When I was 16, I got my first job as a barista. When I was 17 and I went away to school, I got my second job as a barista. When I was 18 and I went to Texas alone for the summer, I got my third job as a barista. And so on. When I was 21, I graduated from an Ivy League university (it’s not important that it’s Ivy League, except to show how entitled to more rewarding work I felt/feel) and got my sixth job as a barista.
But now I’m not in school, so I have buckets of free time—time that I use to drive my boyfriend to play rehearsals and to set up Chromecast. Time that I used to read Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub, put every book that he talked about into my Amazon shopping cart, realize that I can’t afford any of them, and then watch Mystic River on my newly set-up Chromecast. Time that I use to pick up the newspaper that I once helped edit and then scribble corrections all over it for the benefit of basically no one. The point is I have a lot of time to write, and I don’t do it. (I also have a lot of time to scroll through Tumblr, and I definitely do that.)
Last night I stumbled upon a series of photocopied pages from a collection of poems called Dear Lil Wayne. Apparently, during the eight months he was sentenced to Rikers Island, a poet named Lauren Ireland wrote postcards to the rapper. The rapper never responded, but the writer compiled them into a tiny purple book. The missives are short, impassioned and eccentric—they lack a narrative arc that would betray the project as being contrived. Instead, they seem like genuine snapshots from the daily life of an artist who has trouble acknowledging herself as such.
Ireland does a lot of things in Dear Lil Wayne—she sweats tequila and cuts her bangs and wonders about fear boners and states that she would like to be dazzling. She makes almost no reference to her writing except to say, “Someone told me that I don’t look like a poet and I thought, well good.”
In her first letter, Ireland tells Lil Wayne, “Almost everyone is lonely. Almost no one’s amazing.” It’s unclear whether she’s calling him one of the exceptional “amazing” people or if she’s implying that they both are. But that’s the intrigue of the collection—how close can one really feel to a celebrity? What purpose does that serve? Ireland doesn’t seem totally satisfied with the one-sided conversation but she doesn’t seem infuriated by it either, which implies that there is something to be gained from the unrequited love of a celebrity. But what?
The original celebrity was, of course, Hercules (of course?): The Greek word “hero” refers not to a living person acting out courageous and noble deeds, but rather to a dead man who is venerated and worshipped at a specific tomb or shrine. The hero’s spectacular life is believed to afford him nearly god-like powers to influence the lives of his worshippers—most historians, in fact, admit to the distinction between heroes and gods as a particularly complicated and nebulous one. A hero, writes Robert Parker in his 1988 book On Greek Religion, “retained the limited and partisan interests of his mortal life. He would help those who lived in the vicinity of his tomb, or who belonged to the tribe of which he himself was the founder.”
Incidentally, my “original celebrity” was E.B. White, and he is actually dead, so I guess I chose better than Ireland. I fell in love with him when I first learned to read and have wanted to name my daughter Charlotte ever since I could conceive of having a daughter rather than just being one. This summer I worked at the type of hip literary magazine where they think it’s appropriate not to pay their interns or to invite them to any of the industry events that the Paris Review interns get to go to. Our main responsibility was research—reading dozens of books of letters written by famous authors and then mining the New York Public Library system for all available information on the precise context of each one. I mention this to point out that every single one of E.B. White’s letters to every single one of his friends was about the antics of his geese. He was the least pretentious and most important contributor to the New Yorker during the half-century that the New Yorker was an important contributor to the nation’s literary conversation. I’m planning to drive to his farmhouse in Maine as soon as I make enough money selling coffee to people. I guess I’ll pour one out in his barnyard or something.
“I hope we meet each other in one of many hells,” Ireland writes. “I’ll be there waiting for you and we’ll be okay together.” Because tombs were the site of hero worship, the focus of hero cults was not on the heavens but the subterranean, the underworld. The cults that rose up around Greek heroes were called chthonic cults, and chthonic, a word that is impossible to pronounce and nearly impossible to precisely define, means something close to “within the earth,” or, more stupidly, “the interior of the soil.”
Ireland, in her entreaties to the less-traditionally enshrined Lil Wayne, makes frequent, reluctant reference to the fact that she is just a white girl living in Brooklyn—that she doesn’t quite fall under the artist’s protection. This seems to fuel her insistence that he love and save her. In one of the first letters to the rapper, Ireland asks, “Are you listening? Okay listen. There are so many things I have to tell you.” We all know that the talking method only works because we imagine an audience validating us. I guess there’s no way to prove that Ireland is deliberately raising up a cult around a musical artist, but there’s also no way to prove that someone who would dedicate a book to a person they’d never met is not doing that.
The collection’s appeal, I think, comes from this idea of audience and artist—who is the true audience of a collection of postcards that received no response from the addressed? Who is the audience of Ireland’s poetry, and of Lil Wayne’s? Did he expect or even intend that she would be part of his audience? Ireland recounts a time that she read a collection of her poetry to her friends and “They were quiet. There was thunder and lightning. Someone spilled a beer. What does it feel like when no one responds, except to make a face like I can’t believe I just spilled that beer.” Though it’s no fun to call a book specific to a time or place, this one does feel specific to a time in which the definition of “audience” is confused. I found this book on Tumblr, not in a book store. I found a woman’s letters to a man on Tumblr, not in his pocket.
Regardless, Ireland’s insistence that she belongs to Lil Wayne’s dominion seems based on her yearning to call herself a poet and an artist. She calls on him as if he is someone who could sponsor her as such. “I want to write like you do, right in the very burning air,” she writes. “Please, I want to be you when I grow up.” There is nothing so almighty powerful as starting a sentence with the word “please.”
Nearly every one of the letters contains a question, or several questions, intensely posed and far from hypothetical. The questions come across as a forceful reassertion that this project is a correspondence, despite the fact that the questions are never answered. Ireland makes response feel like a matter of life and death. Her desperation is so keenly felt that the reader is compelled to forget that Lil Wayne is the one who is sitting in a prison cell and worry exclusively about the voice who pleads with him.
In moments of defeat Ireland lashes out plaintively, with prayers to a god who is unable or unwilling to empathize with mortal beings: “You wouldn’t understand, but it’s hard to be boring in a fascinating world.” Regardless of whether the reader has ever struggled with naming themselves an artist, Ireland’s collection holds something for anyone who has ever felt alone even while in love, who has ever felt sad leaving a place they hate, who has ever experienced an inexplicable attachment to something that feels bigger and better than themselves and who has ever really really wished that they had someone to write to.