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Vampires & Strippers
Who doesn’t love vampires and strippers? Well, I suppose some people don’t. But I’m sure glad that Geoffrey Gatza, poet and editor/publisher of BlazeVOX [books], does. Gatza is committed to publishing innovative poetry and seeks, according to BlazeVOX’s mission statement, to disseminate it “through print and digital media, both within academic spheres and to society at large.” (Society at large: I think that means people who like vampires and strippers.) The press itself is as innovative as the poetry it publishes. Gatza has made excellent use of print on demand, an easily accessible and inexpensive publishing process, and produced a line of handsomely designed, various-sized books. (Print on demand, by the way, is not to be confused with vanity publishing; it refers to the technology for producing books, and has nothing to do with the editorial apparatus that decides what gets published.) In this way, Gatza has been able to bypass mainstream publishing (much like the underground mimeo poets of yore) and assert his taste on his own terms. Gatza takes risks with the books he publishes. And that brings us back to vampires and strippers.
Those who know me know that I have a fondness (I guess that’s putting it mildly) for popular culture. And for poems about popular culture. Thus, I’m very excited about two new BlazeVOX titles. One, Tony Trigilio’s The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), was published earlier this year. The other, Jeffery Conway’s Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas, is forthcoming in the fall. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that even if I didn’t appear as a “character” in both of these books, I’d still be very excited about them. A cheaply produced, blooper-ridden, gothic-horror soap opera filled with vampires and witches and ghost girls and psychic children? A camp train wreck of a movie about a street-smart drifter who ventures to Las Vegas and climbs the seedy hierarchy from stripper to showgirl? There’s as much poetry in the trash heap of pop culture as there is Wikipedia in that last sentence, I’m telling you.
Tony Trigilio is no stranger to book-length poems. His Historic Diary (which BlazeVOX published in 2011) is a documentary project about Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. White Noise, a cut-up collage of text appropriated from Internet discussion boards—paranoid mad scientist-style—came out from Apostrophe Books last year. The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) is just the first book of a multi-volume poem. (BlazeVOX has agreed, blessedly, to publish them all.) Trigilio plans to watch all 1,225 episodes of Dark Shadows (the soap aired from 1966 to 1971) and compose one sentence per episode. This first volume opens with Episode 210, when vampire Barnabas Collins makes his initial appearance, and covers 182 subsequent episodes. It’s odd to think that this 98-page book is comprised of only 183 sentences—the lines aren’t that short. Trigilio obviously makes the most of each episode’s allotted sentence.
Beginning in 1967, when he was merely one year old, Trigilio watched the show every day with his mother Margaret, who was devoted to soap operas. As a result, he started having nightmares about Barnabas: the vampire peering at him through his bedroom window, smashing the glass with his wolf’s-head cane. Young Trigilio would hunch his shoulders in bed each night, to prevent the vampire from biting his neck. The adult Trigilio remembers it all, which I find amazing; I myself remember very little before the age of five. “My feelings about Barnabas were nurtured and sustained before I came into language,” he tells us in his preface, “and are twined with some of my most primal sensations.” So he definitely has a personal investment in the goings-on at Collinwood, the Maine estate where most of the spooky soapiness takes place.
This venture is a departure for Trigilio, in that his “primal” relationship to the subject matter teases out some very private (and very moving) admissions. The Complete Dark Shadows (of My childhood) is, as the title announces, an autobiographical exploration. When Trigilio discovers that one of the actors, Joel Crothers, died of AIDS in 1985, he recalls
Joe, we called him Joe-Joe, my favorite
uncle, who contracted HIV in Los Angeles
and moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania,
to die in 1991, surrounded mostly by
mean-spirited Italians who could not
bring themselves to utter the word “gay”
—I say “mostly” because I remember
my mother spent every day with him
in the hospital at the end (though she told
anyone outside the family tribe it was cancer)
Trigilio’s father makes his way into the narrative: he tries, unsuccessfully, to teach his son how to play guitar like Johnny Cash, his favorite musician. “I couldn’t be other than his strange son,” acknowledges the poet forty years later, and evokes Frank O’Hara: “father / forgive the roses and me.” Also the death of Trigilio’s beloved cat Shimmy. And of course his mother, the muse of the project, who sits in front of the television watching Dark Shadows, the smoke from her Salem cigarettes rising in double-helixes to the ceiling.
As one would expect, there’s also a lot of fun to be had—this is, after all, a book based on a gothic soap opera. Trigilio revels in the cheesiness—the overacting and flubbed lines, the garish costumes and sets. And the cheap supernatural effects. Open the book anywhere and you’ll find lights flickering, windows blowing open, candles going out, ghosts turning doorknobs. And wonderful lines like “Barnabas, half obscured by gloomy eye shadow, / blinks in the seven-branch candelabra shadows.” When the show switches from black-and-white to color (on August 11, 1967, you’ll be happy to know), Trigilio is entranced by what he calls “Mannix colors.” (If you’re not familiar with Mannix, Google it; that’s what I tell my students.) “What breeze in the Great House,” he wonders, “makes Mrs. Stoddard’s yellow, puff- / collared Mumu billow, even though // all the doors and windows are shut.” I can’t wait for the next installment of this terrific pop epic.
And from vampires we move seamlessly to strippers . . .
Jeffery Conway is no stranger to popular culture. As a poet, he unabashedly embraced it when he was young (despite pressure from “know-betters” to resist it as unfit for poetry) and has remained faithful to it as he’s matured; he believes in it. Unless you live in a cave or ivory tower or some such isolated place, pop culture is an integral part of the human experience, especially in one’s formative years. Conway’s poems take that for granted. And if you don’t like it, well, there’s the door. I consider his “Starstruck,” the serial prose poem at the center of his first book, The Album That Changed My Life (Cold Calm Press, 2006), a pop masterpiece. In it, he recounts, in ironic detail, his brushes, usually as a bartender and cater-waiter, with celebrities such as Sean Penn, Sophia Loren, Madonna, John Kennedy, Jr., Barbra Streisand, and Lauren Bacall. Conway often adopts a droll, disaffected tone; his deadpan wit can be disarmingly funny. At the same time, a no-nonsense clarity and genuine sincerity shine through the attitude. Conway really wants the reader to know him.
Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas was a finalist in a number of book contests before Geoffrey Gatza, in his wisdom, snatched it for BlazeVOX. Showgirls, in case you live in a cave, is a 1995 film directed by Paul Verhoeven. It’s one of those movies, as they say, that’s so bad it’s good. (There are plenty of lurid clips from it on YouTube, if you’re interested.) It’s also one of those movies—like Mommie Dearest, Valley of the Dolls, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—that homosexuals love. I don’t have time to discuss why homosexuals love these movies—just take my word for it, we do. An attractive young drifter named Nomi Malone (overplayed by Elizabeth Berkley) hitchhikes to Las Vegas hoping to make it as a showgirl. (I’m channeling Wikipedia again.) You know the rest: she strips and _ _ _ _s her way to the top. The movie is raunchy, vulgar, high-pitched, pornographic—how many more adjectives can I throw at you. The acting, naturally, is atrocious. One exception: Gina Gershon, who plays Cristal Connors, the showgirl superstar Nomi seeks to supplant. Gershon is the only member of the cast, as Conway points out, who seems to know what movie she’s in.
Conway has a blast with this material—it’s his métier. But it’s the way he has a blast with it that’s so innovative. Like Trigilio, who writes one sentence for each episode of Dark Shadows, Conway writes one sestina for each DVD chapter of Showgirls. He even borrows the titles of the DVD chapters for the titles of his poems: “Switchblade Nomi,” “It’s the Show, Girl!,” “Cristal Magic,” “Lap Dancer’s Delight,” and so on. His sestinas function as DVD commentary—descriptive, informative, insightful, self-revealing, and (as always) disarmingly funny. This is not the first book composed solely of sestinas. I know of two others: The Whole Truth (1986) by James Cummins and Jim and Dave Defeat the Masked Man (2005) by Cummins and David Lehman. But it’s the first time anyone’s written one based on an entire movie. And Conway does something new with the concept. He toys with the form, infusing it with his pop poetics (as well as his love of camp), and all but reinvents the sestina in the process.
I have to be honest: even though I’ve written a couple of sestinas in my time, I do not like the form. It’s torture. Those six annoying end-words that you have to keep repeating in a prescribed pattern—C, F, D, A, whatever. You get halfway through the damn thing and discover you’ve made a mistake—and have to go back and redo it. I always feel like a sadist whenever I assign it in workshops. Many poets have tried their hand at the sestina; thankfully some of them, like Conway, are actually good at it. Conway is better than good. He first learned he had a knack for the form when he was an M.F.A. student at Brooklyn College in the late eighties. “I was drawn to the ease with which a narrative is propelled by the form,” he says in an interview. “I’d go to sleep at night and wake up with end words in my head. I’d write them down, and the ‘story’ of my poem would just materialize, like a connect the dots drawing.” In 1991, Allen Ginsberg, who thought Conway was “a natch with the form,” suggested he try writing a whole book of sestinas. “It was [Ginsberg’s] voice I heard when I started my Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas project in March of 2007—more than fifteen years after his suggestion.”
Showgirls: The Movie in Sestinas is a showcase for Conway’s technical wizardry. The more rules he imposes on himself, the more unfettered he becomes. There are double sestinas and triple sestinas (which I like to call “triple Lutzes”). There’s a variation on the form (which I believe Conway created) where he replaces each of the six end-words with an end-category—body parts, for instance, or characters’ names, which change from stanza to stanza: breasts, vagina, hand, etc.; Nomi, Cristal, Zack, etc. There are floating sestinas, a parody of rap lyrics, a jab at ivory tower gay poets, and even a sendup of Faye Dunaway’s infamous voicemail diatribe (another tidbit that homosexuals love) as a Mad Lib. And always, Conway’s gleeful, unapologetic celebration of trash. Open the book anywhere and you’ll find red lace panties, the clink of champagne flutes, backroom lap dances, bumps of coke, and “lots of bare breasts.” And passages like “meanwhile, the show’s / star, Miss Cristal Connors, walks into the theater like the lesbian/bi goddess / she is, watches Nomi ice her nipples (to get them erect).” It’s not all T&A. There are pearls of wisdom, too, in the trash heap. Instead of getting into a catfight with Cristal at her make-up table, Nomi decides to play it cool. “Sometimes the power role,” the canny showgirl concludes, “belongs to those who say nothing.”
A couple of years ago, I taught the Showgirls sestinas in a Poetry and Film course. I had a copy of the manuscript and Conway’s permission to xerox it. We’d view a scene from the movie, then read and discuss the corresponding sestina. As the film progressed, it began to feel a little weird—watching “lots of bare breasts” in the same room with my students. But they loved it. Much to my relief, we ran out of time just as we got to the lap dance.