Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Some Thoughts on Voice After an Evening of Listening to Jonathan Brown

So the other night I went to see my friend Jonathan Brown perform poetry. It'd been forever since I'd been to a poetry event. I flipped through the emails on my phone and the book of drafts I had in my purse, trying to find something to read at the microphone for the open mic portion of the evening, but, in the end, I told Jim, the emcee, just to take my name off the list. Everything was something I was already sick of --  loss of childhood, stolen cars, fouled-up love affairs. Frankly I wasn't feeling it.

For the last five years, I've been the editor of Mount Pleasant Magazine. I've arguably become a better writer since starting this gig. I've developed my "magazine voice," which admittedly sounds just like me: witty, conversational, truthful, sometimes humorous or snarky. But also in the past five years, I've come home and wondered, when it comes to my poems, memoir-in-progress and general personal writing, why none of it smacks of the heartwrench that I've focused on since, oh, college I guess, or whenever when I first decided that great literature must be sad and should mirror the more somber points of being alive.

Then I watched Jonathan Brown take the stage and read from his new book, Fight Dirty. His book is not sad. This isn't to say that it's happy either -- though I laughed myself out of my chair more than once. The book, like the reading, like the Monday, like the poet, includes a little of everything. 

Here's an embarrassing confession. Jonathan sent the book to me by mail a few weeks ago and asked me if I would review it. And I discouraged myself from the task! I told him I write "cheesy magazine articles" nowadays. I even told him to call up the City Paper. Y'all, I forgot about my own power and my own scope of vision -- then watching him read last night brought it back. 

Why the hell have I been ordering myself to be heartbroken all this time? Why can't I be that laugh-out-loud person even after work, in front of my own computer screen? This past year I've been freaking out about not writing anything personal, but what if it's only because nothing has devastated me? And yet I've trapped myself in that idea? Clearly I've been going about my role as a writer with blinders on -- sad blinders -- and to be honest, I've asked myself before, point blank, how a happy-go-lucky, pet-the-grasshopper kind of gal like me can love darkness so much? I mean, at 12 years old, I wrote poems about eating candy and hanging upside down. So what happened? At 14 years old i made up songs to the tunes of Christmas carols. What happened? 

I guess it doesn't matter what happened. I've got it all figured out. My writing needs to start reflecting me, and I'm not just sad.

As for Jonathan's book, Fight Dirty, let me show you what I mean about it. Take this line for example:

My ex's doppelganger/just surfaced from within a Christmas tree./It's past Easter; she's popping out like a pimple..."

I love this because it's ABOUT emotion - being reminded of a lost love - but it's crafted in a surprising, humorous fashion. I think this is what I like best about the collection; he manages to surprise me. I mean, before I can even start wallowing in sorrow, he turns it around like:

 "I shattered a wine glass/on my kitchen floor,/ then tried to glue it/together again/with peanut butter." 

How can I dwell on the misfortune of broken glass when the notion of using peanut butter as adhesive has been presented?! I give him mad kudos for highlighting not just our emotions, but the absurdity of said emotions. And I can confidently recommend his book to people who don't even LIKE poetry, or thought they didn't. Maybe we've never tried to teach our pet fish "to read by stacking Time magazines against the back of the glass," but we're amused by the idea.

For a long time I couldn't understand why I failed at writing sad, dark literature. I've been reading so much of it! But it is not, and it has never been, my whole voice. Thanks to Jonathan's reading, (as well as the words on the page) I remembered that it's OK if my voice is made up of more than one mood. And for those of us who experience more than one mood regularly, I heartily recommend getting your hands on a copy of Fight Dirty.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan browns an amazing poet. And performer. I recommend buying his music albums too. He's got bars!!