Spencer Madsen, You Can Make Anything Sad, Publishing Genius Press, 2014.
“When I read Spencer Madsen’s poetry, I not only feel awe because he’s so good, one of the best, but I also think about how everything in the world is happening at the same time, and how the world we get to know is so heavily edited down. It’s the hugest, weirdest feeling. I wish Spencer Madsen could be everywhere at once. I really love You Can Make Anything Sad.” — Dennis Cooper
“If I had published this I would’ve cut the ‘dick like Gogurt’ line.” -Giancarlo DiTrapano
Madsen’s poetry has always been, to me, staggeringly honest. His writing helps clarify our complicated and subjective world into one of simple truths. His poetry is both heartbreaking and heart mending. Madsen’s work is important. This book will be important.—Rhys Nixon
Spencer Madsen’s You Can Make Anything Sad is filled with movement, mortality, and masturbation. Natural disaster intervenes young love. Everyone leaves. Frozen pancakes are peeled apart.
You Can Make Anything Sad captures gradual melancholy that is difficult to detect or articulate, but inevitably reaches all of us. Sadness is not necessarily dramatic. Often, it is calm and disappointing, even speculative. Watching snow descend outside his window, Madsen identifies with the heft the branches are forced to bear and is hurt but not surprised that, inevitably, change/time/cold will reach them entirely. We do not fall out of love in any one moment. Though it can be possible to pinpoint a specific day or moment or cause, we feel loss as distilled across time and experience.
Madsen’s poems transmit a sense of intimacy and coincidence structured together as a series of journal entries and colloquial lists; they oscillate between interiority and everyday encounters. The book is a chronological account of a waning relationship interrupted by the speaker’s reflections, asides, and what occurs on the outside world. There is an acute bleakness: the heartbreaking accumulation of minutiae that comprises lives and stories and self-obsessed states through which we often perceive them. “This is my real life,” the author reminds himself numerous times throughout the collection (sometimes, in different words).
I am reminded of Joshua Beckman’s “[Lying in bed I think about you]“: stale air is a synecdochic representation of a stale relationship/world and is used to describe something becoming less vivid and eventually lost. Also, of David Berman’s poem “Imagining Defeat,” which is also about departure and the mood that follows it or surfaces when it is remembered.
I remember running late at night. I remember the 24-hour gym. I remember running in place for hours on machines that ensure no actual progress. I remember sweating in the industrial blue glow.
I remember the feeling of winter coming.
The word elliptical comes from the shape of an elongated circle. It is also is a poetic term: a way of speaking that moves towards clarity and concealment at the same time. The technology of an elliptical machine allows us to run in place, as if we are moving forward and around, without covering any “actual” distance. There are buttons to change the shape of the circle, so it distends in different directions, to emulate various running conditions, speeds, and landscapes.
This is a familiar place—this feeling: the illumination given off by cold, human fixtures, like in a waiting room or a Fed Ex shop late at night. Somewhere machines light up and stir to remind us they’re doing a job. The dim glow of machinery fills a room, trying to imitate sunlight. I have no idea what Spencer Madsen’s gym routine entails. I kind of ‘get it’ though, or feel like I do. I think the best books can do this; they make a world feel foreign and familiar at the same time. Something about You Can Make Anything Sad— its content and physical character, I think—seemed too stark or honest to deface. Without thinking, I strayed from my post-it-note-commentary policy once reading Spencer’s book, marking in the margin below the line “It’s hard to imagine anything but Tuesdays everyday.” my own words, I know what you mean and I also don’t. I think that’s how it is between and for people.
Consistently, tropes of masturbation act as a connecting thread throughout the collection. Self-pleasure is returned to, though not quite elevated, as it again and again fails to gratify. Madsen remarks that “if writing really were masturbation I’d be so much better at it”; the obvious dramatic irony being that his writing frequently explores self-pleasure as a stylistic tactic as well as a subject matter and it’s very good. Writing provides a forum to enact personal fantasy that, like masturbation, can appear an attractive alternative to the complications and compromise involved in engaging with another person. Neither of these alternatives can be sustained.
Towards the end of the book, Madsen recounts masturbating to porn. What is unusual about this is that his arousal is linked to empathy he feels for the dejected/jealous cuckolded male rather than the one engaged in the… actual fucking. I think there’s something there. On an obvious level, this is what it looks like: of course a sensitive/self-identified ‘lonely guy’ relates to the isolated figure in the film rather than the alpha-male. But I do not think this is mentioned solely as an example of self-effacement. This feeling, also, on some level, arouses the speaker of the poem: not in a homosexual or even homosocial way, but in an empathetic one, as if the arousal comes out of a newly evolved emotional release and signals a capacity to feel concern for other people that that the speaker has previously shied away from.
Ironically, the climax reached through stereotypical masturbation techniques (watching porn) is perhaps the least masturbatory moment of the book. Up until this point, Madsen’s voice is primarily self-concerned, describing an emotional life conducted almost sociopathically: he interacts with other people while failing to acknowledge their lives as real or important except as part of a self-effacing account of his own behavior. Women exist as devices or even less: as waste left by the author’s misguided self-search. None of this is to say it is not well executed, but just on an emotional level, it’s a pretty crappy way to be.
As a reader, I have a hard time “rooting for” or sympathizing with the speaker’s malaise when, despite his keen ability to perceive his habitual use/abuse of others, he displays little remorse or desire to change his ways. This is to say, I think “Tuesday, January 23, 2013” illustrates a greatdeparture from the behavior depicted before it.
I do not think it a coincidence that the speaker reaches the conclusion that he is “a destructive thing on this earth” and has inflicted pain on other people at this moment. It begins – what a psychiatrist might deem some kind of emotional breakthrough – with the simple experience of perceiving someone else’s pain as the most acute and real part of an experience. In one of my favorite arcs in The Sopranos when Tony’s therapist remarks that his attachment to a horse illustrates immense progress, though it is still not a kind of compassion he is capable of extending to his fellow human beings.
Similarly—and despite its almost ubiquitously negatively painted human interactions, You Can Make Anything Sad consistently voices affection for dogs. The shrink in me (or, well, the based on TV pseudo-shrink in me) wants to say this represents something more beneath the surface: that when the poet “recommends dogs” he is recognizing the value of other living beings, humans among them and saying he cares about how they feel. That other people matter. That, however much we want to be by or with ourselves, we also are, as Madsen eloquently puts it: “Grasping for something in another person, the way seats on the train become available right before your stop.” And though moments like these characterize romance through its almost inevitable failure, they also say that we want and need it. Self-obsession cannot sustain us. Talking to ourselves, touching ourselves is not enough, though we may wish it were.Ultimately, You Can Make Anything Sad has a sort of bildungsroman quality, recounting an emotional coming of age in honest, quietly elegant language. It is sincere and patient and weirdly life-like. Everything changes very slowly: so slowly that you could also say nothing’s changed at all. It is tempting to read the title as a kind of model attitude: either seizing authority through our endless capacity for pessimism, or the opposite—suggesting that since we can make anything sad, we can also make anything happy. I think that’s too easy. Either way. I would rather focus on the verb to make and the possibilities it presents: we are both freed and made responsible by acknowledging that our experience is largely self-created. Most of all, this means that people are capable of change, however staggeringly bleak they perceive their circumstances to be. Closing in March, the collection’s last line is a calm reminder that we still have a chance to make things different: it will “be a new year soon.” And no matter who, where, or when we are, it will be. - Lucy Tiven
On the first read, Spencer Madsen's second book of poetry, You Can Make Anything Sad, out on April 29 with Publishing Genius, is overrun by an overarching angst. The poet is depressed and despite repeated attempts he struggles with the fundamental impossibility of connecting with others – he sees it happening but ultimately can't help himself. In one poem, a girlfriend tells Madsen, who is being particularly fatalistic, "You have two options and you’re choosing the sad one."
The book is very relatable, but that’s partially because it deals with an everyday that is inherently colourless, dull and repetitive. In one poem titled "A NEW REALITY SHOW CALLED:" Madsen reels off a list of ideas for reality TV shows, at once both emphasising how the mundane can feel incredibly dramatic ("A new reality show called I wish I didn’t have to pee that consists of people lying down comfortably in bed and then suddenly having to pee") and suggesting the potential for creation without following through with any actual creating. It’s wanting to make something out of what will seem, to anyone but you experiencing it, like nothing – one of many laments for the human connection that feels more and more impossible.
This explicitly fatalistic solipsism meshes with Madsen’s tone of ‘I didn’t spend a lot of time writing this and now I’m publishing it’ (see also: Madsen’s essays for Brad Listi’s recently re-launched otherppl magazine, which begin with qualifications like ‘I haven’t read what’s below. I wrote it in a panic.’ to really drive home what seems, at first, like a pretty standard sense of futility. When so much is shitty – and when a big part of that shittiness is related to the fact that it’s impossible for other people to understand and connect with you – you might as well publish whatever you want. If we interpret this tone as Madsen prioritizing putting work out there over the reader’s experience – if we, in other words, interpret this as him not caring if we’re engaged or bored, as long as his words might have readers – then we hit a logical wall: why would he, or anyone, feel compelled to put writing into a world that consists entirely of other people who fundamentally cannot understand it?
An easy answer, and one that many critics of alt-lit have leveraged against writers like Madsen, is: selfishness. But there’s another inconsistency here: Madsen’s first piece for the otherppl magazine project, Notes From My Notes App, implies a distinction between the note-like tone of his poetry and the actual notes he’s taking – that his artistic work is fundamentally different (and, presumably, more polished or considered) than the thoughts he – and many writers – jot down, virtually or otherwise. "I keep a list in my phone of miscellaneous thoughts, ideas, dream descriptions, etc." he writes in the essay. "I often refer to it when looking for inspiration, or to gauge where I’m at creatively. Some of these notes have been incorporated into books, poems, tweets, etc." This suggests, despite the sense of hopelessness that weighs down much of this book, that there is some will to try.
The lines "But you can write a whole book. / You can call it anything you want. / You can print it out and stare at it." seem to reinforce the sense of ‘fuck it’ out of context. But when you consider what comes before them, they become a challenge to the (perceived) futility of an existence spent in failed attempts at connection ("My forehead, marked permanently by attempts at conveying sincerity.") and disappointment in having to come to terms with the way the world and other people foster those failures As a rebuttal to the negativity that comes before, they function less as a cop-out kind of justification for the book – or any book potentially deemed worthless or narcissistic – and more as one of those statements of fact: just as you can make anything sad, you can, definitely, write a whole book. These lines come late, but they aren’t the first time books or writing conjures a relative optimism.
Much of You Can Make Anything Sad supports its title, sure, but at its core is a poet trying to resist that – just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. There’s a disconnect between the narcissism Madsen and his alt-lit contemporaries have been accused of and the truly original insights you find yourself reading. Amidst the ‘and then I did this daily activity/drug’ lines are hyper-articulate moments of ingenuity and observation. Madsen calls his sinuses the "tubes that justify my nose"; the insight "The illusion of relationships is the lessening of distance but a new distance arises when a stranger becomes a friend." is not only thoughtful, but it also offers the reader space to imagine how it might be true – a deft, evocative maneuver that many writers might mess up. One suspects these bright spots in the writing are also bright spots in the despair that characterizes Madsen’s work: it’s empowering to create something.
And actually, ‘A NEW REALITY TV SHOW CALLED:’ is an example of that empowerment. While its form inherently implies a lack of one kind of creation, in making the list of what’s not made, Madsen creates something else: a poem. And poems are one of the only ways to (try to) bridge the gap to other people. When we consider that so much of the force of alt lit as a contemporary literary movement comes from its community, the lines “I read poems by my friends. / I feel something for the poems and something for my friends.” are particularly poignant. The tone is dry and declarative, largely prohibiting the reader from empathizing fully, but there’s hope there. We have no idea what these poems are or what they make Madsen feel, but at least we have the fact that we both still can. - Lauren Oyler
Interview by Alex Frank
Review at Splice Today