970’s, his last term had been rocky and his win in the primary wasn’t overwhelming. But a day or two after that primary, some old school, big money Republicans got together and did a fundraiser for Edwin Edwards.

Now you have to understand just how big a deal this was. Louisiana Republicans hated Edwin Edwards. He’d run circles around them at this point for more than 20 years by both being smarter than they were and by building a coalition of black voters statewide and working class whites from south Louisiana and running up the score in New Orleans. There were always a lot of accusations about him being shady, and he did wind up going to prison eventually on bribery charges, but as his admirers liked to say, he never stole from the people. He stole from big corporations and gave money back to the people.

You also have to remember that this was 1991. The Reagan Revolution had already happened, and Louisiana had voted for Reagan twice and George H. W. Bush in the last 3 presidential elections. The state was getting more Republican by the minute and it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if those old guard Republicans had said to themselves about Duke exactly what Republicans in 2016 said to themselves about Donald Trump. That they can handle him. That he’ll grow into the role. But they didn’t. David Duke was the step too far for them, even though he’d gotten 60% of the white vote in his run for Senate the year before.

Now I don’t want to give them too much credit. I’m not sure they even met the bare minimum requirement, given that they didn’t really do any soul-searching about how their party got to the point where they nominated a literal Nazi and that they have since elected a guy who once referred to himself as “David Duke without the baggage” to the House of Representatives (where he currently serves as Minority Whip), but in that moment, when faced with the idea that they could be one step closer to power if only they backed the Nazi, they decided they could wait for the next election.

Nationally, Republicans had that choice in 2016 and most of them made a different one, and so here we are. David Duke lost that race for governor by a landslide, by more than 20 points, but he actually received over 60,000 more votes than he had a year earlier when he ran for Senate against J. Bennett Johnston. There were a lot of factors that went into Duke’s huge loss, but at least one of them was due to some prominent Republicans saying there are some things they wouldn’t associate with. I will always wonder what might have been if people like Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, people with actual political power in the Republican party, had said it’s not worth it, had decided to deny Trump the nomination and faced the backlash from their own voters for a cycle as a result. That would be a story to hear.

John Slidell, Loser

Name-changing is in the air. Streets are getting new names, university buildings are getting new names, and people are starting petitions to change the names of their cities, (and seriously, nothing needs to be named Plantation at this point, no matter when the city was founded). And on that note, I’d like to suggest another city change its name, specifically the New Orleans suburb I spent most of my formative years in, Slidell, Louisiana. I’m not particular about what it’s changed to, so long as the new name doesn’t celebrate some other part of Slidell’s racist heritage.

Back before the pandemic, I had this idea to write short bios of people whose names were living on but whose accomplishments didn’t really warrant that legacy, and that idea grew out of my curiosity about John Slidell, the man for whom Slidell is named. We didn’t talk about him a lot way back in high school history class, which should have been a warning sign given that our town was named after him and that he did play enough of a role in the Civil War that his name showed up in the textbook a couple of times. You’d think that might warrant a day of class devoted to the guy at least, maybe even a week. I mean, he was at various times the New Orleans District Attorney, State Representative, US Representative, Senator, and a negotiator for the US government with Mexico about the border, where he helped start a war/land grab. And then after the Civil War started, he was appointed as a diplomat to France representing the Confederacy. That’s a résumé that a lot of current people whose statues are being pulled down and dumped into storage would love to have.

Honestly, I think there are a couple of reasons why we don’t see John Slidell valorized more. One is that he was never really all that great at his job. He never made much of an impression as a legislator, and he seemed to want war with Mexico rather than a negotiation. But it was during the Civil War where he really failed to shine.

His job was to go to France and get them to side with the Confederacy, but first he had to get there. The ship he was on ran the blockade from Charleston, SC successfully, but he was bagged by the US Navy on a British mail boat leaving Havana, where he was taken captive. Lincoln eventually released him so as to avoid a confrontation with Britain, as he had his hands full with the Confederacy at the time, and Slidell eventually made it to France, where he met with the foreign minister. His job was to try to get France to support the Confederacy and, failing that, get France control of Confederate cotton if the blockade were broken (a prospect which had almost zero chance of success). He got neither. France wouldn’t move without Britain. Instead, he got a loan from Emile Erlanger and Company, a banking outfit that issued cotton bonds in 1863 to support the Confederacy. Oh, and Erlanger married one of Slidell’s daughters. He also got a ship named Stonewall, an ironclad built in France, but it didn’t get to the US until after the Civil War had ended. The US sold it to Japan in 1869, and that’s mostly what the ship’s Wikipedia page talks about.

What about after the war? How did he shape the postwar south? Short answer. He didn’t, because he never came back. Yeah, he moved to Paris after the war and eventually to the Isle of Wight, where he died. He’s buried in Paris. Far as anyone can tell, Slidell never even walked on the land that bears his name.

The city of Slidell was founded around 1882-3 during the construction of the N.O.N.E. railroad. I’m not making that up. It stands for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. The guy who financed the railroad was Baron Frederick Erlanger, who named the city after his deceased father-in-law. And that’s pretty much the whole story. Oh, when you look up the history of the city, everyone talks about the creosote plant like it was some great thing. I only remember it because it polluted Bayou Bonfouca so badly you couldn’t eat anything you caught fishing in it.

Now I’m not going to pretend I have any deep emotional connections to Slidell. I moved away in 1989 and I think I’ve been back just to see the place no more than 3-4 times in the intervening years. And any thoughts I had of going back one day to live were swiftly killed not long after I joined Facebook long ago and came across most of the people I went to school with. (The biggest lie Facebook ever sold was that you wanted to get back in touch with people you went to high school with I swear to god.) I mean, Steve “David Duke without the baggage” Scalise is their US representative. He won his last election with 71% of the vote. This is my way of saying I know that whatever meager chance there would be normally to get the citizens of Slidell to change its name are shot by my arguments here. He’s their kind of guy.

Still, it would be nice, when someone asks me where I’m from, to say “a place outside New Orleans that used to be named for a Confederate loser but is now called Almost Anything Else, Louisiana.”

Writing and Crochet

Last night, my left wrist hurt really badly. Sharp, searing pain through the joint, bad enough that I put down the project I was working on and started searching for connections between crochet and carpal tunnel syndrome and wrist braces. They’ve been hurting more or less for months now. I didn’t want to stop crocheting. This is a big project and the first one I’ve ever built from scratch (well, as from scratch as any piece of crochet can be, given that, like writing, you’re often doing a variation on a theme that you saw or learned from before) but I could barely hold the fabric and yarn, so I put it down for the night.

I started crocheting last year while I was rehabbing my left elbow that I’d shattered in a fall. I was also looking for a way to distract myself from social media, from my phone, from everything that was taking me away from life around me. I chose crochet because it was something that I had to focus on solely. Especially at first, I couldn’t count stitches even with music playing, and I certainly couldn’t read a news feed or watch a tv show. It helped some, though I often found I would get just as absorbed in making stitch after stitch as I did in doom-scrolling my Twitter feed. At least I didn’t hate the world when I was interrupted from crochet.

Crochet also meant that I was alone in my head a lot more, which put me on the path to writing again, at least a little. I’m still working on improving that, but I have more drafts in the last year than probably in the three previous. I need that enforced silence. But the poems aren’t right yet, though I may have found something in my wrist pain that will at least give me something to think about.

See, when I got up this morning, I picked up my project again, determined to get at least a couple of rows done before I started searching for wrist braces again. But I held everything gingerly, almost falling out of my hands, letting the hook do the work. I relaxed into it, and I realized after a couple of rows that in all my projects lately, I’ve been trying to muscle through, making the stitches really tight. I was building my stress into the project, and the project was feeding that back into my hands, causing them to cramp. But when I gentled my grip, not only did my wrists not hurt, but the stitches came more easily.

The last six months have been a test of letting go for me, of recognizing that I can’t control the world around me, that people I know and love, maybe even me, are going to get sick and die even if they/we take every precaution. But if I hold it all too tightly, I’ll just cramp up and lose what I love. I have to hold things gently. And I think that’s what I need to do with my poems too. I’m holding them too tightly, and not trusting that they’ll stay in my hands if I loosen my grip on them. I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but for the first time in a long time, I at least have a sense of how I’m going to approach it.

Coming up next

A friend posted this on social media. I don’t know who the original maker of the image is or I would credit/thank them for it.

This is the one time of year I regularly miss south Louisiana, but maybe not for the reasons people who’ve never lived there would understand. Mardi Gras has this somewhat deserved reputation for being a day dedicated to hedonism and debauchery, no matter the attempts by many monied interests to make it “family-friendly.” But the thing I remember from growing up down there, even though I didn’t “celebrate” it for most of my life (as I was a Jehovah’s Witness until I was in my mid-twenties), was the way the holiday helped me come down from that frenzy of the end of the previous year. I’m sure that sounds weird if all you know of Mardi Gras is the spectacle of the day itself or even of the weekend running up to it, because it looks like nothing but frenzy.

But really, Mardi Gras is a slow build. For example, this year, Mardi Gras day is going to hit on February 25, but the first parades are on January 6. There’s kind of a pause until February when the season gets going—not even south Louisiana folks can keep it up nonstop from Halloween until Lent—but even if you count from the time that the Krewe of Chewbacchus rolls on February 1, that’s 3 1/2 weeks of celebration, first mostly on the weekends, but then ramping up until there are parades every night for the last week. And the whole time, the music is everywhere. Professor Longhair, The Meters, Irma Thomas, Galactic, Dr. John, Fats Domino, The Rebirth Brass Band, Rockin’ Dopsie, The Nevilles, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Al Johnson, The Hawkettes—most years I start listening to it in early-December as counter programming to the Christmas music everywhere.

I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect that the slow-burn aspect of the holiday is one reason why it hasn’t expanded much beyond the deep south. (The weather is another, obviously—here in Iowa, where I’ve lived for 8 1/2 years, I do my best to not be outdoors more than necessary in January or February.) When I’ve seen places try to bring in a Mardi Gras, they only do Fat Tuesday, bring in some beads, beer, and some under-seasoned food. (I’ve had boiled crawfish here that would get you stabbed in Ponchatoula.) But the problem is that by the time Fat Tuesday gets here, we’re maybe a couple of months out from New Years, we’ve sweated through Valentines Day, and there’s nothing ahead but doing your income taxes until the weather hopefully breaks. No one’s ready for another explosion.

Unless you’ve been training for it for weeks. That’s what the season lets you do. Listen to some music, hit an early parade or two, remember that some red beans and rice won’t fix the world but you’ll probably feel better once you’ve had some. You go do your job(s), love your family and friends, remember that your neighbors are people and not just words on a screen waiting to piss you off with their opinions on stuff, maybe catch some beads and drink a beer or two.

And you don’t try to do it all, not even if you’re in your early twenties and still in school. You pace yourself. In a way, the season is a reminder that the year is long and there’s always something else coming up, so enjoy this moment now, and if that means getting a little loose, so be it, and if that means staying home, so be that too. And then give a little something up for Lent, no matter if you’re Catholic or not. Let it be a detox of sorts. Besides, the way the Christmas season keeps expanding, it’ll be time to shop for presents once Lent is over anyway.

Year in Review?

I can’t even remember most of the year, and I don’t really talk too much about personal stuff anywhere online anymore, but I do have two pieces of writing news to share here, both of which meant a lot to me personally. The first is that one of the poems from my collection A Witness in Exile was selected by filmmaker Ged Murray to be part of Season 10 of Motion Poems. Here’s a link for your viewing pleasure.

The best part of this experience for me was seeing how Murray and Erin McGathy (called The Worrier in the credits) interpreted my poem in a way I hadn’t really considered before, with that sense of frenetic terror. I was in a much more contemplative mood when I wrote it, and they took my musing on the vastness of time and the universe and survival and shrunk it down to this day, this moment of near panic. It really drove home for me, even though I’ve known this for a long time, how little control any writer has over how their work is perceived by the audience, and how a poem, as Miller Williams once wrote, comes into existence when the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the reader come together inside an act of language.

The other news was the publication of this poem in Crab Orchard Review’s special food issue.

It’s titled “Praise Song for Peppers,” and it’s from a set of poems I started working on last year where I’m exploring my own relationship with food which started with something I wrote for Vinegar and Char, an anthology put together by Sandra Beasley where I wrote about making my own muffulettas because I can’t get them here in Iowa.

This publication meant a lot because I’ve long admired Crab Orchard Review and its editors Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph, and I was really excited to get the acceptance. But it was only a few days after sending back my final approval of the proofs that Jon died, which was a tremendous loss both to the poetry community and the world.

The biggest non-writing news of the year was me breaking the shit out of my left arm after falling on some ice at work back in February. If you run into me in person, I’ll show you the surgery scar. I got a small sense of what my dad lived with his entire life, and how challenging it is to do every day tasks with one functional arm and hand.

See you next year (?)

Something Something Guns

This morning, I saw a person I follow on Twitter quote-retweet to this tweet from James Woods about being the victim of gun violence with his own story about how he’d been victimized and yet still didn’t own or carry a gun.

I did the same, in two tweets, talking about my own experience of being robbed at gunpoint in my late twenties, and then about being very close by when Dr. John Locke was murdered at the University of Arkansas. I did it at first because I wanted to offer a public rebuttal to what I read into Woods’s tweet about how his being victimized led to his desire to arm himself. It’s not that Woods said you’re wrong if you don’t do as I did–that’s the impression I got, but upon reflection, that’s more due to Woods’s public persona. What he said is that you can’t really understand if it hasn’t happened to you, and I think there is some truth to that.

What’s not universal, though, is the way people react to those moments. Woods’s response was to arm himself, presumably because he felt like if he were ever in that position again, he would be able to fight back. And if you look at the replies to his tweet, you’ll find a lot of people agreeing with him. That’s not really a surprise, given the place guns hold in this society.

That’s not how I reacted, obviously. I’ve never been comfortable around guns. I’m not scared of them–I’m just hyper-aware of the damage they’re capable of, and so I’m very cautious around them. They’re a tool which, if used in the manner they’re designed for, ends a life, whether we’re talking about a human or an animal. All the other claims about their use, whether for self-defense or home protection or hunting, stem from that central power to end life. Any honest gun advocate will tell you that a gun is useless for self-defense if you’re unwilling to use it to kill your attacker if need be. That’s the responsibility you take up when you own a gun: you are in possession of a tool designed to end a life. And that’s not a responsibility I’ve ever been comfortable taking on.

Not even when I was robbed at gunpoint. I didn’t spring up from that hot street where my face had been pressed into the concrete by a gun barrel at the base of my skull and start figuring out how I was going to get hold of a pistol to make sure that never happened again. I waited until I was fairly sure they were gone, walked the several blocks back to where I was living, called the police and made a fairly useless report, and had a friend take me to get a beer because I was afraid if I didn’t leave the house right then I might never leave it again. What I wasn’t conscious of at the time, but what I came to realize later, was that I never wanted to make another human being feel the way I felt laying face down on that street, afraid they’d never see the people they loved again. Not even if I was angry with them. Not even if they’d hurt me first.

And I want to make something clear here. I’m not saying my response was more right or more moral than the reactions anyone else has had to an incident like this. It’s just mine. I can understand what motivated Woods and the people in his feed who agreed with him to arm themselves, and while I might think they’re overestimating their abilities to fight back if they were in actual danger, or while I might think they’re doing some questionable math when comparing the relative protection a gun could provide versus the damage it could do, what I’m not doing is saying they’re wrong for feeling the way they do. We all react differently to trauma. I think it’s important we remember that.

War Memorials

The student union at Iowa State University is, as at many state universities, also a war memorial. It’s in the name: Memorial Union. The main entrance is what is known as Gold Star Hall, and carved into the stone walls are the names of Iowa State students who were killed in the wars and other military actions the US has been involved in since World War 1. This is a picture of the wall above the doors to the Gold Star Hall.

It reads “A memorial to the six thousand Iowa State College men and women who offered their lives during the world war in the cause of human liberty and free government.”

I’ve walked through here a number of times before on my way to somewhere else–the university bookstore, the food court–but yesterday I saw this part of the memorial, really saw it, for the first time.

These are the names of the ISU students who were killed during the Global War on Terrorism, which started over 17 years ago now. It says something that there are only two names on the list even though the war has been going on long enough for US children born at its start to be entering their senior years of high school, perhaps even going through early enlistment for military service at their next birthday. One thing is reiterates is that, in the US, we only honor our own soldiers in this way. We’ve refused to even number those killed at our hands in this “war,” much less memorialize them

But there’s something else important about this part of the memorial. It’s not permanent. It’s a piece of wood fastened to the wall, and the statement at the bottom, in case you can’t read it in the picture, reads “To be cut in stone after conflict ends.”

When George W Bush gave his war that name, the Global War on Terrorism, I remember thinking (and I was not alone) that this meant perpetual war, because you can’t win a war on a tactic, but you can certainly keep one going against anyone you want to demonize. This image really drove that feeling home for me, because we’re now into our third president since this war started, and I feel pretty confident that this one won’t be ending it, and neither will the one after that, regardless of which political party he or she claims. Because we are the United States. This is who we have been for a very long time, and the people in power have little to no desire to change that. I imagine that, at some point, more names will be carved into that wood slab, but I don’t have to imagine that people in other countries who our government has decided are terrorists or terrorist-ish or just in the way will die, and most of us, even those who do the actual killing. will never know their names

Confronting Racism

I ended my class a little early and hurried back to Des Moines today because I had to join my partner and her colleagues and students at Drake University in a show of solidarity against racism. I say “had to” because I considered it a moral obligation. I wish it weren’t necessary. But some anonymous student or students have decided again (because this is not the first time) to try to terrorize the relative handful of students of color who attend Drake. Just over a year ago, someone carved a swastika into an elevator wall and left a racist message on a student’s whiteboard outside her dorm room door. And this semester it’s escalated. Students have twice now received threatening messages slipped under their doors and a white supremacist “group” out of Idaho robocalled the university’s phone system with racist messages. (Group is in quotes because there’s reason to believe it’s basically one guy trying to build a following.)

When the first note appeared, the administration and student leaders made an immediate show of solidarity with the students of color on the campus. The provost took the unusual step of cancelling all school activities for an hour today so this gathering could take place and so any student who wished to attend could do so without suffering any academic penalty. The turnout was impressive.

So why did I go? A couple of reasons. One is that I used to teach there, and some of my former students are among those threatened by these actions. I also went in support of my partner and her colleagues who are now having to help their students navigate these attacks just a couple of weeks away from final exams.

But I also went because one of the claims of white supremacists is that they are brave truth tellers and that all white people secretly agree with them, they’re just too afraid of the social penalties they incur if they say so out loud. The sad thing is that they’re not completely wrong. You don’t need to look any further than the last two sets of elections to see that there are plenty of white Americans who are perfectly fine with racists holding power.

This tracks with my personal experience. I’m 50 now, and I was raised in the deep south. One of my early memories from when we moved to Louisiana when I was 7 is of a newsletter from the Klan which appeared in our mailbox, and my dad’s anger as he threw it in the garbage. It wasn’t unusual to hear racial slurs in public, not even used in anger, just in casual conversation. And of course the structural racism was everywhere, but it’s only in hindsight that I recognize how toxic my childhood was.

But here’s the thing. While the situation has improved some, it’s only done so on the margins, and recent events both locally and nationally show that any advancement made toward ending or even reducing racism can easily be stripped away unless people stand up, and when I say people I mean specifically white people because it’s on us to end racism in the US.

Racism is about power, and white people still have most of it. Marginally less than they did when I was a kid in the 70’s, but still most of it. And it’s not like we earned it either. It was bestowed upon us by structures built and maintained by our ancestors, structures so old that they are part of the landscape now, more mountain than mall, more sky than skyscraper. But even though these structures may look, at first glance, to be both permanent and indestructible, they are not. Any structure can be pulled down. It takes people with power willing to do it.

Power is relative. I don’t feel powerful most of the time. I’m not famous. I’m not a boss. I don’t have a fancy job. But I can walk into a room of strangers and be seen instead of ignored. I can walk through a department store and never feel security watching me. When I speak, people don’t assume I have an agenda, and if I pretend to be an expert on a subject, no one ever questions my credentials, no matter how dumb my opinions are. That’s power, and I did nothing to earn it. I have it because these structures we all grow up in send the message that I look the part of a person with power and should be treated as such.

So if I want that to change (and I do), I have to use my power both to pull down those structures and to stand against those people who want to maintain and strengthen them. And I want to be clear about something–going to a show of solidarity or a protest in itself doesn’t do much. It has to be part of a much larger effort.

But it’s an important part all the same, because messages matter, symbols matter, public statements matter. When white supremacists say that they are brave truth tellers, it’s my job, and the job of my fellow white people, to tell them that they are liars in the loudest, most public way possible. That’s what Drake University did today, and I was proud to be there.



Shakespeare in Translation

I decided a number of years ago that I wouldn’t pass judgment on poems or collections other than to say that they didn’t work for me for whatever reason. I try to articulate those reasons when I review books or talk about poems, but sometimes the answer is as simple as “I am not the intended audience for this work.” Sometimes what I mean is that the poems aren’t making me work enough. That’s not to say I need poems to be deliberately obscure or hermetic or syntactically disjointed (tho I don’t often mind a bit of that), but I want to engage with the poem, and that means it can’t all be spelled out for me.

So I got this book in the mail a couple of days ago, and man, am I not the audience for it. That’s not unusual–I get a lot of books because I’ve been editing at The Rumpus for almost 10 years now, and I’m basically on every mailing list there is at this point. It’s titled Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold, and it’s a first book by a British writer named James Anthony who, based on the bio in the book, doesn’t have much in the way of formal training in poetry or writing. And I want to give him credit here–he did a lot of work on this project. He “translated” all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets into contemporary English, and kept the iambic pentameter and the three quatrains + closing couplet structure intact. But my problems with this work can be summed up by the description of the book on its back cover.

That third paragraph starts “This collection of masterful reinterpretations brilliantly demystifies and breathes new life into Shakespeare’s most personal work.” And that’s a completely fair description of what this book does. For example, see if you can guess which sonnet this is from the translation:

Don’t let me say two people cannot wed
By false constraint: love really isn’t real
If, when life changes, love becomes misled,
Or when apart, one doesn’t love with zeal.

Those are the opening lines of Sonnet 116. And yep, it demystifies the hell out of that poem. And this is what I mean about not being the audience for this poem. I’m sure there are people out there who have to read Shakespeare’s sonnets and are intimidated by it because of the language or because they think they don’t know how to read poems and this could be an entryway into Shakespeare’s sonnets for them. And fortunately, this book has the Shakespeare on the facing page for comparison, so said reader could possibly compare the two and perhaps recognize where the original has more subtlety and room for interpretation. At least that’s how I hope this book will be read, if someone is going to read it at all. I’d really rather people read Shakespeare and dig the mystery.