1. shoplift a six-pack of love from the plaid pantry of my heart
The 49 short prose pieces in this book will make you laugh and they just might put a hairline crack in your little heart. I can’t remember when a book made me laugh so much. The Plaid Pantry is a chain of convenience stores in the Northwestern United States. McCollum has invented vignettes involving punks, bums, druggies, assorted losers, clowns, Girl Scout cookies and little critters, often told in the first person. Just get this book.
Improvisation is a contemporary novel that fulfills Baudelaire’s promise made over a hundred years ago to bring into the world a single work that could be cut up and the pieces removed to live on their own while the rest would form back together seamlessly. Improvisation is within the tradition of Paris Spleen and yet it still looks surprisingly different. In part that’s because, for all its popularity today, the prose poem as it is practiced doesn’t look much like the model set by Baudelaire. I’ve seen submission guidelines on prose poem journals that would exclude a poem written in Baudelaire’s style. The poems of Paris Spleen can go on for several pages, tell a little story or inscribe a vignette, and have—gasp—paragraph breaks. As is often the case, the original model is more radical than the standard. McCollum has gone by the original model, with modifications. The sections range from a brief paragraph to several pages; each can be read and enjoyed as a discrete entity. Often the uninterrupted flow of prose doesn’t suit McCollum’s purpose, and he utilizes line breaks. The transition from one form to the other is effortless. The overall narrative is not interrupted and yet each stands on its own—a remarkable achievement. Especially fascinating to me is the way Improvisation is a lesson in the sometimes subtle differences between poetry in prose and in lineation. Here are segments from El Encierro and Star Maps, on pp 190 and 191:
Human beings crave completion…. We are not equipped to deal with chaos. We create pictures out of random clusters of stars, and then tell stories about those pictures. We see only what we want to see. We see the face of the Virgin Mary in tortillas and pizza crusts…. We want to think there is order; we want to believe there is some plan. The idea that there might not be one frightens and baffles us. We want to think our lives are part of some vast tapestry and not just loose threads lining the nest of some cosmic magpie…. Our relationships wither when one person gains too much control over the other. Likewise, attempts to control our universe tend to backfire. An improviser on stage faces the same fate when he tries to control rather than cooperate with his fellow actors…. It’s hard for us to admit that our lives are like the Running of the Bulls….
We lose our way so easily in this twisted world….
Shards of broken crockery form a constellation in the gutter.
Blooms of black flies garnish the dumpsters.
The ass end of a piñata farts itself to sleep
in a wheel-less baby carriage.
A moth caught in a mousetrap sheds a last puff of silver dust.
Our lives lie flimsy as fortune cookie papers
as we await the click of claws on concrete,
pick the flecks of paint from our chipped nails,
and do our best to ignore the message
written in lipstick on the windshield
Improvisation attains its formal strengths by building—or rather improvising—on a minimal narrative structure. The narrator, never named, recounts his experiences living with a woman named Lucy in Los Angeles. By the end he leaves her and LA for another city. Lucy is an actress with an improv company, and the novel is interspersed with quotations from Randall Cross, whom we are told is the founding member of the “legendary” improv group, Dwarf Riot, and the author of a book on improvisational comedy, from which the quotations are taken. This reader suspects that Cross, his book and everything about him is a product of Seann McCollum’s imagination. Cross’s book is entitled, Making Up the Truth, and the novel begins with warnings about the inadequacy of language as well as the narrator’s unreliability. The fact that the quotations from Cross’s book, subtitled, A Beginner’s Guide to Improvisational Comedy, read as utterly practical and believable texts from such a book add to the creative joy of reading McCollum’s novel. The art of improvisational comedy, we are told over and over again, is a team effort requiring a secure ego that can surrender itself when needed. The very lack of secure egos in the narrator, Lucy and the secondary characters provide soil for the novel’s humor.
Lucy isn’t funny at all, and the situation the narrator finds himself in—an unloving, somewhat abusive relationship—is sad and somewhat pathetic, and yet somehow McCollum makes us laugh. Sometimes it’s laughter through groans, the kind you get from the great R Crumb. And it just so happens that, apart from his gifts as a writer, Seann is a superb draftsman.
I proudly proclaim here and now that I played a small part in the creation of this book-length poem (ok, maybe just its title, but still). A few years back I had the idea of asking writers to step outside their comfort zones in guest spots on my blog. I asked poets to write criticism and fiction writers to give me poems. Most declined. Knowing he was a reader of Ashbery and, like me, preferred the early to middle work more than the later work, I had asked Seann to write an essay on the topic. He declined, but wrote Self-Portrait in a Concrete Mirror instead. And I couldn’t be happier, but nothing about the book he wrote should work.
The mirror is made of rock, and just as Ashbery used Parmigianino’s self portrait as a quasi-exegetical counterpoint to his poetry making, McCollum used the double album Use Your Illusion by rock group Guns N’ Roses to stage his poetic performance. I know. I know. Ashbery and Guns N’ Roses. That’s like serving a fine herb-encrusted whitefish with Doritos. McCollum explains in the section entitled Yesterdays:
I attempted to write an essay
in which I tritely compared the act of reading
poetry to crossing a stream.
Some poets build bridges for you, which affords a pleasant view
of the current rushing below,
or you can take your chances with those stepping stones,
…. The further apart
the stones are placed, the more thrilling it is to cross.
Of course, if there’s too much space between you’ll topple in.
He goes on to explain that sometimes the stones in Ashbery’s poetry are too far apart, but that it just might be his own failing: he can’t jump that far, and goes on to berate himself for a few lines, both as a reader and as a writer, deciding that, “I’d almost prefer to be bad than mediocre.”
Almost, and not quite. And despite the abuse he heaps on Axl Rose and GNR (“bloated bucket of lard and tripe”), he has to admit some of the songs are damn good, and (if you ask me) he’s right about Ashbery too. Moreover, here’s my hunch: McCollum is playing the unreliable narrator again. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Self-Portrait in a Concrete Mirror for one second, but I think he plays it up, turns his own self-doubt and pity into poetic theater. He transforms his own failure into entertainment. Now there’s a scary notion: poetry as entertainment.
On the book’s cover the title stretches in a black bar across the eyes of a portrait of Axl Rose. What can be seen in a “concrete mirror”? Does the phrase even make sense? I think the cover expresses the I can’t, I won’t, what the hell approach of McCollum’s poem. It’s raw and sloppy and unapologetic, riffing on GNR riffs in the concrete bunker of the poet’s workplace—the camera monitoring room of the Portland Art Museum where, to pass the time, the poet has clicked into the music database and chosen Guns N’ Roses, on a whim or out of boredom. Bono once wrote, “I’m just trying to find a decent melody/ A song that I can sing in my own company.” That’s writing for the purest of reasons.