Post-Covfefe, we may shudder to remember the yellow hair, the spray tan, the hand gestures and the dismissively shaped mouth. Was it all a strange dream? “Person, woman, man, camera, TV”? More significantly, what about white supremacists, pussy grabbing, porn stars, narcissism, children in cages? In Europe Trump may have been a grisly comic distraction, but for many in the US he was an obsession; the British may have their own celebrity prime minister, but Trump surely outranks Johnson for levels of outrageous behaviour previously unknown or expected in a holder of democratic public office.
It would be comforting to think that poets spend all their time thinking about romance, duels, and heavy petting, but there are at least two American poets, Paul Fericano and klipschutz, who from their West Coast hideouts have spent some significant time reflecting on and dissecting their Carotene President.
In his foreword to Fericano’s Things That Go Trump in the Night, klipschutz states that the book consists of “savage, fully realized parody, aimed at one target, a man who loves his own name more than he loves his country or anything else.…We are in a deep, ugly mess right now, and this book provides welcome relief, big laughs, and potent ammunition for the battle ahead”. The battle has now been and gone, and it was probably won by the poets. The ultimately defeated Trump spent much of his time in office talking about his favourite subject, himself, which may have been for the best; just possibly, it kept him distracted from getting on with more nefarious activities.
Fericano has an esteemed history as a satirist and poet. Loading the Revolver with Real Bullets (Second Coming Press, 1977) was partly funded by the state of California; it achieved notoriety in 1978, when “The Three Stooges at a Hollywood Party” was read on the floor of the California State Senate as a reason to abolish the California Arts Council. Legislators claimed it slandered John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Stuart Whitman and Glen Campbell, actors who were all mentioned in the poem. In 1982 Fericano received the Howitzer Prize for “Sinatra, Sinatra,” an award he himself created and exposed as a literary hoax. Washington Post Book World has said that “If a witness protection program for poets existed in this country, Fericano would be in it”, so it is perhaps reasonable to expect some controversial content.
Trump, as a special type of dotard, is no stranger to controversy himself. Just one example: he suggested at a campaign rally in 2016 that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”. Due to the nature of the subject, the satirist may have to adjust their settings to ensure the humour achieves its’ purpose.
Things That Go Trump in the Night does not disappoint. It is framed as “Poems of Treason and Resistance,” which may seem far-fetched when applied to a Western leader, but the proof is in the poetry. The nature of this categorisation (treason and resistance) would probably be endorsed by King Trump himself, who is no stranger to drama and hubris. In “DALTON TRUMPO STICKS TO THE SCRIPT”, Fericano takes inspiration from a statement read by Dalton Trumbo, an American screenwriter and novelist blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, to set out the fundamental reasons for resistance to Trump:
Already I and others like me have produced in
this country a political atmosphere that reeks of
fear and deliberate nonsense; a country in which
racism finds safe refuge behind secret handshakes
and loyalty oaths; a country in which no investi-
gative reporter trusts his editor or his phone
These are powerful words, and Fericano amplifies the effect through the medium of a speech. Throughout the collection there is a particular sense of voice, with Fericano paying particular attention to how each character is speaking. The longest piece, which comes at the end, is “THE SECRET PLOT TO KILL TRUMP,” a bullseye evocation of Trump’s speech patterns: simple words, repeated often (as if to idiots): exaggeration and self-regard, the unmonitored language of “Trumpspeak”, and according to work by online database Factba.se Analysts in 2018, at the level of an eight year old (Trump apparently disputes this, claiming he is a “very stable genius” and “like, really smart”):
thank you everybody
thank you very much
and thank you for this big crowd
this is incredible really incredible
what a crowd
what an incredible crowd
Fericano relies on Trump’s braggartly nature to speak for itself in showing off some of Trump’s highlights/lowlight – racism, Mexicans, that Wall, rapists, criminals, drug dealers, conspiracy theories – with an intensification of satire that in Trump’s own voice strays into an unlikely reference to a ’60s counter-culture song of “freedom” by the Byrds:
but i look at that and it’s sad
so sad so sad
and it’s really very very sad
because we have to keep it going
because this country is turning
just like that song turn turn turn
and i said i’m going to do it
but it’s happening faster than anyone thought
and they try to stop me right?
they try to stop me from doing
what I promised to do
With artful ventriloquism, Fericano captures Trump’s voice throughout. “THE SECRET PLOT TO KILL TRUMP,” however, outdoes itself, and is perhaps the most significant piece in the book; George W Bush may have been adept at mangling language to inventive levels of malapropism (“Like you, I have been disgraced about what I’ve seen on TV that took place in prison”), but Trump’s bizarre use of hyperbole is off the charts. While Fericano is in a luxurious position as a satirist to be able to report verbatim rather than having to exaggerate (phrases such as “really tremendous positive news”), his skill in spotting certain characteristics and drawing them out is at a high level indeed. As the poem progresses, Trump’s brazenness is also revealed:
but you know what?
i could stand in the middle of this stage
and shoot somebody
i could shoot you or you or anybody
and i wouldn’t lose any voters
i wouldn’t lose a single vote
i would even pick up votes
As klipschutz points out, “satire is not parody. Parody requires a source material and when it works, leads to a doubleness of enjoyment worthy of Juicy Fruit gum.” Things That Go Trump In The Night always uses literal base material, but with reference to a second source such as a song (you can sing along at home if the mood takes you), another poem, a commercial on TV, a film, or a novel. “TRUMP GOES AFTER ETHEL MERMAN” is written to the tune of “Anything You Can Do”: “anyone you can screw I can screw better/I can screw anyone better than you”; “JARED KUSHNER GETS DRUNK IN A KARAOKE BAR” takes on “The Lady Is a Tramp”: “she gets so grumpy when daddy is late/she eats up realtors and never gains weight/she never bothers with playing it straight/that’s why the lady is a trump”.
Similarly, “TRUMP ROPE” takes the form of a nursery rhyme, starting out “Donnie grabbed my pussy/Donnie grabbed my ass”; and “TRUMP WITH THE WIND” co-opts well-known dialogue: “Frankly, my hair, I don’t weave a strand.” “THE GHOST OF HAMLET” reworks the Shakespeare soliloquy to ask “To trump, or not to trump, that is the election” and state “To lie, to creep;/To creep, perchance to Scream—ay, there’s the snub”. The conversion of this speech in iambic pentameter is a major technical achievement.
Fericano’s verbal dexterity is a sharp contrast to his subject’s limited vocabulary. Throughout Things That Go Trump in the Night, poems play with Donnie’s surname to the extent it would make any brand consultant tremble in fear; said surname is manipulated, bent and twisted into different forms suitable for an incantation. In “THE RULES OF PLAY”, the card game is recognised, so that “a winner is declared after a non-trump lead has already been trumped, or when a non-trump can’t beat the trump that is currently stealing the trick or signing the executive order”’. In “TEA PARTY” we are asked “one trump or two?” (with no option for no trump); in “TRUMP ON THE WATERFRONT”, Marlon Brando’s speech is subverted: “i could’ve been an enforcer/i could’ve been some gotti/instead of a trump”. Trump is weaponised in “THE NRA REMINDS YOU TO DEFEND THE SECOND AMENDMENT”, spewing helpful tips such as “Always point your trump at anyone you plan to intimidate” and “Keep your trump cocked and ready for any crisis you create.”
There is no doubt Trump is a tempting target for satire and parody, but you would not necessarily associate the orange man with poetry. Fericano addresses this problem through a venerable form in “CHARACTERISTICS AND EXAMPLES OF A TRUMP HAIKU”, where he suggests some characteristics be added to the strict form of a three-line format: “11 syllables/arranged in a 9–1–1 pattern”; these include “erratic punctuation and capitalization/with words misspelled”, “a focus on some aspect of self-importance,/ignorance, or television” and a ”circular syntax and occasional usage and/misusage of real and imagined words”. He goes on to demonstrate this in practice with four Trump Haiku, such as the Kim Jong-Un inspired “WHIMSICAL TRUMP”:
Wow! The sky is raining rockets! Made
Perhaps the most controversial poem of Things That Go Trump in the Night is “TRUMP OF ALLEGIANCE”, which adapts the American Oath of Allegiance to reflect Trump’s values of “swag” and “collusion and pussy for all”. Given the patriotic stance of most Americans, it is a poem at high risk of being taken without humour, especially when it is followed provocatively in a German translation, “DUMMKOPF VON ALLEGIANCESTEIN” and a Russian translation, “DURAK IZ ALLEGIANCEKI”.
Things That Go Trump in the Night should appeal to hardened political junkies as well as the more apathetic; there is a particularly useful set of accompanying notes that provide vital background to those who don’t immediately know the source material or remember some of the more obscure cast members who make appearances in the poems.
In their song “Get Off the Stage”, klipschutz and Chuck Prophet have described Trump as “an obstruction in democracy’s bowel”, and informed him that he’s “heading for prison, you know”. Perhaps appropriately, Things That Go Trump in the Night is split into eight sections, subtitled as a pardon to various notable individuals or body parts (Elvis, Harvey Weinstein, Obama, Speedy Gonzales, Pence, Reagan, Charles Manson, and Trump’s own colon). Like Donnie’s hands and alleged penis, the book comes in pocket size only, and makes for a memorable memento of the long golden shower of Trump’s reign.
Ding dong! Witch-hunt! Sad!
The book was recently awarded The Bulitzer Prize for 2020, and is now on its third printing.
Publisher: Poems-For-All Press/Little City Press
Publication Date: 15 FEB 2019