Elliot, you slay me.
And I love you.
–Seth Abramson, “Last Words for Elliot Rodger”
Well, crap. Before today, I had my post all worked out.
I was going to say how I was nauseated by poet Seth Abramson’s Huffpost piece, which (in case you didn’t catch it) is a “metamodernist” remix of the hate-filled last words of Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer.
How I’d known of Seth Abramson years ago: his success, his stint as editor of the New Hampshire Review among others, his many publications in The Huffington Post and Best of anthologies, his many books (rrg!), the fact that he graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (son of a bitch!) and is getting a PhD in creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (RRRGH!), and on and on and on. And since I’m now the Writer’s Envy queen, I was going to talk about how I had complete and utter Writer’s Envy from the first time I heard about Abramson, and that it was the ugly kind of Writer’s Envy, the childish kind, the “I can do better, why is this guy so great?” kind that I wish I could stomp out forever because it’s embarrassing and shameful and holds up a mirror to my own pettiness even as it’s sinking its teeth into my neck and making me shriek (inwardly) in helpless rage.
And how I STILL did my duty as a poet and poetry booster, and acknowledged that, yeah, he seems like a decent guy. He used to be a public defender, which takes a lot of strength and character. He believes that MFA programs are great levelers, antidotes to a bygone day when publication depended purely on nepotism (a point which I could debate, but still, it’s a nice, idealistic sentiment). True, I wasn’t a fan of his poems, but that’s neither here nor there. Can’t be so spiteful to a guy who’s done so much for the writing community. That’s unforgivably shameful.
And how I friended him on Facebook and everything was fine until all the accolades he posted (about himself), all the disquisitions about “metamodernism” and flarf and other hot new poetic subgenres (which I ain’t crazy about), all the academic-speak that seemed to mark his acceptance of an elitism that he used to condemn, all that finally got to me and I defriended him. And then came his big downfall, which made me more than a little smug because I called it, I sensed it coming, now everyone could see what the academic bubble does to writers. And on and on and on.
That was what I had mentally outlined for my big Abramson discussion. And then, right before I cruised over to my list of blog posts and pressed the “Add New” button, I read Abramson’s Huffpost piece again.
And, God help me, I got it.
Apparently, in my rush to get to the meat of what Abramson had written, I originally skipped over a single line at the end of his introduction: “Please note that this poem is an address to, not an address from, Elliot Rodger.”
Of course, since they were Rodger’s actual words (“every word Rodger spoke in that hateful oration–and no more,” explains Abramson more than once), I assumed that the speaking voice in the piece was Rodger’s, that Abramson had re-formed and polished Rodger’s vile statement into something peaceful and redemptive. Something banal, it’s true, and lacking in self-awareness, as evil and unhinged screeds tend to be. But still, something worthy of reading, instead of vomiting on, hacking into pieces, and setting on fire. What I saw was a professional edit of a man who bought traditional misogyny without a thought to the humanity of real-live women, who would likely have become a rapist if he’d had the physical strength to commit the crime and access to his targets, who hacked his roommates to pieces and went on to shoot and run over complete strangers before he fired the bullet that ripped him out of existence. The fact that Abramson thought of making Rodger’s words acceptable, even lyrical, in the face of the destruction and pain that Rodger caused, baffled me, as it did many people. I joined the condemnation of Seth Abramson. I vented my anger on Twitter.
On my second read, with the correct speaker (that is, Abramson) in mind, I realized what Abramson was trying to do. The “Last Words” were, in fact, a condemnation. They were thoughts that should have been conveyed to Rodger but that he (Rodger) never heard, whether because no one bothered to say them to him or (my guess) because he didn’t want to hear. Even though some of the images in Abramson’s piece are simplistic in their politics (“alpha-male slut” is pretty cringeworthy, for example, in its Good Man/Bad Woman All in One! ambiguity), Abramson’s ambition to redeem overwhelmingly tainted language is, at the very least, clear.
So, yeah, I admit it: I goofed. Because of that, I’ve had to trash my original ideas and start from scratch.
Here are the words I now have for Seth Abramson:
First, you must have been one hell of a public defender. The way you’re able to address Rodger’s monstrous behavior without dismissing him as a monster is impressive, and humbling. Most people, apart from the perpetrators’ family members, insist on seeing violent criminals as aberrations, others, nonhumans. Your willingness to see and accept Roger’s actions as a (horrible) part of the human experience shows me that you’re a far, FAR better person than I am. More than my even my solipsistic struggles with the green-eyed monster suggest.
That said, your choice (if it was, in fact, your choice) to publish “Last Words” so soon after the Isla Vista murders was, to put it mildly, ill advised. In the first days after egregious crimes, particularly those in which the criminal is so vocal about why he did what he did, the public doesn’t want to think about compassion for the murderer, or the nature of the language that comes out of his mouth. The public wants to wail and scream and bleed. The public wants to remember the precious lives cut short and curse the one who wielded the knife (or rope, or semi-automatic rifle). This is probably why poets don’t make good first responders. A poet’s sensitivity to the nuances of word and deed aren’t going to sit well with angry, traumatized people. The shock and pain have to subside for us to start thinking about objectivity.
Reaction to Rodger and his words also evolved differently than the usual (!) responses to a mass shooting. The misogyny that Rodger expressed in his videos and “manifesto,” not to mention the defensiveness or outright sympathy he generated in male commentators and social media users, mobilized women to tell their stories about how violence and hatred toward women has shaped their lives. In the span of a few days, Rodger ceased being a run-of-the-mill madman: now he’s a symbol of the physical and psychological terrorism that has scarred women from before humankind started taking notes. “Last Words,” with its implicit invitation to connect with Rodger’s humanity, only reminded many women of how men in power have nearly always sided with male perpetrators and not female survivors. You, Seth, couldn’t have foreseen this–or maybe you did, I couldn’t say. Because of your background, your work with people who had no one to speak for them when the police cars arrived, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. I fear that other readers won’t be so forgiving.
Your piece and the controversy surrounding it reminds me a lot of The Fuehrer Bunker, W.D. Snodgrass’s poetry collection that described the final days of Hitler and his inner circle. As far as I remember, Snodgrass also used some quotes from the parties involved. Mostly, he fictionalized. The overall effect, though, was not compelling. You wouldn’t think an exploration of the people who have come to define modern evil would be dull, but truth be told, I don’t need to read about how in the end Hitler was “petty, pathetic, and desperate,” as the Amazon description says. I can guess. Purely evil characters just aren’t that interesting. Purely good ones aren’t, either. Once the strong emotion wears off, the rhetoric is too damned predictable.
That’s what I see going on in “Last Words,” sorry to say. By the time he got around to recording that final venomous rant, Rodger had transformed himself into a stereotypical villain (complete with maniacal laugh), and his language followed suit. I don’t see anything to gain from redeeming his words. He’s not worthy of literary focus–morally or aesthetically. Without his bile behind them, Rodger’s words become the same old bland platitudes that find their way onto motivational posters and billboard ads. You punish you. Hate is wretched. Can you know pleasure? True pleasure?
I don’t need his words to tell me that. I don’t need his words to ask those questions.
[Thanks to Amorak Huey for the inspiration and validation. If you’ve made it this far in my post, go read his. It’s much more elegant than my ramblings.]