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Ad-Verse Reactions: Poets / writers Jerome Sala and Jack Skelley quiz each other on advertising, pop culture, late-stage Capitalism and monsters

HowMuch

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Both Jerome Sala and Jack Skelley have just released “new and selected” volumes. Both writers have had careers in advertising and PR. Both use pop culture (and many other related subject matters) as thematic material. Now both are interviewing each other.

Jerome Sala’s book is How Much? New and Selected Poems (NYQ Books). Jack Skelley’s book is Interstellar Theme Park: New and Selected Writing (BlazeVOX books). Other works by Jerome include Corporations Are People, Too! (NYQ Books) and The Cheapskates (Lunar Chandelier). Jack recently released Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press), and Semiotext(e) will publish his “secretly legendary” novel Fear of Kathy Acker in April 2023. Sala lives in New York City, Skelley in Los Angeles.

Jerome Sala Though your poems use pop characters sometimes decades old, they never seem dated. I’ve noticed something similar when doing readings of my own work. I can read a poem that contains the pop culture of years ago, and yet people respond to it as if it’s written yesterday. This suggests that as much as culture has changed, something has stayed the same. What are your theories on the currency of your work?

Jack Skelley. It’s funny how popular culture, long considered ephemeral, has persisted and infiltrated high culture. And not just Boomer-era figures, either. (Boomer culture is rightly condemned, I think, for its domination.). But more recent stars, moguls, etc., if iconic enough, may attain “pop archetype” status, despite the atomization of the culture at large. It has something to do with an inherent, trans-historical, human need to idolize. So I am inspired by current figures too: Divas such as Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Lana del Rey appear in my book. The attempt is not simply to cash-in on their name recognition – not that there’s anything wrong with that! – but to extract from them – or even assign to them – an imaginative resonance.

Jack Skelley: You milk current trends and icons as well. How Much? has meditations on sitcoms, a wide range of movies, sports stars (Charles Barkley) and, perhaps most prominently commercial products. A series of entertaining poems analyze the marketing missteps of Coke products. How do you explain your attraction to these themes?

Jerome Sala: The Oulipo Group of writers, who designed a collection of wildly creative writing experiments, devised one called “translexical translation.” The way it works is that you recast any text in a new vocabulary, such as rewriting a classic in the language of today (their example was a piece entitled “Skinhead Hamlet”). When I read this, I realized a lot of my own poems did something similar but on a conceptual, rather than strictly linguistic, level. Instead of philosophizing about the meaning of life, for example, I have written poems debating the meaning of Coke, as you mentioned. I’m fascinated by how the spiritual values of our world have been secularized by media, commodification, and simulation. To explore this, I like to take what seem like the most fleeting instances of culture and write about them as if they were holy monuments, carved in stone. I think the same sort of dialectic, a mock-heroic mode really, is the source of the humor in both of our works.

Jerome Sala. We have both been professional writers of ads, PR, web “content”,etc., rather than follow the usual path of the poet/teacher. What are some of the ways this has affected your work? And how has writing poems and fictions influenced your business writing?

Jack Skelley. Like you, I draw a lot of absurdist humor from “ad-speak.” But also, on a formalistic level, there is an epigrammatic concision to good ad copy. For me, the most impactful taglines are the shortest: seven words or fewer of pure definition or motivation. (I tend to break taglines into two types: definitional or inspirational types.) And although I love a poem or story that veers into wild, uncharted spaces, I also want every word to count. Which is why puns and wordplay – where a turn of phrase packs more than one meaning, providing a little brain-orgasm – are so important in both verse and advertising. I also like to toy with marketing forms. My poem “Athena del Rey” is composed as a press release, for example.

But I want to hear your thoughts on the same question… Can you detail how your creative writing has influenced your business writing and vice versa?

Jerome Sala: Somewhere in John Dewey’s classic Art as Experience, he writes that advances in one art are sometimes accomplished by borrowing the forms and practices of another. It’s fun to take this idea literally. So, like you, I’ve borrowed the forms of advertising for poems. I’ve incorporated TV commercial formats (“Variations on a Theme by Subaru”), sweepstakes letters (“Dear Potential Millionaire”), and product proposals (“The Individuals Club”). I used to write a form of advertising called “Direct Response,” which asks for an action in a blatant, almost confrontational way. In keeping with this approach, sometimes I dare my own poetic writing to be as direct as possible. As for my business writing, I’ve employed many poetic practices—such as elaborate, sometimes bizarre metaphors. These work especially well as lead paragraphs in “thought leadership” articles.

Jerome Sala
. One of the joys of Interstellar Theme Park is how it not only makes fun of pop excess but celebrates it. Some poems are dark and dystopian, others ecstatic and utopian—and many with aspects of both. I wonder if the book is saying our culture could go either toward doom or heaven. Care to comment on this mix of moods?

Jack Skelley. The tension between dystopia and utopia constantly vexes.  As a supposedly enlightened (post) Modernist, I feel a responsibility to confront suffering and existential anguish. The darkness is always there. And yet something guides me (and many others) back to transcendence and resolution. If you look through the literary canon, it’s an ever-present thematic mixture. Percy Shelley wrote some of the most lyrical poesy of the Romantics. But it’s in the service of hardcore political, social and sexual liberation. Riffing on Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in my title poem “Interstellar Theme Park,” I wrote the line, “I want thick, chewy anarchy in a candy-colored shell,” which kind of sums up this conflict. At the opposite end of the cycle, there are dark Modernists such as Samuel Beckett. But even his plays circle – endlessly, nauseatingly sometimes – around a yearning for transcendence.

Jerome Sala. In a poem like “The Gospel of Elon” you rewrite a Gnostic myth using contemporary business and pop culture. This creates a satiric tone. At the same time, it translates a mystic text into our contemporary, secular culture. I’m fascinated by the integration of the visionary and the mundane in your writing. Your work is both funny and illuminating. Are you, like Blake, following “the road of excess to the palace of wisdom”?

Jack Skelley. That Blake reference – from The Proverbs of Hell – is classic. There certainly are palatial excesses in business rhetoric. I mock for many reasons. Priests of money such as Elon Musk drape themselves in false grandeur. And the language of Gnostic Gospels gets wildly grandiose. Psychedelic. Among Gnosticism’s spectacular tropes are long lists of higher beings. One passage of my “Gospel of Elon” poem adds brand names:

                        Metatron was also called Enoch,

                        The Lesser Yahweh, Yaldabaoth,

                        Verizon, Celebrex, Alcatel,

                        Lucent and 700 other titles.

Jack Skelley. Of course, Jerome, you explode the language of business and advertising much farther than I do. A major section of How Much? includes your “Corporate Sonnets.” These 30 formally satisfying and amusing poems layer clichés to gather gravitas. And their high irony channels sonneteers from Edmund Spencer to Ted Berrigan. Can you tell how you landed on this cool concept?

Jerome Sala: I remember an art director once told me, “I’m going to strangle the next person who tells me to ‘think outside of the box.’” Moments like that wake your ears up to the degree that everyday working life is structured around cliché. A line made of two clichés instantly came to me— “I don’t know if I still have the bandwidth / To think outside of the box…” and I wrote a short poem composed of such expressions. People enjoyed it so much I thought why not a sonnet sequence derived from such language.  When I read these poems aloud, people who worked in offices or freelance burst out laughing. Some even thanked me, as if these poems were a sort of public service. In fact, people from all types of work have told me their daily life is filled with such jargon. Those who work in factories, academic departments, even social work could all do their own version of “Corporate Sonnets.” I think hearing such language formalized helps free you from its influence. Work occupies most of our waking life. Shouldn’t it be the center of our poetry?

Jack Skelley. Extending the gleeful mockery of corporate speak, several of your poems address economic issues, and tie them back to the subject of art or poetry. One example is “The Second Coming of the Stimulus Checks.” Both communism and capitalism are targets. Tell us about your attraction to commodities, monetary policy, etc? Does it spring from political positions or what?

Jerome Sala: In that poem, I was fascinated by how quickly the shift happened from one kind of economic policy to another. Before the pandemic, we were in the era of neo-liberalism—austerity, entrepreneurialism, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, “rugged individual” ideology. These doctrines were preached obnoxiously from all corners of the culture. Then, when the pandemic hit, even the most rightwing economists seemed to realize the economy needed to be fed cash, and lots of it (“restorative financial yoga”) if we were to avoid a meltdown. In the poem, I was making fun of the old entrepreneurial ideologies of right wingers, but I was also getting impatient with more leftist thinkers—with whom I usually identify. The reason: even though the old neoliberalism was dead, many couldn’t let go of it. There was very little theorizing about the new post-Keynesianism, accompanied by loudmouth authoritarians. Also, I was fascinated by MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) that, instead of seeing money as “evil,” was now exploring its use as a social good. Wallace Stevens once quipped that “money is a kind of poetry.” I think poems inspired by that idea can become subversive in interesting ways.

Jerome Sala. How have L.A. and Disneyland inspired your work? It seems these locales, as “Disneyland Dreams” suggests, are especially adept at blending dream with reality. Your writing suggests there’s an inherently trippy quality to the city. Can you elaborate?

Jack Skelley. Oh man. I could go on forever about the Los Angeles creative milieu. For starters, this is where I was born and mainlined the “dream machine” entertainment ethos of TV, movies and music. Growing up here – where location shoots are a daily occurrence – gives one a healthy, behind-the-scenes snark towards the business. But the impact of Disney and theme parks – what I call “Disneyfication” in my Author’s Intro – goes deeper. My first childhood memory is seeing Mickey Mouse and Pluto wall decorations from my baby crib. That’s some powerful pre-verbal branding! And to this day I dream variations on dark rides and theme parks. These archetypal forms mirror parts of the psyche. The book title, Interstellar Theme Park, satirically posits the amusement park as a metaphor for cosmology, the essentially literary act of creation. I nearly included a second epigraph: Paul Valery’s belief that “the universe is built on a plan, the profound symmetry of which is somehow present in the inner structure of our intellect.”

That symmetrical plan manifests as a Jungian, mandala-like map of Disneyland. In this context, much of my stuff references the universe as an ultimate narrative – a Divina Commedia… accent on comedy.

Jack Skelley. Tell us about your literary influences. I love how many of your poems make a rhetorical argument about a certain topic, often in a compressed, conversational style. Not unlike Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard and others of the New York School. But there are also poets and writers who doubled as copywriters. You even clued me in to Beat poet Lew Welch, who is rumored to have come up with the fantastic tagline “Raid Kills Bugs Dead!” Is this a genre?

Jerome Sala: I seem to remember the philosopher Theodor Adorno once commenting that the challenge Brecht set for himself was to create didactic art in an age that was suspicious of it. The milieu in which my own writing came of age has looked down on the “message” poem. This inspired me to try to go the other way—to write poems where “message” was blatant—and still work as poetry. “Message” poems are my own version of “agit-prop,” a genre of writing that was abandoned after the 60s. And I think there is a connection with commercial writing. Vladimir Mayakovsky, aside from being a revolutionary poet, was also, of course, a copywriter. I think he saw the discipline, a sort of writing technology really, as excellent training for literary pursuits. Add to that the fact that poems are ads for themselves: they’ve got to sell you on reading them!

Jack Skelley. Lightning Round: 15 words max per question.

Who is your favorite monster?

Jack: Bride of Frankenstein. What a hottie!

Jerome: Godzilla—who reminds us to stop screwing around with the planet.

Can drugs and poetry get along? If yes, which drugs?

Jerome: I rely on dense philosophical books and meditation—great mental highs.

Jack: Lately I steal from psychedelic botanist Terence McKenna. Mushrooms spoke to him.

Who is your favorite pop artist?

Jerome: St. Vincent—Bowie… at least for today!

Jack: Dua Lipa. Such great remixes! Also for today at least.

How do you use social media to market your writing?

Jerome: I’m old-fashioned. I still have a blog: https://espressobongo.typepad.com/

Jack: On Instagram I’m @HelterSkelley. My kids will disown me if I join Tik-Tok.


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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