My Time among the Cannibals
Johnston, Joshua (author)
Kirby, David, 1944- (professor co-directing dissertation)
Hamby, Barbara, 1952- (professor co-directing dissertation)
Cappuccio, Brenda L. (university representative)
Kimbrell, James, 1967- (committee member)
Florida State University (degree granting institution)
College of Arts and Sciences (degree granting college)
Department of English (degree granting department)
My Time Among the Cannibals is a collection of prose poems that use absurdist techniques to address themes such as community, performance, spectacle, and commerce in late capitalism. Russell Edson, considered by many to be the godfather of American prose poetry, once referred to the prose poem as “a poetry freed from the definition of poetry, and a prose free of the necessities of fiction” (100). He saw this sort of misfit status of the form as its saving grace, a break from the work of the more traditional “self-serious poet with his terrible sense of mission, whose poems are gradually decaying into sermons of righteous anger” (99). “Beware or serious people,” he warned, “for their reality is flat.” This sense of playfulness and irreverence is what first attracted me to the form. I’ve always been drawn to the use of humor in addressing dark subject matter, so the prose poem seems like the most natural vehicle for my sensibilities. It also provides a much-needed check on certain impulses. Given my tendency to respond to events with righteous political anger, the humor typically associated with the form prevents me from hopping atop the soapbox, becoming the “self-serious poet” Edson warns about. As someone with a fairly mundane daily life, the fantastical and surrealist tendencies of the prose poem allow me to transcend the flat reality that Edson decries. I’m also attracted to the casual nature of the form. James Tate and Charles Simic, two other prominent practitioners of the prose poem, have identified it with a sense of humility. I think this humility makes the prose poem an ideal vessel for vernacular English, the language I typically choose to work with. This makes the form accessible to a wide number of readers, and this approachability can be advantageous, increasing the reader’s capacity for surprise. As Tate describes the effect of a prose poem, “You look at it and you say, Why, I thought I was just reading a paragraph or two, but, by golly, methinks I glimpsed a little sliver of eternity.” This is the effect I ultimately hope to achieve in the poems in this manuscript. The manuscript’s first section, My Time Among the Cannibals, presents the type of concise narratives most commonly associated with the prose poem form, from the work of early French pioneers such as Charles Baudelaire and Max Jacob to Americans like Edson and Tate. It’s a style that has come to be closely associated (and arguably even indistinguishable from) flash fiction in recent years, and, indeed, a number of the pieces in this section have been published under the flash fiction label in journals. For what it’s worth, I’m not particularly concerned with these types of labels, but with the way the prose form seems to suit the types of narratives I’m presenting. The section’s title poem is indicative of the style of these narratives, with the speaker describing his experiences in a small town. The bulk of the poem is devoted to rather mundane activities like chatting with locals at the grocery store and performing karaoke with work friends at the local bar, but much like the camera panning down in the opening of David lynch’s Blue Velvet to reveal the worms wriggling beneath the peaceful surface of suburbia, the end of the poem reveals the violent nature of the citizens, cannibals who try to convince the reluctant speaker to accompany them on the occasional raid of a neighboring town. The speaker is conflicted, left attempting to reconcile the kindness they show him and the pleasant nature of his life in the town with these brutal actions. The speakers in the other poems find themselves similarly torn between the mundane and the brutal, with a speaker finding himself casually transformed into a human coat rack by the town sheriff in one poem, and a wealthy schoolboy learning archery on a live human target alongside watercolor and philosophy in another. My hope is that this dichotomy will be reflective of the real experiences of people in a country where you can sit in your living room and enjoy a bowl of chips while you watch footage of a man being murdered by the police followed by a commercial for laundry detergent on a television crafted by sweatshop laborers half a world away. Charles Simic writes that poetry that is too explicitly political leads to “propaganda,” while “a poet who ignores the world is contemptible,” their work consumed by “narcissism” (75). With these poems, I attempt to find some productive middleground between these two extremes, presenting politically charged scenarios but forgoing any explicit prescriptions. Instead, I try to present everyman narrators through whom readers can experience and contemplate these conflicted and ambiguous situations. In his analysis of the work of Franz Kafka, Albert Camus identities the fundamental characters of Absurdist work, work in which the “perpetual oscillations between the natural and extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical, are found . . . and give [the work] its resonance and its meaning” (126). He observes the way that Kafka’s characters embody these contradictions, reacting to the extraordinary in an ordinary manner. In “an odd but obvious paradox,” he writes, “the more extraordinary the character’s adventures are, the more noticeable will be the naturalness of the story: it is in proportion to the divergence we feel between the strangeness of a man’s life and the simplicity with which that man accepts it” (125). The poems here belong to this Absurdist tradition and present speakers who are similarly stoic in the face of the absurd. While this is frequently a source of humor in the work, it is also an attempt to capture the sense of stoic resignation that oftentimes accompanies the working class position they occupy. Their everyman position is further amplified by a relative lack of cultural references that could date the poems. Simic writes of omitting references that are too specific from his work in an attempt to achieve an “anonymous, timeless” quality (16), and I suppose I am trying to do the same thing here, creating an environment that can stand in for any number of smalltowns in America. Of course, much of the inspiration ends up being pulled from the smalltown in Kentucky where I grew up. The second section of the manuscript, The Biography of the Leitchfield Walmart Supercenter, trades the anonymous quality of the first section for explicit references to both that smalltown and the corporate behemoth at the center of its economy. By now the retail chain’s impact on the local economies of towns (particularly small towns) where it chooses to open stores is well-known, a phenomenon often referred to as “the Walmart Effect.” Charles Fishman, the author of The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works -- And How It’s Transforming the American Economy, writes, A megacorporation with sales that consistently rank it as the number-one or number-two publicly traded company in the United States and in the world, Wal-Mart has impacted wage rates, prices, and economies on a local, national, and global scale. It is arguably the world's most important privately controlled economic institution. It not only has no rivals, it actually influences the prices set by its suppliers and has often seemed impervious to challenge, let alone accountability. (6) My own hometown has not been immune. By effectively driving out most other retail options (both in terms of employment and consumption), it has become the sun in the solar system of Grayson County, taking on many peculiar social aspects in the process. In addition to going there for groceries or furniture, people go there to run into old friends or acquaintances. High school kids hang out in the parking plot, a location where the homeless and travelers also sleep in their vehicles. With the poems in this section, I attempt to convey the Walmart Supercenter’s omnipresence by placing it at the center of every piece, exploring the tragicomic potential of the setting in oftentimes surreal ways that continue the narrative style established in the first section. In his book Capitalist Realism, English critic Mark Fisher writes that it’s “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (1), and the speakers in these poems find it similarly impossible to think beyond the world of Walmart. The pieces range from personal in tone (the speaker and his brother debating the best way to go about spreading their grandmother’s ashes in the Walmart Supercenter) to historical (a speaker whose memories of 9/11 are tied to the Walmart Supercenter) and mythological (a reimagining of the tale of Adam and Eve where Eden has been replaced with the Walmart Supercenter). The most obvious antecedent for this is Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendys, a collection of epistolary prose poems in which the speaker uses Wendys customer feedback cards to explore a range of confessional and philosophical tangents, humorously building the fast food chain up as a sort of Godlike presence in the process. This can be seen in a piece titled “August 19, 1996” in which the speaker fantasizes about a “Wendys life-support system” he can be hooked to in his last days, equating Wendys with the life force itself (35). While my poems in this section attempt something similar, my hope is that the more specific, local focus in many of my pieces will set my treatment of Walmart apart from his treatment of Wendys. This focus comes through not only in the references to small town Kentucky culture, but in the speaker’s dialect. The casual, conversational tone of the pieces is reinforced by the unassuming form of the prose poem, and prose’s privileged status as the vehicle for most everyday communication (the type of thing you might see in a Walmart advertisement or product review) is continually exploited, drawing the reader in with a familiar form before subverting their expectations. The manuscript’s third section, The Levita Dispatches, breaks from the comparatively straightforward narrative mode of the preceding sections, presenting prose poems that are considerably more collage-like in construction. In his book Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson regards “channel switching” as the “very epitome of a postmodern attention and perceptual apparatus,” describing artistic works that blend fragments from disparate genres and cultural areas to create an effect like “switching channels on a cable television set” (373). The resulting texts demand active participation from readers, challenging them to “reorganize the . . . fragments . . . according to schemes which probably reveal more about the reading mind than the text itself” (79). The poems in this section function along these lines. While individual sentences and sentence fragments present content that still bears a tonal and imagistic resemblance to the poems in the preceding section, they do not build up to conventional narratives. Instead, they leap between disparate topics in a surrealist manner, relying on the power of suggestion and juxtaposition. The ellipses that separate these fragments serve as a sort of visual stand-in for the noise that might mark the switching of channels or stations. The section takes its name from the Levita Township, a small cult that existed near my hometown while I was growing up. Information about the insular world of the group was scarce, leaking out in mysterious fragments that took on new life in the conversations of those of us on the outside. My hope is that the pieces of these fragmented poems will serve a similar function, intriguing readers enough to fill in the gaps with their own speculations. In his essay “The New Sentence,” Ron Silliman describes a type or prose poetry in which the sentence relates to the paragraph in the same way the line relates to the stanza in more traditional poetry, occupying a function that’s more rhythmic than typical prose. Rather than all of the sentences in a paragraph serving the same theme or subject (the way they would in fiction), the sentences resolve themselves “at the level of the sentence” (394), standing as self-contained units that can then be set into play with one another at the paragraph level. Silliman’s own work in The Alphabet models this, stitiching together everything from sex jokes to political musings to create collage portraits of contemporary American life. The work of fellow L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Lyn Hejinian finds her using disjointed prose poetry to similar ends. My own poems in this section function in a similar manner, with particular attention being paid to the sentence. Sentences like “. . . conspiratorial chatter in the bleachers of the annual softball game between Team Space Camp and Team Bible Camp . . . ” and “. . . in the made-for-TV movie chronicling my childhood near-death experience and subsequent visitation of Heaven, something endearing in the obviousness of the mother’s wig. . . ” suggest the types of surreal narratives found in the preceding sections when taken on their own, but when placed alongside one another in the same poem they converse in new rhythmic and tonal ways. In addition to the aforementioned L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, the poems are heavily influenced by the montage theory of Soviet director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein. He writes of images as “montage phrases,” describing the way “[t]he simple combination of two or three details of a material kind yields a perfectly finished representation of another kind -- psychological” (32). These poems aim to produce details sharp enough to take on this suggestive power when combined, generating a cumulative psychological effect different than that produced by more traditional narrative poetry. The manuscript’s fourth and final section, Against the Confederate Living, was the result of feedback from my dissertation co-director, Dr. David Kirby. After reading an earlier draft of the manuscript, Kirby suggested I bookend the manuscript with poems that allowed the reader to enter and depart the cannibalistic world suggested by the manuscript’s title. I restructured the opening section with this in mind, cutting a number of poems and moving the collection’s title poem to the front to serve as a clear introduction. The poems pulled from the first section were then used to create the fourth. My hope is that the brief return to the more traditional narratives of the opening section will give the reader a sense of grounding and resolution by the collection’s end. I also think this new distribution of the poems creates a greater sense of balance and more comfortable pacing for the reader, with shorter sections buttressing the longer Levita section. While the poems in the first section utilized a variety of points-of-view, anticipating the frequent shifts in voice that would characterize the third section, the poems in the fourth section are all written in the first-person, lending them a more intimate tone. The title poem opens the section with what I hope is an obvious play on the title of Robert Lowell’s landmark collection For the Union Dead, evoking both the southern landscape that most of these poems take place in and the sense of tension that the speaker feels toward it. The poem serves as a sort of microcosm of the entire collection, combining humor and resignation, working class concerns and art history, irreverence and sincerity. This tonal mixture anticipates the poems that follow. Poems like “Legacy,” in which the speaker recounts a job that requires him to bang his head against various objects, or “Poem,” in which a naive speaker marvels at the beauty of his own simple thoughts, indulge in ridiculous humor while still sincerely touching on themes of frustration and wonder. Poems like “The Other People” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” deal with incredibly dark subject matter (in this case, public executions) while still finding some light and humanity in depictions of the simple pleasures of sharing time with family or having a drink. The dark themes are further balanced by a poem like “Our Anniversary,” an unabashed love poem that still operates within the absurd realm of the other pieces. The collection ends with “Leitchfield by Lamplight,” a poem in which the speaker finds that every business in his small town has been turned into a church. This casual transformation suggests the possibility of the sacred in the mundane, a possibility that poetry, at its best, can reveal, and one that all of these poems are, in their way, working toward. The poem ends with a character pressing their ear against an inanimate object (an ax) as if it is about to speak. I like to think that somewhere in the infinite possibility of the white space following the text’s end, it does. My hope is that, while the general surrealism and dark humor that pervades the content of all four sections will provide the manuscript with a sense of cohesion, the formal shifts between sections will also create an engaging arc, charting the progress of the prose poem form from its most recognizable narrative application to a more experimental application and back. Though the work seeks to avoid becoming didactic, I hope that the third section in particular offers a substantial response to the political tensions introduced in the others through its encouragement of active participation. In The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young writes, “Art’s great obligation is to its own liberty, and by demonstration, the realization of ours” (36), and I would ultimately like for this work to transfer some sense of creative empowerment to readers in this manner.
January 15, 2021.
A Dissertation submitted to the Department of English in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Includes bibliographical references.
David Kirby, Professor Co-Directing Dissertation; Barbara Hamby, Professor Co-Directing Dissertation; Brenda Capuccio, University Representative; James Kimbrell, Committee Member.
Florida State University