Getting Back on the Horse: Alison Smith’s “What We Loved to Love About Prison on TV”

Time to get back on the horse.

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A lot of great poetry has crossed my couch in the years since I started this blog in the fall of 2016. I took some time off from posting in order to finish the book (How a Poem Moves in print! Get your copy here!), and to focus on other projects, but here we are, it’s the fall of 2019, and I’ve got oodles of poems I want to tell you about.

One phenomenon of working on this project is that now, when I’m reading poetry, I often  say to myself (in addition to “wow that was great!”) something along the lines of “I could write an essay about that.” So the impulse to get back to this form has persisted. And when the occasion came to write on Emma Lazarus’ famous poem for The Toronto Star, I found the form still suits me. So I’m going to try to start this up again, probably at a rate of one essay per month. We’ll see how it goes.

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I first encountered Alison Smith’s poems at the annual Poetry Weekend that’s held in Fredericton every fall. In fact, this year’s festival is starting today. I don’t usually get to go because of teaching responsibilities, and because the Weekend usually falls right smack in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays. But I did manage to go last year, and among my discoveries there was This Kind of Thinking Does No Good, a whip-smart, funny, deceptively-subversive collection by Nova Scotian Alison Smith, published by Gaspereau Press.

 

Alison Smith, “What We Loved to Love About Prison on TV”

 

what we loved to love about prison was the radical separation

what we loved about the separation were handwritten letters

what we loved about letters was the first-person narrative

what we loved about the person was tragedy

what we loved about tragedy was a glimpse of gallows humour

what we loved about the gallows was revenge

what we loved about revenge were the rules about snitching

what we loved about the snitch was language, inside

what we loved about inside was the passage of contraband

what we loved about the passage was ingenuity

what we loved about ingenuity was the chance to win respect

what we loved about the win was ‘what they do to the pedophiles’

what we loved about what they do was adherence to a code

what we loved about the code was a saint-like purity

what loved to love about saints were the bones

 

– from This Kind of Thinking Does No Good (Gaspereau Press, 2018, used with permission)

I have two initial questions when I read this poem: first, how does she get away with it? That is, how does Smith manage to repeat the beginning of these lines “what we loved about…” so often and not seem repetitive or boring? The rhetorical term for this sort of repetition at the beginning of successive lines is anaphora, but the repeated phrases in anaphora don’t usually dominate the whole line the way they do here. And she does it fifteen times! “What we loved about” becomes a sort of mantra on the one hand, cataloguing all of the things “we loved,” and there’s a kind of progression to the way the poem analyzes the attractions of Prison on TV, almost the way a nursery rhyme like “The House that Jack Built” accumulates. But the poem has a weirder sensibility than most nursery rhymes, and the logical leaps it makes, off-kilter and rather dark, keep me engaged and curious about where the poem is headed next.

Which bring me to the other question: who is the “we”? This is the question I want to dig a bit more deeply into, because as I try to answer it, the poem becomes richer and more interesting.

First and foremost, “we” are people who love Prison on TV. I suspect that’s partly because the people who make up this “we” don’t have any first-hand knowledge of real prison. (Do people who are in prison like Prison on TV? I admit I have no idea, because I am not a person in prison nor am I a person who loves prison on tv. But I imagine that if the speaker of this poem, if the “we” being referred to, were in prison, we would have a different set of reasons to love Prison on TV).

You’ll notice one clever trick about Smith’s use of the “we” throughout – even as I read and try to explore the poem, I find myself going back and forth between including myself in the we, and referring to the “we” as separate. This give-and-take about whether a reader identifies with the poem is one of its pleasures. As I read through, I sometimes think, “Oh yeah, that is why we love tragedy!” with a shock of recognition. And at other times, I think, “Oh, that’s interesting that these people loved separation because of the hand-written letters. What quaint romantics they were.” Throughout, I’m rarely anticipating where the poem is going next, so that even when the sentiment (“what we loved about..”) isn’t mine, I find it engaging.

There isn’t space here to explore every logical leap the poem makes as it moves around its subject – which is not actually Prison on TV, but rather “what we loved.” Suffice it to say that what attracts “us” to Prison on TV doesn’t seem to be exactly what might be expected by producers of The Night Of. There’s something in here about how as viewers we repurpose and manipulate the art we encounter. The speaker on the one hand leans toward the romantic, and the self-consciously literary, but does not seem averse to enjoying the violence that often appears in these shows as well. In my mind I’m formulating a certain portrait of this group of people by their likes and interests.

PousseyNewBut I want to skip to the last three lines because they haunt me in a particular way. The “adherence to a code” is a familiar trope in all kinds of dramas that involve criminals. But for the speaker of this poem, “adherence to a code” brings up “purity,” which is not at all what I connect to the codes of behaviour we find in prison. On the one hand, I’m reminded of characters like Poussey from Orange Is the New Black or John Coffey, the saint-like character from the film The Green Mile, or maybe Morgan Freeman’s Red from The Shawshank Redemption (which we now mostly see on TV). But I’m wondering all of a sudden whether “adherence to a code” might have special relevance for this group of people. The romanticism at the beginning, the darker attractions in stylized violence, and now this interest in “purity” seem to me to point to a specific set of concerns I associate with teenagers.

So now I’m imagining a group of teens binging on Orange Is the New Black while struggling with the social norms of their high school. But just when I think the poem might give us a deeper hint about this particular social group, the poem sends us packing with “what we loved to love about saints were the bones.” The entrance of religious themes deepens my sense that what is at stake here is more than entertainment choices. Stories of saints often include imprisonment or martyrdom, and point us to beliefs and principles (“codes”) that some are willing to sacrifice themselves for. But “what we loved to love” about them are not the beliefs, but the detritus of those sacrifices – the bones. We transfer our conflicted emotions about the codes themselves into a passion for the concrete and even grotesque remnants of those beliefs. For the “we” in this poem, bones and prison shows are the only way to access values that might grant meaning and clarity in what might otherwise be a jumbled mix of influences and bad answers.

saints bones

Last point: all of this is in the past tense. The litany of things “we loved” is, apparently, no longer true. Something about this era has passed for the reporter of the poem. It makes me wonder how things have changed for “us.” My first suspicion is that we have grown up a bit, and perhaps no longer have the time or inclination to spend our leisure time watching Prison on TV. But more deeply, I wonder if the search for values and codes that connected the speaker to her love of prison shows when she was younger no longer has the romance or drama that it once did. The “radical separation” and “chance to win respect” that seemed so important long ago no longer have the same appeal. It makes me wonder what the speaker would “love to love” about her current entertainment choices. Or is “loving to love” something no longer so central to the equation? What have we lost or gained by shedding the passions of our youth?

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New Essay!

Hello everyone,

For a while I’ve been thinking about whether or not to start writing HPM essays again. But then an occasion arose for me to write one, when US acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli made some… uh… remarks referring to Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus.” It’s the one that contains, “Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” and is cast on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.

My friend Martha Sharpe suggested that I write a HPM essay about the poem, to “set the record straight,” so to speak. I reached out to someone at the Toronto Star, did a 24-hour binge-write, and behold!:

A new How a Poem Moves essay, with historic content, hosted by the Toronto Star. 

I did not create the headline. (The answer to its question is No.) Otherwise, it’s a bit of a rush job, but if you’re looking for new essays, here you go.

Thanks for your support, everyone! And feel free to comment if you think I should start posting new essays again or if I should just pack it in and let what I’ve done stand.

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Audio!

Hello everyone,

How a Poem Moves is now an audiobook! It’s a whole other way of experiencing the book, I think, and the brilliant Soraya Peerbaye reads the poems with real complexity and a terrific, silky voice. You can get it from Audible here, or at your local public library. Happy listening!

 

headphone_audio

More Goings-on for HPM

Happy weekend, everyone! Spring is springing up all over the place. This is usually a very productive time for me writing-wise, but I’ve been spending an exorbitant amount of time cheering on the Toronto Raptors, so I’m getting less done than usual. However, How a Poem Moves seems to be getting some nice attention:

  • I did a “riff” for CBC Radio’s program The Next Chapter. It’s just a couple of minutes long, and if you’ve been reading the essays on this site it won’t have much new information, but if you’re curious, you can find it here.
  • I also wrote a short piece about the book (in which I compare reading poetry to eating ice cream!)  for All Lit Up, a website that promotes independent Canadian publishers.
  • Rob Mclennan, a ubiquitous figure in the Canadian Poetry scene, wrote a thoughtful review of HPM on his blog.
  • There was also a write-up about the book at Open Book, a website which “celebrates and profiles Ontario’s non-stop literary scene.” They reprinted my essay on Ali Blythe’s “Shattered.” By the way, Ali has a new book out called Hymnswitch, which is just terrific.
  • The Toronto Star did something similar, reprinting my essay on Elise Partridge’s “Domestic Interior: Child Watching Mother” and saying some nice things about the book.
  • I’m told there will be some sort of write-up about the book in the Globe and Mail next week. Updates to come.

In other news, this coming week is the celebration of the Griffin Poetry Prize. There are still a few tickets left to see the shortlist readings on Wednesday, June 5, if you are interested. It’s one of my favourite poetry nights of the year, so I’ll be there! Click here for tickets. The winners will be announced at a gala on June 6.

Also, the Trillium Book Awards shortlist readings are the following week (yes, it’s prize season!), on June 12. Find out all about the finalists, and the events surrounding it here.

I’m thinking I’ll start writing essays again for this blog in the fall. Lots of great books and poems to celebrate! In the meantime, happy reading!

Things Happening

Hello!

I’ve been neglecting this site while things were busy with the initial launch of the book, but I’m trying to get back on the horse, so here are a few updates:

  • How a Poem Moves is on its second printing already! So thanks to those who have bought the book, requested/borrowed the book from the library, or generally talked about the book so that others can know about it. I’m glad it’s getting into people’s hands. You can find the book at ECW‘s site or on Amazon or your favourite local bookstore.
  • There’s going to be an audiobook! A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in a tiny studio reading the book out loud into a microphone so that those who prefer the “listening experience” can get HPM that way. Soraya Peerbaye read the poems, to add a different (fabulous!) voice. It’ll be a few weeks before that’s released, but it’s another milestone.
  • Since the launch at Holy Blossom, I’ve done events at the North Toronto Public Library and in Hamilton at GritLit, as well as a hilariously brief book signing at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when I was there visiting my sister. I’ve done a bunch of smaller book clubs as well, and am open to other invitations…
  • I’ve been — shocker! — reading a lot of poetry lately, and there are some new books I want to draw your attention to, so there may be more essays coming down the road. Not right away, but they are percolating in my addled brain.
  • More updates to come. Thanks for reading!