Poet and journalist celeste doaks is leading an online workshop, Not Without Your Laughter: An Online Humor Poetry Workshop, through Barrelhouse. We sat down to talk with celeste to talk about how humor works in poetry and what folks might get out of her worksohp. Oh, and there are three spots left so sign up now, not-yet-funny poets!
Barrelhouse: I don't think humor is the first thing most people think about when they think about poetry. Can you tell us a little about how you came to this topic?
celeste doaks: I came to this topic when I re-read Langston Hughes's novel Not Without Laughter. The novel, among other things, talks about how African Americans find resistance in laughter. Langston says that many "poverty-stricken old Negroes...lived so long...because to them, no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter." NWOL was published in 2017. And in a post-2016 election, I felt like this was precisely what I, and the rest of America, needed. We needed (and still need) a coping mechanism to deal with this intolerant, hostile political regime.
What do you think the benefit of humor is in poetry?
The benefit of humor in poetry is the benefit of humor in real life, that it heals us somewhere inside. Many of us know that studies have been done on Laughter Therapy, which proves that laughter can be cathartic. Cortisol levels drop in control groups who are exposed to jokes. People fill stadiums for comics and comediennes. My love bought me tickets for Wanda Sykes in Atlantic City for my birthday. And we still question whether or not it's appropriate to include in contemporary poetry. I think that's bs. I LOVE laughing and enjoy cackling when reading a poem. Other people enjoy this experience and it can lend itself to psychological well-being.
Who are some poets, contemporary and otherwise, who you think use humor well in their work?
I can't fully answer this question since I'm saving some of this for the class, but I will list a few of my favs. Frank O'Hara is my favorite New York School funny poet. And I love Tim Seibles and Michelle Tea as contemporary examples of hilarious poets. I am particularly interested in how women and POC can use humor as a way to combat sexism, racism, and homophobia.
What are you hoping folks will get out of this workshop?
I hope folks will gain an understanding that poetry doesn't have to be all pain and suffering. Laughter has been contemplated as far back as Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, but also by more commonly known philosophers such as Freud and Kant. Students often arrive in my poetry classes terrified and it's my job to demystify poetry for them. This is an easy way to show them that they can have fun and read and write poetry. I think many of my friends would say that I am a person who fundamentally believes in democracy. Not just the process, but in a true egalitarian society. I believe like Ginsberg did--that you should be able to talk to your muse the same way you talk to a lover. If that is true, then we must write funny poems because our psyches are funny; we should not separate that experience from poetry.
Final question is the Barrelhouse standard and we have to ask it: what's your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?
This is easy, it's a clean tie between Dirty Dancing and The Outsiders. Of course The Outsiders is at the top of the list because it's a book adaptation, and because Coppola directed it. I love everything Coppola! And Dirty Dancing is just an 80's classic that can never be topped. Do you know how many times I've screamed "Nobody puts Baby in the corner!" in my lifetime? Don't ask!
Poet and journalist celeste doaks is the author of Cornrows and Cornfields (Wrecking Ball Press, UK, 2015). She is also the editor of, and contributor in, the poetry anthology Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Joy, and Sexuality (Mason Jar Press, 2017). Cornrows was chosen as one of the “Ten Best Books of 2015” by Beltway Quarterly Poetry. Her journalism has appeared in Huffington Post, Village Voice, Time Out New York, and QBR (Quarterly Black Book Review). She is Pushcart Prize nominee and her poems have been published in multiple on-line and print publications such as The Rumpus, Chicago Quarterly Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Bayou Magazine and most recently in Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America. In 2017, she was the recipient of a Rubys Literary Arts Grant. Doaks received her MFA from North Carolina State University and is University of Delaware’s Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing for 2017-2020. In her very spare time she enjoys co-hosting the literary podcast Lit!Pop!Bang! For more visit doaksgirl.com.