“Douchebag” and other rude, not-seasonally-festive epithets

The one time I tried to smoke a cigarette, my friends mocked me: “Cut that out. You look totally ridiculous.” By common consensus, I couldn’t pull off foul language either. I thought the problem might have been some crisp Englishness lingering in my elocution—my mother’s British and allegedly I started kindergarten with an accent. I pondered further: despite U.S. stereotypes about English prissiness, I knew, they carry off expletives quite well in the British Isles, so that shouldn’t be it. Perhaps my tendency to ponder obscenities in polysyllabic latinate diction was somehow symptomatic of the same issue?

In any case, nobody mocks how I swear anymore, and I live with 12- and 15-year old children, so you’ll know that I am mocked about various shortcomings hourly. I’m told, for instance, that my sense of humor is totally immature, which may be why I still get a thrill when a poet suddenly veers towards crudeness. In slam, of course, the climactic curse is practically inscribed into the requirements of the form. See Taylor Mali’s “I Could Be a Poet” for that bit of critical analysis put into hilarious action. At least, I think the “fucking” in that poem is hilarious, but according to my daughter I’ll laugh at anything—it’s just embarrassing.

Usually profanity concerns sex or excrement, both of which are, of course, intrinsically funny. So-called bad language desecrates, too. While powerful poetry often (always?) engages notions of sacredness, if a poem’s good it’s never simply pious—instead, it knocks some god off a pedestal to set up another. Think about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” or T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” or Deborah Miranda’s “Things My Mother Taught Me”: all of them get to sacredness via irreverence, anger, and resistance to romantic visions. For the Magi it’s liquor and refractory camels plaguing their journey to God. Miranda’s villanelle offers a mantra for holy ordinariness culminating in an unglamorous brand-name ingredient: “Four paths to payday: beans and rice, flour, Crisco.” Swearing isn’t required but it’s one way to shake up the over-serious regard that can kill a poem.

English teachers are supposed to say that swearing demonstrates a lamentably poor vocabulary. Sure, sometimes. It can also convey linguistic range and daring; turn up emotional intensity at a key moment; and it can hurt and demean people, too. I think the beginning of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” is brutally perfect: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” While his “High Windows” also haunts me—scraps of it come back to me in all kinds of dismal situations—the obscenity in the beginning of that poem just drives home everything hateful about the author. I lose that crucial thread of connection to the mind behind the poem. I feel sworn at, violently, because I’m part of a major demographic (women) that filled Larkin with longing and distaste. More generally, I think people should be able to work and study without being sworn or leered at—although they’re just going to have to tolerate some profanity-laced poems on my syllabi, because they’re among the most resonant in recent literary history.

While swearing might win you points in a poetry slam, it can still be a liability in print venues (and in some live readings, too). The famous obscenity trial over “Howl” happened a long time ago but certain kinds of explicitness still generate wild discomfort. I once received a nice-note rejection from a very generous editor saying that the word “crotch” in one of my poems (“Lucky Thirteen”) was a deal-breaker. I meant it to be tricky and distasteful: it’s a poem about depression, for fuck’s sake. (Ha!) Still, experimentally, I revised it out. The poem was promptly accepted by another magazine in the next round of submissions. Some version of this happens to me a lot. Apparently I still can’t pull off the colorful verbiage.

Are they right, the editors and readers who resist the cringe? Risks are worth trying, but sometimes you can’t pull them off, or a phrase that was important for generating a poem doesn’t fit in the final version. I keep looking at a poem I first drafted a couple of years ago, working title “Douchebags,” trying to figure out if it’s the title/ blunt treatment of sexual material earning rejections or whether the poem just isn’t quite successful on other grounds. (Anyone who wants to read it and tell me, backchannel!) I can’t revise out the crudeness this time, though. The poem concerns my first sexual experience; this involved a guy who did me some lasting harm but who was also damaged and sad, and whom I did not treat honorably either. When I broke up with him, his lament was: “You douched me over, you douchebag!” At eighteen, I knew this was very funny, and also that I was being a condescending jerk by finding this very funny. He was hurting badly and that was all the language he had to express his emotion. Although he treated me awfully, at some level I had always possessed the power of just being smarter and knowing, deep in my douchebag heart, that I could and would do better.

And this probably gets back to why I’m attracted to foul-mouthed poems, especially when the profanity is mixed up with lyricism, wit, and erudition. I want to believe these worlds can coexist, if not harmonize—that their native speakers can talk to each other, across hurt and difference. Those languages coexist in me.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may your stuffing and sweet potatoes touch illicitly on the plate while brown rivulets of gravy dribble into the cranberry sauce.

Community, theater, and magic: three performances near Samhain

October 29th: Hurricane Sandy is swiping her long arms of rain and wind over the eastern seaboard of the U.S., feeling around for houses to smash. Ann Fisher-Wirth has to cancel and I can’t reach my co-organizer Mattie, so I study the weather forecasts and follow my gut: the Writers at Studio Eleven reading, featuring a mikeless open mic, is ON. I’m hungry for literary camaraderie.

October 25th: A talented student with whom I’ve been working closely is playing the Elvis role in Bye Bye Birdie. I’m not a fan of musicals unless Joss Wheedon is involved, and a problematic colleague is in the show, and I’ve been disorganized for weeks since a plumbing disaster forced us to move out of the house; all these factors mean that I’m slow buying tickets and they sell out. But lo! A friend, another non-musical-fan, has a spare and wants my company!

October 30th: Many of our brilliant English majors at Washington & Lee end up running their own classrooms, but only a few earn PhDs in English and score those rare university jobs. John Melillo is one; now teaching a graduate seminar on “Critical Theories of Voice” at the University of Arizona, with a few chapters from my book Voicing American Poetry on the syllabus, he asks me to Skype in. I’ve Skyped a little on my daughter’s laptop but that’s it, so I set up my own account, install a webcam, and get nervous. Why do I say keep saying “yes” to scary projects?

Only one of these performances is drama in the usual sense, but they all turn speaking into doing, conjuring an experience of community out of skeptical individuals. I’m no expert on Gaelic harvest festivals, but I vaguely know that this is a magical time of year, when the door to the otherworld hangs ajar. It’s the beginning of winter: move those cows to winter pasture, conduct ceremonies around the bonfire, and don your disguises, for spirits are abroad. It doesn’t matter if you believe—the turnip lantern must be lit.

This is how the rituals proceeded and these are the demons invoked:

On the 30th: I’m a decent orchestrator of the theater of seminar discussion, but converting those skills to the medium of Skype was hard. In conversation you make eye contact and lean your body towards your interlocutor; you glance around the room to check on the level of engagement; you can sense little cues like people shifting, sighing, clearing their throats. I kept making eye contact with the face on my screen—not the camera eye—and trying to peer around the edges of the frame, which surely made me look like a crazy person. We talked about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s innovative poetry radio broadcasts in ’33 and I felt a sudden deep sympathy for Vincent at that long-ago mike: how distracted she must have been by the technology, how much she would have missed the feedback loop of a present, responsive audience. And yet, she fundamentally got it: the medium required not staginess but intimacy, the quieter voice of someone reading to her family in the living room. She did better than I. I really liked John’s students and was glad to try the whole Skype thing but it’s not as well-suited to a conversation in multiple directions, I think, as it is to the serial intimacies of just two people talking across a spatial chasm. John reflected afterward that “in a weird way you and I became a kind of united / split teacher assemblage, as you were the voice, speaking (amazing!) thoughts and I became the eyes, scanning the classroom.” Spooky.

On the 25th: I’ve had many exceptionally gifted Theater/ English students over the years and it’s a thrill to see them up there, transfigured, possessed—Jeanne, for example, who trembled when she had to give a class presentation but ruled the stage with complete authority. Bye Bye Birdie was a good production, I thought from the darkened audience, analyzing its strengths with my usual critical eye:  vocal talent, great choreography. I was also swept up in self-forgetful delight by several performances, including Drew’s rock and roll apotheosis, and that doesn’t always happen during student theater. Then a feeling of disturbance crept in. It’s a dated play very much concerned with sex and power, all about channeling and constraining women’s out-of-control desire. These are tricky themes for a school where there’s been a lot of assault and sex-based discrimination. I did glimpse an interpretive angle on the material at moments, for example when the rock star sexually menaces a fifteen-year-old girl and then positions flip as a flock of young fans descends to attack the rock star. Yes, I imagined the director whispering, there’s a lot of assault in this play, but ultimately the girls, acting together, are on top. Drew’s intelligence about these issues was there in his performance. In another famous scene, though—the Shriner’s Ballet—ugliness came to the fore in an astonishingly misjudged bit of choreography. The excellent student actor playing Rosie dances through an all-male gathering in her sexy red dress, seeking to seduce someone or obtain general male approbation; it’s a repellant number, especially here, where some version of this plays out frequently in a fraternity-dominated party scene. Then Rosie does a handstand, revealing her polkadot underpants, and a much older actor catches her legs and stares into her crotch for an extended interval. That bug-eyed Shriner? My problem colleague, someone who has had sexual harassment claims leveled against him repeatedly. Who thought that was good theater?

On the 29th: A VMI cadet named Denver began the literary ritual and one of my students, Max, ended it with a sort of cento—lyric poem as collage, many voices subsumed into his own very funny bravura English Nerd performance. Libations were poured. The open mic moved fast, charged with anxious excitement about the storm and the upcoming election. I read my very meanest poem and had the pleasure of seeing a few mouths fall open. Then Chris read a spectacularly dark bit of flash fiction and I couldn’t stop giggling: we’re the most messed-up couple ever. Fewer people attended than usual and we missed the Dabney S. Lancaster Community College crowd but hell, thirty is still a huge audience for listening to art on a Monday night in rural Virginia. We were present to each other, round the bonfire, and it burned hot and bright in the darkness.