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Kate Durbin: The Poetry of Places, Objects, and Reality TV

By Martin Chang

Like many others in America, Kate Durbin found herself fascinated by the world of Reality television.  As a poet, Durbin began to watch with a closer eye.  From the way that the camera moves from Kardashian to Kardashian, to the carefully manicured rooms of Playboy Bunnies, to the cluttered lives of the victims of addiction on “Hoarders,” she discovered that the humanity revealed on these shows were worthy of the same artistic deep dive as high art.

“I think we still have a stigma around popular culture used as art,” she said. “I’m interested in taking things that are considered low art and turning them into art works that are taken more seriously. I find the shows very fascinating because they speak to our moment in time in a very specific way.”

Durbin also takes a closer look at Reality television since she believes that the media aware nature of the lives of Reality show stars resembles the media driven lives of us all. “I see it as the medium that we live and exist in now,” she said. “We all live very mediated lives. We all have our Facebook pages, our Instagram pages. We represent ourselves both virtually and IRL (in real life) all the time.”

Durbin found the way that people would talk about Reality show stars such as Kim Kardashian “disturbing.” This also inspired her to take an artistic look at the shows. “Even very smart people that might call themselves feminism felt comfortable trashing Kim Kardashian, calling her stupid, those sorts of these things,” she said.  Durbin vehemently disagrees with this characterization. “She couldn’t get where she is being stupid,” Durbin said.

Durbin wants to explore how the shows themselves are designed to create these strong feelings in otherwise smart and rationale people. She found that there were real reasons why people had such strong reactions. “The framework of the shows, the camera angles, the way the scenes are set up, work to objectify women and portray them as stupid,” Durbin concluded.

“Close watching” is the way that Durbin describes her process of writing her poetic works. “I watch a little bit of the show. Then I pause the show and write down everything that I had seen,” Durbin explained. This process takes Durbin years. She analyzed one episode of “The Hills” for a year.

Through this close watching, Durbin was inspired by the way that the people on the reality shows related to places and objects that make up the world of these shows.  She found the world of the Playboy mansion and the way it was portrayed on “The Girls Next Door” particularly fascinating.  For most of the shows run, “The Girls Next Door” portrayed the life of Hugh Hefner and his, at the time, three girlfriends: Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson.   This fascination caused her to create poetic works where Durbin attempted to let “the mansion speaks for itself.”

As a part of the Bakersfield Fan Forum series at the Todd Madigan Gallery at Cal State Bakersfield, Durbin performed a poem about Bridget Marquardt’s room. She performed the poem with a scientific accuracy. Yet her description of the room was not dry, in her voice you could hear both Durbin’s fascinations with Bridget’s life combined with a bit of contempt that she has for a life specifically designed to exploit women.  Below are the first few lines of the poem.

This large bedroom is hot pink and organized. The Queen bed’s bright pink comforter is offset with sprays of black and white bunnies with bowties, pillows. There is also a large Hello Kitty pillow. The pink mouse and the pink computer monitor accent the pink desk.

Durbin’s fascination with the objects and places of Reality television eventually led her to the show “Hoarders.” Something Durbin felt was an inevitability. After writing pieces about the rich, as covered in shows like “The Girls Next Door,” she began to wonder how the rest of the people related to places and objects. Durbin explained her line of thinking, “I started to think about ‘well this is the one percent’s relationship to things and stuff, what about the rest of the Country?’” That led her to the thought, “Oh my God, I don’t want to do it, but I have to write about “Hoarders.”

The emotions that Durbin experienced while watching “Hoarders” were very strong. “It was very painful to watch. It was very hard to get through,” she said.  “I always cry when I watch it.” Durbin has this strong reaction because the theme of addiction hits closes to home. “It triggers some things with my family,” she said.  ” There’s a lot of addiction in my family and stuff.”

Other mixed feelings came up in Durbin while she wrote about and watched “Hoarders,” “I have a lot of ethical problems with the show.” “I feel like the people on the show are not in the right mental state to consent to being on a show like that, but it is also fascinating in that it reveals what is going on behind closed doors all over the country.”

Durbin hopes to tap into the healing nature of poetry when writing about “Hoarders,” “I do believe that the process of writing and bringing attention to something difficult does have healing qualities to it. I think that art can do thing that are positive with material that is difficult.”

Below are the first few lines of the poem “Hoarders: Tara.”

Orlando, Florida

My name is Tara and I’m 55 years old Precious Moments angel statue
I would not classify myself as a hoarder, more of a rescuer of Target receipts
When I first moved in it was just mostly boxes because I was moving in then I tried to unpack but everything just got put wherever Martha Stewart magazines

Though Durbin has been writing and creating art pieces about Reality television and popular culture for years and also has many misgiving about much of the shows she covers artistically, she can still enjoy Reality television at the basic entertainment level like anyone else. She said, “I really enjoy watching it. My boyfriend saw me watching the Kardashians one day and said ‘ow are you writing.’ Then I said ‘no I’m just watching.’” Despite her careful examination into what makes the shows tick, Durbin still considers Reality television “fun.”

 

 

The Bakersfield Fan Forum is facilitated by Joseph Mosconi and The Poetic Research Bureau.  The Fan Forum is meant to “investigate the various ways enthusiasms and fandoms are articulated in contemporary poetry and visual art.” Learn about the next Fan Forum event here.

 

Durbin has published many of her works online and in print.

Durbin has published two books of poetry, The Ravenous Audience and E! Entertainment . “E! Entertainment” contains the poetic work about the Kardashians, “The Hills”, and “Girls Next Door”  discussed in the article. Also in “E! Entertainment” are poetic works about The Real Housewives, Anna Nichole Smith  and Amanda Knox. The poems about “Hoarders” are a work in progress and are not yet published in print. “Hoarders: Tara” is available in full here.

Durbin opened her presentation at CSUB with pictures from a project she worked on with Rollin Leonard called Postcards from Disneyland. It is why in the pictures she is wearing a Snow White shirt. In this project she explored her fandom of Disneyland by actually going to the park with a projector and projecting images onto landmarks at the park. Then Leonard took  photos of those landmarks.

Durbin has been a part of several Internet art projects. Below are some examples of her work.

Gaga Stigmata

from the about page:

“Established in March 2010 as the first mover in Gaga studies,Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga is a technological journal that critically-creatively participates in the cultural project of shock pop phenomenon Lady Gaga.”

Women As Objects

A tumblr blog where Durbin achieved young women’s tumblrs. The blog explores how young women define themselves and their sexuality.

Cloud Nine

With “Cloud Nine” Durbin is asking female-identifying artist “What have you done for Money?”

Kern County Poet: Jessica Nelson

nelson01withtextresize02

By Martin Chang

For most of her twenty-three years, Jessica Nelson has used poetry to help her escape from the pain of a damaged life.  After reading poetry for eight years, she began performing her own poetry and discovered poetry’s second of many gifts: Finality. Poetry offers her “a light at the end of the tunnel. If I write, I can be done with it and I can move on.”

“It” for Nelson are the many ups and downs of her hard life.  She didn’t grow up knowing her birth mother. She never even met her until she was 18. Talking about her dad, Nelson said, “He had a problem with attracting alcoholics. My dad has been married seven times.  I’ve had four different step moms.” Nelson describes living in this type of a family situation as “always a negative environment.” She said, “There were a lot of things that you wouldn’t notice unless you lived in the house. Money was never the issue, it was attention.”

This fractured home life caused Nelson to seek asylum elsewhere. “I’ve lived in Jamison Center. I’ve lived with my seventh grade teacher.” The Kern County Department of Human Services describes the Jamison Center as “the only emergency center in Kern County for neglected children.”  Eventually, this led Nelson to move from Bakersfield to live at Horizon Academy, an alternative school based in Bradenton, Florida.

She lived at the academy for two years. Nelson does not feel as though she was given the opportunity to mature at Horizon. “When you’re in the program, you get sent away and you’re fifteen and you come home and you’re still fifteen,” she said. Upon leaving the school, Nelson moved back to Bakersfield alone. So when she had to figure out life without the safety net of a family, she was lost.

Nelson described her rough adjustment to living life alone, “I never knew how to drive. I didn’t know how to balance a check book. I didn’t know how to live on my own.”  Nelson also felt alone upon returning to Bakersfield. She missed the friendships she had at Horizon, “I lived for 26 months surrounded by 27 girls. So it was lonely when I came back home. Life goes on when you are sent away but when you come back you’re still where you were (as a person) when you come back.” Nelson takes her life experience in stride. “It was different, but here I am,” she said.

Nelson first discovered poetry at eleven. Between the drama of rotating step mothers and the Jamison Center, Nelson used reading poetry as an escape, “It was an outlet for how my family life was.”

Now Nelson is a young single mother of two kids, Kylie, age 2 and a half and Parker, who is around three months old.  She began writing and performing at nineteen. Now that Nelson creates poetry it gives her, what she calls, “my own personal sense of closure” that she did not get simply reading poetry.

An important part of that closure process for Nelson is the sharing, “I never feel like anything is finished unless someone else reads it and gets something from it.” The Open Mic at Dagny’s is a place where Nelson enjoys taking this final sharing and performing step. “I love it. I love the energy. I love all the people that come.  I love the experience. I love nervousness that I get. I love the feeling before I do it. (perform) I love the feeling after I do it.”

At September’s Open Mic Nelson performed “Growth”.  The poem was inspired by one line.

 

What happens when you walk into a room and it smells like me.

 

The poem is Nelson’s attempt to bring closure to a toxic relationship. She performed the poem in an intense style, some words of her poem were recited in quiet, understated lines, while other words, like the words that inspired the poem, were performed with a loud booming voice that filled the small room at Dagny’s.

Nelson performed “Growth” this way because she wants the audience to feel the feelings that Nelson felt when she wrote the poem. When Nelson writes poetry her body is filled with nervous energy, “I just sit there and I talk to myself. I pace.” Capturing the emotion of those nervous moments is Nelson’s main goal when writing poetry, “I want to stay true to how it was written.  This is how I see it in my head.”

Lenora McClellan reads “An Issue of Faith.”

Lenora McClellan has been given the gift of writing from an early age. She describes herself as “an author poet, playwright, and a women of God.” She reads from her book “By God’s Grace” published in 2013.  She said about the poetry in “By God’s Grace,” “I hope one day to share this book with others, because it signifies how God has developed and changed me to glorify Him and to inspire other to do the same.” Lenora has written 10 books and four plays.

Below are excerpts from the poem.

 

Imagine me, money spent, separated all alone, left to deal with this

issue on my own,   . . . . . .

 

This issue that has isolated me,

Thrown down, cast out from society

To live my life in this misery, will

I ever be free, will I ever be free

 

And the many who had just called on

His name who from that very instant

Were never the same Jesus/ Jesus/Jesus. . . . . .

 

And He called out to me, for He knew He had healed my infirmity

On his Way to Jarius’ daughter, who was almost dead, He turned,

And stopped, to help me instead

For in the middle of the crowd, Jesus stopped and said,

 

“Who touched me?” and I,

Being seen by all, I came to Jesus

And I did fall, down at His feet.. . . .

Clearly see I was the woman

With the twelve-year infirmity,

Who in my desperation a touch I

Stole, believing that Jesus could

Make me whole, and Jesus

Then said to me, “Your faith

Has made you whole.

My daughter, go in peace.”

And from that very hour, He caused

The blood to cease, and restored

My mind, my body, and soul

And declared me whole, whole, whole

Thank you, Jesus

Thank you, Jesus

Thank you, Jesus.  For making me whole

A discussion of Local Color with author Don Thompson

 

Don Thompson being interview by Portia Choi about Local Color on July 28th 2015.

Don Thompson being interview by Portia Choi about Local Color on July 28th 2015.

In this text interview we discussed with Don Thompson his favorite moments as a writer and his advice to other writers. Then we discuss his Historical Narrative poem Local Color.

Portia Choi:  Don, what were your most interesting moments as a poet?
Don Thompson:  The moment of discovery when something comes from wherever it comes from. Winning the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize for Back Roads was memorable, reading with C.K. Williams to a thousand or so people. That led to a lot of good things.

PC:  What would you like to share with other poets?
DP:  Do the work; nothing else matters.

PC:  What inspired you to write Local Color, a book length poem?
DT:  It’s been something that’s been with me for many, many years.  I originally wrote an unpublished novel in the 1970’s about a night watchman in the Kern County Museum interacting with people from the past.  He was a young man back then. Now, of course, the watchman in Local Color is an old man.  Some readers have suggested that I got the idea from the movie, “Night at the Museum”.  But it actually goes back a long time.  Anyway, I always wanted to write it.  I also had an image of the first white settler here, Christian Bohna, standing on his porch watching the flooding Kern River flow by and realizing he was not going to make it.  That was another beginning.
I like to write things other than a collection of free-standing poems.  I like to write things that have shape to them, an over-arching unity perhaps.  So this became a narrative, with some aspects of a novella. Then I realized that I would have to write notes to explain things to people who were not familiar with local history.  I thought that would be boring and academic, but then it came to me to have a second character.  So we have the night watchman and his old friend, the editor, who provides the background, but also disagrees with the night watchman—who may not always be reliable.

PC:  Why did it take so long to write it?
DT:  I finally got old enough. It’s a book about time—with a capital T—which isn’t a young person’s concern.

PC:  What inspired you to write it in such a short time?  I was amazed it took you only a year to write it.
DT: It was just one of those things. When you’re working on something urgent, you work on it every day.  And it just accumulates.  There was a certain voice that took over and spoke for itself. I did do a lot of research as I worked—quick and sloppy research because I wasn’t writing a history—and put it all together. Maybe it’s like jazz: the facts are a theme on which the night watchman improvises.

PC:  I found the notes to be very helpful to see the historical perspective;  to get to know the personalities.
DT:  The idea is to have two characters interacting with each other. The night watchman is rather impulsive while the editor is more concerned with getting the facts straight. Even so, though many of the people are historical, others are imaginary, the Indian-hating preacher, for instance, although the massacre is based on a real event. Also, there are conflicting versions of some stories in the literature, so that makes the ultimate “reality” uncertain. And there are a couple of places where the editor just shakes his head and admits that the night watchman has made it all up.

PC: The poetry section was quite amazing. I especially liked the catalog of wildflowers, the numbers and varieties of them.
DT:  I’m not a botanist. I was much more interested in the names and the sound of them and what they looked like.
PC:  I recall twenty, thirty.
DT:  They were all local, Kern County flowers.

PC:  In reading Local Color, I noticed you wrote about well-known persons such as General Beale; but also about cultures like Yokuts, Chinese, and the African-Americans.  What interested you to write about those that are sometimes overlooked?
DT:  Oh, just because you are writing about this place and the history of it. All those ethnicities have always been here. Today, we have sixty some languages spoken locally.  Incredible.  The Native Americans were here originally, and they were squeezed out, the Yokut people.  Baker hired them. African Americans arrived on the train, recruited as cotton pickers, and went on to do all kinds of things, even building successful businesses.   The Asians, however, were not allowed to own property inside town, but amassed large parcels outside of town, and some became quite successful.  So Bakersfield has always been varied, not just all sorts of whites and Hispanic people.The big shots are part of it, too. Miller and Lux, Tevis and Haggin and many others whom the night watchman couldn’t get into his story. He certainly doesn’t think those famous robber barons should be forgotten either. The Big Four were both remarkable achievers and shifty operators.

PC:  The book includes famous mountain men and explorers as well as business men. There was Kit Carson…
DT:  Yes. As a young man I was obsessed with those guys. I remember going out east of town and seeing the state historical moment commemorating Jedediah Smith’s passage through this area. Kit Carson was here and Fremont. Audubon’s son; the amazing Garces and Pedro Fages. On and on—all a part of our boring old Kern County.

don  reads about the rumored underground tunnels in Bakersfield. He reads from his book Local Color.

Don reads about the rumored underground tunnels in Bakersfield. He reads from his book Local Color.

PC:  Would you read something from Local Color?
DT:  This is about the Chinese and a local legend–the legend of the underground tunnels of Chinatown. Respectable historians deny it, but there was—is?—something down there.  (Don reading from Local Color, listen to the audio of the excerpt below):


Old buildings razed and replaced,
most of their basements
filled in or paved over cutting off access,
you’d have to happen onto an entrance
poking around where no one belongs—
maybe in a derelict storefront
where you discover a door
with no hinges or knob, nailed shut
and painted like the wall;
crowbar it open and find
wooden stairs stepping down
into the dark
and silence—
except for the creak as you descend
(or is that a blind albino cricket?)
with your Mag Lite beam
sweeping away the cobwebs of panic.

Does this museum have hidden stairs?
Lost in remodels and earthquake retrofits
or sealed on purpose—one of those
urban legend satanic cult cellars
we scoff at in public
but wonder about whenever someone prominent
comes off a bit too creepy.

But those Chinatown non-tunnels exist
—they must—
if only as connecting passages
between vanished buildings,
still there like phantom pains
in an amputated limb—
once shortcuts to the next door neighbor
since in summer heat
the cool basements were like front porches;
or escape routes
for pimps and highbinders in the know,
clever as rats in a maze
when the cops kicked in the door upstairs.

So you could, conceivably,
find a way down into another world
to breathe air out of the past,
almost tomb air, trapped below us
for a hundred fifty years.
Imagine no petro-effluvia in it,
but the dust of horse manure;
no burnt rubber odor, but lamp oil
still clinging to uncertain walls
that could fall in on you at any second.

To stumble over rubble,
broken chairs and empty picture frames,
scrambled scrap lumber,
a gambling den’s safe, cracked,
and a ledger book
thicker than a family Bible,
not mildewed but bone dry,
its crumbling pages
crowded with minute ideograms.

You’d think a storm had blown
through those corridors,
but the only ill wind down there
is a breeze so hesitant
no instrument could measure it
and yet so relentless
that nothing has ever held back
its infinitely slow crawl. . .

DT:  That breeze is time, of course. The whole book is about time.

PC:  Why is water such an important image in Local Color?
DT: Water is what the valley is about. Trying to get it, control it, disperse it—has been the story of the valley.  Colonel Baker digging the original ditches with Yokut labor. The water wars that went to the Supreme Court. The front part of the house we live in was originally the Miller-Lux land office when they were draining the wetlands. The Aqueduct flows by a couple of miles from us. Water is the issue where we live—in the San Joaquin. I wrote an epigram once that says: “Cut a farmer, he bleeds water/and binds the wound with borrowed money.”

PC:  What did you learn about yourself and Kern County through the process of writing Local Color?
DT: I learned a lot of history, of course, which the night watchman shares in his slapdash way, despite the editor’s efforts to state the facts. But more importantly, I was reminded of just how rich and fascinating our past is, here in a region so often despised. And I was reminded of how much I love this place.

PC:  Thank you very much for the interview

 

 

Featured Poet: Don Thompson

Above watch Don Thompson read his poems that describe the beauty of  Kern County.

For the first featured poet, we honor Don Thompson who has been publishing since the early 1960’s with several books and chapbooks since 2000. He was born in Bakersfield, California, and has lived most of his life in the southern San Joaquin Valley, which provides the setting for most of his poems. Titles of a few of his poetry books reflect the subject matter such as Where We Live, Everything Barren Will Be Blessed, and Local Color. Don and his wife Chris live on her family’s farm near Buttonwillow in the house that has been home to four generations. His book, Back Roads, won the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize for 2008. An LA Times profile, “Planted in the San Joaquin,” remains available online. Much more at his website: http://www.don-e-thompson.com/

 

In the following audio interview Portia Choi asks Thompson about how he got started in poetry and what makes Kern County a place that continually inspires Thompson.

 

Click here to read and listen to the interview where we discuss Thompson’s book length work Local Color.