For many women, getting people to laugh means getting people to laugh at them. It’s not all masochism. By positioning yourself lower than your reader—which can be accomplished by strolling onto the page wearing fake bucked teeth and gold lame stretch pants over a latex bubble butt and a pair of afro armpit merkins—the reader feels superior, lets his/her guard down, and is much more likely to get in your car without noticing all the blood stains on the upholstery. “Who does this idiot think she is?” the superior reader asks. “Dar dar dar! I am so dumb and uglies!” the self-deprecating poet sings as she drives off with reader locked from the outside in the back seat.
I use that trick all the time. What do I lose? Just my dignity. But I lose that every time I leave the house. What do I gain? It's like when I'm making out with a guy and it's really hot and he pulls back and opens his eyes and sees that I'm really Gabe Kaplan from Welcome Back Kotter. The look on that guy's face. That’s what I gain. That shocked, helpless face.
Melissa Broder never stoops to self deprecation. In the comedic tradition of Sandra Bernhard, her voices stand tall and proud, even when they’re doubled over, vomiting into a white patent leather waste basket. Her poems say, “Don’t laugh at me—laugh with me, but what, may I ask, is so funny about a grown woman making love to a humidifier?” Her humor is sharp, transgressive and so fierce, I've been told she has to carry her balls to work in a wheelbarrow. In about every fourth line of a Broder poem, I feel like Sam Neill in that scene in My Brilliant Career where Judy Davis strikes him across the face with a riding crop. And…I like it. OK? I do.
Mumbling (Mumblism?) seems to be a hot sound in poetry right now—that maddening ambivalence—that inexplicable refusal to commit to a concrete statement—but Broder speaks up in every line, and capably grabs the reigns of the moment.
Once in a workshop, poet James Galvin asked us, "What's more mysterious? A muddy pond, or a crystal clear stream—one in which every rock and every fish is visible?" "A muddy pond," a student mumbled. "Wrong," Galvin said.
Nowhere can you see the atoms clearer than in her tweets. Broder is a black belt in the Twitter dojo. Sample: "Traipsing around a garbage dump with an indie lit boy strapped to my back." She sets up and knocks back a joke that you don't see in coming, with a twist, in 140 characters. That's ninja sh*t.
She is the author of two collections of poems, WHEN YOU SAY ONE THING BUT MEAN YOUR MOTHER, and, most recently MEAT HEART. Poems appear in Guernica, Redivider, Court Green, The Missouri Review, et al. She edits La Petite Zine.
Is your sense of humor genetic, or are you a singular freak?
My Dad is very funny in a caustic, Marlboro smoking, let's-keep-the-humans-out-of-my-lair way. My Grandmom Eve stole plastic flowers from the "garden" in her apartment building and corsaged us with them. She gave us cream soda baths. My great uncle (or maybe 4th cousin?) the muckraker I.F. Stone was supposedly pretty sharp.
When did you first realize you were funny?
Seventh grade, peach schnapps, a basement.
When was the first time you made people laugh with your writing?
Third grade, rhyming poems.
How would you describe your sense of humor?
Fearful. Internally focused. I have a strong inner gaze. This doesn't mean I'm an introvert or that I'm deep. It means I spend most of the day thinking about me. I am always worrying about me. But I have an awareness about it and a language with which to speak about it—a watching me watch myself—and when I call it out I think a lot of humans can relate. It differs from self-deprecation, like a Richard Lewis-style for example, because it's more of a reportage of the self-obsession than a total a diss of the self. It's a soft diss. A forgiving diss?
For you, how does comic timing and pace differ from the less funny bits of a poem?
The place I'm most conscious of timing is in my tweets. It's very clear in that little space of 140 characters when you are "trying too hard" or when you're totally flat. You don’t want your punchline too "punchy." I like to do a lot of juxtaposition in my tweets, like stealing fragments from 70s psychology books or an image from a Hieronymus Bosch painting and juxtaposing them with my own fears. 99.9999999% of twitter feeds aren’t poetry but .0000001% are really tight and total poetics. Mark Leidner’s feed is poetry. Jason Sebastian Russo’s feed is poetry. Horse ebooks’ feed is poetry.
As for “poetry itself,” the past few years I've stopped trying to be funny in a narrative way, because I realized there's that risk of being a ham or, god-forbid, precious. So now I bring poems to readings that I don't think are necessarily funny. But people are still laughing. I'm like "No. I really do think vomit is sexy as hell."
Of course I'm aware that elements of my work are transgressive and may be funny in their strangeness. This is not me trying to shock. It's an exploration of what genuinely inspires me. It's me being like "Ok, here we go, I'm gonna get really honest and I hope maybe you can identify." This is the opposite of using humor to avoid intimacy (humor is a great tool for avoiding intimacy).
Have you ever realized that you’ve crossed a line?
Yes, when the poem lacks heart. When there’s humor but no emotional investment. Or when there’s emotional investment but no artfulness. If the poem was already published, I probably felt shitty.
Have you ever been dissed/dismissed for being a funny poet?
I've never been published in Pleiades. But no one has walked up to me and said "you suck." A wonderful freeing thing is the realization that it's impossible for everyone to dig your work.
Do you decide to be funny, or does it just happen?
Both. But when I “decide” to be funny I run the risk of failing at being funny. The best funny just lands on you.
Do you believe that you sacrifice anything when you choose to turn the poem down a funny road?
It depends if I'm hiding in the funny. If I'm using the funny to avoid intimacy, then yes, I think a certain level of heart is sacrificed. But if the funny is coming from the heart—if it's a cry for help, a plea: Please! Does anybody feel like I do? Then that is the best.
Who are your favorite funny people?
I’d say the best funny book of poems I read recently, which is also sad and sexy and fresh, is PARTYKNIFE by Dan Magers. That book is like a roving band of glimmering pimps with one self-conscious pimp on the outskirts kind of wondering how he got there. It’s really lovely.
In terms of standup comics who still tour, I adore Mo'Nique, Sommore and Louis CK.
Do you think your humor in writing comes from a place of self-loathing?
Uh oh. Well, I'll tell you this. I want to love myself. I really do. I want to love the me without the trappings. The essence. I do believe that the essence is love. So maybe on some level I already do love myself. But on an ego level, on the level of having a brain and a body, I itch all over. I'm really porous. I really care what you think of me. So sometimes humor is my protective suit. But other times, humor is a way of reaching out and trying to touch you. And touch me. And say look we're the same.
#hendrix (just kidding)
Tomorrow: Sharon Mesmer
Back from the flu today
so in love with power
I wore a paper nightie
over crinoline slippers
ghost nuns soaped my surfaces
we wish you could see
how not wrong you are
devoted only to helping me vomit
on an avalanche level
I forgot my dialect
of defects entirely
a furry creature
carcassed at the altar
I felt so righteous
I humped a humidifier
climaxed on the linens
dropped dead in tongues
a guilty future chimed
but my tea read stay
be not a saint
to a slice of honeyed toast
I was so touched
what I heard myself say.
Originally published in The Collagist
Binge Eating in 2067
Wild man is the same as me
starved into fractions.
We all are, the whole colony
raised on antennae
sugar cane screenshots
But I have a jaw that seeks chunks
and he has the heart of a fat man.
In his cabin we drink vapor gravy
snarf dust fowl, sediment meats.
Nothing is enough
he hangs me from the bunks
then slaps my growling stomach
until I spew static
making space for ash fish
and elemental octopi.
I find a thighbone in his mattress
and think of friends gone missing.
I hear my human heart beat
and wonder why he has utensils.
When he cooks a real live cassoulet
flesh and oil, no hoax
I turn my face from the tray
and put my fingers in his mouth.
Originally published in ACTION YES