This is veteran spoken-word performer Spencer Butt’s first trade print collection, documenting several pivotal years in the poet/protagonist’s life. One thing that spoken word is notorious for is being relentlessly transparent about late-youth crisis material, and Butt covers the territory unabashedly: wondering how long one can cling to the friendships and trappings of prolonged adolescence while seeing relationships mature and the body wear down, sailing on the wind of a damaged, dubious optimism.
The figures and voice that Butt uses are also true to the predominant spoken-word conventions: direct and (usually) raw language; confessional tone; metaphors that serve as much as aural lubricant as for precision; wave upon wave of imagery (whose cumulative effect has more to do with flavour and cadence than any lasting impression of a particular image); anaphora; parallel structures; and deliberate bathos.
But for anyone who views spoken-word poetry as a ‘youth’ thing, the counterpoint is that Butt’s work is where spoken word confronts aging and loss, and as vivid as his self-portrait is at times, he asks us to challenge it:
channel all of this
any of this
wonder if any of this will come out as anything other than
pretentious abstract graffiti and whiny diary entries
we’re not trying to be different
this is just what our tongues are shaped like
what gets our eyes hard
my spirit animal is extinct.
In performance, Butt embodies an energy level that the page doesn’t aspire to. But what the collection does that his performance doesn’t is situate everything in an autobiographical framework. To write youth is to write aging, and he’s very lucid and self-conscious about that. But the way he achieves such depth rings of the zeitgeist too.
When the pile-on pop references and layers of high-gloss smarm seem like they’re getting off the leash, it feels as if Butt lets it slip intentionally. Ultimately the face value of the language serves as a distraction that the reader is invited to overcome at key times. Butt creates a veneer that highlights the cracks, where the surreal and the sincere bleed in, so that the reader who focuses on tone, and the work’s sound, is caught off guard―or rewarded, really―by the way that violence, grief, and anxiety gut-punch clean through it time after time. I think it’s actually a backhanded bathos that provides the most memorable scenes and images: as the narrator worries about the future of his dear ones and the past of his parents; faces up to inadequate role models, loses an uncle, witnesses a mother’s heart attack (prefiguring the nightmare of losing his own parents); and wonders whether the things that have habitually sustained his identity are equipment to face these things at all:
this brain panics and hides from its thirty-first birthday like
it’s dimming the lights as the debt collector pounds on the
this brain swims with its shirt on
once a poor fat kid with a lisp
always a poor fat kid with a lisp.
So yes, youth is aging, maybe not in the sense of imminent old age, but in the sense of that attenuated period when we’re unsure whether we could be an old youth or a young old person. Those for whom maturation is an impossibly phrased question might ask: for just how long am I going to be someone’s child? And have I planned any other mode of existence?
i’m six feet three inches past the womb
and when i left i took the towels and the housecoats with me
refused to pay for them
and now they wont let me back in.
In a Simpsons world, Butt is a Lisa, unwilling to give himself to joy without simultaneously looking askance at it. But aren’t we all at times? Maybe we’re just setting up those moments when that posture crashes down and turns out not to be a defense mechanism, but a wry way of gaming our emotions. In the end it only means anything when it fails, and it must fail dramatically.
Performing his work since 2003, Kevin Matthews is a veteran of the Winnipeg and Ottawa spoken-word scenes. He helped found the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, and Versefest, and has served in various roles on the Arc board since 2011.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.