Hello this is Ross Sutherland, the author of Jean Claude Van Damme. I’m here to talk a little more about it.
It’s quite satisfying writing these notes! I’m enjoying it a lot. Usually, if I was performing these poems onstage, I would give an introduction that would cover quite a lot of this information.
Agh, but maybe that means that the poems themselves are incomplete! If you need notes to enjoy it, then that looks like a failure of the poem itself! The poem should have found a way to *include* the notes!
This is extremely difficult. Because writing poems is only part of the craft. The poems are the bricks, the performance is the mortar. Whenever I am thinking about poems, I’m thinking about them as part of a live performance, which comes with notes, asides, anecdotes, etc. Poetry comes alive for me in those situations. To see my poems dead on the page… they look a little lost.
I wrote JCVD when I was a teenager. Maybe 16 or 17 years old. That was just a first draft, and I have reworked this poem many many times over! But the end has always been exactly the same. I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted to write a poem that helped me apologise to my dad.
I used to demonise my dad. Things happened in our family and I held him responsible. I made him the villain. When I discovered that my dad was taking drugs, I wanted to lay every blame at his feet. It took time to forgive him, to realise that every parent is human. We all make mistakes.
I wanted to write about this in poetry, but didn’t feel comfortable telling such a personal story onstage. In fact, I’ve never been comfortable talking about myself in my art. My new theatre show, Standby For Tape-Back-Up, is the first time I’ve really ever talked about myself honestly and personally onstage. And even then, I’m STILL using a cypher of pop culture. It’s a security blanket, I guess. It’s also a way to lower people’s guard- to discover a mutual safe territory, before attempting to poke beneath the surface.
I remember when Raul Julia died. His last acting role was as the villain M Bison in Street Fighter the Movie (it’s a terrible film). I found myself wondering what it was like to be Raul Julia’s child. I imagined a shelf, containing all of his father’s films, including Street Fighter The Movie at the end. In Julia’s last onscreen minute, he gets kicked into a wall of televisions by Jean Claude Van Damme (who chirps, “you’re off the air- permanently”). How could Raul Julia’s child bear to watch such a moment?
Over time, these two stories merged: Raul Julia as M Bison as my father. This was my inroad into discussing my own life. How father/son relationships can become a pantomime. How we learn to forgive those that seem unforgiveable. How real life and fiction are intertwined, and how we can use this to find solace.
Re: the poem’s title. Why call it Jean Claude Van Damme? What does Van Damme symbolise in this extended metaphor? It’s not me fighting my dad, that’s for sure. I’m just watching the action on TV. Van Damme is the unstoppable force that’s coming for all of us. He’s the reason we have to make our amends before it’s too late.
I rewrote this poem over and over again, until finally publishing it in 2009 in my first collection. It’s probably the oldest poem in the book, and again, it’s another key to understanding all the writing I’ve done since. I use pop culture as a mechanism to deal with the most upsetting parts of my life. But pop culture is nothing more than a set of rules that we all know- a structure upon which to pitch our own ideas. Take away our shared language of culture and these notes would get way way longer.
Stefan Mesch had made some comments about my writing being kitsch, and I don’t have any problems with that term really. I really can’t respond any further because the article is in german and I’m reading it through Google Translate! Happy to talk about this more if it arises.
Sometimes this use of pop culture can make my poems feel childish. But then again, poetry is a very childish thing for me – it’s a place to experiment, to break rules and make others, to play games, to act without fear of judgement. When I forget that childishness, writing becomes impossibly hard.
Any thoughts you have on the poem, please add them below and I’ll try to respond. When it comes to poetry, I’m not much of an academic, but I’ll try my best! Art is a conversation, above all. Even if you didn’t like it, tell me why you didn’t like it, and I’ll try to respond.