Kate Benedict & Beau Sia: Some Good Poetry (I’m Not Shittin’ You!)
Copyright Ó by Dan Schneider, 1/4/04

  Rare is it that I get the chance to be positive in essays on poetry so I am happy, I tell you. That grimace is just a twinge. Let me tell you of 2 small books of poetry that are actually worth a read. The 1st is a Custom Words book by Kate Benedict called Here From Away. It’s not a perfect book, but noticeably better than most of the tripe that beckons remaindering after the 1st Edition.
  But, let me be up front about my relationship with KB- I have not taught, been taught, had sex with, nor even felt KB up. However, about a year ago she emailed me & I found a # of her poems worthy of being put on Cosmo’s Vers Magnifique page. A while back she mailed me her book. My initial opinion of her poetry is the same as that after reading the book- KB is, overall, a good poet- but her formal verse is noticeably better than her free verse. In this regard she reminds me of the schismic Willis Barnstone whose sonnets far overshadow his banal free verse. KB’s free verse is not as bad as WB’s, but it does suffer from literary love handles- most of the free verse is rather ordinary, suffering from a lack of concision & richness of language. Usually, though, she avoids clichés. However, I will only give you an example of what is probably the worst stanza in the book. This from the poem Fast, Bright, Loud:

a migraine of halogen light,
neon day and night-
down brilliant streets
we rush
from one lit place to another,
denied the respite
of chiaroscuro,
denying the deep shadow.

  The overall trope has been done before, & the last line is- yikes! However, the halogen line is excellent. This is typical of most of KB’s free verse- a hook-worthy line or image & then 6 or 7 so-so lines of filler. This is not unique to her as most free verse these days suffers from that- at best. At worst the writing begs for a meeting with my just-vacated anus. Here’s the point, though- this stanza is still better than the dreck that a Jane Kenyon, Maya Angelou, or James Tate can cobble. The issue is context- KB’s worst would be a glimmer of hope from, say, Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem does have a much stronger end, I should add.
  But formalism is where KB excels. Why? She is not a ‘visionary’ poet- but a competent wordsmith & formalism’s strictures offer up opportunities that she, herself, might not seize upon- this is not a criticism, per se, merely a recognition. To use a sports metaphor, if KB were a tennis pro she would be a serve & volleyer, waiting for what her opponent gives her, & exploiting opportunities. Formalism affords more opportunities than the ‘do it yourself’ world of free verse. She plays what the language affords her. In this way she will never be a ‘Master’, say, in the manner of Wallace Stevens, who constantly meshed & melded form to his whims, because a ‘Master’ of a craft attacks & takes command. KB does not. That does not mean that being a ‘craftsman’ cannot result in good or excellent poems. Here’s a poem that works very well:

Atlantic City Idyll

Come bet with me and be my luck
and bring me gimlets tart with lime.
We’ll chase the wily holy buck
and toss the dice and sneer at time.

And we will dazzle in our clothes
and neon dazzle us as well.
We’ll strike a sleek and moneyed pose,
we’ll yell a blithe, ecstatic yell

until at last we’ve squandered all,
shot the wad and maxed the cards,
until we’ve quaffed till dawns appall
and hoarse are velvet-throated bards.

Come stroll with me and be my muse
of feckless hope and vain desire.
On the boardwalk the huckster woos
and Armless Annie tongues her lyre.

  The form is about as Classical as 1 can get, but look at the narrative feint’s build up to the last sentence. The ghastly & bizarre image of a Boardwalk freak, representative of Lady Luck’s influence in the real world, only gains in power because the rest of the poem has pictured careless material frivolity. Had KB started her poem with the notion of ‘But for the grace of God, there go I….’ the poem may have veered off in to bathos. The abab quatrain’s familiarity also lulls us into a nursery rhyme succor (or stupor) ripe for awakening. Same for the title. Is this the most deep & socially relevant poem penned? No. But it’s a good poem, & 1 utterly beyond almost all the PC workshop zombies who seek tenure. A last point- even in the pathos at end there is a sense of the comic- however black. How absent is humor in most published poetry of the last few decades? So absent that its lack is as cold as the space between Carolyn Forchés legs. OK, I’ve gone over the line this time. That was unfair- not to CF, but to those who in ‘don’t think of the pink elephant’ fashion had to contemplate that aforementioned airless realm!
  Back to poetry:


“I have nothing to say and I am saying it in poetry.”
John Cage, Lecture on Nothing

No meaning, no import, no point, no wit.
I speak of nothing, not even weather.
I’ve nothing to say and I’m saying it.

No thoughts alight. They drift or flit.
I bring no focus. I’m not “together”.
No meaning, no import, no point, no wit.

No sense whatever, not a whit.
No reason to say “bellwether”.
I’ve nothing to say and I’m saying it.

I yawn, drum nails and squirm a bit,
hum tunes of edelweiss or heather.
No meaning, no import, no point, no wit.

A pen without ink, a fruit without pit,
a joke without pith, a wing without feather.
I’ve nothing to say and I’m saying it.

I probe a nostril or pick a zit.
Boredom is my choice and tether.
No meaning, no import, no point, no wit.
I’ve nothing to say and I’m saying it.

  I don’t know if this poem’s title refers to an actual form, but it’s basically an extended villanelle, & it works. Too often villanelles’ & sestinas’ repetition results in inane listing & braiding hair poems. KB’s Tantalizing Sestina is an excellent 1, & Rienelle is tight, makes a comment on the roteness of using the same lines by their use in the poem, & plays off of the John Cage epigraph- he being the very personification of existential existentialism at its best, worst, or existentialest. Yet, this poem illustrates perfectly why KB truly needs form to succeed & maximize her talents. It forces a focus upon her- I’ll bet anything that the idea of humming florally (edelweiss or heather) would not have come to KB were it not for the need to rime with feather. Again, this is not criticism- but recognition that all artists should work to maximize their strengths- KB’s lie in form, which is not a prison if you know how to turn its strictures into opportunities. KB does. Overall I’d give her an 8 of 10 for Here From Away.
  Would I love to state that this book is another Harmonium or White Buildings? Sure, but then I’d be criticizing the book for what it’s not, not what it is- which is a good, solid book of poetry. Final comments- read more of KB at www.katebenedict.com. As for the book’s design, the cover photo’s not too ‘artsy’, although the cover material feels, literally, like some latex used in sexual toys- not that that’s a bad thing! The book would have been better served not being in the trite tripartite format so dominant these days. She could also do without the back cover blurbery- this from a faronzaled yenta I knew years ago in a NYC poetry group, Rhina Espaillat:

“What intelligent, energetic, generous poems these are, and how willing to take risks! They'll try--with impressive success--anything to communicate truthfully: formal verse that makes form feel as integral to the poem as it should be; playful, witty free verse that uses freedom well; confession that doesn't plead for sympathy; social commentary that manages subtlety; humor; surrealistic imagery; strong, effective narrative; sharp-eyed description; vignettes that convey the flavor of relationships and domestic situations . . . These poems are certain to engage the reader's attention and earn his respect, and keep both.” 

  Oy! I’ve underlined the fill-in-the-blank stuff. Does this really tell you a thing that makes KB different from any other poet. Now, just compare that to my Carolyn Forché metaphor. Puh-leeze Rhina!
  On to another good book of poems. But, 1st let me reiterate this point about Beau Sia: I have not taught, been taught, had sex with, nor even felt BS up. This is not a latency issue, just a fact. Anyway, this book is over 5 years old now- released by Mouth Almighty Books, having come out as a parody of songstress/poetaster Jewel Kilcher’s best-selling book of doggerel A Night Without Armor. BS’s book is called a night without armor II: the revenge. It’s a good little book of parodic poems which use Jewel’s poems’ titles & totally ranks on them. BS 1st came to attention in the 1998 schlock slam poetry film Slam. There he displayed he was a totally generic spoken wordist- his real poems making Jewel, herself, look like- well….Rod McKuen. Still, this book is worthy of the best of Edward Lear or Ogden Nash, & will probably, & unfortunately, be BS’s only real literary claim to fame. BS also has an eponymous URL- www.beausia.com- from where I glean this info about him:

  Beau Sia is a Chinese-American poet from Oklahoma City. He moved to NYC after high school and since then, has been quite active in various poetry communities, with many outlets for his work. He has been on two National Poetry Slam championship teams and in 2001, placed second in the NPS individual competition. Beau has been featured in the award-winning film Slam and the documentary Slam Nation. As an author, Beau wrote the poetry book A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge. A few of the anthologies his work appears in, include, Def Poetry Jam on Broadway... and more, Why Freedom Matters, and Spoken Word Revolution. Beau has two spoken word CD's, Attack! Attack! Go! and Dope and Wack. He was a recipient of the California Arts Council Writer-in-Residence grant for Youth Speaks in 2001-2002, and was the lead artist for the Creative Work Fund. Beau has appeared on all seasons of HBO’s "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry," and has also performed on ESPN's 2000 Winter X-Games, Showtime! at The Apollo, and the 2003 Tony Awards. He is one of the original cast members in Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, a 2003 Special Event Tony Award Winner. This year, he plans to further develop all aspects of his craft, staying open to what that may bring him. His home base is beausia.com and he does what he wants.

  In Googling about I found that, to my knowledge, Jewel has never commented on BS’s book- either out of disdain or ignorance of it. Too bad, because I’m gonna do a side-by-side comparison of JK’s & NS’s poems.

Paramount, NY, 9:34 A.M.

In the morning tiny bells go off
that light a darkened path
Reluctant as pinpricks
dawn pierces sleep
with nimble fingers
I am unwoven
     the rich yoke of slumber
     unraveled thread by thread
until I am naked and glistening
standing before the newness
of another day
a tiny form birthed of white linen
and restless dreams

paramount, ny,

right now
I’m trying
to astral project myself
to this place
and time
so that
I can
the naked jewel
mentioned in the
same titled poem
as this.

I am unsuccessful.

it does not matter

  In fairness, JK does have some nice images & phrases in her poem- ‘Reluctant as pinpricks’, ‘rich yoke of slumber’, & ‘a tiny form birthed of white linen’- but the rest of the poem, & its whole arc are as banal as any other teenage girl’s poetry. & JK was a teen when most of her crap was written. BS’s poem is not a reworking, nor a different take- it’s a dead-on assault, not even a parody. Many a man has thought of Jewel naked, as her whole ‘come hither, but don’t touch’ schtick is classic cock-teasing. BS embraces this aspect & his speaker admits his own less than poetic motives. Is his form horrendous? Yes, but it does not matter since the poem self-consciously does not give off literary airs- in fact, disdains such. If BS’s real poems showed a similar awareness, however, they would be far less sloppy than they are.
  Here’s another side-by-side:


A gay man
is sitting in
a hotel lobby
a cigarette.
He stomachs my
breasts dutifully
like spinach or lima beans
or other things that
make one sick
because he fears
the red-necks
  at the bar
are onto him.


I tape
branches and leaves
to my body
and hide
behind the bushes
used as landscaping
outside of
public pools.

waiting quietly for
the perfect moment
to drop a
baby ruth
into the water

  JK’s poem is relentlessly a ‘message’ poem. It’s actually 1 of the 3 or 4 passable poems in her book, but so 1 dimensional that it’s little more than a bumper sticker. In BS’s version he does not even attempt to parody the poem- for it’s too easy. Incidentally, BS claims to have parodied the whole book in little more than a 4 hour session of creativity. That he did not consciously try to be ‘literary’ yet produced his best work reminds me of the unconscious solid-good quality of poetry produced by the Ern Malley hoaxers. BS should investigate the opportunity to tap into his unconscious nature more often. Anyway, BS’s poem is a scream- again, some poor enjambment- but a riot. As are the vast majority of his parodies.
  Here’s a poem where BS shows parody can be in its demurral:

wolves in the canyon

I could never write a poem
about wolves in the canyon,
so don’t
expect me to.

  Delicious. Here BS takes a staple of slamnation crap- the sexual misadventure usually laced with melodrama & angst, only to unwittingly take a shot at the conventions he indulges in his extra-Jewel poems, as well as JK’s poem:


now that you have me
to the bed,

I hope that you’re
kind enough
not to
shit on me
take a big dildo
and fuck me
with it.

many people died
the bataan death march.

  The poem reminds me of the scene in Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors where his sister tells him of her personal ad lover’s practiced fetish upon her. That BS shows up the utter banality of most overtly political poetry (especially that from the inane Nuyoricans) with the last stanza is yet another example of him unwittingly showing far more potential when he is not meaning to. He also brings a comic edge, & inadvertent (ugh) truth to his parodies when he viciously assails an unnamed obese girl in a 3 poem series which ends with this poem:

crazy cow

I would call you this,
except I would
replace ‘crazy’
with ‘fat’.

you’re the girl from
and ‘traffic’.

if you’re not dead
then I have failed.

  Beau, this book is anything but a failure. It’s where you should head- parody is your gift. Poetry may be an occasional vehicle for it, but a career in satire awaits. Saturday Night Live has been moribund for years, a writer like BS could do wonders for it. As for the book’s cover, it also nails JK’s pomp & prissiness- including a back cover photo of BS flexing his buxomness. Overall the book rates a 9.5 for parody & a 7 for poetry, on a 1-10 scale. BS should abandon the Nuyorican spoken word bullshit- it’s so wannabe Rimbaud, & look where that got the young scatologist!
  2 books, & 2 recommendations? When’s the next Adrienne Rich atrocity due? Kate Benedict is an example of a good solid poet who will probably never get a page on the Academy of American Poets website, nor get feted semi-annually with an obscene MacArthur Genius grant, but her poetry has the chance to niche itself into future poetry readers’ minds like the near-forgotten, but good, poetry of a Hazel Hall, Hyam Plutzik, or Edwin Rolfe. Beau Sia unwittingly produced 1 of the best books of poetry & parody published in the last 20 years- when he wasn’t trying. Here’s advice- don’t try! Let the world play you, not vice-versa, because, just like KB’s poetry, you & your readers will be the better for it.
  As for Rhina Espaillat, let me tell you….

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