I did not enjoy reading Robert Fitterman’s No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself. (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014). I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to enjoy it. In fact, I’m almost positive I wasn’t even supposed to read the whole book. I did however, enjoy thinking about this book.
This, Fitterman’s fourteenth book, is a single conceptual poem in the collective voice of a culture of isolation and self-obsession, but with no way to articulate itself in original terms.
The book begins:
I’ll just start: no matter what I do I never
seem to be satisfied,
The world spins around me and I feel like
I’m looking in from outside.
I go get a donut, I sit in my favorite part
of the park, but that’s not
The point: the point is that I feel socially
awkward and seem to have
Trouble making friends, which makes me very
sad and lonely indeed. (1)
My initial feeling was that of having casually asked a stranger, “How’s it going?” expecting a, “Good. You?” in reply, or perhaps a slightly less jovial, “Same ‘ol, same ‘ol.” But instead realizing that said stranger is in desperate need of immediate and engaged companionship and is also quite possibly a little insane.
A few pages in, it’s obvious that the strangers (it is a collective voice) are talking to themselves and I feel more like I have found someone’s diary left out in an obvious place, screaming to be discovered, read and adored. At times my interest was piqued as it seemed like some crescendo of emotion was in sight, as in:
I feel like I have to make the conscious decision
to get the hell up out of bed,
Get some help, step out of my comfort zone:
baby steps first of course!
I feel like killing myself! I feel like killing myself! Right now,
I totally feel like killing myself!
But again, the voice is not it’s own. After a stanza break (Suggestive of the next day? The next breath?) the speaker continues,
I’m going off on my friend about how bummed
I am and then over
The radio I hear this story about the return of
black lung disease —
and the poem rolls on and I begin to wonder if this is even poetry at all.
A quick search of Fitterman’s other work reveals that he’s known for his conceptual poetry and a treatise of such, entitled Notes on Conceptualisms (written with Vanessa Place), which can be found for free at Ugly Duckling Presse, enlightens me to the poetic theory / motive behind his work. Essentially, conceptual poetry is more concerned with the initial concept of the work, and not with the resultant poem, in the sense of its aesthetic or emotional effect.
The sampling of conceptual poetry I’ve come across makes use of source texts to create a poetic object. I say “object” because, it seems to me that these books are not so much meant to be read as books of poetry, but rather to be used as tools of study and contemplation, the way one might consider light with the use of a prism or life with the use of a cadaver.
From Notes on Conceptualisms:
Conceptual writing mediates between the written object (which may or may not be a text) and the meaning of the object by framing the writing as a figural object to be narrated. (17)
In the case of No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself., the appropriated texts are taken from a range of sources: blogs, lyrics, other literary texts, and elsewhere that I could not pinpoint (Fitterman’s own words?). I began to google batches of lines to see if I could find the source texts.
A riff on Williams’ “Danse Russe” was easy enough to pick out:
I don’t get it. I am lonely, lonely, lonely. I was born
to be lonely, I am best so!
And a portion from Shelly’s Frankenstein:
Just finished reading Frankenstein, a virtual
treatise on loneliness: believe me,
Frankenstein, I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love
and humanity; but am I not alone,
Miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I
gather from your fellow creatures?
Here is an apt metaphor for the entire book: the living thing made from dead people that seeks it’s own identity but is broken by exile and loneliness.
A few lines turned up on a website called Web of Loneliness, where “visitors can learn about loneliness, explore the experiences of others, and share their own experiences” (from the sites own header). Still, the discovery of a real person’s articulations re-appropriated as conceptual poetry had, for me, the effect of breaking the dramatic “fourth wall.” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be privy to these public displays of misery in this way: reframed, appropriated for another’s purpose and my own consideration. I felt like an intruder on another’s pain. But then, what I believe is the essential question of Fitterman’s book came clearer: what is the meaning of public displays of private articulations?
Again from Notes on Conceptualisms:
Note: these are strategies of failure.
Note: failure in this sense acts as an assassination of mastery.
Note: failure in this sense serves to irrupt the work, violating it from within.
Note: this invites the reader to redress failure, hallucinate repair. (27)
So failure is the point of this book? The poem’s concept suggests the difficulty, perhaps inability, to express ourselves in any genuine way, due to the constant inundation of suedo-self-expressions we are barraged with via various forms of media. People fail to express themselves because they fail to know themselves on their own terms.
Or is the point of Fitterman’s work that poetry needs not be Poetry at all. If we accept that No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself. is in fact poetry, if only because the author offers it as such, then what does this say about common speech? What questions arise about the layers of artificial, pre-fab expressions of self in common use? What layers of meaning can be gleaned from a collection of public / intimately private voices articulating, with borrowed language, their own experiences?
But again, I have to ask: is this poetry? Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry speaks of the “emotional truth” of a poem; its ability to express and imbue a truth in the reader that is real even if the situation or speaker of a poem is not. Fitterman’s book did not offer such a truth-experience for me and it is always that experience that I seek in poetry. The book was thought provoking, however, and has been the poetic conversation on my lips for far longer than the span of its reading.
No, Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself. is available through Ugly Duckling Presse ($14.00).
Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 — 2003 and received a MFA in Poetry from CUNY Queens College. His work has appeared in CURA,Assisi and Newtown Literary among other journals and is featured in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye (Ghostbird Press, 2011).