An Excess of Grossness
by Emmy Newman
At a reading last year in Moscow, Idaho, the poet Robert Wrigley said, “Where there is mucus, there is intimacy.” He then read a gorgeous poem that got the room alternately laughing and then being still, and such an odd-sounding statement had become beautiful once again. Weeks later, I was still thinking about that idea, not just the mucus and the phlegm and the saliva, but how diseased livers or healthy triceps look when you pull away skin. What is it about these “gross” ideas that keep fascinating me and keep appearing in my writing?
In her article “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” the film critic Linda Williams analyzes what she calls “body genres,” categories of film that are denoted as achieving success by allowing the audience to bodily identify with what the actors seem to experience on screen. I really can’t recommend the article enough to any writer concerned with the body. Williams offers an academic perspective into horror, melodrama, and porn, in a way that makes you reimagine the capabilities of excess, the goals and means to that end. As a feminist film critic, Williams writes around and through how the “spectacle of a body caught in intense sensation or emotion” can also be used to subjugate female viewers, how excess becomes indecent in women and used by men. Her perspective is razor-edged for any pop-culture consuming person.
As one of those people, I often take inspiration from strange articles or videos I come across online, sometimes by clicking incessantly through Wikipedia hyperlinks or browsing through my favorite anatomy coloring book. My excess begins with a wide range of concerns but thin on the ground, some small idea culled out of that wandering research that I try to make into a whole poem. More often than not, those poems don’t make it very far. There was a page long poem about the fleshiness of grapefruit I ended up cutting down to three lines I wanted to save. There was an extended metaphor about snails and sex that only made sense as an introductory image. In the poem CCR printed last year, there is the image of a menstrual cup filling with blood that I originally thought would push the whole poem forward, but it turned out to be just one of several pivot points around softness, sliminess, and the color red. The idea of grossness as a mindset, should be considered a place from which to go forth, instead of an oddity to be laughed at in a poem.
In the end, it always (okay, usually) makes sense. In the wider lens, I see these images as small moments, not the whole poem. I think the excess of grossness in poetry can come to make more sense as a contained moment because it presents a moment of vulnerability that can burst through the reader. Williams casts a critical eye at how these “body genres” are used as straight forward tools that manipulate the audience, often a female audience slyly quelled by the images and language on the screen. Poetry has the chance to manipulate, as anything written does, but in my case, I hope that my work does not trade in manipulation. Instead of asking the reader to bodily identify with the work, I ask the reader to re-identify with their own body and the environment it resides in. What happens to the worms on the sidewalk after a few hours of rain? How does it feel when you kiss someone; did you think it would feel differently when you were younger? What’s inside that rotting hole of green mold on the apple that’s been sitting out on your counter for too long? What does it feel like?
The modern dance phenom Rudolf Laban was interested in the moving body and the space that surrounds it. I’m interested in the moving body and the space in between, itself and everything else. That’s too many things to be interested in, you say? I never want to stop being interested in imagining what my phalanges look like under all this skin, how mushrooms grow in cow shit, what led sea cucumbers to vomit their intestines in self-defense, what brains look like under microscopes. I ask the reader to bodily identify with themselves in the end, with our own human grossness, and I ask them to recognize how amazing that is.
There’s an extensive history of so-called high-brow art being pitted against the low-brow, oil paintings against comic strips and on and on. Maybe it is something about bodily identifying with so-called “low art,” i.e. melodramatic movies, and mentally identifying with “high art,” i.e. poetry, that inclines me towards an excess of grossness in poetry. If mentally identifying with an art form includes the ability to parse subtext, allusion, metaphor, perhaps bodily identifying can do the same. How else do we learn empathy? How else do we learn to feel new, impossible feelings?
I remember my grandma rating movies as a “three-tissue movie,” as Williams says women often did in the genre known as “weepies.” Or perhaps this is not true, and it just sounds so much like something she would say in an offhand sort of way. I remember her pulling loose tissues out of her purse when I had a runny nose or tripped on the sidewalk, how she would wipe the snot and tears off my face before I got old enough to do it myself. When we cleaned the old coats out of her closet we found tissues neatly folded in most every pocket. Perhaps I am only thinking of this because today at WinCo there was a gray-haired woman buying a bulk bag of wrapped butterscotch candies and I imagined her going home, turning on a yellow-shaded lamp, and pouring the candies into a lead crystal bowl on her coffee table. The bowl hadn’t been empty—only slightly less than full. Where do we find something sweet without excess? Where is something horrible neatly contained? What is bodily writing without the grossness that asks the reader to step out of time and feel their own viscosity?
Emmy Newman is a current MFA candidate at the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, New Ohio Review, CALYX: A Journal, Inverted Syntax, and elsewhere. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and currently serves as the poetry editor for Fugue.
*Newman’s poem “The Jellyfish and the Menstrual Cup” appears in Issue 43.1 of Cream City Review.