Letters to Kelly Clarkson by Julia Bloch
Nothing's neutral, not the atmosphere's power to cool and soften, not
skyscrapers, not the glitter embedded in sidewalks, not the violin's swell, the
tug of the piano, that lush At last -- it's a system and you are its fabulous,
"Nothing's neutral." Everything, whether we intend it to or not, is infused with meaning via history, memory, experience, culture. As anyone who has ever taken a film class knows, every object in each shot, including intangibles such as light and sound, are intentionally manipulated for maximum effect. Everything onscreen can be digested, analyzed, unpacked. Reality television is no exception from this rule. Producers would like us to believe that shows like American Idol depict real people having real life experiences, but we know the contestants are not real, not really real in the same way that we are. Are they? In her epistolary prose poem collection Letters to Kelly Clarkson, Julia Bloch not only answers this question, she makes us wonder if it is even worth asking.
"On television," Bloch writes, there are:
[...] No visible organs, no pumping
oxygenated red or blue. Just various colored waxes to affix to skin and I did
not wear high heels until the age of twenty-seven. Because the battle isn't
outside, I realized...
Bloch points out that nothing about the way they appear on TV proves to her that the contestants on American Idol are real people. She cannot see inside them and yet, she relates to them, suddenly bringing her personal experience into the poem. Bloch recognizes herself and her reader as both observing and embodying the system:
[...] I try to dignify myself on the pale
couch, writing these notes down, but inside I abandon myself to the next
huge dream. In a moment you'll know who your idol is.
Bloch watches American Idol with a critical eye, but also lets herself be swept up in the manufactured system that intends to sweep her up, intends to tell her who to idolize.
Bloch could have easily taken these poems somewhere else. She could have poked fun at Kelly Clarkson as the "fabulous, winged drone" of the system of fame and consumerism, but her letters are more nuanced than that. She writes to Kelly as a fan seeking a human connection, looking for the human in the idol:
[...] I can't see any of
your pores; I know I shouldn't but I want you to be a real girl, muscular,
with a hair shade that doesn't make a sound.
Kelly Clarkson is a real girl. It is what makes her a perfect correspondent for Bloch's poems. We all know her real girl story: she grew up in a family with limited means then rose to superstar fame and fortune. Kelly exemplifies the American Dream. Bloch's poems intend to remind us though that the American Dream itself is a myth, and that celebrity is a product of the capitalist machine "in which art + money = love." "You can't get through a whole verse," she writes to Kelly, "without crying over your dumb luck."
"Dear Kelly," Bloch writes,
the desert of the real, as they say, begging silently for someone to take their
fucking breath away.
If "welcome to the desert of the real" sounds familiar that is because it is a quotation from The Matrix. Unlike The Matrix, Bloch seems unconcerned with what is real, and more interested in how a character on a TV show can make her viewers feel something big, something important. That is what made this collection stand out for me. Bloch puts so much of herself in the poems. That is, if we can assume her to be the speaker of the unsigned letters, and maybe we can't. One poem in particular calls this assumption into question "... she's always dropping hints of herself into the poem until we realize we're / renters in a town edged by sand."
Regardless of whether we attribute these letters to Bloch or to an anonymous letter writer, their personal, intimate nature is what makes them feel sincere. Bloch is tough on Kelly, but she loves her as well. Throughout the letters, she treats the speaker in much the same way. She writes of depression, failed relationships, and fears about her career. The speaker in these poems feels like a real, un-airbrushed girl "pursuing [her] little life." Tender moments like this one keep popping up:
You know, sitting here, eating my microwaved tomatoes on somewhat tough
toast, I think I could give myself another chance.
Why would the speaker address such a personal concern to a celebrity she's never met, a person, who is essentially a stranger? Bloch's poems show us that Kelly Clarkson may be a stranger, she may be an image manufactured by makeup and lighting and advertising, but she is a stranger whose fate many people care deeply about. If I care about her, Bloch seems to say, then why shouldn't I ask Kelly Clarkson to care about me?
Letters to Kelly Clarkson is published by Sidebrow, "a literary press dedicated to collaborative experiments in publishing," which seeks material that tries to "reimagine, depart from, or explore the interstices between posted and published pieces." Fittingly then, Bloch's poems borrow text from a variety of sources -- Wordsworth's Prelude, Stoker's Dracula, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek's paper on The Matrix. This expands the scope of the book beyond the obvious questions of celebrity, and puts it in conversation with other works of poetry, fiction, politics, and philosophy. It is a testament to craft that Bloch weaves these multiple conversations seamlessly into a singular, intimate conversation with the first American Idol. These poems can be read as cultural criticism. Though the form Bloch has chosen is verse, her inquiry is partly academic, an academic that accepts the contradictory and celebrates the mess that is human desire.
Letters to Kelly Clarkson by Julia Bloch