Nick Sturm's debut chapbook What A Tremendous Time We're Having! (iO Books, 2012) contains nineteen poems that vary in length from twelve to eighteen lines. Each poem is titled “What A Tremendous Time We're Having!” and exudes a particular enthusiasm for both poetry and life. Take, for instance, the collection's opening poem:
In many ways I am not a rabbitor a spool of ribbon & that is importantbecause it is amazing How wrongit would be to say I am going skiingor Do you want to share this cantaloupewhen you mean Let's do somethingincredible It is not about being specificIt is about opening up your genius mouth& decorating what comes out in allsorts of felt & vapor & astonishmentMy friends know this & are always unlockingthe garden where I sit in my naked wreckageI have hidden an amp in the hawthornThere is a jackhammer in the begoniasYou can use it anytime you like
The poem begins with the recognition that merely being or existing as a poet, instead of, for example, “a rabbit / or a spool of ribbon,” is amazing: that what we are, in contrast to what we could have been, is reason enough to exult. As a poet, then, it is one's duty to “do something / incredible,” or say something incredible, by “opening up your genius mouth / & decorating what comes out in all / sort of felt & vapor & astonishment.” Sturm's tremendous poems, then, are attempts at creating something incredible via the felt, vapor, and astonishment of language, which he likens to “an amp in the hawthorn” or “a jackhammer in the begonias”: a strange combination of natural beauty and man-made noise.
Sturm routinely provides readers with insight into his poems through meta-poetic statements. In the eleventh iteration of “What A Tremendous Time We're Having!” he writes: “I stand in front of this one Magritte / & shove dreams into my mouth / until my teeth are a kind of bird.” Using Magritte as a touchstone, the poet acknowledges his Surrealist roots and further highlights them in the dream-induced transformation of teeth into birds. In an effort to fend off what Breton called the “imperative of practical necessity which demands constant attention,” Sturm populates his poems with bizarre images of beauty and violence, such as in the third tremendous iteration:
My spirit animal is a bearwith a confetti cannon strapped to its backThe point is to surprise you & then maul youinto pieces of joy
The surprise of an unexpected party, initiate with the boom of a confetti cannon that litters the air with mutli-colored scraps of paper, coupled with a bear that will maul you in this moment of joy, works as a metaphor for the poems in What A Tremendous Time We're Having!: the language and images are lush, and thus pleasing; but they are also incommensurate with daily life and enact a violence on our perception of reality.
The oscillation between pleasure and violence resonates, although a bit obliquely, on a more general level as well. The uniformity of the titles suggest a conceptual symmetry and poetic coherence. Likewise, the fact that most of these poems contain thirteen to fifteen lines, hovering precariously close to fourteen lines, intimates that these poems could be sonnets. It can be argued, then, that nominal correspondences and engagement with a traditional form produces familiarity within the reader, and thus pleasure. Sure, these are not exactly sonnets, but in the ninth iteration, we find:
My friends dismantle the control roomwhich is an intuitive experiment in courageIt can be difficult to hold everything togetherwithout a stable core but what fun is that
And, in the following iteration:
Let's get off track& unfold into cathedrals It's more aboutcollapse than coalescence Every atoma dance party made of tinier dance parties& the cops knocking at the door of each onelike we don't know what we're doing wrong
The “control room” or “stable core” of the sonnet, its fourteen lines, becomes “an intuitive experiment” for Sturm, wherein gauging the length of his poems is a visceral experience more “fun” than slavish adherence to strict form. Indeed, the poet seeks a “collapse” of the sonnet form instead of a “coalescence” of words into a rigid structure. And if poetry curmudgeons come “knocking at [his] door” to tell him that these are not sonnets, that these “dance party” poems are a bit too loud and too rowdy, Sturm isn't worried. He knows he's “doing [it] wrong,” but “wrong” means interesting. Or, in his own words:
People are always trying to make thingscomplicated & sometimes that is not so beautifullike with supercommittees & etiquette I sayfuck it My skin is a delicate golden zoo &my heart is a ukulele making out with a thereminIt is only beginning to sound right & this isthe purpose of experiments
If the “supercommittees & etiquette” enforcers of poetry say these are not sonnets, then Sturm says “fuck it”; he'd rather experiment with form and his own, personal poetics until his poems start “to sound right” on their own terms, while having a tremendous time in the process.