Versal invited me to participate. I completely misunderstood my remit. Instead of reading one of Fee’s poems and then extemporizing on the subject for 10 long minutes, I got to answer one short question.
My answer was incoherent. It was over in a flash. There was a technical glitch that killed all the sound for my introduction. So here’s take two with what I really wanted to say.
I might be the only non-poet up on this virtual stage so I’m feeling a little imposter syndrome right now. Not that I’m complaining. It’s always great to hang out with you kinky poets. I like to peek through the window blinds while you tie yourselves up in couplets, quatrains and concrete poetry, waiting for the next blood vessel to burst.
But to have to say something about poetry or the poetic form is a little scarier. Maybe that’s why I’ve chosen one of Fee’s prose poems to read to you. Here’s ‘Birds’ or How to Be Happy.
She liked 'birds' the concept very much, kept books, paintings etc. looked at them when getting up or in form work, when passing the hall for any reason. The problem was their corporeal selves, each wing line a bone, their heads full of thimble skull, their mouths almost bone and their warm hot fast middles the worst. One day she went to a garden centre, bought a bird bath & placed it sixty miles from her back door because that is how to be happy.
So let me tell you why I picked this particular poem out of a whole bunch of wonderful pieces.
Fee speaks to the divide between reality and fantasy. The title of her collection, For Work / For TV, points directly at life as mediated via a screen.
When I was a kid in Los Angeles, our TV was a big old honking appliance. It had rabbit ears we stroked regularly in order to catch the broadcast waves. TV was a formative experience for me. First man on the moon, body bags from the Vietnam War, the impeachment of an American president.
In those ancient times, you could only watch a TV program on a certain day and a certain time. There was no way to record or re-watch. You stayed home if you wanted to see the next episode of Colombo or Star Trek. You watched it with your family or friends. And then you talked the next day about what you had seen at school or work.
Now, TV is personalized. You watch what you want, when you want, where you want. Four people sitting in a room could be watching four (or more) programs on their own devices. TV is no longer a communal event. It’s an expression of the atomization of our society.
If that sounds like an old person talking, think about this. In 2014, ISIS beheaded the American journalist James Foley. They filmed the act and posted it on YouTube where it got a gazillion views. A friend told me she watched it to see how it would affect her. People seek out violence on the screen but avoid it in the real life. In the real world, if you get punched in the mouth, your lip keeps splitting no matter how much you try not to cry.
Or, as Fee put it, She liked ‘birds’ the concept very much.
So why did Fee write a poem about birds? I think birds are scary. They are the direct descendants of dinosaurs. For me, they conjure up ravens and hawks and vultures.
Did you see the movie The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock? I watched it at home with my family on our TV. The experience has obviously scarred me for life. Because we had those kind of birds outside our house in Los Angeles. They used to glare at us from the power lines while we walked to school. Any day now, I thought, they’d swoop down and peck out our eyes.
So I don’t think happy thoughts when I consider the concept of birds. But Fee’s narrator does. She likes how they look in oil or watercolor, say, when catalogued by Audubon. She might have aspired to a bit of bird watching, a delightful pastime unless you’re bird watching while Black.
Fee gives us a narrator who also likes the way birds sound when encased in words. There are lots of bird expressions: proud as a peacock or dead as a dodo.
Then the veil drops. The concept of ‘bird’ does not at all match the reality of a bird.
each wing line a bone, their heads full of thimble skull, their mouths almost bone and their warm hot fast middles the worst.
Bone, skull, bone. Warm, hot, fast. It sounds like a recipe for the witches of Endor.
Luckily, Fee saves our narrator from a collision with reality in the third and final stanza. Happiness is a bird bath … sixty miles from her back door.
All this seems to speak very directly to the way we live today, in corona times. The social distancing, the face masks, the idea that we could each be disease vectors. Sixty miles makes total sense in 2020. How could Fee have known, when she won the inaugural Amsterdam Open Book Prize in 2019, that it would come to this?
2020 had been such a shit show for so many of us. Lives lost, jobs furloughed, dreams put on hold. It’s amazing that Fee and the Versal crew could pull themselves together to gift us this collection of poems.
I love that there’s humor and gentleness in Fee’s poems. I love that these poems can ignite my imagination. It seems so not 2020. Thanks for doing that, Fee.
p.s. For those of you who want to see how this virtual book launch really went down, here’s a recording of the live-stream. You want to hang around until Malik Ameer Crumpler takes the stage (just after the one hour mark). The man is on fire!