Editor’s Note: Patricia Grisafi, PhD, is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in The Guardian, Salon, NBC, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Mary Sue, The Daily Dot and elsewhere. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Years ago, I was browsing New York’s Union Square Barnes and Noble when I came across James Franco’s poetry collection, “Directing Herbert White.” I was a struggling English PhD student at the time, and so annoyed by Franco’s program-hopping that I moved the books to the True Crime section. Because it was a crime that he wrote them. Get it?
Of course, this dumb protest did nothing but create work for the Barnes and Noble employee who had to re-shelve them (I’m sorry). Today, I still have disdain for Franco but because of the sexual misconduct allegations against him not because he wrote poetry (Franco maintains all sexual encounters were consensual). But I am thinking about the phenomenon of the celebrity poetry collection differently — and it has to do with the actress Megan Fox’s recent debut collection, “Pretty Boys Are Poisonous” (Simon & Schuster).
Celebrity poetry is a strange animal. There’s really no point in writing a review or providing a value judgment. It’s hard to get angry about their existence unless you’re delusional about the economics of publishing.
These books just exist. Fans will be pleased. Skeptics will be mad, like this commenter who was distressed that someone like Fox could get a book deal with a Big Five publisher: “Poetry is dead…there is no reason that this bimbo should get published over real poets who actually care about the craft. Simon and Schuster has lost all credibility…”
Fox, who has starred in “Transformers,” “Jennifer’s Body” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is, of course, not the first celebrity to write a poetry collection. Jewel, Tupac Shakur, Billy Corgan, Alicia Keys, Mary Lambert, Florence Welch, Halsey and Lana del Rey, among others, have all penned and published poetry with varying degrees of commercial success.
From a cursory scan, it seems musicians tend to dip into poetry more than actors — most likely because writing lyrics is similar to writing verse. When a celebrity wants to tell their story or set the record straight, they usually turn to memoir or autobiography. Poetry, on the other hand, obfuscates. It gives the illusion of intimacy in a way that no other medium does.
Many celebrities build their brand on the illusion of relatability. Fox was always stupendously not relatable — too beautiful, too cryptic. She’d make movies then disappear. Say something controversial then vanish. Drop little enigmatic crumbs leading to a gorgeous, vaguely menacing, but ultimately inscrutable cottage in the woods.
In an article for NBC, Jude Ellison Sady Doyle ruminated on how Fox’s “unlikability” meant she got left behind when the #MeToo movement was beginning to reckon with abuses in Hollywood. “It would have been easier to honor Fox’s stories, maybe, if she’d framed herself as a devastated victim. But she told her stories the way she told all the others: with confidence, as jokes,” Doyle writes. The same is true of her poetry.
Her poems are about victimization but also hint at what happens when a mannequin defies expectation and goes mad. “Like every woman / they refuse to listen to my words / instead / they criticize the shape of my mouth / as I speak them” reads one poem titled “i didn’t sign up to compete in your bulls–t beauty pageant.”
In the book’s introduction, Fox says this book is about making the personal political, the singular collective: “And from me poured these poems featuring previously unspoken feelings of isolation, torment, self-harm, desperation, longing, restlessness, rage, and general anguish. These are the experiences of many of us that I now give voice to in these poems.”
Fox reflected on her poetic influences in an interview with People: “[The poetry] comes from a lot of places. Some of it is literal, while other parts are allegorical.” Whether or not she’s aware of the confessional tradition she’s writing in, she can thank other women for paving the way.
Confessional poetry continues to be a debatable term in academic circles. It specifically refers to a small group of American poets operating between the late 1950s and 1970s. It is used more broadly to categorize any poems that appear to be super personal — the first person “I” is used and topics address the horrors of everyday life like mental illness, abuse, physical pain, trauma, addiction, relationship problems, parenting and grief. Confessional poetry is genre that is not limited to women but seems to be associated most frequently with them. In particular, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are often invoked when confessional poetry is discussed.
Both Sexton and Plath used their experiences as women to fuel their poetry. They transformed the stuff of their lives into art that criticized a culture seeking to limit them. For example, in Plath’s poem “The Applicant” (1962) she writes about how the cult of domesticity turns women into literal dolls: “It can sew, it can cook,/it can talk, talk, talk.” The woman in the poem has ceased to be human, reduced to an object without an inner life. “It” is a collection of performances: household work and small, mindless chatter.
Since confessional poetry evoked femininity and womanhood, and in some cases, pregnancy and motherhood — and eventually became linked with Second Wave Feminism in the 1970s — certain critics mocked or dismissed it as something to be embarrassed by. Depending on who you ask, it still is.
Poetry and its reception have come a long way from when Plath and Sexton were writing. Now, there are Instagram poets and people who argue about whether Instagram poets are good or bad. There are Sad Girls and Plath Girls and poetry tote bags and tattoos. At a promotional reading in New York City, the majority-female audience wanted to ask Fox things like what she would tell her younger self. There were tears.
But there is still a lot of misogyny to contend with when women write about taboo themes, such how patriarchal structures continue to erase or minimize women’s pain and suffering. The violence of abuse and the pain of miscarriage are two of Fox’s most visceral subjects; in these poems, the male figures inflict physical, emotional and sexual trauma on a speaker who dreams of freedom and is trying to discover her own power: “you fall asleep on top of me so that i can’t / call my family or the police” from the poem “oxycodone and tequila” is one of the strongest lines, horrific in its simplicity.
There are references to patriarchal violence throughout: the Biblical oppression of Lilith and Eve, the suffering of Mary Magdalene, the sorrow of children’s book “The Giving Tree,” toxic masculinity satire “American Psycho,” Marilyn Monroe (need more be said) and the mythological Persephone, who became queen of the Underworld after Hades abducted her from her mother.
Formally, most of the words are written in lower-case, like a whisper. And many of the poems seem to be explicitly intended for meme-ification. The shortest ones, often single sentences, seem primed for Instagram posts. And while sharing poetry on social media or being an Instagram poet isn’t new, it is meaningful to participate intentionally in this tradition, to encourage the consumption of poetry on social media. “Some poems…serve the same purpose as memes in online culture,” Fox explained in an interview.
Fox’s poetry matters because women and their stories matter. No matter how often we are told that we need to listen to women, the prevailing message is always that women should shut up. Just last month, rapper Timbaland said that Justin Timberlake needed to “put a muzzle” on Britney Spears in light of her memoir’s recent publication (Timbaland has since apologized for the comment).
Where Fox would be the muse for other artists, she is now a creator and a muse for her own art. Her body, famous subject of the male gaze, becomes a poetic body that is the site of multiple traumas, struggling to speak and make meaning.
One recent critic described the authority asserted by confessional poets in this way: “What makes them powerful is that they foreground the experiences of a firmly female speaker, everyday observations that so many women share but are often seen as not valuable or worthy of being called art.” Fox is working within that tradition. These are feminist poems, and they carry Fox’s message: reject silence.