Making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.
Anything too stupid to be said is sung.
Rockathon Records, publisher and merch-site of Pollard himself, refers to EAT as “Bob Pollard’s literary magazine”, but most literary magazines publish more than one voice. When they include artwork, most literary magazines present more than one artist. Most litmags have an editor—or even two!—deciding what goes in and out, and if editors’ work ever appears in the magazine, it is limited to reviews or commentary. Most are open to submissions from the outside world. Bob Pollard’s? None of the above. Here are two ways to react to EAT:
1. This ain’t no literary magazine! Guy’s just passing off another batch of Budweiser-laden surrealism that he habitually concocts in his Dayton dives. 2. Oh, it’s a litmag all right—Bob’s and only Bob’s. One guy, one vision. Isn’t there something cool about that?
I wouldn’t care so much about the semantics or the self-publishing factor if EAT were much good, but it isn’t. Bless Bob for his efforts, but this thing is 95% boring. What is it? 41 poems that read like Pollard’s songs, but without the music, and 33 collages, which look, with a few beautiful exceptions, like rejected album art.
There is a long and generally lame history of musicians venturing into publishing poetry: Lou Reed, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Jeff Tweedy, Billy Corgan, Jewel, Tupac. While I am a good old classic indie rock boy, the only music-poetry leap I’ve been compelled by is David Berman’s Actual Air. Otherwise? Ranaldo should stick with music. Corgan, Jewel, and Tupac are just laughable flukes as poets. And Lou Reed, one of my absolute heroes, repeatedly hailed as the greatest living rock’n'roll poet, the most literary songwriter, deserves such accolades, but I find it very, very hard to actually read him.
The problem is the page versus the stage. Jeff McDaniel, while discussing performance poetry in an old issue of a (real) literary magazine called Hyper Age, said “While I believe that poems should work on the page, the stage is the place where poetry comes closest to magic.” He’s right: poetry is our oldest form of literature, was originally oral, and, at its best, still sings the best through a live human voice in touch with the physical and intellectual forces of language. So one might think/hope that music-folks would write amazing poetry. Here is “Apparent Ecstasies and Hardcore Scores”:
Got it all on a string
and breathing in
Coming at you
faster and faster
A modern disaster
Marching to the cut-off point
Humble no doubt
It could start
This actually strikes me as an okay poem, but it’s also an example of the kind of writing that needs music, which supports words in a way the page simply cannot. Consider how much emotional, physical, and logical work guitars, bass, and drums do—all the arrangement, the shifts in volume, the spacing, the variation of pace, harmony, dissonance. It all works in a way that we can feel what is central, what is peripheral, what is the core, what is development.
In the October 2005 issue of Poetry, Daisy Fried reviews the new Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems, and takes issue with Paglia’s assessment of Joni Mitchell’s version of “Woodstock”. Fried asserts that Mitchell’s performance has “a layer of complexity the rather paltry lyrics alone don’t convey. Of course poetry and song are related…They’re also quite different. To appreciate Mitchell, I needed a CD…Good song. Still not a good poem” (51). It’s hard to find any meaningful distinction between Pollard’s poems and his songs, other than the latter generally work, and the former generally don’t.
Pollard’s lyrics often sound like (and read like, and probably are) cobbled together fragments, impressionistic images, slivers of wordplay, sing-song surrealism, and I’ve always appreciated, even cherished, his best work for that very quality. But this magazine makes me realize, as I realize when I try to read Reed’s lyrics as poetry, that music is crucial support and compliment for Pollard’s lyrics, because when the words are all alone on the page, they can’t stand. I bet “Apparent Ecstasies and Hardcore Scores” could work pretty well as a 60-second song with Pollard’s odd chord progressions, his sonic nerve, his intonation, his spit—but as a poem on a page, it’s pretty mediocre.
I once overheard Mike Watt giving an interview at a booth at the Black Cat in DC, and he mentioned how the Minutemen were influenced by the tension between some paintings and their titles, the gap the viewer must at least behold and maybe even fill in.
Pollard’s collages create the same gap, their number one technique being surrealist juxtaposition. The magazine’s cover shows the portrait of a decorated military officer on what looks like a ratty green plaster wall, with the officer’s face obscured by a moth—it’s called “A Tolerant Gloss Can Complete”. The title pushes the Magritte-rip-off into interesting territory, but all in all? Eh.
The center spread, on the other hand, works well as both stunning image and creepy narrative. A line of three suited men stand at a control board, while the close-up of a sleeping man faces down at them on a giant roll of film. It’s called “The Discreditors” and does a good job of going beyond the shock of juxtaposition, creating its own autonomous atmosphere, and suggesting a kind of media-political paranoia as these three suited men twiddle knobs during a topless man’s sleep.
I want “Blindness” in my house. Divided into two halves, this most abstract of Pollard’s collages evokes Rothko and Warhol. The bottom half is just a fuscia rectangle with a dark, uneven line at the bottom; the top is the rust-colored close-up of a pair of slightly parted lips—and that’s it. It’s as if Pollard quiets the noisemaking juxtapositions with something less ra-ra and therefore, something we can more easily trust as being attention-worthy.
“Blindness” works in a way that none of the other poems or collages do. It doesn’t try as hard as others with their longer, wackier titles (“Program Seed Telecopter”—yeah, yeah Bob, to quote Lou Barlow, same old say mold), their more wannabe-shocking juxtapositions (cartoon lightning bolts in a woman’s eye, the top of a bald head foregrounding a black and white photo of a house in winter), their excessively mere wordplay (“Smelling Cleveland by the Pond”). After a short while, we know the techniques, we know the poses, and they simply get old like the last several GBV years.
Then again, I don’t know that EAT pretends to be anything more than what it is: a new outlet for Bob’s creative impulses. He has exemplified the DIY ethic for a couple of decades now, and his writing method has always been slaphappy, what with an average of around 20 songs per album after album after album. Part of that ethic seems to be, “I write a dozen songs a day, put them out, and screw it.” I don’t exactly fault that, as the un-self-consciousness sometimes makes for awesome surprise.
(Incidentally, there’s the sincere tongue in the sly cheek of his song-publisher’s name, Needmore Songs, so he’s aware of how obsessively he produces work, which predictably, ranges from the brilliant to the instantly skippable. There is also a funny graphic on the Rockathon site, speaking to Pollard’s prolific carelessness, and his attitude about the production and reception of all this, well, stuff.)
I can also say that strictly in terms of price and product, EAT is a relative steal at 12 bucks for 24 pages of full-color collages and 41 poems. So it beats the hell out of other such books of poetry, art, and litmag ventures in that respect, and I can’t say I’m even interested enough to be disappointed in most of those. I doubt there’s much, if any, money being made, and I reckon that Pollard puts this stuff out simply because he makes it; it’s what he does, and to be fair, it is a unique piece of work, maybe not so much for Pollard, but it is an intriguing convergence of the rock, poetic, and art worlds. I’m glad for its “difference”, but difference doesn’t make it much good.