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Martin Ott

A veteran and long-time resident of Los Angeles, Martin Ott's books include LESSONS IN CAMOUFLAGE (C&R Press, 2018) and SPECTRUM (C&R Press, 2016). He is the author of seven books and won the De Novo and Sandeen prizes for his first two poetry collections. His work has appeared in more than two hundred magazines and a dozen anthologies.

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William Carlos Williams famously wrote that ‘it is difficult to get the news from poems’ but poets like Martin Ott keep proving the limits of Williams’ vision. In his wildly strange Fake News Poems, Ott chronicles the first year of the Age of Trump through a series of stranger-than-fiction poetic news stories, each of which come to speak to the wider apocalyptic rumblings of a society–and a planet–seeming to come apart at the seams. As we run toward the singularity, sex robots, edited embryos, self-driving cars, spying dolls redefine the Anthropocene, but don’t stop us from swaddling guns, or cockroaches from sneaking into brains, or woodpeckers from cracking our car mirrors. We haven’t yet seen what we’ve become. We need poets like Ott to pay attention to the way in which the future is staring us in the face, and waiting for us to wake up.”

– Philip Metres, Author of Sand Opera

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Fake News Poems

Fake News Poems: An Enactment of the Role Art Plays In Our Bizarre Cultural Moment

03/21/19

On August 31, 2018, CNN anchor John Berman used a simple Radiohead lyric to punctuate one of his close-up soliloquies: “This is really happening.” Berman quoted these four words from “Idioteque,” an arguably lesser-known song from Kid A, released in the year 2000. From Thom Yorke’s pen to John Berman’s lips, the lyric is a message of reassurance and foreboding for consumers of American news.

Berman was not simply flexing his memory for alternative lyrics; he was nodding to art and its role in our culture—to filter reality; to help us see and believe the truth. Art is called to bear witness to the dystopian logic of a president who tells his followers, gathered at a rally of support, not to believe their eyes and ears, not to believe the news.

Martin Ott’s poetry book Fake News Poems - 2017 Year in Review - 52 Weeks, 52 Headlines, 52 Poems is an enactment of the role art plays in our bizarre cultural moment. Ott’s fourth collection of poetry, published by BlazeVOX Books on March 15, 2019, is a work of undeniable attention to these strange days.

The title contains Ott’s conceit. Each poem responds to one of the 52 headlines that form the table of contents. Sources are as varied as a Mondoweiss cartoon, Fox News and CNN headlines, and papers of record, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The poems are arranged in weekly order throughout the year 2017.

Inventive in language and form, Ott calls the work “prose poems disassembled into verse.” The free verse lines are surprising, both muscular and flexible. They run long, then align in a block of prose, and then fall into short couplets or tercets. Ott’s use of internal rhyme is sparse and surprising. His themes are recursive, and the engaged reader can follow a theme through its fabulously dizzying course.

These poems retell, reframe, and recast the news of our world until it is as pervasive as a cockroach nesting in your skull. The cockroach appears in a Washington Post headline dated February 7, 2017, and becomes a metaphor for the “collective dread about the terrorist in our head.”

The first poem in the collection introduces a major theme of automation, inspired by a January 2 headline story on counterfeit library patrons created by renegade librarians to borrow and save beloved library books. The villain is automated book culling software, running its “tired algorithm of popularity.”

The final poem is a reconsideration of the automation theme. The hapless hero of a December 26 headline story is a man who assaults an ATM when it gives him more cash than requested, “a matter of principle and principal.”

Early in the year, the speaker recounts how librarians asserted their intellect on artificial intelligence. By the final poem, the assertion takes a more visceral and hopeless form:

There was no scenario where he would beat
the machine. It would calculate and enervate
his wealth. It would replace all his brethren
and commodify his health. Because it could
not make mistakes any fault would be his.

Between these bookend poems, the theme of automation extends to absurd stories about spying microwaves, dolls accused of espionage, and microchipped employees. The theme twists again when Mother Nature is the threat, and humans remain duty-bound to our tools, like the man mowing his lawn during a tornado, because “Grass has an agenda, / too.”

Truth in poem makes the unbelievable more believable. At least it fills a bit of the void left by the 24-hour news cycle. Either way, there is meaning to be found in these poems, from this poet, who scans the static for clear notes and reports in an unfailing, unflinching voice.

Appearing beneath the dystopian headlines, there is the speaker’s family, realigning after the fracture of divorce. The family is an artifact, alchemized through these poems. Parents vie for popularity. The children carry on with failed driver’s exams and successful basketball games, but the father fears the “pull of darkness,” found in the poignant consideration of a headline about the eclipse of August 21, 2017.

Readers of Ott’s 2013 poetry debut and De Novo prize winner Captive will be familiar with the “teenage interrogator” who appears again in Fake News Poems. These poems seem less tethered to the author’s lived experience than Ott’s earlier work, but the impulse to discover and define truth remains. Perhaps a poet, with the line’s expansive arsenal, is best equipped to interrogate the news.

There is much to appreciate in Ott’s new book, including various and unexpected takes on isolation, automation, mortality, invasion, escape, and politics. If the news is a riddle, a reflecting pool, a bunch of lies, or a hidden truth, Fake News Poems may be our best chance of making sense of it.

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