Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Reader You Don't Want

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!)


Peter said...

I heard about this today through the Seattle King County Public Health Department, with a document about symptoms to watch for and treatment guidelines. It's a bit unsettling, to say the least.

jayme said...

i'm sorry mark. i read this on dan savage's blog today and did a bit of a double-take. i hope for everyone involved that the find the person responsible.

galincal said...

What a terrible feeling to have your art incorporated into such a threat. I truly hope it is only a hoax.

galincal said...

I was racking my brain to think of what this reminded me of. It just came to me, and how ironic. It reminded me of the passage in Paul's "Famous Builder" about Fred Phelps, and the question of what he'd do if Phelps' group used one of his hymns.

Miguel Murphy said...

Reminds me of the middle section of Cunningham's Specimen Days, in which Whitman's texts are used by a fundamentalist group to train young boys to be suicidal terrorists.

Dana said...

I haven't paid attention to the local news today, so I hadn't heard this troubling story until I read your post. I live in the Seattle area, and this feels like a tragedy. Even if nothing actually happens, something has in fact already happened, which is fear and intimidation.

I am so sorry your words were used like this.

lu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lu said...

Oh, Mark, I'm just sick for the whole of it. Unfortunately this is one of those pitfalls of celebrity. I imagine you don't often have the ugly side rear its head. Your words are pure and they don't soak up this kind of ugly--rest assured.

-the previous delete was to fix a silly error

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry, Mark. I remember the first time I heard this poem, you were reading it at a book fair in San Francisco, and the sun on gasoline splendor of the fish in their rows was an image that stayed with me over the years, never left. I just read it again, and it really is magnificent, that poem. It is, it's heartbreaking and awful to think of someone approaching this work with hatred and violence surging within them, but the poem holds its own power, its own protection, I think. I'll be thinking about you, and about ending threats and fear. And of the courage to explore beauty in unexpected places.

Imagined Therefore Limitless said...

How terrible to have that open and inviting space between poet, poem, and reader (mis)used this way. I hope nothing comes of this threat - thank you for creating another channel of awareness.

David@Montreal said...

your poem is as clean and pristine as the first time i laid eyes on it
-no need for any washing, literal or metaphysical.

as terrible as this is, perhaps you as one of the very finest poets alive will be able, in time, to mine this for art which will far outreach the effects of this sick mind in Seattle.

as if you needed me to tell you this- you know, you're blameless Mark.

so sit and stew Mark- grab a quick reassuring hug from Paul, and then write, that's what poets do!

Nancy Devine said...

i'm very saddened by this; my heart goes out to you.

Unknown said...

Israel is occupying Palestinian lands, and instead of conforming to the security council's resolution and retreat from Palestinian occupied lands, it brings settlers, women and children, and build settlements on the occupied lands to impose new reality defying the international law. Hamas is rocketing Israelis occupying the occupied lands, which is a legitimate resistance according to the international law. Israel, instead of stopping building settlements in occupied lands, and retreating from the occupied lands, they make a massacre to erase Gaza from the map. After all this, Hamas is considered terrorists! and Israel is defending itself. Hamas is hiding among civilians and Israel is protecting its citizens! What kind of logic is this? Hamas is not hiding among anybody, hamas are the natives, they belong to Gaza, its their land, they are the dwellers, the owners, if they leave Gaza, where do they go? well I know if settlers leave Gaza where will they go, they will be conforming to UN resolution. So who is hiding among civilians here? who is occupying the other? is it Palestinians who are occupying Israel or Israel is occupying Palestine? Is there any justice in this world?
Levni says “we don’t have any problems with Palestinians our problem is with hamas”, in other words, “we want to occupy Palestinian lands and siege Palestinians, if they accept then we don’t have any problem with them, we only have problems with those who refuse to be occupied or to be in siege”
I hope you are enjoying the inevitable bloodshed of children.
If this coward operation weakens hamas it is going to weaken them in favour of al-qaeda.
Let me explain more, among the alleged “terrorist” groups, Hamas and Hizbollah are considered moderate, or even retreating, because they are concerned with national liberation, that is: liberating only my country from the occupier. As Nassrallah said: freeing Palestine is the Palestinian business, we support them with moral solidarity, but we are Lebanese, freeing Lebanese territories is our only business.
That is what is called national liberation movement.
While al-qaeda members believe in international liberation, that is to say: we are not going to be able to free our territories unless we destroy the imperialist system. We belong to the world and we have to liberate the world from such a system. (you know they are closer to Bush’s pattern of thinking – democratizing the world or freeing the world)
So when Israel commits such a massacre for babies and children and women, and the “civilized” world find excuses for Israel, and blame the victim instead of blaming the aggressor, the new generation will grow to believe that it is really not a problem of Israeli occupation, it is a problem of international imperialist system which backs Israel. By now, I know some youth who started to say: it seems that bin Laden was right, our battle is not on our lands, we are not allowed to free our lands because of the accomplice of the world.
Again, when people are occupied what usually they do? What did French do when they were occupied by the Nazi? What did George Washington do when he was leading the independence war? What did Churchill do when he was facing Germany? What usually people do to liberate their occupied lands?

Collin Kelley said...

Miguel was reading my mind -- or maybe I was reading his -- making the connection to Cunningham's Specimen Days. I thought the exact same thing when I read this on Towleroad a bit ago. Sorry your beautiful words are being twisted this way.

Sandra said...

I'm so sorry this happened to your work. You don't deserve this ugly nonsense. I've enjoyed your poetry for some time. And I've read "A Display of Mackerel", a fine poem. Let's hope this blows over-quickly.