"Now I’m Embarrassed"

Leigh Stein’s blinkering, connected verse
Image of Leigh Stein

“I am only 22 years old. / I want to fake my death on Facebook,” says the narrator of “Zelda,” one of the 50 poems in Dispatch from the Future, the debut collection of 27-year-old poet Leigh Stein. Though it is the most ostentatiously au courant line in the volume, it doesn’t feel like much of an aberration. Stein’s poems are written in the lingua franca of the Internet—self-deprecating confessions and casual pop cultural allusions abound. “Truly the only things Lindsay Lohan and I / have in common,” says the speaker in “A Brief History of My Life Part VII,” “are our preoccupations // with fame and weight loss, and yet I recognize / a kinship there, as if those two things mattered // more than anything.”

Out of some dedication to lyrical grace, contemporary poetry often denies the particulars of our lives. But to make such elisions, as David Foster Wallace once said, is to be “retrograde about what’s ‘permissible’ in serious art.” So it comes as a disproportionate relief to read poetry that reflects daily life such as it actually is today: blinkering and smeared with banner ads, but also chatty, connected, and littered with the kind of esoterica that only 15 years ago would have seemed unthinkably remote.

It’s a tricky mode to succeed in, though, and Stein does it well. “Gchat” sounds like a Cosmo coinage, and social interactions hardly seem mentionable when they occur on Facebook, for which there are no synonyms. There is something ignoble about invoking brand names when we are at our most impassioned. For poets it can be easier to euphemize our modern vocabulary than embrace it. Stein avoids this trap by refusing to think of poetry as a precious form.

Stein’s narrative points of view telegraph her casual ease. She relies mostly on first- and second-person pronouns, and seldom provides antecedents for either. The “I” changes from poem to poem, and the “you” remains illegible. By refusing to identify her addressee, Stein maintains a sense of aired-out friendliness and indistinct intimacy. The poems read a little like blog posts, our modern-day soliloquies.

By declining to write indirectly about our modern modes of communication, Stein, whose first novel, The Fallback Plan, was also published this year, is quickly becoming a sort of ambassador for her generation. (Stein’s fictional debut was in fact written after Dispatch from the Future, but released first by Melville House, which published both.) Esther, Stein’s protagonist, is a Millennial martyr: after graduating from Northwestern, she can’t find work and so moves back in with her parents, where she loses the will to groom and eats a lot of cereal. She’s finally forced to grow up after taking a babysitting job with a mourning family that ends up relying on her in unexpected ways. Stein’s ripped-from-op-eds plot is partially autobiographical, though less than some critics and readers assumed. Her observational abilities are astute, and her scenes not just timely but well rendered.

For those who have read The Fallback Plan, Dispatch from the Future will feel familiar in both its tone, which is alternately infantilized and alarming, and its preoccupations—revenge and its attendant thrill, the beauty myth, reading-in-lieu-of-living. When the narrator of “Immortality” says, “I took my medication and looked at pictures / of people who were not in love with me,” we can deduce that she’s not rifling through shoeboxes of Polaroids, but rather clicking through albums posted on Facebook, and also, relatedly, that these “people” aren’t anonymous—they’re friends or, rather, “friends.” And the medication? Prozac seems a likelier pill than Claritin. Stein has described her work as “poetry for people who hate poetry,” but Dispatch from the Future is no shtick, and Stein does not exploit her youth or rely solely on conspicuously contemporary imagery. Staying alert to the constantly connected world that Stein sometimes describes ensures that even the poems that aren’t explicitly about life online can feel as if they were. A line like the one that opens “Addendum to the Previous Dispatch” could have been written decades ago, but knowing that it wasn’t gives it new freight. “I just remembered every single thing I’ve ever done / and now I’m embarrassed” is not a notional pronouncement, but in fact a totally reasonable anxiety now that so many of our mistakes are only a click away.

On her Tumblr, Stein posts poems made up exclusively of dialogue from The Bachelorette. They’re hilarious but also startlingly emotive (“This is my simple life. 
I’m goin where you’re goin./ On that note, let’s have a drink."), and were the source material not identified in the header, you’d think Stein was just experimenting with a different voice. Her engagement with reality television, romantic comedies, and tabloid celebrities is not so much without critical distance as it is without sarcasm, and her poetry is better, funnier, and more honest for her earnestness. Stein is not alone in her fascinations. Two other contemporary poets come to mind when thinking about her alliance to supposedly degraded subject matter: Julia Bloch, with her recently released Letters to Kelly Clarkson, a collection of haunting, epistolary prose poems; and poet/performance artist Kate Durbin, the founder of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, and author of E! Entertainment, a chapbook that includes, among other projects, a deadpan rewriting of The Hills.

Stein is unabashedly playful. She writes with the intermittent ditziness of a woman who knows she’s far cleverer than the men around her assume her to be. She has relinquished tedious responsibilities: to be academic or theoretical or even to signal her remove. Stein isn’t treating her subject matter with faux-seriousness or attempting cognitive empathy by drawing parallels between us and Lauren Conrad. Stein’s narrators do all the things we’re meant to associate with superficial girls: they go to the gym to get “sexier,” they cry in public, they retreat home to eat vanilla frozen yogurt. But they also offer brilliant insights (a casually radical rereading of the myth of Orpheus, for example) and quietly scandalous denouncements (instead of “a room of one’s own,” one speaker asserts that she wants “an apartment paid for by someone else’s hard, / manual labor”). 

Ditziness, for Stein, is a kind of dramatic irony by which her narrators can assert that they’re secretly smarter than their audience. Dispatch from the Future is a land mine of rising intonation, but each gratuitous question mark is purposefully planted, a red herring meant to distract us from an intelligence that will reveal itself just a beat before we’d start to doubt it. It’s not immediately clear that the stuttering, uptalking stanzas of “Have You Hugged a Latvian Today?,” for instance, in fact announce a send-up of pageant culture: “Like, I wish, right?” the narrator says, “I wish there was a spokeswoman for aphasia who / was also internationally recognized for her / beauty, intellect, and equestrian panache.”

Like her incorporation of Internet culture, Stein’s use of girlish vernacular is more an assertion of proprietary right than it is contrarian rebellion. She contextualizes the most debased words—our ugliest proper nouns and dumbest hedges—in a way that grants them unexpected dignity. By showing us that it’s possible to make something beautiful and funny out of our supposed follies, Stein rescues the present.

Originally Published: August 21st, 2012

Alice Gregory is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in New Yorkn+1, The Boston Globe, Tablet, and, among other publications.

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  1. August 22, 2012
     Surazeus Simon Seamount

    Leigh's poetry is charming and funny.
    Her words are sunny on a cloudy day.
    Though I wrap myself in dreary rain
    her sweetness eases my aching pain.
    Honest assessment of difficult life
    clears perspective so despair sparks
    light of truth to illuminate fear
    that reveals hidden road we trudge.
    Her poems are rich as ice cream fudge.

  2. August 23, 2012
     Lauren Ruiz

    Despite being 21, as a poet, I do find this subject matter
    contemptible--so I read this because of that--to open my
    mind to what I dislike--and found that I may just give it
    a chance. :)

  3. August 23, 2012
     Baltimore Poet

    I think this is an interesting article, and I do think interesting literature can be made from today's technology, just like yesteryear's (i.e. Homer). That being said, there is very little poetry quoted. Maybe that is telling of its quality, or maybe not. Of what is quoted, is it poetry?: "I am only 22 years old. / I want to fake my death on Facebook."

    Of course, there is a line break. Let's take the first line. Well, that could be in a police report. A poet like Sylvia Plath would never have a line of poetry like that. Of course, Plath was a poet of high order. Anyway, the issue highlighted by the first line is the usual difficulty (sometimes) in distinguishing prose and poetry. Sometimes it is distinguished by line breaks and obscurity (i.e. WCW's Patterson) (sorry).

    The second line is what brings me to this posted comment: "I want to fake my death on Facebook." If we take out the technology aspect, the new, then the line reads: I want to fake my death. In this light, poetry here compared to the first line can be distinguished by the intent to communicate information (line 1) and the intent to communicate emotion (line 2). One might argue line 2 intends to communicate information about the speaker, but this is not objective, nor about the world. The emotion, itself, is ironic, knowing, maybe even self-depreciating or arrogant. (More of the poem is needed). Anyhow, this may be an important distinction, Virginia Woolf regardless. Hmm, its a distinction that makes line 2 more interesting than line 1. I cannot make a broader statement than the latter one.
    However, is the kind of emotion expressed in line 2 poetry? The emotion is easily understood. It does not take a moment's thought to get. Ah, what about Kenneth Koch? Well, who reads him now? (I enjoyed a book of his a few years back). Is the emotion here throwaway emotion, i.e., of no consequence? Food for thought. Can passing and inconsequential emotion (i.e., I read the newspaper and sip my coffee, yum) amount to poetry unless it amounts to more?

  4. August 25, 2012
     Katie B

    I’m all for poetry not taking itself or its subjects too seriously, but there’s a fine line between poetry that plays dumb to avoid charges of being overly academic, and poetry that asserts a right to its own dailiness. Denying the place of things like Gchat and celebrity culture in some of our lives promotes a restrictive, repressed poetics. Poetry is big enough; there’s space there for those seemingly non-poetic acts that make up our waking lives. But glorifying baby talk and an entitled, paralyzed, play-dumb-and-look-pretty aesthetic in lieu of one that isn’t afraid of the “tedious responsibility” of being smart out loud isn’t the answer.

  5. August 28, 2012
     Baltimore Poet

    I think the notion mentioned above, "the 'tedious responsibility' of being smart out loud," is interesting. Is this responsibility no different than living life? I mean, how do you avoid it? For instance, when Jack Kerouac and partied, wasn't he being absolutely sincere and serious? His conduct might be right or wrong, as judged by others in regard to how to live their life, but it was earnest play.

    I think one way the Internet is / will impact "poetry" (defined by whomever defines it) is by making it more immediate, instant, simple. Who ponders the text online? Its glance, grab, and go. Isn't poetry the opposite of that, though? (What about the haiku?)

    Frank O'Hara nonwithstanding, there is a lot of space for poetry readers, otherwise known as critics if they so choose, to ponder what is poetry. This question can be contemplated far more interestingly than those interested in various forms of language games. (Sorry. I'm not interested in that.). Either way, there is much living poetry written / spoken / sung today that is amazing. The best critical drive is another form of engagement and appreciation.

  6. September 1, 2012

    brilliant review. thanks

  7. September 2, 2012
     william childress

    My first poem was inked in POETRY in 1962, so I've gone through a variety of bardic uprisings. The one thing that bothers me most is that real writing, the kind that lasts,seems very far from young poets today. They write in and of the instant, Starbuck's and McDonald's, stream of consciousness frivolity that says little and is rarely worth the time of intelligent readers. It's kid stuff, like the play of children, familiar words and actions that "just roll out." A poet recently sent me a "poem" and explained, "It only took me five minutes to write this." It was, of course, the worst sort of doggerel. Poetry these days has become a kind of neighborhood dumpster into which any kind of refuse can be tossed, and someone will call it poetry. No matter how lengthy or clever reviews may be, if a poem only communicates on a teenaged level, it's not poetry. It's a bulletin board. I don't think these types of poets read poetry, which is why they make up nonsense.

  8. September 12, 2012


  9. September 19, 2012

    I have never wanted to define this or that of a poem
    I have relished what it says both to my eyes and ears.
    As I have always said the art of writing it is not
    something that can be taught nor is it the total property of a coteri of poets with academic pedigrees
    that surely would have embarrassed Shakespeare!
    Secondly,poems are like a meal to me some I relish
    for breakfast/dinner/tea and never am I satisfied with
    the stuff that comes out of me,-dare I call it poetry!
    I never learned how to write poetry from the inside
    although I can never explain where it comes from.
    My little Autistic boy saw Leigh's face on the screen
    and said 'Hey, dad, she's a pretty girl, ask her if she
    likes chocolate.' That line,though completely irrelevant
    to anything to do with her poems which I like much, is
    quite beautiful in its self..
    Makes me feel just how much more I must extend myself.

  10. September 23, 2012
     Daniel R.T.N. Kilby

    Poetry, an act of kindness;
    Communication to one's own soul.
    How oft we art let art define us,
    when troubled is the art of soul?
    Made not, contempt not, attempt not, breath not...
    Who is this that squabbles so,
    that whenever one asks which new paths to take,
    communication tells them they would not grow?
    I need not know Charlie Brown's parents.