by Cassandra Watterson
PunksWritePoems Press out of Chesterfield, VA, is one of the many print on demand independent presses that challenge the (bigger) small presses for talent and audience. Social media outlets boast active poetry communities that rival the small press and academic scene that has dominated American poetry for decades. While academics might scoff at Tumblr poets who have thousands of readers and sell hundreds of print on demand books, it’s hard to ignore that a social media account on Wattpad might net a young writer hundreds more readers than a publication in a regional small press magazine.
If Stephen Scott Whitaker’s All My Rowdy Friends, $12, from PunksWritePoems Press is any indication of what the independent press is bringing to the table, then small and big presses should take note. Whitaker’s collection tackles addiction and transformation head on, whether personal or second hand. Friends’ realistic and unsettling poems seek to marry the dark and the light, the art of alchemy, and goes for the jugular without flinching.
Friends’ cover features a coiling snake skeleton against an Infinite Jest sky-blue that catches the eye. The snake turns out to be a central motif to the re-imagined Tiresias tales Whitaker conducts throughout Friends’ movements. Here’s how the old myth goes: once a young man saw two snakes mating and he took a stick and knocked them apart. They turned out to be Hera’s favorite pets and she punished him, Tiresias, by turning him into a woman which he remained for seven years. Whitaker takes this ancient gender bending tale and drags it through the gutter, pun intended. Whitaker examines gender dysphoria from a variety of angles using the lens of the old myth. We see a young boy cross dressing in his mother’s clothes, we see a confident woman eager to give into desire, we see a loving parent showing shame at her self-abuse, a drag queen on a bender, etc. Tiresias, Whitaker reminds, becomes so attuned to the Gods because she can see both sides of the human perspective, and even bore two children. Tiresias, the first transgendered person in literature, is brought back to life with punk rock verve.
What’s fantastic about All My Rowdy Friends is how the tension and static between male and female ripples out of the Tiresias stories and is magnified throughout the book. The transformation process, that transition, is the most important part of a story whether the subject is an addict, a transgendered woman, or a pop culture icon. (Batman recast as a sadist in leather is both hilarious, dangerous, and creepy. And also dead on.)
Stylistically Whitaker gives us tight controlled lines, long and short breaths, and wears his influences on his sleeve; the book is footnoted, almost a modernist throwback to encouraging a side conversation with the asides. Occasionally Whitaker employs long breathy lines that recall classical compositions, notes that trill and repeat. “Winter Fever” and “Surrender” are the best examples where Whitaker delivers knotty lyricism. But Whitaker also excels at shorter lines, the clipped brilliance of “Incantation” and “How to Find the Edge of the Atlantic” put sound and breath up front and center.
Whitaker also uses theatrical tropes, not only masks, but even semi stage directions in “Fever Dialogue” a hallucinatory poem that is staged, and choreographed, and that echoes the book’s main themes, addiction, illness, and desires of the flesh (i.e. “Water, the first mother of us all.”)
Like Ocean Vuong (See Watterson’s review in TTR Craft Talk), Whitaker’s poems are not some trumped up moment of clarity about the emotional impact of hanging pictures on a Saturday afternoon, or mowing the lawn and discovering the natural world has crept into your yard. No, like Vuong, Whitaker offers up poems where life is in danger. Both Vuong, and Whitaker create a slippery middle ground where gender, death and life, and survival are recast as poetry with classical bones. Vuong’s poems feature a war torn landscape, while Whitaker gives us the rural south, at war with opiates, alcohol, and poverty.
Whitaker gives us several characters to follow. We have Tiresias, who shows up throughout, and Christy, according to the notes, a composite character. The main character of the “Christy” poems is hanging on by a thread. Her mother’s “disappointed mouth cocked at <her> like a gun.” Later, abandoned, addicted, and writing to her sponsor from jail, she still manages to find peace in the simplest pleasures: fields, pastures, a lone radio. All My Rowdy Friends delivers on the grit, and showcases Whitaker’s softer side. It’s both refreshingly challenging at the same time that it is accessible.
PunksWritePoems, Whitaker, and the pod-casting duo, the Alpine Strangers, collaborated to bring us a set list of many of the poems as interpreted by Alpine Strangers, which are Nate McFadden and Cody Grimm. These stories, told with ambient sounds, or even punked out in a snarling snaking song called “Two Snakes Fucking,” are a fantastic companion piece to the book.
It makes me wonder why don’t more publishers do this? You can listen to them here: https://soundcloud.com/alpine-strangers/sets/all-my-rowdy-friends
Cassandra Watterson lives north of Philadelphia, and makes a living as a freelance writer and a part-time teacher of English literature. She was educated at Towson University and the University of Scranton.
Read Cassandra’s Review of Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, an author with large publishing house Copper Canyon Press, here and now.