Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Co-editor Barrett Warner reviews Jesse Prado's "I've Been on Tumblr"

Photo courtesy of  beaboutitpress.tumblr.com.
A chapbook is a piece of paper folded eight times. Nothing romantic about that. The beauty lies in its simplicity. Sometimes there are staples. Or stitching. The magic is its impermanence. The contents not intended to last forever. At best, a season. Or better, a few weeks, like strawberries. It’s a way of saying, here’s what I’ve been working on lately—I thought you might be interested. Like a dispatch, a smattering of poems or stories from a small journey. Not the haunted house, but only the haphazard stone walk leading to it, or just a window where a brown recluse nestles one corner awaiting a fly.

Recently, the chapbook business has gotten very professional. There are hundreds of chapbook contests, a cadre of “accomplished” authors to judge the small journeys, and even many editing services aimed at helping the poet create that “winning chapbook feeling.” Critics have even begun complaining about chapbooks that don’t have a crescendo of tension—a natural dramatic arc—as if they were full length collections or novels, as if they weren’t friendly dispatches.

Jesse Prado’s I’ve Been on Tumblr is one of those throwbacks that remind us how nice it is to spend some time with grandparents. This is an old school chapbook. It wasn’t a contest winner. The poems haven’t been vetted in workshops. None have previously appeared in print or online. The chapbook consists of 26 short poems lifted from Prado’s journal—what he’s been working on lately. I should mention that no commas or periods were harmed in the making of these poems. Prado wrote these with very slim punctuation, perhaps the odd apostrophe. There aren’t any titles either, or page numbers. His only acknowledgement is the press, and publisher Alexandra Naughton only acknowledges the designer Jason Schenheit.

Delightfully missing from Prado’s poems, and this chapbook as a whole, is a sense of ownership. Those Old Testament prophets who spoke the word of God, they didn’t “own” God. Likewise, one clearly has the impression that Prado’s poems are not his objects. The meandering Larry Levis showed that poems have their own lives and fortunately visit us from time to time. In the same way, Prado’s poems have made a visit into Prado’s world of coffee and bank tellers and relationships and television shows and cell phones and internet and infinity and wind and walking around. He isn’t so concerned in this collection with seeking out dramatic tension, which while enlivening a poem, more often only objectifies it. In fact if Prado sees a little tension approaching he’d just as soon cross to the other side of the street. He writes: “I’m just going to give everything away / and walk around.” And, “I hope someone steals my wallet so I / can cancel everything.” And,

I want to say you have a lot
but you probably want more 
I made a dry cappuccino for someone
w/out arms 
Descriptions are fiction too
Nobody knows what anything is like

Prado is making choices here about tension. Compression produces diamonds from coal, but Prado decompresses tension into its most subtle state and still produces something that glimmers, a faint background radiation sailing away from us at the speed of light. If images are suspect, and the lyric nonexistent, and the narrative lacks drama, Prado shows how one can still have poetry through shadings of mood and the changing tempo of how information is released. Prado is having a conversation with us, not a lecture: “My favorite part of limitless is at the / end when limitless is all like, you didn’t / think I already thought of that.”

The most ironic thing about I've Been on Tumblr is that for an old school chapbook its author is very new school, with many alt-lit leanings, and he’s pretty savvy with blogging. Still, in a cruising car filled with shrieking poets capturing the moment on video he’s probably the one quietly sitting in the back, harnessed by a prudent safety belt and reading Donald Barthelme. Which isn’t so surprising when you think of Experimental Minimalism, the New Severity, and Zeroism—exciting prose styles of bygone days. I always wondered that those schools of fiction had never really crossed over to poetry. In Prado, those old styles have opened a creaky door.

Maybe it’s that Prado is such a bookworm. When I saw him in Baltimore—he was making an East Coast Tour with his chapbook—he was more interested telling me about the books he’d brought to read on the way—Barthelme, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy—then about his poems or which side of Mount Olympus he scaled on the whole matter of Grecian forms in poetics. He writes: “every time I finish a book I want to throw / it as far as I can” as if the end of anything should be a celebration.

Prado’s newer work has been killing it lately in online magazines such as Electric Cereal, Little River Lit Review, and New Wave Vomit. He’s added a few things like punctuation, and has settled on a lyric convention—prose poems grouped in three disassociated stanzas—to restore Sergei Eisenstein’s pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as a way to engage subtle tension without creating a monster of it. So already, the wonderful strawberries in I've Been on Tumblr may have begun to turn. It’s what’s supposed to happen with a chapbook after all, although it pains me to think of losing one of Prado’s poems about poetry for the sake of artistic evolution:
hosting a blog is a lot like being batman
no one cares 
I think a lover’s discourse
is about spacing out 
the saddest point
of any depression
is probably the end 
writing is a lot like
trying to go to sleep 
mind is empty next to the angel
holding her hands to the sky

In other words, no one cares about personal rhetoric. Discourse is not communication. Poems should stop and not end. The angel of poetry only visits and lies next to you when your mind has made a place for her. Don’t forget to reach up to the sky. It’s a good manifesto, and reading it, this grandpa is all smiles, even if Prado asks: “did you know that smiling was created / in hell?” Yes Jesse, I did know that.

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