Let's be perfectly clear. Carol Wierzbicki's Welcome Distractions: Accessible Poems for Time-Strapped Humans is a terrific book of poems of/for our time. A book, dare I say it, of terrific female-take poems of and for our time, that will last, that should be required reading for all. And fun. And you will gasp: Yes! she nailed it.
Wierzbicki, as can be seen in the opening poem “Champion Cat Breeder,” about the downtown poetry scene, and “Cat Exit,” has an affinity for cats. And no wonder. She views the world, in these poems, with the same semi-detached, amused, unblinking stare, the same avid curiosity, the playfulness, the wide range, ever-ready to pounce unexpectedly on the perfect take, word, rhythm, syllable. Her stance smart, female, and surprising, precise, poignant.
Welcome Distractions is divided into three sections: Political, Residential, Commercial; Relationships; and Words and Music. Here are the titles of the first and last poem in each section: Champion Cat Breeder, Stargazing; Philosophy of Lingerie, Orion's Mother to her Son; Song Request, Epiphany. The titles themselves form a poem. In them, Wierzbicki, somehow, manages to move, and move us, through her personal life, the political and pop life of the nation, the fashion and music life, the poetry life, the everyday moroseness and gritty sadnesses, the sexy fun, the sexy unfun, and yes, the lost love life—mixing up language, rhythm, tropes, shifts in point of view and speech, vivid and vibrant, never sentimental.
To cite a few of my personal faves: “Beyonce at the Superbowl”: I first heard Wierzbicki read this in the basement of Unnameable Books. I thought it perfect then, and still do now. This poem should be published in every magazine, newspaper, anthology, subway poster:
There she is
in her Xena Warrior Princess outfit—
leather but with strategic lace inserts at the thigh—
she's tough, but tender—it's a paradox!
The first lines, like the performer herself, demand our attention. And who knew about Xena? Not me. But Wierzbicki does—the range and depth of her knowledge of pop culture, sports, language, voice is on display from the get-go. The poem then continues to the Jumbotron show Beyonce and dancers put on, followed by: Then, with no 2-minute warning: BLACKOUT!
Just as there was no warning of a blackout, the poem gives us no warning of its sudden shift:
Is anyone in the crowd thinking about that other stadium
…ceiling imploding from Katrina?
Finally the refs take the field once more and everyone cheers,
forgetting the lights went out for America
in more ways than one.
Without warning, pop fantasy meets gut-wrenching reality. To me, this poem is a major metaphor for our time and place.
“Imperfect Love Donut” is one of the most moving love poems ever—and yes, you gasp, the donut place, Dunkin' or other, how many times have we all been there, when there was nowhere else? The mix of a most painful moment of experience, the most post-ecstatic, with this setting we can all recall in our nostrils. This poem should be read hundreds of years from now so that, if humans still exist, someone can say, yes, this is how they felt, this is how they lived:
I'm sitting here at the Twin Donut, my favorite atmosphere-less place for strangling my hopes and ambitions dead. Your ghost is here, in each disinfected corner....
After our confused black and red night, I loved the metallic sky, the clammy wind that slapped our faces like some hurt and betrayed parent, the intersection that seemed to take forever to cross, and finally the fluorescent grail of the Twin Donut.
Look at the mix of pain, the metaphors, the similes, the colors, and the moment you recognize Wierzbicki has displayed what you have felt but maybe couldn't express as perfectly. A great love-lost poem.
Then there's the music. Wierzbicki knows, in detail, about music. And many of these poems are about music in our lives, or are themselves songs. One of the most moving: Song Request, about a visit to Florida by Wierzbicki and her brother:
Play “Kiss” by Prince:
I make this reasonable request at a
slick dance club that's inside a
suburban Florida strip mall.
The juxtaposition of Prince (whose music many of us have on our private soundtrack) with a “slick dance club” and “suburban Florida strip mall” is dizzying. And then the stinging twist in metaphor at the end:
Heartbreak and disappointment
are on tap tonight for this
brother and sister,
two fish out of water.
Two more favorites come to mind: “My Apology to Saks 5th Ave.”:
I don't deserve to be here
I feel out of place
wandering among your white walls
and shiny black shelves
and unforgiving light...
What must I do to become worthy?
… Oh, Saks 5th Ave.,
here I am, playing at being a privileged white woman—
I am a privileged white woman!
My guilt at being here cuts both ways:
I don't earn enough money to shop here,
but I can still browse the sale racks
in comfortable anonymity....
How many times have we, I, had these exact feelings, expressed in this poem? Wierzbicki places them under glass and captures all the facets precisely.
And this marvel of an extended metaphor in “Mammogram”—many of us, including Nora Ephron, have written on this (painful) subject, but Wierzbicki etches it in this short poem that begins:
We're sitting in our blue paper gowns
like wallflowers at a dance....
There is no Homecoming King,
only the angel of death lurking inside
the X-ray machine.
There's “Amoeba Song,” complete with verses and chorus; “The Hearse for Evel Knievel”; “Pope-tastic” (who else could rhyme “Pope” with “nope”?).
And the final “Epiphany” that ends the book:
“Contrary to popular thinking,
stress is not a twentieth-century phenomenon."
Walking home that night, I finally get it:
not much has changed
through the centuries…
Maybe. Maybe not. But Wierzbicki reflects and refracts our late-20th-century/early-21st-century zeitgeist through her unique lens and voice for her readers’ delectation—and, I'd like to think, for the centuries to come.
I asked Carol about her process; here is what she had to say.
EP: I know there's a back story to the poems about John—do you want to let us know more about that?
CW: John Penn and I had a turbulent, on-and-off relationship. I met him at a St. Mark’s Poetry Project workshop. We were together for about a year, '88-'89... broke up but then we reconnected 10 years later, because I'd always liked him and had broken it off mainly because he'd been using drugs. He'd worked through his emotional, psychological and health problems and had gone back to school in the space of time we were apart. He’d gotten his MFA from Brooklyn College, and was teaching English and ESL and running a creative writing class for people at Fountain House, an organization for people with mental disabilities. I was impressed by how he'd put his life back together. "Imperfect Love Donut" was written during the first phase of our relationship, "Chemo" is from the last. We had been back together for about a year and a half when he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS—most likely from several blood transfusions he'd received at St. Vincent's—and then he developed Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma while on the drug cocktail. He died in 1999. The challenge of dealing with his emotional ups-and-downs was difficult for me, but the external threat of the disease actually galvanized us: during that final year, he completed his autobiographical novel Fear of Milk (which I got posthumously published); we put out an anthology of writings on chronic illness; and he ran a small writing group with a couple of his friends out of my tiny studio apartment in Chelsea. Jim Feast's recently published novel Long Day, Counting Tomorrow has a protagonist based on him.
EP: How do you get ideas for poems? How do you work? In other words, what's your “process,” or does that vary, and if it does, how?
CW: Almost always, the poems drop down on me from the sky. I edit them a bit, and then they're done. I know immediately when a thought occurs to me whether it's "poem material" or not. The lines just tumble one after the other. Only a very few of the longer ones ("Demographic" being one example) I've workshopped. This leads into another question you asked, "How did you become a 'poet’?" I've been writing poems since I was in the third grade, when a Catholic grade-school nun read my first rhyming poem aloud to the class. Maybe that's why I have a highly developed intuition about what works. The same cannot be said about my fiction, which I've recently undertaken and is a real struggle. (I’m working on two books for children)
EP: Obviously, you know a great deal about various kinds of music, and some of the poems are really songs—you talk a little about this in the poems, can you tell us more?
CW: I've always been fascinated by music, although I've never had an aptitude for it. I compose music in my head sometimes, but since I don't read or write musical notation, what I set down is limited to lyrics. I grew up listening to my dad's jazz collection, and I've sung in various choirs. Music is my second love after writing, so that's why I devoted a section in the book to it. The other side of this is when I'm playing with the musicality, the cadence of words themselves, the result being nonsense poems like "Cootie Love Doll" and "Life Cafe Shuffle": the words don't mean anything, but I like the sound of them as they crash and bump into each other.
EP: You are a master (mistress?) of pop culture—music, fashion, and how you move within that. Do you want to fill us in, how this began? How it works? In one of the poems (“Tripping”) you talk about how your father said “presentation is everything.”
CW: Well, that phrase comes from the fact that my father was involved with advertising and marketing for Ford Motor Co. He didn't work in advertising directly, but his department worked on campaigns with some of the major advertisers whose names were bandied about in "Mad Men." This was the heyday of advertising—‘60s and early ‘70s—and he was in charge of things that corporations don't even budget for now: lavish dinners for owners of local dealerships, flashy car displays in the lobby of world headquarters, cleverly-designed letterhead and tchotchkes, sample books of the next year's "it" cars with color swatches of leather seating, paint, trim, etc. I was fascinated by that stuff. Also the TV ads—my father and I would analyze and critique those great commercials from that period.
EP: Any “influences” you would cite? Who, what, how?
CW: I love the imagery of John Keats, the passion and toughness of Seamus Heaney, and above all, those great beats Gregory Corso for his sharp wit and Richard Brautigan for his arresting surreal vision.
EP: Do you have a third poem you’d like to talk about; maybe my question would be, why this one?
CW: In "Office Dress Code" I seek to escape from a tyrannical personality in my workplace via carefully orchestrated outfits. I rebel against the repressive workplace regime by taking on different personas in a dramatic sweep of a skirt or a bewildering combination of accessories. With my various "costumes," I can pretend I'm somewhere else.
EP: What do the title and subtitle mean?
CW: The title "Welcome Distractions" works on a couple of levels. It's a jab at our short-attention-span lives, although almost none of the content deals with social media (there is one poem about cell phones). And it's meant to trivialize and poke fun at the whole notion of formal "poetry" as an elevated art form.
The subtitle "Accessible Poems for Time-Strapped Humans" is a deliberate overstatement, a very unsubtle cue that the work won't take long to read or much mental effort to process. My ultimate goal was to create an entertaining, satisfying consumer product, with poems that generate a spark of recognition in the reader.
EP: What years does the work span?
EP: How did you land on the three sections?
CW: When going through my files to make my selections, I noticed most of them fell naturally into pop culture/consumerist commentary; relationships; and poems where I'm playing with language (incorporating ridiculous stereotypes in service of over-the-top language, or experimenting with song lyrics or lyrical rhymes).
EP: Dear Reader: Carol Wierzbicki's Welcome Distractions: Accessible Poems for Time-Strapped Humans is a must! Buy this book! And spread the word…