Pop-Culture & Poetry: David McGimpsey on Confessional Poetry in the Era of The Real Housewives
“I’m not a friend, but friend is a character I play on Facebook”
Nowadays, the person sitting beside you on the bus is more apt to know the marital statuses of the Kardashian sisters than to know who won the Giller Prize. Still, despite the obvious ubiquity of popular culture, there still seems to be some hesitation to explore the value of these beautifully banal and complex aspects of our culture in poetry. Luckily, we have Montreal poet David McGimpsey to help us wade through the pop-culture pool and find some reflection of our humanity within the fist-pumps of the Jersey Shore. David McGimpsey is a lot of things at once: poet, humorist, columnist, author, editor, teacher, musician, and pop-culture aficionado. He has published a book of fiction, Certifiable (2004); a non-fiction study Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime and Popular Culture (2000); and four collections of poetry—Lardcake (1996), Dogboy (1998), Hamburger Valley California (2001), and Sitcom (2007). A collection of essays about McGimpsey’s work, Population Me, came out in 2010 and his forthcoming collection, Li’l Bastard—a collection of 16-line poems dubbed as “chubby sonnets”—will be released in the fall of 2011 with Coach House Books. This week McGimpsey has given us a glimpse into what’s on the pen and TV screen of one of Canada’s most original and diversely hilarious minds.
SM: Your writing is often—notoriously—infused with an overt appreciation for pop culture. Being educated in and working within a traditional university setting, I would imagine that these pop culture sensibilities might have been met with some resistance. I wonder, have you always been drawn to use these symbols of our popular culture in your work? Can you recall a point where you began focusing your writing on these interests?
DM: I suppose it has met resistance. Not as often to my face, but I imagine so. There are people, apparently, who are always worried somebody is trying to “push” a lifestyle upon them. They pride themselves on not knowing who Dolph Lundgren is or not knowing how to operate a can opener so a poem about Dolph Lundgren using a can opener can make them feel bad. To be fair, I imagine things like burgers or episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are alluring as metaphors insofar as their value is derided by the elite. As metaphors they are more minty fresh than, say, albatrosses. But, they are metaphors in the poems—the vehicles through which the tenor of my existence is negotiated. I’ve written about hummingbirds and Brahms as well. I wrote a series of sonnets about Batman when I was in college and that was liberating. I understood Batman more than I understood hummingbirds. But, the poems weren’t about Batman, of course, they were about my persistent inability to be as cool as Batman.
SM: In an interview with Alessandro Porco in Population Me, you compare the structure of a traditional half-hour sitcom with the structure of your poetry—as both are often character driven. As mass pop culture tastes seem to be shifting—from sitcoms to insta-sex-tape/Internet-meme celebrities and unstructured reality TV—how have/will the characters you create change?
DM: I can’t predict how that will change the characters, but I think I’ve been feeling that very shift in the composition of my latest book. The speaker of the poems (not me, per se) is aware of himself as a presence on social media. There is so much projection of the self on the internet it may seem like getting in sex scandal is the only authentic way to get noticed. Novels already became old-fashioned a long time ago; now, movies and TV shows feel retro. Luckily, I write poetry which is no way to get noticed and, so, it allows one to say quite a bit. Anthony Weiner can have his fame. I remain invested in the actual tradition of poetry but tend to want characters which are rooted entirely in the present. So, the poet is aware of convention, how to manipulate line and sound, but the character-speaker is expressing honest love for Shania Twain. Social media is particularly interesting insofar as everybody becomes skilled at creating a character version of themselves. “I’m not a friend, but friend is a character I play on Facebook.” I think the poetic character is often like that refracted version of the self.
SM: What are you watching on TV this year?
DM: That episode of Freaky Eaters where the woman eats everything with tartar sauce is the most disturbing thing I have ever seen. I don’t watch Freaky Eaters anymore. I think Sports Show with Norm Macdonald is the funniest show on TV. I can’t express how much I love that show. I regularly watch Jeopardy, Late Night with David Letterman, Conan, Pardon the Interruption, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Man vs. Food, How I Met Your Mother, Jersey Shore, any of the The Real Housewives series, the Big Bang Theory and Mad Men.
SM: I’m struck by one line used to describe Li’l Bastard: “This is confessional poetry as written by a chronic trickster and a committed liar.” This sort of statement seems to implicitly apply the characteristics of your speakers on you as writer. What do you think about this? Are you, David McGimpsey, a chronic trickster? Is it possible to write confessional poetry without confessing yourself?
DM: Personally, I am not a chronic trickster. A stubborn walker, a determined nap-taker, maybe, but not a chronic trickster. That sounds so ambitious and that would likely take me away from watching Jeopardy! every night. The speaker of Li’l Bastard (not me) is more committed to the prevarications that forestall pain and, later, just create greater pain. I doubt I believe it’s fully possible to confess one’s self just as it’s impossible to not somehow expose yourself regardless of your literary intentions. John Berryman said he reacted to the label “Confessional” with “rage and contempt” and I can understand why. Tennyson’s famous line “For words, like Nature, half reveal. And half conceal the Soul within” seems to still function like a good old-timey clock. If the poems in Li’l Bastard are “confessional” too it is more in how it adapts formal gestures from the American confessional poets (Lowell and Berryman in particular) rather than psychological ones. Otherwise, it questions the very nature of truth-telling: how a statement like “I care about you” can be deceiving but a statement like “You’re not fully clean until you’re Zestfully clean” rings true forever.
SM: You seem to have a lot of things on the go—teaching, writing, performing. What are you working on now that most excites you?
DM: I’m an excitable sort. I just finished co-editing (with Deanna Fong and Jason Camlot) a special hockey issue of Matrix magazine which I’m really proud of. I’m singing and playing guitar a lot (I just wrote a song called “Meat in the Ketchup”) which always makes me feel good. I am looking forward to launching my new book in the fall and, in the meantime, I’m working on some new fiction.
Read David McGimpsey’s poetry in EVENT magazine (Issue 37:3)
-by Sharon Miki