Given time and relaxed moderation, any internet space will eventually generate trolling. Trolls provoke, whether out of humor, malice, or just boredom. A first reading of Josef Kaplan’s Kill List, a much-discussed chapbook from last year, could have marked it as a troll’s work: for 58 stanzas, it listed poets’ names and whether each was “a rich poet” or “comfortable.”
If Kaplan was trolling his readership, he was eminently successful: the ripples of controversy Kill List generated sprawled through the poetry section of my internet-trawling for weeks. I’ll admit, then, that I felt a paralyzing moment of outrage fatigue upon being asked to review Real Kill List, a response poem by Joey Yearous-Algozin in the form of Facebook posts. Yet Real Kill List transcends ordinary trolling. It documents the nexus of poetry and internet discourse, forcing a more complex consideration of how both those modes operate.
Yearous-Algozin and his compatriots in the Troll Thread poetry collective have developed an internet-native conceptual poetics. “Conceptual” is loaded: a code word for a set of practices but not a unifying school in itself. What conceptual works share is that the practices used to create them are part of their meaning. In her previous review of Yearous-Algozin’s Zero Dark Thirty in 30 Pt. Font, Janice Sapiago described her reaction to this work as “the half-question half-realization, Seriously?” Conceptual poems have this effect. They demand that readers answer “Seriously?” with “Yeah, we’re doing this. Let’s see what happens.” The interpretive acrobatics that conceptual poems require of their readers can be exciting and taxing at once.
The thread of Facebook posts that makes up Real Kill List has been stripped of the familiar boxy blue layout. In plain HTML, it becomes a bulleted list of names and comments, punctuated into sections with timestamps, “Like” links, and pixelated profile pictures. Like shoulder-surfing a stranger’s laptop in a coffee shop and noticing mutual acquaintances in their friends list, this creates a curious (or nosy) person’s moral dilemma. I was uneasy with seeing who was rich and who was comfortable in Kill List, and I can’t look away from how a group of poets performs their reactions on one poet’s Facebook wall. Although I’ve read some of their work, I don’t know these poets. Facebook erases how well they know each other. I feel like an intruder. I must not be a FUCKING POET.
The erasures of the formatting and my lack of knowledge of these people’s relationships needled me into voyeuristic interest with Real Kill List. At the same time, it echoed the experience of witnessing trolling: the uneasy humor created when it’s unclear who’s saying what they really mean and who is doing whatever it takes to elicit attention. By using these poets’ names and presumably their own words in the Facebook thread, Yearous-Algozin creates a poem with many sub-poems, many voices. It’s a nested conceptual poem not just about Kill List, but about conceptual poetry.
At one point, Real Kill List brings into the discussion Kenneth Goldsmith’s distinctions from “Being Dumb“:
Real Kill List appears dumb in the way that texts recontextualized as poems are always dumb: the “anybody can do that” sense, the passivity. Goldsmith argues for this type of “smart dumb” art: work that refuses to put its authors’ intention on display. Smart dumb art is open to participation in a way that purely smart things aren’t. Rather than showing off a genius’s virtuosity, smart dumb introduces mistakes and accidents, frustrations and boredom. “Dumb muddies the waters,” Goldsmith writes. Yet he still establishes himself as the arbiter of what’s smart and what’s dumb by virtue of his status as a professor and the first poet laureate at MoMA. Anyone can make smart dumb art, Goldsmith seems to say. If you want to make a living at it, though, you’d better find some form of patronage.
Similarly, the uneasy relationship between poetry and capitalism, or art and wealth, is a running theme throughout Real Kill List:
else’s point can be taken as is, giving up an argument now several comments deep on this speaker’s part, is an Unlike item in a series of Likes. And it’s this Like that altered my reading: a subtle volta. I got to feel momentarily clever, a smart dumb reader. I got to flatter myself into believing I understood Real Kill List, and that my understanding earned me a vicarious place in its conversation.
By giving the reader this moment of participation in Real Kill List, Yearous-Algozin opens the question of who gets to be smart enough for poetry. It’s a scary, provocative question, one that touches on the problems inherent in cultural gatekeeping and competition for readers’ attention. For anyone who’s invested in poetry’s vitality, these are questions well worth asking.
Erin Watson is a Southern person in Chicago. She writes poetry slowly and lives online at torridly.org.