I’d like to address some of the issues regarding contests that Sean raised yesterday—once again, through the lens of cartoons and their peculiar engagement with poetry. Aside from cash, job advancement, and literary patronage, the spoken word contest (or poetry slam) seems to be about the spectacle of competition per se. I mean, people are vying to win, yes, but as can be seen in the South Park episode “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” (2007)—with all of its crudeness and anti-political-correctness—the event centers so much on the performance of one’s identity (which often stages issues of race in dramatic ways) that that seems to be the overall motivation for the participants. This is the first stanza of Mr. Nelson’s inflammatory poem:
Words with venom, words that bind.
Words used like weapons to cloud my mind.
I’m a person. I’m a man. But no matter how hard I try,
People just say “Hey! There goes that ‘nigger’ guy.”
This is obviously a parody of the spoken word poem as a “poetic scream of ‘I am'” (This is Christopher Beach’s formulation from his book Poetic Culture).
I also liked bl pawelek’s commentary that “contests sometimes point you in a direction you would never have gone.” A great example of this is the very first episode of Ren and Stimpy called “Stimpy’s Big Day” (1991). The episode begins with Ren nagging Stimpy for watching too many cartoons, saying that they will ruin his mind. Then Stimpy, as if motivated by Ren’s scolding, responds to a poetry contest he sees on a TV commercial—a competition for the best poetic ode to Gritty Kitty Litter with prizes that include 47 million dollars, a lifetime of goat cheese, and a trip to Hollywood.
Despite Ren’s warning that “contests are a scam,” Stimpy proudly mails his entry and wins. I’d like to suggest that while Stimpy won such fabulous prizes as a sack of cash and a free trip, the contest pushed him in a surprising aesthetic direction, making him produce a literary object that is strikingly—pardon the bad pun—out-of-the-litter-box. The voice over as Stimpy inspiredly writes (see the still on the left) describes a comedically inane and almost flarf-like poem complete with jejune rhymes and archaic conventions. Here’s a particularly juicy sampling:
I like to rub it on my toe
and squish and squish and squish!
It ne’er offends my tender nose
like a smelly fish.
Its texture is a joy to me.
It’s just as smooth as silk.
It makes my little whiskers twitch.
It tastes crunchy even in milk.
I should also mention that this last line above is suggested ironically by Ren but Stimpy enthusiastically includes it. The punchline of this sequence is that when Stimpy holds up his paper (see still on right), it appears to be just a bunch of scribbles. I’d like to (somewhat polemically) suggest that this is a crude example of what’s called “asemic writing,” which is writing without any specific semantic content (Asemic publications include Asemic Magazine and The New Post-Literate). In other words, while the voice over provided the intended content, the actual page seems to present a thicket of undecipherable forms. My larger point is that Stimpy, through the encouragement of a contest, went from idling watching cartoons to experimenting on the very fringes of avant-garde practice.
Below is a work by Henri Michaux, who is a huge figure within the pantheon of asemic writing.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.