When people come to visit, they always tend to say a variation of two things in the same sequence:
Wow, that’s a lot of books. Have you read them all?
How do you sleep with that clown staring at you?
I love answering those questions, though sometimes it gets old convincing people that clowns* and I get on quite well. When you actually take a look inside this 1955 board book, you find it to be filled with amusing little quatrains bent on explicating the different ways various clowns use their physical bodies to produce laughter. Yes, The Wonder Book of Clowns is a children’s book, a product of a time when clowns—both as a concept and a vessel—functioned as a repository of/for humor. However juvenile, this thirty-five cent picture book serves as a reminder of the brilliant worlds that literature opens for exploration.
Although I recall a number of books from my childhood, I remember most of them all together in a big blob of language that encouraged my continued exploration of the literary arts. I do remember reading, however, one poem in one story in the November/December 2007 issue of American Girl Magazine: “Snow Angel.” The story is quite simple, with one sister plagiarizing another sister’s old poetry assignment, getting in too deep with the lie, and eventually coming clean and writing her own poem and gaining a new perspective on herself and her creative abilities. But that poem. That poem! Simply titled “A Christmas Acrostic,” the story’s central poem cemented itself to my heart and fascinated me to no end. Poems could spell words with their lines? Poems could invoke the senses? Poems could be written in color? Already armed with the power of language in stories, my nine-year-old self now recognized that the abilities of language extended beyond the words themselves.
That recognition encouraged me to search out poetry that used language holistically and artistically. Rather than words static on a page, the words on the page had to move, glow, invoke the senses. To encourage thought, make me laugh, make me angry. To make me. The frenetic nature of my new craving for poetry reflects itself in the kitsch and stacks of books organized in an outwardly haphazard yet carefully tender abandon. One of the highlights from my bookshelf is Derrick Harriell’s Stripper in Wonderland, an intimate exploration of time and new fatherhood in the event of birth. The book itself serves as a moment in time, a memory of the day Harriell and I talked about poetry over tacos with other poets and some of my professors. His poetry struck me in a similar way as David Bowie’s Hunky Dory: a self-contained world of thought shown sensorially through lyric. Once I read Harriell, I couldn’t stop the force that is poetry. My bookshelf gained lots of new friends to hold, plus another bookshelf to its left to share the weight.
Electricity in the form of CAConrad’s While Standing In Line For Death ran throughout my entire body, and the book that joined my 2019 hoard eventually leading me to a formal practice. Marilyn Hacker’s Presentation Piece and Joyelle McSweeney’s Toxicon and Arachne brought me in and out of bodies, of grief and of relationships; Johannes Göransson’s PILOT (“JOHANN THE CAROUSEL HORSE”) and Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream revealed what happens when language is allowed to ebb and flow beyond the boundaries often placed on the written word; Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hô Xuân Huong introduced me to the erotic and often humor of a short sensorial poetics; and Ava Hoffman’s
LOVE POEMS/smallness studies punched me in the face and forced my gaze upon the abilities of poetry to disintegrate structures of power and assert itself into new bodies that ask us to tag along rather than afford us any control.
I suppose it’s time for me to answer those questions from the start, though I think you already know the answers I will provide:
Yes, that is a lot of books. I don’t know if I’ll make it through all of them, but I’m certainly going to let the books that need me take me where I need to go.
It’s not the clown that prevents my sleep. It’s the excitement of tomorrow’s poetry that makes me a restless bedmate.
*NOTE: I would certainly be remiss to ignore the United States’ instances of clownery, past and present, used for racist caricature and the maintenance of oppression. Clowns in concept, history, and practice exist for multiple purposes, and I wholly and actively do not support any instances of clownery for the purposes of systemic racism, harmful stereotyping, and the mockery of marginalized communities.
Jillian A. Fantin (they/them) is a poet with roots in the American South and north central England. They are a 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Poet Fellow, a 2020 Jefferson County Memorial Project Research Fellow, and the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of RENESME LITERARY. Jillian received BAs in English and Political Science with an emphasis in Political Theory from a small university in Birmingham, Alabama, and an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in Poetry and a graduate minor in Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Their writing appears or is forthcoming in American Journal of Poetry, Spectra Poets, Barrelhouse, and poetry.onl, among others.
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