Review of Character Limit by Brendan Joyce

Character Limit by Brendan Joyce
Grieveland, 2019
72 pages, $20 for print, $15 for digital

“The Revolution Will Be . . .” by Sarah Beddow

Few moves are as disrespected in the writing world as self-publishing. That said, I can think of a number of well-regarded presses that publish the work of their founders. Newsletters are also increasingly popular—for creative writers and journalists alike—and what is a newsletter if not self-published writing? Even as various modes of self-publishing gain respectable footholds among the literati, the literary world still looks with contempt at a self-published volume of poetry or fiction. 

Character Limit by Brendan Joyce is such a self-published collection of poetry—but Joyce explicitly self-published the collection in order to point a finger at the failings of the faltering gatekeepers and literary institutions that have heretofore held tightly to the reins of taste and power. In August of this year, Joyce and partner Kevin Latimer officially founded Grieveland, a press with the explicit aim of unsettling the contest-industrial complex and paying writers more money for their writing—as well as publishing their own work. 

I will admit that a good portion of why I have a Twitter account is so I can watch the fights that periodically convulse literary Twitter—fights that point to the sources of our uneasiness about self-publishing: money, power, taste, merit, access, and the way privilege skews it all. Often, it seems the divide is between emerging and established writers: the established writers conservatively guard the status quo, and the emerging writers progressively (or liberally) demand access. But the more fights I follow, the more I recognize the real divide: there are those who would burn the system(s) all down and live a fulfilling life off the grid and those who aim to change our institutions from the inside, fighting for their own piece of that institutional pie. 

Character Limit has its own stake in this fight. Beyond being a self-published collection of poetry, Joyce originally (self) published all the poems in the book on Twitter, as single tweets, bypassing institutions and gatekeepers entirely—thus the title. The collection wears its politics on its sleeve, declaring at the jump: 

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Still go buy the book to put money in Joyce’s pocket because writing is labor, and labor deserves to be compensated. But Joyce’s project is in its heart anti-capitalist. For Joyce, poetry is not a commodity strictly owned by those who paid for it. As he writes in poem 26, 

                                         Those days it was easier

                                         to imagine the end of capitalism

                                         than getting sober. The tables

                                         have burned & turned. The

                                         bridge the water runs under

                                         has lifted. The instinct to forgive

                                         has been forgiven. Give us this

                                         day, our daily bread, and forgive

                                         nobody. All property is theft.

The poems in Character Limit are grounded in Cleveland—specifically a gentrifying Cleveland that is falling to pieces in these times of end-stage capitalism: 

                                         10.

                                         A smattering of

                                         charcuterie enthusiasts

                                         convinced us our

                                         economy could

                                         run on cured meats,

                                         hops & wheat. Now

                                         the whole town got

                                         the gout. The mayor

                                         got the gift of glut. The

                                         night glimmers with a

                                         sheen of doubt. We

                                         learn how to slalom

                                         towards rock-bottom.

 The poems draw clear lines between capitalism and its ill effects. “There are few if any / excuses to live / this way,” Joyce writes in poem 28,

                                         You got me,

                                         I’m talking about

                                         addiction again.

                                         I’d meant to say 

                                         capitalism. I’d 

                                         meant to say

                                         sprawl. . . .

This world and its insistence on individualism is killing us—a fact that was clear before the pandemic but ever more glaring the longer we persist in valuing our personal “freedoms” over public health. This America promotes deregulation to encourage a market-based solution to everything. But a market-based solution to sprawl and isolation will be quick and dirty—it will be addictive, keeping us coming back for more of its solutions by never really solving our problems. Character Limit does offer some hope that we can resist, though, as in poem 5: 

                                         If you had only told me

                                         that praxis was refusing

                                         to work, I would’ve

                                         come around a lot sooner.

                                         All that time in the

                                         crypt of the eighteen hour

                                         shift, watching the houses

                                         burn, watching the block flip.

                                         I’d just needed to sit still

                                         & say no to what was killing

                                         me.

Of course, now huge numbers of us are sitting still trying to say no to what is killing us. Nearly a year into the Coronavirus crisis, and it it’s not clear what will kill any one of us first: capitalism or the virus itself. The problems the pandemic has exposed are just that, exposed; they aren’t new. Landlords have always been shitlords:

                                         15.

                                         It wasn’t that they

                                         weren’t locked, it

                                         was that a lock was

                                         a game that everyone

                                         knew how to play.

                                         Our landlord was

                                         the champion of locks,

                                         the keeper of keys,

                                         the laziest of burglars.

                                         When they tried to

                                         evict it was because

                                         we’d turned off the bank

                                         cards they had taken.

Billionaires didn’t start hoarding resources when they heard about the Coronavirus. They have been hoarding wealth for decades:

                                         18. 

                                         Owners are cracking

                                         down re: waning

                                         popularity: $100

                                         to make between

                                         now & midnight

                                         if I play it right.

                                         Good news is:

                                         Another dead billionaire. Bad

                                         news: his money’s 

                                         a zombie that’s

                                         burning the

                                         rainforest.

                                         Good news:

                                         I know how

                                         to kill Zombies.

                                         Bad news:

                                         I’m a coward.

Reading Character Limit, I was amazed but not particularly surprised by how well it anticipates this historical moment, both the utter failure of our society and the push for revolutionary action. Progressives have been promising change—revolutionaries promising revolution—for so long, and seemingly transformative moments have arrived before only to bring us more of the same.  

                                         58.

                                         If it’s a revolution

                                         a lot of people will die.

                                         I mean, surely we’ll be

                                         out gunned. The cops

                                         all have 9/11 money now

                                         & Jason Bourne mentalities.

                                         The people are so far flung

                                         from the insurrection it will be

                                         a mess. But you and I both

                                         know, if it’s an election a lot

                                         of people will die.

Is this a new age of revolution? How many of us, and who among us, will die? 

BIO: Sarah Beddow is a poet, mother, and teacher. She has written a lot of poems and essays about her body, rape culture, and abortion. Her chapbook, What’s pink & shiny/what’s dark & hard was published by Porkbelly Press, and she is the founding editor of the Pittsburgh Poetry Houses, a public art project. Find her online at impolitelines.com.