I’ve never been any good at telling stories. I’m one of those friends who, when asked to recount something that happened, will end up talking about the shade of blue in someone’s shawl, and how it was the kind of inky indigo that one’s tongue turned after sucking on a gobstopper, and do they even make those anymore? Which isn’t to say that a good storyteller avoids digressions. They just know how to make those digressions meaningful or entertaining. A good storyteller possesses a deep understanding of time, a person’s attention, and how language connects the two. That I’ve successfully ignored one or all three of these anytime I put pen to paper is maybe why I’m a poet and not a novelist.
But that was a glib thing to say. Poetry doesn’t work like that, and neither does narrative in poetry. Narrative. That is what I mean to talk about. I suspect that managing one’s time might have something to do with narrative, and with knowing how to direct and compartmentalize one’s attentions. However, I don’t think that someone who adheres to a schedule is necessarily more adept at constructing a good narrative. And then again… but, where was I? Right.
I read and enjoyed Sommer Browning’s Backup Singers (2014, Birds LLC) recently, and it made me think about narrative. Specifically, it made me think about the role narrative plays in humor, and how humor in poetry necessitates formal invention. Narrative is artful sequencing, the creation and arrangement of discrete contexts. A joke is a complete narrative unit. In a comedic performance, the ‘timing’ to which one refers is an apprehension of, and sensitivity to, pitch, tone, and other non-verbal cues. It seems to follow, then, that timing in a poem must manifest itself as innovations on phrasing, syntax, and rhetorical devices. How else can pacing and inflection work in (or with) white space? How else can one set up a punchline?
But then again, it isn’t really about the punchline, at least not in Backup Singers. I’d argue that the best comedy is as much about the punchline as the best poetry is about the epiphany. That is to say, these poems do not contrive towards any epiphanic zingers, but instead document life in all its glorious banality and wonder. From “When you were with Emily I was with Matt”:
when you were with Sarah I was with Johnny,
when you were with Kim I was with Robert,
when you were with Liz I was with Matt and Pat and Andy
and, from “When you were a cook I was a waitress”:
when you were a bartender I was an usher
when you were a bartender I was a library technician
when you were a manager I was a waitress
These two poems appear in the book, a page apart. They both narrate a single relationship (as signaled by the lyric convention of an ‘I’ and a ‘you’) using peripheral information. Browning employs the construction of “When you were _____, I was_____” to track the career and relationship paths of her subjects. I don’t mean to be reductive when I say it made me think of that Simpsons maxim: it’s funny ‘cause it’s true. These poems resonate because their truth is intimate and familiar. Their narrative structure enacts the constancy and mutability of romantic relationships, and gestures towards what those singular connections—those which render all others relative—mean or has meant in our own lives. Browning shares with Richard Pryor an approach to humor that treats the ‘joke’ as beside the larger point of revealing some truth about human vulnerability. Her poems are made poignant by syntactic swerves and deflections of what is emotionally fraught. The density of details, and the obsessive quality of their documentation; the flattening effect of repetition, and the absurdities these permutations accrete to—all these work together like negative space drawing to set the human subject in weird relief. They are exercises of keen linguistic observation.
Here is a poem, from the section titled “Friend” in Backup Singers:
Alcohol affects the frontal cortex causing those under the influence to lose their inhibitions.
You affects the frontal cortex causing those under the influence to lose their inhibitions.
You affects the frontal cortex causing those under the influence to Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal cortex causing those under the influence to Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal cortex am those under the influence to Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal I am those under the influence to Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal I am those under the influence and Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal I am married under the influence and Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal I am married under the influence and Melissa is inhibitions.
You are the and I am married under the influence and Melissa is inhibitions.
You are the and I am married with the influence and Melissa is inhibitions.
You are the and I am married with the influence and Melissa is dead.
You are the and I am married with a influence and Melissa is dead.
You are engaged and I am married with a influence and Melissa is dead.
You are engaged and I am married with a baby and Melissa is dead.
It is almost a concrete poem, in that it gives (syntactic) shape to compromised judgment. Sentence permutations—which arc from slurred to lucid—construct the narrative. You can read this poem alongside four others from the book at BOMB magazine.
Backup Singers‘ third section, titled “Multifarious Array”, is a long poem in 41 parts that reads, among other things, like a bravura avant-garde performance of a blurb:
For my birthday once, a couple of friends abducted me. They blindfolded and drove me around Fredricksburg, refusing to say where I was going, getting me very stoned, driving until I was nowhere, in no location. I was thoroughly and completely going.
Her poems move like this—in motion before you start reading and continuing on when you stop. But, don’t worry, they won’t make you test positive in a piss test.
Less boast and more artist’s credo, “Multifarious Array” is a good guide for how the rest of the book can be read: with abandon, and as a single poem. Or, perhaps, one can consider the poems in this book like strange and fascinating digressions which make up a larger story about human connections.
I saw Browning read from Backup Singers at the Fun Party Reading series right around the time SXSW (Austin’s annual tech, film, and music festival) was going on. Between poems, as part of a reader’s typical banter, she commented on all the shows, events, and parties happening that evening. Later, she announced a librarian’s conference going on downtown, in which she was participating, and invited everyone in the audience to attend. “It’s gonna be a good one”, she deadpanned, and we laughed because we believed her.