What are we able to know about superstar college dropouts?
Kanye West performs at The Museum of Modern Art’s annual Party in the Garden benefit, New York City, May 10, 2011. Photograph by Jason Persse.
A glance at celebrity websites and magazines serves to confirm that it is possible to make a living by taking photos of very famous people doing very ordinary things: walking dogs, pumping gas, dropping children off at daycare. It might be difficult to identify the precise desire that these images are intended to stoke or satisfy—the thrill of peeking through the regimented scrim of celebrity to glimpse something genuine, maybe, or simply the reassurance that despite their exalted state, these stars’ quotidian concerns are not wholly different from our own. But the rush is clearly widespread, if not universal.
This spring, Wesleyan University Press released Sarah Blake’s debut poetry collection, Mr. West, which achieves its momentum from examining the distant spectacle of celebrities alongside the enduring curiosity about what they might really be like as human beings. This “unauthorized lyric biography,” as Blake calls it, juxtaposes Kanye West’s life as a black male celebrity with Blake’s own as a white female artist and soon-to-be-mother. “You miss her and I miss him but // surely I cannot say if, when you think of death, you, Kanye, think of the / heart,” she writes in “Kanye’s Circulatory System,” writing of the death of her grandfather and of West’s loss of his mother, Donda. By putting their lives in conversation, she provokes her readers to wonder: What are we able to know about superstars, as far as we are from their fabulous orbits? What are we ever able to know definitively about the experience of someone else? Her answer: people have a great deal to learn from their experience of celebrities, particularly the feeling—familiar to all who have ever considered themselves fans—of identifying with a person whom one has likely never seen in person.
Mr. West builds the enigma and inaccessibility of celebrities—and the way their images are mediated—into the text. Presumably for permissions reasons, Blake can’t quote extensively from West’s lyrics. Thus, she replaces quotations with blacked-out bars and attributions so that readers can find them for themselves. The section “the fallible face,” for instance, has an epigraph that says, “Kanye West ‘Through the Wire,’ line 6 of verse 2’”—a structure evocative of biblical citation—which, if readers check, reads “And he explained the story about how blacks came from glory.”
Poets have been deploying celebrities as a means of mixing “high” and “low” or pop and elite cultures for decades, going back to Frank O’Hara’s poems about Lana Turner and Billie Holiday and beyond.