I Am Not Famous Anymore by Erin Dorney
Mason Jar Press, 2018
72 pages, $15.00
From Even Stevens actor to Transformers star, from mental breakdown to performance art, Shia LaBeouf’s career has been a saga of reinvention, of discarding the old to produce a new version. But the newest, and quite possibly best, recreation is one he didn’t create: Shia LaBeouf erasures. In I Am Not Famous Anymore, Erin Dorney pulls off the difficult yet mesmerizing feat of transforming an assortment of interviews with Shia LaBeouf into pure, poetic magic. The 49 erasure poems in this full-length collection distill articles from GQ, A.V. Club, and Fox News, among others. Exploring gender, relationships, and the struggle to reinvent oneself, each piece is a small explosion of energy and insight.
One challenge that poets face in any collection is creating a cohesive whole out of different pieces while crafting poems so good that the reader wants to stop and reread. Dorney overcomes this by focusing on beginnings and endings, and by creating enough excitement that the reader feels compelled to reach the end of the book before starting over again. Each poem effectively hooks the reader, making her want to continue on. “I can’t be more real. / I couldn’t find the space,” begins “The Premise” (15). And “Still Living” starts with a confession: “I am no longer wild. / I watched it happen” (13). The initial burst of energy propels the reader further into the poem. It begs a question that must be answered by the end.
After hooking the reader, the poems often take a decisive turn in the endings, which is never expected but always feels true. In “The Most Meat I’ve Ever Had to Chew,” the speaker first discusses baptism, pulling teeth, and dead horses, before exposing the heart of the poem (38):
Does it matter if some religion is ugly,
only a myth I see magic in?
This rabbit pulls truth
out of fiction.
Not only does the poem deliver a moment of clarity, but it also breathes new life into an old cliché. This piece and many others in the collection are impressive enough on their own, but they grow even more so in view of the footnotes that remind readers how limited the artist was in her choice of words.
The true strength of the collection, though, is compactness. Some pieces comprise just two or three lines—“Waiting and Why We Do It” (33), “The Genius” (30), and “The Truth (Slightly)” (35), for example. Each poem, like the book itself, is compressed but not dense. But even if Dorney is selective with her words, she doesn’t strain to sound intelligent by saving unwieldy jargon (like some insecure sesquipedalianist would). Instead, the common speech used in interviews, when the interviewee has little time to think through responses, transforms into something extraordinary, as in “Tent-Pole Moments” (40):
You live this insane thing
You want to go to school
You can take any kind of spin
You have to earn
You have to go in and earn it
You don’t get it
“Do You Want Me to Do It? Do You Want Me to Do It?” (50) pushes this economy to the extreme. Each line is limited to a one- or two-word response:
In this list of quick replies, the piece conveys the speaker’s sadness and uncertainty. It’s the kind of thing one says when pushed into an uncomfortable situation, but it also seems to be in conversation with LaBeouf’s viral declaration: “Do it.”
Thinking too much about LaBeouf’s place in the poems can cause problems. After all, the actor has his own baggage, some of which is immediately tied to a book of poems using his words. In the same way that he is often seen as seeking attention through antics—the paper bag, the inane performance art, anything having to do with the film Nymphomaniac—the poet could potentially appear to be using similar tactics. Or worse, a book of “poems after Shia LaBeouf” could appear to be an experiment in irony.
But no matter how it could come across, nothing in this collection rings insincere. Dorney meticulously crafts intelligent, pared back poems, creating a monument out of the actors’s words but not to him. The sentiment of “If You Have Any Interest” explains it best: “I think it’s safe to say that there’s beauty in people who reinvent the void” (57). The book is a new iteration of LaBeouf, one that shows no matter who says something first, the poet always says it best. To paraphrase “Hey Boss” (49), I Am Not Famous Anymore proves that both the poem and the poet really “can be whatever the fuck / [they] give up.”