The Feeling Is Actual by Paolo Javier
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2011)
[First published in the Poetry Project Newsletter, February/March 2012 issue (#230), edited by Paul Foster Johnson]
My first encounter with Paolo Javier’s new book The Feeling is Actual came when he forwarded me the galleys to the poem “Batman That One” in 2009 shortly before its publication in Aufgabe. My response to him was that the poem “captures the speed of batmen on multiple vectors (that of filmwatching and cinephilia, that of disguise/race/conspiracy, that of paranoid criticism). What a way to squeeze out ideologies in a way that would be so boring if written as a film review or critical essay.” The poem, and much of The Feeling is Actual is a shot over the bow at cultural studies in whatever form, although given Paolo’s generally amicable demeanor it’s probably more like a soft padded toy dart gun shot, ammo dipped in paint, shot at the large glass of transparent criticism everywhere. Somewhere along the line, cultural criticism and political poetry became boring (I’m not sure when, and I’m not saying there haven’t been notable exceptions, but generally speaking). While one could perhaps give “academics” a pass on boredom, what excuse do poets have? As even (especially?) Brecht said of the theater, we should say of poetry, “From the first, it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people, as it has also all of the other arts. It is this business which always gives it it’s particular dignity; it needs no other passport than fun, but this it has got to have.”
But perhaps we shouldn’t give “academics” a pass either, for Javier’s poetic modes are strange blends of lyric exploration, culture and media criticism, and anthropology, to name just a few. The piece entitled “Monty & Turtle,” for instance, alternates between hilarious paratactical hijinks and sustained meditations on the directorial and cinematographic styles of Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle respectively. One wonders how many left academics, say Fredric Jameson, would survive if they were required to make us feel as well as think, and how many fewer would survive if they were required to lay down some rhymes every now and again between their prosaic analyses. Javier does both, so why can’t we?
The book’s virtue is that it actually shows us how we can do both. You too can write books “like” The Feeling is Actual, and I know from talking with Paolo about his life, his pedagogy, and his work as Poet Laureate of Queens, among other things, that he would be thrilled if you did. Ethical and theoretical questions aside, Paolo loves what he does, and one who loves something wants others to love it too. It begins and ends with love, just as The Feeling Is Actual begins and ends with love poems that will alternately make you sing and cry, “Feeling Its Actual” because the feeling is actual. To be sure, the discussion of Happy Together begins at the same place:
For one, I love how the film’s synaptic rhythms enact
the discarded feelings of its characters
How its style and love story weren’t intellectualized into being,
00:00:28 or even planned. (121)
The compulsory heterosexuality of poetry here becomes pansexual, as the speaker loves a film about gay lovers because it teaches him about his own love (which, of whatever orientation, is always an “other” love), his own unplanned feelings: “When people ask how did we meet, I tell / the truth. . . . /swept away by the sudden gale of your / 00:01:25 laugh” (Ibid.). He loves the film for that, he loves the film because in loving it he is more attentive to aesthetic strategies: “00:01:46 In improvisatory filmmaking [and poetry], solutions always present themselves / at the very last minute.”
Indeed, the minute markers in this poem remind us, as do the acknowledgments at the end of the book, that many of the works in The Feeling is Actual were originally conceived as performances rather than as “poems” to be placed in a book. Thanks to the minute markers among other cues, if someone wanted to perform “Monty & Turtle” he might have some idea as to how to do it (assuming Paolo was unavailable), as he or she would thanks to the production notes to “FYEO” and “Wolfgang Amadeus Bigfoot.” Or, perhaps, the production notes are there to add to the feelings we actually feel while reading and watching the pieces---watching because the images in the book are of the traditional poetic kind as well as the more “literal” kind whether they be drawings, comic book excerpts, photos, or different fonts we take into account because they too change the feeling that is actual. So, in that sense, Javier’s book is also a performance waiting to be activated, felt.
So for me, one major key to The Feeling is Actual is that, in a world where everyone can talk about social injustice, racism, media conditions, etc. Javier performs these things for us so that when we perform them in the reading (and the future writing, filming, living) we feel these things. Activism, social justice, ethics, and joy begin not when we know (which is easy) but when we feel (which we’ve forgotten). This is the “particular dignity” of Javier’s book that is most resonating with me now, though there are many other dignities to resonate in the future, for this particular poet-critic feels both welcomed and challenged by a writer who greets him as, paradoxically, a shaman and fellow traveller at the same time.
Alan Ramón Clinton is a poet, novelist, and scholar of poetry and writing pedagogy who lectures at Santa Clara University in San Jose, CA. Clinton is the author of the monograph, Mechanical Occult: Automatism, Modernism, and the Specter of Politics (Peter Lang), a volume of poems, Horatio Alger’s Keys (BlazeVOX), and a collection of short fictions entitled Curtain Call: A Metaphorical Memoir (Open Books). His novel, Necropsy in E Minor, published by Open Books in June 2011, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize.