Poems for the Gmail Generation

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Brandon Scott Gorrell’s debut collection, During My Nervous Breakdown I Want to Have a Biographer Present is an anxious, ambivalent ode to Internet culture. Much like its “making of” companion piece, The Brandon Book Crisis, Gorrell’s book addresses the pervasiveness of Internet communication, what happens when lives are lived online as much if not more than in the real world.

In Gorrell’s poetry, stanzas are timestamped, technology achieves poetic compression, and loneliness is refreshing your Gmail inbox again and again with no new messages. Social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook don’t alleviate Gorrell’s anxiety. Rather, they provide new reasons for him to feel lonely, misanthropic, and depressed. For example, in “brandon,” a poem about insomnia, he writes:

brandon feels anxious
brandon feels embarrassed that he can’t sleep
brandon signs into gmail chat
brandon quickly signs out of gmail chat
brandon checks myspace
there are no new comments or messages or friend requests
there is a new event invitation
brandon looks at his bulletin board
brandon feels angry at the people that post at least one bulletin a day
brandon has been considering taking the people that post one bulletin a day off his friend list for about a month now
brandon thinks this is logical because in real life he only feels comfortable around quiet people and not people that feel the need to scream their names at 200 online contacts multiple times a day
brandon checks facebook
someone has body slammed brandon on facebook
brandon feels depressed

4:12 AM
brandon has checked all his websites
brandon thinks ‘it’s 4:12 AM and my day is already over’
brandon looks at his bookmarks
brandon feels anxiety
brandon feels guilt for feeling uninterested in other people’s blogs
brandon goes to gmail

Many of Gorrell’s poems, like “brandon,” adapt online form and syntax. They are written in lowercase, 10 pt Arial, the same font as his blog. In fact, “brandon” reads like a stream of status messages, as if the narrator logged his late-night Internet surfing by compulsively updating his Twitter.

The poem records the minute, forward momentum of digital life, the constant buzz of updates and notifications we’ve grown accustomed to. But rather than merely mimic the formal conventions of Twitter or Facebook, Gorrell explores the effect of these new technologies on our psyches. In “gmail,” he writes:

i have urges to not check my email for a week so that when i finally check it i can feel at least a minute or a minute and a half of extreme excitement

i have gotten adrenaline rushes from situations like finding eight new emails

Who hasn’t felt a thump of excitement upon receiving a batch of new emails? Gorrell examines the quirks of our new technology, the small, telling signs of our attachment.

Anxiety, alienation, and low self-confidence are Gorrell’s buzz words, key notes of the collection. Not only do these words appear in nearly every poem, but they are prominently featured in neon green starbursts on the back cover. The poems are self-aware, sarcastic, proud of their aesthetic. Sometimes, as in “some inconceivable crisis thing” their manic meta-analysis verges on play. Gorrell writes, “is it legitimate to feel asinine about feeling asinine // has anyone else ever felt incredibly sarcastic about feeling incredibly depressed but at the same time felt incredibly depressed // is that something anyone has done”.

Web culture encourages this emotional exhibitionism. Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?” prompting us to view our thoughts and our actions in the third person, to externalize. The detached, clinical tone of the lines in “brandon” allow the narrator to stand outside himself as he broadcasts his embarrassment, depression, and guilt in short, deadpan chunks.

This detachment operates on a grander scale in Gorrell’s more violent poems, like “a calm, melodramatic, silent apocalypse”. In this poem, Gorrell literally wishes to float above himself like an alien or mad scientist, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of his destruction, squashing humans like ants.

i want to do this from two places

as myself, a giant flesh thing

experiencing my intense, silent destruction

the people i am rolling towards

looking into my eyes nervously

saying ‘it’s okay’

then laying down

the structures in the cities yielding softly to the pressure

the dust i create rolling through streets lined with towers

the sound of my movement generating a gentle, barely audible hum

and from just above the atmosphere

in a dark spacecraft

my face lit by the neon glow of control panels

hovering silently over the west coast

watching myself from a distance

destroying metropolises

killing people i can’t see

thinking about large-scale, thoughtless annihilation

At first glance, the subject matter of “a calm, melodramatic, silent apocalypse” seems very different from that of “brandon” or “gmail.” But the doubleness in this poem, the splitting of selves into actor and observer, virtual persona and person behind the persona, mirrors the splitting that occurs in online interactions. It’s the disconnect between these selves that creates space for loneliness and misunderstanding. In an interview with Chris Killen, Gorrell said, “sometimes i feel like it would be nice if a massive tidal wave crushed everything or something like that, only because i feel alone and there are so many people. … it’s just a scenario i imagine a lot, i think. to relieve pressure.”

Gorrell’s poetic landscapes are vast and intangible. His poems explore outer space, Internet, the mind. Solitary landscapes, sure, but fertile ground for an imaginative new voice.

Steven Tagle is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles, CA. He produces short-form documentaries for Current TV, and his work has appeared in Leland Quarterly, Word Choice, and Rainy Day. He is finishing his first novel. More from this author →