This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a selection from a dramedic poem by Special America (Claire Donato & Jeff T. Johnson).  


Poetry Is Special America

V. Discourse on the Melancholy of Special America, Toward the Arrival of Poetry in the Future Perfect

(Music: “Metamorphosis 1” by Philip Glass.)

(CLAIRE does yoga.)



(mawkish, hushed, mythologizing tone)

In 2008, in Providence, RI, a strange melancholy pervaded us to which we hesitated to give the grave and beautiful name of Special America. It began amorphously. Badges left in a hallway, flash rallies alongside the insinuations of handbill slogans, an ambiguous slideshow. Over the years, Special America appeared untroubled, yet in solitude we penned personal, soul-bearing texts, melancholy slogans that made us weep whilst inducing within us a perverse sense of comfort. Composed in corporate network space, our glum poesy set the tone for a new tale of longing and loneliness. In the past, the idea of calling this melancholy Special America always appealed to us; now we are almost ashamed of its complete egoism.

(JEFF meditates in lotus position.)



(Assumes a yogic tree pose. Emulates JEFF’s tone, as before, but more pedantic.)

Thus commenced The Melancholy of Special America, which is the melancholy of genre. Genre, from the early 19th century French, denotes kind and is etymologically linked to gender. Special America is sexless, a generic body. In it, there are no fixed centers—no edges, no ends or boundaries. Instead: branching options, menus, link markers, mapped networks. There are no hierarchies in Special America, only window-sized blocks of text and graphics to be supplemented with sound, animation and film.

(CLAIRE does a headstand.)



(Stands, crosses stage.)

And so it was with great trepidation that The Melancholy of Special America walked from its happy origins toward the realm of contemporary poetry. We respect the past but live for the future. Special America is what poetry will have been when all of us arrive. Like poetry, Special America wields its melancholy as a weapon, to beat the drum of change. Let language serve us, to express our cares. Let poetry, like freedom, ring. We carry forward our precious slogan: Poetry is Special America. We are poetry, we are special, we are America—therefore, we remain Special America. Indeed we have arrived, and poetry will never be the same.


VI. A Fucking Boring Interlude: The Bo Po Manifesto

(Music: “Woman” by Dirty Beaches.)

(The upcoming section is read by two text-to-speech voices, which intermingle throughout this scene. The first is ALEX. The second is VICTORIA, an Australian iOS voice named after one of ALEX’s counterparts.)

Jake Kennedy says poetry is fucking boring. Kenneth Goldsmith says poetry should be more boring. Vanessa Place says poetry is dead, I killed it. Billy Collins finds difficult poetry gratuitous. Rimbaud says poetry is shit. Tan Lin says the most boring part of a poetry reading is the poet reading. William Carlos Williams says no ideas but in plums. Gertrude Stein says a rose is a rose etc. Rilke says you must change your life. Emily Dickinson is a loaded gun. Mina Loy says love the hideous. Shane McCrae says language has blood on its hands. Dorothea Lasky says poetry is not a project. Thom Donovan says poetry is a hole. Maria Damon says the voice of the poet is a flotation device suspended above the larger poem of anonymity. Ross Gay says we are not our poems. Bob Dylan says Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower. Rosmarie Waldrop says language thinks for us. Lou Reed says hey man what’s your style? Robert Creeley says form is content is form. Erín Moure says sound is sense. Amiri Baraka says poetry is music, nothing but music. John Ashbery says the system was breaking down. Robert Hass says blackberry thrice. Allen Ginsberg says candor ends paranoia. Caroline Bergvall says ambient fish fuck flowers bloom in your mouth. Lyn Hejinian says the obvious analogy is with music. Leslie Scalapino says I am outside this though. Laynie Browne says Stacy Doris says Michael Palmer says “Now all funny poets will be serious and serious poets will be funny.” Wallace Stevens says money is poetry. Amy King is counting poets. Chelsey Minnis says poetry is looking through a knothole into a velvet fuckpad. Marianne Moore says I, too, dislike it. Special America says poetry is Special America.

(As ALEX and VICTORIA read, JEFF and CLAIRE slow dance while peering over one another’s shoulders at their iPads and recite entries chosen from the following list. Sometimes actors alternate their speech; other times, their voices overlap.)

Line breaks are fucking boring.

Appropriation is totally fucking boring.

The National Book Award is fucking boring.

Rhyme schemes are fucking boring.

Slant rhyme is fucking boring.

Prose poetry is fucking boring.

Hybridity is fucking boring.

Scansion is fucking boring.

Duende is fucking boring.

Alliteration is fucking boring.

Imagery is fucking boring.

Narrative poetry is fucking boring.

Language poetry is fucking boring.

Conceptual poetry is fucking boring.

Sound poetry is fucking boring.

Ecopoetics is fucking boring.

Nature poetry is fucking boring.

Canadian poetry is fucking boring.

The Cambridge School is fucking boring.

Political poetry is fucking boring.

Feminist poetry is fucking boring.

Queer poetry is fucking boring.

Visual poetry is fucking boring.

Electronic poetry is fucking boring.

Code poetry is fucking boring.

Translation is fucking boring.

Performance poetry is fucking boring.

Slam poetry is fucking boring.

Lyric is fucking boring.

Innovative poetry is fucking boring.

Political poetry is fucking boring.

Poetry contests are fucking boring.

Mentorship is fucking boring.

Lineage is fucking boring.

Concrete poetry is fucking boring.

Ekphrastic poetry is fucking boring.

Acrostic poetry is fucking boring.

Epistolary poetry is fucking boring.

Abecedarian poetry is fucking boring.

Moon poetry is fucking boring.

Starlings are boring.

Bees are boring.

Epic poetry is fucking boring.

Enjambment is fucking boring.

Workshops are fucking boring.

MFA programs are fucking boring.

Salons are fucking boring.

Poetry readings are fucking boring.

Online journals are fucking boring.

The written word is fucking boring.

The New York School is fucking boring.

Residencies are fucking boring.

Fellowships are fucking boring.

Couplets are fucking boring.

Surrealism is fucking boring.

Dada is fucking boring.

Metaphor and metonymy are fucking boring.

Transcendentalism is fucking boring.

Symbolism is fucking boring.

Troubadours are fucking boring.

Romanticism is fucking boring.

Love poetry is fucking boring.

Money po is fucking boring.

Marxism is fucking boring.

Coteries are fucking boring.

Submission is fucking boring.

Acceptance is fucking boring.

Teaching comp is fucking boring.

Erasure is fucking boring.

Poetry prizes are fucking boring.

Poetry fame is fucking boring.

Difficult poetry is fucking boring.

Rejection letters are fucking boring.

Mastheads are fucking boring.

Poetry PhDs are fucking boring.

Aubades are fucking boring.

Elegies are fucking boring.

The slush pile is fucking boring.

Solicitations are fucking boring.

Special America is fucking boring.

Sonnets are fucking boring.

Sestinas are fucking boring.

Villanelles are fucking boring.

Ghazals are fucking boring.

Centos are fucking boring.

Haiku is fucking boring.

Shakespeare is still fucking boring.

Milton is motherfucking boring.

Donors are fucking boring.

Trust funds are fucking boring.

Jouissance is fucking boring.

Applications are fucking boring.

The New Sincerity is fucking boring.

Brutalism is fucking boring.

Craft is fucking boring.

Consonance is fucking boring.

Dissonance is fucking boring.

Collage is fucking boring.

Low residency is fucking boring.

Master classes are fucking boring.

Full rides are fucking boring.

(As ALEX and VICTORIA near the end of their part, JEFF and CLAIRE cease their improvised recitation, then read the following lines in a solemn, peremptory tone.)



Disclaimer: Every poet is not on this list.



Disclaimer: A sentence is a sentence.



Disclaimer: This program does not necessarily represent the viewers’ views.



Disclaimer: You’re soaking in it.



Disclaimer: Poetry is not free.



Disclaimer: There is no poetry like Special America.



Disclaimer: Feelings hurt.



Disclaimer: Everyone is a poet, and everyone writes fucking boring poetry.


VII. Special America: I Do Not Know  

(Music: loop sampled from Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read.”) 



Thank you for taking time out of your day to participate in the Special America poll. Your answers will help Special America better serve you. Special America reserves the right to appropriate poll results. What follows is a brief synopsis of said results. Remember: If you see Special America, say Special America.

(The following text is compiled and collaged from responses to several Special America polls, including The Special America 5 Boroughs Poetry Poll: extended and intentionally exhausting digital surveys circulated to potential audience members before each performance. Two options for delivery: 1) As below, with some overlap between lines, or 2) JEFF reads entire script, and about a quarter of the way through, CLAIRE begins reading the same text, then joins JEFF in “I do not know” chant, as though she overhears, is distracted from her part, and is similarly afflicted. Either way, JEFF fades out of the “I do not know” recitation prior to CLAIRE.)



Peaches are not pears but they are both fruit.



No, they are the jealous type.



Babies with MFAs.






The poetics of my borough are spoken in a derogatory—



What kind of question is that?!



Manhattan is mine; it owes me a living.



To the extent their thoughts are elegant.



You can’t gargle gravel.



It goes well with weather.



Listen to Ke$Ha.



In what language rather personal.



Bunches and bunches.



Downright suicidal.



I do everything baby with a punctured fun.



I feel tested.



No, it’s impossible.



No, you fucking idiot.



Yes and no.



High, preferably.



As real as not.



More and less.









I’m stumped on that one.



Less so than Canton, Ohio.



See above.



Some kind of fruit, no doubt.



Singularity beats.












Spectral embarrassment.



Bad ones.



I feel tested again.






Crib death.






Halloween in Clinton Hill.



The internet is poetry.



Oh, always.






Because Special America says so.



[this space intentionally left blank]



I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know.


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