Poetic Underground—a whiskey drinking, verbal slinging, raucous and righteous open mic poetry sequence—has been going strong at the Uptown Arts Bar in Kansas City, Missouri since 2012. The weekly event draws a rich diversity of dedicated versifiers, from cherry-popped first poem poets to tear-jerker slam giants, tight construction academic poets, and the grist of the grind small press poets: every level of poetry can be witnessed (and heard) at open mic night.
Prior to ghosting—when a Guest Host leads the festivities on the bonus, fifth Wednesday of a month—in June of 2016, poet Jeanette Powers sent out a social media call egging on the open mic poets to request a prompt from her: a short, personally crafted phrase intended to be the inspiration for NEW SHIT! to spit at open mic night. “New Shit!” is what the audience shouts when a poet takes the stage to perform new material. In fact, a lot of community shouting occurs at Poetic Underground: “Speak Poet!”, “Rewind!”, “ULIT!”, and “Listen to the Poem!”
Jeanette issued over one-hundred prompts, which led to the epic readings of volumes of New Shit! But many folks who wanted to be a part of Prompts! were unable to attend open mic night, so the idea of a Promtps! book was born. To expand the book’s reach, Jeanette disseminated prompts beyond the open mic community to artists and poets across the land.
This spontaneous anthology represents the outpouring of new work by new and established writers and artists, which was engendered, simply, by the offer of a prompt.
Skimming through the table of contents of Charlie Zero’s latest book, This Robot Dreams Inside a Plastic Soul, a reader learns to fear poetry. Titles haunt, taunt, and beg for their own deconstruction and foolhardy exegesis. For instance, what should one make of a title like “Executioners Pick at the Scarecrows Refrigerated Ego”? Is there an apostrophe missing purposefully? What is it like to be a refrigerated ego? The poem proper contains lines like “Exit out of me / you portray a feed apostrophe” (see why I draw attention to the title’s punctuation?) and “Deteriorate the alchemist / smudge away the angst.” And this is one mad line in one mad poem from a book filled with all manner of surreal madness.
Charlie Zero’s poems not only demand close and repeated readings – they command your full imagination and mock your petty, weak vocabulary by tossing words into a poetic blender then spitting back into your face recombined ideas that the most seasoned of wordsmiths could only hope to concoct in their kitchen of literary delights.
There is a real magic at work in this book: ancient words and forms portend a dark future wherein we recognize ourselves (“a crowd of people stealing greed / from the pavement”) as a base physicality coupled to nightmarish technologies in both agony and ecstasy (“Bloated & eviscerated / patriarch genitals/ pierce the paradox satori”). There is strange juxtaposition of gleefulness and complete paranoia underpinning every piece.
This is not a perfect collection. A few of the pieces (“Fragments of a Dead Digital Poet,” in particular) seem out of place but the missteps can’t come close to diminishing the sheer, overwhelming intensity of this project.
You’ve never read anything like these poems and neither have I. I’m tempted to advise you take a dictionary along with you but don’t know that proper definitions will help you through to the other side. You’ll find out what an oxalis is, sure, but how does that help you contextualize what it’s doing paired with IBM in a couplet containing cyborg, samurai flamingos within a poem entitled “Fossils Mutate Algorithm”? Part of the true joy of reading Charlie Zero is how he collides words to new meanings, stretches the possibilities of inter-word connotations and allusions, and brings his reader to a state of enlightened “what the fuck just happened here?”. It may be best for your already tenuous grasp on reality to simply sit in a well-lit room with a glass of nanobot-infused bourbon close-by and just read. Just let C∅’s compositions shock and awe you.