Steven D. Schroeder
This Game Lends Itself to Certain Abuses
It’s a simple game.
1. The ball shall be any or all of the following: plastic, foam, rubber,
leather, gel, snow, stone. Sphere, spheroid, ellipsoid, cylinder,
amorphous, flat. On a rope, on a tree, on fire.
1a. The ball need not be a ball or singular.
2. Do not throw the ball so high that it catches on the sky, which is j
ust above reach if you stretch from the roof. Nor is the roof an
3. The ball, a bat, a vampire bat, an electrified garden hose, lasers
shot from outlets, a dogpile, and a peculiar feeling all may hit you
again again again, raising welts and questions.
13. One player will fill up to five positions. A receiver may defend
himself or, under certain circumstances, herself. The fulltime spy
needs to sneak without crunching gravel or leaves.
164. Only a coward would crouch in refuge and refuse to emerge, but
everyone still will, despite the taunts, until the fort-storming
335. Solid or fluid, purple sugar is perfect for throwing down between
590. The score shall appear in scars on skin. A cut or a knot is worth
two scrapes or three bruises.
590a. The solution for any scoring dispute is a gunfight. No arguing over
who shot whom.
999. The first team to fortillion runs wins. Otherwise, the game ends by
exhaustion mercy kill, weedwhacker ambush, or guardian, but
1000. Rules may be added or subtracted at any time or place.
1001. Don’t forget to run. You always end up running somewhere.
No Hope Except in Arms
This knife sells itself
This assault rifle will change your life
This rocket launcher is a limited-time offer
This hand grenade can shred a head of lettuce in under seven seconds
guaranteed, or we’ll refund your money
This armor-piercing bullet kills 99 percent of household fungi, molds and
This autocannon disinfects the world’s surface for our descendants
This fighter jet is part of a complete breakfast
This aircraft carrier cares
This main battle tank thanks the good Lord and its mama
This cruise missile redefines its mission so it never misses school plays
This bunker-buster bomb is user friendly, idiot proof and child safe for
the entire family to enjoy, eight to 88
This gun wants to tuck your kids into bed
This one would fuck anybody
Better Consider My National Resources
Oh say can you see my cheese fries, my display of potato chips shaped
like states, my hot-dog-eating contest, my Colonel’s secret recipe,
my finger-licking, my stuffing
God shed his grace on my have you heard the good news, my eyes have
seen the glory, my shotgun chapel neon off the Las Vegas strip, my
stolen Gideon bible with lines crossed out, my God
I pledge allegiance to my highball Jack and Coke, my tobacco leaf, my
meth-mouth tooth decay, my crack-baby exorcism, my high on life,
my ditch behind the high school
I only regret that I have but one life to give for my third job at 7-Eleven,
my automotive manufacturer bought at auction for a nickel, my
drive-in movie, my drive-through liquor store, my drive-by
Give me liberty or give me my Brink’s armored car, my Pinkertons
on every corner, my unmarked and non-sequential twenty-dollar bills,
my vault door opened to reveal nothing
The only thing we have to fear is my pinup, my prenup, my pushed her
in where she would drown, my poured-concrete Supermax cell, my
lay down the law, my lay, my lie
Be all you can be in my pants, my is that a pistol in your pocket, my
that’s what she said, my Omaha hi-lo poker if you know what
I mean, my O-face, my oh my
A house divided against itself cannot stand my capital of Idaho is I, my I
dunno, my sabermetric statistics versus my guesstimate, my
underwater nest of cottonmouths, my urban myth
Speak softly and carry my billy club, my bully pulpit, my pit bull on a
chain, my smoke billows bellowing lungs out, my sniper’s ghillie
suit, my fully poseable Snake Eyes action figure
We hold these truths to be my exclusion for pre-existing conditions, my
odds of winning one in 6.4 million, my four to six weeks for
delivery, my don’t try this at home, my rights reserved
We shall overcome my Fighting Irish, my donde esta el baño, my
Columbus Day parade, my swing low sweet chariot, my Defense of
Marriage Act, my miscegenation, my nation
Don’t fire until you see the whites of my Black Friday, my Downy dryer
sheets, my letters to Haiti, my vanity license plate H8E, my way or
the highway, my credit card declined by the ATM
Don’t tread on my Deadwood, my marshal with a Stetson hat, my
desperado with a Mexican necktie, my this land is my land, my
mine, my mine, my mine
-from The Royal Nonesuch
BIO: Steven D. Schroeder’s second book of poetry, The Royal Nonesuch (Spark Wheel Press, 2013), won the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University. His first book, Torched Verse Ends, appeared from BlazeVOX [books] in 2009. His poetry is available or forthcoming from New England Review, Pleiades, Verse, The Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Barrow Street, Indiana Review, diode, Drunken Boat, The Rumpus, and Verse Daily. He co-curates the Observable Reading Series, serves as a contributing editor for River Styx, and works as a Certified Professional Résumé Writer. Formerly, he edited the online journal Anti-. Long a resident of Colorado, he now lives in St. Louis.
An Interview with Steven D. Schroeder by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Talk to us a bit about the form of "This Game Lends Itself To Certain Abuses." How did you come up with this idea for writing a poem as a list of rules in a game and, what's more, "leaping" from rule 3 to 13 to 164 and so on?
Steven D. Schroeder: I actually wrote and published this poem before I had finished even my first book, so this is just my best guess at its origin. To draft, I need both what the poem's getting at and the angle it's coming from, if that makes sense. In this case, I already knew imaginative childhood games I played with friends were the subject, but it wasn't until I decided to make a ruleset for these often aimless activities that it clicked. I don't think I had yet read Richard Blanco's "The Perfect City Code," but I definitely felt a kinship with that poem's style once I read it.
The skipping numbers of the rules could either suggest the haphazard nature of how the rules were created, or that there are many more rules the reader doesn't know about-either suits me. And as you might be able to guess by the title taken from Bill Watterson, I was thinking of Calvinball as I wrote. Now that I'm thinking of Calvinball again, I come full circle to some sort of realization about how writing a poem never works the same way twice for me.
AMK: Each rule gets progressively weirder as the poem itself progresses, and they certainly become more violent. Much of the poems in The Royal Nonesuch seem to have a political angle to them, but they're typically political in this oddly indirect way we see in this poem. Talk to us a bit about being political (or, or at least, making social commentary) in your work. Why do you think you tend to address social issues and politics and such, as Rodney Jones might say, "from the side?"
SDS: Social commentary might be the better term for this poem, since I don't think of it as directly political any more than, say, Lord of the Flies. If I don't approach any subject with at least a little skew, I'm likely to end up with an op-ed or a kneejerk day-after-the-event topical poem. That said, whether I talk about transportation security or moneymaking or relationships, you mostly know where we are up front, but I still aim for some subtlety and mystery. Kevin Prufer's poems are a model for me in this regard, and make me quite jealous.
Much of the violence in my poems comes from growing up in a culture where guns were cool and kids watched GI Joe and pretended to kill each other. I'd always thought of my poems as "adult" but not potentially objectionable. However, I realized a couple years back that many were drenched in violence and sex and profanity when a man at a reading in Des Moines brought his tween son and daughter. Fortunately, he was good humored about my mid-reading epiphany.
AMK: What is it about the line that you find so attractive? Why do you think you write poems rather than some other form, particularly given your penchant for poems that explore our culture and its many ills?
SDS: It's not particularly the line that brings me to poetry but the compression of language. I memorized Ilya Kaminsky's "We Lived Happily During the War" the other day on a whim: fewer than a hundred words, a rhetorical pleasure to recite, and a gutpunch to absorb.
I love to write fiction (and will be heading back that way soon), but the need to trim and tighten and turn the wrench one more notch is the first thing in poetry for me, and will likely affect my stories as well. The themes won't change radically in whatever genre or medium I choose-my upcoming pass at a post-apocalyptic-ish fantasy novel will explore corporate malfeasance and the misuse of language and family dysfunction too.
AMK: In "No Hope Except In Arms," we have another political poem that is a little more direct but also is rather funny. I'm thinking of moments like "This fighter jet is part of a complete breakfast / This aircraft carrier cares." How do you think you successfully create humor in a poem, particularly in a poem that is otherwise rather serious or, perhaps, others might think should be more serious?
SDS: While I'm often funny, I don't know that I'm especially articulate on the subject, and analyzing it tends to kill it anyway. I mean, if I dissect an entire scene of Futurama to explain how a giant robot booming "No! It is the bad kind of puppy!" works as a joke at least three different ways, no one is going to find it funny when I'm done. Okay, I'll find it even more funny than before, and I'll repeat the line at you at least a dozen more times.
Anyway, my poems take their subjects seriously, but serious doesn't need to equal solemn. A lot of what I'm addressing is outlandish to the point of self-satire, even if the poem goes to a darker place. The humor for me in this particular poem comes from incongruity: stock phrases being used how they usually aren't and implements of war having these positives attributed to them. I wish I had a punchline here, but awkward silence might work too...
AMK: As in the bizarre list of rules in "This Game Lends Itself To Certain Abuses," I can see you writing hundreds of lines for "No Hope Except In Arms." It's so wonderfully metaphorical and weird and the world is chock full of weapons to personify, to give strange character. How did you narrow this poem down to just thirteen lines? Why just thirteen?
SDS: Every poem in the book is thirteen lines because it forced me outside a comfort zone by not allowing regular stanza lengths and requiring brevity. I don't particularly remember how I narrowed down this poem, though I definitely considered more weapons/vehicles and more selling-oriented phrases.
At least one reader mentioned wanting longer litanies, which I certainly understand, given the nature of the form and the power of something like Gabrielle Calvocoressi's "Late Twentieth Century in the Form of Litany." Here, I'll pretend I'm creating a new poem type, the litany that's nervous about overstaying its welcome. It's a lot like me in social situations, and probably better if it just ghosts before you realize it's gone. Maybe the poem also has a secret identity as a superhero, and maybe I've said too much.
AMK: Would you call "No Hope Except In Arms" a piece of magical realism? I just love the imaginative leaps the poem makes and how it personifies all of these arms. It has a dream-like quality, but it isn't a narrative poem, which tends to be the environment in which magical realism operates.
SDS: I consider it absurdist more than magical realism or dream. As I wrote the strange juxtapositions, I wasn't thinking of an actual world where tanks have mothers and praise the lord, although that might be interesting in a bizarro-Pixar-movie way and now you have me considering the story possibilities.
Instead, I was envisioning some asshole salesman or politician blowing smoke about what this implement of destruction can do for you and why it's really a great thing. I don't know if I consciously thought about Sherman Alexie's "Evolution" as I wrote, but it had to be in my mind somewhere. It's a similar concept that I've taken further over the top, a specialty of mine.
AMK: Do you worry much about how your poems might be categorized or, even before that, how they might be received? Do you worry about the reader much or do you write what you write and hope for the best?
SDS: I'm curious about how some of my poems would be categorized, since I'm not entirely sure despite my brain being all about categories. These poems, though, I'm comfortable placing in the sweet spot between list and litany, with a touch of screed thrown in.
Like most poets, I learned long ago that even an excellent poem may barely find an audience. I write the poems that please me, and because what pleases me is often poems that sound good and read well, a few friends and well-wishers come along. If I want to reach a bigger audience, I can churn out a fantasy football column or, I dunno, ghost-write celebrity tweets.
AMK: What's going on with the indented lines in "Better Consider My National Resources?" Typically, an indented line means the line was too long to fit on the page, but it's rare that we see multiple lines in a row indented (this would indicate each line is super, super long). "Better Consider My National Resources," like "No Hope Except In Arms," shirks periods even as it uses other standard punctuation. What's going on here?
SDS: It's me either channeling Ginsberg's "America" (whence the title) or cheating that thirteen-line restriction I mentioned before. Probably both. In all seriousness, I like the motormouth, run-out-of-breath aspect of the long-long lines. I yelled this poem at a crowded bar in Seattle at the last AWP, and that seemed appropriate.
With the lines being self-contained units and so lengthy, periods didn't seem necessary to indicate the pauses. However, the only punctuation I truly eschew is the semicolon, which is vestigial and can easily become inflamed or infected.
AMK: I actually was playing around with a poem like this but decided it was too much of a risk. Talk to us a bit about risk. Many of the poems (if not all) in The Royal Nonesuch take risks like this.
SDS: I'm curious about terms like "risk" and "brave" applied to contemporary American poetry. Big-picture, there's nothing risky or brave about our poems because we can't go to prison or be killed for them, as still happens elsewhere. And you could apply the terms to writing in a different style than expected or saying something that someone somewhere sometime might take offense to, but that's a low bar. The only time I remember thinking of risk in one of my poems was one in the new manuscript that includes a racial slur, which I had to consult with poets I trust about even using. I don't find that helpful to the discussion at hand either.
So what's a reasonable level for "risk" and "bravery" to be useful? Surely a poem like Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke" is risky and brave, but why precisely? The urgent subject matter? The personal vulnerability? The repetitive form? The antagonism of traditional power structures? And how many of those are needed to be risky or brave, and what other criteria could there be, and what other poems are truly risky? I'd love to hear people's thoughts on the matter, because mine are still forming.
AMK: Talk to us a bit about the list poem. All of the poems featured here proceed like lists of some sort. What does the list poem allow you to do that other poems do not? Why do you think you are so drawn to this form?
SDS: Partly my mind works in an ordered way even when it's being weird. Partly I think the list is underused in poetry and can suggest bits of lyric and narrative without actually embodying either. Partly it's a fun syntactical structure that (if unnumbered) isn't as obvious as anaphora. The list puts its clothes on in the blueblack cold. It has wasted its life. I, too, dislike it. Wait, what?
AMK: Thank you, Steven!
SDS: Please, call me Steve. There are about two people left on earth who call me Steven.