March 11–17, 2019
Stephen Langlois is the recipient of a NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Center for Fiction as well as a writing residency from the Blue Mountain Center. He also serves as fiction editor for the literary journal FLAPPERHOUSE. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Joyland, Lit Hub, Hobart, Maudlin House, Witch Craft Magazine, Barrelhouse and Split Lip, among others.
Each week we gather here in the basement of
the Unitarian Church of All Souls. There are rules
to be followed. We follow the rules. We all speak
in turn. We don’t interrupt. Don’t ever interrupt.
Withhold expressions of disbelief. Be supportive!
Please keep activist plans PEACEFUL & LEGAL,
so says the sign tacked to the corkboard. What
should be done in the case of infiltration? Truth is,
we might not ever know if infiltration has
occurred. Don’t reveal your actual name. Don’t
share your phone number. That’s common
sense. Be humble. Be thankful! What of lobbying
local legislators? Let’s save the topic of lobbying
for next week shall we? Avoid controversy. This
much we know: In 1961 neuroscientist Allan H. Frey
induced a series of clicks and buzzings in test subjects
with the use of pulsed microwave radiation. The U.S.
military has since developed technology capable of
transmitting encoded messages, thoughts, even voices
into the brains of targeted individuals via ELF waves.
Please don’t interrupt. We’ve all heard the voices.
More common is dizziness, nausea, loss of willpower.
Other signals activate a high-beta state of consciousness
thereby resulting in stress, anger or outright acts of
aggression. There are those among us who’ve
experienced this very phenomena. Be supportive!
The windows and walls of our homes are outfitted with
foil blankets in order to reduce the EM radiation
broadcast from nearby cellphone towers and powerlines,
though many of us still prefer it here in this basement.
We keep an RF/MV signal detector running at all
times—we’d be foolish not to–but as for the proper
frequency range of such a device it’s become
a point of contention. Some say 3 Ghz minimum,
others 6 Ghz. Let’s put that on the docket for next week
okay? Avoid controversy. Dissent is one of the
secret state’s primary goals. It’s possible infiltration
has already occurred. Don’t reveal your actual name.
We’ve been told we’re suffering auditory hallucinations.
Schizophrenia gets tossed around from time to time.
Please keep all activist plans PEACEFUL &
LEGAL. We have this, the group, at the very least.
Be thankful! Dark energy is an unknown force
hypothesized by scientists to permeate all of space.
It’s said to account for the universe’s expansion,
though neither its substance has been identified nor
the properties which appear to make it act
in the manner it appears to act. Please withhold
expressions of disbelief. Every Sunday dozens gather
above where we now sit to seek the guidance of that
which shall likely remain forever inscrutable and
unseen. Is the conviction that our lives are manipulated—
if not outright controlled—by certain covert powers
any less absurd? Let’s discuss further next week.
—Originally published in Occulum, October 2017.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Targeted Individuals” is one of the first poems I wrote upon returning to the medium after many years spent in self-imposed exile in the domain of the short story. I came back to poetry seeking succor. I hoped to unburden myself of narrative’s weight and give my ideas space to propagate, untethered to the three-act structure.
That being said, it’s quite easy to discern a story-like quality in “Targeted Individuals.” It sets a scene. It presents a cast of characters in the form of the first-person plural voice. It even seems to establish conflict in apparent need of resolution. Maybe many poems do this. Maybe not. For me, the story-like qualities of “Targeted Individuals” were developed as means to explore the emotional substance of the work. Fear, paranoia, anger, desperation, loneliness, inclusion—all this is roiling beneath the everyday as well as the esoteric details of the support group around which “Targeted Individuals” is centered.
For readers unaware, targeted individuals are those who believe themselves to be victims of neurophysiological manipulation by governmental entities via the use of extremely low-frequency radio waves, covert surveillance and the microwave auditory effect, first tested upon humans in the 1960s by Dr. Allan Frey and later at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Whether such tactics are effective to the degree claimed and whether these otherwise ordinary citizens are, in fact, being targeted is much debated. Psychiatric disorders—particularly those known to cause delusions and hallucinations—are often cited as the likely cause of suffering for targeted individuals.
As the poet pondering this convoluted subject, all I can say for sure is that such suffering—whatever the cause may be—is worthy of examination and empathy. As the poet, I can attempt to elevate this matter from the pedantic corners of the Internet where it’s often relegated to the realm of belief and faith. While this process might immerse the subject in still greater ambiguity, I find ambiguity to be a fundamentally truthful aspect of the human experience. I find poetry an ideal vehicle for expressing truthfulness without need for the factual or conclusive.
What are you working on right now?
After writing “Targeted Individuals” and a handful of other poems in a similar vein, it became clear to me I was engaged in assembling a collection of poetry linked—if not by theme—then by preoccupation. The poems I’ve written thus far—and those I plan to write—are all preoccupied in one way or another with the conspiratorial, the occult, the alien, the unknown, the preternatural, the metaphysical, the phenomenological. That is to say, the collection is united by its preoccupation with topics some might dismiss as fringe, but which I hope to dignify with a serious-mindedness I don’t generally see the fringe granted. I also hope to lend humanity to these sorts of topics by inextricably linking them to sincere thought and emotion. Each poem is written in persona—a holdover from my fiction—so that even if I, the poet, don’t personally believe whatever strange theory the speaker might be putting forth I can confer upon it the weight and relevance for which the speaker finds it deserving.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me as a writer could be construed as a terribly unproductive, objectively awful day for another writer. Out of four hours spent on my laptop I might produce two paragraphs of fiction or a handful of stanzas. While this is enough material to satisfy me—and certainly drain me of my creative energy for the day—I often wish I wasn’t such a slow writer. Still, it only seems logical to me to work at such a pace.
For me the short story and the poem are, in their constructive phases, about precision. Exposition should serve to build a speaker’s identity or ideology. Every action must generate emotional resonance. An image can’t simply exist as image, but have deliberate shape and purpose to it. Every word written—literal, figurative or otherwise—should offer something new and unapparent should the reader decide to peel away the surface and examine more closely. Not to dwell for a ludicrous length of time on a single line suggests a sort of confidence akin to egomania. Then again, who but an egomaniac would care to dwell for so long on their own words?
What brought you to Brooklyn?
After two years spent managing familial affairs in the small town in which I grew up, I began yearning for community, diversity, a somewhat fulfilling job, public displays of art, buildings greater than five stories in height. That is, I yearned for the cultural perks a remote, economically-depressed enclave in Southern Vermont simply can’t offer. I’ll concede that I did some of my most important creative work while living in near-isolation and developed a POV as a writer I never would’ve otherwise—but it was time to move on. Brooklyn was an obvious choice—for its rich artistic history and equally rich present—and though I’d never visited this place before the day I signed my lease, I haven’t once regretted my decision to move here.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I’ve lived in Crown Heights for my seven years as a Brooklynite, deep within its West Indian neighborhood. Most of my neighbors are from countries in the Caribbean—Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica, Grenada—or are of Caribbean descent. Generalizing about such a diverse group of people is foolhardy, but I will say my neighbors are by and large incredibly open, gregarious, ready to chat about the numerous stray cats we care for collectively or invite me to a streetside barbecue. Of course, I’ve seen gentrification make its way into Crown Heights, but the changes here—at least from my limited perspective as a white person who has lived here for decades less than many of its residents—have been minor. It seems to me there’s a personality to the West Indian neighborhood that’s unflappable and is reaffirmed every September by the West Indian Day Parade.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
After a particularly severe miscommunication and an exchange of heated words with a romantic partner on a very public corner of 4th Ave, I found myself boarding the 3 train alone at Bergen. I was already weeping openly by the time I dropped to my seat, big, dumb tears bouncing down my cheeks, snot dangling from nostrils. No one in the car noticed my naked display of despair or if they did they pretended not to, choosing instead to refocus on their game of Candy Crush. Somehow this was a liberating experience. I wasn’t made to feel I should hide my emotions or hold them back until I returned to my apartment. I wasn’t shamed. I was given private space within the public sphere. That, or I was truly unworthy of anyone’s attention. I learned that night Brooklyn is a place where you have free reign to weep openly and maybe even achieve some minor catharsis before pulling into your station.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
My concept of a poetry community—of a literary community in general—is always evolving and always in flux. Upon first moving to Brooklyn, I sought community in the readings I attended, in befriending the authors, editors and hosts who put together such events and eventually in sharing my own work publicly. To hear an audience member laugh at an intentionally comedic line or gasp at a particularly vivid account of body horror was—and continues to be—exceptionally validating. I’ve grown more confident as a writer. I’ve matured. I’ve come into my own and truly found my voice—and I can’t help but credit the support of Brooklyn’s literary community for this.
Eventually, I founded and began hosting BREW: An Evening of Literary Works, a showcase for writers of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and everything in between. During the two years BREW was in operation, it was a casual, fun, often intimate affair in which I endeavored to eliminate the barrier between reader and audience sometimes sensed at less spontaneous events. My intent was to create the feel of a group of friends gathered to share their thoughts and feelings in whatever form they chose. It was intended as well to be a safe and inclusionary space for readers of every race, gender and sexual orientation. Some of the most powerful words I’ve been lucky enough to hear in Brooklyn were spoken during those evenings and some of my closest friendships cultivated here in the literary community first took root at BREW.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Joseph P. O’Brien—EIC of FLAPPERHOUSE where I serve as fiction editor—is almost always the first reader on whatever project on which I happen to be working. Our taste in literature is so very much aligned and our writing so often attuned to the same strange wavelength that I trust Joe implicitly. He is such a careful, thoughtful reader and accepts my work on its own terms. That is to say, he is able to discern what it is a poem or story of mine is trying to accomplish and is then able to explain how it is that goal might be better achieved. Beyond his unparalleled editorial skills, Joe is a dear friend and a wonderful colleague to work with behind the scenes of FLAPPERHOUSE.
Joanna C. Valente was the first to encourage me to return to the domain of poetry and help me overcome my trepidation in making that return—and for that I am beyond grateful. I’m grateful also to all the readers I was fortunate to host for BREW—Monica Lewis, Leland Cheuk, Deirdre Coyle, Cooper B. Wilhelm, Bill Lessard, Darley Stewart and Bud Smith all spring to mind—for so inspiring me with their words and worldviews that I’d be negligent if I didn’t push myself as a writer in hopes of turning a phrase as expertly as all these talented folks do.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of “Fitzcarraldo” had a profound effect on me. Fitzcarraldo—in which an opera-obsessed rubber baron attempts to haul a steamship from one river in the Amazon Basin over a hill to a parallel river—is for me Herzog’s greatest narrative achievement. But it isn’t simply my love for this film which kept me so engrossed in the world Herzog meticulously documents day by day from 1979 through 1982. Nor is it the details about the film’s production, much of which was chronicled by documentarian Les Blank in Burden of Dreams.
No, the impact of this book is in Herzog’s wholly singular POV which he articulates in terms I find to be simultaneously lyrical, starkly realist, hyperbolic, hilarious, deeply philosophical and sometimes so lacking in self-awareness it’s almost discomforting to read. A single day’s journal entry—a single page, a single paragraph, a single sentence—may encompass all this and more, and I’m struck by the way in which so many beautiful contradictions can come from the same mind and be put to page with such success and coherence. This is writing at its most sublime and the overarching theme of Conquest of the Useless—that of achieving one’s creative goals no matter the obstacles—is both inspiring and unsettling in the way Herzog tells it. He truly seems to be calling for the surrendering of both body and mind to the artistic. Says Herzog:
A vision had seized hold of me … It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong … I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Though I have begun to push my poetry into more abstract realms since the writing of “Targeted Individuals,” I’d like to continue to push even further until the storyline seems to disappear entirely and the connective tissue between one idea and another becomes so tenuous it is perhaps only through the efforts of the reader—through the mental grappling of my words—that any unity at all is achieved. While this goal may seem to more seasoned poets as fundamental to the form, it is for me—possessed of a brain that sometimes feels strained by narrative weight—a challenge to myself as well as to my readers.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I’m often drawn to the garish, the frivolous, the brightly lit and flimsily constructed, the beauty of the ostentatious, and no one place in Brooklyn embodies all these qualities better than Coney Island. I particularly love Coney Island off-season when all is made sodden by rain or sleet or snow and when nobody but myself is around. Its garishness isn’t muted as one might expect but rather revealed to be all the more vivid in its privacy. At these times, it feels as if Coney Island was created for me alone.
I’ve walked the empty midway during blizzards, the bright hues of the graffiti on shuttered buildings gleaming all the brighter as if in deliberate contrast to the weather’s severity. I’ve seen the shape of the Wonder Wheel manifesting like a phantom—like a memory of Coney’s more lively days—from out of the distant white. I’ve bent down to see the reflection of the Parachute Drop etched in the slush upon the boardwalk and it is there—where this towering absurdity is transfigured and rendered all the more absurd—that I’ve been able to find a bit of poetry outside the pages of a book.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate Zoltar, and defer to Zoltar’s foretellings,
And what I am foretold so shall you be foretold also,
For every wonderful thing the crystal gazer has in store for me
as good the crystal gazer has in store for you. Your lucky
numbers are: 3, 26, 6, 44, 21, 12
Approximately three years ago a stray cat—a lithe, sweet-natured, gray tuxedo—befriended me on the sidewalk outside my apartment building. She sniffed my hand. She tipped her head to let me know I could—and should—scratch. I went to the nearest bodega and bought her a can of Friskies. More and more on my way home from the subway station I would find her in front of my building, eager for more attention and another can of Friskies. I always obliged. It became clear we were meant to be. I coaxed her into the lobby of my building one evening and scooped her up in a bundle of towels. She’s been with me ever since. Her name is Lady Gray. Brooklyn showed me love in this feline form and while I can’t take in every stray I encounter I can give those strays who want attention my attention. I can listen to their tales told in secretive mews. I can certainly spare a can of Friskies. In this small way, I return my love of Brooklyn.