S T A N   M I R

Five Recent Chapbooks by Brian Kim Stefans


The term chapbook first dawned in the minds of the poor reading public in the early nineteenth century. Its name derives from the itinerant pedlars, chapmen, who sold them. Circulation of these quaint books began as early as the sixteenth century when one was likely to find short versions of tales such as Jack the Killer and Tom Thumb usually illustrated with a few crude woodcuts. By 1800 children's tales such as Mother Hubbard and Cock Robin were produced. Typically, they were badly written and printed. Most interestingly, these books preserved the imaginative literature in countries like England and France when the ideological climate was hostile to the fantastic.

While our political climate is hostile to any sound idea, let alone any fantastic work of the imagination, it can't be said that our cultural climate lacks familiarity with the fantastic or the rational. After all, we have to observe from afar the doings of our government. Within our time we have all types of artist producing work that manipulates the wash of information, and this information's errata, we experience daily. Through the rearrangement of these daily artifacts we come to understand how we might arrange ourselves within a culture. With this in mind the chapbook remains one of the viably interesting ways for the artist's presentation of order. These little books are like biopsies of larger bodies that not only allow the writer to see more clearly, but grant readers the permission to make diagnoses as well.

Into the midst of this era that co-opts more of our attention than we realize Housepress of Calgary published Brian Kim Stefans' POEM FORMERLY KNOWN AS “TERRORISM” and other poems.1 In the background of these poems one hears a modern soundtrack that remixes the odd phrases of a questionnaire with the data of the news, as in “ ‘Islamabad' is not an adequate response”, utilizes the quotidian quirkiness of “They're putting a new door in”, which has physical as well as metaphysical significance, as in a door to another dimension perhaps, and reinvents other languages, as in “Feliz Navidada”.

Unease looms over the three poems in the six pages, but it is a type of discomfort with a sense that humor must reside somewhere. Stefans writes in “They're Putting a New Door In”, “It hit with the farce of an atom bomb. / If there are no animals on Mars, is there anything that could classify as ‘shit'.” While not knee-slappingly funny these lines are enough to provoke wry amusement considering the terrain of the politically charged material in these poems. Prior to these lines one reads, “This is only the third poem I've written in 2001.” If we take Stefans to imply pre-9/11, then Stefans tapped into the public's psyche so well as to become clairvoyant. If this statement implies post-9/11, then one sees Stefans as a realist presenting the facts. In other words, Stefans acknowledges the severity of an explosion, but it is with the jaded eyes of someone who sees the farce that surrounds any suspicious activity. Throughout all of the chapbooks discussed in this essay one sees Stefans' engagement with the world spans beyond that of a poet looking for the non-stop aesthetic experience. These poems take in as much as they can, but there always seems to be room for more information. As he closes the poem he writes, “ Be sure to add these Tones of War / to your arsenal of meters.”

Stefans' next addition to his arsenal, Jai Lai For Autocrats, appeared in 2003 from Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs edited by Brenda Iijima.2 “The paper reads to me like a fog” is the first line as well as title to one of the poems in Jai Lai For Autocrats where Stefans indicts the patterns of living we learn from pop culture or vice versa:

drifting over an arthritic plain
repellant with victorian detail
(they say
as if masterminding a tsunami
were less savage than citizens dying)
my clothes cut the kenneth cole way
such that seduction
parts, like a plush sea,
hypnotized subway crowds
in one of those digital “matrix-like” moments
that typifies bloombergian bourgeois[.]

In the concluding poem, “No Special Order,” we read lines that typify Stefans' approach to poetry, “I don't have moods, tho am particularly alive / in my distractions.” His moods are a combination of realism, impressionism, and expressionism. Rarely, do we as readers end up in places that we could've come up with on our own, yet the territory is always hauntingly familiar like the photographs of Gregory Crewdson or films that announce their setting as “The not too distant future.”

This not too distant future holds a place in the next chapbook, Cull, published by Tolling Elves, where the poems are humorous, but with a sense of social melancholy in the way the reader moves into sober thoughtfulness concerning global events.3 The poem “Quiet” reads, “It's so quiet I can hear the Kurds.” This one-liner also presents the age-old problem of the isolated individual. It's so quiet “I” can hear, but that does not mean society, or government, hears it. Stefans taps into the melancholy the individual feels in relation to his/her surroundings. The anxiety of “Quiet” seems to wonder why this quiet isn't felt elsewhere, like where it truly counts. “Go Now” closes this short collection: “You have been named Synonymous / So dance like a monkey.” The poems in Cull lead to the thought that action in some sense must occur or we won't even be dancing like monkeys; we will hobble like monkeys with broken backs.

Stefans' writing taps into our social reality as if he has the world on constant audio/video surveillance. If we properly monitor anything, then clairvoyance, or more directly, acknowledgement of a logical progression is simple. So, to call Stefans clairvoyant isn't merely to say he has psychic powers, maybe he does, but that he has taken on the social necessity known as conscience. In this light, perhaps it is more appropriate to say Stefans is sagacious, not clairvoyant. If we observe the sun rise and set for a period of days or weeks we can logically predict it to happen this way continuously.4 In spite of our reliance on continuity we must always be ready for the sun's process to cease, though it never has in our lifetime, because from our observation of other aspects of life we realize things come and go. Perhaps governmental surveillance aims for the same ethos in theory. In practice the government proves more paranoid than us, and if not paranoid, then delusional. Stefans' observation of daily life is reliable because it aims to present things based upon an engagement with his surroundings whether it be New York, a movie overloaded with CGI, or a person living in a similar domain as he. Big Brother surveillance doesn't engage on a local level. It doesn't take things as they are. As Stefans writes in the title poem of the next chapbook The Window Ordered to be Made: “I am a happy / victim of intelligence”, which praises and mocks simultaneously. Stefans' world view realizes “We make plans, and as we ruin / them, we make ‘progress'.”5

Part of the way we ruin our plans is recognition that our plans, or actions, are often in need of investigation. “We Make”, a prose poem, instigates this recognition with its display of what we make:

We make inscrutable jokes. We make constitutions out of
what were once just communal fixations. We make myths out
of the most pedestrian individuals. We make certainties out
of an incubating cloud of doubts.

The poem proceeds this way for nearly 2 1/2 pages. It's as if Stefans challenged himself the way Ashbery challenged himself when he decided in the early 1970's he would pursue what eventually became Three Poems . The challenge was to see how long he could go on in a form he had never tried, i.e. the prose poem. What would happen if Stefans were to take “We Make”, or something like it, down this path as well?

The language play of the chapbook's title is not incidental if we look at it in light of the previously discussed territory of surveillance. Like the window in the title, our society orders our sight so that we see things a certain way. It is not vision by choice, but vision by persuasion, or more appropriately, seduction. A video artist as well as poet, Stefans is hyper-aware of how we are blitzkrieged by the glitz of the media whether it be entertainment or news oriented. Often we are left asking, “What does it matter” in response to the overwhelming manipulation we experience in both satisfying and unsatisfying forms.

As a paean, and as a possible complaint, What Does It Matter: a novel, admires and quarrels with modern love, technology, and the contemporary poetry landscape, among other things, while calling to mind George Meredith, Ezra Pound, Philip K. Dick, Martin Johnston, and U2 in the process.6 In the third section of ‘CODA: “THE NINETIES TRIED YOUR GAME”,' we read (Pasha is a central character in the poem):

Given the goad, the virulent bail-out of the “Axis” – Exxons – “of Evil”;
Pasha marshals the hackers, but mocks the hacked (in theory),
lassoes the snow of front lawns with margarita piss;
the Cave, however, exhibits solidarity – there is no truth in Nigeria
worth flying there for, no canon of anti-systematic hopes,
- thus, a follower, and dyslexic at that, he's wall-eyed, comatose;
the Rites of perfect meter won't send him slouching
toward Bethlehem, nor the boas of John Wheelwright, nor the cruises with             the editor
of The Nation, nor the muckraking of The Voice [.]

The above excerpt displays Stefans' talent for applying the lingo of today's political world to the music of a poem. In fact, throughout all of his work one finds Stefans consistently pushing this type of lingo into a poem. Sure, this technique stems from Langpo, The New York School, etc., but Stefans, to my mind anyway, has updated the approach for today's younger writers. What Does It Matter should function as a primer for anyone looking for a possible way to incorporate the blips and beeps of our gadgetry into a work of art. Stefans is not merely applying the lingo for its own sake, he applies it to his art in order to reach some understanding. As in the case of Pasha we see the path to understanding is not always clearly marked with sign posts saying “UNDERSTANDING Exit 4B.” Stefans' previous forays into what's being done now, books like Fashionable Noise, or his Flash piece, The Dream Life of Letters, prove Stefans is no Luddite yearning to chisel his art into stone. He is willing to experiment with his surroundings and utilize what's there to not only make a work of art, but to use society's, or the media's, or the government's, words against them in order to enlighten anyone who will read him. Is Stefans an inventor? I'm not sure. But, like Edison, he is most certainly an endless experimenter who simultaneously preserves what is fantastic within our current imagination.




back to issue two



1 This chapbook, published in 2002, is simply produced in an edition of 70 with blue covers and a modest six pages of poetry.

2 The covers are cardstock with a simple “BKS” stenciled on the cover. Upon opening the book one finds the reproduction of a watercolor by Iijima. The watercolor features in the upper and lower right corners the 9 of hearts, but in the middle one finds an apparent autocrat. The book's last page has an Iijima watercolor with the 6 of hearts instead of the 9, and in place of the autocrat one finds what appears to be a court jester. In short, this is a well-made chapbook that has the true feel of collaboration between author and publisher.

3 Tolling Elves, a press out of London and New York, edited by Thomas Evans, published Cull with a drawing by Nicola Woodham in June 2004. Of the five chapbooks in this essay this is the most delicate to the touch. It is printed on newsprint and folded into a small, orderly square. Tolling Elves produces an entire series in this format, which one may subscribe to.

4 I realize the Aztecs as well as a myriad other civilizations would disagree with this reasoning.

5 If Cull is the most delicate to the touch, then The Window Ordered to be Made, published by A Rest Press in 2005, is a close second with its elaborate design. A veritable four-pane window is cut in the front cover and it looks into a sea of orange emblazoned with “THE WINDOW ORDERED TO BE MADE” over and over again.

6 Barque Press, which is based in the UK and edited by Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland, published this chapbook in late summer 2005. Its cover sports a design by Stefans that incorporates a photo of Teruyuki Tanaka with fish guts splattered on him while performing at Galapagos Artspace in Brooklyn.




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