By Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
I loved being wicked without doing anything mean.
–Andrew Hudgins, “Helen Keller Answers the Iron,” KR, Spring 2011
Bad jokes and great poems share a power to surprise us, to shatter the lacework of language and logic within which we hide, and to make us uncomfortable in our fragile skins. As Andrew Hudgins points out in his wonderful essay on a childhood fascination with sick jokes in the current issue of KR, they’re both, in William Carlos Williams’ phrase, “machines made of words,” but one might imagine them more accurately as bombs, wound tightly around a spring-loaded violence of thought. And they’re also rarely in good taste.
Now, I’ve known Andrew since we both had hair. And like anyone who knows Andrew, I quickly learned that there are two key moments in that friendship. The first is when you find yourself standing pie-faced in stunned silence, a sickly smile betraying your discomfort at some appalling joke he’s just told you. (Imagine a dog that rubs against your leg in a friendly way, then suddenly lifts its leg and fills your shoes. That’s the way Andrew tells a joke. Then he watches you closely to see if you laugh.) The second moment is when he thrusts a book of poems into your hands and says, with scary intensity, “Here, read this!”
Like any sick joke, Andrew’s essay takes a familiar form and explodes it. It’s a narrative of a literary education, learning a form, taking its measure with its pleasure, then mastering it.
I loved the jokes as things in and of themselves ??? not things of beauty exactly, though I can imagine a definition of beauty that includes their linguistic efficiency, their powerful imagery, their probing of social norms, and their provoking strong, often conflicting, emotions. Because I loved them and admired them as art and as craft, my emerging sense of discretion was balanced, and all too often outweighed, by my desire to share them. Who would laugh? How far could people be pushed? How far could I push myself?
But as with all such narratives, it’s also a confession of weakness. One turns to jokes, as to poems, not because they offer mastery, but because they give shape to our fear:
The sick jokes–dead baby, Helen Keller, and mutilated-boy jokes–mock human frailty. They become popular when we boomers were, as adolescents, starting to grasp that our bodies weren’t invincible and our lives would have a terminus, even if we couldn’t see it over the horizon. And we, some of us, had to toughen our minds to that knowledge.
Bad jokes, like great poems, confess the terror that lies hidden behind the mastery of language and form. What makes us wince when the joke is told is partly embarrassment, but also a sense of recognition, and our nervous laughter is the mirror from which we instinctively want to look away.
There’s no question that literary editing is largely a matter of taste, but good editors don’t act as the guardians of a culture’s standards. Instead, they look for work that abandons that well-mapped ground, beating its own path through the underbrush, even if that means we have to get dirty and uncomfortable to follow. Imagination is perverse, mainly because it strains against the hard truths of our humanity and the frailty of our mortal shells.
When I try to describe my work as an editor for KR, I sometimes tell people that I know we have to publish a piece not because I feel pleasure, but pain. That’s partly envy–the pain one gets from banging your head against the desk, wishing you’d written that perfect poem or story–but it’s also that same recognition of the frail humanity that beauty conceals. I’m sure there are some sick jokes about editors out there. (And if there aren’t, there should be.) But the secret of being an editor, I’ve learned, is how powerless we are. The real power lies in the work, its gleaming edges, its painful truths. We don’t take a piece: it takes us.