Review: ‘Shitting on Elves & Other Poems’ by Loren Goodman and Pirooz Kalayeh

Shitting on Elves & Other Poems, by Loren Goodman and Pirooz Kalayeh. Tucson: New Michigan Press, 2020. Print. US$9.  50 Pages. ISBN 978-1-934832-75-2

Shitting on Elves and Other Poems is a collaboration between two writers (quick jaunt to wikipedia): an ex-pat-American professor-poet and an ex-pat-Iranian activist-film maker. I guess my first question is: why collaborate?

I mean, when people duet with Whitney Houston, it’s clear who’s at the mic. Literary collaborations run the risk of seeming like one writer had a half-baked idea and ran out of energy, so asked for help from another. Fair enough. Or maybe a more established writer is using it to send the elevator back down, to bring up a less experienced writer. Noble. Maybe it’s that Dada game, exquisite corpse, where just for fun one person writes, gives the last line to a new writer who continues, and then passes back their last line, etc. until they feel it’s done. Fun to do. I don’t know why these two writers teamed up for this particular book. If there’s one thing lockdown has driven home to me, it’s that even though it’s a necessity, I’m not a fan of interacting in masks. I want to know who’s speaking, and don’t think this collection quite melds into a unified voice. They may say to each other at one point, “you & I wear masks for other reasons,” but I felt tremendously clueless as a reader as to what any of the reasons might be. They do seem sympathetic to the reader, at one point saying to understand what it’s like to don a persona, “picture Sanford Meisner in the role of Fred Sanford.” Argh. So, assume a role without a method acting affect? Abstractions upon abstractions.

So, it’s hard to criticize something one doesn’t really understand on the one hand, but intuition kicks in and can be interesting, on the other. As Virginia Woolf advises, I’m going to follow my own instincts and come to my own conclusions. I’m at the screening with an open mind, as the collection advises.

What’s up with the title? There is no poem called “Shitting on Elves” included. To “shit on” is vulgar slang for to disrespect, and elves are kind of benevolent helpers.  Y u do? The collection calls to mind a comic I saw, it was the opening act for Dexy’s Midnight Runners in the 1980s, who stepped up to the mic and said nothing, and it made the audience really angry. This comic said nothing; people got crabby.

The collection has so many spoonerisms and malapropisms and puns that I was thinking maybe the title was code for Hitting on Selves, because it does seem like a private affair between the co-authors. One poem, “On Verde,” is repeated word-for-word as “On Verde II.” I honestly thought, my dudes, you did not. I read the whole collection cover-to-cover, and all I can say is I. don’t. know. I want to be a good critic but I also want to be nice, which in this dynamic feels fraught. :(  I think that might parallel the creative urge here. For instance, the poem “Eckhart Tolle” seems like word association riffing on the power of now, or, as the poem says, “the theatre of the now.”

Jay-Z

Is your DG

Dr. Oz

Is your entropy

Edvard Munch

Is home alone

McCaulay Culkin

Is friends with Elijah Wood

Fred MacMurray

Is an unknown entity

Now, thinking before of the exquisite corpse, I think Dadaism is a key here. It seems, tonally, like the right way to look at the chapbook. I like Dada, I’ve seen the automatic orchestra, held my breath in front of Schwitters collages and laughed out loud at his plays. However, I encountered those things in context (a special exhibit, a museum, an art history book). Maybe SOE&OP is these two writer’s personal Cabaret Voltaire, where they sought refuge in a shared world of words. This is their Hannah Hoch assemblage. (?!?)

I guess a takeaway on this collection might be that it’s good to think about the many manifestations the English language takes when it’s wielded in tandem by a native speaker of Farsi (immersed in English), and a native English speaker (who’s been immersed in Korean, Japanese, etc for a long time). There’s immaturity (fart jokes and such) but what’s it’s purpose? When Kurt Vonnegut imagined the evolution of mankind a million years from now in Galapagos, we had little hairy seal bodies but farts were still funny. I was thinking maybe this elementary humor bridges the speaker(s) to some important youthful trauma that has hitherto defied words, making their connections through celebrity shout-outs significant on a personal level.  And if that’s the case, then this collection is a triumph over past hurt.

“Dragging memories through a mirror

To place us together in a frame”…

That’s how the imaginary works

And how the caged bird sings:

‘THE BIRDS of all Note, Plumage, and Degree,

That float in the air; and roost upon the Tree;’

Are all that were ever in thee

I like that Swedish guy Felix/Pewdiepie. I’m not, however, interested in watching him narrate while streaming games.  Not my bag. Yet I respect his enthusiasm and dedication to his audience.

It’s at times funny, maybe it would be funnier to someone who is good at reading comedy. I’m a slave to the standup comedy set-up and punchline combo. Give me Anthony Jeselnik’s darkness any day of the week. The physical comedy of Sebastian Maniscalco ordering Chipotle, even Janeane Garofalo on the Bronte sisters. Maybe this is a shortcoming of mine.

Thinking about this book prompted me to sign up to take a comedy writing class, because I’m so lacking in skill to read funny things, I thought maybe I should learn something about writing it. *doffs cap*

In sum: I think the rhyming of cotillions and bazillions is where the spirit left my body. I give (both Pewdiepie and) Shitting on Elves 3 Stars.

★★★ = Much to Admire but Not Quite My Cuppa. Can be purchased directly from the publisher

 


 

C O N T A C T

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