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Shawnte Orion on Pop Culture

"I don’t want poetry to be confined or limited to the niche demographic of People Who Like Poetry," says poet Shawnte Orion. "I’m a 'regular' person with a normal job, so I believe poetry can be relevant and appreciated in anyone’s world." 

In his debut poetry collection, The Existentialist Cookbook, Orion offers quick wit and irreverence, along with pop culture references and clever titles, such as, Love in the Time of Hand-Sanitizer and Unable to Surface for Air During Shark Week.

Orion lives in Surprise, Arizona, and often shares his poems in public places: bars, laundromats, and on the street. He offers three influential books on the theme of Popular Culture:

by Denise Duhamel  

Don’t bother looking for my bellybutton, boys —
You won’t find it. Fascism comes to countries
wrapped in flags of freedom
as I come to Earth, minus evidence
of an umbilical cord.

— from Barbie, Her Identity as an Extraterrestrial Finally Suspected…

There probably isn’t a more pervasive pop culture icon than Barbie, so my list starts here. The book is a collection of Barbie poems, but Duhamel transcends consumer kitsch to address facets of society through the unblinking eyes of this ubiquitous doll. Dressing up each poem in limited edition outfits like feminism, history, religion, gender, and politics.

In the Philippines
women workers in fashion doll factories
are given cash incentives
for sterilization. Body parts roll
too fast on conveyer belts.

— from Manifest Destiny

Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami

This was my first Murakami book so I had no idea what to expect. After finishing it, I still don’t. Murakami’s elliptical plotlines involve themes of classical Greek tragedy and a sadistic serial cat-killer in the form of Johnnie Walker, the figure from the Scotch Whiskey logo. The novel takes place in Japan and there are World War II flashbacks, talking cats, a ghost in the library, and suddenly Colonel Sanders appears as a pimp on the streets of Takumatsu. To have that fast food mascot show up across the globe in a Japanese novel like there’s nothing bizarre about it, made me re-evaluate the alleged “limited” reach of pop culture images and references.  

Quantum Lyrics
by A. Van Jordan

math can be as simple as buttoning
a blouse, really: after you misfeed the first button,
though, every move of the hand, no matter how sincere,
becomes a lie

— from Einstein Doing The Math

This brilliant collection of poems breaks down universal concepts like love, music, and racism through an ambitious fusion of physics and comic books. In poems like “The Green Lantern Unlocks The Secrets of Black Body Theory” and “The Atom and Hawkman Discuss Metaphysics” Van Jordan demonstrates that “characters” like Einstein, Miles Davis, and The Flash are all superheroes worthy of literature’s attention.

Let's say a fist comes toward your lips and you can't lean away
fast enough, because you're carrying that placard for peace.
It's not the mass of the fist that will kill you,
but the speed at which it comes
upon seeing your Jewish hair or black face.

— from Thought Experiment #2: Toward a Unified Theory



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