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Palmer's Pop-Tart

Indie rocker Amanda Palmer's poem for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect falls short on every level.

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Friday, May 03, 2013

There’s an issue at the core of Boston musician/artist/writer Amanda Palmer’s work, most especially her writing, that provides a bright dividing line, a love-or-hate point of departure that rules out a measured take. She seems to believe that the heat of the moment of creation is itself the thing that matters; the resulting words are, apparently, to be honored for simply having made it to the page.

On April 21, Palmer posted on her site a lengthy, free-form work called “A Poem for Dzhokhar.” She claims to have written it in nine minutes, thereby proving it’s not had time to bake. It appears to be about Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but is, according to her subsequent rundown of her life in the days and minutes leading to her act of writing, about the details of her life grafted onto the idea of the bombing suspect. Here are a few lines:

you don’t know how to separate from this partnership to escape and finally breathe.

you don’t know how come people run their goddamn knees into the ground anyway.

you don’t know how to measure the value of the twenty dollar bill clutched in your hurting hand.

you don’t know how you walked into this trap so obliviously.

To foist a nine-minute poem upon the world is to prove you don’t care much about your readers. As Valley poet Martin Espada put it in the late ’90s, “A poem is not a Pop-Tart.”

One of two prevalent reactions in the media so far is the pillorying of Palmer for trying to cash in on tragedy, inserting herself into the discussion unbidden. It’s hard not to concur to some degree—Palmer (who often goes by “Amanda Fucking Palmer,” or AFP) seems to crave controversy in the time-honored fashion of rockers. She has also adopted a telling quotation that rides just above the donation button on her site: “Donating = loving.”

All the same, read more of Palmer’s blog posts (she’s a prolific poster and Tweeter) and it becomes clear that hers may be more a crime of self-absorption. She is the sun around whom orbits an army of smitten followers; she may not be a megastar, but she’s got reach. Her marriage to well-known writer Neil Gaiman has also expanded her notoriety. It must be easy, from that kind of perch, to believe that your every utterance, no matter how slap-dash, is worthy of broadcast, and love-donation.

There is also widespread nattering (that’s where she wins—you can’t talk about this without spreading her name) about her daring to sympathize, to a certain extent, with Tsarnaev.

It is primarily this that Palmer has responded to, championing empathy for even the most allegedly odious. About that, she’s right: empathy is important to true understanding of even the worst of human behavior, even if Tsarnaev is a pretty hard person to feel a lot of empathy for at the moment.

She also says of the firestorm of commentary on her blog: “This is the best thing that art can do—any art, good art, bad art, 9-minute art and 9-year art....reveal things.”

That, once the current controversy fades, is what’s really a shame. All art may be worth making, but the rarity and usefulness of the “things” revealed by art are usually proportionate to the time and skill applied to it. The short gestation time of her poem means it simply could not do much of anything effectively except serve as a personal journal entry—one accessible by the entire, judgment-prone rest of the world.

Part of the reason indie artists are common fodder for the alternative press (Palmer appeared on the Advocate cover just four weeks ago, on April 4) is that they tend to be clever outsider critics of culture. What they have to say is generally more interesting and valuable than the output of corporate stars.

But Palmer’s Palmer-centric quick-take on a truly big-deal subject backfires. It will make it that much harder for indie artists of every stripe to steer the cultural conversation toward the kind of nuance she claims to desire.

As a performer, Palmer has intriguing talents in the musical department, though she’s seldom written a lyric or verse that evidences more cooking time than this one. Yet she plays the media/publicity machine like a mad organ grinder. Her EZ-Bake writing becomes part of the conversation with little discussion of its actual merit, and that in a culture that boasts thousands of poets and musicians who could take on the same subject and make something remarkable of it. Here’s hoping one of them will do so soon, and move the spotlight to someone else.•

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