Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Doomed Fan Letters

Have you ever written a literary fan letter that you really, truly believed deserved an answer? Well, neither have I, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I wrote a whiny, begging letter to Phillip Levine about 10 years ago, after reading an article of his about the state of poetry that struck me as both perceptive and encouraging. Here was a man who would immediately see the merits of my work, I thought, so I sent off a few sample poems with some soothing flattery to help the medicine go down.
Did I hear back from the illustrious Mr. Levine? Sadly but unsurprisingly, no.
So this summer, ten years later, I decided to aim a bit less high. I’d been in Montreal and had picked up a pretty darn good book of poems (entitled "Hello Serotonin") by a semi-hipsterish-looking dude named Jon Paul Fiorentino. Not a major literary celebrity, that’s for sure. I mean, he’s from Winnipeg, though he rails violently against that fact, and claims Montreal as his second home.
I am still willing to say that the poems are pretty good, though I will now add the caveat they’re somewhat marred by an excessive use of theoretical jargon (he sprinkles in the word "performative" a bit too often for my taste). They hooked me by their skewed lyricism; the speaker knows he’s in bad shape, but can’t resist making a poem to celebrate that fact. A poem about singing with a throat full of strep is representative.
He also manages to seem quaintly rebellious without really offending my sense of social decency. He writes in tongue-in-cheek fashion about burning down Westmount, Montreal’s wealthy Anglophone enclave, where I lived for a year before deciding it was too anal retentive for me.
I’ve misplaced the book, so I can’t quote from it. Sorry. J
So for this month’s blog entry, I’m going to post the verse letter I emailed him. Qua poem isn’t not my finest effort, and qua fan letter it’s probably infuriating, but as a blend of the two genres it’s at least faintly readable.

Fan Letter
(For Jon Paul Fiorentino)

I bought your book on a whim,
on a wager with myself:
I offered to stop hating poetry
if I could read three pages without feeling
insulted, prodded or coddled.

I saw that you were as good as me,
maybe. Good enough not
to be threatened by me. And to say so.
Maybe even good enough to help me
get my difficult next book published.
(Forget I just said that,
but let the suggestion operate
on a nagging subliminal level.)

Let’s start our own school
of hypochondriac, narcoleptic poetry,
with honorary correspondence degrees
conferred on unsuspecting students.
Let’s read each other’s work and compare it
to what we thought our own could be.
Let’s be thankful for the silence
that distance enforces.
Let’s keep the secret of our perfect sanity,
insulated and apologetic.
Let’s respect each other’s jargon of innocence.
Let’s compare influences
and gauge their collateral damage.

Two men haunted by Sylvia Plath
are made for each other, in a medical sense,
as if growing alternate, duplicate organs
for sudden and gratuitous swaps.
This is not an emergency yet.
But do answer instantly, just in case.

Now why would anyone fail to respond immediately to this mixture of impertinence, grudging admiration and presumption? I ask you. No doubt I happened upon a dead email address. Though it never bounced back to me.

Feel free to share your experiences with this frustrating genre. See you next month (summer hiatus is over)



Blogger Victor Schnickelfritz said...

Señor Shirker de la Miracle—

I will make a few comments before I make a few comments.

The JPF fan letter piece is a fun little romp, but I think you should bloglink this post to his blogger spot straight up. Jon Paul Fiorentino's blog. These are the days of post-fan letter. This is the era of my blog eats/meets your blog. Ah! the beauty of the Internet. It is like the beauty of a dismantled clock.

As for the poem itself, I will remark on how the language is much more rhetorical. That is, it does not venture into the Stevensian mystical linguistics that often accompanies your shorter emotionally-laden poems where you attempt to dredge the inscrutable.That is, there's no moment in the poem that begs you to ponder its parsing. I like that only if it speaks to my general laziness. As dedicated as I am to those linguistic flourishes, I wonder if the difficulty in coming to emotional clarity with such statements desn't undermine the petic project. I understand that you don't want the reader to arrive at the emotional statement too easily. Unfortunately, it seems that readers who come to the table for this kind of fare are looking for something more immediate. The kind of poem where after it is read aloud the audience is allowed to say "M-m-m-m-m-m" or "Awwwww."

The observations in "Fan Letter" are elliptical and very capable of turning back in on themselves in an exercise of self-scrutiny. I think they're even funny, but what do I know. I laugh at garbage spilling out of the trucks that haul it away.

I'm not sure why he wouldn't respond to "this mixture of impertinence, grudging admiration and presumption." He seems like an obliging bloke to me.

The veiled scorn that underlies the piece is a much more engaging tone (for me) than the sort of mild reverence at the mysteries of life. After all, isn't feeling "insulted, prodded or coddled" a summary of the feelings that poetry is meant to tread upon. I've always found this to be healthier than acknowdgment and assuagement. Alas, though, I admit, the merits of a purely feeling species elude me. [This week the doctors in the emergency room told me I have a defective heart, and I believe it!]

I'd be curious for some elaboration on why you discount this piece as nothing more than a kind of experiment of "a blend of two genres." To me, this kind of thing is precursor to poetic innovation. Perhaps a "singular voice" will arise out of this hellish mix. Certainly the secret of one's "perfect sanity" will be let out of the bag.

I appreciate the snider Brad's coming out, you know, the one that sneers in public at some people's comments. He's funnier, wittier, and perhaps more long-winded.

The swap of organs and the school of hypochondriac poets foisted on the unsuspecting students is magic.

I envision of a series of these fan letters to minor poets. The sense of the individual receiving these letters allows you to be more incisive.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Jane Blue said...

Funny this should come up right now. When I read at the recent poetry marathon, I pulled out a book by Kabir, translated by Robert Bly. It was signed with a lovely persronal statement, "Robert," and in the back I found a letter dated January 1977, also simply signed "Robert", responding to three poems I had sent him after I had sat next to him at a dinner for graduate students honoring him. He said they were his favorite poems from a student and that he would keep them! Alas, I only vaguely remember these poems and don't have copies of them. I doubt that he does, either, 30 years later!

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't see a blog-like space on JPF's site... But I'll look again.

I like your anecdote about Robert Bly, Jane, because I like to think that relations between poets and their admirers (who are almost always other poets) used to be healthier and more cordial. These days poets seem to shun each other (except in Sacramento).

2:04 PM  
Blogger Putah Creek Poetry Blog said...

Back when I was publishing One Dog Press I used to send copies to poets I admired. Robert Bly and Gary Snyder both responded. With Gary I ended up giving talks in his class at UCD about a 'working' poet's life and publications are REALLY like. With Robert, I met him at a James Wright poetry festival, and he said, "Jobe? Are you the guy sending me all that One Dog stuff? Here's some advice, Kid (I was 40) - You've made a decent first step..now RUN LIKE HELL!"

7:53 AM  
Blogger Victor Schnickelfritz said...

For JPF's blog, click on The Theory of the Loser Class graphic. This takes you to a page that has the banner at the top:

Jon Paul Fiorentino Professional Loser

Just below is a link to "JPF's Blog"

the specific URL for this is embedded in a frame so that the actual URL to the blog is not apparent. One still gets the http://www.jonpaulfiorentino.com/

On the blog you will find a link to a hilarious English-learner video (via YouTube) that will show a trio of scantily clad Japanese girls singing about what to say if you are accosted in the US.

"Take Anything You Want"
"Take Anything You Want"

Highly disturbing.

11:33 AM  

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