Publishing authors whose visceral emotional story-telling looks the human condition squarely in the face is bound to get a little stressful. The refrain of the Civil Coping Mechanisms (CCM) publishing house is “We’re coping,” and it’s indicative of that angsty state.
CCM has described itself as publishing work “so conceptually or aesthetically innovative it simply can’t be published anywhere else.” The 5-year old press has populated its catalogue, now with over 60 titles, with gutsy, intimate narratives told in non-traditional ways. Its most recent titles include lyrical letters, surrealist stories, internet collage, and middle school confessions. A new series, named #RECURRENT, which is devoted to work that reimagines and expands upon existing narrative spaces, was created as a clear extension of CCM’s genre-shattering mission. The work of its authors can feel primitive; much of their work could be described as unafraid. Between their covers are all the things we want to turn away from. And yet it’s impossible not to be drawn to them.
Jereme Dean’s Vicious Parts
In Jereme Dean’s In Retrospect, the Days Were Fresh and Easy, the facts, when they come, come down hard: “Cypress Community College Magazine photographs me playing alone in the day care sandbox.” “Rudy confided in me that he had killed a woman then melted her corpse with gasoline.” “Homeless again.”
The piece appears in the anthology, 40 Likely to Die Before 40, an alt-lit primer published by CCM in 2014. It is an exhaustive (21 digital pages) inventory of a life challenged to the extreme by poverty, neglect, and crime. The relentlessly affectless lines build, long-joke style, in precise sequences with hanging indents, until they begin to take the top of your head off, and Dean’s whole starts to feel like a lot more than the sum of its vicious parts.
The idea that the speaker and writer can never be assumed to be one and the same is a touchstone of contemporary poetic theory, but for Dean, and for Sean H. Doyle, discussed below, it is an idea that isn’t just retrograde, it’s irrelevant. Dean’s speaker and author vanish into each other. This speaker is a version of the author, at the very least. Though millennia of poets have given Dean permission to tell his personal history, he commits to a poetry of documentation. This choice not only accentuates the unbroken chain of traumas, but allows Dean to shave off the personal pronoun. Doing so releases the sentences from agency, showing the reader that there will be no catharsis, no elevated understanding, only reportage:
“Made shrinky dinks alone while Crystal/Alfred had sex.”
“Wrote P1A099 under the screen name dr. hate. Released it to the internet.”
“Read Catcher in the Rye.”
Freed from the “I”’s control, these anti-confessions are emptier and more disturbing. Entries loosen as they unfurl, and the narrator takes brief custody of events in lines like, “One night I stole the car keys from Iris’ work uniform,” and “I felt contrite about Bob’s death.” But even here, there seems little purpose in the telling, and without it, life’s realities are more difficult to swallow. The reader is left unmoored from the expected sentiments with Dean calling out “you’re welcome.” Fittingly, the poem’s end is simply a continuation: another child is born, brutally (“The baby looked like tethered death, he wasn’t moving or making a noise,”), into the same spinning world.
Sean H. Doyle’s Combustible Lyric
There is, in contrast, a fair amount of hugging things out in Sean H. Doyle’s This Must Be the Place (CCM Press, 2014). There are also several crippling confessions. Says the speaker about an ambush of a nightclub, “For years and years, I lied and said I had been. But I wasn’t.” Such simple acknowledgements signal that the worst improprieties in these pages are internal. Profligate drug use, cults, combat, and body modification only serve as corporal placeholders for internal pain. When, in a section named Church of Body Modification, West Phoenix, Summer 2001 –, we encounter the author with two hooks through the flesh of his back attached by ropes to the bumper of an armored truck and pulling it, it’s just comic relief compared with the traumas he inflicts on his spirit.
For Doyle, the speaker is not a version of the self but the self. His public readings and promotion of the book trades in this fact; it is categorized by CCM as a memoir. Told in present tense by way of a disjointed chronology, the book is no lyric — the subject matter would collapse under the weight of formal poetic techniques or analogizing. Yet it pulses with poetry’s rhythms. Stanzaic prose paragraphs create a strong physical space for these chapters-slash-poems, which appear hemmed in on the page. Paired with the efficiency with which the simple sentence construction and syntax relays information (after attempting to trade coke for a debasing sex act, the speaker declares “…I know I can erase what just happened with the right amount of whiskey”), these blocks of text seem like they are about to combust.
Unlike Dean, Doyle risks a chaser or two of insight with his straight shots. In a desperate scene in a New Mexico steakhouse during the deathwatch of his father, Doyle needs “so badly to feel alive” that he tries to pay a bartender so he can “feel another human being’s skin.” He prefers ownership over removal. Doing so has “kept him alive,” he allows in the book’s preface, and he pays no mind to the so-called rules of traditional narrative first by eschewing poetic flourishes and second, by welcoming vulnerability when it bleeds through.
It is a human compulsion to watch something that was thoughtfully created be destroyed. When writers dislodge from poetic technique and formal experimentation, when they dismiss the rampant mistrust of straight language, they do just that.
Doyle closes a scene about a San Francisco bar brawl this way: “Later that night I fall asleep crying in the dark on the floor of the basement because I wanted the man to have a knife or a gun and for him to kill me.”
It’s a hook through the flesh.