by Keith Jackson
If you were one of the unlucky ones that missed the Digital Literature Review’s monster poetry reading, you can still read about it here! The reading featured Ball State English Department’s very own Brian Morrison and his manuscript of poems on monsters. He works as an Assistant Professor of English at Ball State University. He agreed to be the star of this semester’s first “DLR Presents” reading, a themed event held once or twice every year, showcasing professional work from Ball State and abroad. Our second event was held last Friday (March 31st) with Jeffrey Weinstock, Ph.D. You can expect a blog about Weinstock’s talk on vampires soon!
Before the reading, I asked Morrison a few questions. He discussed his writing process, how he chooses what topics to explore, what his inspirations were for writing monster poetry, and the project he would be reading from. Morrison was very open in his answers, and I have provided a few below. I will discuss the actual reading a bit later on.
Morrison first talked with me about how he approaches a poem. He does not always know what he’s going to write about beforehand, but he focuses on an image, or sometimes a line, to start things off. The poem forms over time, over the course of two or three drafts. The ones that he read for the DLR were the result of a project he had started a few years ago. He did not know exactly where it was going at first, but he followed the idea of ‘false history,’ which means that he rewrote classic stories or historical moments. For example, he began to rewrite movies, like Frankenstein, in which the creature is a farmer in the Midwest.
After monsters entered Morrison’s life, he never let them leave. Writing has been a way of life for Morrison, and he used it to help cope with a difficult childhood. Writing helped him navigate through life and make sense of how chaotic it can be at times. To some extent, he says he is still doing it now. Like most of us, his love of monsters stems from movies he had watched. When he was a boy, he and his father found common ground in their love of horror films. They both loved the genre and movies like Jaws, Predator, and anything with werewolves. They bonded in this way, watching monster movies. Brian still watches them, and writing about them has been the most fun he has ever had. This passion resonated well with quite a few of his poems.
Right off the top, the very first poem he read reminded me of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, the monster expert, and his seven theses. Though Morrison’s poems explored several ideas, at the forefront was the political climate in America. Cohen’s first theory in particular resonated strongly throughout the entirety of the reading. In the first theory, “The Monster’s Body Is a Cultural Body,” Cohen says the “monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny dependence” (4). In this way, the monster exists to be read, to reveal, and to warn the reader. The monsters in the first few poems (which work together to convey one cohesive idea) manifest themselves in many ways. For example, in the second poem, fear morphs into a monster Ms. McCready keeps hidden in her basement, bringing it with her to city hall to vote. Though it is easy to blame Ms. McCready for allowing the monster she has only just revealed to influence her ideas, Morrison asks the question, “Can you blame them for caring more about the roads and the children? The taxes and the donors?” The monster Ms. McCready keeps in her basement represents a broader cultural anxiety – the anxiety of a country split into two poles.
Near the end of the reading, Morrison read the poem he had referenced in our discussions – the ‘false history’ poem about Frankenstein’s monster being a farmer in the Midwest. This was perhaps my favorite poem out of the whole collection, partly because of the setting (think rural and cornfields; think Indiana) and partly because this poem was false history. In the poem, which was hilarious and disturbing all at the same time, the monster expresses grief over his unruly appendages and the hard work of tilling a field. The life of a farmer is a lonely one, and Frankenstein’s monster is not devoid of emotion. He longs for friendly connection but knows he is a monster. The townsfolk shun him, consider him “Other,” something that does not belong. The poem closes as Frankenstein disperses his appendages throughout his fields to help the crops grow, ultimately accepting his role as farmer and nothing more.
Whether it is the monster we hide deep within us, the being that controls some of our deepest beliefs, or a twist on a classic story, Morrison’s poems were terrifyingly monstrous. The poems asked us to look within ourselves as a community and as a country. Within them, monsters were created to answer cultural fears and anxieties, to help make sense of the wacky world we live in. “Monsters ask us why we have created them” (Cohen 20). Morrison’s creations asked those in attendance to propose the same question: Why do we love monsters so much?
Cohen, Jeffrey. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Cohen. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1996. pp. 3-25.