“Kill List”: A Bad Poem as Provocation

In October, Josef Kaplan released a poem called “Kill List” via the publishing platform CARS ARE REAL. The poem’s premise is pretty simple. A (relatively) well-known poet is named, and then either described as “rich” or “comfortable.”

A brief example:

Lanny Jordan Jackson is comfortable.
Jewel is a rich poet.
Josef Kaplan is comfortable.
Justin Katko is a rich poet.

This continues for 58 pages.

The first question: Is it a poem? Answer: Sure. While much conceptual poetry wouldn’t be considered poetry by previous generations of poets (could you see Goethe reading a translated version of Josef Kaplan’s “Kill List” and considering it a poem?), this doesn’t mean that “Kill List” isn’t poetry. A wide swathe of poetry (free verse, prose poems) wouldn’t have been considered poetry, but so what? Paradigms shift. Notions of what is and is not art change, and I’ve got no problem with that.

Next question: Is it any good?

It’s terrible. While “Kill List” is getting some attention, I’d argue that it’s only because of its provocative title and the fact that it is essentially a long exercise in name-dropping. In that respect, the poem seems to be as much a marketing ploy[1] as it a poem.

Maybe that was the point. If so, that’s fine by me, but I’d argue that it’s a bit cheap to use a subject so serious—our rather godawful drone program—to make a small point about the economics of first-world poets. If anything, the emphasis should focus on the drone program, which is clearly far more important. And contrary to other interpretations—poet Joyelle McSweeney’s among them—the poem clearly fails in this regard.

In the end, it’s juvenile and cliquish. Worst of all, it’s boring. There isn’t much more to be said about it, and so what? Some poems fail. Big deal.

The whole affair did bring about something interesting and somewhat more troubling. One of the poets mentioned in the work—Jim Behrle—was none too happy to be included. He was listed as “comfortable,” but indicated that this wasn’t the case. In a series of emails with Kaplan, he asked if Kaplan had fact-checked the poem, which led Behrle to write a satirical—and damn funny—piece taking umbrage about being labeled as merely as “comfortable” when he’s really gallivanting about on a yacht, etc. etc.) In turn, Rauan Klassnik wrote an article for HTMLGiant lambasting Behrle’s reaction as embarrassing and a “litmus test” of some variety. (I didn’t quite understand what sort of litmus test he meant, so I suppose I fail. Damn.)

Anyway, things got more serious when Behrle posted that he had talked with lawyers about the issue and had to take some material down, and that he was considering filing a police report. This was clearly over the top, but not entirely nuts: a poem titled “Kill List” and followed by a list of names is, by definition, somewhat intimidating.  If one’s name were included, one could theoretically worry for one’s safety, given the existence of actual crazies. As any lit-mag editor can tell you, these folks do exist, and if you reject them, they will occasionally harass you.

At the time, I ended up in a conversation on Twitter with Mr. Klassnik and a few other folks interested in the story; my guess at the time was that Behrle was simply trolling Kaplan just like Kaplan had trolled everyone on his list. To put it crudely, I guessed that Behrle was responding to a dick move with a dick move.

That turned out to be right. Behrle let Kaplan sweat for a night, and then announced that it was all a ruse. To be honest, I can’t blame him; I think his nebulous threat was a fitting response to an over-the-top piece.

But for my money, here’s what interesting about this whole charade: none of it focused on poetry[2]. In this respect, it fits right in with the never-ending litany of poetry-related scandals and brouhahas over the past few years. As a community, we almost never argue about line breaks or alliteration or form; instead, we’re talking politics or economics, or in the case of Kaplan, essentially arguing about the “concept” of the poem, other than, you know, diction and form, and poetry.

I’ve been in one of these rodeos, and I’ve followed most of them that have happened since. To be absolutely honest, they’re almost always a goddamn waste of time. From Blazevox to Seth Abramson’s poetry list to pretty much everything ever written by Anis Shivani, it seems that as a community, poets are more interested in controversy than in actual literature. If you doubt that, when was the last time an article about a sonnet or a prose poem or a free-verse piece got 150 comments and eight gazillion shares? I can’t remember all that many. In our little world, it seems that poetry controversies go viral, but actual poems don’t.

If that’s true, we’ve got a much bigger problem.


[1]  Certainly for Kaplan, and maybe for CARS ARE REAL.

[2] I suppose we are talking about poetry with Kaplan, but it’s not very good. In that respect, it’s not much of an improvement.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *