Essay

Odd Futurism

The shock poetry of LA’s newest hip-hop spectacle.

by Bethlehem Shoals
Odd Futurism
From the video for Tyler the Creator's “Yonkers”

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA, for short) probably wouldn’t describe themselves as poetry. The hip-hop wing of a Los Angeles–based teenage music/art/skateboarding collective, OFWGKTA raps gleefully about murder, rape, mutilation, necrophilia, and, in its more lucid moments, self-doubt and general disrepair. A recent Jimmy Fallon performance found their leader, Tyler the Creator, and his pal Hodgy Beats decked out in streetwear and ski masks scrawled with Manson family–like arcana, surrounded by garden gnomes and swaying female mental patients smeared with makeup. In the video for “Yonkers,” Tyler’s debut single and mission statement, the group’s ringleader vomits up a cockroach and hangs himself in lurid, gorgeous black-and-white.

All this would seem to make OFWGKTA easy to hate. Instead, they’re practically irresistible—goofy, inventive wunderkinds who make thirtysomethings like me excited about hip-hop in a way we haven’t been in years. They’re high-concept subversives whose ongoing big break has only strengthened their appeal. Fans, male and female alike, scream at their shows as though their gnarled intensity were the indie set’s Bieber Fever (note: Tyler, according to Twitter, is a huge Bieber fan). Which is odd, since it’s not as if their music is upbeat. It’s aggressive and discordant, either pushed to the brink of electropunk squall or empty of everything but a sad piano melody hanging in the air like a gas leak. The house style of rapping is both curt and ornate, dancing with internal rhyme schemes that show the influence of Eminem. Visually, it’s fresh gear first, then just about any shock signifier in the book: upside-down crosses, pentagrams, swastikas, scrawled obscenities, that sort of thing.

Is OFWGKTA offensive? Yes, but they’re also undeniably funny, sad, and, somehow, devoid of moral gravity in a way that’s both silly and nearly surreal. One friend of mine has referred to OFWGKTA’s lyrics as coming from an unformed “girls are gross” perspective, and certainly, in the YouTube videos where 16-year-old Earl Sweatshirt isn’t rapping about cannibalism and screwing corpses, he comports himself like a shy, polite kid just out to goof off with his friends. At the same time, OFWGKTA makes such doggedly creative and self-aware music that it sometimes feels as if they’ve chosen depravity not because they want to, but because they can. If there’s such a thing as meta-vile, then these kids are your pioneers.

Hip-hop has always had its demons, some more real than others. Early gangster rappers, such as N.W.A., stunned parents with their Compton tales of crack, gangs, and guns, but they could claim to be reflecting, not dictating, reality. Around the same time, Houston’s Geto Boys hit on a kind of urban gothic sensibility, a noirish dread that readily gave way to the supernatural (as in MyMindsPlayingTricksonMe”). In the early Nineties, BigLsDevilsSon” and the Gravediggazs6 FeetDeep continued in this vein, undeniably hard and yet pointedly eerie and paranoid. But OFWGKTA isn’t quite that; for what it’s worth, in interviews they bristle at the “horrorcore” label. Nor are OFWGKTA the rightful heirs to Eminem, despite his obvious influence and their tendency to compare themselves to the Detroit icon. Eminem’s mixture of aggression, dark humor, and inner torment is his version of authenticity, a persona that amplifies, and sometimes caricatures, his sense of himself and his place in the world. He is hopelessly confessional, but also defiantly so. The Odd Future bunch never mistake acting nuts for actually being nuts, and what makes their music so easy to excuse, and enjoy, is the sense of living, breathing kids underneath all the ugliness. If not by design, this is at least a convenient way to retain some sense of perspective—for artist and listener alike. Their insanity is infectious, the candor just a little too human, even relatable, to ever be fully mistaken for a twisted unconscious.

At the same time, the sophistication that informs much of OFWGKTA’s output clearly marks them as children of a particular Los Angeles scene. They are, at once, wacky skaters whose antics are solidly in the Big Brother/Jackass tradition, and aesthetic terrorists who know that filth isn’t just fun—it’s also, when employed in the most dispassionate, pastiche-driven way imaginable, its own kind of creative mischief-making. OFWGKTA isn’t looking to shock audiences—they’re out to show off their own desensitization. That explains their seeming indifference to context, or connotation. If you’re second-guessing the level of irony this requires, watch any of the skate videos in which the crew exults over a remarkably ordinary move. This use of language, and visual signs, is both provocatively naive and knowingly subversive. What makes them endlessly fascinating, at once visionary and always somewhat scrambled, is OFWGKTA’s desire to have it both ways.

Generally speaking, hip-hop is not poetry. Not all verse is poetry; not every writer eschewing prose counts as a poet. And as Kelefa Sanneh recently discussed in The New Yorker, hip-hop is always embedded in performance. Without hip-hop’s articulation, its phrasing and inflections, its lyrics are always left wanting. Rhyming all the time? Downright hokey, once you strip away the drum-driven imperative to do so. By way of analogy, a screenplay is not acting, and even the most sprawling Bob Dylan, or impeccable Tin Pan Alley product, is waiting for a voice to, well, give it voice. Insisting that rap lyrics constitute poetry bespeaks either a limited definition of musicality, a view of poetry-as-default, or some combination of the two. Plus, in this case, if you just look at the lyrics for an Odd Future track, it’s unlikely you would ever feel compelled to listen to it. In fact, you would probably be actively repulsed. Compare the Tyler-Earl collaboration “Assmilk,” on paper, with the recording:

[Earl]
Uhh, addicts arise, when I arrive
In this cracked crack fag back slap in disguise
Fat sack of knives in the passenger side, bitch
Reach for the door, get your access denied

[Tyler]
I’m not an asshole I just don’t give a fuck a lot
The only time I do is when a bitch is screamin’ “Tyler, stop!”
The big bad wolf to me you’re just a minor fox
Red ridin’ is gettin’ some of this wolfly otter cock

One is juvenile posturing (at best), while the other is expansive and maybe even profound.

There has been a lot of overheated discussion of OFWGKTA, but if they do represent something truly new in hip-hop, there’s a chance we might have to go outside of rap—outside of music, even—to really find a precedent for OFWGKTA’s marriage of violence and ecstasy. They may not be poetic in the usual, evocative sense of the word, but Odd Future’s broad appeal really makes sense only when you try to see the poetry in what they do.

One of the first things I thought of when I initially paid serious attention to Odd Future was Dennis Cooper’s diabolical Guide. Cooper, while technically a novelist, weaves together scenes of senseless violence, brain-wrecking drug use, and brutal sex to create something impressionistic and almost certainly lyrical. Here’s a sample [NB: squeamish readers, if they haven’t already, should close their eyes here]:

The dwarf fucked Chris’s ass with the knife. “What are you hiding in here?” he said. The point had just bumped into something.

Chris’s ass: kkyphtsllmb

“Nothing,” Chris said. Or maybe he just thought it. It might not have made it as far as a word.

The dwarf buried one hand inside Chris, felt around, and returned to the world . . . well, a handful of gore to be blunt. But there was something peculiar inside it.

Difficult reading, to be sure, but Cooper has a punk rock elan to his writing, a vitality that pushes along this excess as an end in itself. And yet, over time, a numbness sets in, a cool, easy kind of horror that’s close in spirit to the doped-up gore and lethargy he depicts. For those of you who bothered to read the second chunk of Bolaño’s 2666, it’s a similar concept, just realized as something hypnotic and transfigurative—not merely exhausting.

But Cooper, for all his charred sublimation, hits you hard without ever seeming excited in the same way that OFWGKTA is. And excitement of some sort helps you feel as though you’re not simply being put on by a conceptual joker. Maybe it’s the benefit of performance that lends OFWGKTA their sense of joy, though I have trouble imagining that a book on tape is the missing ingredient in Cooper’s artistic supremacy.

When I listen to Odd Future, the closest parallel I can come up with is Futurism. The early-20th-century Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s high-energy verses about the beauty of warfare are (in nearly tragic ways, today) pumped up for all the wrong reasons, and similarly out to force the modern world on us in ways that turn the new and uncomfortable into something ordinary. If you can’t adjust, Marinetti and OFWGKTA imply, it’s your own problem. Certainly, his role is to do nothing more than hammer away with the best modernity has to offer, love his job, and spit at anyone who ends up with his feelings hurt. Yet Marinetti is, to say the least, problematic, as Walter Benjamin obliquely noted in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and countless others have since. Spectacle, as stimulant and necessary assimilation, puts volume and aesthetic at the forefront—with nothing bringing up the rear. This was the popular and intellectual rationale for fascism, both in one place. So it’s not as though we want a new hip-hop Marinetti in the world.

Maybe, then, the answer is Russian modernist Vladimir Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky has Marinetti’s love of spectacle, but he’s also a hopeless egoist; before he fell under the sway of the Revolution, the energy and irony of the Modern spectacle were meant to be enjoyed, not only by the reader, but by the individual, who, in his poetry, is always to varying degrees present. There’s no blustery detachment in Mayakovsky or in Tyler the Creator. The celebration and assimilation of spectacle plays itself out on a purely personal level in his best-known poem, “Cloud in Trousers.”  For example:

I feel
my ‘I’
is much too small for me.
Stubbornly a body pushes out of me.

Hello!
Who’s speaking?
Mamma?
Mamma!
Your son is gloriously ill!
Mamma!
His heart is on fire.
Tell his sisters, Lyuda and Olya,
he has no nook to hide in.

Each word,
each joke,
which his scorching mouth spews,
jumps like a naked prostitute

from a burning brothel.

This particular mixture of brutality and levity has always appealed to me. When I first started FreeDarko.com, ostensibly a website about professional basketball, I used an alarming number of Al Qaeda and Hamas photos, stills from Takashi Miike films, and gutted animals. I took sports too seriously; death and destruction, perhaps not seriously enough. I probably owe someone an apology, and am not entirely sure what this achieved in terms of integrity. Yet this duality, however puzzling, is more alive than slapping on a Halloween costume and pretending it's your face, or presuming that ripping off every face in sight is a statement in and of itself. There needs to be a beating heart underneath the one freshly yanked out of someone else's chest, Mortal Kombat-style. Otherwise, the language of shock repulses, no matter how complex its ends, or thoughtful the response.  OFWGKTA draw us in because, despite their youth, sub-cultural niche, and deliberate obscurity, their act isn’t insular. There is a universal here, one that goes beyond hip-hop, or language, and touches a nerve that many of us may have never known we had in the first place.

Originally Published: March 16, 2011

COMMENTS (26)

On March 16, 2011 at 2:04pm Gian wrote:
This is the best article on Odd Future thus
far. They are the next big thing. Spin has
a feature article on them, but it takes a
gander at the group on a more cultural
side rather than an insightful poetic side.

On March 16, 2011 at 2:52pm Michael wrote:
Great piece.

On March 16, 2011 at 6:08pm Patrick wrote:
Loved the article. Odd Future seems to be
hip hop's Butthole Surfers, who set the
precedent for colliding energy and
repulsion in underground music in the 80s.
OFWGKTA performances, to me, echo
Michael Azerrad's chronicle of the Surfers'
early career in his book "Our Band Could
Be Your Life."

On March 17, 2011 at 8:50am Euge wrote:
Well done, man. I've been waiting for
someone to find the parallels of
offensiveness in literature. There's
something insidious by a lot of people in
claiming that kids who do the kind of
posturing OF does in "rap music" is
unacceptable, but they would praise a
poem by Cooper for its life and power.

On March 17, 2011 at 12:12pm James wrote:

"Compare the Tyler-Earl collaboration “Assmilk,” on paper, with the recording... One is juvenile posturing (at best), while the other is expansive and maybe even profound." I don't hear it. Maybe because I read the lyrics first? Unfamiliarity with the genre? I don't know much about hip-hop, but I've enjoyed some and think I can appreciate technical proficiency, for example. The delivery doesn't sound much different from your standard gangsta braggadocio; I'm not getting anything that instantly marks it as subversive. I'm not crying foul, here, just genuinely having trouble parsing the whole thing.

On March 17, 2011 at 4:12pm adamcee wrote:

Oh my god....I'm not knocking Odd Future, but Poetry Mag chooses _them_ to highlight the hip-hop/poetry connection? I mean, c'mon...'Liquid Swords' or half the Wu-tang's output for one....or really half the material in that recent Yale hip- hop lyrics guide. Or parts of 'Dr. Octagon' or a whole host of Kool Keith's work. Wholeheartedly I admit my own lack of familiarity with Dennis Cooper and a lot of contemporary verse, but still...the author seems to highlight Odd Futures intangibles, their energy, etc, but doesn't place them in contrast to other artists in the field. What about Bun-B, Project Pat? Too gangsta? Too young? If anything, there's sort of an extramusical performance-art cultural zeitgeist argument being made here, without much aesthetic analysis. I dunno. Maybe I'm just sick of Odd Future hype. Maybe I haven't listened to enough Odd Future. Cue the chorus of grumpy old men.

On March 17, 2011 at 9:47pm Manny Cartola wrote:
This is the type of article Poetry should consider publishing instead of that Adam Kirsch... just not good... just powder-wiggish criticism.

I enjoyed this.

Thanks.

On March 18, 2011 at 1:33pm Chloe S. wrote:
Is talking about the ethics of art so out of fashion that critics fall all over themselves to praise a rap group which, however interesting, outright advocates rape? The critics fawning over these kids, who think they're so innocent and "joyful", and merely playacting, forget that rape is a part of skater culture. Haven't any of these people seen the movie Kids? While it's much more creative to imagine raping someone with a "wolfy otter cock" than a plain old rapist one, it's no less evil. You can't ignore the subject matter without infantalizing both the artist and the listener/reader.

On March 18, 2011 at 6:54pm Ben wrote:

@adamcee: I think the point exactly WASN'T to make the poetry/rap connection in the way you describe - that is to say, not in terms of composition and lyric. Rap suffers on the page in general, being musical in intent and construction, and there's certainly plenty to be said in a broader conversation about the incredible talent of artists like Wu-Tang and Bun B. This article is more about dealing with the images and ideology specific to Odd Future's music, rather than encountering rap more generally through a poetic lens. As far as that goes, I think it's a very strong article. Most attempts at dealing with the more lurid aspects of Odd Future's lyrics have amounted to "ew," "whatever," or "freaky, but I like it." This brings a much stronger perspective to our encounters with the obscene in art as a whole, using a powerful (and admittedly trendy) contemporary example as a hook. @Chloe S.: Rape is not part of skater culture, nor do Odd Future advocate rape (or cannibalism, &c &c), nor for that matter is it anything other than absolute absurdity to cite "Kids" as documentary evidence. Jeez Louise.

On March 18, 2011 at 8:57pm Jay Tillery wrote:
OFWGKTA made me get excited at hip-hop
again like the first time I listened to De La
Soul or anyone from the Native Tongues
collective. I agree with Adamcee, Kool
Keith has been doing this for YEARS under
several monikers. Black Elvis, Dr. Doom,
Dr. Octagon, etc... I can't wait to hear Kool
Keith over a OFWGTA track. Good deal on
the story.

On March 19, 2011 at 11:14am kneidl87@neo.tamu.edu wrote:
"...goofy, inventive wunderkinds who make thirtysomethings like me excited about hip-hop in a way we haven’t been in years."

Clearly, you haven't listened to enough hip-hop from the past decade...

On March 20, 2011 at 7:04pm LegLegArmArmHead wrote:
Recently caught an Odd Future show, and it
became immediately apparent that their
music is not a representation of their inner
hatred, and that they directly channel
whatever hatred they have into their
music. Backstage Tyler ate Ruffles potato
chips, sang along to The Smith Westerns
with a childish smile, and claimed "Toro Y
Moi" to be the best band out today.

On March 20, 2011 at 7:15pm Brandon B. wrote:
I don't understand the hype. Just a bunch
of slightly talented teenagers playing up
the immature shock value as much as they
can and everyone is buying it.

On March 22, 2011 at 2:23am Garbus wrote:
the hype is this: they are black kids who
like indie music and "alternative
subculture" so they become every white
suburban indie kids favorite and most
authentic "rapper"

YOURE ALL TRANSPARENT!

On March 22, 2011 at 1:31pm Peter wrote:

Very well-written article, as is always the case with Mr. Shoals. My thoughts on the topic are very much aligned with Garbus above me, though. No matter how much they scoff at the "horrorcore" label, their music sounds exactly like Gravediggaz or early Wu-Tang. The difference is that Gravediggaz was a group devoted to "digging up the graves of the mentally dead" while Wu-Tang, for the most part, has sought to enlighten listeners with Wisdom (WU = Wisdom of the Universe). I'm a hip hop fiend and a whore for heavy drums but I can't possibly enjoy listening to a group of teenagers glorifying rape. That's just not musically pleasing to me. As for hip hop not being poetry, I direct you to this analysis: http://whogotthecamera.blogspot.com/2011/02/recognizing-i-have-dream-as-modern-hip.html If you don't think hip hop is poetry then you aren't listening to the right hip hop. Dig deeper. Or "climb deep" as Kevlaar 7 recently said in a song. MAINSTREAM hip hop is not poetry. It's also not hip hop at its best, either.

On March 24, 2011 at 10:36am garth wrote:

Count me in, Shoals. I'm a thirty-something who grew up on hip-hop before leaving it for dead. I dabbled a bit when Shabazz Palaces showed up last year, but quickly lost interest again. Then I heard Earl: "Mr. Deerskin Moccasins is on the fuckin' stalk again." That's all it took to get me to look twice. And I haven't stopped looking. Earl's verses have so many nuggets in them that I jut have to sit there and smile. And, I'll admit, I've welled-up a couple of times as well ("Product of popped rubbers and pops that did not love us So when I leave home I keep my heart on the top cupboard"). The truth is, these kids are very, very lovable. Spend five minutes with them on youtube, and you too will be reaching for the adoption papers. I do cringe at the rape and faggot stuff, but cringing can have value. These kids are on some Henry Miller shit: "I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free." In verse, at least.

On March 24, 2011 at 4:28pm Chloe S. wrote:

OK, Kids is admittedly a somewhat absurd film, but it's more evidence than you have, Ben, when you simply say "they don't glorify rape because I say so, even though their lyrics blatantly glorify rape." I *might* be able to buy the idea that this is Alfred Jarry-esque "obscene art" (with no actual cause for concern) if it weren't a fact that date rape is a problem in skater culture--one that's exacerbated by the fact that kids who are as adorable (even adoptable, says garth) as OFWGKTA also, contradictorily, hold extremely misogynistic and violent views. Anyone who's been part of skater culture knows that it's a familiar (and weirdly seductive) personality type. It seems that OFWGKTA are working the same occult charm on you as they claim to have over unsuspecting girls...and they're succeeding. You may wake up in the morning and wonder what happened to you.

On March 24, 2011 at 8:26pm Aaron Apps wrote:
I wrote an extensive response to this.

Check it out here:

http://aaronapps.blogspot.com/2011/03/odd-future-wolf-gang-kill-them-all.html

I second Manny. No more "powder-wiggish criticism."

On March 24, 2011 at 11:01pm Old people wrote:
At what fucking point in time was rape
considered part of skate culture?

On March 25, 2011 at 1:46am Anonymous wrote:

Your comments concerning the group openly glorifying rape need to dig a bit deeper. It makes you cringe. That's precisely the point. It's ironic, VCR for example may be used to critique our ideas of why rape is morally wrong -- our disgust at Tyler, the Creator is at it's highest when he is 'raping' the blow-up doll. Our compassion, anger, and hatred is actually directed at violent sex. It is at this point in the video we have the worst taste in our mouths, yet he's not raping anyone. In this way, Tyler, the Creator, points out (perhaps unintentionally) a major problem with society's view of rape and sexual assault, namely that OUR ANGER IS NOT AT A WOMAN'S LIFE BEING DESTROYED, SUNDERED, IRREVOCABLY HARMED, OUR ANGER IS AT THE PENT UP SEXUAL EMOTIONS OF THE RAPIST.

On March 27, 2011 at 7:29pm DoneGotIt wrote:
It's really hard to nail it down here. In a sense, I think Wolf Gang is using their age to their advantage. I mean, they have every excuse to act immature. Then they take it to a higher level of an immaturity, with a desensitized play on violence and rape, and all that. When I first heard him, I remember the first song I heard was Yonkers, which was more of a just a straight up play-on words and metaphor song rather than rape and violence centered. But anyways, maybe these vivid images are just a medium that makes the audience look twice then delve deeper into the lyrics. At the same time though, whether they're doing something constructive (clever does not necessarily mean positive construction in any sense) or not is really up to the listener. What you see as good i might question. Their youth does show in some parts, when Tyler references to his lost dad. Either way, all I'm going to say in my independently opinionated human nature on OFWGTKA, their good in terms of lyrics, metaphors,all the things that made Wu, CL, Slug and the type what they're known for (to a slightly lesser degree though). But in the end, I think they're over-hyped. What worries me though is the attraction they bring to the human core of what appeals us; violence, slefishness (acquiring the pleasure of sex at all cost for example, rape or seduction), mindless violence, etc. That nerve some of you didn't know we had was just buried under human advancement. Now you want it back out, in a twisted act of mutiny against one self and societal standards. My other opinion is that they're over-hyped (good, but over-hyped) group of rappig kids who rap with this level of out-there-ness for the shit and giggles and attention. But to me, being a big hip-hop head, nothing too new or 'OMG the next big thing (minus the publication from Kanye and such). In the end, I don't think I listen to them much. That's just me though.

On March 29, 2011 at 9:11am Baltimore Poet wrote:

Hip-Hop is just hip-hop, open to everyone. This article, however, likely confuses youthful rebellion and clever commercialism with art. Unless the Poetry Foundation is not about art, but "pop" (art). Good luck to the kids. By the time they are my age, they will be financially independent and I'll still be working. Art is something more than either fame or audience or reach. I guess it just needs to be said (still). I don't listen to much rap anymore, but I am sure Mos Def still rocks it. I did not know old Kool Keith is Dr. Octogon! I am a liberal, but now slightly older, I see this decrepit culture (whether death metal or pornography or Law & Order Special Victims Unit, the U.S. war machine, or violent-language rap) as a bad influence on our society. "Money moves everything around me, Dollar Bill Ya'll." The mainstream commercial culture is frightening.

On March 31, 2011 at 10:50pm swedish4819 wrote:

@chloe s. "I *might* be able to buy the idea that this is Alfred Jarry-esque "obscene art" (with no actual cause for concern) if it weren't a fact that date rape is a problem in skater culture--one that's exacerbated by the fact that kids who are as adorable (even adoptable, says garth) as OFWGKTA also, contradictorily, hold extremely misogynistic and violent views. Anyone who's been part of skater culture knows that it's a familiar (and weirdly seductive) personality type." please, cite someone, anyone, that agrees with date rape being part of skater culture. as a female who is heavily into the skating scene, i just don't see, or feel it at all. OFWGKTA, i think, do not at all hold the beliefs you're ascribing to them, and you really need to step back, and realize the irony in their lyrics.

On April 7, 2011 at 11:16am Mahbod wrote:
This website explains their lyrics:
http://rapgenius.com/lyrics/Tyler-the-
creator/Yonkers

On May 1, 2011 at 9:27pm Tommy Toe Shoes wrote:
Ah, there's that apt Mortal Kombat reference I was pining
for - right when it came to mind. Bethlehem's probably
mashing controller buttons as you read this.

On December 19, 2011 at 7:22pm Wino Carpenter wrote:
Shoals, I respect and admire your opinion, especially
when it comes to hoops, but to keep insisting (and
you're not alone in this) that rap lyrics cannot or
should not be considered poetry, I think, is a)
incorrectly assuming that poetry should not contain
shocking, subversive, vulgar, violent, or offensive
subject matter, not to mention slang, regional dialects,
and made-up words, especially considering the host of
writers in the literary cannon whose work contains all
of this and more (Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare,
are just a few who come to mind) and b) forgetting that
poetry has always had its roots in song, from the
Ancient Greeks whose bards historically performed their
verses accompanied by lyres and other musical
instruments, not to mention the fact that spoken or
otherwise verbally-performed poetry existed long before
the advent of the written word. Writers like Jerome
Rothenberg through his expansive study of ethnopoetics
and ancient tribal cultures has made great strides in
rescuing poetry from the smug, occidental dilettantes
who have claimed as theirs and theirs alone.

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Biography

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of the basketball writers’ collective FreeDarko.com and co-author of the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. His writing has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, the Nation, The Awl, and McSweeney’s.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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