On my way to school today I got an e-mail from Dan Savage, the brilliant sex columnist who writes for The Stranger in Seattle. It seems that eleven gay bars in Seattle have received threatening letters. Their author claims that he plans to poison at least five people in each of these bars one Saturday evening this month, with ricin; he sent a copy of the letter to The Stranger's obituary desk, informing them to expect 55 deaths. Savage had posted the text of the letter in an online column the paper hosts, and one of his readers recognized that a passage in the letter is lifted, word for word, from my poem "A Display of Mackerel." The quote isn't attributed, so it took a reader with a memory for poetry to catch it.
It's hard for me to describe how horrified I feel by this. On the literal level, my poem describes looking at a group of mackerel on ice in a fish market, and contemplating both their beauty and their apparent absence of individuation. The poem was written in 1994, in the awful latter days of the AIDS crisis here, when there was no hope in sight and the losses just went on and on. I wrote a number of poems then which try on positions toward the fact of mortality -- trying to make it bearable, at least for a little while, the notion that we lose what we love. No poem can do that, really, but the attempt to make meaning out of loss or to seek a way of understanding it is practically as old as poetry itself.
So -- now here are my lines twisted to a new context, and what was intended to suggest consolation is instead bent to an occasion for creating fear.
No writer, of course, has control over what readers do with the work, and that's as it should be. I like that people seem to inhabit poems, make them their own, by applying them to their own experience and needs. I've seen this happen again and again, where people find a meaning I did not exactly imagine but which is perfectly in line with the poem's intent. That's part of the art, this making of a meeting place between the interiority of the writer and that of the reader. I've never had this happen before, though, and it makes me want to -- I don't know, wash the poem clean?
Because the threat is so extreme, I'm hoping it's an ugly hoax.
(A side note: over on TowleRoad you can read the threatening letter itself, and many people have commented. One notes that the letter's prose is "grandiose" and so he's obviously a lunatic. Hey, that's not inflated psychopathic rhetoric, that's lyric poetry!)