In 2001, I was in the final semester earning my master’s degree in the lucrative field of poetry writing at New York University. Many of my classmates went on to become noteable poets: Kathy Graber, Ada Limón, Greg Pardlo, Jason Schneiderman, and Kazim Ali. One evening, as were leaving a workshop together, Kazim said, "I don't think funny poetry is valid. I know that I'm wrong, but I still feel that way." I was instantly relieved. I had long felt the vibe of resistance—of dismissal—to the humor in my work, but no one had ever had admitted to me that it turned them off. It was like hearing a lover finally confirm your suspicions, "I'm not crazy about that thing you do with your tongue."
Kazim's validation helped my writing evolve. I became more purposeful. I asked myself, "Is this joke worth it?" I began to seek a greater contrast in moods, as well as more intimacy in every moment. I’ve always been grateful for his candor. When I decided to write about humor in poetry, I recalled this conversation between poets Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker. For my money, it’s the gold standard of writers exploring an issue meaningfully and intelligently, on which their perspectives could not be more in opposition.
That’s what I wanted to do to/with Kazim, a dear friend, and a great sport.
Is that how you remember it?
Kazim Ali: I think that what I as alarmed at—or bored by—was all the poetry that seemed to traffic in "wit," and depend on the intelligence (or facility with language) of the writer to transfer or communicate information or ideas. Poetry for me (at that time and maybe still) was so anarchic and wild and I was attracted, if you remember, to poetry that didn't depend on traditional "sense" or "knowing" in order to have musical and bodily effect. I'm particularly thinking of Susan Howe whom I had just discovered. When Emily Dickinson said she "finished Knowing then" I took it as an invitation to a different kind of poetry which could, like Sufi practice, free me from the conditioned constraints of my own mind. The other thing I remember about my comment is that we were talking about *your* poetry and people were always saying it was funny and I never understood that. I mean about the poem about the front-desk worker at the swimming pool on her hands and knees trying to pull out the knob of the old vending machine for the African men who came in who didn't have hands. She was trying to buy their red licorice strings for them. It's only funny if you have hands. [The poem he's referring to: "A Common American Name" from my first book]
JK: I think all writing transfers or communicates information, no? Even if the poem's trying to create a "pure" mood or sensation with language—be it lyric language, or deconstructed, or whatever you want to call it, it flashes pictures on your brain. I'm reminded of an interview in Lucky Peach with superstar chefs, Wylie Dufresne and Anthony Bourdain, and Bourdain kept saying how sick he was of "ingredient-driven" cooking—all the farm-to-table stuff—and Dufresne said something like, "All cooking is ingredient driven." They're moving from the cellular to the universal, but this metaphor is moving in the opposite direction. Are you, Kazim, saying that one should try to erase how to cook from one's mind when one puts on the apron? I don't have faith that, if I did that, anyone would read what I wrote, because I can't follow that kind of writing.
Why can you do that? And why do you have that faith, and I don't?
Also, are you saying that your beef with "funny" poems was that what was being communicated seemed dependent on how "smart" or "literary" that author saw him/herself (mentally superior)? I immediately distrust poems with voices that act smarter, or more sensitive, than me, or, just because it's a poem, is going to learn me about feelings, and beauty, and truth. I'm like, the hell you are—teach me how to do something useful, like fix a car. But I think of that as a lack of empathy, and narcissism. My favorite style of humor is self-indictment.
But having said that, I had a dream last night that Stephen Fry, the giant English actor who played Oscar Wilde, was telling me, "You’ve got to buck up, kitty." He was wearing the pink suit and everything.
KA: Well, I think writing does transfer "information," which comes in many forms: emotion, narrative account, spiritual revelation, blends of all three of these? Writing goes into the body as well (that Atwood poem about the fish hook makes you squint, doesn't it?). So is my issue with humorous writing just a resistance to the "easy?" Or is it a dour and puritanical reaction against laughter in serious times? I don't deny it might be both of these.
Sometimes (why not confess it—you're not going to tell anyone about this are you? Haha, see I *can* be funny) when I am in a poetry reading and the poet is doing this raucous performance and everyone in the bar or the reading venue is guffawing I just feel...I don't know, almost *disgusted*. I'm fairly sure (as opposed to when we were in grad school and I no doubt said this to you in full righteous mode) that it is a short-coming of my own.
Maybe it is the "punchline" version of humor that is the cheapest. Also inherent in humor is *what* we find funny and *why*. Someone recently tried to make a joke by referring to me as a terrorist. I said—trying to save everyone's dignity—"I am a terrorist of love." What he said was thoughtless but my response was stupid.
In the case of that "joke" you have to be in a position of privilege of some kind in order to laugh at it. In the case of the woman at the swimming pool in your poem you laugh for the same reason she calls out the speaker (whom she has never spoken to before): because she is a position of terror. It's funny precisely because it *isn't* at all funny.
Stephen Fry telling you to buck up is a version of the little Japanese girl in your dream hitting you with the pinata. Or something like that. Am I remembering it wrong? [I can't remember the title of the poem he's referring to, but he's remembering it correctly]
You mentioned a couple of other things about erasing the cook when you put on the apron. Maybe I would like to do something like that. I was just on a panel discussion with Kathy Graber about rhetorical strategies of the "speaker" in a poem and she said "Every poem has a speaker" and I am not sure every poem does, or if it does then *who* is it we mean when we say "speaker?" Who do *you* mean when you say "I?" Who *is* "Jennifer Knox?" I'm not trying to be silly or postmodern or psychoanalytic—I'm really serious. I really want to know.
JK: I think Kathy's right. Every poem has a voice—especially yours—and I'm going to call your voice, in most of your poems, the "Persian Fog," after Mel Torme's "Velvet Fog." The real "Jennifer Knox" is inevitably the most boring part of any poem. Even the voice that's "my voice" is a theatrical construction—yet it's been the most difficult for me to construct. I heard Chris Rock in an interview say, "No one wants to hear me. They want something bigger," and I agree. I've tried to keep a diary, and "Jennifer Knox" is insipid.
I'm amazed that you think humor is easy, and delighted that you feel disgusted when you see people laughing at a reading. You feel the punchline kind of humor's cheap. But Oscar Wilde wrote punchlines. Do like him? "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling" is a phenomenal, yet Henny Youngmanesque punchline. The best, and funniest stuff, on Twitter is punchline after punchline after punchline. And yet I understand what you're saying. It's like spitting in the air and catching it in your mouth. That kind of punchline humor's not about exploration, but the illusion of exploration right before it drags you back to dunce chair, where you're like, "Duh, how'd he dood it?"
And you did not say it to me self righteously at all. You were very open, and unguarded. You said, "I know I'm wrong, but that's how I feel." That's not self righteous. I've never known you to be self-righteous—maybe you're hiding it from me—but rather very open to criticism. Yet still, you love your work and words. Your self-identity as a poet seems, for lack of a better term, bullet proof. "I am a terrorist of love" is hilarious. Ending any blanket statement with "...of love" is hilarious. "I’ll take a large black coffee...of love."
This just occurred to me: do you love your own identity? I mean "Kazim Ali"? Because I don't, and I think that self-doubt is where funny comes from. What I'm asking is: Would you have sex with yourself, and is there more than one person with your face in your sexual fantasies?
Persian Fog: Persian Fog?! Already Amazon Poet-Princess from Outer Space, it's on!!!
I don't think Kathy is necessarily "wrong," and certainly (as things made out of language) poems have "voices," but it is the concept of "who" speaks that I think is pretty fluid in some poems and not others which may speak from a more fixed sense of identity. I don't mean to go back to an old post-modern argument about whether the self (or "soul" would you say?) is intrinsic to the body or whether it is constructed out of social, political and material realities. Sometimes I really *do* believe that what we call the "self" or "I" or "Kazim" or "Jennifer" is really just so much accumulated data based on sensory perceptions. You know when babies grow into children one says they "acquire personalities." Acquire? From where? And how lovely to use the language of finance to describe and define this accumulation of response patterns to characterize how the inside (individual) interfaces with the outside (world). Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
But you said it: the "voice" in the poem (different from "speaker” but let's save that for another conversation) is a performance. I'm with you on that. I *am* the Persian Fog but maybe I am going to try something new some time soon. Or not.
About humor, easy or not, I guess it depends on what it *is.* Anais Nin dedicated her novel Collages to "R. P. who created a world in which a humorous book could bloom." The funniest part about this is that Collages is decidedly unfunny. I don't know a Nin scholar alive (though perhaps sadly I do not know a lot of them) who hasn't had a crack at trying to explicate what Nin thought of as "humorous" in the work. I suppose it could be funny in the darkest way imaginable. For example there is a writer who has gone to Turkey and spent years of time painstakingly researching histories of a family. At the airport on her way home the plane catches fire and the passengers must exit. She watches from the tarmac as all her research and unique artifacts and photographs and priceless documents given to her by the family go up in smoke. Nin was a master of architecture in fiction though: if one work of art is destroyed, there are bound to be others. At the end of a novel a sculpture at an exhibit self-destructs in a burst of flame. There's a critical difference though: the sculpture, by Jean Tinguely, was supposed to self-destruct as part of a performance. The only work of art in the book that does survive is a terrible painting. When the heroine's house goes up in flames in the wee hours of morning, her narcissistic lover leaves her to her fate and runs off to rescue a painting that has been made of him as the god Pan. She saves herself and watches with amusement as the life-sized painting comes walking awkwardly toward her from the burning house with little hands clutching the edge, borne along from behind by the feckless lover. Hey, wait a minute, that is funny.
I love the line you quoted "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." I agree. But what's behind it? The frightening notion that there aren't "genuine feelings." That we are constructed out of desire and self-deception. And oh hells-to-the-yes I would have sex with “Kazim Ali.” Over and over and over.
Listen, it might actually be time to confess something. I've just (in January) written my first "funny" poem. Well, it is a poem that I think of as "funny." It is terrifying to think of. The best part is that I was invited to be part of the 2012 Poetry Trading Card series where they have a photo of a poet on the front and then a poem on the back. I was thinking what poem to send them and I thought, well I guess it has to be this one. So I'm stretching my wings. I'm not all dour and dreamy. Though I'm that.
JK: The shape of the Persian Fog is very amorphous. You can take on any shape, like Whitman [I actually just typed "Shitman"!!!]. My favorite I's are the ones that change in the process of moving through the poem. Are we in agreement on that? But I like my I's to surprise themselves, and not necessarily in a good way—they're frightened, toppled, by what they learn. Which is comedy, I think.
The intro essay to this little series talks about the Incongruity Theory, which states, “humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept.” And I think that realization can be frighteningly funny.
Here's a good question: Do incongruities have a home in your poems? Are there puzzles you can't solve in your poems?
And do you think Ashbery is funny? I think he's King of the Weird. Or King of the Incongruities. But he has never made me laugh.
Nin was probably just "taking the piss" as the Brits say.
I think what Wilde was saying is that people validate bad/boring/grandiose poetry by saying it comes from "genuine" feeling. I had students do that in workshops all the time. Me: "Do you know how to use a comma, like for real?" Student explodes: "THIS POEM IS ABOUT GENUINE FEELINGS-NOT COMMAS!!!!!" I have 100 Brownie Badges for feeling things—shame's a pretty one—but not once has a feeling ever constructed a poem for me.
PF: I'm not sure Ashbery is "funny" either. But O'Hara is. And Barbara Guest especially is. Funny because seeing the world in a way that feels incongruous but not silly. I do feel I write toward incongruity. I feel delight when I write a poem where I feel on to something but not sure what. For example the poem "Glacier" in my book The Far Mosque. No idea what it is about. Not a clue. Am I a cheater? But poetry is a mystery right? Why should I have had any better luck at figuring it out than you? I'm just "Kazim" doing the best "I" can. Do those quote marks piss you off yet?
What "Shit-man" is good for, I think (did you see the Six Feet Under episode that was based on him? There was a polygamous cult, a bunch of wives and lovely old husband everyone, including the wives, called "Daddy," and his sacred text was "The Book of Daddy;" it took me almost the whole episode (shame on you, Kazim) to figure out that "the book of Daddy" was "Song of Myself"), is that he is full of shit: I mean the good kind: rich, dark, nutritious soil, built up over millennia—from the Vedas to the death fields of the Civil War and beyond, almost to the turn of the century—that nurtures new language, new rhythms of the poetic line, new intentions of poetry, new audiences, the liberation of all voices in the queerest way. There's a reason why American poets don't seem to be able to escape his influence: because he is everything. And everywhere. Like the Borg Queen.
And speaking of Borg Queens, since my personal allegiance is to that other dashing dominatrix Dick-in-Son (I'm the son, but where did she get that dick?), when you talk about humor or comedy as the moment when an expectation doesn't match reality I think of when I first learned what funny was: watching Three's Company. Besides the physical slapstick element of what they were doing (do you think John Ritter practiced yoga? He had to have, right? For his body to do all those things?), the comedy depended on the landlord misunderstanding the situation, hearing a conversation through the door, etc. What's interesting is how the humor changed when the landlord changed. First you had Stanley and Helen who had just seen everything. Stanley was completely blase. You had to have Helen there to make it funny, make the wisecrack. Then later you had Mister Furley who was frenzied and frenetic and expressed that shock in the spasms of his own body.
So what I mean Whitman/Shit-man is Stanley: he's seen everything and everything is good. Not much funny there really. He gives and you receive. You can take over giving, i.e. begin to recite in his voice, but I don't see much dynamic engagement between reader and writer there; the poetry is in the text, not in the exchange or interaction with the text.
But Dick-in-Son is Mister Furley, thrashing about horror. Mister Furley's spasms are hard to do (like Jack's pratfalls) because you have to have incredible muscular control to make it happen. Hence her 4-3 couplets, the queer rhyme schemes (there's Queer again; is all poetry Queer? Yes), the whole nine yards. Whitman understands the Cosmos and dreams his unity with it. Dickinson on the other hand is completely horrified 100% of the time. She knows the Universe isn't the cosmos—it is also the thing right outside your door that is lying in wait. The absolute pinnacle of my childhood mirth was the episode where Jack and Furley get locked in the meat locker of the restaurant and Furley tries to write a last testament and on his failure he screams in horror: "FIRST I get robbed!! Then I get stuck in the FREEZER!! And to top it all off my PENCIL breaks!"
And who's Helen? You're Helen, with your big red Afro wig and your muumuu and your hyper-sexed self.
Helen Roper: Like James Tate's "Distance from Loved Ones": "But mother, I am Helen..."
Whitman is like that fungus that lives under the Pacific Northwest—the largest, contiguous living organism on the planet—and copies of Leaves of Grass pop up as spores but they're all part of the same body. Yeeeeeeeears ago, I read this poem called "Big Pig" about two guys going to a poetry reading, and surprise! Whitman was on stage, and as the speaker of the poem listened, he began to grow dizzy, and his friend said, "That big pig's sucking all the oxygen out of the room" and they had to run for their lives.
There is no self-aware humor in Whitman, but watching him try to kiss everyone, including all the animals, is very funny. Since he takes in everything, there is no incongruity. He's a black hole. But when you read Specimen Days, it's so tragic because the world’s not complying with his utopian vision.
So wait, Dickinson is Mr. Furley, and Walt is Mr. Roper? or Walt is John Ritter? I can see the latter, as Ritter eventually absorbs everything—sometimes after it jiggles him around inside of him. I loved Ritter in Bad Santa. I finally understood why people said he was a master, but I never saw it on Three's Company. That show gave me the willies, and still does. The humor is dependent on making fun of people—for being gay, for having big tits, for having no tits, for being horny, for being nervous. Meanness is very discomforting to me. It what's what Nazis laugh at—that American Pie shit. People who are mean, especially in the guise of "I'm just kidding," set off major alarm bells in my head. Even though ALL the characters are fucked up to a degree on Three's Company, the degree is not equal. Whereas I LOVE The Andy Griffith Show. The characters are all nuts, but it's very different. It's like Winnie the Pooh, and Barney is Piglet.
I just realized I'm discussing TWO Don Knotts vehicles with a poet "whose powers astonish in everything he puts pen to," according to Jane Hirshfield.
PF: I think when a poem fills every available space there's no room for anything else. I was part of a discussion once on the "future of poetry" (god protect us from the "future of poetry") where one poet (who I admire) said she likes the internet because it fills all the silent spaces. Why the hell would you want that? The other poet called his (very lovely and compelling) blog up on the big screen and then said something like "now I don't feel so lonely." I only use these as examples of what makes me tremble in the night. I like both of these poets’ work very much. Another poet who I looo-ooo-ve talked about a project he was currently engaged in: coding his writing into the DNA of a particular virus. Now why would he do that? What did that virus ever do to poetry? Unless the whole thing was a piece of performance art, do you think?
I'm not sure what I think about Three's Company in terms of its politics regarding humor. I am a little worried though because I think American Pie is hysterical. And the recent live-action Scoony-Doo movies. I think it might mean that in the area of TV and movies I am shockingly low-brow. I have no defense.
But about commas and feelings. So one lovely thing Donald Revell said (in his book Art of Attention) was (he said it better, I'm going to paraphrase) that you don't need craft or technique or form to write poetry, that the world gives you poetry and you just have to be pay careful attention and work it through your own language. It's against the notion of "learning the rules before you break them" which I just fracking hate because who the frack came up with those rules in the first place? I mean you do not need four corners and a flat ceiling to build a sound structure—Islamic architecture anyone? But it is also against what you though: that feelings never helped you write a poem.
Are we (God forbid) finding a meeting place? Humor that is built on structure or received ideas of "form" (i.e. "how" to "tell" a "joke") (I want to drive you into a rage over my PoMo use of quote marks before we're through) maybe sabotages a poem or consigns it to the realm of kitsch, whereas humor that comes from the body's humors themselves (get it? get it?) turns on darker energy, becomes stranger, more dangerous, becomes poetry. Did you read Louise Gluck's book Meadowlands? In the context of Gluck herself you can see she is trying to be funny in that book. Dark and terrifying, but funny. Sort of like when Tuvok does that dance step on Star Trek: Voyager when Neelix is about to leave the ship.
HR: We are most definitely in agreement that all of those projects sound terrifying. It's like The Island of Dr. Moreau but with poems. "I put a poem head on a rapid pitbull and taught it how to pull the levers in a voting booth." [shudder]
And I'm not "afraid" of your "quotes," honey.
I think you def need to know the rules before you break them. I'm pretty sure Donald Revell's "own language" acquisition history has processed a ton of poetry. I think it's unfair to tell that to a would-be poet who doesn't know the rules. I was amazed that students didn't seem to be understanding what a story arch was. "Don't you guys watch TV? Any sitcom has a story arch." They watched TV, but you know what they watched? Game shows. So in line with your metaphor, they didn't know about anything about any kind of architecture—they were living in caves. Again, I think it's like cooking. I want people to eat what I cook, so that means it has to resemble food.
But I don't agree that darker humor originates in the body. As Randy Quaid said in Parents, "There's one place where you can never turn on the light..." and then he points to his head. I do think they're different, though. My main man's Wallace Stevens. I'm like a head floating in space. Glück does a great job being funny on that book—it's like getting run over by a car repeatedly—but I think her mental's frustration with the physical is the spring of the funny: "...these flowers/lighting the yard.//I hate them./I hate them as I hate sex,/the man’s mouth/sealing my mouth..." is, I think, hilarious. To go from flowers to hating sex: what a leap. But the humor doesn't come from a run-away body, like in American Pie, or Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.
Now let's look at that funny poems of yours!
The Door Between You
In the cabin next to yours you hear voices
Keeping you awake in the lumbering night
Slumber slackens, lack will open the door
He is tapping the wall between you
Going on and on about how we are all creatures of energy and light
Well, "reachers" you'll buy
but "injuries of light?"
[short time passes]
Don't hate me. I don't get it. Somebody on the other side of the wall (it's a cabin, so a ship? or in the woods?) is trying to talk someone else (the speaker) into having sex? Does "reachers" mean reach-around? And since the poem hinges on the word play in the last two lines, you're trafficking puns. Dude, you're a punny bunny. Hoppy Easter.
PF: I *don't* believe in "you have to know the rules before breaking them." Have you seen children move or create art? Or the way they speak sometimes? They make the funniest and most beautiful phrases and pictures and dances. They don't know "the rules." The "rules" are a government and usually governments are maintaining order and order usually means the suppression of an individual spirit. I mean after four hundred years or whatever aren't you actually *bored* of sonnets? And *sestinas*? Don't get me started on those animals—it's like a trick that got played on contemporary literature by medieval troubadours and *French* no less. I've read *one* sestina that I liked--*one*: it's "Emily Dickinson's Sestina for Molly Bloom" by Barbara Lefcowitz and it is in Strong Measures the tragically (and mysteriously!) out-of-print anthology by Dacey and Jauss. Anyhow it is not meter or prosody that I have an issue with at all—you want to be able to understand the qualities of the language you are working with, don't you?—but the *forms*, ugh the forms: oughtn't we start inventing new ones by now?
I don't think you have to learn how to speak "properly" to be able to write good poetry nor do I think you ought to know "standard written English" or where commas should in order to make good poetry. Don't we all eat it up when Yara Sofia from season 3 of RuPaul's Drag Race says "My English is very good looking." Her English is very good looking!
Now what's amazing about new television, i.e. Reality Shows, is that individual episodes do have story arcs. Including game shows, in fact it might be easier to demonstrate it on a game show: Contestants are introduced by dude with the dramatic voice, Jeopardy round, Daily Double, Alex chats with the contestants, Double Jeopardy round, Daily Double, Final Jeopardy, post-game chat while the credits roll.
Oh, about my "funny poem,” dear. Isn't that supposed to be the worst thing you can do to a joke—explain it? (meaning humor might not come from the head/intellect after all?) The best thing to do is explain why I thought it was funny. So cabin: yes in the woods. Trying to get some sleep and the dude one room over is talking to himself. The supposedly "funny" part is that I mishear him. What he goes on and on about in the night is what I am worried about in my own poetry--that I am turning into (have always been?) the "Persian Fog" as you put it. So the "funny" part--the joke's on me, you see-- is that what I mishear him saying is exciting: "reachers" means we always reaching for something--that's "Kazim Ali" up to his old tricks-- but the last part, that we are all "injuries of light"--well I have no idea what that means! What does it mean to be an "injury of light?" It's exciting to me to be confused at the end of a poem.
And look, Dickinson is Mister Furley. When he is quivering in agony in the meat cooler--when the last straw, his pencil breaking, breaks the camel's back--it's not funny: he's just realized he is alone, alone, alone in a magnificent universe that doesn't take his feelings or discomfort into account: "You think my gait Spasmodic—I am Danger—Sir."
HR: On this, we agree: her English is very good looking. Who/what do you find funny?
PF: Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, I loved the Brady Bunch Movie, oh and Goonies, Lynda Barry, Rocky Horror Picture Show makes me laugh, and Jiggly Caliente from RuPaul's Drag Race
HR: Agreements #2 and #3: Lynda Barry, RPDR, but I'm a Ju Jubee girl, myself.
Kazim Ali is the author of several books of poetry, fiction and essays, including most recently Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities, Fasting for Ramadan, and Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence, published in the Poets on Poetry Series by the University of Michigan Press. He is the translator of Sohrab Sepehri's Water's Footfall and founding editor of Nightboat Books. Kazim is associate professor of creative writing and comparative literature at Oberlin College.