Earlier this year, Angelo Nikolopoulos, curator of the White Swallow reading series at the Cornelia Street Café, organized a reading of funny women writers which included non-fiction writer Marion Wren, the poet Amy Lawless, and myself. We had a ball. I thought how rare it was to have two, never mind three, funny women on the same bill. But how unusual is it to hear funny women writers, period?
Not only are we challenging poetry’s sacred somberness, and our own identities as authorities, by getting people to laugh at our poems (and us), we’re seriously blowing our chances at a Maxim photo shoot. Funny women can intimidate and turn off. Johnny Carson said most women commediennes "are a little aggressive for my taste. I’ll take it from a guy, but from women, sometimes it just doesn’t fit too well." Jerry Lewis got right to the point: “I don’t like any female comedians.” Granted, these guys are/were old as dirt. But in January, David Letterman fired his comic booking agent, 53 year-old Eddie Brill after Brill said, too many female comics “will act like men” to get laughs. Brill had been disproportionately underhiring women for years. Comedienne Natasha Legerro asks, “Male comics get laid after their shows. I never get laid doing this. Why do I do this?” Why, indeed? Do we ladies really need another reason not to be taken seriously?
My own humor spring bubbles forth from chaos. I'll drop the pretense of control faster than a leaky garbage bag. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t welcome the opportunity to do the same, though they may not do it in a funny way, or trust me enough to witness that moment. A woman's humor is social—it establishes intimacy. It says, 'We’re in the same boat, so let's undo the top button of our jeans and relax."
In the Vanity Fair article, Hitchen’s mentions (in the last paragraph) his “beloved”—a beloved who he, I’m assuming, didn’t find funny. Perhaps this beloved never trusted him enough to reveal her most social yet intimate self. Maybe because he never shut his mouth.
But Amy Lawless trusts us. A Lawless poem chases the bus with a broken heel and its skirt tucked into its panty hose. Her work recalls the cool socialness of the New York School, but with a healthy dose of self loathing thrown in. I like irreverence best when the speaker is standing barefoot in a kiddie pool of carnage, and behind Lawless’ pink lipstick lies some painful bleeding gums.
She’s the author of Noctis Licentia (Black Maze Books, 2008) and Elephants in Mourning ([sic] Press, 2012). Some poems are forthcoming in H_NGM_N, Lyre Lyre, and On the Escape. She was named a 2011 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in poetry. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn. Visit Amy’s blog here. She's amazing live. Catch her on April 24th at 8 p.m. with M.G. Martin, Marina Blitshteyn, Kevin Shea, and Allison Power on at The West on Union and Hope in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Is your sense of humor genetic, or are you a singular freak?
I could argue this both ways, but my father Googles me so I should be honest. I come from a very witty family. My mother has an eagle eye and has been known to do headstands at work to keep her coworkers entertained. My father jokes around all the time. My sister Molly is a comic book artist – super funny stuff. My little sister has yet to make money off of her hilarity, but she is pretty young. Many childhood memories of my dad saying something so funny that my mom would wet her pants. He’s that good.
When did you first realize you were funny?
My parents borrowed a camcorder from a friend when my little sister was born. I was eleven and pretty much had no interest in anything aside from Legos and watching Perfect Strangers. When the camera came on, so did I. I blocked the baby from the lens and began something called “The Amy Show” which hasn’t stopped running since that day. I feel the magic being watched. It’s really one of the few powers that I hold: reciting the truth, my truth, just for a few minutes. So the funniness did not begin with the writing of poetry and it doesn’t end there either.
When was the first time you made people laugh with your writing?
Right after college I started writing these weird epistle poems called “Celebrity Letters.” I would recite these at readings around Boston wearing a wide brimmed hat and slugging from a magnum of champagne. The gist: writing something really banal to a celebrity—I was taking the idea of a fan letter and making it egotistical. Instead of kissing the ass of the object/celebrity I would ask one if he’d read a book that I’d read or I’d describe the poor quality of the produce at the local food co-op. I only gave a few such readings (there’s only so much champagne a 23 year old can front).
How would you describe your sense of humor?
I find life – my life – to be completely humiliating sometimes. The things I endure as a human on Earth are at times excruciating. And I do not think that I am unique—I just write about it. There’s a wonderful D.H. Lawrence poem called “Humiliation” that I often return to. It’s really EMO, and I think that’s why I like it. These lines really get me because, well, what is the nature of humiliation?:
Think, I couldn't look towards death
Nor towards the future:
Only not look.
Stand still and bind and blind myself.
So here I see humiliation divided into three categories (I may be wrong. I often leave things out to suit the purposes of my own arguments):
Standing still: Bending over to pick up a dropped item. The rip of the shorts. One is in public. How does one move on from this? Can one move on? Must one just stand still? While standing still one won’t yet have to suffer the effects of having one’s ass hanging out in the air at H&M. If I just stay here and don’t move, no one can see me.
Bind: I think of self-loathing, repeating the humiliation over and over again in my head. Covering/binding myself like a mummy to shield myself from the pain of the glares of other humans.
Blind myself: If I don’t look at it, it won’t happen. This is “The Ostrich Effect.”
However, in my work, instead of putting my head in the sand, I often describe these “cringe-worthy” moments. To me these are the truths, these shape me, and I want to look at them, and repeat them not only in my head but for the reader. If I don’t acknowledge these bits that have shaped me the poem is not honest. By repeating them in a poem I’m truly just being real (whether emotionally or literally). I think there are many different ways to be honest. But yeah I took a dump when I was a baby in the bath and my sister freaked out. This somehow shaped me as a person. Again, my sister and I saw our dad’s penis by accident one summer and this made my mom laugh so hard she wet her pants. And yes, this shaped me as a person. Laughter, poop, and the body are very important to me. I am not quite sure what else I have on this weird world.
Oh and one more thing: one of my students brought in an article last week that stated psychologists have determined that when one sees someone in a humiliating situation, this makes the humiliated one more “likable” and it can bring people together. This connects to my work as well because, well, I want people to like me. Doesn’t everyone?
Additionally, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I’m not just a funny poet. I am a funny person. I can’t give an exegesis of why this is. And of my work: I’m not just a funny poet: I’m also a funny poet with undertones of sadness. Some of my poems are just flat out sad and lonely. Pointing out the humor is also pointing out the truth of something. When we laugh it is because there is a discord between what is expected and what is said/written and what is said taps into the truth or a truth. (P.S. that’s not my idea. I listen to the WTF Podcast [a humor podcast] religiously and these are ideas that have come up in the interviewing of comedians again and again.)
For you, how does comic timing and pace differ from the less funny bits of a poem?
It’s harder to be funny than it is to be dramatic. I think about what happens in the brain when something is funny, when something makes a body laugh. In order to laugh at a line of poems one must be paying attention. It’s very important to pay attention while reading a poem. I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy so I have ingested quite a bit of timing over the years: the call back, not being afraid of the long joke that doesn’t have a reward till the very end. But mostly, it’s intuitive, isn’t it? I also remember something Paul Violi said to me while we were workshopping part of thesis some years ago: “Be careful.” “Of what?” “Don’t seem like you’re having so good a time.” My brow furrowed. He continued, “Otherwise They’ll…” his voice trailed off, and he organized a gesture with his forehead and hand that was worth over a thousand words and I will not describe it... You see, poetry is a very serious business and by being funny we topple people into unexpected places. But yes, sometimes reading a funny poem happens so quickly because the reader is so interested. It doesn’t feel like reading a poem. Where’s the hard work? Where’s the John-Milton-Headache? And that’s just it: the John-Milton-Headache isn’t required for a poem to be enjoyed/good/meaningful/life changing.
Have you ever realized that you've crossed a line?
People will always be offended by things—myself included. One thing I like to do is actually acknowledge that the boundary has been crossed in the poem itself. I have this poem about Mohammed Ali being forced to pose, clench his fists, and stand on his tippy toes still – to this day – even as Parkinson’s rages throughout his body. In my poem I joke about how he should instead be photographed watching TV. Even though I shouldn’t have to do so, in the poem I write “I’m on the edge I know.” The edge is, of course, “the edge between appropriateness and inappropriateness.” However, upon thinking on this, I shouldn’t really have to apologize for acknowledging the truth in a poem. It is fucked up that Ali still poses like he did when he was in his 20s and healthy. I just want him to be OK like I want everyone to be OK. Maybe he wants to pose like that; I can’t know. Or maybe journalists goad him. Either way, I don’t see the harm in transparency.
Have you ever been dissed/dismissed for being a funny poet?
I’ve never been dissed to my knowledge due to writing a hilarious poem. Though one never can tell what’s going on behind one’s back. Sure I’ve had as many rejection letters as any poet out there, but I don’t think it’s due to my humor. Some people “just don’t get it.” Some have different aesthetics. And I don’t think that the poetry community is any different in this regard from any other community or group of people at large. Although I do often wonder why people would not embrace the funny poets. The world is such a fucked up place. How many wars are we in? Rush Limbaugh. Liz Trotta, and Rick Santorum. These people exist and operate this year. They’re absolutely hilarious in that they are given media attention despite the fact that they are backwards and pretty judgmental people and those among us who are charitable are horrified by their words. I already have a mother, so I don’t need anyone else telling me what to do. But what I really mean is that if there are absurd figures in our society, absurdity can be met with levity and humor to wonderful results.
Also the nature of the humorist is to hold that mirror up to those who are snoring their ways through life. Sure we will be disagreed with, but we will mostly be waking people up.
Do you decide to be funny, or does it just happen?
It just happens. I see the world with this brain and it is built in this way. There is so much discord, lack of reason, and lack of humanity all around us. If I don’t acknowledge it and write about it, I simply don’t know what else I would do. Perhaps it is a compulsion-based activity. If I didn’t write about the things that I find interesting, I wouldn’t write at all. I am inspired throughout the day by things that are weird or beautiful just like any poet. Maybe an advertisement, maybe a student says something interesting, maybe an email or text conversation with a friend sparks a debate, or maybe a photo in a tabloid.
I could see the same child walking down the street holding a balloon as any poet in the world and we would write it differently [‘slant’] due to personal experience, some hard-wired coding, and eyesight and perceptual variations. I might write about the balloon floating away, you might write about the dumpster where the deflated balloon carries out its decomposition alone and with subtle grandeur, and another poet might write about the child and its lost hope as a bite from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. All of these perspectives are wild and useful and filled with beauty.
Do you believe that you sacrifice anything when you choose to turn the poem down a funny road?
When I see someone laugh at something I say, it is the greatest thing in the world. Like a drug. And yes, I do think I sacrifice for this. I think there’s something about being the clown that puts one in the category of “other.” And no one wants to be an “other” – at least not at the get go. I’m already woman, and that’s hard enough. And I’m not writing erotic poems – then I’d be less lonely…. But I write sad and funny poems. I try not to think too much about this because it’s depressing. But if I wrote alliterative vagina poems maybe my life would be different. I certainly could; I just find that boring (as a subject of my own work).
But there is something about being a “Funny Woman” that is intimidating to other people. Healthy normal people can find a place for a funny woman in their brains, but usually these funny ladies aren’t the women who are sexualized. Think about the place of humor in …film and television: there are so many funny dudes out there who have a lot of time to spare and weed to smoke (e.g., Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock, Owen Wilson every day of his life, Jonah Hill, Louis CK when his kids are out of town)—though there are many TYPE A/energetic comedic roles for men. The funny women usually have a lot of business to take care of and not a lot of time to spare: Tina Fey, Whoopi, Lesley Mann, Amy Sedaris, etc. Responsibility is not shirked. Humor is not found in leisure for these characters. It is found in the daily rote tasks of life. I realize there are exceptions to this but where are the lounging couch-planted funny women? Oh wait, there aren’t any?
There are some writers who don’t take real chances in their work. When a poem is intended to have the reaction of laughter there is always the chance that people won’t find it funny. So too, there is always the chance that the reader will not see the world how I see it. It is very possible to not agree with my worldviews and yet still understand how I see it. However, what I love about the poets I love is that they will take chances with their work. I personally have nothing to lose. I am a single woman with student loan debt. I don’t have a husband and child or a mortgage or a car. Perhaps if I did have high-costing things that “held meaning” for me that were “mine” I would be less ballsy, but I hope not. I’m no hippy but I don’t really find much value in my physical possessions. I value ideas and conversation and, yeah, my people.
Who are your favorite funny people?
Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Chris Rock, Paul Violi, Bill Cosby, Cindy Sherman, Gary Lutz, Mark Twain, George Saunders, Frederick Seidel, and Tina Fey. I also love the unintentionally funny: Nietzsche, old people texting with their bifocals propped down real low, and ladies wearing wigs.
Do you think your humor in writing comes from a place of self-loathing?
Could there be a more terrifying question?
Tomorrow: Melissa Broder
stand still and bind
In a moment of teacher heat
I write dénouement on the chalkboard
Checked my clothed hip against the metal whiteboard to define the word
Ripping a line across my ass revealing my orange underwear
And pale skin.
My college students laughed at me uncharitably.
My god they laughed.
Something happened in Egypt that did not involve mummies.
Please I need a seamstress.
Dénouement (n): The unraveling of the knot.
The complexities of the plot.
I covered myself in toilet paper.
I sat on the toilet ashamed.
I held a doll with beautiful long hair.
I wished the hair had been cut from the head of a beautiful baby in Asia.
I wished I was holding an Asian baby corpse.
What wonderful company for sitting on the toilet and allowing each pee
Drop to seal itself into the bleached porcelain bowl.
I pulled the T.P. and wrapped it around my hand
Waiting until I heard and felt nothing.
Behind the closed bathroom door.
No one can see me like this.
If this toilet were a chair how far would my pee travel in order to say hi.
SUNT PUERI PUERI, PUERI PUERILIA TRACTANT
I try to keep people from knowing
a bucked-up deer came in my window.
I live on the fifth floor
where things that are sad are laughed at and vice versa.
That didn’t mean what I meant it to.
I might still be high from two nights ago.
I listen to the Kinks a lot. Then I try to come up with words
that mean hunger and loneliness. Not for a crossword puzzle though.
Crossword puzzles don’t allow invention.
It’s easier to take that hardhat and put it under my shirt
grab your hand and make you feel it baby.