[close this layer]

by Brian Kim Stefans

Factory School, 2006
Poetry, 148 pages, paperback

Reviewed by C St Perez


In What is Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers, Brian Kim Stefans quotes musician Brian Eno: “With punk, a brand-new axis opened up: professionally cut [/] hacked about by a brainless cretin. As often happens, this appeared (and was intended) to be an anti-style style […] The effect was not to overthrow and eliminate the idea of style but to give it new places in which to extend itself” (89). Stefans’s poetry, extended through the axis of punk, offers new possibilities for a “punk-avant” rebellion.

Throughout What is Said, Stefans incorporates themes that we wouldn’t normally associate with “flowers” or other romanticized poetic themes. At different moments, we read: “Calibanic fortune-cookies at Studio 54” (61); “Visitors: a talcum blind, Jihad vs. / McWorld” (53); “a dark humor obtained, a cyber-sexual, / middle-aged vaudeville of what was relentless” (65); and (my personal favorite) “Philip K. Dick channeling Spicerian Lenny Bruce through old coffee radio / of insomniac Chomskyite nites” (84). Stefans describes his praxis in the poem “This Method is Poetry”:

This method is poetry
                             pulling in “outside” feelings, habits, that wouldn’t
be acceptable
but now like a toehold on to humanity’s cliffs it
                                                          persists […] (19)

His “anti-style style” places us on the stage of poetic rebellion, where the poet’s desire “to create a situation becomes [his] only cause” (31). Stefans mentions International Situationist member Guy Debord in this collection, perhaps to point us to the situationist idea of “derive,” a spontaneous drifting through varied ambiances. The poem “Midas Ears” is exemplary of Stefans’s ability to create a situation:

“We” have found roses cheaper than cigarettes.

(Putting a square patch on your shoulder to kill an instinct.)

I will stay here, away from your writing

divided between the rout of Pollocks
and What’s Said to the Poet Concerning Flowers.


I stop
and wave.
Then punk happened. (45)

His poetic inclinations fluidly shift tones and textures, reveling in his instincts to let anything enter. Formally, What is Said presents so many different techniques that the book reads like a volume of “selected poems.” Perhaps this is not so far from the truth: on the acknowledgements page, we learn that What is Said comprises 6 previously published chapbooks, along with other poems, a play, and a short comic (a collaboration with poet and artist Gary Sullivan). This impressive range promises aesthetic revolution:

quasi-elitist self-training as a poet
—setting the parameters
since it is then,
so much more revealing in my writing,
syntax even—
that a particular aspect of poetry
that begin with this sentence
that is lacking in the creation of a “schedule”
not to mention my own social distractions
of cultural capital
will be my expression of revolutionary will,
yes. (40)

The “talk-poem” quality of What is Said propels us through much of the work. Stefans willingly works without a “schedule” and allows the poems to emerge confidently from the parameters of imagination: “I had serious reservations / about my writing before I started / this. This talking” (62). Fulfilling this instinct to talk—to say “what is said”—spawns new dimension for poetry:

AAA Another American Artist                                     —each axis
spawns another axis—                                                 And—and?
               a sort of beggar’s testament—typed
that’s not me—                                  —whom I know you might
consider one of the lightweight artist-intellectuals of our time—
              perhaps not the most productive) (59)

Stefans isn’t like any other American artist, though he might be one of the most productive. In a poem titled “Um, Uh,” we read yet another dimension of his production: “Um, they’re, um, uh, yeah everybody, uh, staring at you? Uh, you’re, um, uh, the only black person here? Uh, I don’t, uh, um, like those shows. Um, you’re, uh, a little, er, tipsy?” (93). Professionally cut? Or hacked about by a brainless cretin? Throughout What is Said, Stefans makes these questions irrelevant.

In the end, what is said to the poet (about poetry) isn’t as important as what the poet says (or talks) through the poem. Stefans explores this idea in “Idea for Poem”:

You must feel absolutely safe before starting. (idea for poem) Afterwards, you can collect the sheets. (idea for poem) Tinny or bassy music of the neighbors blasting through the walls. (idea for poem) Walking to the white signs with Julie; green haze; chasing chimeras. (idea for poem) […] A closed set of references. (idea for poem) Language poetry said it brought you deeper into the writing. (idea for poem) […] All your bad poems, in Keds, coming to haunt you. (idea for poem) Knock knock jokes, all of them, she said. (idea for poem) Mere rhythm—dissent! (idea for poem) (104)

Stefans achieves his cause to create a situation for poetry in every moment. He opens the “closed set of references” to bring us deeper into the writing and further into aesthetic dissent. By talking and drifting his way through new poetic ambiances, Stefans has successfully created a poetry where punk happens.

C St Perez is the co-editor of Achiote Press. His reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Pleiades, The Denver Quarterly, First Intensity, Rain Taxi, Jacket, and Rattle, among others. He blogs at blindelephant.blogspot.com.