During a recent reading from The World As Phone Bill, his first collection of essays after several books of poetry, Stan Apps interrupted himself to explain something about the title piece: “This started with some good ideas and sophisticated language, but I kept dumbing it down and dumbing it down….So now it’s incomprehensible, but at least it’s really accessible.” (This is a paraphrase from memory, but the last sentence is nearly verbatim.) I’m not sure this self-assessment is entirely accurate. Taken in isolation, Apps’s observations are often jarringly clear: “Like editors and hiring committees, prophets induce drama with deadlines.” Similarly, these lines make more jargon-laden and elaborately argued ideological critiques of mass-media redundant: “Pictures and descriptions are often given away free…in order to express an idea of the world favorable to specific interests.”
But Apps’s comment does suggest the tone of his writing, which reads as eminently reasonable, even a bit simplistic, until the moment when it slants off into allegory or absurdity. Like many practitioners of the hybrid genre called “poetics,” Apps flouts the rules of argumentative prose as it suits his needs: several of these pieces break into verse at key strategy, while others use the Google-based collage techniques (and gross-out imagery) of the current mode of experimental poetry known as flarf (Apps also writes insightfully about several fellow flarfists.) The results are disconcertingly over-the-top (“Self of an elf of gaping Christ, groaning and fastidiously weaving sugar out of the dust of moonlight frozen and smashed”) and not always easily distinguished from Apps’s illustrative parodies of kinds of poetry he dislikes (“Android amusement parks, I forsake your contemplative seedpods!”).
Apps is at his most original — both funnier and bleaker — and his most essayistic. Condensation has been a watchword of modernist poetry since Pound, but what’s poetic about this writing, even in awkward or repetitive moments, is its expansiveness. Lengthy chains of logical or logical-sounding reasoning seem to come to Apps easily, almost unbidden; their effect is akin to that of John Ashbery’s Three Poems, though with political theory replacing metaphysical reverie. This makes brief quotation from some of the best pieces in The World as Phone Bill nearly pointless. (This includes the allegedly “dumbed-down” title essay, an ambitious take on globalism.) Fortunately, Apps’s keen sense of paradox also comes in more tightly-wound packages, as does his anger, which may be his most “accessible” quality as a writer. Here he is, in “On Representation,” swallowing the serpent’s tail of guilt and complicity, in a deceptively casual register:
“But wait, I voted for the other guy; why am I responsible? I am responsible because I am a citizen, and the Prez represents all citizens, not just the ones who vote for him. He represents us even if he hates us, or if we hate him. What does it mean to be responsible? It means I should feel guilty about the people my representatives have killed. Wait, who would fall for that?”