If I asked you to make a list of things you find funny—shows and comedians, writers and songs, photographs and everyday situations—what would be on it? Where would you even start?
Let’s start with “Interesting Things,” a little back-and-forth tongue-in-cheek grumble between two pals about, hmm, ‘interesting things.’ After the non-speaker fella brings a load of unspecified such things over, Matt Cook writes,
I had no idea there were so many interesting things, I said.
When something compares favorably to something else, he said,
That makes it an interesting thing, but it’s also interesting
When something compares unfavorably to something else, he said.
And this is how Cook’s book solicits itself as a worthwhile object, a collection of things, interesting and humorous and full of life. He consistently backdrops the normal everyday with the weird everyday or the awkward everyday or the ambiguous everyday or the absurd everyday. He pines for the moment we hold up the book and see that the normal mirrors the ridiculous.
What makes something humorous? What makes something humorous to you? Startling confession. Surprising intersection. Forced realization. An unfaced gal turned scapegoat.
In Jeremy Bauer’s interview with Peter Davis at Front Porch, Davis tells us a little about Tina, the title of his latest book of poems, the name of his not-a-muse-but-okay-a-muse in his ear, the exclamation called the addressed:
“Well, this is the way I imagine it. To me Tina is, essentially, what other people might call the muse. I would never say muse though because I don’t believe in a sort of pseudo-mystical inspirational source. I would say, Tina. Having said that, Tina is not necessarily somebody you want to have on your back. She demands you spend each night in your basement (even when it’s cold) writing and thinking and drinking. And to what end? So you might be frequently, tacitly and overtly, rejected by society, by your friends and family, not to mention literary journals? She makes day to day living difficult because she forces you to constantly compare your own efforts with all of the phenomenal efforts of the past, imagined or real. “(Read the rest of their interview here.)
In this, his third book, and in my opinion his most humorous yet, Davis peers out of the ridiculous in search of some balance on normal land. These poems appear as efforts to blame Tina, to distract Tina, to entertain Tina, little methods of giving in, hoping each poem surfaces some reward, anything, in hopes of turning down the difficulty setting of the day-to-day.
Oh, and you know what, I find the poems in these two collections, more often than no way, very funny–haha funny and ah geesh funny and wow funny. They run the gammit of funny, it seems, by letting a peer’s hair burn a little too long or confronting poor ol’ Tina, by unveiling the complicated in something uncomplicated (like dog watching) or telling us the real scoop on Emily Dickinson.
Setting for “Commitment to Excellence” by Matt Cook: dinner party, speaker telling a story, woman’s hair on fire, only speaker notices, and—
So I continued, and only after the punch line was delivered,
And after the appreciative reaction of the room,
Did I finally let the woman know her hair was on fire.
The woman was not seriously harmed,
And she ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.
David Cross, yeah that David Cross, apparently thinks Matt Cook’s poems are funny too, “[n]ot ‘funny for poetry’ but straight up funny. And thoughtful. And human.” Yeah, David Cross blurbed this book.
Certainly, both of these fella’s books are funny, straight up, but I find it interesting (there’s that word!) how Cross makes that distinction, then rolls further. Straight up funny. Thoughtful. Human.
Does the presentation of these anecdotes and quips and awkward confrontations as poems make them funny in a way that would be much different otherwise? A poem being a special plug-in, like the difference between a baseball bat against a tree and a baseball bat in Ken Griffey Jr.’s hand? I think so. Poetry offers (or maybe rather lacks) the visual and auditory elements that harness other humorous forms (I know, I know there are readings—sourpuss!—but you know what I mean). Poet and words on a page. Here you go—Reader and words on a page. Words swirled in a head from another head trying to paint a picture, to swing the bat in the silence there. It’s delicate and it’s brave and it can fail at any word.
What makes a poem humorous? What makes a poem humorous to you?
It is impossible to ignore the top-notch reading styles of these two funny poet men. So, let’s sample that:
People like to talk about themselves, their experiences. Poet people, sure, but also teacher people and truck driver people and pizza delivery people and old people who don’t have jobs anymore. And it’s often so funny! Wow. Funny stories about their spouses. Funny stories about their youth. Somehow funny stories about tragedy and stress. It’s inevitable, unavoidable, ridiculously human.
First stanza from Cook’s “You’re A Minor Poet Standing Near The Frozen Spinach”:
You stop by the store to pick up your wife’s favorite brand of beer.
Inside, an old woman goes out of her way to start a conversation with you.
You’re wearing an overcoat that reminds her of an overcoat she once knew.
An old woman is allowed to talk to you for as long as she likes.
You cannot tell an old woman to stop talking to you.
You’re a minor poet standing near the frozen spinach.
Like with Davis’s struggles with Tina’s latching on, Cook grapples with his place in the world as “a minor poet” following him wherever he might go. And the funny reality here is the bruteness in the innocent reminder (the old lady yapping here) you can’t escape reality, and like the memory of the old coat, you’ll carry this shit with you a long time.
From Peter’s “Old Problems”
My wife calls on the phone and I answer it. Have you
Received phone calls before, TINA? Do you know what
This is like? Well, then why don’t you keep your
Mouth shut for a change.
Yet, Davis continues and explains to Tina phones and phone calls and the little idioms that go along with it. The explanation a distraction to the story of the call.
My wife calls and she’s lonely so she’s
Calling me to say so. I respond to her with some sort of
Reassuring statement, like, glad you called. This kind
Of banter continues for a few minutes and then it’s
Over with. I’m back to being off the phone and back to
Helping you with all your dumbfuck ideas.
The phone call a distraction to the distraction, this inescapable/inexplicable shadow of being a poet in a non-poetry world (a.k.a the real world), the inescapable/inexplicable necessity of explaining, of dealing with all the talking.
Another thing many people find funny is teens, youthfulness as fuel for ridiculousness, lack of self-awareness as springboard for creative recklessness.
Cook’s “Jesus In My Hair” is the story of a once-imagined sitcom of the same name, one of those goofy high school ideas, over-the-top and somehow poignant (this one involves Desi Arnez Jr. playing a barber who helps Jesus, Jesus who has come back and forgotten his purpose), made up by the speaker and his friend in high school. In the end, the speaker writes the friend, years later, to say they should rewrite the sitcom, only to be bummed with the friend seems “like he was way beyond the whole thing now.”
Which reminds me of Davis’s “My Education,” a poem lamenting on the weird joy of being in high school. Here’s a part of it:
I appreciate the veil, Tina. I like
high school where you know
everyone and have kissed
a higher percentage of your
graduating class. I got even
more play in middle school.
That’s when French kissing
Was like finding a cool place
These silly, “useless” moments in youth, conjuring silly ideas and trying to kiss lots of girls, only to graduate, in several meanings, to the real world, adult life, supposedly more grownup things, like buying beer for your wife or writing poems in the basement. There’s the pogo of being relieved to “make more sense,” but also the bummer of having to. And of course, there’s that never ending reminder that you’ll never be under that umbrella again, and though one has the poem as an escape mechanism, it’s temporary. The comedy in the tragedy.
Cook and Davis compare favorably here, for me, launch together as interesting things, because they refuse to just be funny, they refuse to just be storytellers, they refuse to just bite into the sticky everyday apples.
These poems, in both the collections, made me reengaged with life, paying attention to how the ongoings of life leap out in startling, humorous ways—the advertisement for a strip club declaring “The Only Thing Our Girls Wear Is A Smile” or how a man brushes my shoulder while jogging past in the dark, only to return five minutes later and apologize (still jogging).
This humorous approach to dealing with the difficult strangeness of the everyday becomes an interesting thing because it’s so useful, so addictive. You start putting Tina everywhere, naming your own pseudo-muse. You wonder how Matt Cook would deliver the story, what parts he’d include. And that’s what makes this style so brilliant, so enjoyable, so lasting, so difficult. Both for the writer and the reader, it’s a stickler that one must carry around, but that only a few, like these two fellas, have mastered creating on the page.
The last stanza of “Interesting Things” by Matt Cook:
I wanted to understand more about interesting things.
I wanted to ask him if it were possible to define interesting things.
But I knew well that he distrusted precise definitions.
Special End Reminder: Don’t forget to check out Publishing Genius’s Kickstarter page for their 2014 lineup. It’s gonna be sickkkkkkkkkk.