CENSORED: a Review by Robert Peate
Jay Sizemore is a poet who has been through a lot of grief for his poetry. In 2015, he wrote a poem called “Scowl”, riffing off the format but not the substance of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”, and some readers objected to his word and persona choices as he critiqued American society, particularly censorship and shaming. Mr. Sizemore suffered so much abuse for this poem that he decided to show his critics both how they had made him feel, turning the tables to illustrate poetically what he felt they had done to him, and how wrong it was to treat anyone in the ways they had treated him—by amplifying his persona into what they had accused him of being, as if to say, “You think I’m a monster? Here is a real monster, and the real monster is you [this is what you did to me].” He then released Misogynist, a collection of poems critiquing the Patriarchy via the persona of a man who hates women. To say this subtlety was misunderstood would be an understatement. Mr. Sizemore, for playing only too well the part his critics had assigned him, was then assumed to be even worse than they had thought and accused of every abuse under the Sun except perhaps murder. His career was adversely affected as well-meaning fools ran to “warn” the poetry community against him, when poets are the ones who need protection from lynch mobs both real and virtual. Not only were they wrong, they raced to behave in exactly the censorious ways Mr. Sizemore had critiqued. Due to the outcry of those who felt “threatened” by his using their names on his poems, he was even forced to change his poetry names by Amazon. His work polarized even as his points were missed, and to comply with Amazon’s request, he re-released Misogynist without the names as CENSORED. This is a brilliant work maligned by those who cannot see the forest for the trees, and its entire message is that of nonviolence. It is amazing how people can understand just enough not to understand something and run with the misunderstanding, but as Jane Austen said, “Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.” The vanity in this case was the presumption his critics understood what they did not.
This book is a classic indictment of the Patriarchy employing satire, satire that at times has been misunderstood as serious.
Mr. Sizemore has said, “The point of the poems is although the poems are violent and offensive, and the people who want to see such work censored from the public think they are acts of violence, no actual violence has been committed, and their reactions to the work prove the inanity of their response. And thus the mindset that goes into advocating for censorship.”
From “A Modest Proposal” to All in the Family, satire has always been a risky business, yielding responses from those who took the satire as serious. The risk is compounded when one’s tone is not insouciant but brooding and menacing to add to the performance, to illustrate the wrongs that need to be righted. This is why some thought it a good idea to eat homeless orphans, that Archie Bunker was a hero, or that Jay Sizemore was the monster he depicted, though no one ever accused Stephen King of being “It”. This is why Mr. Sizemore himself, having experienced the initial wave of hatred and angst when Misogynist was misunderstood, saw fit to write in big letters in the front of his revised work, “THIS IS A WORK OF SATIRE. SATIRE!” To be fair, with poetry titles such as “Kill All Women”, it is easy to see why his work of all works would need to come with such a notice.
“Kill All Women”, the first poem in the set, lists the ways in which a world without women would be different. The narrator seems pleased to list reasons why we don’t need women, problems with relationships and responsibility we could do without, and what we do with possessions we no longer need or want. He says the woman of the future will not exist, “having gone the way of the cassette tape/and the fond memory of the brothel/where you once got a blowjob with your cup of coffee.” The patriarch narrator seems at the end to remember at least carnal pleasure if not the satisfactions of romantic love, but the entire poem, from beginning to end, is an indictment of the Patriarchy treating women as commodities. The narrator imagines that women are the problem, but it is clear that his attitude is. This is intentional. Yes, a world without women would feature far fewer of the problems he cites, but the ultimate larger problem of loneliness and alienation, only marginally acknowledged by the narrator, would outweigh all else. His slight nod to the fond memories of the past, the short shrift he gives to any sort of human relationship, however, serves to show there is much more left unsaid. While it is easy to see how a less-than-careful reading of such a poem could yield misunderstanding and outrage, it is easier to see that a careful reading yields a critique of the ownership of women. The actual message of the poem is that to kill all women would be to kill all joy. Without explicitly stating how undesirable a world without women would be, the narrator’s realizations and lack thereof speak for themselves.
In the very next poem, “Not a Metaphor”, the Virgin Mary attacks the narrator as if a vampire. He defends her and himself, saying, “You are not a metaphor for all women, as I am not the tyranny of evil men.” Hearing these words and remembering herself, Mary is then liberated from her god and church, from the Patriarchy, free to be herself, “as we fuck like dogs/who enjoy raping one another/in the most animal sense of the word.” The narrator is liberated too, from the burden of being associated with the Patriarchy that enslaved her and all womankind. This represents a positive triumph over society and tradition, as Mary and the narrator overcome all else for the pleasure of self and the other. “The most animal sense of the word” does not include human concepts of informed consent but implies, rather, the completely carnal instinct that uses the partner as a vehicle of release—without subjugation. Amazingly, some read this poem as advocating rape, when what it does is advocate freedom from the Patrarichy for both men and women. It becomes harder to see how this could be misunderstood. One can only imagine that preconceived notions have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. We see what we wish to see.
Titles such as, “How to Make People Hate You”, “Hate Me ‘Cause You Ain’t Me”, “How to Gut a Panda”, and even “How to Make Love (by Jack the Ripper)” make it hard to see these poems as anything other than sardonic/sarcastic/facetious witticisms encapsulated in time-release forms, yet some manage to do so.
The fact is, there is violence in these poems, but as in Shakespeare, the violence serves the message of peace, and there is much more going on in them than violence. It takes but looking to see what is there.
In some of the poems, the poet adopts a violent persona, in others he defends himself against violence. But each poem represents a battle, a struggle, with a different outcome. To dismiss this collection as trash is to reveal one’s own ignorance and prejudices. It is nothing of the sort. Jay Sizemore is a Rich White American Straight Man employing the powers of his privileges to fight injustice by holding it up to the scorching white light of criticism in the form of satire. Not everyone has the stomach for such challenging art, and Mr. Sizemore’s nouns, verbs, and adjectives are not for the faint of heart, but his work is first rate.
Where I come from, if one person says, “You misunderstood me,” the other person asks how. In this case, we have readers who dare to say, “No, I didn’t.” The author explicitly states his work is misunderstood and explains what it means, yet readers say they know better than the man who wrote it? We are to condemn him as violent, not those who deny the author his agency and right to declare his own meaning and intent? What kind of backward world is this? These same critics claim to oppose the denial of agency while denying Mr. Sizemore his? Oh, the hypocrisy.
We read for knowledge and hope wisdom will come on its own. Books cannot provide it. Writers hope readers will bring wisdom to the table, but they don’t always. Jay Sizemore’s poetry is a bold, provocative statement to a world that is often not ready. Shakespeare advised writing to please the one person of discernment in the back row who knew better than the rabble. That is what Jay Sizemore does. Let us hope it does not get him killed in the end.
In “How to Make People Hate You” Mr. Sizemore argues that the way to make people hate you is to tell the truth. Honesty is apparently not always the best policy. When you tell the truth, you bleed from the wounds you suffer, but because you told the truth, you are yourself to blame. “You see, you have been biting your own hand/and then complaining about the pain.” If you are punished for telling the truth, you should not complain. The reception to his poems proves that he knows of what he speaks, and while he does not complain of fair criticism, he certainly criticizes the unfair.
“Shambella Cinderella” is the first poem in the collection that contains flaws worth mentioning. It is borne of a great idea, critiquing Cinderella’s role in the Patriarchy without blaming her: “Cinderella, you once were beautiful just how you were/but the mirror convinced you you deserved much more/You sold your soul for a castle in the distant clouds.” This is a great indictment of the Patriarchy, and her fate is accordingly cruel to add to the indictment, but there are minor details missing: what is her cause of death, and who were the culprits? I think a stanza on the Prince’s motivations would have been helpful. As it is, we are left with the ephemeral “They dumped you ruined, in the forest alone.” Others might not mind the lack of detail as much as I did; that is just how my mind works.
I could survey each poem in the collection, but I will end with the dystopian vision of “Immaculate Ejaculation”. “This is the fate of an entire gender,” the poet explains, “to exist for another’s pleasure/her body parts displaced/and used to build some elaborate machine/that even Lovecraft would cower in fear of.” This machine, the Great Masturbation Mechanism, possesses women’s severed heads rotating on “the cocks of Patriarchy”. Certainly no one could take this as praise of the Patriarchy but an accurate description of how the entire world has created a fearsome female-enslavement machine. Does it really need explaining that if even Lovecraft would cower in fear of it, it is worse than Cthulhu? I have seen very few works that encapsulate the Patriarchy with such an effective nightmarish image. Of course, most readers seem not to have reached this breathtaking vision. Most readers seem to have stopped after the first two stanzas, in which the anonymous narrator announces his intention to create the machine because the woman’s “usual holes ripe for fucking are all used up.” When he announces that a woman’s “life means nothing”, he means on this evil Earth.
Mr. Sizemore should be hailed as a saint for taking on the Patriarchy with such ferocious criticism. How would the Taliban like to hear they live for masturbation, employing women as sex devices? What would they do to anyone who said that?
It should be mentioned that in the first version of this book, Misogynist, Mr. Sizemore named some of his poems after his real-life antagonists. Naturally, this did not go over well. Strangely, some of them felt threatened enough to complain to Amazon, which forced Mr. Sizemore to rename his poems and book. Mr. Sizemore explained regarding the poetry-name issue: “The names I used are first names of people who have targeted me and worked to blacklist me from a secret Facebook group. The poems themselves of course have no real connection to anyone, but I used those first names knowing those people would find them and assume they were about them, because of what they accused me of in the past. They used that accusation to ruin my writing career, so I hoped they would believe I wrote about them as a play on their previous accusations. It was a sort of purposeful martyrdom for free speech.” He tricked and taunted them to show what haters they were, and it worked. Unfortunately, this came at the price of suffering fools with pitchforks.
Some mention is made of people feeling threatened by Mr. Sizemore sending them his book. He says, “For the record, I only sent two people a copy of the book, and they were supposed to be my friends. Also, I had sent them all my books. And I had told them I would finish the book despite everyone freaking out and that I would send it to them when done, so it wasn’t like a threat, just a fulfillment of my project.” It is clear there has been much misunderstanding of Mr. Sizemore, his work, and his intentions. As someone who has been misunderstood himself, though not to the same degree, I can relate to this.
The best art challenges us to discuss, understand, and fight evil, often by highlighting abuses. Jay Sizemore’s recent poetry collection CENSORED is in this category. It is strong, not for everyone, but it is not anti-women. It is pro-reconciliation. Or, as another acquaintance said, readers who can’t read worry me.
P. S. For writing this review, I was told I was “trolling the lit community”. For saying I was a member of the global community of writers and artists, I was told, “I get that you write, but that doesn’t make you a ‘member’ of anything but Jay’s fan club.” Such a statement would be laughable if it weren’t such a frightening attempt at intellectual tyranny.