07 June 2012

What A Tremendous Time We're Having!

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 rabbit
or a spool of ribbon & that is important
because it is amazing How wrong
it would be to say I am going skiing
or Do you want to share this cantaloupe
when you mean Let's do something
incredible It is not about being specific
It is about opening up your genius mouth
& decorating what comes out in all
sorts of felt & vapor & astonishment
My friends know this & are always unlocking
the garden where I sit in my naked wreckage
I have hidden an amp in the hawthorn
There is a jackhammer in the begonias
You 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 bear
with a confetti cannon strapped to its back
The point is to surprise you & then maul you
into 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 room
which is an intuitive experiment in courage
It can be difficult to hold everything together
without a stable core but what fun is that
And, in the following iteration:
                                                     Let's get off track
& unfold into cathedrals It's more about
collapse than coalescence Every atom
a dance party made of tinier dance parties
& the cops knocking at the door of each one
like 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 things
complicated & sometimes that is not so beautiful
like with supercommittees & etiquette I say
fuck it My skin is a delicate golden zoo &
my heart is a ukulele making out with a theremin
It is only beginning to sound right & this is
the 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.

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