Andy Verboom is the author of the poem “Jesus H. Christ Does Private Dancing,” which appeared in The Puritan’s latest issue, Fall 2016. Read the poem, “keep your doubt in your pants,” and find out what influenced its composition in the following author note.
“Jesus H. Christ Does Private Dancing” is a new monster stitched together from two much older poems—one a naive rebuttal to Margaret Atwood’s “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” (whose first line I borrowed fresh for this version, with a clear eye toward the inadequacy of “borrowing” vs. “stealing”) and the other a series of ghazals (and so the product of theft of a different order). Both were moderately well received at readings, the former especially because poetry mobs are prurient, but both were acutely dishonest. In vising and revising them together, I felt a few imperatives: to account for the failures of the two source poems (defensiveness, appropriation, naivety), to catalyze the actual mythological initiations of my childhood (Christian, not Greek), and so to expose myself biographically (which seemed only fair, considering).
I’ve been doctoring my older work in this way for the past year or so as I’ve gathered my first collection. You could say that rather than murder my darlings, I put two or three in a pit and say, “Only one may leave.” Reflecting on the process in those terms, I wonder if I’m just replaying that old 4-bit DOS game in which you design mutant monstrosities, send them to fight in a coliseum, and salvage body parts from your defeated foes for incorporation into your increasingly poisonous, radioactive, spike-, claw-, and-fang-laureled champion.
Probably I am, which means that even my attempt to account for earlier failures fails to escape a fundamental dialectic of failure and bricolage characteristic of Modernist poetry. I’ll confess to that, too, but my one shining hope is the possible distinction in aestheticizing one’s own failure in the Modernist mode. “This project must fail because our language isn’t yet ready for it,” whoever “us” is—and a conscientious conceptualism—“My project fails, I fail. I guess I’m not yet ready.” (Who ever benefits from being “ready”? Politicians. Generals. NRA members. Conspiracy-fuelled preppers. Fundamentalist Millennialists. Okay, to be fair, also CDC directors.)
A problem: as they so often are, these ethical airs are post hoc. If I forget myself for a moment, “Jesus H. Christ Does Private Dancing” is a poem narrating a visit to a strip club and a visitation after. Its form is heretically catechistic with regard to being born “this” way—the way one currently falls on the Kinsey scale. (Really? Only a 2? If heterosexuality is socialized, particularly through the tolerance and, indeed, rewarding of some of its most violent expressions, then how could the homosociality underwriting those expressions escape sublimation to the sexual?) On the other hand, the poem’s affect leaks from a certainty regarding the stubbornly conditional, rigidly proscribed states of love. (The “of” in “Helen of Troy” is as much a linguistic artifact, and as much a curse-maker, as the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ.”)
If I were to recapture this fully independent monster and lead it by the nose ring back into my “mad poetry scientist lab,” I’d probably find it less agonistic, and that lab a little less angry. I’m remembering now that I did once pit the two source poems head-to-head through a reading practice I like to call The Illusion of Choice: I read two titles, and the audience votes on which of the two poems they’d prefer to hear. Unsurprisingly, the account of falling in love with a stripper, yo, won by a wide margin. That bothered me. But not really, because I was expecting it. But then that expectation bothered me. Maybe in some world, under some other politics, it would be better to hope that, like a good centrist mediator, I simply locked the two source poems in a conference room and said, “You may only leave as one.”
Andy Verboom edits the Word Hoard, a literature and humanities journal, and organizes Couplets, a collaborative poetry reading series. His poetry has recently appeared in Vallum, Arc Poetry Magazine, Contemporary Verse 2, and BafterC. He is the author of Tower (Anstruther Press, 2016) and co-author (with David Huebert) of Full Mondegreens, winner of the 2016 Frog Hollow Press Chapbook Contest.