After getting an MFA in 2004, my only career goal was to find whatever job would allow me the most time to write poetry. Through some good luck and a proofreading test I got a job as a part-time editor and copywriter at a now-defunct gift catalog. The designers would brief me on the products’ features, and I’d then write a “story” that would sell it—some bit of romance that would imbue a set of grilling tools or a jewelry box with a seeming long history. I quickly learned that almost any consumerist frippery—lockets, cuff links, “heirloom” baby gifts—can in some way be attributed to the Victorians, who were, after all, the actual inventors of injection-molded sentiment. And, at the same time as each product had its own story to tell, it would allow the gift recipient to tell their story, creating a beautiful figure eight of narrative significance for a piece of laminate junk mass-manufactured with cheap labor on the other side of the world.
This storytelling imperative has become a cliché in advertising. From cars to throw pillows to the credit cards you buy them with, a wide range of consumer products now claims that it will help you to tell and/or become a part of your “unique story.” One way that many retail companies I’ve since written for promote this “story” business is with personalization, e.g., monograms and birthstones. It was the Victorians who popularized birthstones and ascribed their months and meanings. If you Google “history of birthstones,” “birthstone chart,” or “birthstone origins” you will come up with countless versions of the same story and the same chart with the same supposed meanings, and I personally wrote a good number of them. Another good number of them were written from those that I wrote. And while I’m a stickler for accuracy, I wasn’t being paid to do academic research on the history of birthstones, so I took all my information from the internet. Thus, in the span of only about twenty years, we’ve created a new, self-perpetuating, slowly modulating history of birthstones that’s rooted only in the ether like one of those air plants. Nested inside these apocryphal origin stories is the arbitrary assignation of meanings to birthstones or flowers or whatnot in the first place as mise-en-abyme of the arbitrary ascriptions of meaning to the sounds and symbols of language itself.
In my copywriting work I participate in a laundering of language and history that is antithetical to my work as a poet wherein I try to make plain the falsities of consensual reality and to demonstrate not in but via words how historical narratives are written and run away with. My poems ask what does it mean to mean and how does it matter? The internet and the language of commerce tangled therein is a widening gyre of narrowing misinformation that kills words dead. (According to the internet, it is apocryphal that Beat poet Lew Welch famously wrote Raid’s famously redundant slogan, “Kills Bugs Dead.”)
Recently I’ve been writing blog posts for a company that sells a libido-boosting mechanical product for menopausal women. I write chatty lifestyle posts under a moniker that my friend calls “Fake Kate.” Fake Kate has a whole life that bears little resemblance to my own, although we share some favorite recipes and a husband who eats his cereal very loudly. A few months ago I was asked to incorporate quizzes, and I wrote one about menopause symptoms that contained the question, “Which of the following is not a symptom of menopause?” Well, I did not anticipate how difficult it would be to find a non-menopause-related symptom. Hair loss, tooth decay, body odor, “burning mouth,” brittle nails, insomnia, dry skin, dizziness . . . taking into account innumerable blogs, message boards, chat rooms, medical sites, and women’s magazine web features devoted to menopause, there is nary a bodily complaint that is not attributable to it. As the internet deepens and folds into itself, its role as a catch-all for individual experience—as corrective to the assumed collective—can be read as rendering all categories of experience meaningless. Language is made of inter-nesting sets whereby we understand ourselves but perhaps it can proliferate to a degree that undoes its fundamental role of facilitating communication and collectivity, i.e., if menopause can mean anything, then it means nothing at all. Menopause is real, though, so language must be escaping us, where “escaping” is both active and passive—evading us and released, like flatulence.