Daniel Zomparelli on Jon Paul Fiorentino: Needs Improvement

What is it to press against the norm? To push back against the bullies using language, to be the Steve Urkels of society? In Jon Paul Fiorentino’s sixth collection, he sets out to deconstruct the language of pedagogy and what it means to “not fit in.”

To get a better understanding of the work, I interviewed JPF via Twitter. For the full interview, including what sandwich he ate that day, check out the hashtag #JPFneedsimprovement (special guest heckling during the interview include Mike Spry, Julie Mannell, Jason Christie and Dina Del Bucchia).

I’m very invested in using the language of bullies or oppressors. Defusing language through absorption and overuse is one of my favourite activities.  Ever been called a ‘butt-muncher’ from a moving vehicle? I did, and I then used the term ‘butt-muncher’ all week, like it was 1998 all over again. Some of the poems in this collection do exactly that. Words like “wimp” and “poser” are sewn into the poems seamlessly to both represent the ways in which words are used against us, becoming a part of our vernacular, but also the potential ways they can become defused from overuse.

One of the interesting narratives in the book was the fake report cards to parents of a student named Leslie Mackie. The narrative is driven through the perspective of teachers and parents discussing a child’s behavior in class. While the parents and teachers’ statements are purposefully cartoonish in their delivery, the student is focused on their anti-social behavior.

“I have always been interested in new delivery methods for stories. I wanted to weave a narrative through report cards.”— #JPFNeedsImprovement

The report cards create a relatable snapshot moment within the book. Were you a weird kid in elementary school? Trick question, kids are weird, so yes you were. No one was a cool kid in elementary school. It’s not like someone comes out of kindergarten smoking a pack of cigs, wearing a leather jacket and snapping their fingers down the street. Kids get picked on, clubs are formed and mean girls rise to power.

What worked for me within this narrative is how it represented what it is to be a young writer: the weird daydreamer who doesn’t socialize properly (if you’ve been to a writers’ gala you know exactly what I’m talking about). While the cartoonish nature of the parents and teachers was sometimes off-putting, the overall idea hit the proper nerve. Being a weird/queer kid is not fun when all of the normalized pedagogical conventions are in place.

“Training-wheel reason
and militant obsolescence confirms
he’s a victim of planned adolescence.” (75)

The book braids together the ways in which we learn, from adolescence where we all learn to pretend to be normal until we get out of high school. The book is presented in three parts: “Things-As-Facts: Alyrics,” “Needs Improvement: Pedagogical Interventions,” and “Moda: Alyric Villanelles.” I enjoyed how the alyric sections sandwiched the ‘Pedagogical Interventions’ section of the book. Firstly, I love sandwiches of all sorts. Secondly, lyrical poems remind me of ways we are some times initially taught poetry. It’s usually a very lyrical-narrative style. What is it to be a great poet, who is teaching the ideals of poetry, and with the increased popularity of writing and MFA programs, what is it to learn poetry? To be alyrical, would then represent a way to be punk in the face of learned poetry.

Yes. I think about teaching a lot. I’m bothered by the fact that many of the biggest bullies we face at school are teachers.”— #JPFNeedsImprovement

“Because poetry is very, very far from —
and those who therefore thrive insist it remain so”.  (30)

I did, however, hesitate in which way the word ‘alyrical’ presents itself within the book. When I asked JPF what his idea of alyrical meant he stated, “Something that fucks around with traditional lyric conventions. Something that thwarts expectations of lyric confession/sound.” I agree to this idea of ‘alyrical,’ to an extent. To me, alyrical is a rejection of the lyrical “I,” so that any sense of confessional writing should come across as a collective voice, which I don’t think that narrator sets out to do. The most alyrical poems tended to be his visual poems, which I think perfectly poked fun at how impossibly complicated understanding pedagogy can be. But that is just me being a nit-picky editorial queen. I would have preferred the alyrical section push further against the idea of lyrical.

Screen shot 2013-11-11 at 10.42.37 AMDaniel Zomparelli is the editor-in-chief of Poetry Is Dead, and the author of Davie Street Translations(Talonbooks, 2012).

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