Book Review

John Gosslee, Blitzkrieg, Rain Mountain Press, 2013

Reviewed by Noel Sloboda

While categorized by booksellers as a poetry collection, John Gosslee’s Blitzkrieg is really a hybrid, combining prose, illustration, photography, performance, and verse. The composite nature of the volume speaks not just to Gosslee’s collaborative spirit but also to his desire to reach audiences by any means possible. And the title is apt in as much as the author displays extraordinary bursts of energy, the sort that might surprise readers and compel their attention, as he stages an “artistic assault by massed electronic, air, sea and ground forces.” Gosslee also provides a detailed account of his efforts to build creative synergy; throughout Blitzkrieg, the writer’s intensity and ambition are apparent. What is sometimes less clear is the target of Gosslee’s lightning attacks. However, difficulties in locking in on a readership are arguably shared by all poets today, and Gosslee reflects upon these difficulties with candor, passion, and insight.

After a section featuring fourteen short poems (none longer than a page) that catalogue travels across the country—as well Gosslee’s interior landscape—the author shifts modes, telling the story of how a single poem came to be: “Portrait of an Inner Life.” In penning this piece, Gosslee explains, he reached a turning point in his artistic development. The poem is meditative but spare, just twenty-nine words in eight lines, which Gosslee notes with reference to W.G. Sebald’s concept of the “micro poem.” In contrast, the contents of Gosslee’s first book (12: Sonnets for the Zodiac) are mostly narrative and uniform in their dependence on traditional poetic structures. His new piece resonated because of its freshness, “expansive brevity,” and emotional energy. But Gosslee does not confine himself to a discussion of aesthetics in tracking his progress with “Portrait of an Inner Life.” Even though he composed the poem while preparing a tour for his first book, he was not entirely sure of himself as a writer. He confesses that he “needed an affirmation that [he] was indeed in the right place at the right time in my life. It seemed like that wasn’t likely.” Following this personal revelation, Gosslee tracks the process of polishing, submitting, and publishing “Portrait of an Inner Life.” Despite his sense of purpose, not every step moves him forward: Gosslee is candid about occasional frustrations as he goes about finding the right home for his poem in a journal, hoping to secure for it the recognition he feels it merits as “an apt representation of myself in the deepest of terms.”

Gosslee’s quest for validation will invariably speak to other writers, all of whom in some fashion seek to connect with readers. How best to launch his new poem into the world weighed heavily on Gosslee. He talks in several places about struggling with oppressive “solitude” and wanting “acceptance” for “Portrait of An Inner Life” to serve as a consolation. Understandably, then, he dwells on how many individuals the poem reached at readings. “Before it was published,” he states, “‘Portrait of an Inner Life’ was recited in five states to hundreds of people.” But how this tally of listeners relates to other measures of success is not fully worked out when Gosslee turns to the poem’s journey into print. He deals at length with the experience of unsuccessfully trying to place his poem in the UK journal Other Poetry, before sending it to Rattle, which promptly picked it up. He mentions that The National Poetry Review wanted the poem, too, until the editors learned “Portrait of an Inner Life” had already been claimed by Rattle. However, this serial publication does not prevent the poem from making its way into the pages of a UK print anthology. All of this is presented with excerpts from correspondence with editors, and Gosslee is matter-of-fact in reporting the generally positive reception. Yet he seems unsure about whether he most desires widespread recognition or instead the approval of a discriminating few—editors like Timothy Green and C.J. Sage—within the poetry community.

This tension not only propels the remainder of the narrative in Blitzkrieg but defines the content of later sections. Not satisfied merely to publish in periodicals—no matter their prestige—and to read his work before relatively small audiences at bookstores, galleries, and poetry festivals, Gosslee sets out to win over the masses; to lead “a movement that functions outside of traditional literary venues and brings the poem to people in their normal everyday lives.” The strategies he employs are diverse. They include putting copies of “Portrait of An Inner Life” in bottles that are set adrift in different rivers. And he engineers a campaign—coordinated behind the veil of a false identity—to plaster stickers featuring the poem wherever he goes, leaving his words on gas pumps, bridges, and smokers’ trays from coast to coast. Some of these guerilla initiatives are documented in the third section of the book, “Ephemera,” in black-and-white photographs by Brandon McCrea.

Also appearing in the “Ephemera” section are several striking images by illustrator Yumi Sakugawa and painter Scott Kirschner, both of whom interpret “Portrait of an Inner Life” in their respective mediums. Presumably these enterprises bring the poem to even more people, while at the same time complementing it visually. Yet the images included in Blitzkrieg invite questions about how people who stumbled upon Gosslee’s poem inside a bathroom stall or a cab would regard them—particularly the macabre paintings by Kirschner. Again, Gosslee’s ideal audience is not clear. He complicates matters by adding to the mix commentary on “Portrait of an Inner Life” by poetry experts, including Morri Creech, Joe Milford, and Steven Komarnyckyj, all of whom praise the poem in different ways—though never in terms of its popular appeal. Still, even as he draws accolades from a prestigious few, Gosslee holds on to the belief that his work will gain significance if broadly appreciated.   

Of course, art need not please to succeed. In fact, it can be extremely powerful when disrupting the established order and upsetting people. This alternative way of measuring the worth of “Portrait of An Inner Life” presents itself as Gosslee talks about breaking boundaries. When he tosses bottles with copies of the poem into the Mississippi River, it is with full awareness that he is violating local laws; he actually makes a point of waving at security cameras posted every two hundred feet along the banks. Making a comparable verbal gesture, he calls his bottled poems “Molotovs,” associating them with improvised weapons of unrest. In another vignette, passersby observe Gosslee applying a sticker to a light pole and call him a “hoodlum,” to which he responds: “‘I’m an author not a hoodlum and this is a poem.’” The plaudits of many successful writers, scholars, and artists lend credence to Gosslee’s claim—although one might benefit from being a bit of a renegade if hoping to build the audience for poetry. 

Questions about the significance of any poem linger when one finishes Blitzkrieg. Is Gosslee unduly optimistic about the potential relevance of art? Is the war described in the book one that can actually be won? However one answers these questions, the battle plan is intriguing as are the strategic alliances forged by Gosslee. Fighting to gain a foothold for poetry in the mainstream, he has rallied a great many under his standard. (Full disclosure: I have published in the Fjords Review, the journal he edits, though we have never met, let alone teamed up to sticker public property.) Gosslee and his staff are now extending the impulses that began with his sharing of “Portrait of an Inner Life.” The editorial team has designed a Public Poetry Series that includes recordings of poems (from different authors) designed for the “widest audience and…available for thousands of people to continue sharing the poem via word of mouth and social sharing.” It is impossible to project how many new poetry readers such a media offensive might make. But if a handful of the participants display as much zeal and verve as Gosslee has in advancing “Portrait of an Inner Life,” the endeavor will rate the attention of those who already care about poetry, regardless of the number of converts.

Noel Sloboda serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company and teaches at Penn State York. Sloboda is the author of the poetry collections Our Rarer Monsters (2013) and Shell Games (2008) as well as several chapbooks. He has also published a book about the autobiographies of Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein.