The Poetry Project

Taking Revenge on the World for Not Existing

Ted Rees

[Adapted from a talk delivered at Communal Presence, October 2017.]


A few years ago, I was mentioned in a conversation between Brandon and Thom that was published in BOMB magazine’s online repository. For a while, it was one of the top results when you Googled my name, so that any person who might have wanted to know something about me and clicked on the right sequence of links got Brandon saying, “I love Ted. He’s so fucking punk. You know?”

Let me tell you: that really pissed me off. Being recognized is terrible. It is having a fucked mirror placed next to your body that reflects only the most outlandish identifiers. But the fact is that for years following the publication of my dear friends’ back-and-forth, I remained in full embrace of punk’s signifiers, or at least some variation thereof: I bleached my hair or had total hack job haircuts. I rode freight trains. I lived and fucked in punk houses and squats filled with trash and drugs and no electricity. I wore ridiculously shambling clothes often haphazardly sewn together with dental floss.

I wallowed in punk, rolled around in its effluvia, rambled through its alleys strewn with rigs and snipes and glass shards and screeching speeding sweat. And all the while, I was also writing poetry and giving talks about gentrification and Wojnarowicz and reading Dodie and Kevin and Dennis and Megan Camille and Bob and Bruce, and relatedly, Bataille.

Admittedly, I now find this period of my life or “development” utterly embarrassing, one of the ugliest of the ugly feelings. But from where my discomfort arrives, I am not certain. Sometimes, I think it comes from years of investment in a community of affect that has little to do with what I now hold dear in this world. At other times, I am chagrined by punk’s avowed distrust of and antipathy toward any sort of nuance. Yet simultaneously, the DIY punk ethos and its relation to an undermining of capitalist hegemony seems embedded within my spirit, continuing to wend its way through what I write and how I teach and the thoughts with which I spend my time on a quotidian basis. A short-lived anarchist punk band once wrote in a communique, “punk is a ghetto,” and I tend to agree with the declaration, but extricating oneself from that cultural slum, especially as a queer person, is not simple, particularly if one has spent a good portion of one’s life inside of it.


In a 1997 College Music Journal review of I Am That Great And Fiery Force, the first full-length record by queercore band Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live, poet Stephanie Burt writes,

Behead ... plays top-speed, slightly sloppy, cheaply recorded, metal-inflected hardcore punk, with tangled-up rapid-fire bass-guitar showmanship, drums like a hailstorm on a car crash in an avalanche, and high-pitched screaming about authority and oppression.

Especially for a pop critic, Burt gets the sound right, but the missing element from the review is mention of the music’s confrontational, violent queerness. Vocalist Joshua Ploeg’s shredded throatings are deliriously scrambled and ambiguously pitched so that they are outside of gender; thus, when this voice declares, “You know me: lewd and lascivious / la-la-la-lusty every minute of every day / you know me getting la-la-la lucky / it’s the one thing the only thing only on my mind,” there’s really no way for the listener to approach what’s piping into their ears except to relate it to desire itself, to Bob (in Jack the Modernist) writing that “desire is not satisfied; it’s expelled.” Behead the Prophet’s frenzied chaos is the aural equivalent of that expulsion, what can be categorized as the multifarious orgasm, the syncopic moment rooted not only in the pleasures of skin, but in the harrowing deprivations and oft-concealed sensualities of history and its memories. That the thrust of the multifarious orgasm derives an aspect of its motion from resistance to normativity should not be surprising, and the radicality of Behead the Prophet’s queer torrent serves as one bit of evidence of such movement.

Pause. Here’s an exercise: can you remember the first orgasm you experienced to music?

I knew nothing about Behead the Prophet when, at twelve years old, I picked up the group’s CD at Repo Records in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. I’d spent the previous two years dwelling in a truncated grief, as I’d not only come to the conclusion that I was queer, but also had a mother who had been crawling the shores of mortality with stage IV invasive epithelial cancer of the ovaries. Though she had emerged from her illness and was in remission, the impossibility of her ever truly recovering was laid bare by a newfound religiosity, which confronted my burgeoning sexuality in any number of predictable and unpredictable ways. As the cruel banality of the imagination would assume, my hints at my sexuality were treated as my obsession with punk and hardcore was treated: as part of an early teenage rebellious phase that would pass.

But in my bedroom, I was voracious. I read magazines like Profane Existence and The Defenestrator and HeartattaCk from front to back, steeping my consciousness in the weird brew of DIY punk and radical politics. I listened to records over and over again, by groups like… well, Behead the Prophet, Capitalist Casualties, Submission Hold, and Kill the Man Who Questions. And as is typical for a thirteen-year-old, I masturbated with an astonishing frequency in a vast array of positions and situations.

Yet the first time I can remember the music that was playing when I achieved orgasm, the scene itself was rather staid, normal even. I was lying in bed nude, walls surrounding me covered in a claustrophobic density of posters, left index finger up my asshole, stroking furiously, and Behead the Prophet’s “In the Garden” was playing on my CD boombox. And then! There it was: a splash on the “sun air moon and soil ... in the garden of incendiaries,” the lyrics positing my young queer body as an explosive device.

I didn’t think much of the circumstances at the time, but in retrospect, that orgasm can help form a frame for the collision of New Narrative and queer punk beyond the facility of a shared fascination with (and occasional yen for) abjection.

You see, I’m still that queer punk kid. “I can’t imagine a place for myself in the world,” as Bob writes in his own story of recollected youth in “Do Be. Don’t Be.” But unlike Bob, I’ve never trusted the world enough to allow myself to think it could imagine a place for me. “To take revenge on the world for not existing” remains the goal, as Bob writes in his “Long Note on New Narrative,” and this is perhaps where that orgasm comes in again: not only to take revenge, but also to proclaim (with Limp Wrist): “we’re the freaks in town ... [and we’re] not down with this normal world junk.”


In 2011, I was asked to give a talk at Small Press Traffic, and after the usual search for a subject, I settled on what can be handily described as an anti-capitalist rant about the coffee-table book Punk House: Interiors in Anarchy. Though rife with the sort of talkiness, bluster, and oversharing that was more in vogue during that period, while reading through the talk again, I stumbled upon the following sentences, where I describe my headspace during a sexual encounter:

What I’m really pondering ... is how the sound of my head hitting the [shower stall] wall reverberates, and how shoddy the construction of the hotel must be. In a way, I am thinking about money, but more about its tactile failures than the rewards it can yield me.

And then, as if being sent back to that shower stall in SoMa wasn’t enough, the next paragraph throws down the gloves:

Recognizing these failures [of capital] is part of what being a punk is all about. Of course, it’s also what being a critical thinker and present in our world is all about, but the difference I’ve found is that most punks I know act on this recognition in their everyday lives. They don’t just blather about it or blog about it or write about it in some book only other book-writers will read—they make an effort to subvert capital in the places they move through, the spaces they inhabit.

My naïveté is showing to a certain degree, yes, and the whole mess seems quaintly bygone given the events that have taken place in Oakland during the past six years, but the multifarious orgasm is there: a postcard sharing intimacies from a once and future queer dissident.

When I wrote the talk, I lived in a queer punk house with a rotating cast of residents. At one point, there were five queer cis-gender weirdo dudes and a genderfluid Australian overstaying their visa living in a one-floor, four-bedroom dump. It was impossibly cheap and also impossible: the air was heavy not just with the particulate matter endemic to West Oakland, but also the stench of strange food and sex and beer and cigarettes and frying electricity and old plumbing. The Australian told my future partner that listening to us fuck made them wet, but that it might be a good idea to invest in a ball-gag. Too intimate, let’s venture to say.

But that period remains instructive: we were a bunch of queer punks approaching our 30s, working shit jobs to eat and make rent but otherwise dwelling in a space against time, a luxurious world of good, kinky sex and bicycling to the beach and flashing the middle finger to the loft-dwellers that were then really starting to stake a foreboding foothold in West Oakland. We woke up “excluded from the day ahead,” as Bob would have it, but not altogether unhappy with that fate.

When Dodie writes about laughing at hegemony, at “the suggestion that freedom equals consumption equals human value,” her laughter was ours—we existed in an unceasing chuckle sometimes raised to a manic braying. At the time, it seemed the most appropriate response to the unwavering brutality of the diurnal, to the conditions kari writes toward almost smack in the middle of Bharat jiva:

waking up after waking up

after another artificial anti-depressive smile

wakes up individually wrapped cheese

freezing not unlike a lisp

stammering and stuttering to stay warm

uncountried, constantly under flag

freezing trying to wake up

flanked by

freezing heads in cars

bodies in malls

Our laughter’s analog is in that stammer, the attempt “to stay warm” in the “individually wrapped / ignored historical doritos nacho cheese / cool ranch next to / doritos reduced fat nacho cheesier.” Over time, most of us who lived in that house found our cackles turning to stammers as the conditions changed, the situations we found ourselves in becoming ever more dire, our alienation under late capital blooming as the apocalypse, the bland dread of “the natural white nacho / cheese.” Though the remainder of the lyrics are inscrutable, the chorus of Behead the Prophet’s “Separated States” is just that two-word phrase yelled desperately over and over again, and its succinct evocation of “individually wrapped” despair is as much a balm as kari’s poems—evidence that in our queerness, in our horror and estrangement from each other, there are others like us damning the same strictures even as they attempt to engulf us.


Much has been made of New Narrative’s somewhat recent emergence from a decades-long concealment in the foggy streets of San Francisco, yet given the continued obscurity of some of its most prominent works and adherents, its reputation as an “underground literature” remains intact, despite where we’re sitting. For example, when I mentioned New Narrative in passing in an article I recently wrote for a Philadelphia-based literary magazine, my editor asked me to expand upon what New Narrative is, for while she had a general idea, most readers—even those with erudite and eclectic tastes—do not. [For related discussions in this issue of New Narrative’s underground renown and recent popularity, see David Grundy’s interview with Aaron Shurin and Brian Ng’s review of Robert Glück’s About Ed - ed.]

And while academic studies have been published about queer punk aesthetics, most bands have yet to cross over into mainstream, or even subcultural, consciousness. For every Hunx & His Punx or Pansy Division, there is a group like Livid or Myles of Destruction. What I am getting at is that both New Narrative and queer punk work on various levels of the liminal, hovering between zones of recognition and obscurity. When Bob gives one of his rare readings or queercore powerhouse Limp Wrist perform a rare San Francisco show, the venues are packed, albeit the former is crowded with literary connoisseurs both queer and straight, and the latter is crowded with a mob of sweaty, slam-dancing queer punks yelling along to lyrics like, “I love hardcore boys / I love boys hardcore.” These two crowds might rub shoulders or more in the pissoir of the Eagle, but otherwise, their parallel statuses of belonging to an “underground” scene is often tenuous at best.

Still, there is “night, and they walk unsane, sprawling chins of steel, / the fearless, the torn, the lamentable... / freaks of the underworld,” as Kevin has written. I remember sharing a copy of Jack the Modernist with my queer housemates, and after each reader, the book was more and more sticky. We’d go to punk shows in basements together and make jokes about prolapse and glory holes and unattractive dudes jerking off to us at the bathhouse, but these friends seemed totally uninterested in accompanying me to hear Bruce read from the re-issued The Truth About Ted. The literary world of San Francisco was outside of the interstitial zone of the pissoir, and thus outside of comfort for these queer comrades, and the possibility of living in the pissoir and occupying both the liminal spaces of punk and New Narrative seemed outlandish to them in a way I couldn’t understand. A good friend, who wrote gorgeous zines about his queerness and sex work, would sometimes respond to my praise with a series of questions: “But who cares about this other than me, you, and a few of our friends? Why write for anyone?” I told him that he sounded like Phyllis from Jack when she questions Bob, “Why should I want to be a writer?”

These are valid questions, and it seems that both Phyllis and my friend were understandably ambivalent about the idea of the writerly identity, the sort of enclosure that can create. But I’ve always respected the writerly identity as a sort of commons, a space to “explore the meeting of flesh and culture, the self as collaboration.” What about the “enjambments of power, family, history, and language” made them uncomfortable with claiming an identity that they belonged to and belonged to them as much as it belonged to anyone, everyone? What lines had been fed to them that so scorched a boundary around the writerly identity that they could not cross?

Departing from Phyllis and focusing more on my friend, I think that what prevented him and many queer punks from entering the literary world at their fingertips was a sort of class anxiety. Many writers grouped around the New Narrative rubric have become members of the petit bourgeoisie as time has passed—along with those who own multiple properties or are active as landlords, it is difficult to imagine any in the New Narrative coterie who do not perform some of the unpaid social labors of the class as identified by James C. Scott, such as creating or fostering “the aesthetic pleasures of an animated and interesting streetscape, a large variety of social experiences and personalized services, acquaintance networks, [and] informal neighborhood news and gossip.”

Thus, while there are plenty of self-identified queer punks who come from middle-to-upper-middle class backgrounds, myself included, there are a great many who would be categorized as the proletariat, including those who have been kicked out of these more luxe backgrounds. Entering a world of small ownership, where personal and social autonomy is the great prize, is not some easy feat for many queer punks, in other words, and while many of those within the New Narrative milieu are theoretically radical, when it comes down to self-reflection coupled with actual class analysis, a number of the writers within the movement fail. I could tell some stories, but here I’m going to buck the New Narrative tendency toward public gossip and simply let the imagination ruminate.


I’m going to end this talk, probably prematurely, with another admission: I’m embarrassed of my time spent with New Narrative. In her “Irresponsible Essay” course at CCA, Dodie’s first assignment was to write the most embarrassing thing about yourself that you felt you could share, a common prompt within the New Narrative workshop scene. I wrote about the first time I came, watching Full House on a tiny analog screen, honed in on the bulge in John Stamos’s pants. Later in that course, I wrote a piece about my granny’s recent death, how I couldn’t stop eyeing the altar boys at her funeral service. (They weren’t children, get your mind out of the gutter). A year or so later, Kevin asked to publish a piece about technology and masturbating to cam porn in the Best New Gay Erotica that he was editing.

New Narrative and its devices liberated me, and that’s embarrassing. That I needed liberating is embarrassing. That my writing needed liberating is embarrassing. But I did, and it did, and my writing is partly the fault of Dodie and Kevin and Camille and Bob and Bruce and Steve and Dennis and Rob and any number of other people, both dead and alive. Like punk rock and its collaborative spirit, New Narrative wends its way through so much of what I write and think and read towards, and I am simultaneously grateful and totally vexed by that dynamic.

Perhaps I feel hesitation and discomfort when acknowledging the perpetual effects that the fellow travelers of queer punk and New Narrative have on me, because both are outlandish, oft-controversial, and rarely stable. I’ve lived in seven different places in seven different towns in the past two years, I’ve helped alienate any number of people during that time, and I’ve often felt like a being from another planet during the process. A mirror held to my own failings is unsettling at best and scream-inducing at worst.

“There’s something in my veins, and it’s trying to fucking kill me.” David Wojnarowicz was ostensibly yelling to an empty street about AIDS, but he was also yelling about the multifarious orgasm: the “enjambments of power, family, history, and language” which, along with syncopic pleasure, run through all of our veins, and are also actively trying to kill us. Where New Narrative burrows in and investigates, punk rock tells these strictures off. “Given the options, where would your anger take you?—where has it taken you?”

#275 – Winter 2024