Daniel Scott Tysdal has released three books of poetry and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto
When derek beaulieu says, “please, no more poetry,” Daniel Scott Tysdal’s Fauxccasional Poems may seem like the last place to turn for a response. Playful, dense, and brilliantly executed in line with a variety of well-established (and difficult!) poetic forms, it’s as easy to read Tysdal’s work as a master craftsman’s homage to poetry as it has always been.
But Tysdal’s poems are not poetry, at least in beaulieu’s sense. On one hand, Tysdal’s writing spans genres as diverse as song lyrics, interview transcripts, binary code, and design notes for a 19th century propaganda poster. More broadly, though, Fauxccasional Poems’ best inclusions operate in a way that has nothing to do with my undergraduate poetry workshop. That is to say, if beaulieu rails against the modern poetry of style, signature, and voice, Tysdal’s reference point is a much more ancient sense of the poetic: that of occasional poetry—less an event in itself than a commemoration or recalling to mind. There is a twist, though. More than literature or language artworks, I want to call Tysdal’s pieces “memory excursions”—but only if you can read “memory excursions” with the same tone you use to talk about 9/11 “Truthers” and Ancient Aliens.
Fauxccasional Poems has a simple premise: the book contains poems written for occasions that never actually happened, or poems attributed to historical figures who never actually wrote them. Much of the pleasure of reading the book comes from the “occasions” themselves—whose cleverness and absurdity are well represented on the book’s hilarious Weekly World News-inspired cover—and the dedication Tysdal invests in playing them out.
For me, though, the book’s most successful pieces are not just well-written poems set against intriguing contexts; they’re the poems which, while still extending from these contexts seamlessly and accurately, draw us into moods with their own separate propulsions. Fauxccasional Poems’ third piece, “Sonnet 155,” accomplishes this exquisitely. Reading through the opening octave, we can come to congratulate ourselves on reconstructing the poem’s fictional scenario: Shakespeare’s plays are known to have been written by a group of the Globe’s players, while one scholar has recently suggested they were in fact penned by one man. Once we’re swept up in the discourse’s alternate universe, however, the volta takes us in an unexpected direction:
Or does she [the scholar] wake us to a truer flaw?
Our grasp of authorship was far too cramped:
a sonnet’s lines by lover’s eyes are drawn,
by royals, stars, and blood the plays are stamped
and sing, “totus mundus agit art;
in each great work we all compose a part.”
What’s striking is that these sentiments are still compelling when contextualized within our own universe’s traditions of literary theory, even though the real-world versions of these ideas are rooted in a very different perception of the authorship of great works. In a sense, the fictional mood or experience of the poem parallels our own “real” mood—but they don’t coincide, since we recognize they appear logically in different worlds. The conclusions feel right, even when we know the path we’ve taken there is entirely wrong.
This effect—a kind of electric coupling of speculative fiction’s imagination with occasional poetry’s experiential force—is not an effect of language, but of that amorphous, transmedia entity we call “cultural memory,” or history. It isn’t surprising, then, that many of Tysdal’s poems work best when something pulls them off the page, or when they become something other than “poems” proper.
Take, for example, “The Oath of Isis,” in which “[your name]” pronounces allegiance not to the extremist Islamic organization, but to the ancient Egyptian goddess. Sure, it’s clever. But get an audience of slightly nervous strangers to read the poem out loud—as Tysdal has orchestrated at launches for the book across the country—and you have something far spookier than a merely witty commentary. Spookier still, when the performance closes with Tysdal saying, “Okay, I’ve got you all on tape reciting a poem for Isis.”
Fauxccasional Poems was released by Icehouse in 2015
This uncanny reality effect is especially successful in some of the short YouTube videos Tysdal produced for The Fauxccasional Poems Video Project throughout September. While many of the clips are downright cheesy, I found myself thoroughly spooked by “Wide Island,” in which the supposed daughter of the Enola Gay’s assistant navigator discusses the crew’s refusal to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, then recites a poem about it. The sequence is filmed documentary style, including somber military music and cuts to black-and-white wartime footage. The video is so stuffed with conventional memorial sentiment (“What I take away from it every day […] is the power we hold in our hands […]. If you want to live a good life, you have to guide those hands with love”) that the straight- faced references to Tysdal’s alternate history seem simply offbeat, almost completely dismissible. It’s the same feeling you get when you realize you’ve had no problem following the logic of your friend’s theory about the Lizard People.
What’s frightening is that Fauxccasional Poems shows us it’s possible to be serious about this feeling. As Tysdal writes in “Inside Job” of that poem’s own conspiracy theory, “this patois that is part science, part / myth, part insane speculation, still disturbs / the infantile hum.” If we accept the opinion of Walter Benjamin (who Tysdal quotes in one of the book’s epigraphs) that history can be undone by the very forces that have been erased from its empirical makeup, this “patois” could represent uncannily true insight.
At stake is the art of lying, an art that many of us—from politicians to pillow-talkers—know is not far from the art of feeling. Whether the basis of the lie is in the end convincing or ridiculously contrived may not be important, as long as it is told faithfully. As we read in “The Kermit Kingdom” (which unfurls from one of Tysdal’s most absurd premises: the establishment of Kermit the Frog as dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), “True Puppets / speak a pure language.” Or again, in the other of Tysdal’s poems to take puppets as its central theme, “I do not follow followers; / I follow following.”
Part of the fantasy of Fauxccasional Poems is that poetry itself could have been, or could be, a bigger part of history than the poetry we know. This wish is most poignant in the series of poems that open the book’s last section, including pieces purportedly written by an anonymous al-Qaeda member, President Obama, and President George W Bush. Bush himself responds to a made-up 2002 collection of Taliban poetry (never mind that an actual collection of Taliban poetry was published in 2012).
Although these poems involve no major reimaginings of the broader course of history, I prefer not to read them as straightforward horn-tooting for the moral power of poetry. Rather, where it isn’t so much a matter of experiencing a different history, it is simply a matter of experiencing history differently. What Tysdal’s work shows us is that “poetry”—recalling especially the poetic formalism, convention, and tradition that Tysdal masters and about which beaulieu complains—is certainly one way to accomplish this, but it is by no means the only way.
Thanks to Adam Abbas and Joshua P’ng for helping with research for this review.