Jessica Pressman talks to poet and scholar Mike Chasar about his latest book, new media, and the “other 99%” of poetry
I FIRST FELT an affinity for Mike Chasar’s scholarship when I read his piece on billboard advertising as poetry published in the Modern Language Association’s journal, PLMA. The article titled “The Business of Rhyming: Burma-Shave Poetry and Popular Culture” argues that an ad campaign for shaving cream, placed on billboards that were spaced along the side of a highway in a consecutive series and at drivable, readable lengths apart, created a form of paced, spatial, and locative poetics. I was fascinated because I was writing about flash-based poetry—born-digital literature that choreographed flashing images, words, and sounds at a seated, staring viewer to produce a poetic performance on screen. I had never thought of billboards as offering a similar platform for car-based poetry, and the article opened new ways for me to think about what poetry is, where it is, and what it can do. I was, to continue to car-metaphor, floored.
I have since read and deeply appreciated both of Mike Chasar’s books, Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (2012) and Poetry Unbound: Poems and New Media from the Magic Lantern to Instagram, (2020). I like to think that we do similar work but with different archives and disciplinary backgrounds. He is a poet; I am not. He works on mostly print or printed poetry; and I, as a professor of English and Comparative Literature and co-founder, with Joanna Brooks, of the Digital Humanities Initiative at San Diego State University, focus mostly on digital poetics and narrative. Yet, we both seek to show how poetry depends upon media and thus surrounds us in our modern, mediatized culture.
Last spring, Mike Chasar, who is an Associate Professor of English at Willamette University, in Oregon, Zoomed in to talk about his latest book with San Diego State University’s Digital Humanities Initiative in collaboration with the Department of English and Comparative Literature. The March 29, 2021 book talk is archived here.
The following interview is inspired by that virtual book talk but uses the space of the online format to expand the conversation into a hyperlinked network that, like Chasar’s Poetry Unbound, bridges fields, disciplines, and passions. I hope you enjoy reading the interview and then continue on to enjoy Chasar’s important scholarly work.
Jessica Pressman: Your first book, Everyday Reading, showed the importance of diurnal poetic and crafts practices like poetry scrapbooking. Your new book, Poetry Unbound, pursues a similar argument about finding poetry in everyday spaces and media platforms—from radio to TV to new media. What is the relationship between your books and your overall scholarly commitment to scholarship on/about poetry?
Mike Chasar: When I finished with Everyday Reading, I realized that while its subtitle promised it would be about “Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America,” most of that “popular culture” was limited to popular print culture: poetry scrapbooks, billboard and print advertising poetry, fan letters written to nationally-broadcast old-time poetry radio shows, greeting card poetry written by a Director of the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, and so on. Even the chapter on radio looks at print transcripts of radio broadcasts, not at the broadcasts themselves. If I’d been assigned to review Everyday Reading, I’d have poked at the unfulfilled promises of that subtitle and asked something like, “Chasar! Where’s the rest of pop culture? Where are film, TV, video games, and the internet? Where’s Spike reading poetry on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Klaus reading William Blake’s “The Poison Tree” on The Originals, and why, incidentally, do pop culture’s vampires seem to have such an affinity for poetry? And what about that poem in Four Weddings and a Funeral? And why does M recite poetry in Skyfall?” So, in an attempt to get out in front of that cranky reviewer, Poetry Unbound picks up where Everyday Reading leaves off, beginning with poetry projected by an early slide projector called the magic lantern, then moving on to poetry in silent and sound film, poetry on the radio, poetry on TV, and poetry on Instagram. The two books use different modes of analysis and make different, though related, arguments, but that’s the general throughline that makes Poetry Unbound and Everyday Reading two points in an ongoing trajectory.
Most scholarly arguments about Anglophone poems and poetry in the long twentieth century are based on a really, really small number of poems and poets and are, for the most part, anchored in poems as they appear in books and little magazines. (Fiction studies, which readily acknowledges its popular edges as well as popular subgenres like dime novels, sci-fi novels, and young adult novels, doesn’t seem to feel the need to limit itself in the same way.) So, I’m curious about what happens when we expand and diversify the field of poetry studies. A friend of mine once told me, “Mike, it’s like 99% of poetry critics study 1% of the poetry ever written, and you study the other 99%.” It’s super fun and challenging, and I never run out of things to discover and write about; another friend just told me about the haiku-writing parts of the Ghost of Tsushima video game, for example. Also, as the numerical echoes of the Occupy movement may suggest, it’s a way of keeping my thinking disciplined more generally. Insofar as I have a commitment to scholarship on/about poetry, it’s to push the field to make knowledge or value claims based on more than 1% of the poetry out there and consider materials that get dismissed or overlooked because they don’t readily conform to the interests and agendas of that 1%. There’s a ton to learn about poems and poetry in the process. One of the arguments I make in Poetry Unbound, for example, is that poetry consistently shaped the history of new nonprint media forms. That’s a really big claim for poetry, but it’s not something that we’re going to be able to see by looking at a small number of poems in print formats.
JP: This last point—about what we, as scholars and teachers, look at and not just how we look—seems to me to be part of a larger conversation happening in the discipline of literary studies. Prompted by Franco Moretti’s provocative idea of “distant reading,” our field has been in debates about what constitutes a data set in literary studies (small or large) and how we should read (close, distant, surface, or something other). I know that you’re not actually using computational methods to pursue your research, but do you see your method—of seeking to illuminate the 99%—as part of a larger paradigm shift in literary scholarship?
MC: Hmmm. That’s a big question, but I’ll begin by saying how much of my work—and the work of so many other people—is the product of longstanding and ongoing efforts to expand the field of poetry studies to include previously neglected poetry and poetic theories by women, people of color, Leftist writers, experimental writers, and so on. Those efforts have driven a paradigm shift in regard to what texts we look at and how we look at them without which I could have never conceived of Everyday Reading or Poetry Unbound. So, on the one hand, the impulse behind these books—and, to be honest, behind a lot of the close textual analysis done therein— is connected to what has come before but directed, instead, toward the subject of poetry’s many but understudied media forms as well as poetry’s pervasive presence in popular culture.
That said, the astonishing variety of texts in that 99% certainly presents all sorts of possibilities for different types of reading and analysis, as not every poem is going to satisfactorily yield to traditional “close reading” of one sort or another, though it’s always surprising to me how many do. However—since you bring up computational analysis, let me give you an example of a dream project I’d pursue if I had the institutional resources to do so and that might also begin to illustrate what “popular” poetry can offer for alternative modes of reading. For thirty years in the first half of the twentieth century, the “people’s poet” Edgar Guest wrote a poem a day for the Detroit Free Press that, at the height of that feature’s popularity, was syndicated to over 250 newspapers and had an estimated circulation of 10,000,000. A poem a day for thirty years—that’s nearly 11,000 individual poems! Around the same time, working for the crosstown Detroit News, the “poet of the home” Anne Campbell wrote a poem six days a week for twenty-five years—about 7800 total poems! (As a point of comparison, Emily Dickinson wrote 1800.) In terms of sheer quantity and sustained production over time, those are data sets that the world of “literary” poetry and even most prose forms can’t approach. Now, imagine what we might do by feeding those poems—one batch by a woman in Detroit, one by a man in Detroit, both writing for newspapers at the same time—into a computer for analysis. What questions would you want to ask about style, subject matter, change over time (was there an “early” Campbell and a “late” Campbell, for example?), formal consistency and variation, or even whether and how we could train a computer to produce an “Edgar Guest poem” or “Anne Campbell poem”?
That’s all pretty interesting to me, and it’s research we can do if we open ourselves to including the other 99%. (Maybe I don’t need to say it, but virtually no scholarship has been done on either Guest or Campbell despite their importance to readers and the idea of “poetry” in the first half of the century.) And, just in case you’re wondering, my hypothetical reading lab project has a postwar component, too: Rod McKuen, who published thirty poetry volumes that sold over 65 million copies and who also wrote over 1500 songs; and Susan Polis Schutz, who’s sold 14 million of her poetry books and over 425 million greeting cards with her poems inside. That pairing adds the appealing extra winkle of multimedia dissemination (Schutz founded an electronic greeting card website, and McKuen did spoken-word recordings and songs that he wrote for other people as well as albums of his own). But, again, the point is that it’s hard to think of any postwar “literary” poet with a comparable body of work. And, again, I probably don’t need to mention it, but no poetry scholarship that I know of has been devoted to either McKuen or Schutz.
I know I evaded your question about whether my work is “part of a larger paradigm shift in literary scholarship,” but maybe you’ll accept the description of my hypothetical Guest/Campbell/McKuen/Schutz project as fair trade?
JP: Accepted! I see your work operating at the intersection and interface of literary studies and media studies. You are clearly a literary scholar but you also pay dutiful attention to media-specificity and media history. How do you go about merging literary studies and media studies; or, to put it another way, how do you think about your work as interdisciplinary? And, why do you think it’s important to do this kind of work?
MC: Insofar as poetry scholars are attentive to things like the sounds of words, the shape poems take on the page, and the publications in which poems appear, I think we’re always to some extent operating at the interface of literary studies and media studies. Beyond that, one of the special claims we can make for poetry as an art form is how regularly and easily it gets adapted to different media forms and social occasions. Historically, it didn’t start on the page, the majority of it has never been primarily or only a book- or magazine-based form, and, in keeping with that history, it’s found its way into other media forms too. As we know, new media are in regular conversation with older media, and new art forms are in regular conversation with older art forms. By virtue of being a really, really old art form as well as an art form that has migrated from medium to medium, poetry’s been a regular concern for, and subject of, many art and media forms. So one major reason why I think about merging literary studies and media studies is that I don’t want to leave out of poetry studies one of the very things that makes poetry, poetry.
I just can’t get over the huge gap between poetry as it gets studied and the way that it actually exists in the world. A 2006 study commissioned by the Poetry Foundation reported that “Ninety-nine percent of all adult readers, including those adults who said that they have never read or listened to poetry, indicate that they have been incidentally exposed to poetry in at least one unexpected place” (i.e., not in a book), and “eighty-one percent of the respondents who reported any incidental exposure to poetry said that they read or listened to the poem when they came across it.” Out of a fidelity to the object of poetry studies alone, then, it’s important to decenter the book and page as the ultimate or primary mode of poetry’s being. When we do so, we can better understand the power of poetry more broadly. We can better understand how most people encounter or engage with it. We find new audiences. We find new artists. We find new poems. And who knows? When we write or talk about poetry as most people encounter or engage with it, we might even expand the audience for poetry criticism … by, like, maybe 10-12 people. (Lol.) When I look at most scholarship about American poetry from the past 125 years, it’s hard not to feel like cultural studies and media studies, as well as the idea of “public humanities,” have passed by poetry studies virtually unnoticed.
JP: Super interesting. I love that your work emerges from something you “just can’t get over”; that seems like a productive place for all scholarship to begin!
Poetry Unbound is organized into six chapters, each of which is focused on a different media form. I find this to be an interesting choice, as it highlights the medium and format rather than, say, six different authors, aesthetics, or genres. How and why did you go about writing a chapter on a medium?
MC: Very carefully. Ha. But seriously, very carefully—and with the “dutiful attention” that you mentioned earlier. As readers pointed out to me early and often, I’m first and foremost a poetry scholar, not a magic lantern, film, TV, or social media scholar, and nothing made that more clear to me than when I submitted part of the silent film chapter for journal publication. The reader reports came back full of praise for my general argument, writing style, and research methods, but also with long reading lists of texts I needed to engage, both to inform my argument and to make its stakes more clear for film scholars. One even wrote, “At the moment, [the essay] feels a little too much as though it is written in a vacuum,” and you know what? It pretty much was written in a vacuum, because I wasn’t educated in the history of silent film. You can bet that the next thing I did, however, was to dutifully check out every one of those titles from the library to get myself up to speed.
Every field has thorny, proprietary, loyalist, territorial arguments to which scholars need to attend in some way. I can handle or sidestep them in poetry studies, but in writing Poetry Unbound, I didn’t have time to master, say, the minutiae of the technological archeology of the gazillions of magic lantern variations not to mention the global reach of their slides, and then do the same with silent film, and then with sound film, and then with television. So I tried, instead, to tell stories about somewhat quirky and limited but nevertheless very suggestive archives; there are what I feel to be academic “think pieces,” “rest of the story,” and almost podcast-like structures that stick to poetry as a focalizing storytelling mechanism. I think to myself, Who are the main characters of this chapter, what do they want and need, and what stands in the way of them getting it? How do they change as a result? What moving parts keep coming back, what do those parts show, and why are they significant? For my chapter on sound film, for example, I decided to focus not on the many films that incorporate poetry as an acoustical phenomenon produced for the audience to hear, but on the very few films I could find—Citizen Kane, G.I. Jane, Fight Club, The Grey, and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence—that presented poems as text for audiences to read. Why were they (a group of directors including Orson Welles, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, and Steven Spielberg) daring to do that when so many other films were not? What did they want and need? How did their treatments of poetry-as-text change, and how could I understand that as the product of a certain, uhm, mediumistic psychology? My favorite chapter is probably the TV chapter because it starts by wondering why so many episodes of TV sitcoms from the 1950s to the present associate poetry with plagiarism and other types of fraudulence. In my analysis of that recurring motif, that particular “character trait” has to do with the political, social, and artistic pressures of “coming of age” in the 1950s and displacing onto poetry a bunch of its own anxieties as an emergent medium and art form while—wouldn’t you know it?—secretly learning from and imitating poetry at the same time.
JP: You describe practicing a kind of psychoanalysis on television: reading into the “displacing onto poetry a bunch of its [television’s] own anxieties.” If you could reflect back on your own practice of writing this book, and perhaps your own anxieties, what would you change? In particular, if you could add to this book, or if you currently are adding to it in a new volume, what would you explore or do?
MC: There were so many things I had to leave behind, to another time or, hopefully and even better, to other writers entirely. I wanted to write about TV’s association of serial killers and poetry—and also vampires as a subset of serial killers—to think about the relationship between “the death of poetry” arguments and poetry in relation to compulsive, even mechanized, forces of reproduction. I wanted a chapter on orality in the age of non-print media that I’d hoped would use the World War II Rumor Project Collection at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. I would have loved a chapter on video games and poetry, though I can’t imagine myself ever being able to write that chapter because I haven’t played a video game since Ms. Pac Man (but hey, kids, what a great sabbatical activity!).
I actually wrote and cut a floundering chapter on karaoke and the poetics of song lyrics, and now that chapter has become the springboard into my next book, which is intending to study the connections between lyric poetry and song lyrics, especially as song lyrics—led by Black writers and performers—inherit the apostrophic “O” of the lyric tradition, innovate on that figure’s forms of expression, and invent new forms of it. Stay tuned for what I hope will be A Secret History of Oh, Ooooh, Oi: Pop Music, Black Innovation, and the Sounds of Lyric Poetry. Writing that book will allow me to once again respond to my cranky inner book reviewer who, if asked, would poke at Poetry Unbound and ask me for at least two things: 1) an extended discussion of race in relation to poetry’s multimedia history; and 2) the place of music lyrics in the multimedia, remediated, transmediated acoustical, video, and digital worlds of “new” media and pop culture. Writing that book will also allow me to complete a cycle of studies suggesting a whole variety of ways for how we can better understand the 99% of poetic texts that saturate our world but that don’t get much love and attention from poetry studies: in various aspects of popular print culture, in popular non-print media, and in the global music industry and our insatiable appetites for its poems. Then, I shall retire and write quiet little poems of my own from a villa in Portugal, where the food and wine will be delicious, where there’s a new language for me to learn, and where there’s universal health care. Sing, O Muse!
JP: Oh, Portugal! I was there for the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) conference a few years ago, and it was divine! Let’s conclude with the divine, the central muse and motivation: why is the study of poetry—and particularly the study of poetry as media and mediated form—so important, particularly in 2021?
MC: As I’ve suggested, it’s important in part because poetry is all around us, and prevailing modes of studying and describing poetry simply don’t square with the reality of poetry on the ground and in people’s lives. Plus, also Bob Dylan, Rupi Kaur, and Amanda Gorman. Every time some poet’s achievement or platform threatens poetry’s 1% minority standards—by winning the Nobel Prize for literature, by selling millions of books fueled by Instagram, by reading at the Inauguration and Super Bowl—too many people seem shocked and scandalized and get mean and nasty as if something traitorous to poetry has happened. Song lyrics aren’t poetry, they say! Instapoems are cliche, they say! Rhetoric isn’t poetry, they say! And then all manner of ink gets spilled in a back-and-forth too frequently informed by what feels, to me, like nativist, classist, and other culturally prejudiced attacks.
Poetry is—and has been—multiple, various, ephemeral, expansive, useful, multimedia, commercial, and popular—, and maybe, instead of getting our John Miltons all bundled up in a twist about it, we can open our eyes a bit more and start appreciating the fact that we’re living through one of the greatest ages of poetic production anyone could imagine. I understand that the negative responses to Dylan, Kaur, Gorman, and others help to constitute a small front in a larger culture war that doesn’t want to enfranchise and dignify other groups and thus pluralize the public sphere, that polices the homogeneity of its neighborhoods, and that doesn’t want to distribute resources more broadly and equitably. By misunderstanding poetry’s multitudes, we are missing out on so much invention, brilliance, joy, and art. Not all of it is admirable, but it is far more informative than we tend to think: connected to the long and multifaceted history of an art form that won’t stay in one place, and very interesting and educational if we allow it to be. Maybe Poetry Unbound and Everyday Reading can help us see it all a little bit better.
JP: I believe that your work helps us to see better the poetry in our everyday lives and surrounding world. That is a gift. For that gift, and for your conversation here as well, I thank you sincerely.
MC: You’re welcome, and thank YOU! I’m grateful for your questions and flattered by your attention. The pleasure is all mine!
JESSICA PRESSMAN is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, where she co-founded SDSU’s Digital Humanities Initiative. She is the author, most recently, of Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age_(Columbia UP, 2020).