I get it, the lure of a murderer’s words. They exert an undeniable pull—this is someone talking from the outer reaches of experience, this is someone narrating what it’s like to do something unthinkable—or what we’d all like to think is unthinkable, though in fact, it’s something people do all the time, not only in these horrific mass shootings that have become the norm in American society since Columbine, but, with far more frequency and far less media attention, inside of homes and on city streets. Murder is something we humans regularly do, and it so happens that people who have committed large-scale, public murders often leave a paper/digital trail behind, one that can be incredibly alluring (however simultaneously repellent) to those of us who identify as decidedly non-murderous. The attraction is easy to understand: murderers are humans, and we are humans, too. How have they brought themselves to do such a thing, and why? But skimming documents online or listening to talking heads “analyze” the evidence and pronounce the perpetrator a “freak” or a “monster” does nothing but confirm our pet assumptions about who we are (the good guys), and maybe more importantly, about who we aren’t: we aren’t murderers. The media’s fast and facile presentation allows no room for deep thought or examination, no true accounting of the human psyche or human behavior.
But poetry (and other forms of art) can deliver a counterpoint to this wasteful and superficial haste. Artfully repurposing a murderer’s words as poetry can replace glib assumptions with a considered probing of human consciousness and crime. But not when the poem, like Seth Abramson’s HuffPo remix of the latest mass murderer’s words, merely mimics the glossy, insubstantial output of the media machine. Without the slowness and care of an artist’s approach, there is little chance of creating what Abramson calls “a vehicle for amity and compassion,” or work that is finely wrought—and an even smaller chance of harnessing hateful or troubling language to reflect back on its original speaker, back on his acts of brutality, or back on the society, like ours, in which such brutality flourishes.
In the note before his poem, Abramson says that he does not mean to “glorify an individual whose actions were incontrovertibly evil,” but then, like the media, which consistently glorifies those individuals by broadcasting their names, words and profile shots (or mug shots) all over the planet, he repeats, and thus disseminates, the killer’s words less than a day after the shooting. He also names the killer—not once, but four times in the front matter of the poem. Several times in the very brief note at the front of the poem, and also in the poem’s title. His use of the easy tag word, “evil,” too, mirrors the media’s approach. “Evil” is, quite simply, a stupid word to use in describing even the vilest human behavior. It is not a poet’s word—or it shouldn’t be. Abramson also claims his remix should be read as “an address to,” not an address from the killer; but, with lines like, “In college, I had it in my power to destroy a sorority house,” and “life has…treated me like a sex crime,” it sounds, especially in the first half of the piece, like the killer is addressing us, spouting the very same ideas to be found in his final YouTube video. Part of the problem comes from using a YouTube video, made explicitly for public consumption, as a source. I’ve found, in researching for my own work that appropriates and manipulates the language of murderers, that letters, journal entries, and transcripts of confessions contain more nakedly human and revealing language than can be found in an online video rant. But using them requires time and careful investigation, not a hasty scooping up of something the moment it’s posted online, followed by a similarly hasty regurgitation.
Abramson was hastiest, though, in not considering gender before writing the poem—namely: his own and the killer’s. It’s not just that this particular killer despised and targeted women (though he did kill several men), but that, as Rebecca Solnit mentioned in a recent interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, “three women every day in the United States are killed by domestic partners, ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends, etc.” It is most often men who commit murder, and it is often enough that women are their victims, especially in sex-related homicides. This means that it’s especially difficult for a man to have a stake in appropriating the language of a murderer. Part of the urgency and appeal, for me, of intermittently appropriating killers’ language for the poems of My god is this a man originated in my being a woman: to respond to the words and voices of mostly male murderers, to take the words and phrases out of their mouths, add my own words and phrasings to theirs, and by doing so, transform the original context and content into something entirely new, something my own, was an empowering act. I have never been a victim of sexual violence or crime, but I’m constantly aware, as all women are, that I could be. That awareness informed and colored every poem I wrote and also my choice of title, the imperative I felt to include the word “man.”
Some people have said, or will say: forget the sloppy, irresponsible execution: it is never okay or worthwhile to appropriate and publish the language of someone who has exacted violence on others. No matter how artfully or responsibly done, the act is tantamount to an approbation of violence and brutality, and has absolutely no intrinsic value. But I disagree. I believe transforming such language can lead us deeper into the human psyche, closer to the truth of what makes us what we are (brutal, loving, selfish and kind), and can even engender compassion for our fellow human beings. This is undeniably the work that art does, or should do. Beauty can be wrested from the ugliness, but it requires time, skill and sincerity of purpose—not click bait.
Laura Sims is the author of three books of poetry: My god is this a man, Stranger, and Practice, Restraint (Fence Books); her fourth collection, Staying Alive, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2016. She edited Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, a book of her correspondence with the celebrated experimental novelist (powerHouse Books), and has also published five chapbooks of poetry. Her work was included in the anthology, The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, and individual poems have recently appeared in: Black Clock, Colorado Review, Talisman, and Denver Quarterly. Sims has been a featured writer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and has been a co-editor of Instance Press since 2009. She teaches literature and creative writing at NYU-SCPS and lives with her family in Brooklyn.