An Analytical Autopsy of PULP SONNETS
Poems by Tony Barnstone
Drawings by Amin Mansouri
“You don’t think poetry can be as sexy, violent, terrifying, and shocking as that stuff you read when no one else is looking? Guess again. Tony Barnstone’s Pulp Sonnets is fantastic in every sense of the word, the work of someone with an equal love and knowledge of poetry and great genre storytelling. Amin Mansouri’s artwork is gorgeous, reminiscent of both Dave McKean and Ralph Steadman, and worth the price of admission on its own. This book will beat up all the other books on your poetry shelf. Buy it.”
— David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, creators, screenwriters, and executive producers of the HBO series, Game of Thrones
“Tony Barnstone takes a walk on the wild side, the darkest dark of the wild side, and stabs us with his manic sonnets of gore, tossing up the meat we call human before taking it down with his forked tongue. Deviant artist Amin Mansouri favors the small bones of large, expressive hands and feet that dwarf his elegant figures, making them seem all too naked and vulnerable. This oddly erotic and delectable poetic nightmare has a thousand eyes.”
— Dorianne Laux, poet, author most recently of The Book of Women
Tupelo Press has published Pulp Sonnets, written by Tony Barnstone and illustrated by Amin Mansouri this past September of 2015.
Tony Barnstone first thought of the idea of Pulp Sonnets in 1995, while reading about Christopher Columbus’s own account about his first voyage to the Americas.
At the time he was one of the editors for the large textbook Literatures of Asia Africa, and Latin America, and chose excerpts of Christopher Columbus’s log of his first voyage to be included in the textbook.
Columbus own account made such an impression on him that he turned some of the entries of the voyage into tetrameter sonnets, in what would become his on-line chapbook of poetry published at Exquisite Corpse.
A few years later Tony Barnstone’s ex-wife attended the UC Irvine MFA Program in Fiction where he met amazing writers, one of whom was Aimee Bender, who created a literary phenomenon and sensation with her book The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a collection of short stories centered on the fantastic, mythic, and fairy-tale, which Barnstone avidly read.
Barnstone also became engrossed in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which begins with the smuggling of the Jewish Frankenstein, the Golem, out of Prague in the shadow of the Nazi invasion.
“All of a sudden, the fiction world cracked wide open. Literary speculative fiction, which had always been present in the USA from Twain’s time travel novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to the strange work of Barthes and Barthelme, went from being a literary tributary to being the mainstream, or a least a powerful current within that mainstream. Why couldn’t poetry do the same thing, I thought?”
In order to do this, Barnstone reached out to friends and novelists Dan Weiss and David Benioff, both now writers of the HBO Series Game of Thrones, for suggestions of what to read and to watch.
“I launched into it by purchasing hundreds of B movies, comic books, gothic tales, and pulp novels, and reading, reading, reading, which eventually turned into writing, writing, writing.”
Barnstone’s main goal of writing this first sequence of sonnets (what is now “Captain Fantastic Wizard of Science and the Quest for the New Universe” of Pulp Sonnets) was twofold: to make Christopher Columbus text new and to write his own mini-epic using the elements of collage, allusion, and adaptation that the great modernist poets used.
"The Inspiration" by Jose Maria Oregon in 1856
“I was on a semester break from school, and I found myself working obsessively, writing the entire sequence of 20 sonnets (one of which I later discarded) in about seven days.”
“Eventually, I went back to the Columbus sequence and decided that I could rework it by setting it in outer space, using the trope of the ‘ship of state’ that Star Trek did such a good job of (maybe better to call it the ‘space ship of state.’) I added one foot to each line of the sonnet sequence, turning tetrameter into pentameter, and this allowed me to change the setting from the Atlantic to deep space.”
Tony Barnstone in the shadows.
Even though the initial process took seven days, it took fifteen years for Barnstone to craft the poems to what they are today: “lyric poems molecularly joined to make a complex and serious argument that is as ambitious in its own way as that of an epic poem.”
Tony Barnstone at W. B. Yeats resting place.
Pulp Sonnets has numerous characters, two of which are lovers lost on a dark road where they enter a haunted house and encounter ghosts. There are also cannibals, zombies, murderers, rapists, outer space aliens, books coming to life, spies, Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, mythological features, and even duplication of their own selves. All of the poems are in traditional rhyming linking sonnets, some telling a larger story, but at the same time each sonnet standing on its own.
Barnstone’s main goal in writing Pulp Sonnets was to give the art form of poetry the chance to cross-examine the very things he had spent two decades researching.
Tony Barnstone self portrait at the Australia Museum of Art
“In these poems I turn the mirror back on the act of storytelling to cross-examine space-opera colonial narratives, hard-boiled gender stereotypes of the femme fatale and damsel in distress, and sexualized horror-movie violence.”
Barnstone gives three reasons of why it is important for the art form of poetry to cross-examine all of these different genres: the very art forms themselves reveal reflections of American culture; they reveal deep workings of the American psyche; and they are the American modern mythology.
“The epics, divinities, and heroes of Greece may have largely faded from popular consciousness, yet mythic tales remain the stuff of our dreams.”
Some of the examples of the new substituting for the old Barnstone gave are: Dashiell Hammett’s wily Continental Op instead of Odysseus; Conan and the Incredible Hulk instead of Hercules; modern detective Sam Spade instead of Oedipus; the superheroes of our day instead of the gods of Mount Olympus; and, instead of the minotaur, hydra and the harpies we have Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and today’s horror writers such as Stephen King.
Barnstone knew in order for Pulp Sonnets to be complete it had to be illustrated. At the time he was teaching a side job at the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine, while maintaining his present position as professor at Whittier College. One of his students from the Stonecoast MFA Program suggested that Amin Mansouri would be the perfect illustrator for Pulp Sonnets.
“Mansouri had illustrated my student’s fantastic book of war poems about the Taliban and the American invasion of Afghanistan, and I loved the work so he put the two of us in touch.”
Barnstone and Mansouri, who lives in Iran, worked together by email, Dropbox, and Facebook. Barnstone would send Mansouri the individual sonnets and then explain to him the cultural references to each individual sonnet.
“Therefore, for every poem I sent him a summary of the poem’s surface content, a description of its deeper psychological, political, sociological, philosophical, religious, and literary meanings and references, and a bouquet of 8 to 15 JPEGs that show the visual mood and cultural iconography the poem evokes. Then, because I believe in the best collaboration both artists must be free to follow inspiration through whatever wormhole beckons, I just told him ’Go be a genius,’ and let him riff off of my pattern like a jazz musician.”
One of the reoccurring images is that of Marilyn Monroe, which makes sense considering that Marilyn Monroe is legendary in America’s culture and pop art.
“I think for Amin she is shorthand for female beauty in the book. It woks for me, too, in that many of the poems in the book challenge the ways in which men are stuck in the box of masculinity and women are trapped in the self-image mirroring of the fashion industry and normative gender expectations. Marilyn is a great example of this especially since she was smart, creative, actually a pretty damn good poet herself, but a victim of these forces.”
There are continuous images of blood, human figures, eyes, but the most compelling image is the Hiroshima cloud on page 100.
“The Hiroshima explosion is a mushroom cloud made up of the gray matter of a human brain, with letters calling out the parts of the brain. At this point in the narrative, the government has attacked the aliens with nukes, to no avail. The aliens are taking over the planet by a kind of mind control, turning people into zombies with alien larvae in their brains, which will eventually hatch out of their bodies as a kind of grotesque womb. The notion, therefore, is that the apocalypse is both a physical one and a mental one.”
Pulp Sonnets is divided into ten parts: (01) Pulp: A Modern Mythology (Introduction); (02) Killer and Tramps; (03) Operation Ragnarok; (04) Jack Logan, Fighting Airman: The Case of the Red Bordello; (05) Theogony; (06) Bestiary; (07) The Horror of Haunted Valley; (08) Captain Fantastic Wizard of Science and the Quest for the New Universe; (09) The Tomb In The Woods, and, (10) The People In The Wall.
Below Tony Barnstone describes each section from his TEACHING GUIDE TO TONY BARNSTONE’s PULP SONNETS with notes by the author.
“KILLERS AND TRAMPS is a section of poems based on classic American film noir—dark, black-and white- films about murder and the desperate lives of criminals. This is a style with lots of shadows and dramatic silhouettes, very gritty, very dark and it emerges from classic pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective novels of the Depression Era.”
I cry at home, while they laugh, laugh at me
He says he wants divorce, just wants to go.
I sift the fine white powder through a sieve
Into the sugar bowl. I’ll se him free.
Excerpt from “The Chemist”
“OPERATION RAGNAROK was loosely inspired by the book, Assignment: Black Viking, by Edward S. Aarons, a Sam Durell adventure. In order to research this sequence, I read an awful lot of trashy Cold War spy literature, gritty, violent films and novels filled with mystery, plots, conspiracies, with lots of sexy women, guns and knives, car chases and exotic settings (in this story, the setting is Norway).
I find the big man scribbling at a table
In the great library. There’ll be no fighting.
I have the black Beretta and I’m able
With a gun. Yet he drops his gaze, keeps writing,
Excerpt form “The Poetry of Murder”
“JACK LOGAN, FIGHTING AIRMAN: THE CASE OF THE RED BORDELLO was based on classic crime fiction from the dime magazines, with a nod to one of the subgenres of pulp fiction -- aviation pulp, which celebrated American pilots and their adventures. Although it is not a sonnet crown, it uses the crown technique of repeating the last line (in my case loosely) of the previous sonnet as the first line of the next sonnet. The idea is to create an ongoing linkage between individual sonnets, almost like transitions between cinematic scenes or like the stop-and-go motion of reading a comic book, panel by panel.”
“My name is Rose,” she sweetly grins
You should come up and visit us sometime
My girl knows how to wash away your sins.”
Excerpt from “The Name of the Rose”
“THEOGONY comes from the Greek Θεογονία (Theo = god, gonía = birth), and specifically Hesiod’s Theogony, which is an account of the creation of the world and the origin of the Greek gods. The origin of the American gods can be found in the origin tales of the superheroes and super villains of the comic books (many of whom were modeled upon the gods of various world traditions).”
I prop you up just like the doll
you are, there by the plotted plant,
and string the tinsel on the wall.
Excerpt from “7. India Rubber Man’s Buddhist Christmas.”
“BESTIARY is a collection of tales and descriptions about fantastic beasts and monsters, and so this is a section of monster poems. What does it means to be a monster? When is the hero the monster, and when is the monster the hero? Why do we have monsters? Are monsters perhaps beneficial? Do we need overcome our internal monsters in order to become integrated selves, and if so are the monsters in our minds necessary parts of the self?”
There was nobody before being. Before
nonbeing, there was no firmament, no air.
Yet something breathed. But where? And from what core
came all this water stretching everywhere?
Excerpt from “Thing”
“THE HORROR OF HAUNTED VALLEY is an attempt to get at the interest that happens when separate popular literature genres and subgenres overlap in a piece. For example, in the movie Stargate, the alien pharaoh king achieves eternal life by renewing himself in a futuristic sarcophagus, and when he emerges from it we first see his hand, with long animalistic fingernails rising and resting on the edge of the sarcophagus---an explicit echo of a classic vampire movie scene.”
I’m in a tube with silver walls that lightning-
crackle when I reach two fingers out,
and then my fingers glow. I guess it’s frightening.
I hear my far-off mouth begin to shout.
Excerpt from “7. Unholy Ghost (case 005: Addendum, Bilal Shaw, 33)
“CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, WIZARD OF SCIENCE, AND THE QUEST FOR THE NEW UNIVERSE were largely inspired by Christopher Columbus’ log of his first voyage to the new world. Many of my readymade poems cannibalize the work of the masters, though the technique used differs from project to project. The ‘power word’ technique is fun, but increasingly I have been moving towards a kind of poetic journalism in which I transform non-poetic texts into poetry. For example, I found inspiration in the log of that great explorer, conquistador of spice and gold and slavery, and servant of the Inquisition, Christopher Columbus.”
I’m having serious trouble with the crew
despite the stellar charts I’ve made. They eye
me, fingering their guns.
Excerpt from “2. Captain Fantastic In “Mutiny In Space!”
“THE TOMB IN THE WOODS was loosely inspired by the Solomon Kane stories of the great pulp writer Robert E. Howard, of Conan the Barbarian fame. The sequence involves the hero coming to a crossroads in his life (like Dante or like Robert Frost in ‘The Road Not Taken’), encountering an ancient tomb, through which he descends deep into the earth, encountering along the way doppelganger-like shadows, the strangely-preserved dead, and a culminating monster which he must overcome before ascending again to the light. Formally, the sonnets are written in an adaptation of terza rima to the sonnet form, in homage to Dante and his chosen form.”
I hear the darkness whispering, and blade
in hand I whirl, and see just torchlight leaping,
and shadows lapping at the shore, to fade
each time I thrust the light.
Excerpt from “5. I Hear The Darkness Whispering.”
“THE PEOPLE IN THE WALL sequence riffs off of a sonnet by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘To the Mirror’. At the core of the sequence is a tribute to the haunted house genre, which so often becomes in literature the haunted mind genre, as can be seen in famous ghost stories such as Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw.’
The window curtains blew,
or was it just my mind that made them part?
Inventing monsters while Frank read, I eyed
the walls and clutched the cross close to my heart.
Excerpt from “2. Library of Fear”
I asked Barnstone if he feared that some people will assume he and Mansouri are glorifying violence. His response was thorough and thought provoking.
“I think it would be more accurate to say that I’m thematizing violence as a way of exploring its roots and its appeal to the reader.
In so many of our repeated narratives, violence puts the world out of order and redemptive violence puts it back into order. But I believe that the end of the poem or story should resonate on into the silence, disturbing the reader’s dreams at night as the unconscious struggles still to resolve the irresolvable.
Tony Barnstone self-portrait at the Australia Museum of Art
I consider our addiction to resolution to be a kind of narrative poisoning. Instead of producing media that necessitates critical thinking, we produce media that panders to closed-system problem solving. When you go to see a big Hollywood shoot-‘em-up movie these days, you might notice that right after the explosive action sequence climax, killing of the bad guy, and rescue of the damsel in distress, a group of people will simply leave the theater, without waiting for the denouement.
After all, just as a cigarette is a nicotine-delivery system, so the shoot-‘em-up movie is an adrenaline-delivery system. In a cigarette, the dried and chemically-treated tobacco is set on fire at one end and the nicotine-bearing smoke is channeled into your mouth and lungs though the glued tube of paper. In a movie, the narrative is set on fire at the beginning by the posing of a problem, and via sex, violence, and climaxing conflict it is channeled into your brain where it produces adrenaline. If you are going to the movies only because you want that gland that sits atop your kidneys to secrete the hormone and neurotransmitter we know as adrenaline, why not leave at the height of the rush, at the crass epiphany? At the climax, you have extra oxygen in your brain, extra glucose in your muscles, your pupils are dilated, and your heart rate is elevated. At the climax, you are ready for fight or flight, the pleasure endorphins are swimming in your brain, and the inevitable crash that follows will only be a bummer.
Therefore, in these narratives I try to crack the resolution open and I try to train the mirror of the narrative back onto the reader who is sucking in the energy of violence like some kind of vampire, The doppelgangers, shadow figures, and mirror vampires that run as a theme through these poems are meant to suggest the ghostly presence of the watching and listening reader intuited by the characters in the tales.
So one answer to your question is that if I glorify violence in any way in these poems I certainly get my comeuppance!
Another answer is that the violence in the book is not thoughtless violence. It is thoughtful violence meant to awaken the reader to his or her narrative addiction.”