If you haven’t read Josef Kaplan’s Kill List, click that link and take a minute to browse. You won’t need much more time than that to read the piece, even if you scan all the pages looking for your name, or that of your old professor, or your friends.
This is a simple-looking text. This is not a dig. The context is much richer, and a great deal of the fun in this text is in finding and reading reactions to the piece. (That’s rich.) Conversations about and responses to the text abound. Some defame, some defend, some dismiss, some uplift, some demean. I’m not sure what verb I’m doing, but I believe that all texts are sites for learning, even and maybe especially when a text disturbs me. Even when I really really loathe a text (and that is not the case here; nor is it love I feel – more like prickly curiosity), I can find something to learn from it. This is why, when I write about a text, I ask myself: “How does this seem to work, and in what contexts, and is it problematic for me, and what might I do with it differently?” This requires informed presumption – it seems to me that Kill List is not “about” the named poets, but about the supposed levels of “comfort” afforded to poets, maybe especially those who earn livings (mostly) within or through academe. It’s possible that the adjectives “comfortable” and “rich” have nothing to do with financial stability – as Joyelle McSweeney writes, “these could be financial terms or refer to perceived social assets or even how interested the author feels in these poets–or it could be random.”
Whatever the matrices Kaplan had in mind, the fact remains that this is a list of people (or the scritches and scratches that represent them in the form of names) under a heading that calls to my mind Sarah Palin’s use of rifle crosshair reticles to “target” political opposition (remember Gabby Giffords?). And that makes me uncomfortable. And not like “speaking-truth-to-touchy-subjects” uncomfortable, or at least not entirely. I think poking touchy subjects is a good practice – taboos are strictures that need occasional investigation and review. I say uncomfortable because I think the targeting mechanism of the text is misguided. Perhaps I believe this because as a pacifist I disagree with the implication of directed violence. Maybe I’m a thought police. Not my call.
I guess what it is that I keep tripping on is that focusing on poets and their relative comfort (financial or otherwise) seems to me to frame issues of comfort (financial or otherwise) in a way that is small potatoes, if not exactly irrelevant. I’m not bored by Kaplan’s selection process, but I’m bored by the idea of poetry as deadened or devalued (a rich brace of puns) by commercial forces, of poets or poetry as so important as to be fodder for a kill list to begin with, as a gag or as a solemn conceit. We needn’t take ourselves so seriously that we resort to cannibalism to make a point or to counter-point.
What if, instead of listing poets, this text listed the names of big international corporations and the kinds of laws and legal loopholes that those groups push through our legislatures with the liberal and lubricating application of campaign donations?
Goldman Sachs is a rich corporation.
ExxonMobil is a rich corporation.
Tax shelters are comfortable.
General Atomics is a rich corporation.
Whatever the intention, or meaning, or interpretation of Kaplan’s text and its title, I say it is better (richer in so many ways) to target not-people, like corporations and the bully-pulpit afforded to aggregated capital.