“Sing of Human Unsuccess / in a Rapture of Distress”: The Tragicomic Poetry of John Tottenham
By Anthony MostromApril 7, 2019
Another day lies squandered behind me.
— John Tottenham
He’ll do it when he’s old, he says. I wonder.
— Edwin Arlington Robinson
Everything’s falling apart according to plan.
— John Tottenham
TODAY IS JANUARY 15, 2019, and it’s been raining all day in Los Angeles, as good a day as any to write about Los Angeles’s foremost poète maudit, John Tottenham, and his bitter “poems of regret and resentment” and other human failings. Tottenham’s splenetic musings, which he likes to characterize as “light-hearted mean-spiritedness,” first saw the darkness of day in his debut collection, The Inertia Variations (Kerosene Bomb Publishing, 2004), which starts out like this:
I lie on the sofa, stretched out like a corpse,
With eyes closed against the dying light,
Lulled by the silence beyond the waves
I cannot account for the hours
That have been smothered into
Submission. Not only this afternoon
But day after day, year after year.
Over the wasted course of which time
I have been repeating this futile lament:
That I can’t go on like this. And this too:
That it makes no difference.
Now, in complete and total non-contrast 14 years later, comes Tottenham’s third collection, The Hate Poems, published by Los Angeles–based Amok Books. It ends like this:
I realize now that nothing will ever strike me
With the force of revelation.
And that in itself is a revelation.
It’s not much of one
But it will have to do.
Those who have followed John Tottenham’s work over the years will recognize this as an inevitable development.
The Inertia Variations, still his best-known book, was a meditation on self-loathing and artistic impotence; it consists of at times hilarious confessionals that document the writer’s endless struggles “to do the work” — presumably some long-deferred and dreamed-of ideal artwork that, of course, would be life-fulfillingly perfect. These struggles invariably end with the author taking the easy way out, which of course is never easy:
If I am not doing the work
That for some obscurely grasped reason
I believe it is my duty to perform,
Then I cannot, in its place,
Allow myself to do anything else
That is pleasurable or productive.
The main challenge, ultimately,
Is not to fall asleep during the afternoon.
The Inertia Variations ended on a note of unresolved summing-up, with a touch of wordplay that’s far from playful:
It was not meant for me to fail.
It doesn’t feel right. But it is
What I have chosen to undo
With my life, what I have unmade
I seek relief from the nausea of my own society
In the outside world.
To reward myself with distraction:
Not for work well done, or done at all
But as relief from tormenting myself over not doing the work.
The irony is cruel: it is as “the failed artist” that Tottenham attains some measure of poetic success.
One would think that, for this poet, every day is a stretch of crippling lassitude, of wake-up-and-prepare-to-do-nothing. And indeed, there are some enlightening clips of Tottenham doing just that in his Echo Park home in 2010, in the Adam Goldberg–directed video The Inertia Variations Volume 1-3 (Goldberg was an unabashed early fan, who listed himself in the credits as “Willing Sycophant, Adam Goldberg”). Since the video was made, the cult has grown.
Tottenham has now become a genuine public figure. A recent and fairly lavish documentary film by Johanna St Michaels, also titled The Inertia Variations, features the British pop star Matt Johnson, lead singer of The The, reading — and identifying with — Tottenham’s defeated words:
When I ask someone what they are doing and they tell me
They are doing nothing, they are, in fact, usually doing
Something. Whereas if someone asks me what I am doing
And I tell them I am doing nothing, I am, in fact, actually doing
Nothing. Few people, outside jails or hospitals, have spent more
Time lying on a bed looking at a wall. Or on a sofa, or in a chair,
Or on a floor. Or looking at a floor, or a ceiling.
Or with eyes shut.
Tottenham is himself an ex-Londoner, who has lived close to Echo Park Lake long enough to become a fixture of the neighborhood as well as a well-known presence in L.A. art circles; he has contributed a much-lauded and refreshingly contrarian art column to Artillery magazine for several years. A graduate of “one of London’s worst art schools,” he’s had a number of one-man shows of drawings and paintings in high-end L.A. galleries. I myself particularly admire his bleak pen drawings of abandoned desert towns, graced by quotations from the most desolate of his poems hovering in a parched white sky.
But it’s as a writer of “poitry” [sic] that he has staked out his securest niche in underground L.A. culture. At gallery readings and music clubs, Tottenham details his ongoing, intractable propensity for time-wasting and self-sabotage (“a lazy perfectionist”). His laments often find an audience eager to partake of what he calls “tragically comic relief”:
The other lives I might have led
All now might as well be
Dead. Survived by no one.
Every day some fresh hindrance I pursue.
Sometimes not so fresh.
Usually, in fact, the opposite.
I ask little enough of myself,
And I cannot even accomplish that much.
I would rather sit here, obsessively undriven,
Doing as close to nothing as is humanly possible.
Three o’clock in the afternoon is a difficult time.
My head, were it not supported in my hands,
Would have fallen across the table some time ago.
I could still approach my task; many hours
Have been squandered in preparation for it.
Failure, futility, numbness, dead end, collapse, useless struggle, self made loser, suffocation … these self-lacerating words waft miasma-like across the The Inertia Variations; his second book, Antiepithalamia & Other Poems of Regret and Resentment; and now — just what the world was needing the most — The Hate Poems. The “hate” of the book’s title is targeted against the self, against love, against love poems, against getting involved:
I have never been in a relationship,
even when I was enjoying it,
without continually plotting how to get out of it.
And I am not enjoying this.
Yes, my dear, we have each other:
that’s what worries me.
I wouldn’t focus on your flaws
if you did not call yourself mine;
you are the living embodiment of my failure,
another symptom of my decline.
These blunt insights ensure that most of Tottenham’s readers will feel, willingly or not, certain pangs of recognition, and this represents, I suppose, the altruistic part of his artistic project (see him in one videotaped L.A. performance mumbling, “Hey, I’m just trying to make a connection,” to one nasty heckler). Part of the fun of seeing Tottenham read is his deadpan, buzzsaw-voiced delivery, and wondering, between bittersweet laughs, did he really mean that?
“To concentrate on the negative: that unfortunately is my talent, it’s what I excel at,” Tottenham said to me recently, in the bar at Taix’s French restaurant in Echo Park. “Writing in a positive, life-affirming way doesn’t feel or sound right. It’s not my métier, But consider: a lot of artists who appear to be sunny on the surface are anything but: Bing Crosby, Bill Cosby, Jerry Lewis,” he ticks off the names. “Not necessarily nice guys. The opposite can also apply.”
He describes his own rather unapproachable approach as “sharing the selfishness”: “It’s turning vice into verse, and vice versa … It’s the kind of poetry that is accessible to people who don’t read poetry, i.e., everybody,” he enunciates with deliberate syllabic clarity, emphasizing the i.e., “People laugh when they recognize felicitously phrased truths,” he says, adding: “Only a taboo yields catharsis.”
This shows itself in a most pointed and pronounced way in Antiepithalamia, with its focus on what he once dubbed “disintegrationships”:
I always find it comforting
when I hear of couples separating.
It gives me a lift.
It seems to confirm
the natural order of impermanence.
I always assume that people I admire are single
and experience a sinking sensation
when I learn they are not. They drop
in my estimation (for what that’s worth)
from wishful thinking to cold hard earth.
This theme, of course, pops up again in The Hate Poems:
“I love you,” she says,
and my heart sinks.
It never sounds right when I say it,
but I say it
to put her at ease,
because what you get out of it,
Tottenham’s writing reminds me of some other sneering and mocking poets, but who? (John Lydon of The Sex Pistols doesn’t count, I think.) Rimbaud? Yes, somewhat. Another kindred soul is Edwin Arlington Robinson:
There are mistakes too monstrous for remorse
To fondle or to dally with, and failures
That only fate’s worst fumbling in the dark
Could have arranged so well.
And another candidate rears his head: good old Samuel Beckett, in whose early novel Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new…”
“I view myself, if anything, as a failed prose stylist,” Tottenham says inside the bar, dressed in his usual midcentury-racetrack-denizen attire. “Each short poem is a tiny monument to reams of discarded prose. The poetry is residue. But maybe the residue is the cream.”
Lanky Tottenham, who strikes one as the kind of person who must be a smoker, but isn’t (anymore), rolls his eyes and focuses on a thought. “As Hugh Kenner said, ‘A poet should write himself out.’” He surveys the human condition around the other tables, and smiles a thin smile. “Well, I might have done that. Haven’t written one in three years.”
“After many years of resistance, John Tottenham finally sold out to the lucrative, fast-paced world of poetry,” Amok Books announces in the back of The Hate Poems, with evident tongue in cheek. No matter how clever (or smug) a generation appears to be, wit is always a rare, distilled spirit in short supply. Recall Ambrose Bierce’s witty definition: “[T]he salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.” This is part of the reason that Tottenham’s humor is so startling to his readers and listeners, who live in a culture that rushes forward so noisily and witlessly. As if sensing this atrocious deficit, Tottenham has seasoned The Hate Poems with some hilarious castoff lines and half-thoughts, the “Addenda”:
Meaningful love meaning less lust.
My sense of wonder has dried up and I can’t get it up.
I was on a roll, and I rolled into a rut.
Having sex with you is like going to church. I resent the obligation.
My sadness is deeper than yours. My interior life is richer than yours.
Slouching towards slouching.
Now that John Tottenham’s rich inner life has been, to quote Auden, “wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,” let us close with some serious considerations from his latest and, perhaps, last volume of poems:
By the time one has learned how to live,
there isn’t much time left to profit
from what one has learned.
And it’s too late to still be learning,
too late to still be burning,
to come to terms with the past,
by learning the easiest things last.
All my fantasies are memories now,
as are most of my realities,
and all I’m looking back on is anticipation.
The book’s final page is a reproduction of a scratchy Tottenham drawing of an old, skid-row brick hotel building. Underneath it is a hand-etched legend:
To give up at last What a relief
Anthony Mostrom, a former Los Angeles Times columnist, is currently a book reviewer and travel writer for the LA Weekly.
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