Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kate and Sarah, Kate and Amelia, Kate and Kate . . .

While surfing two months ago – on the internet, alas, not the ocean – I came across a poem that blew my mind.

Titled “23 Erotic Dreams of Sarah Palin” and written about a year ago by Los Angeles poet Kate Durbin, the poem takes a potentially tired or trite main subject (hint: not the number 23 or erotic dreams) and makes something amazing.

As the visuals just above suggest, Durbin’s “23 Erotic Dreams of Sarah Palin” is a Denali of a poem, a growling grizzly that mauls the former governor’s (and now best-selling author-to-be and future who-knows-what) “vote-for-me I’m from Alaska, a woman, and sexy” persona, and the media/public’s considerable role in perpetuating all that.

The poem consists of twenty-three quasi-sentences (each ends in a series of ellipses), each of which begins, “I dream of Sarah” and then end with a variety of matters that Durbin imagines, or perhaps actually dreamed, about Palin.

These dreams, these sentences, are w-i-c-k-e-d. Wicked as in nasty, rude, unruly, and – and this is largely what makes this poem great and memorable – subversively smart, whip-smart, in almost every sense of that latter word. This poem is intelligent, clever, brisk, and (especially) sharply severe. It’s a most convincing pin-her-to-the-tundra take down of Palin, and of the disturbing stereotyping that surrounded the woman.

Here, from near the poem’s end, is a sequence of four of its twenty-three one sentence dreams:
I dream of Sarah with guns.......................

I dream of Sarah stuffing an owl she shot herself.......................

I dream of Sarah licking the stuffed owl.......................

I dream of Sarah shoving the owl’s beak up her asshole.......................
I love how these lines take-it-one-step-at-a-time until it breaks, gloriously, into that space where the gravitational forces of decorum and politeness no longer reign. The first two lines, about the guns and stuffing an owl, are quite plausible visions given that we all were told that Palin hunts and can field dress a moose. The second one though, is surely a step beyond the first: more vivid, a more pointed dream-shot of its subject’s personality.

The third line is another step further still. Although weird animal fetishes such as stroking a rabbit’s foot good luck charm have their place, licking a stuffed owl is quite unusual, shockingly so, I’d say, when a visual is overlaid on Durbin’s words.

The final line, a fevered licentious image that’s hilarious too, takes the big step, an oooo-oh-wow one-giant-leap-into-orbit. An orbit of sublime transgressive outrageousness. And it gets there through what I must call a great poetic use of momentum, in which images accelerate atop one another until, as said above, it all breaks free.

The four lines above, I kid you not, are among the most mild in Durbin’s poem. “23 Erotic Dreams of Sarah Palin” is a riotous and libertine read. It is also a great critique of the Palin persona, and the over-sexualized frenzy of the media and public. Judge for thyself, if you please. The full poem – the four lines above, plus nineteen others – is right here: it’s just a click away, it’s just a click away, a click away, a click away!


Reading “23 Erotic Dreams” I quickly asked, “what else has Kate Durbin written?” And so I sent away for her very recently (in August) published book of poems, her first perfectbound collection, The Ravenous Audience.

Kate Durbin
The Ravenous Audience

(Los Angeles: Black Goat c/o New York: Akashic Books (2009))

I was not necessarily expecting to find in The Ravenous Audience poetry precisely like “23 Erotic Dreams” (that poem, by the way, is not included in the book). Creativity, no less than personality, has – or can have – many facets. A writer need not work on nor present to the world but one angle or face. Having loved Durbin’s Palin poem, I bought and read her book, to she what else she might do with words. This here – the remainder of this post – is my report.

The Ravenous Audience has about three dozen poems. Eight, as Durbin writes in the notes that follow the poems, are “variations on the films” of the French Director Catherine Breillat. Two others are also informed or inspired by films, and a half-dozen others arise from, are informed by, or were sparked by the creative work of others. There are two poems about Marilyn Monroe, arising from published biographies or magazine articles about the icon, and three very short poems that respond to advertisements in 1950s Vogue magazines. There are also about fifteen additional poems.


One of those fifteen other poems – “Amelia Earhart: Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot” – is at thirty pages by far the longest poem in the book. Underlying the poem is the theory that the pioneering aviator and her male flying partner, who vanished in 1937 while flying around the world, crashed near an isolated South Pacific atoll on which they survived for several days. To this theory, Durbin adds the premise that Earhart throughout her life, including during and after the crash of her final flight, kept a diary of sorts, that she tucked her final entries, covering the flight and post-crash days, into her shoe, and that these were later discovered.

(The theory underlying Durbin’s poetic premise is not entirely far-fetched. In recent years, bits of a woman’s and a man’s shoes dating from the 1930s, along with what may be pieces of an airplane, have been found on Nikumaroro, a small, uninhabited coral atoll in the Pacific. Some now hypothesize that Earhart and her flying partner crashed and survived there. Among many Earhart books published in recent years (the resonance of the aviator and her story remain strong in the culture at large) is Amelia Earhart’s Shoes, which discusses this theory.)

Durbin’s poem, then, takes the form of excerpts from that imagined diary, and more specifically consists of a series of very short sections, one to a page (each having a one word title), with the text almost entirely in very spare prose. It’s a poetic Earhart interior over time monologue, of a kind. “Channeling Amelia,” if you will.

Here are two consecutive sections from early on in the poem, in which Earhart (the voice of Earhart, of course, written by Durbin) recounts two of her first experiences with flying (note: the initial “F” is used to denote Fred Noonan, Earhart’s first instructor and flying partner, and the solid line indicates a page break):


When the little red plane at the stunt-flying exhibition swooped
down on us girls, I imagined I could see a smirk on the male pilot’s
lips. Watch the girls scatter!

That bold redness hurtling at me, a fireball from heaven. And the
wind, that heady roar —

That pleasure. That fear.
Staying my ground.



F took me up in his plane one indigo morning. At 100 feet, ground
shrinking, blue increasing – I felt the pull of earth, the solid home.


At 300 feet, I knew I was meant for indefinite sky.

These excerpts, I caution, are not fair to the poem. There is much in Durbin’s “Amelia Earhart,” recurring words or images, or appraoches to words, that echo between its thirty sections. The resulting reverb and reflections create sonic, emotional and intellectual depth that can’t be heard, felt, or seen when passages are presented outside the poem’s whole.

Still, the sections above do show some (though not all) of the key themes or concerns of the poem, as well as some of how Durbin goes about her writing here. Obviously, there’s Earhart’s independence, commitment and assertiveness, particularly in the face of male arrogance, her sensuality, and her love of adventure.

I see a parallel, or imagine one, between Earhart love of adventure here, and anyone’s, including Durbin and her readers (and thus my own) mad love of poetry (writing or reading it), and/or of the rushing desire of lust-love. The terms Durbin/Earhart uses (“heady roar”, “[s]oaring”, “indefinite sky”) apply equally to all flights, be they aerodynamic or creative or romantic. The perseverance of the young Amelia, “[s]taying [her] ground” as “a fireball from heaven” hurtles at her, similarly transfers: think of the poet as an auditory receiver, her mind firm as bursting bolides of thought rush in.

Durbin’s method in these sections, as throughout this poem, is not minimalist but almost so. The text is spare. The narrative and its poetic task are advanced by relatively few words. This has the advantage of leaving lots of space – and there is literally lots of blank space on each page – for the echoes and reflections mentioned above to do their thing. It also almost entirely inoculates against over-writing, and the false or cloying notes that are an inherent danger when imagining the inner life of well-known person.

The spareness also makes for good, as in sharp, writing. There’s a lot conveyed by Durbin, concerning the spectrum or mix of emotions, in the line, made of two sentences and but four words,
That pleasure. That fear.
The signal example of Durbin’s brevity in the excerpts above, obviously, is the one word second paragraph of “SKY”:
That’s one great verb, and the only word she needs right there. It not only denotes the unfettered upward flight Earhart experienced, but connotes freedom and grace, as well. There’s also the (coincidental?) with the overlay of the final “r” of the verb’s root with the “ing” suffix/gerund – and thus “ring – suggesting celebration in its sound and meaning.

Durbin’s “Amelia Earhart” explores other facets of the aviator’s personality or concerns, including her love for her husband, domesticity, and blood (including menstruation). Of course, there’s the story, of the crash and the struggle to survive. It’s a tribute to Durbin’s writing that the end is effective and moving even though how it all turns out is, of course, well known.

Durbin’s poem was originally published earlier this year as a stand-alone chapbook, Fragments Found in a 1937 Aviator’s Boot (Chicago: Dancing Girl Press, 2009). That book has a tremendous cover, with a little red plane in a woman’s hand against a sky-blue background:

I prefer this chapbook version, and greatly so, frankly, because of its smaller size. As mentioned above, white space is important so that the text’s echoes have room to ripple out, but in The Ravenous Audience, with great gulfs of blank space at the bottom of each page, seems to have too much of it for this poem. More pleasing to the eye and mind is the relation of text to page in the Dancing Girl Press chapbook, where the page bottom blank space is about half of what it is in the larger collection. Plus it has that cover!


Another extremely effective poem in The Ravenous Audience is “New Creature.” It’s a six page, fifteen section prose poem, although as in “Amelia Earhart” some of the sections are very short. The subject matter is serious: a father rapes his daughter in a barn; the daughter then flees, naked, into a forest. It’s a narrative poem, and Durbin tells it, superbly, in a way that makes it kind of a myth. As implied by the title, there is in “New Creature” a transformation (buy the book, read the poem, and see what kind). As such, and not to put too much weight on the poem’s shoulders, but I see it as a kind of modern supplement to some of the tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Durbin’s poem-myth, in its taut telling, has plenty of vivid here-and-now details that bring the reader into the story. Here in its entirety is section III (again, of fifteen) of “New Creature”; the girl, having escaped from the violent sexual attack, is now deep in the forest. Note the tautness of Durbin’s writing, her cinematic approach and animated details:
There is wind on skin. There is the moon, its mercurial shining. Dirt
underfoot. Her steps slowing. Her breath also slowing.

Sounds grow louder and more varied. The nightingale’s trill. The
gossip of rodents. The crunching of twigs. In air the sleepy, heady
scent of growing things. Faintly familiar. Recalling childhood, her
long-dead mother.

It is here in the forest’s dense secrecy that she knows she is meant
to die.

When she is too tired to lift her feet, she stops to feed on berries,
which glow wine in starlight. She drinks from a midnight pool. Her
reflection startles her – red hair surrounding pale face like a Christmas
wreath, nipples rigid and pink as the noses of barn mice.

She falls asleep, one hand dipped in silvery water.

Ripples go out from the tips of her fingers, where tiny fish come to

The first part of The Ravenous Audience is bracketed by two complementary poems, “Learning to Read” and “Unlearning To Read.” These prose poems show, I think, something about Durbin’s different-than-most folks way of seeing the world, or at least the world of, and the world made by, words.

“Learning to Read” is a presumably autobiographical piece concerning exactly what the title says. There are many variations when learning to read, I think. It can be a long struggle, for example, with the child taking two steps forward then one back, tutored by parents and/or teachers, gradually building vocabulary and slowly learning how to put words together.

Durbin in her poem’s first sentences tells us she doesn’t “remember learning how” to read, Only not knowing, then knowing.” That moment, beautifully told, came while in the car her mom, when suddenly billboards, or the over-sized words on them, suddenly came to life, with Durbin reading them “first with pleasure, then fear as I began to realize this wasn’t a television I could turn off . . .” After giving examples of what was coming at her, Durbin writes:
The words howled at me, insistent, like my cat stuck on the
windowsill outside my room in a night storm. I listened to his cries but
was too afraid of the wind whipping the soggy hairs of the willow
against my window to get out from under the covers and let him in.
Afraid of him, too – all yellow eyes, melting fur, bones.

The billboards, more than I could count, rushed past. Still howling.

I said to my mother: I can’t stop reading. How do I?

She laughed. That’s what happens when you learn words – you can’t ever go back!
Ha! Words as a howling nightmarish horror that never ends! Now that’s a unique take. It reminds me of the late great artist Bruce Conner told, of being first taken to the movies as a child, being told how wondrous it would be, but then in fact getting scared as all hell by the GIANT twenty foot tall moving images of Shirley Temple on the screen of the darkened theater. I find the kind of out-of-kilter, off-the-norm reactions of the kind related by Durbin and Conner to be fascinating, and sometimes key to subsequent creative work.

The complementary prose poem “Unlearning To Read” – I think that title phrase is meant to obversely suggest learning to write – surely shows some of Durbin’s particular approach. It’s also a powerhouse of writing, the poem in The Ravenous Audience closest to the remarkable start-to-finish energy of her Palin poem. After epigraphs from Kathy Acker, the Bible, and Antonin Artaud (“All language is pig shit”), the poem begins thus:
Words, dreams, rain pissing on leaves, gorging gutters, blood
congealing in a toilet bowl in a thick dark mass, two dogs banging
in the dirt, a human heart swelling –

A rat gnaws a dead doe. Years later the same rat will sink into the
black soil of the forest floor. Ripe cherries will drop from the tree,
embedding into the tender corpse. Rain will fall. Another tree will
grow, thrive.

What does it mean for the word to come alive? Built by bone,
stitched together with skin?

Abraham stands above Isaac, knife slicing the sky . . . .
This just sends me. It’s fresh, surprising, vivid: rain pissing, blood in the bowl, dogs fucking, knife slicing the sky, and all the rest, and all put down in rat-a-tat-tat bursts of words.

The poem – which goes for about a page and a half, including the epigraphs – ends Durbin declares her approach to writing, proffers a kind of theory of language. It follows well from the Acker/Artaud epigraphs, but is Durbin’s own, and like the poem’s first paragraphs (quoted above) is unforgettable, I think you will agree:
                                    . . . I shit words; vomit them like someone else’s bile
out of my mouth. Crap them from my pen. Rub them into my hide.
Paint them across my lips.

These, my monsters. Makeshift. One-eyed. Three-limbed. Built
of old bones, feces, dirt. Set ticking with some ancient, nameless
creature’s stolen, still-throbbing heart.
This way of writing, this vision of words – and the way it’s all told, with those short, taut sentences – is more than enough to make me come back to Durbin’s book, and all that she writes in the future, for a good long time.


I should but will not – as this post already seems fairly long – discuss other of my favorites in The Ravenous Audience. I’ll mention one, though: “36 Fillette”, a series of statements, made by men to a young girl in the Breillat film of the same title, presented by Durbin one-by-one across and down-the-page, forming a word collage of male misogyny, exploitation, objectifying and arrogant assumptions of power. You can, courtesy of the Drunken Boat on-line ‘zine, read “36 Fillette” here (click through, if you please) and/or listen to Durbin read it here (again, click through).

I should also discuss, in some overarching manner, Durbin’s takes on gender roles, as many of the poems, as I’ve indicated when mentioning or discussing them above, have matters important to being a woman as a central concern. The publisher on the back cover asserts the book is a “feminist revisionist text[],” but one done on Durbin’s terms. As the publisher puts it, she “throws the reader, and the poet, into the cauldron.” Sometimes these back cover pitches are but puffery and hype. Not here, not at all. Check it out, I strongly recommend, and you’ll see what I mean.


Kate Durbin

Update: October 12, 2009:
An interview with Durbin about The Ravenous Audience
has just been posted by her publisher
(click here to go)

Note: although Durbin’s editor/interviewer and I
have the same last name,
we are not, to my knowledge, related
(though we probably are, distantly)
and have never met or corresponded



Conrad DiDiodato said...

I don't know about Durbin's 'Earhart' poem but Amelia sure was cute, eh?

Steven Fama said...

Dear Conrad,

hmmmm . . . as a kid and still today, what attracted/attracts me to, and fascinated/fascinates me about, Amelia Earhart, was that she flew planes across oceans, and tried to take one 'round the world, when not (m)any women did that, and then at the height of it all, vanished. She's adventure and exploration, a pioneer, and mystery -- a great mystery.

None of that really fits with "cute" for me, since the term, by its dictionary definition, strongly implies daintiness. However, I can go with the word's alternative definition: keen - clever - shrewd.

As I suggested (in passing, I know) in the post, there continues to be a high level of interest in Earhart. See for example the long article about her by Judith Thurman in the September 14, 2009 issue of The New Yorker (it mentions some of the books published in the last couple of decades, including recently). Earhart in that way remains "hot," seventy years after she disappeared.

Durbin's poem -- and maybe I should have said this better -- imagines a more human figure than the women of whom we (me) often make a myth, and of course also gives a try, a good poetic try, at providing a "solution" (my word) the great mystery of her vanishing.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I meant it in all of those senses you've delineated. She's good matter for poetry: Durbin's tone & language are exactly suited to her subject. I'm a little taken with her in the same way I've been taken with Marilyn Monroe, failed tragic heroines whose personal attractiveness rather than shielding served (to my mind) to illustrate the more culturally interesting 'iconicity' (if you know what I mean)

One day poetry will be written about Paris Hilton (don't laugh)

Kate Durbin said...


Both Monroe & Earhart are in my collection, for those reasons you've outlined above.

I considered Lindsay Lohan for the collection as well (not Paris Hilton as she's not really a tragic figure), because of her connection to Monroe (she did a series of photos w/ Bert Stern, recreating Marilyn's Last Sitting for New York Magazine, and in some ways sees herself as the new Marilyn). So I think you are right that one day poems will be written about these new icons--but they may come sooner rather than later!

Ed Baker said...

she's good.. re:freshing..
thanks for the intro

you know:

words don't fail the poet
the poet fails the words

Conrad DiDiodato said...


certainly tragic she isn't (at least not yet)but Paris Hilton does have this interesting self-reflexive thing about her. That mock-ad she did for McCain was an eye-opener for me.I tend to see her a little differently now

She's a creature of pure Spectacle, and for that she's worthy of poetry, too.

By the bay, wouldn't you include Mina Loy in that mix?

Ed Baker said...

cer tainly Mina Loy

(maybe) Louise Brooks?

Kate Durbin said...

Conrad--I do think P. Hilton is very interesting--especially as someone who has crafted her own fame when essentially she has no substantial talents or desires other than to "be famous". She also, as you point out, has no problem making fun of herself (is self-aware), which makes her more difficult to dismiss. One wonders if she is out to mock our notions of celebrity and our obsession with them as god figures--very interesting indeed.

I also think she is quite smart, smarter than people give her credit for. I'd certainly be interested in reading poems about her.

And I am a huge fan of Mina Loy.

Admiral said...

How can you review "Erotic Dreams" favorably with a straight face? LOL, give me a break.

Steven Fama said...

Dear Admiral,

I mentioned a few reasons in the main post for why I think "23 Erotic Dreams" is a good poem .

If I were to circle a few of the words I wrote, they'd be "transgressive" and "sharply severe" and "take down of Palin and the disturbing stereotyping that surrounded the woman" and "riotous."

I do appreciate you stopping in and leaving a comment. I clicked through to your "The Angels Within" blog. You put a lot of thought and work into your posts, and that's impressive. Especially if you are an Admiral at the same time, running a big ship and all.

More seriously, I don't agree with some of the things you write on your blog. But I agree with you views that the NEA / government should not directly fund the arts. The late great artist Bruce Conner published a compelling Op-Ed piece on that subject about 12 years ago, and he convinced me it ain't right, and hurts creative artists.

Kirby Olson said...

This kind of angry rhetoric can lead to violence. I hope that no one hurts Sarah Palin or her children.

Steven Fama said...

Geez, Kirby, your idea is silly.

Durbin's poem is a set of erotic dreams . . . and it's clear from the poem, plus I said it two or three times, that it's not just about Palin.

But that you did get scared or concerned after reading Durbin's poem does says something about how good it is, that I gotta admit.

And you do get me thinking about poems that are tirades, hard-ass take-no-prisoner types of things.

Off the top of my head, I think of:

-- Harry Crosby's Mad Queen (1929), particularly the one in there in which he puts about 150 curses, quite vile ones, on the city of Boston;

-- Robert Duncan's "Uprising (Passages 25)" [a most excellent skewering of LBJ, including saying that "his name stinks with burning meat" and mentioning "the very glint of Satan’s eyes . . .";

-- and oh yeah, what do you know, one of your favorite poets, Gregory Corso, who in "I Am 25" shouted "I HATE OLD POETMEN!" and then said he was going to befriend the old guys, get into their homes, then "rip out their tongues."

I'll think of others. But it seems to me that Boston, LBJ, and old poetmen have done all right in in spite of the poets' (to use your term) "angry rhetoric."

More than that, we all are BETTER, far BETTER, for what those poets have done, and what Durbin does in "23 Erotic Dreams . . . ".