Sierra Nelson Takes You by the Hand and Walks You Through Her Book
A Reading of Oulipian Writing
w/Daniel Levin Becker, Sierra Nelson, Jason Conger, Doug Nufer
Sat Aug 18, Spine & Crown Books, 7 pm, free
I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as much as the next kid, but the thing that always bothered me about them is there was never an option for my character to stay in bed all day and watch TV while feeling bad about himself. Or to just start punching everybody in the room, friend and foe alike. Or to grab the cowboy ghost and start dancing with him, rather than running away down the green hallway (turn to page 46) or pulling the rope attached to the bucket of red paint on the wall to the left (turn to page 8). The binary choice always irritated me, because the choices always had to do with actions and never feelings.
It wasn't until I read local poet Sierra Nelson's I Take Back the Sponge Cake (Rose Metal Press, $14.95) that I realized there was an elegant solution to my problem. Sponge Cake is a poetry collection fused with a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and the transit of the reader is pretty much entirely mood-based. The first poem, on page 3, is titled "You Will Go Back Again," and it begins, "We have seen your future, and it's all eyes,/you crazy head of bees." This is emotional stuff: being watched, a head buzzing and crazy. Nelson urges you to "get out the gate," and then you're presented with the book's essential mechanism:
Wait: to stay
_________, my heart is breaking.
If you choose wait, go to page 6.
If you choose weight, go to page 4.
Say you woke up this morning feeling bad about yourself, or lonely, or boxed in a corner, and you're feeling literal, so you choose "wait." That sends you to a poem that begins, "You are traveling slowly,/like a shipwreck still sailing." You advance delicately into the world, with Nelson holding your hand and assuring you that it's okay. (At the end of that poem, you are asked to choose between "Oh!" and "Owe.") But if you're feeling less gentle or more melodramatic or artistic, you choose "Weight, my heart is breaking," and that deposits you into a poem that opens with a promise: "In less than 2 weeks, this feeling will crack." The people in this poem have light bulbs for heads, but they are still aggressive, disregarding the obvious threat to their fragile skulls. From there, do you choose "Tide" or "Tied"? Depends on how you feel after reading the poem.
This is an interesting mechanism through which to navigate a book of poems, making every turn of the page a collaboration between writer and reader, and ensuring that the reader is prepared on some level for the poem to come. Generally, a reader needs a close familiarity with a book to anthologize his or her own mixtape of poems out of the greater text. But Sponge Cake makes the reader an expert in how to read the book immediately. (In the foreword, Nelson explains that her homophone pairs come from Worcester's New Pronouncing Spelling-Book, published "in the early 1900s.")
Every poem is accompanied by an illustration by Loren Erdrich, a combination of sketch and watercolor that sometimes illuminates and sometimes obfuscates the related poem. Many of the illustrations are of pairs of things—people and shadows, conjoined twins, hands covering a face. The poems in this book are all about pairings—visual art with words, the reader and the poet, the poet and the subject, the poem before and the poem after, the poem you chose and the poem you didn't choose. More than most books of poems—some of which are more like introverted monologues for an audience of none—this is a shared undertaking. By the end, Nelson even gives you a map and encourages you to make your own way. It feels like a real accomplishment, a reward earned at the end of an adventure.