Like most people who've ever set pen to paper I've taken my stabs at writing poetry. In the misguided belief that others might be interested enough in reading those attempts to pay out money for that privilege, I even had the gall to self-publish two short collections. Two of the best things about print on demand self-publishing is the only thing it costs to produce something is your time and you learn quickly enough whether or not there is any demand for a particular title. While I still don't think zero sales are an actual indication of the work's quality, its sufficient indication of underwhelming demand for me to understand that whatever talent I might have for writing resides in prose.
Of course that doesn't stop the occasional impulse, akin to a muscle spasm or a cramp, to call upon a muse in the hopes of being answered as the romantic burnish surrounding being "A Poet" has yet to completely fade. Thankfully those twitches are fewer and much farther apart from each other these days as I've no desire to leave behind a legacy of mediocre poems - it would be far better if they were at least awful as that would make them somewhat interesting in a macabre sort of way - and am more than willing to leave their creation to those who actually know what their doing.
One of those who, without a doubt, knows what he is doing is Scott Wannberg. His latest collection of work, Strange Movie Full Of Death published by Perceval Press reaches out off the page, grabs you around the throat, shakes you by the ears until your brain rattles and demands that you pay attention to it. Reading his work is to understand poetry is so much more than what most people expect it to be, and that we're satisfied far too easily if we're willing to call half the stuff published these days poetry. For compared to Wannberg's work most others that I've read have been bloodless words lying limply on the page. Black lines connected together as letters,words, and phrases that do nothing to stir your passions.
I first came across Scott Wannberg and his poetry on a CD/DVD collection called 3 Fools 4 April in which he joined Viggo and Hank Mortensen in a poetry reading to raise money for the Beyond Baroque Foundation in Venice California. I was already familiar with Viggo Mortensen's poetry, both written and read aloud, and so had a pretty good idea of what to expect from him and neither he nor his son Hank (who now goes by Henry and did an excellent job of editing Strange Movie Full Of Death) disappointed with either their material or presentation. However they were both blown out of the water by Wannberg.
Listening and watching him read was like being in the presence of an elemental force - a thing of nature that swept in and took your breath away it was so powerful and potent. There were emotional roller coasters to be ridden and strange paths snaking into the psyche of America to be followed, inside his poetry. I was amazed at what was coming out of this man's soul via his brain and his mouth - where did these words come from? Well I still can't answer that question, because if I could I would probably be able to write poetry as well as Wannberg.
Having experienced him live, or at least in performance, I had been waiting for an opportunity to read his poetry and see how it stood up to being static on the page. What I discovered was that a good many of his works couldn't be read silently, lips pursed, not allowing the words to form fully. There was too much power in them and they had to be read aloud. It was exhilarating to feel the poems resonate inside my chest and their words exploring the inside of my mouth as I formed them.
Wannberg's words say things in ways I hadn't imagined possible, and find ways to express ideas so they are sharp and clear as the ice on a hard winter's day. You want to pick up his ideas and hold them in your hands and carry them around with you to spring out on people during the day and watch how they react. You figure you can learn a lot about a person based on how they react to being told "durability does not mean ramming your head repeatedly into a solid wall" from his poem "lost souls go down good with red wine".
Some are going to find his style of seemingly unconnected thoughts and sentences piled on top of each other disconcerting at first, especially if they try and find the logical connection between the ones that come before and after. Instead, try and track the path he wanders, with them as signposts to mark his way, and gradually the lights will come on and you'll will see what he is saying. On other occasions though he can be very direct, maybe in ways that you don't wish. In the poem "suicide river" he recounts the attempted suicide of a teenage boy. After wondering about the boy's reasons for attempting to kill himself, he warns others that "the world will ram its body into you/a metaphysical slamdance/you gotta to role with it/or go under".
Far too much poetry has a habit of setting itself aloof from the things around it and talks about them in abstractions that distance them from anything actual. Wannberg's poetry on the other hand is set firmly in our world. He strives to involve us in the emotional and spiritual realities, the toll it takes on all of us, of living in the early part of the twenty-first century in America. This is some of the most powerful and invigorating poetry you're liable to read in a long time. However, be forewarned, this is not a book you should read in public as it's more than likely you'll end up reading it aloud.
You can purchase a copy of Scott Wannberg's Strange Movie Full Of Death directly from Perceval Press.
(Originally posted August 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.