This Old Poem #31:
Nicole Blackman’s Us
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/20/02

  I was familiar with the name Nicole Blackman,,, from the infamously bad early 1990s spoken word anthology Aloud: Voices From The Nuyorican Poets Café. Of course, NB ain’t Puerto Rican- but then few of the Nuyoricans are. Then I ran across her 1st published book of poetry in Half Price Books a few weeks back & had to buy it. It was classic young person’s stuff in writing & presentation. Published in 2000 by Incommunicado Press it follows in the long genre of spoken word/rock poetry hybrids- O, Henry Rollins, wherefore….& all. The title is Blood Sugar (the Sex Magic apparently already taken by the Red Hot Chili Peppers) & the cover has a raven-haired & -fingernailed NB looking plaintively (& seductively) at the reader with a ‘Fuck Me’ look in her dark eyes, & a fellatio-ready pout on her puffed, moistened, & lipsticked labia. Her skin is pearlescent as she wears a wife-beater stained in blood that reads ‘I DID IT FOR YOU’- the blood also drying on her hands, arms & breastbone. Her appearance is that of a horny Goth Goddess cocktease, & there’s no denying she scores very high on the Plathian sex appeal monitor. If only the name under the title read: ‘THE GODDESS Nicole Blackman’, 1 might smile at the knowing humor. Even her website hints that she may be more than the run of the mill with this parodic (or is it?) piece describing NB:

about nicole

i was asked to choose a word
that best described her

everyone before me chose the same word. dark.

this is not accurate.

darkness is a mask...
she wears it like clothing.
she wears dark clothing to blend in
so you can't see the line
between the mask
and the clothes
and the woman beneath
but it's there
she's there
and glowing

she burns with words
cauterizing years of pain
in a single sentence
like some black-garbed super-heroine
from metropolis
or gotham
or new york.

my word
is exactly the opposite of dark.

 But the last 15 or so years have seen any # of similar books by young sturm & drang female poetasters similarly sexed up, in Goth attire, beaming at the reader with near-sex appeal. Going just by the cover I hoped that this even more over the top approach would presage some self-aware fun at the genre. The answer? More no than yes- but some potential leaks through.
  Let’s start with saying that she is better than your average Nuyorican tripe. Maggie Estep screams in her ‘verse’ even when whispering. Don’t trust me? Well read her relentless online blurbery:

"...people will really be wowed when someone who's actually got something of value to say. Like Nicole Blackman... [she] may not have the bravado or stage antics that Estep does, or the latent desire to be a rock and roll star, but her poetry is good, far deeper and more technically sound than Estep's. You see Estep once, you've got her figured out, every angle. Blackman you could see again and again, and each time more would be revealed." - Buzz 

  NB is capable of being a good poet, some day- if she wants to, & really works hard at it. That probably won’t happen because, like so many others with even the barest hints of talent, who are not Academic wannabes, she spurns real poetry for spoken word, leaving the future of real poetry for the wannabes who have none of the slim potential she does. Still, she is primarily a spoken wordist, meaning her ‘poems’ are destined to have a short relevance shelf-life, be prosaic, have poetry in only the rare allusions & metaphors, be relentlessly political, even-more-relentlessly confessionally diaristic, have the obligatory hints at sexual ambivalence, & lean toward bathos. Yet, her ‘poems’ often have some interesting ideas- it’s the execution that’s so banal. As example she has an interesting poem in a series of box-like stanzas. Called Black Box, its conceit is that a woman has lost her husband in a plane crash & why couldn’t planes themselves be made like black boxes? A good conceit, but the poem is trite & simpletonian. The end of the poem- ugh, this is enjambment, not a proem:

I wrap my white arms around the
black box where you live now and
listen to you talk to me all night.

  Need I cringe for you? If this is what she does with a poem that has a good idea I guess you must wonder how badly does she butcher a poorly thought out poem? Here’s how:

One leg tucked under
your hands in your lap
head leaning to the right
resting on the inside of the oven door.

Every time they see a yellow dress- you.
Loaves of bread in the supermarket- you.
An oven door- you.

(Years of therapy will follow.)

  Yes, she really parenthesized that last snippet. Are you even mildly surprised that the title of the ‘poem’ is….‘Sylvia’? & the rest of the book is filled with list poems & almost-proems, like a rant on the murdered gay boy from a few years back, Matthew Shepard. The title? The Bad Shepard, of course. A couple of snippets:

Our father, who art in heaven, hollow be thy name. As a boy you mistook angels for aliens and thought heaven was strung with a lace of lights. A soft hunter now hunted. A slight boy, slighted.

  & check out this highly original ending:

This is how we kill our boys in Laramie.
This is how we kill our boys in Wyoming.
This is how we kill our boys in America.
This is how we kill our boys.

This is how we kill our boys.

  This nursery rhymed attempt to impart a sense of such & such bad behavior being society’s fault, instilled in childhood, has only been a part of at least 3 poems at every open mike reading for the last 15 years. So far, my statement- Yet, her ‘poems’ often have some interesting ideas- it’s the execution that’s so banal- seems to have only manifested the latter part. Let’s see a snippet from 1 of her better poems- called Missing Natalie. In it the speaker tells of her twin’s abduction & its fallout. Quite a nice scenario for a poem to play with- whether it is real or not is unimportant. But look at the utter lack of any art to these words:

They sent me to a child psychologist for a long time. She made me draw my “feelings”. Let’s draw your feelings now. What do your feelings look like? I wanted to strangle her. Instead, I drew for an hour so she’d shut up. I used only the black markers and drew me and a burned-out hole for Natalie. That’s me, and that’s Natalie. The psychologist analyzed the drawings and talked to my parents. She’s having a very difficult time. Losing Natalie has left a void in her life. Well, duh. You could have just asked me and saved yourself a lot of time. You want to know how I feel? You want to know what’s going on? Someone stole my sister. Someone fucking stole my sister. How many drawings do you want me to make? They stopped making me go to the psychologist after that.

  Is there any art here? More to the point- does she even put the non-artisticness to the service of the idea of presenting an insightful ‘moment’? No. All we get is generic rant- albeit on a unique premise. Yet this p(r)oem has 1 of her better poetic moments, as well. Actually this stanza is the 1st & last of the piece:

Most of my friends don’t know I was born a twin. She was born sixty-three seconds before me. Her name was Natalie. We came here together. She left without me.

  That the poem circles back to these points is interesting. & the actual poem does expand on some of these points. Yet the expansions are so artless you never really get back to a poem until the 1st stanza repeats itself at the end. On 2nd thought, there really is not much talent at all. Perhaps it’s my simply wanting to see 1 of these young wannabe poets actually fully realize their void of writing skills & then DO SOMETHING WITH THAT. My hope was piqued with the rare good back cover blurb. Not that what was said was good, but who the recommendation was from. 1st the blurb: 

Nicole Blackman’s poetry is witty, dry, sweet and poignant. Raw, fleeting and tough…Blackman takes our obsessions and snaps them in two…then leaves the shattered pieces on the floor for us to gape at. Pop culture, beauty, love and violence are all at once immortalized and destroyed in one breath. Blackman speaks fire with both a punch and a tickle.’ 

  If the blurb were not so hilarious enough, guess its provenance. Are you ready? The porno-titty mag Cups! See why I had my hopes up that NB might have risen above the usual pointless drivel? Yet, none of her poems ever really succeeds at parody- even of the sort the Cups blurb is ripe for. There is alot of misdirected energy. My book even is missing pages 133-136- a poem called Indictment- which may or may not be a song lyric. Were NB even a little aware she could parlay that title into an irreverent critique of feminism. Yet the rest of the book hints at it being another screed. I guess I’ll never know if that’s the poem that could change my opinion of her oeuvre. Instead she’s content to be another generic popster-cum-spoken wordist, a Jewel on crank, a hard rock Madonna, Henry Rollins with a twat, Jim Carroll during PMS. Granted, she’d make for a highly fuckable porno star, or for a parody of that unwitting self-parody Karen Finley: ‘I’ll give you the greatest head ever as I rip off your balls.’
  Oh well. On to the poem in question:


There are so many of us in New York, you know.
We’re the ones in bed early, with mud masks on our face
and dozens of unused candles around the room.

Hypnotized, we dive into potato chip bags
and keep eating until Ted Koppel’s finished talking about
whatever he’s talking about.

Birthdays aren’t a big deal.
We try not to make a fuss every year
we get closer to 30,
closer to not having, never having
the husband and baby
we swore we’d have by now.

We organize our closets,
make pesto,
hem skirts,
keep a journal
and read- a lot.
We have rented every goddamn movie at Blockbuster.

We walk by Baby Gap
and get a pain in our chest.

We start looking at our best friends and think,
hey, why not-
at least I know what she likes in bed.

We know how to make really good chili
but it always tastes funny when we eat it alone.

We sneeze and there is no one to bless us.

The hardest part is the music,
the songs that pour out of elevators and taxis,
with voices that crawl between your ears and say
This one’s about you, babe.
This one’s all about you.

  The good? No really bad line breaks. The bad? All the rest. There’s not even any vicious energy in this plaint. It’s a whispered flatus. All of the pop references are destined for outdating. The obligatory hints of lesbianism are just that. Nada is made of it. & each image or phrase simple says “I am lonely’ & ‘You know women like me.’ OK, so what? Therefore, given the redundancy, is anything added by the breaks into stanzas? No. The enjambment? No. This poem & most of her poems are terminally DULL! Let me try to change that:


There are so many in New York.
In bed early, mud masks,
dozens of unused candles,
hypnotized, into potato chip bags,
eating until finished about whatever.
We try not to make a fuss. Every year
we get closer to 30, not having
the husband and baby we swore we’d have.
We organize, make pesto, hem skirts,
keep a journal, and read- a lot.
We have rented every movie.
We know how to make really good chili
but it tastes funny when we eat it alone.
We sneeze with no one to bless us.
The hardest part is the music,
that pours out of elevators and taxis,
with voices that crawl between and say
This one’s about you, babe.
This one’s all about you. 

We start looking at our best friends and think,
hey, why not-
at least I know what she likes in bed....

  Let’s see what the rewrite accomplishes, & does not. We get all the kvetches in 1 stanza, with most of the excess words removed, & the pointless enjambment (heightening images like ‘keep a journal’) compressed. Also, instead of ending on the immensely predictable ‘This one’s about you, babe./This one’s all about you.’ we now have the hint at lesbianism (which stopped being truly compelling in most quarters about 1975) end the poem- with an ellipsis that hints at more unspoken. I’m not claiming I, or you, will care to really speculate if some clams bump shells in the night- but it’s at least something that will stick in a few minds, rather than the narcoleptic & pitying self-sigh the original offers as ending. As with most TOPs, this rewrite is not where I would end the process, but it’s a template NB could play with to forge a stronger, deeper poem- work with me, people. That will NOT happen, I can almost guarantee you. Why? Because early publication goes to young poets’ heads. Why improve when the goal for most poets is simply the esteem they feed off of from publication? Most great poets write with the vague desire that their words will sometime in the future form a communicative bond with a reader, 1 that lends insight, balm, or even a bellylaugh. Her whole trip’d be a hoot if only she had a few good solid poems. Alas.
  Then, again, she longs to be a rock star- not a poet. Here is her intent revealed in blurbs on her website: 

"In her fierce, hypnotic poem 'Fifteen, She Learns,' Blackman reels off Blakean rhymes on innocence and experience, conjuring the school slut's insides and sense of why she's held down by boys who won't talk to her." - Village Voice/pick of the week

"A beautiful, hypnotic record on which violence and sex intermingle and all pleasures are suspect. As rigorous and unsparing as any of this year's releases, Dead Inside is also one of the best. Rating: A " - Entertainment Weekly

"Darkly disturbing." - New York Times online

"If you don't know the name Nicole Blackman now, you soon will. Not content with being the High Priestess of slam, industrial glitterbomb, word uberbabe, Blackman has just made one of the year's most unexpectedly superb albums." - The Stranger/Seattle

"Horrific...vivid...chilling...The biting, graphic depictions on Dead Inside will certainly shock...Soundscapes create an audio-noir soundtrack that thrives in the grim recesses of reality. And while Dead Inside's rough terrain is unsettling, the fears and truths it addresses sear with an intensity that draws listeners in with its flickering, seductive flame." – Pulse [the Twin Cities’ own anarchist yellow journal]

"This existential sonic road movie sounds like a sociopathic Laurie Anderson narrating Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" - TOP-Tower/UK

"This is what happens when sex and death collide. Blackman has one of the quickest minds and sharpest tongues around. She is all your toughest, sexiest, most devilish ex-girlfriends rolled into one. When you start spinning Dead Inside for the first time her voice will slice your life like a light saber. And even though it hurts, you'll come back for more. You'll wonder how you ever lived without her." – Pandemonium

"Nicole Blackman is the uncontested mayor of Babealonia. Her beauty causes men and boys to fumble with their words...her intelligence, charm and warmth make her a friend to all who sit down to pee. Her writing is at once wicked and vulnerable, written soft and delivered hard and vice versa. [Her 7"] "Indictment" is a live wire, a psychic firecracker right down your cosmic undergarments. Meet Nicole Blackman, she's writing about your life, your dreams or the lack thereof." – Cake

"[She's] the spoken word diva." – Huh

"She's "the heart of darkness." -Black & White

" [Her chapbook Pretty is] such a rascally joy to read. Sassy. Direct. Contemporary. Often merciless -- impressive throughout. Bravo!" - Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer poet

  It’s only that last blurb from Gwendoyn Brooks that’s disturbing. Yes, I know NB idolized the late poet, but for GB to not look her in the eye & say ‘Girl, you’re stuff is shit!” says about all you need to know as to why the late poetry of GB was such mediocrity compared to her immortal earlier work. This is what politicization of poetry & the need for recognition can drive a good poetic mind to doing. A shame.
  Yet, the pieces do not really work that well as song lyrics, either. They are not hook-laden. Just preachy. Don’t believe me? Read on:

"She reminds me of a chihuahua on diet pills." - Jason Pettigrew/Alternative Press

  Seem kind of a pointless intrusion with a whiff of attempted humor on my part? That’s NB’s poems in a nutshell. Still, there’s something about her verse, vis-à-vis other spoken wordists’ tripe, that makes me think there is potential. I have combed her book several times & only have a hint at what it is. She seems to be aware of the technical side of poetry. Her poems have a bit more alliteration & assonance, a bit more sensible enjambment, but most of all there are some takes on things that are not standard issue. In that regard she most reminds of a younger Sharon Olds. Oddly, as a spoken wordist, she’s much more caring in her technical skills than SO. She need to relieve herself of relentlessly melodramatic word choices as ‘fire’, ‘dark’, & ‘burning’. I know what you’re thinking: if she were a middle-aged hausfrau & not some Plathian drama queen I’d condemn her outright, but ‘You’re a man & led around by your dick!’, & there is-no doubt- some truth to that. But the more important aspect is that being young, still- probably still on the near side of 30- & not in the Academy, she represents a chance to set an example for other young females to maximize their talents, & not cave in to ‘the system’. Then I return to the Gwendolyn Brooks blurb & see that even the best often cave in to things not rooted in art. That being the case NB will doubtless go on titillating the masses of wannabe artistes with her babeoliciousness, & the few of us real artists with the bare whiff of things deeper. Given that I don’t feel so bad when I look at her cover photo & try to make out her nipple bulges & areola lines under her wife-beater. After all, doesn’t every Goth hotty-widda-body secretly desire that?  

Final Score: (1-100):

Nicole Blackman’s Us: 55
TOP’s Us: 75

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