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Jim Behrle contains multitudes.
Unlike Whitman's, though, Behrle's multitudes are not Civil War wounded, sweaty dockhands, or slave laborers, but defecating bears, gay sailors, and mustachioed cats in clown costumes. And these multitudes have made their way into a segment of the popular consciousness not through the elevated lyric of a nation's soul, but through a series of amateur cartoons, most notably "Kreepie Kats," a weekly feature on the media gossip site Gawker.
The strip's rudimentary presentationlined notebook paper plastered with four "adorable" cat stickers under red-marker speech bubbles bursting with shaky handwritingmakes David Rees's clip-art political cartoons "Get Your War On" look like a series of Rembrandt sketches. But the combination of clumsy art and outsider opinion (including, but not limited to, "Who cares about Ana Marie Cox?! I'd rather hump the Wonkette sexy librarian logo!!") have turned the top-hatted Ketchup and his fellow KatsKrunchypants, Kumshot, and Klonopin (among a few others)into a minor Internet phenomenon.
Though Gawker posts the Kats without attribution every Fridayand though their androgynous lechery encourages a certain distancetheir authorship has never been in doubt among the small, tribal world of contemporary poets.
The red marker and bored-in-study-hall aesthetic are all hallmarks of Jim Behrle, a poetry-world rabble-rouser who lampoons verse culture on his various URL-shifting blogs.
"Those blogs are clearly the work of a deranged person," Gawker managing editor Choire Sicha says after being directed to Behrle's more poetry-centric work. "I hope it's not true that he is the author of "Kreepie Kats." It takes a genius to name a cat sticker 'Krunchypants' and this person seems rather like an idiot to me."
For years, Behrle was known mostly as a Boston poetry impresarioan often drunk host of marathon readings at WordsWorth Books, an editor of the online journal Can We Have Our Ball Back?, and a sometime-host of a poetry radio show on WBUR. But in 2004 he quit drinking and moved to Manhattan. Soon he found himself sober, surrounded by poets, and with a lot of non-drinking time to kill.
He also found himself the subject of the VH1 reality series Can't Get a Date.
"When he did the reality TV show," poet Jordan Davis sighs, "that completed his transformation from a radio and bookstore personality into this fully rounded insipid media figure in New York he is now."
Behrlestill as ubiquitous at poetry readings as he was before becoming a "media figure"runs the Zinc Bar reading series, and can often be found in the front row at Poetry Project events, chuckling in his maniacal baritone and scribbling notes with a red marker. But there's no doubt he's made walking the line between genius and idiot a much more public act since coming to New York.
"When I first started cartooning, it was all just about poetry," Behrle explains over a bowl of egg noodles in Soho. "But I have opinions about lots of stuff. And if I just wrote and wrote, no one would pay attention, but by creating an image I can cut through the layers of reserve a person has.
"When you see a bunny sucking on a beer saying a one-line haiku, it's powerful. It's like, 'That dude just wrecked my life with a magic marker and a couple of stickers!'
"I still don't quite understand why that is, but I like it."
Behrle, a 34-year-old with a wispy goatee and a straight-brimmed Mets hat, has heavily lidded eyes, but they widen and shine when he talks about the trouble his cartoons can cause in poetry circles.
"I'm not really a critic," he laughs. "Theologian, maybe. Or just an asshole. I mean, little bits of acrylic poo are essential to what I do, so it's not like serious criticism."
While this should come as no shock to readers who only know "Kreepie Kats," Behrle has made a reputation as an insightful and astute (if ruthless) observer of poet behaviorfrom the nepotistic publishing practices of literary magazines, to the blatant careerism of "experimental" poets.
"Jim's a trickster," says poet and Poetry Project Newslettereditor Brendan Lorber. "Someone who lives slightly outside all communities and comments on them. Those who would belittle the role would say he's a funny guy who entertains and distracts us at best, and demeans us at worst. But those are the techniques a trickster employs to cull the litter."
Culling the litter through personal attacks, gossip-mongering, and wisecracks is nothing new in the world of pop culture (cf. Us Weekly), but in the world of poetrywhich largely sees itself as separate from the getting, spending, and ogling of the contemporary marketplaceit's nothing short of radioactive.
"I would prefer not to comment on Jim Behrle," one poet, not atypically, writes in response to an interview request, "and I also ask that my name not be mentioned in any context in any article about him."
For his part, Behrle doesn't seem to mind a little alienation for the sake of what he sees as the greater poetry good. "Poetry has done a great job marginalizing itself," Behrle growls, "and on the one hand that's not badthere's lots of great poetry that's supposed to scare off normal readers. But what happened to giant fixtures of popular culture like Ginsberg?
"He didn't become famous by being nice to everybody and wearing patches on the elbows of his sport jacket. He was like, 'I'm an idiot and I'm going to go around and do these incredibly nutty things,' and people responded. 'Oh yeah, Allen Ginsberg, that poet, I heard about him. I saw him playing the harp with his face and praying to Krishna' or whatever."
Reactions to Behrle's antics have been similar, if not quite so sympathetic or widespread ("You are a deluded, out-of-control, irrational, paranoid, self-aggrandizing bully," poet Nada Gordon wrote on Behrle's blog, "and you need to stop this behavior"). But while Ginsberg gained notoriety for being nutty, his first book was also the landmark cultural achievement Howl.
Behrle's first book, She's My Best Frienda collection of modest but engaging lyrics in the Frank O'Hara/Ted Berrigan modemakes for an enjoyable read, but it's no Howl. Mostly concerned with "nerf sex dungeons," She's My Best Friend does spend considerable time on Behrle's pet obsession: how poetry reputations get made.
"We've narrowed down people's approved paths through poetry," Behrle says. "It's like, if you're nice and get an MFA, you'll eventually be John Ashberyyou know, 80 years old, carrying a Bollingen around, drinking wine all day long. That's the dream.
"And there's some people living the dream, no question. I saw Peter Gizzi read the other day, and I was like, 'That's Elvis!' That dude is up there, living the poetry dream! Getting his books out there, getting the hot poetry wife-I mean, those seem like great things. But that dude's huge only in the molehill that is our poetry world consciousness."
Behrle, though, believes he's found the perfect thing to expand this consciousness, as well as outsiders' awareness of poetry: cartoons of deluded, self-aggrandizing bears pissing on expoet laureate Billy Collins.