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The Poetry of John Edward Lawson
a paper by Abel Diaz
We live by our labels. As a species, we’re compelled to classify everything in our environment. Before we interact, we define. Once we categorize, we respond. This music, we might say, is neoclassical opera. That’s bad. I’ll turn this garbage off and listen to something else. But this music, we might think, is punk rock. That’s good. I’ll play it so loud my brain will hemorrhage. This irresistible urge to pigeonhole can be a curse to artists in every medium. During the actual act of creation, artists are often unconscious of the labels their work will be filed and sometimes dismissed under. It’s no different with the writer John Edward Lawson and his first collection of poetry, The Scars are Complimentary. To put his work in context, it is useful to understand why it has been labeled by others. But to understand his work, we need to explore the ways Lawson transcends these labels, in the process crossing over into a form Lawson himself calls the horrible.
In an email to the author, John Lawson described the problems that come with artistic pigeonholing: “I’ve been referred to as a postmodernist, a surrealist, an absurdist—if I attempt to paint myself into one of those corners I’ll have no room to rampage, at which time I begin to bore myself and others” (see appendix). But as limiting as these literary movements might sometimes appear to Lawson, there are ways in which The Scars are Complimentary fits neatly into them.
The first, Surrealism, began with French poet André Breton, who penned the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. The movement was short lived, and it began to decline with the outbreak of WWII. According to the Twentieth-Century Literary Movements Dictionary, Surrealism “was a revolt against logical, rational, and systemized thought,” and it emphasized “the importance of dreams and the realm of the unconscious” (Henderson and Pederson 713). In other words, Surrealism viewed itself as a revolution of the mind. Its aim was the destruction of the commonly practiced rules of art and literature. More than art, it sought to liberate people’s imaginations. Like a painting by Salvador Dalí, himself an unrepentant Surrealist, melting clocks could hang from trees; giraffes could catch fire and burn contently as a backdrop; giant, disembodied heads could be propped up on sticks in the middle of a nameless desert. In other words, anything could happen in a Surrealist work.
The Surrealist attitude “the declaration of war on anything that shackles the imagination” is in evidence on every page of The Scars are Complimentary. In Lawson’s poetry, the world is an oyster raped by a razorblade, or God is a heavyweight boxer who takes on the Devil, or wishing wells are disturbed by perverted desires, or flesh turns to silly-putty and oozes down the face. Lawson never settles for simply describing everyday life. It’s as if he worries that complacency in his imagination at any moment will allow malaise to set in, stifling his creativity forever. Lawson admits that he has more respect for art that, “while it ultimately fails, does bring something new to the table,” as opposed to art which never tries (see appendix).
To achieve this goal himself, Lawson constantly invents new language to express the inexpressible. He uses words like Tabacon, amateurzack, and jowlitorium. Often there is no attempt at linear narrative. One thought pattern breaks away and blends into another like quicksilver, as in “1996 Was a Bad Year” (11):
The serendipitude don’t try to destroy me
I’ve got an evil mantra (don’t sell
shoes to the devil-legged amputees)
The grandeur of a child’s first near-
death experience should not be dismissed
would that it died within those confines
I have given the story away
with uxorious anecdotes and distasteful malaise
while he contrived to amble lightly upon door-mats
without blatantly desecrating the womb
To be sure, life is insipid and there’s nothing
left to say you freak wager between Birth and Death
denouncing you gladly there is no more voluptuous sinkhole
than the one residing in your head
and trifle-fools remain in the hardiest
don’t attempt to be forthright after all this (ha ha)
Clearly, Lawson is not operating on traditional rules of logical, rational, and systemized thought. His poems more accurately reflect the chaotic and unexpected leaps that our unconscious minds make. For all of these reasons, he can be accurately labeled as a vanguard Surrealist.
Besides Surrealism, the other form that Lawson has been commonly pigeonholed into is Absurdism. One authority on the field, Robert A. Hipkiss, attributes the origins of Absurdism to Mark Twain in the year 1916, with the release of his posthumous novel, The Mysterious Stranger (2). Twain’s book ends with the narrator realizing he his nothing more than a random, wandering thought, alone in the universe and without purpose. According to the Twentieth-Century Literary Movements Dictionary, Absurdism began between 1950 and 1960 when:
Absurdist dramatist rebelled against the conventional rules that a play must contain a plot with a beginning, middle, and solution, or must feature characters who develop consistently. Absurdism holds that the world is essentially mysterious…there is little point in presenting a contrivedly rational narrative, or in exploring character, or in solving problems. (Henderson and Pederson 760)
Like Twain in The Mysterious Stranger, Absurdist playwrights rejected realism in their work because it was unable to capture the essential meaninglessness of the human condition. Samuel Beckett exemplifies the movement with the way his “conversations usually go nowhere, dialogues become monologues or peter out into silence,” and the way his characters “cheerfully utter streams of contradictory statements and congratulate themselves on their agreement” (Henderson and Pederson 761). These nonsense interactions between characters reflect the fact that humans exist as essentially blind and confused animals. No one knows what their role is in the universe, or why the universe exists at all, or where It’s going.
All of these traits manifest themselves in some way in Lawson’s poetry. There is a running theme throughout The Scars Are Complimentary of insanity and futility in the face of an absurd universe. In his poem “Under the Weather” (3), two people hold a Beckett like conversation which leads nowhere and resolves nothing:
“clammy” tile cheeks
smooth “and” reflective
morsels getting stuck “now”
in the “mildewed” mire
“i’m” cracking up
called the contractor “today”
“when” he appeared i showed
just where the grout “work”
needed to “be” done
[mister, you ain't "got">
all your "puppies" barkin?]
[that's "all" right]
i “told” him
[freezers and toasters "have"
"become" redundant now anyhow]
It’s not just the narrator of this poem that is “cracking up”; the world itself is cracking up. Like “freezers and toasters” in this poem, everything in the universe is becoming redundant with the passage of time. Even our memories become superfluous as they are replaced by technology that is far more accurate, like video and audio recordings. If there is order and purpose in life, it has yet to reveal itself in a universe which is moving slowly and inexorably toward entropy (as The Second Law of Thermodynamics will plainly tell you). As his poem shows, John Lawson’s work is a perfect example of Absurdist philosophy in modern day writing.
Lawson’s poetry does not begin with Surrealism and end with Absurdism, however. In important ways, he has transcended both literary forms, and he is moving in a new direction. He calls it the horrible: poetry that “violates our sense of well being, makes us ill and angry” (see appendix).
Right from the cover of The Scars Are Complimentary, readers are plunged into the horrible. Lawson himself created the image which introduces his collection: a screeching woman who appears to be on fire from the mesmerizing oranges, reds, and yellows that surround her. The horrible is an experience which strips away the illusions of immortality, exposing us for the fragile creatures we are. There is nothing to comfort us in Lawson’s work. There are no assurances of the essential decency of man, or the grace and love of a higher power. His work is filled with themes that violate our sense of safety and leave us feeling helpless. Helplessness often gives way to anger at a situation we cannot change. Long after they are read, Lawson’s words linger in our mind like an infected wound.
For these reasons, Lawson is not a poet accessible to people looking for sunshine, flowers, rolling hills, and romance. He operates under a different aesthetic altogether—one that reveals the ugliness beneath all beauty. For example, in one of his shorter poems (7), he writes:
I go watering
my orchards of parasites
Any time we kiss
Here Lawson is zooming in like a video camera on the act of kissing, an activity most often associated with love and affection. While using pleasant words like “watering” and “orchards”, he conjures the image of a garden of disgusting parasites on our lips. This is not what most of us want to think about when we kiss, but Lawson insists on taking our minds there. What distinguishes this form—the horrible—from simple shock tactics is that Lawson pulls it off with such poetic grace. Notice that in the above poem there is no abrupt shift into hyperbole, no awkward transition into nauseating embellishment. With simplistic beauty, Lawson manages to unnerve the reader with an unexpected depiction of a kiss. A quietly horrific image that violates the reader?s expectations and assumptions. This is the horrible.
Those who would still dismiss the horrible as mere shock genre, unworthy of serious attention, are ignoring the critical acclaim two cinematic icons have enjoyed by practicing the horrible in film. These two men have had a major influence on Lawson’s work. The first is the writer Andrew Kevin Walker, whose screenplays are referred to as “quite beautiful” by Lawson (see appendix). One of Walker’s movies is Seven, in which a man is forced to eat until his stomach bursts, another man forced to cut off a pound of his own flesh, and another tied to a bed for a year. This film is so bleak in its depiction of the world that at times it is difficult to watch. Yet, like Lawson’s poetry, the almost unimaginable ugliness is always sublimely delivered. It is never thrust at the viewer, but slowly unveiled through hypnotic imagery and a careful manipulation of our inherit fascination for the horrific. As one film critic wrote about Seven, “the formal perfection of the film is a miraculous production of beauty out of ugliness and despair” (Dyer 73). This quote would perfectly suit The Scars Are Complimentary if the word “film” were replaced by “book”.
The second cinematic influence on Lawson’s exploration of the horrible in poetry is the director David Lynch. Like Lawson, Lynch is famous for zooming in close to a beautiful scene to reveal the ugliness that lies beneath. His film Blue Velvet opens up on a scene of picture-perfect, small town America. The camera closes in on one particularly lush and vibrant lawn. The camera zooms in on the grass until we go beneath it to find a seething, crawling mass of black insects–the unsettling effect amplified by disturbing music. Lawson’s poem, “Dark Nature” (10), would serve as a perfect voice over for this chilling scene:
Maggots: dead maggots
floating in the sweetest of regurgitation.
Which has been consumed?
Both now provide a feast
for the waiting spores and microbes.
This is utilitarian, not poetic.
As this poem suggests, there is nothing idyllic about life. Everything is merely a sweet regurgitation of life that has feasted on life (as the maggots are doing with the regurgitation, as the microbes will do with the maggots, and so on). Lawson goes right past the picture-perfect assumptions of life as usually presented by poetry, and freezes on an image that is horrific but honest. Even in its bleakness, it presents us with the beauty of truth. Even in creating a grotesque fantasy, the horrible rarely lies.
John Lawson has yet to establish himself as a major force in poetry, but I have no doubt that he will. With his first collection of poems, he has accomplished what every good writer should: built a solid foundation on the rich tradition of former literary movements, and then transcended them by exploring new territory with the tools he has learned. His forays into the horrible provide us a challenging and significant work of art.
Re: Interview with Abel Diaz for Contemporary Poetry Course
DIAZ: Do you consider yourself as part of any contemporary writing movements, and if so, does this have a conscious effect on your poetry?
LAWSON: Without the benefit of formal training I began writing without a clue as to where I intended to go. Largely, I was unaware of many of the categories readers/editors have put me in—although I was keenly aware of surrealism in film and visual art. I’ve been referred to as a postmodernist, a surrealist, an absurdist. Most often I consider myself—and my work—horrible. Which is to say, I concentrate on exploring that which violates our sense of well being, makes us ill and angry. We only conquer our problems by confronting them, not sticking our head in the sand. I believe the arts have a responsibility to clean the sand from our eyes and ears every now and again.
Even so, I often churn out material that is entertainment only. At first it got to me when people started slinging the labels around. I’ve recovered from that though. If I attempt to paint myself into one of those corners I’ll have no room to rampage, at which time I begin to bore myself and others. The end result is I embrace all genres equally, a fact that doesn’t always please my readers. I most often lend my sword to the surrealist/absurdist cause, which in this publishing environment leads one to suspect I’m more of a masochist than anything else.
DIAZ: Who are your influences and/or inspirations?
LAWSON: Over the years I’ve pursued film and music in addition to writing. I would say that David Lynch is a great instructor in terms of thematic composition, the way that every action, line of dialogue, item or color can be subverted to represent two or three things at once. In terms of word play (my favorite pastime) I thank Jim Thirlwell of Foetus, KRS-ONE, and Dan Gatto of Babyland. The lyrics of those three disparate sources had a profound affect on how I view language…not seeing it in terms of hardened structure but wet concrete that can be molded into whatever you set your mind to.
Stanley Kubrick showed me that my ideas were worth pursuing by releasing work similar to what I had outlined in my cowardly years before writing. Chuck Palahniuk showed me that determination can and will get you where you want to go. Bret Easton Ellis succinctly vocalized my thoughts on social issues, while Dostoevsky infused in me a love of prose. I’ve only recently discovered the Beat writers and what I see injects me with adrenaline. The screenplays of Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, 8 mm) are quite beautiful. I’ve found some of Harold Jaffe’s essays to be motivational as well.
Let me state here, for the record, that I’m a terrible reader. My wife was the English major. Me, I start reading and it’s either “Man this is great! I’ve gotta go write!” or “Man this sucks, I’d be better off doing something constructive.” Either way it motivates me to write, but little in the way of reading ever gets accomplished.
DIAZ: What medium beyond the written word has had the biggest impact on your work?
LAWSON: Hard to pick just one. I don’t watch television, only films, of which there are three a week. Maybe I’ll go to the movies on the weekend too. The film collection here is out of hand…probably about five hundred or so. Mostly foreign or underground stuff, experimental works and degenerate “sleaze” ie: the extreme European and Asian horror and action films. Anything that is uninhibited. I’ve heard talk of the ideological voiceover. Well, you’ll never slip free of the mold if you always subject yourself to that. Not all of the uninhibited material works; much of it is merely undisciplined slop, yet some is brilliant. But I’d rather watch something that, while it ultimately fails, does bring something different to the table. I think this also explains the rise of “reality” television, some of which I do watch from time to time because it can be unpredictable.
Music is an even more pervasive influence. I listen to it always–in the car, while I’m cooking, and certainly while I’m writing. Unfortunately it’s been easier to fool people in this field though. Everybody talks, moves, kisses, etc., so you have to be more honest in film. Not everybody cuts loose with a guitar solo, can keep time on a twelve-piece drum set for fifteen minutes and what have you, so it all seems valid to the average person. There’s no reason for the music industry to make an effort, so I dig even deeper here. Tape exchanges through the mail. There’s a worldwide underground network.
Anyway, long story short, I think the rhythms and arrangements can often be felt in my work. It strikes me, at least, when I go back and read “Raw Dog Screaming” or “Two Splitting Stomachs” among others. It’s even more prevalent in a lot of my fiction. Music that is impudent always gets the literary juices flowing.
The profound impact Magnum Force had on me as a child should also be noted. I believe that was the film. In it, Dirty Harry’s nemesis pays a man to take him in some dingy basement and beat him severely. I mean he paid the guy to really brutalize him, man it was bad. He had his reasons for taking this action, but the fact that somebody was willing to go to such extremes stuck with me over the years. There were many times when I contemplated that scene while I was growing up.
Overall, co-producing a short film and writing extensively in the screenplay format helped to hone my visual composition, while writing and performing a hundred songs obviously enhanced my auditory crafting. I think these elements merge for a believable experience in my writing.
DIAZ: Did you have any input into the packaging of your collection The Scars Are Complimentary? How does the final product compare to your vision?
LAWSON: I actually created the cover image for the book, snaring a woman shrieking before a crowd on some television show and turning it into a howling, sightless entity standing before a wall composed of faces. I love to subvert mass media images, all my art is composed this way. As to the actual layout, I’ve known Jennifer a long time and she understands my thought process fairly well. When it came down to decisions regarding production I put my faith in her print experience.
The card stock is gray…that I like, it’s a bit ambiguous, although I always lean toward the morbid “woe is me” black that “poetic types” are known for. Her font choices are top notch, in that the size and sans-serif fonts make for a quick, accessible read, which is good for two reasons. With any kind of unusual content it’s better to keep the flow going I think, and when you hit people hard and fast they’re bound to feel it, be left wanting more instead of feeling like you’re wasting their time.
When I first envisioned it, I was subject to “small press syndrome”: black and white cover, tiny eye-murdering print with a billion pieces crammed in, no interior artwork. In short, heavy on the scars and light on the complimentary. Jennifer took it and made it a presentable collection, which really seems to be critical if you want to have your “uncouth” work taken seriously. For me, giving the horrible/the bizarre a surface that people are willing to gaze into…that’s the ultimate thing.
Blue Velvet. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, and Laura Dern. Mgm/Ua Studios, 1986.
Dyer, Richard. Seven. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.
Helene Henderson and Jay P. Pederson. Twentieth-Century Literary Movements Dictionary. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc., 2000.
Hipkiss, Robert A. The American Absurd: Pynchon, Vonnegut, and Barth. New York: Associated Faculty Press, Inc., 1984.
Lawson, John. “Re: Interview with Abel Diaz for Contemporary Poetry Course.” E-mail to the author. 17 Feb. 2003.
The Scars are Complimentary. Hyattsville: Rack and Ruin Productions, 2002.
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