Amanda Fucking Palmer is at it again, everyone. For those of you unacquainted with her, Amanda Palmer is a musician, performance artist and provocateur who first became famous as one half of punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls and has since had a successful career as a solo artist. From her release of “Oasis,” an upbeat song dealing with rape and abortion, to recent accusations of under-compensating “crowd-sourced” musicians joining her on tour, Palmer has long been a magnet for controversy. Prone to engaging directly with fans and detractors alike via a strong internet presence, she’s been accused of being greedy and exploitative, disguising blatant bids for publicity as radical activism.
I’ve long been an Amanda-Palmer apologist. “She’s an artist,” I’d say, “you don’t have to agree with her to appreciate her music.” “She’s married to Neil Gaiman! How bad can she be?” When she began asking for donations from fans that went directly into her pocket, I lauded her for improving on old models of consumer-to-artist compensation. I chose to ignore her questionable sexual politics, to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she was just a blessed (or cursed) with a particularly radical and inflammatory personality.
I don’t follow Palmer's career very carefully, preferring to just take note when her name pops on its own during my internet wanderings. Most recently, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw that she had written a poem about the Boston Marathon bombings. As someone who has been struggling to produce anything articulate or meaningful about those events, I immediately searched out the original blog post.
Entitled “A Poem for Dzhokar,” the post has over 1000 comments and is making the rounds of the internet. If I felt like being very charitable, I would describe it as something obviously written by someone who is a lyricist and not accustomed to writing poetry that stands alone. Having just sat through one of the most surreal and upsetting weeks of my life as Boston reeled from the tragedy which Palmer is using as inspiration, I’m not inclined to be charitable. My more honest reaction is to say that this reads like poetry written by an un-talented, angsty teenager attempting to process emotions well beyond the scope of her creative capabilities. I agree wholeheartedly with the commenter who responded: “From a writer's perspective I read this with a crushing indifference; from a human perspective I read this and really wished I hadn't.”
The poem ranges from asinine (“you don’t know how many Vietnamese soft rolls to order”) to brutally distasteful (“you don’t know why you let that guy go without shooting him dead and stuffing him in some bushes between Cambridge and Watertown”). It appears to be an attempt to humanize Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old subject of April 19th’s massive manhunt and the main suspect in the Marathon Monday bombings. Palmer paints him as a nervous, lonely young man, with such lines as “you don’t know where your friends went,” “you don’t know how it felt to be in the womb but it must have been at least a little warmer than this,” and “you don’t know how to dance but you give it a shot anyway.” Her Dzhokhar is trapped and confused, not quite innocent but certainly not as guilty as he could be. She speculates about his relationship with his older brother and probable partner in crime, writing “you don’t know how to separate from this partnership to escape and finally breathe.”
If I had come across this poem in a personal journal, scribbled on a napkin or typed up and saved somewhere private, my reaction would have been different. Poetry can be a powerful and productive way to process emotions, and I sympathize with the urge to push back against wild, bloodthirsty media speculations regarding this young man about whom so little is known. If I had been struck by the artistic merit of the work, I would have felt differently. Some of the best art deals with controversial and offensive content. But I didn’t find it in a personal journal. I found it on the public blog of a well-known musician. And I wasn’t impressed by the writing. Shock-value aside, it’s structurally boring and lacks any sort of emotional center. No matter how disrespectful and distasteful I find “A Poem for Dzhokar,” that’s beside the point. With this post, Amanda Palmer has managed to make the discussion of a tragedy into a discussion about her. I am willing to respect an artist with whom I disagree. I am not willing to respect an artist who creates controversy out of tragedy without bothering to create art at all.