Levi Rubeck talks about Ben Pease’s poetry channeling new digital media, personal history and psyche, and science fiction movies in his latest book of poetry Wichman Cometh.
There’s a lot of talk about what poetry can do. The subtext being that poetry should do more. Hybrid poetry, multi-media adventures in verse, and of course the infinite mining of one’s personal psyche and history, these sorts of things will reverse this curse of marginalization, or so the shifting tides seem to indicate. As a participant and audience member at the release reading of Ben Pease’s Wichman Cometh, I witnessed the best uses of all exterior influences on poetry.
The danger of injecting poetry into other art forms is that, more often than not, the ancillary art form turns dominant, and the verse become subservient. Which isn’t to say that visual elements such as design can’t be a key element of the poetry-as-book experience. Wave Books, Lumberyard Magazine, Ugly Duckling Presse, and others have all elevated the experience of reading poetry without dilution. Films with verse are more common as the tools become widely available and video becomes the dominant source of culture. Even universities acknowledge the death of literature as they slowly transition to teaching the movie versions of books since undergrads just aren’t into reading.
This kind of transition begs of poetry, where goeth thy next? I see no reason why it should change, though. I think Ben agrees, even if he had a video of clips play before his reading as a way of introducing his project. Rather than seeing what we can add poetry to, Ben is more interested in what ways can poetry siphon inspiration from other media as well as personal history.
Wichman Cometh, subtitled as a “blockbuster in verse”, is not about
the clips Ben assembled for his reading: Star Wars, Blade Runner, Terminator, and other action classics that were the tent poles of my youth as well as Ben’s, presumably. Rather, elements from these films and other cultural and historical sources are drawn into his epic poem, detailing the lightly fictionalized life story of a friend and
former roommate of the author.
This is key as Ben really comes from the first generation for which media truly was bigger than Jesus. But elements of old media abound as well: the chorus, the hero’s journey, and poetry which is one of the oldest art forms still in use. He’s harkening back to what poetry does best: telling stories through the medium of voice and by establishing direct connections from brain to brain.
You need not have grown up with Han Solo to get into Wichman Cometh. A weaker writer might have left the reader grasping or left them responsible for all the referential heavy lifting. Ben weaves these media milestones into the life posts of the Wichman, wandering through life on Earth and in space. The language instantly resonates with the fractured narrative through the prisms of his cultural sources. He doesn’t pander to the readers or hold their hands; he respects the intelligence of his audience and lets his tale unfold naturally, if not chronologically. Stanzas shift around, keeping the page active and engaging while multitudes of voices speak towards and for our hero the Wichman. This book is a thrill to read, which is probably what poetry needs to “do” more than anything nowadays.
Yet what we have here is merely a sliver of “selections” as noted within. Such is my only complaint: Wichman Cometh, while appreciated in pieces, still feels incomplete, just as I would not want to watch only scenes 1, 4, 8, 13, 17, and 22 of the many movies Ben’s pulling in here. It’s a protest for the powers that conspire against Ben, though not Monk Books exactly who have allowed Ben’s vision to shine forth in the images and overall look of the book with it’s Blade Runner and Terminator fonts. The bottom line is that Ben is doing with this project exactly what poetry can do best, that no other medium can approach, historically and contemporaneously. This slim selection has only sharpened my appetite for the full-course meal.
Wichman Cometh is available now from Monk Books
Levi Rubeck is a poet from Wyoming working as a teaching artist in New York City.