POETRY’S DEAD (UNDEAD UNDEAD UNDEAD) – JESSIE LYNN McMAINS

Poetry & Halloween go together like candy corn & carved pumpkins because poetry is, at its heart, a haunted thing. All poems are about ghosts, even if they’re not about ghosts. They’re all haunted by the traces of memory (the poet’s own memory, but also the ghosts of history that each word carries with it). Writing a poem is a way to summon ghosts, but it can also be a way to exorcise your ghosts & demons, or at least expel them from your mind and bind them with paper & ink. (As Sandra Cisneros wrote: I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.)

Poems are also a bit like spells. Spells to conjure the past or shape the future. Spells to heal the writer/reader, or get revenge on what has harmed them. Or creation spells which bring forth something beautiful that wasn’t there before. I suppose any form of writing could be considered a spell, but poetry feels even more tied to spell-work because of its rhythm and sound. There is something inherently incantatory about it.

So, yes, all poetry fits into the Halloween season, at least in some small way. But one can make the connection even more obvious, depending on what is being written about. And that is exactly what I’m doing with both my current works-in-progress. All writers write about their obsessions. I am a giant nerd who is kinda goth, so some of my obsessions are very Halloween-y. If all poems are implicitly about ghosts, many of my poems are explicitly about ghosts. Ghosts are the overarching theme in my in-progress full length collection. Some of its other themes and inspirations include: murder ballads, urban legends, fairy and folk tales, witchcraft, monsters, and horror films.

I recently completed a poem for that manuscript titled “Planet of the Monster Girls.” It’s about a group of girls obsessed with classic horror films and their stars: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, and Lon Chaney, Jr. Writing that poem rekindled my own obsession with those actors. I splurged on Etsy items relating to them, and built a sort of altar/shrine in my workspace. I rewatched their films, and did internet and library searches for more information about those monstrous leading men. And then the poems came. I found myself scribbling epistolary prosepoems to Peter Lorre. (It started with him because I have a long-running obsession with Mr. Lorre that would require an entire separate essay to explain). Soon after, I began writing missives to the rest of them, too.

I have so many other things I’m working on right now that I tried to resist it at first. No way am I starting another effing book, I told myself. But the epistolary poems kept coming, and then I started doing some erasures as well, from the books and articles I’ve been reading about those men. (Because how often does one find a source text full of choice words like quirky, deviant, venom, mesmeric, dread, and menace?) After a couple weeks, I had to admit to myself that I am, indeed, working on a new book. I don’t yet know what the final form or structure will be, or whether it will be a chapbook or a full-length. But right now I don’t care, because I am enjoying the process. This project is giving me a way to discuss serious topics while paying tribute to some of my favorite actors and films. It is giving me a fun way to juxtapose the ‘high art’ of poetry with the ‘low art’ of vintage horror, noir, and b-movies. (And it gave me an excuse to decorate a special notebook in which to write the poems.)

Yes, poetry & Halloween go together like ghosts and crumbling old mansions. Yes, all poems are spells and summonings. And this year, I’m spending my Halloween season writing spells which summon the ghosts of my muses: Boris, Bela, Peter, Vincent, & Lon.

Leave a Reply