Marjorie Tesser’s The Important Thing Is…Card Game requires a bit of open-mindedness. It’s published by Firewheel Editions and marketed as a chapbook and game. The only problem is, it’s not really either. Not really. The “poetry” comes in the form of seemingly random words placed on bingo-esque cards that are placed in such categories as: Location Cards, Dramatis Personae, Pairs and Bowery Poetry Club Edition (after Brenda Coultas’ “Bowery Box Wishes”). And this is where I have to consciously open myself to what poetry “can be” instead of what I think it “is.”
It’s true that, if you read the words on some of the cards, it is possible to derive deeper meaning, to have an emotional response to what’s on the page. But you sort of have to look for it/create it for yourself. And it’s also true that each card illuminates the question of what is really, truly, down to your core important. But mostly, it’s word association in clever packaging. So, okay, less poetry than game. That’s okay – the words “Card Game” are in the title. But that’s problematic too since the “rules” aren’t really rules at all; instead, we’re offered contradictory suggestions. For example:
The rules are what you think they are, or what you think they ought to be. Or what another player says they are, or group consensus. Or not.
As someone frequently referred to by my friends as “Game Nazi” for insisting we play by the rules, this comes as a challenge (and yes, Jon Stewart, I understand the implications in the word – I didn’t come up with it, don’t blame me). Yes, my first instinct is to disregard it as too clever to be taken seriously. But then again, I also told my good friend Jason Nelson that his digital poetry experiments when we were in grad school together were rubbish – and he’s built quite a nice career for himself and is, by all things that deem one so, the godfather of hypertext poetry. So, I’m a little gun-shy when it comes to being a poetry snob in reference to Tesser’s chapbook/game/whatever.
At the same time, I am compelled by the ethics (my own, I understand this) of reviewing that state I must have some criteria by which to objectively judge something. If I judge The Important Thing Is… by poetry standards – language, rhythm, sound, form, craft, for crying out loud, I have to say this is not poetry. However, if I judge Card Game by gaming standards (and I’ll admit, I had to look some up since I’m not in the habit of reviewing games) – originality, freshness, surprise, complexity, winning chances – well, then I suppose I’d have to admit that Tesser’s game meets the criteria (mostly) of good games. If I could only just figure out how to play the darn thing!
To make sure I wasn’t being a complete and utter dolt, I let members of a poetry workshop to which I belong take a look at it. The general consensus: Good for sparking new writing. Good for conversation. A game? Possibly. Poetry? Not so much. I can’t say that The Important Thing Is…Card Game is worth “reading” or even “playing,” but what I can say is that it is a fantastic, hands-on, tactile and intriguing, ever-shifting poetry prompt and conversation starter. And that’s worth quite a lot. And if I take the move to call this a “poem” out of the mix, then I can say honestly that Marjorie Tesser’s poetry game looks like a lot of fun. It’s clear that she’s attempting to deal with the larger issues here – the words she chooses for each card are heavy with implication. And the game’s encouragement to cut the cards into pieces speaks to the power of words taken out of context. She’s also clearly encouraging a sense of play with language. But, in the end, I just can’t bring myself to call this poetry.
I know that poetry evolves. I know there is merit in what I would call on-the-edge experimental poetry. I know it because it exists and speaks to an audience, and because I believe creativity shows itself in many, many forms. And maybe I’m old-fashioned and outdated, but I also believe that poetry, good poetry, is complex because it deals with complex emotions and topics and doesn’t require tricks or gimmicks. I believe that the art found in poetry is found in the way a certain rhythm in a particular line creates urgency, the way a carefully crafted image tells a story that can be told in no other way. I believe that good poetry sinks in and changes the reader. Good poetry can change a person. Great poetry can change the world. Marjorie Tesser’s The Important Thing Is…Card Game may not be good poetry, but the question it poses may be the spark that inspires greatness.
3.0 on the Gabriel scala