Thursday, July 1, 2010

FROWNS NEED FRIENDS TOO, by Sam Pink




I've been a big fan of Sam Pink since I first heard about him back in 2008. I've followed his online publications, ordered his first chap book (YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE), even contemplated starting a publishing company to put out his first book (I AM GOING TO CLONE MYSELF THEN KILL THE CLONE AND EAT IT), and later bought a copy of that book after Paper Hero Press released it. Sam Pink seemed to have something special about his writing, some sort of unique angle on the world that seemed just a little more clever, and more pointed, than the norm.

But YUM YUM was a chap, limited in it's scope and in the attention it received. And CLONE was a first book by a press that came into existence specifically in order to publish Sam Pink's first book (I wasn't the only fan excited about the idea of putting out Pink's book debut, Barry Graham started Paper Hero for the same reason). It sort of felt cobbled together--comprised of a handful of disparate stories and 'poems' and plays--not as sharp as it could have been, not as cohesive.

So I was eager to get my hands on FROWNS. Pink had described frowns on his blog as a poetry collection, giving me hope that it would be more cohesive in feel. He also stated that it's the favorite thing he's done. And it was being put out by an established press (Afterbirth Books) that has published 20 other books and has been around for a several years. I anticipated a more solid tome, better edited and better built. I was excited.

Unfortunately, the excitement I felt died while I read this book. For me, the freshness of Sam's writing has started to feel stale.

I don't mean to say that the book doesn't have its moments. You'll still find evidence of Sam's sharp wit in FROWNS. There were a few lines that actually made me laugh out loud, and there also were spots of darkness that made me feel, for a moment, sort of depressed. The words still hold some power. But that power comes like glass shards on the beach, something sharp and shining here and there, and a lot of dull sand otherwise.

Sam's poetry, as always, consists mostly of numerous lines of prose gathered together under titles. The individual lines sometimes relate to each other, but it's also common for a poem to have several unconnected lines. One of Sam's more effective techniques is to sort of lull the reader with a few lines, and then drop in something so absurd or outrageous that it shocks ("Do the splits on my face."). But in FROWNS he seems to do more lulling than shocking.

Part of what skews this ratio toward the boring side of things is another technique Sam seems to overuse in FROWNS. This technique consists of following one line with another, or with a few more, that transposes or minimally alter the first. I don't have the book with me now--I'm writing this review at work, instead of actually working, and my copy of FROWNS is at home--but here's an approximate three-line example:

It's okay if boring people come in to my office because they are people in my office and I am not alone while they are here.

It's okay if people are boring.

In my office I am not alone it's okay.


In certain cases Sam uses this technique to good effect, giving a spin to what we've just read, making us feel familiarity and estrangement both at once. But he does it again and again in FROWNS, and it becomes a tired technique.

Another technique Sam uses is a sort of breaking apart of language at its more basic levels, often by putting into print turns of phrase that we're familiar with hearing but unfamiliar with reading. Here's a two-line example building on the example used above.

Is okay if people are boring.

Is very okay.


It's not a real earthshaking technique, but it can be pretty amusing. Makes me think of phrases that come out of the mouths of people who speak English as a second language, and because Sam's other writing is obviously first-language level, when he does this sort of thing it almost sounds like he's putting on an absurd voice. Absurd voices can be funny.

He also uses this same vocally familiar, visually unfamiliar writing in other ways, and sometimes they're a bit distracting/annoying:

I want to uh kill myself.

We hear plenty of 'uh' sounds in normal speech, and mostly block them out. But seeing them in print in a non-dialogue format, especially when the statement is more serious in nature, sort of takes the punch out of the statement. It's a technique that provokes an effect, but removing power is generally the wrong effect to provoke, I think.

In any case, Sam continues to explore what words can do, and he continues to discover interesting things with his explorations. I'm not as love with his writing now as I used to be, but I'm still looking forward to his next work.

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