• “Leisure, Labor, Reticence, Violence”: What Horror Films Can Teach Us About Poetry

    Justin Phillip Reed Considers Craft and Alienation on the Screen and on the Page

    Presented to Bennington College Oct 6, 2021

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    I have nothing useful to say to you concerning the craft of poetry. In this talk, I hope to relay to you nothing intended to be carried forth into the creation of poems, and especially not into the production of poetry that you could submit to the marketplace of contemporary literature.

    I am not irreverent enough, however, to intentionally fail to deliver what I have been contracted to do: a talk or address concerning, not too remotely or subtly, the craft of poetry. But you should not expect utility from it. Helping others to write professional poetry that appeals to professional poets does not currently concern me, though this is, I gather, what craft denotes in the siloed environments of most creative writing degree programs, as elsewhere.

    I have those degrees. I’ve sat through many of these craft lectures and been moved and bemused and bored. I remember how turned on I felt to learn the terms hypotaxis and parataxis at one such presentation, back when I geeked out about a palindrome’s temperament for independent clauses. Regardless of my ardent or apathetic receptions, the craft talk, the reading, the Q&A, conferences, symposia, etc.—the general mass of this genre of engagement massages the pursuits and professions of the knowledge of writing enduring poetry. That’s fine—as in the not-coarse mastery of an art.

    But I wonder if what happens, if one thing that happens in this tandem tunnel-vision approach to fostering literary apprenticeship, even as we poets readily acknowledge our dialogues with other arts and disciplines, is the cemented insinuation that the creation of poetry—and the awareness of it, curiosity about it, reverence for it—is a conversation to be had preferably among poets, preferably through interactions that are lent the false legitimacy of ruling-class practices of scarcity and exclusion. And I wonder if it further insinuates that the insular, curated environs from which this unassailable fine art continues to spring ought to be cultivated and kept at any cost.

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    Excuse me for spending this hour operating under the basic, belabored impression that universities in this country do persist in the tradition of being

    extractive colonies that assimilate, deracinate, occupy, and displace groups of people

    under the guise of cultural, scientific, and civic advancements made necessary by the imperialist project upon which universities are a fairer façade

    and made possible by meeting resistance with a reformist impulse, or concessions; by absorbing potentially radical thinking into endless bureaucratic labor that the institutions incentivize, meanwhile hoarding decent healthcare, pensions, libraries, creative resources, and leisure time.

    Horror is a site where I expose myself to myself; it keeps the odor of my animal panic sharp.

    As far as I can tell, having now studied poetry to some degree at a few institutions of higher education, the poems and the poetry pedagogy developed within universities rarely come to terms for these material conditions that—in not just forming the context of, but facilitating, creation—are also considerable elements of craft. The closest we seem to get in this regard is the specific rebellion against the strictures of the poetry writing workshop that draws attention, typically within a poem or thesis manuscript, to antagonisms that workshop culture seems to maintain.

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    These thoughts and remarks are genre-specific because poetry has been my area and this occasion is “Poetry at Bennington;” feel free to substitute prose or another art form where you can.

    I feel I’ve been leaping. Lemme back up.

    My name is Justin Phillip Reed. If I am known to you, it is presumably as the author of a collection of poems that has received awards or acclaim from agencies of some prestige, and/or as the recipient of fellowships from prestigious institutions, and/or as the student of renowned professors at prestigious writing schools. Prestige is a word that used to refer to conjure or illusion.

    I have lately found myself facing a screen of illusions about what I create, to whom I relate, and how I encounter the sound of my name. I think I know how I arrived here, at crisis, at alienation. Mostly, I recognize the decisions through which I’ve tethered my life to the production of text that tends to rail against the very structures that philanthropically fund its production—a text, therefore, that refers only to itself.

    Why I have allowed—why I’ve seemed to welcome this, has been less comprehensive to me; so I take refuge in horror films, which is where this presentation really wants to go.

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    I hope this is the final lecture of my alienation. It is titled “Leisure, Labor, Reticence, Violence:” originally a coming-to-terms for the dialogic contradictions I’ve come to see as characterizing the desperate protagonists of horror cinema. The problem unfolding from what was at first a harmless curiosity about a generic narrative formula is that, under continued, often haphazard scrutiny, and through the trials of self-awareness that knowing where the hell I live involves, horror cinematic protagonism looks a lot like my writing life, which I’ve been calling, simply, “my life.” Maybe you recognize the script:

    I am a (laborer of _____ kind) at (institution that disrupts my living by leeching output in service of its highest stockowners), working under the threats of hunger, illness, and dispossession

    is not unlike

    I am a protagonist of a film in the _____ horror subgenre; I am running or fighting under the threats of mutilation, death, possession, or madness.

    I could be overstating horror’s generic intelligence, though I don’t believe I am. People tend to automatically underestimate horror films, generally dismissing them as desensitizing fodder among new visual technologies, while they are in fact as referential, allegorical, archetypal, punctuating, and self-conscious as the poems that first incited me to write poems with any devotion. Horror is a site where I expose myself to myself; it keeps the odor of my animal panic sharp. Another of these sites, of the illegitimate “‘body’ genres,” critic Carol Clover tells us, is pornography. Horror and porn are deeply interested in “what it means to be human,” as poets claim to be.

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    I think that poetry, when I’ve most lusted after it,—and I want to recover that lust—is a body genre. Chills, sweat, nausea, horripilation, palpitation, salivation, gritted teeth, clenched sphincter, breathlessness, restless legs, etc.: I consider a good poem one that affects me physically. A few of them infect me, such that I find them / feel them living in me, at times without invitation, and not for the purpose of my reciting them but for their own purpose: to revise me.

    Dawn Lundy Martin’s DISCIPLINE is made of such poems. Repulsive, wheezing poems that smell of illness, things grimy with self-satisfaction or social performance, humiliatingly horny. I bring up this book a lot, like vomit. I am still full of DISCIPLINE, still somewhat possessed by it; it goes everywhere I do, and gets packed first when I discard two-thirds of my poetry library and disappear from the city.

    I suspect Robert Hayden’s “The Diver” of a similar business in my body. Whatever part of me also desires to “have / done with self and / every dinning / vain complexity” desires drowning, some sort of dying, and desires it constantly, swims ambivalently around the shell of that dead ship. My body knows that it preceded me, and that it will succeed me, and it remembers something of being unnameable again.

    Crisis, in a sense, refers to a decisive point in the progress of a disease. If I should say a poem functions “critically,” I probably mean that it holds skin-splitting as an aspiration, foremost, that it means to leave a mess that is an opportunity to better know what I’m made of. I am self, “vain complexity,” a reticent survival response to cohabitation anxiety and social stimuli. I look for poems to be rug-rufflers, to creep under that ivy of self.

    Similarly to horror cinema, poetry risks and, at the same time, relishes in circularly retreading and canonizing its own conventions. In the pursuit of a legitimate genre, or the pursuit of a generic legitimacy, I became attracted to poems about poetry, poetry accountable only to poets, poems that act like poems and could be read and published where poems are read and published—attracted to receiving the recognitions that recognized poets receive and bestow. This happens when, for instance, we consecrate art school, or we find it necessary to uphold the circumstances under which a life lived deeply in art is impossible without subjecting that life to a stratified, professionalized, board-certified, peer-reviewed living.

    I’m lecturing now. I’m trying to remember why it matters that the speaker of Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” ultimately rejects the lecture hall for a naked-eye education but does so in perfect iambic pentameter. I have a bad habit of iambic last lines. Many of my poems are etudes, if not most.

    Having as its rawest material basic, fleshly vulnerability is horror’s distinction. People keep inventing and iterating ways a person can be hurt and afraid and enraged and relieved like we keep morticians in business. At the end of the day, we show up for the body.

    What is poetry’s body?

    Like manhood, poetry itself hazards a melancholic ideal, a referent we keep trying to represent. Its reputation for internal investigation has law enforcement energy. Professional poets like to distinguish poems using concepts such as style, voice, syntax, structure, image, line—concepts that are often local and relative—or is that not why we namedrop in workshop? These are arguably recognizable as craft elements according to access and behaviors summarily called “taste,” all of which have to be aggressively regimented lest we lose sight of the lyrical practices favored by some people who sought to successfully endear themselves to aristocracy and, by patronage, escape the ravages of manual labor, forced migration, disease, and death that follow the loss of birth lotteries. Oh, wait.

    What is a person to a poem if a poem’s appeal is that it need have nothing to do with people? Am I still studying, teaching, and writing poetry according to isolationist values intended amplify the blisses of a mind at ruling-class leisure, values intended to obscure the coterminous or enmeshed circumstances of people who are massively deprived and made servile? So maybe I’m just being a brat, and maybe throwing my blood into this ecclesiastical endeavor that edifies itself with “selectivity,” “competition,” “genius,” and other names for omission, but meanwhile encloses a vacuum of actualization, is one very white thing that I’ve done. And my mother has been so proud.

    Who is poetry’s people?


    I have this anxiety of writing or being a monument to ways that I do not live. And I have some idea why the obelisk audiences have made of Ari Aster’s Hereditary annoys me.

    The film’s first act asks intriguing questions about people, about how we frame a person, about the models people impose upon relationships, and whether we are bound to fail those renderings. Mourning is the lightning illumination of these failures, as is true in the family dramas like Ordinary People and In the Bedroom that partly inspired Hereditary. Family is commonly a knot of flesh vulnerability, of horror. Hereditary’s Annie Graham is a fucked-up mother, or she is just a mother. Annie’s dead mother did what she believed was best for her family, and thereby cursed them all. The conflict between expectation and chance, or between order and chaos, is the force that problematizes everyone.

    Annie’s daughter Charlie, nursed as an infant by Annie’s mother, centralizes this problem. Annie composes detailed miniature representations of critical scenes in her life, using artworks fated for public consumption to intervene in a bizarre autobiography. Charlie—who sculpts crude figures out of odd discards, draws distorted portraits of people around her, infamously and inexplicably clicks her tongue, and appears to live on a diet of chocolate—defies all attempts by the family at a semblance of normality, and kind of illustrates the impotence of their (counter-) influence. (Charlie’s grandmother “wanted [her] to be a boy.”)

    Peter, the son and brother who exists with his father Steve on the fringe of this maiden-mother-crone tripartite distortion, rounds out an atmospheric condition of cinematic reticence that I’ll return to later. And it’s with Peter, through an attachment to his subjectivity, that the film first ushers in violence.

    For the time being, I dream that, at half an hour in, there’s more than enough tension to tell an excellent, dread-threaded story of this family. But the occult narrative is cutting gradually into the film, and its insistence is reminiscent of those poems that early know how they want to end and intend to be written in that general direction. Hereditary’s own self-consciousness acts as a provocative secondary tension, and it has to struggle under this narrative structural anxiety, which calls out to but leans away from Pasolini’s meaning when, in Heretical Empiricism, he described an autonomous “contamination” in which the camera’s detailed digressions compromise the character’s narrative excursions:

    a deviation from the system of the film: it is the temptation to make another film. In short, it is the presence of the author who, through an abnormal freedom, transcends his film and continually threatens to abandon it, detoured by a sudden inspiration—an inspiration of latent love for the poetic world of his own vital experiences.

    This other film is an abandonment, but one without transcendence. While Charlie’s death at the close of the first act is its expositional past, this new film begins earnestly in the second act, when Annie commits to experimenting in spiritualism and the narrative commits to a formula; it starts to look a lot like other influential horror films but it isn’t deeply any of them. Expectation overtakes chance. Aster seems to decide that the way out of his film—which is at times a flaying experience in its forbidden honesty—is involution, is a totally conceited (i.e., metaphorical) ending. Therein the film itself seems to decide it is indeed a scary movie. It ceases to be curious about its characters, since they are no longer characters who are vulnerable to each other but are instead models that are vulnerable to the text’s exploitations for a predetermined effect.

    Before Hereditary succumbs to its monologue, and maybe as a way of resisting monologue, the film appears to argue with itself. It cannot settle into one perspective sympathy nor one subjectivity. It employs echoing shots that function similarly to pararhyme, revisiting and revising material to show it as malleable, in turn exposing various facets of characters.

    I’m attracted to this camera’s discontent, its disorientation. It drops out of an omniscience whose lexicon is omens—one that tells me to pay attention to Annie’s hand slicing cherry tomatoes for dinner and then later to the partygoer’s hand gripping an identical knife to vigorously chop the walnuts that will trigger Charlie’s anaphylaxis.

    It drops into a real-time free indirect discourse that, in one shot, assumes Charlie’s point of view as the light post, filling the frame, speeds toward her face; and then, within this same sequence, it fastens itself to Peter’s point of view as his eyes struggle to enter the rearview mirror reflecting his sister’s decapitated body in the backseat.

    This camera holds Peter’s face as recognition overtakes it. The camera’s stillness leaves his trembling irises comparatively frenetic. I am discouraged from looking away from his inability to look at.

    This deepening expression, which is an effect of the film continually questioning its shape (in my mind I’ve been calling its extremity “formal violence”), conducts a viewing experience in which Charlie’s death scene is paroxysmic and agitating. An infection.

    If this camera were a “lyric I,” we would torture it in class. We would bind and amputate it and pluck its eyes out. It’s doing too much. It’s dialogic and then it’s detached. It needs to make some decisions.

    Horror…plays with a plot structure in which leisure importantly is cast as a state to be reclaimed or revisited, and the means toward it as transformative violence.

    Hereditary’s first act mimesis—this indecisive, neurotic camera—forms a state of relatable insecurity in which compassion for each character becomes possible. For that reason, I find it almost unforgivable that the film concludes not in this vagrant wisdom but motivated instead by attesting its knowledge of device, paying predictable and on-the-nose homage, treating each of the characters with a new cynicism as they are revealed to be tools in a cult ritual to summon a demon. Now that Toni Collette’s portrayal of Annie invariably entails hysterics, now that rigid skepticism and distrust exclusively characterize Steve, and now that none of them has any effect on the outcome, the camera too seems to surrender its previous autonomy. I don’t mean it necessarily does anything so differently; on the contrary it does what is expected and does not reckon with its employment in this different film. It stops questioning the shape.

    Annie’s trashing her studio and destroying her miniatures at 1hr 23min seems to complete the transition into the final act, the abandonment of the first film. Is it a significant metacommentary? Maybe. Annie says she “got tired of looking at it.” This might be her synecdochical rejection of reticence and the expectations assailing her labor. It might be a rejection of structural anxiety on the behalf of Aster’s writing and direction. It would be a rejection of convention in gesture only, which renders these other possibilities frivolous because, like Whitman’s starry eyes and my iambic habit, this final act still dreams of leisure as a certificate, something you do the time and study the masters to earn. It speaks of freedom in terms of showing you what it knows.

    [This leisure fantasy asks me to live in my mind like a wet spy in a high-rise petting a heavy gray cat. Scarlett Charlize. Service elevators are positioned to be easily forgettable. “Cruel optimism” sounds like silk stretched over steel in a room of wall-to-wall glass.]


    Here, being anywhere, is a snare of labor. As I write this at 10am, three brown-skinned people in baseball caps are mowing, weeding, and clearing the backyard. It isn’t my yard, but I currently get the most enjoyment from it. I have time. When they finish shearing the grass and leaf-blowing the deck, I look out at the results from the window of the room where I sleep. This yard and this hedge of woods composed my poem “Considering My Disallowance”—my disallowance being beauty and the Black-ass leisure to appreciate it in this state that has the highest number of active Ku Klux Klan organizations, though here is anywhere. I have time, though I tire of time being stolen from someone else. This is not my house; I’m staying with a friend who works as a dean of the university where I decided to become a writer. He was my professor then, and a writer by passion. Now he doesn’t take much time for his life away from work. He doesn’t write and he can keep this house, and he can offer me a room and food and pay people to keep the greenery in check on a weekly schedule. Me, I clean the kitchen and wash the windows and harvest the garden and give the dog attention—I can, not must; I have the gift of time. But tomorrow is October, all the weeds will die soon, the hedge will be gruff and brown, and I won’t be around nor will the sound of the mower. Maybe my friend will save money not housing me, not hiring people to tend the ground. He may get a different job, take a pay cut, take some time, write some thing. Three brown people in ball caps don’t get paid to talk about this yard they know most intimately.


    Clearly there’s something about Rosemary.

    Of course, there’s something about second-wave feminism, Cold War paranoia, white entitlement to upward mobility, the myth of the nuclear family after the fifties, a Holocaust survivor’s commentary on antisemitic paranoia, Roman Polanski being a “bastard and a criminal,” and Sharon Tate being murdered by the Manson cult the year after Rosemary’s Baby’s release while she’s carrying Polanski’s child.

    But if in this formalist appeal I may continue to pretend that the art is central, then we have this film and it has its protagonist. Rosemary wants to start a family. She gets to start a family. She also gets manipulated, drugged, raped, gaslit, confined, abused by her doctors, abandoned by her husband, and alienated from her friends. These brutal intrusions happen on the way to getting what she wants. Maybe because Americans claim to be social descendants of a Greek tradition in which leisure must be a relief—otherwise it is wanton—they tend to accept grueling labor (better if it’s someone or some thing else’s labor) as par for the course of living the life one wants. Rosemary accepts months of debilitating pain as par for the course of her pregnancy, and her husband arranges her terrible incubation of Satan’s offspring for the sake of his future in Hollywood. Some people accept and impose all sorts of indignity in the pursuit of careers. Sure, Rosemary’s desire is oversimplified; this makes her rather realistic.

    I think we can recognize as patently untrue the predominating assertion that protracted labor is a means toward protracted leisure. Leisure can be hoarded; labor can be further alienated to support this. Horror, rarely acknowledged as a legitimate genre and therefore open and vulnerable to delegitimized knowledge, experiences, and propositions, plays with a plot structure in which leisure importantly is cast as a state to be reclaimed or revisited, and the means toward it as transformative violence. Labor in common horror—when it’s most frequently encompassed by bare survival—is disruptive.

    There’s evil about Rosemary, and it’s making hard work for her. Initially she copes with it by asking about it, and then by shutting up about it. It’s in her head. It’s in Chris’s head in Get Out. Seems it took forty years for everyone to believe Laurie Strode in the Halloween films.

    “There’s no one there.” “You need to relax.” “Get over it.” This is the atmosphere of reticence holding its ground. The protagonist’s going along, complying with this assertion (of form) when something doesn’t feel right, deepens alienation. Their labor intensifies as the rules for what can happen to a person appear to change while the ways a person can respond do not. Watching the movies, we readily call bullshit at this juncture.

    Does academized and industrialized poetry feel right?

    Who can afford professionalization? Who has the time?

    What have I done to endure academic-industrial environments?

    What am I doing to help them endure?

    What are the men discussing so discreetly in the smoking room?

    Whose occupational ambitions take precedence?

    How does professional pedigree legitimize writing?

    Why does the dessert have a chalky under-taste?

    Whose labor do we understate and underpay to elevate the value of professionalization?

    Who desires the conditions that deny the overlap of poetry and manual workers?

    Why does my poem ignore people working?

    Why is he taking her clothes off?

    Who governs legibility and interpretation? Who supervises sense?

    What do you mean, success?

    Is this a dream come true? Is it a dream? Is it really happening?


    Excerpted from With Bloom Upon Them and Also with Blood: A Horror Miscellany by Justin Phillip Reed. Copyright © 2023. Available from Coffee House Press.

    Justin Phillip Reed
    Justin Phillip Reed
    Justin Phillip Reed is an American writer and amateur bass guitarist. His preoccupations include horror cinema, ideological failure, and uses of the grotesque. He is author of two poetry collections, The Malevolent Volume (2020) and Indecency (2018), published by Coffee House Press. Born and raised in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, he participates in alternative rock music cultures and enjoys smelling like outside.

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