In Los Angeles, where it is many people’s full-time profession to be cheerful and healthy, John Tottenham’s scowl hits you in the eye like a stream of exudate from a suppurating lesion. Actually, jets of pus are far more common features of LA nightlife than scowls; one minute you’re dancing to the Maytals without a care in the world, the next—splosh!—you’ve got tertiary syphilis. Anyway, when our mutual friend Jessica Espeleta introduced us more than a decade ago on an Echo Park dance floor, it was love, or tertiary syphilis, at first sight.
Ever since, when I ran into John, we would spend a few minutes being clammy and unhappy together, talking country blues and gloomy thinkers. John is the only person I know who could have introduced me to the profoundly dejected philosophy of E.M. Cioran. And to give you some idea of the measure of the man, not only could John have told me about Cioran’s life and thought, but in fact, he did. That’s the kind of person John is. (As you see, I like to refer to him as “John,” in the way people who knew Bob Dylan in the Village never stop calling him “Bobby,” to make a big show of our personal acquaintance.)
But those, as the song says, were different times, before Apollo crowned John with the laurel wreath and anointed his tongue with the Muses’ sweet dew, and accolades fell by the dozen from his praise-occluded ying-yang. Today, he is our city’s poet of failure and regret, though his meditations on these universal themes belong to the world and all its children. He is the poet demanded by the age: the one who takes up the lyre to sing, not of arms and the man, but of “Liquid Consolation and Knob Relief.”
Writing of “icy Retz or La Rochefoucauld aphorisms, shining with hate-filled economy,” the art historian T.J. Clark might have been describing the style of “A Richer Victory”:
Broke, bitter and alone.
What more could I ask for?
I have failed, at last,
beyond my wildest expectations.
I don’t understand
why I’m still not satisfied.
There are three slender volumes of John Tottenham’s poetry, all highly recommended. His first, The Inertia Variations, now in its second edition, has been set to music and otherwise interpreted by The The. His second collection, Antiepithalamia & Other Poems of Regret and Resentment, permanently befouled the conjugal bed. His latest—his last?—excursion in verse is The Hate Poems, published last September. Exclusive footage of John reading from The Hate Poems at the Cha Cha Lounge on December 21 follows our email interview, below.
Is hate really the motivating force behind these poems? Often, disgust seems to get the upper hand.
The title is a cheap ruse designed purely to get attention. ‘Poems of Regret and Resentment’ would have been a more appropriate title but it was used for the previous volume. Nobody is going to pick up a book called The Inertia Variations or Antiepithalamia based on the title. We needed something catchy and declarative with a photograph of a kitten on the cover to get some traction in today’s marketplace.
Regret, resentment, revulsion and resignation are my stock-in-trade. I excel, if anything, at the negative; it just happens to be my lot in life.
I have carved out a little niche for myself, one that nobody else would want.
There’s a thin line between exploring a subject to the point of exhausting it and repeating oneself, and that’s the space this book exists in.
It’s a desperate last bid before retiring from the futile, thankless and masochistic pursuit of poetry. I stopped poeticizing entirely three years ago, on doctor’s orders.
After many years of struggling with form, I finally acknowledged that I had no grasp of plot, character or dialogue, and decided to write a novel, which is how I’ve been squandering the last three years.
When did the relationship monumentalized in these poems end? Has your former partner responded to The Hate Poems?
The poems are not directed at or inspired by anybody in particular. They are based entirely on my observations of other people’s relationships.
The process is more sculptural or surgical, a gradual chipping away at slabs of text and grafting together of fragments. It’s not a natural process. There’s nothing organic about it.
I always employ the Universal ‘I’. Everybody feels some degree of ambivalence towards romantic involvement, so people do relate to this stuff.
Love and hate are not antithetical forces, the opposite of love is indifference.
In 1580, Sir Philip Sidney bemoaned poetry’s fall “from almost the highest estimation of learning. . . to be the laughing-stock of children.” Now it sounds like a pretty good gig, to be the laughing-stock of children. Will poetry ever hit bottom?
Sidney wrote a couple of sonnets that are among the only direct precursors to the mean-spirited love poems in Antiepithalamia and Hate Poems that I was conscious of: “Desire, desire, I have too dearly bought, with price of mangled mind, thy worthless ware,” etc.
As Louis Pipe points out in the introduction: “Ironically, to call an artist or a filmmaker a poet—i.e. ‘Lou Reed is a poet,’ ‘Tarkovsky is a poet of the cinema,’ etc — is to bestow the highest honor upon them, but if one actually is a poet, one is a nobody.”
In his study of Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann writes: “Riches, honors, and even scholarship are merely futile multiplications of a value that is zero to start with.” But there is no limit to the number of possible multiplications, and each one is different, even if the result is the same. How can the poem honor the haecceity of each individual’s worthless achievement?
To write as impersonally as possible, while bringing as much personal experience to it as possible; to provoke, console or inspire. If a poet is accessible to people who don’t normally read poetry, i.e. everybody, then he disposes of the middle-man, the critic, and is ignored by the literary establishment, which is an ideal predicament. To be accessible to the reader is to be inaccessible to critics.
How was the show with the Flesh Eaters and Mudhoney?
I’ve covered the waterfront, performed at every toilet in this town—at literary gatherings, comedy clubs, and rock shows—offering tragically comic relief, amplified self-deprecation, stand-up poitry.
It’s too poetic for the stand-up crowd and too comedic for the poitry set, so I often end up performing at rock clubs.
Please tell us about the video of the reading embedded below. The audience is either having fun or doing a very good impression.
It channels the audience’s feelings of failure, bitterness, regret, etc, into something entertaining and cathartic. People seem to relate; they laugh when they recognize felicitously-phrased truths. That’s the triumph of failure.
There was a lot of positive energy—love, if you will—in the room that night. Love for Hate.