New Recruits Episode 7: Gail Morgenstern Reads David McGimpsey

Episode 7 already? Well, If you’ve missed the previous six, you can figure out what this is all about by reading the description in Episode 1.

Gail is my mother’s friend. She and my mom and a couple of other ladies who have all known each other since high school have made a habit of going out for dinner whenever one of them has a birthday. Gail references one of these dinners in her Q&A so I thought I’d tell you about that up here, on the top half of the page, before you go down to the bottom half. This past summer, Gail and my mother and myself and a few of my friends in my MA program went to my cottage in Halliburton. I did all the cooking because, well I like cooking. Gail is vegan so she opted out of my teriyaki salmon and caprese salad in favour of… lettuce. Ok, that was a lame attempt at a segue into the title of the featured poem. She ate more than lettuce. Here she is reading David McGimpsey’s poem “Lettuce” from his book Asbestos Heights.

David, if you’re reading this, before you read the Q&A you should know that she did choose this poem from a selection of three poems all by different poets, so, I think she did like it. I mean, she liked it enough to pick it.


What was your first impression of the poem?

At first I didn’t particularly like the poem but on a second read I found it humorous and interesting. I thought it was inventive to compare college to iceberg lettuce.

Which line of the poem do you like best?

‘blooming in beds of bacon and mayonnaise’


I found the image of heads of lettuce growing in fattening, cholesterol-laden bacon and mayo as being very vivid and repellent. It also made me think of the iceberg lettuce salad your mother loves to order at The Keg.

What does this poem make you think of?

It made me think of going to college for the first time as well as how much I dislike iceberg lettuce. I find iceberg to be the most useless type of lettuce; it’s like eating water.

Are there any words in this poem that you don’t understand?

Yes, I don’t know what stamen or anther means.

Would you like to understand them?

Yes, I guess I could check the dictionary.

Have you encountered a poem like this before? Is this poem different from what you expected poetry to be like? If so, How?

Yes, this poem isn’t like any I have experienced. I don’t have a lot of experience with poems as I mostly read them in high school and then never read poems again after finishing school.

Do you have any questions for the poet?

What made you think of writing a poem using the subject of iceberg lettuce?

Gail Morgenstern is a fifty-something mother and analyst working for a large bank in the investigative services department. She enjoys kickboxing, running and weight lifting. She eats a plant-based diet and has very strong opinions about meat and dairy.

New Recruits Episode 6: Judah Izsak Reads Garry Thomas Morse

If you’re new here, check out Episode 1 for more information about this series and how it works. This week, my brother Judah Izsak reads the final section of Garry Thomas Morse’s “The Rent Annals of Billy the Kid” from  After Jack.

From the moment I came up with the idea for this series, I knew I wanted somebody to read Garry Thomas Morse. I also knew that I didn’t want just anybody to read Garry Thomas Morse. I mean, everybody should read Garry’s work, but I needed a perceptive, clever, and feisty newb to read it for my blog. Judah turned seventeen last week. He’s been an outlaw for as long as I’ve known him. I gave him a choice of all of the sections in Garry’s serial poem. He chose this one. That was a month ago. Yesterday I asked him why he chose section ten. He said, “because it was at the bottom” (I texted Judah the poem options, this was the last one I sent and at the bottom of the list). I think that’s as good a reason as any.

“The Rent Annals of Billy the Kid” is my favourite section in After Jack. Here’s Judah reading the last bit of it—slow this time (because the first take was nearly 10 seconds shorter:

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What was your first impression of the poem?

I thought it was intended for me, and I thought my sister made it

Which line of the poem do you like best?

“Remember when we chewed the phat/ Music of cicadas”


I remember listening to cicadas on camping trips and seeing them shed, phat seemed like a fitting word

What does this poem make you think of?

The midwest 

Are there any words in this poem that you don’t understand?


Would you like to understand them?


Have you encountered a poem like this before? Is this poem different from what you expected poetry to be like? If so, How?

Nope #newrecruit

Do you have any questions for the poet?

Are your referring to the Billy the Kid, or somebody in your life that you refer to as Billy the Kid, or just someone that reminds you of Billy the Kid?


Can I just say that the fact that he thought I made this poem is maybe the best inadvertent compliment I’ve ever received.

Judah Izsak is 17. He is unemployed and he likes vintage posters.

New Recruits Episode 5: Marilyn Solomon Reads George Bowering

Happy Wednesday and welcome to the first New Recruits episode of 2017! For more information about this series, check out Episode 1.

Marilyn Solomon is my grandmother, an amateur photographer, and a die hard baseball fan. No really. Look:


My dad managed to get my grandparents two tickets to a Jays game when they made it to the finals last year. (Finals? Is that what they’re called? My baseball knowledge is limited.) My mom said that when my grandmother found out about the tickets, “she screamed louder than when she found out I was pregnant with you.” Die hard baseball fan.

So, here’s my Bubbie Marilyn reading part 1 of the iconic, pennant shaped, fuzzy book that George Bowering wrote for Jack Spicer: Baseball: a poem in the magic number 9.



What was your first impression of the poem?


Which line of the poem do you like best?

“Satan was thrown out of the game / for arguing with the officials.”


Good over evil. Satan should be tossed out of every game. 

What does this poem make you think of?


Are there any words in this poem that you don’t understand?

“The Nine Muses”

Would you like to understand them?


Does this poem remind you of any other piece of art or media?

Star Wars. The poem has a cosmic aura.

Do you have any questions for the poet?



Marilyn Solomon’s interests are family, travel, current events and friends. Her hobbies are maj, canasta, movies and photos. She is a senior citizen and retired.



New Recruits Episode 4: Robert Izsak Reads Michael Boughn

As always, if you’re not caught up on this series and you’d like to know more about how it works, you can read the description in Episode 1. Now on to the good stuff.

Text conversation I had with my father prior to this episode:

me: “History or hockey?”

him: “oooh, that’s a tough one. I’ll have to take history.”

This was followed by a discussion about selling squash kugel on the black market? Don’t ask. Anyway, that “history or hockey” was a barely coded choice between two poems in Michael Boughn’s SubTractionsthe upside down back half of 22 Skidoo. 

My dad is an archeologist in a lawyer’s suit/office/Jewish surname. Our house is full of back issues of Archaeology Magazine and texts on ancient history. I was curious about the way Boughn’s 22 Skidoo/SubTractions might look to someone who hasn’t forgotten, who still sees/lives in a world defined by history, and whose relationship with modernity is nicely summarized here:


(a small section of a conversation involving step by step instructions for how to work an iPhone. Oliver is a dog.)

Also, I fucking love this book. So here’s my dad reading “History Minus One”:



What was your first impression of the poem?

It’s mainly about the wordplay. The meaning is too obscure*. The rhythm initially flows but then the final stanza runs on tripping up the reader with staccato outbursts. It didn’t leave an emotional residue.

Which line of the poem do you like best?

that dances back and forth / over bleeding body / of knowledge left in clotted / dust under sun’s withering / glory


The imagery. The language. The lasting nature of it.

What does this poem make you think of?

There are many references to Ancient Egypt and through the references it turns your mind to Egypt but only intermittently. There’s a mystic, other worldly focus that dominates the poem.

Are there any words in this poem that you don’t understand?

Not words but phrases and the meaning of their placement within the poem.

Have you encountered a poem like this before? Is this poem different from what you expected poetry to be like? If so, How?

Yes. No.

Do you have any questions for the poet?

Yes. Two things. “Tanks” and “net packs earth” blows the rhythm, why are they necessary and were these your first choices?

*Since writing this, my father read the description of 22 Skidoo/SubTractions on BookThug’s website and responded, “Oh that makes a little more sense now.”

Robert Izsak is a middle aged man of medium build and a full head of hair, with an amorous cat in his lap and a strawberry sundae from Dairy Queen in front of him.


New Recruits Episode 3: Paula & Abigail Kenigsberg Read Suzannah Showler

Welcome to the 3rd episode of New Recruits! For details on what the hell this is and how it works, check out the description in Episode 1.

Just an FYI, there will be male poets and readers in this series. I was going for a more diverse lineup but for now it’s all women all the time and you’re just going to have to wait until Episode 4 for the boys to show up.

Paula and Abigail decided to take on this episode together. Paula is my aunt, my mother’s sister, and Abby is her daughter (my cousin). I chose this poem for them because it has a kitty in it (Abby has been known to wear cat leggings on occasion) and because its quick pace and colloquial interludes are only deceptively simple.

Abby reads the first half of Suzannah Showler‘s “Subjunctive Mood” and Paula reads the second half:


Which line of the poem do you like best?

P: ‘For real,/ like, five percent of what we think/ is new’

(Abby refused to choose a line. I assume this means that she loved them all equally.)


P: Because I love the sound of it and it’s so true. People think they have these great epiphanies and they don’t really.

What does this poem make you think of?

P: Makes me think of the repetitive cycle of things and how we can focus on the unimportant and not really understand why we are here.

Are there any words in this poem that you don’t understand?

A: Subjunctive

Would you like to understand them?

A: Yes

Is this poem different from what you expected poetry to be like? If so, How?

P: Less rhymey (I know that’s not a word) and more talky (also not a real word). I guess when I was younger I expected poems to rhyme but now I don’t. Now I expect them to evoke thought and emotion which this one definitely did. I really appreciate that.

Do you have any questions for the poet?

P: No, but I want her to know that I enjoyed reading this poem.


Paula is 48 years old. She likes hanging out with family and friends. She is allergic to cats but owns two of them anyway.

Abby is 11 years old. She loves cheer, piano, acting, animals and reading.


New Recruits Episode 2: Janice Lee Reads Dina Del Bucchia

Welcome to the 2nd episode of New Recruits! For details on what the hell this is and how it works, check out the description in Episode 1.

Janice and I met at the University of Toronto in a physiology course that I wasn’t really taking. She sends me 85% of the cute animals I view online. For a while, her name on Facebook was Janice Dolphin Lee, so when I say dolphin is her middle name, I’m only half lying. I chose this poem for her because it’s as cute/ruthless as she is and because it has a dolphin in it.

Here’s Janice reading the first little series in Dina Del Bucchia’s Coping with Emotions and Otters“How to Be Jealous.” You can follow along with her for some of the poem in the amazon preview here. This preview is missing the last two parts of the poem (and the rest of the book) so you’re going to have to get yourself a copy if you want to read the rest. Highly recommend to new recruits and old recruits alike.

Did I mention that her reading voice is angelic and I’m mega jealous of it?



What was your first impression of the poem?

I spent a good 15 minutes wondering how this was such a good fit for me. It’s like the author peeped into my life.

Which line of the poem do you like best?

‘before you/ realized these underwear/ would help you cling/ to a body/ you hated’


I totally resonated with that.

What does this poem make you think of?

Reminds me of my younger self’s struggle with self-love and how jealous I can be sometimes of a past-self or past-body rather. But also a lot of sadness for little-me for not understanding that I didn’t need to be so hard on myself. And then a realization that I don’t need to be so hard on myself now.

Are there any words in this poem that you don’t understand?


Would you like to understand them?

yAH – just googled it so I could pronounce it properly.

Have you encountered a poem like this before? Is this poem different from what you expected poetry to be like? If so, How?

Kind of reminds me of Rupi Kaur? It was much more accessible than what I usually expect of poetry. It also had a deep well of rich meaning when I sat with them. These poems were much more visceral than what I’ve read for school and I like that a lot.

Do you have any questions for the poet?

Did you know you were writing this for me? haha just kidding but is this how you owned your experience of jealousy? Because I’m thinking of following suit. Going to cover my work with golden stars.


Janice Lee is currently in Optometry school. She’s a borderline Capricorn-Aquarius and therefore a water goat, but more accurately any marine animal including DOLPHINS AND OTTERS. She likes painting and hearing people’s stories.

New Recruits Episode 1: Lesley Solomon Izsak Reads Susan Holbrook

This is the first episode of a series called New Recruits. Every week (or maybe every other week) for as long as I have willing participants, I will release a new episode in which a person who doesn’t normally read poetry will read a poem and answer some questions about it. These poetry newbs will mostly be my friends or members of my family, but if you are reading this and you consider yourself a poetry newb and we don’t know each other very well, feel free to send me an email and I’ll hook you up with some good words. I have chosen poems that I think are particularly suited to the reader featured each episode. Of course, these are poems that I love as well, but that’s only part of the equation.

I have also decided to include only contemporary (AKA living) poets in this series for a couple of reasons. First, because I want the poets to be able to join in on the fun. It’s cool to hear somebody else read and respond to your work, and dead poets don’t get to have that experience anymore. Most of my favourite poets are dead, but there are also plenty of great living ones who would probably get a kick out of knowing what new readers like about their poems. Also, this past summer, I taught Jamie Sharpe’s Animal Husbandry Today (poem from this book to be featured in a future episode) to a class of grade 12 students. I sent Jamie an email afterwards to tell him that my students loved his book and that one very enthusiastic young lad read his bio on the back cover and said out loud, “oh, this guy lives in bumfuck nowhere” (an excellent description of Yukon Territory). Jamie wrote me back, “I don’t think I encountered a living poet, taught in a classroom, until my second year of university. To me, back then, being a poet was just as anachronistic as blacksmithing (funny that one of our best living poets, Michael Earl Craig, is also a blacksmith).” I’m including living poets because they exist and because they’re writing cool shit and because poetry should always be news.

In this episode, my mother, Lesley, will read a poem from Susan Holbrook’s book Throaty Wipes, published by Coach House in 2016. I picked up Throaty Wipes from Meet the Presses Indie Literary Market a few weeks ago. I have several favourite poems in this book—one that stands out as particularly fun and innovative is “Better Blowing”— but for my mom I chose part two of a three part suite called “Disposable Thumbs.”

Here she is reading it:


Oh, and a quick note, my mom didn’t have any context for the poem (who wrote it or when). This won’t be the case for every episode, just how it went this time.

Q & A

Which line of the poem do you like best?

‘It fed her and could / now feed me’


I think because it captures the amazingness of this organ that is rarely thought about. It is our first food and the line makes me wonder what it must taste like.

What does this poem make you think of?

I think of polenta even though polenta is never mentioned in the poem; it is only in the title. I love polenta, it is comforting and warm and had the consistency of baby food. I think polenta could cure depression just as eating your placenta could cure post-partum depression. It also makes me think of freshly baked bread from the oven. The baby is the bread and the placenta is the polenta. Also, I think of the temporary-ness of the placenta. It works so hard for such a short time and then it is no longer needed. But it was crucial. It also makes me think of meat. And kale. It makes me think of foods, cake, nourishment, love, and all the messiness that goes along with that. The good and delicious and the messy and the ugly.

Are there any words in this poem that you don’t understand?

‘vol-au-vent,’ but I looked it up.

Would you like to understand them?

Oh. I already looked it up.

Do you have any questions for the poet?

Did he or she eat a placenta? What did it taste like if they did? Did it make them feel good? How do they really feel about Kale? Do they like polenta? What inspired the writing of the poem? What do they mean by ‘uncontrolled meat’? What is their ethnic background?



Lesley Solomon Izsak is a genetic counsellor at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital. She has also been a teacher of dance. She likes animals and old things and she has never eaten placenta.

Westworld’s Nabokovian Roots

Before you read this:

I feel weird about writing a long stream of consciousness thing that isn’t an academic essay. This post could easily be 20 pages long, there is so much more that could be included that I have omitted because this is a blog post and I don’t have time to write a whole thesis. Feel free to comment with more observations about the connections between Nabokov’s work and Westworld and the significance of those connections. There is so much more to discuss. Also…

This post contains Westworld spoilers. Do not read if you have not seen all 9 episodes of  Westworld that are currently available. Go watch all 9 episodes of Westworld and then come back here. This post also contains Lolita spoilers, but you should have read Lolita by now.


In the second episode of HBO’s new series, Westworld (whose 10 episode first season comes to an end this Sunday) a park employee pitches a new immersive narrative. He promises excitement, adventure, and a chance for guests to discover themselves. Then Robert Ford, creator of the park (played by Anthony Hopkins), delivers the speech that made me fall in love with this show:

“The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties. The details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.”

I love this speech because it reveals the show’s self reflexivity, and as a literature student, I am hard wired (heh, apt metaphor) to sniff out self reflexivity and write essays about it. If you have been following this show at all, you already know about the fan theories, the subreddit, the Youtube analyses. Viewers correctly predicted all of the twists in Westworld by paying attention to the differences between two logos, subtle cuts between scenes, the colour of a character’s shirt, and half of the letters of a potential anagram (more on this later). I, like many other viewers, came back to this show for the subtleties. The details. How Nabokovian.

Vladimir Nabokov’s novels are full of details. Tiny subtleties that predict major plot points, reveal a kidnapper’s identity, and destroy a perfect crime. Some details are only discoverable if the reader can understand three different languages, or if they are familiar with a separate obscure text. My favourite example of a subtle, meaningful detail in a Nabokov novel comes from his most famous one. Near the beginning of Lolita, Humbert Humbert visits Hourglass Lake, the place where Clare Quilty is first referenced just as a friend makes an offhand comment about Humbert’s waterproof wristwatch. When Quilty is revealed to be Lolita’s kidnapper towards the end of the novel, 300 or so pages later, Humbert narrates,

Do you really want to know who it was? Well, it was—”

And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle that name that the astute reader had guessed long ago.


Details. And a comment on the associative, disorganized nature of memory. Details and attention to memory aren’t the only connections between Westworld and Nabokov’s body of work. Nabokov takes up Russian literature’s obsession with doubling, seen in Westworld with loops of existence, Ford’s younger robot self, and of course, “Bernarnold.” The name “Dolores” is significant in both texts, as Westworld’s oldest host and as Humbert’s young nymphet:

“She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

The connection that interests me most between Nabokov’s novels and Westworld is the relationship between author and text, or author and characters— the concept of the author as God of his creations (because of Ford’s god complex and how good Anthony Hopkins is at enacting it). Many of Nabokov’s narrators are also writers. As explained by the fictional John Ray Jr. PhD in the forward to Lolita, Humbert is the author of the manuscript entitled “Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male.” Pale Fire is character Charles Kinbote’s flawed commentary on fictional John Shade’s 999 line poem. Hermann, the protagonist of Despair, composes his narrative from a hotel room after the events he’s writing about have already occurred (up until the 10th chapter in which he switches into diary mode and chronicles events as they are happening). Despair contains small details, hints as to when Hermann is writing, clues that suggest that Herman is aware of the outcome of his story. I’m just going to copy and paste two passages from another website now, because this clearly is not an academic essay and I can do what I want:

“throughout the novel Nabokov very skilfully combines a timescale that includes the narrative present, with Hermann’s reflections on his own account of events, plus flashes forward in time. Yet in order to retain the reader’s interest, Nabokov must not give away too much of the story which is yet to come – so Hermann’s ‘premonitions’ are masked as psychological curios or mere eccentricities. But they are actual pointers to the fact that he knows what will happen because he is giving his account in retrospect.

For example, early in the novel, when Hermann visits the countryside allotment with Lydia and Ardalion (Chapter Two) he feels that the locale is ‘familiar’. It is familiar to him, because it is where he has just killed Felix before starting to write his narrative.”


“Nabokov offers a playful and complex game of literary hide-and-seek to the reader, planting clues in his text for the reader to enjoy and decipher.

He always plays fair by the rules of narrative logic and gives readers a chance to work out the subtlest of clues. For instance Hermann is caught out in his crime because he leaves Felix’s walking stick (which also bears his name) in the car he has abandoned in the countryside – but both the stick and its signature have been mentioned previously, planted deep within the narrative for the attentive (or eagle-eyed) reader to spot.” (

So, details again, and hints to another point in time. If you’re not yet familiar with the “two timeline theory” Westworld fans have been speculating about since the second episode of the series, the idea is that the events in the show that involve William and his soon to be brother in law, Logan, take place 30 years earlier than the events involving Anthony Hopkins’ Ford, Maeve’s storyline with Felix and Sylvester, and the Man in Black. There is also much speculation that Ed Harris’ Man in Black is William 30 years in the future. So time and memory and separate timelines, common to Westworld and Nabokov’s novels. But back to this God of the text idea…

In Nabokov’s novels, the fictional writers, Humbert, Hermann, Kinbote, others, all believe that they are in control of their narratives. But they are not in control. Nabokov himself, the real author, is always present, always has the ultimate authority over the text. I’m inserting a link to a book on Nabokov’s fiction in which author Julian W. Connolly goes into great detail about some of the ways Nabokov’s authorial presence asserts itself in his texts.

Nabokov also often uses anagrams to communicate authorial presence/authority. In Lolita, Vivian Darkbloom (Quilty’s female writing partner) is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. From Connolly’s book again:

“It has become commonplace throughout Nabokov scholarship to speak of the author’s self-encodement via full or partial anagrammatization of his name. The most oft-quoted examples are the ealier mentioned Blavdak Vinomori, as well as Mr. Vivian Badlook (King, Queen, Knave), Vivian Darkbloom (Lolita), Vivian Bloodmark (Speak Memory), Baron Klim Avidov (Ada), Adam von Librikov (Transparent Things), Van Bock (Strong Opinions), and V. Irsin (Look at the Harlequins!).” (22)

Before Westworld revealed that Bernard is actually a robotic recreation of Arnold, and before the show revealed Arnold’s last name, several Reddit users speculated that “Bernard Lowe” would be an anagram for “Arnold Weber.” In episode 9, in a flashback, “Weber,” Arnold’s surname, is posted on his office door. Just as a feud often arises between the author characters in Nabokov’s novels, and the true author, Nabokov himself, Westworld seems to be hinting at a feud between the park’s two creators, Arnold and Ford. Arnold, who is not physically in the present world of the show (as far as we know), possibly the true creator of the hosts and Westworld, has been communicating with Ford and Dolores. His presence is asserted in the show’s current timeline through a character whose name is an anagram of his own. Following my Nabokovian logic, Arnold is in control, he is the real author, despite Ford’s apparent dominion.

Nabokov punishes his characters for failing to adhere to his own strict sense of morality. For Nabokov, life is not art. Hermann tries to commit the perfect aesthetic crime and is punished for it. He is a bad artist because he can’t recognize how different he looks from his supposed double. He is a bad person because he tried to enact a work of art IRL. Humbert uses art to justify sexual abuse. He is punished for it. From Terry Patrick Anderson’s thesis found here:

“Nabokov’s concern is with the inherent problems of the creative process in what often is an artistically insensitive society coveting only banality and meretricious art. Complete escape is necessary; but as Nabokov warns, this retreat from reality must be only temporary; the artistic person must not lose control of his ability to return to that reality from which art originated. Art can be man’s saviour, but if one reaches that paraphasia where one can no longer clearly discern life’s reality, one is destined to failure both as an artist and a human being.” (11)

Nabokov wrote his novels before art and media became utterly immersive. Before video games, the Internet, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. In Westworld, characters who fail to separate life and art (or artificial intelligence, I’m equating the hosts with art now as they are artfully constructed creations or characters) are not portrayed as sinful. The audience is made to sympathize with the hosts and regard characters who mistreat them as cruel. Logan and Sylvester, two characters who are able to separate the hosts from “real” people, are played as insensitive antagonists to William and Felix, characters who see the hosts as “real” and want to help them gain freedom. It appears as though conflating life and art is not a sin to Arnold, Westworld’s author/creator. But Arnold is not the “real” creator of Westworld. Arnold is a character. Westworld was written and created by husband and wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. They are the Nabokov of Westworld even though “Bernarnold” carries the anagram trademark. They have complete control. So it makes sense to me that their artistic morality, what they hold as sinful, differs from Nabokov’s. Writing a novel is an individual pursuit. Filmmaking is collaborative. It makes sense that what is perceived as sinful by an lone writer (whose books have been grossly misinterpreted) would be different from what is sinful to a pair of married filmmakers engaged in the process of making immersive art/media. It seems as though Ford and Arnold are punished because of their inability to collaborate (we have to wait for episode 10 to be sure). But I’m predicting that some kind of fight between the two of them lead to Arnold’s death and that eventually Ford’s downfall will be his refusal to compromise or collaborate. Self reflexivity. This show is at least in part about storytelling itself, about how to construct a narrative. In film, narrative construction is impossible without collaboration.

Reflexivity and Authenticity in Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete

Emily Izsak


22 April 2016

On January 30th, 2016, without any prior announcement, comedian Louis C.K. released the first episode of Horace and Pete via his personal website. On February 4th 2016, C.K. added an “about” letter to his website in which he states:

Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself. As a writer, there’s always a weird feeling that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.

Also because we are shooting this show in a multi-camera format with an emphasis on a live feeling, we are able to post it very soon after each episode is shot. So I’m making this show as you’re watching it. (

Horace and Pete is sparsely edited and shot in long takes to preserve that “live feeling” (C.K.). C.K. as Horace often over-emphasizes his facial expressions as if he were performing for the back row. The show takes place over two acts and each episode contains an intermission. The addition of cameras to what feels like a staged theatre piece calls attention to the artificiality of performance itself. Without the refinement of heavy editing, close-up shots conflate the audience’s expectations of theatre and their expectations of television. In addition, the show’s paucity of editing creates an immediate disparity between Horace and Pete and more traditional multi-camera programs. Its long takes and bare production stand out against heavily edited sitcoms as well as television shows that have adopted the popular “mocumentary” trend. C.K. opts for self-reflexivity over feigned realism. He achieves Bertolt Brecht’s “Verfremdungseffekt” or distancing effect by including flubbed lines in the final cuts of episodes, calling attention to the staged feel of the show, casting actors in multiple roles, and sometimes breaking the fourth wall. Artificiality becomes central to the content and plot of Horace and Pete as well. Throughout the ten episode series, C.K. presents a constant barrage of revelations. As some truths are revealed, others are called into question: Can pills generate true happiness? Can we tell a person’s gender from their appearance? Is the beer really apple juice? Through this constant engagement with and attack on artificiality, Horace and Pete arrives at authenticity. Although C.K. employs Brecht’s self-reflexive methods, his goal is not to create an active audience who will leave their computer screens to do his political bidding. Brecht theorized that his “Verfremdungseffekt” would cause audiences to notice similarities between the constructed and therefore changeable nature of his plays and the constructed and changeable nature of their sociopolitical circumstances. C.K. uses Brecht’s distancing effect to establish similarities between performance on stage and screen and the inevitably performative quality of all human interaction.

Horace and Pete locates the face as a site of both deception and credibility. The ability to read and interpret faces becomes integral to the discovery of truth for characters within the show. C.K. repeatedly points out that characters who are unable to physically see or accurately interpret faces cannot be fully informed. Familial resemblance or the lack thereof becomes a communicator of truth. And yet, we as spectators become acutely aware that none of the actors are truly related. In a single motion, we are asked to both suspend disbelief and contend with skepticism. While Brecht advocates for a move away from Aristotelian drama and emotional realism, Horace and Pete offers several verisimilar, emotional performances among a number of histrionic performances. C.K. creates constant tension between Brechtian distance and staunch emotional realism. Each moment of emotional realism is undercut by a moment of absurdity or self-reflexivity. Horace and Pete understands that it is impossible to achieve authenticity while attempting to mimic reality. C.K. chooses not to lie, not to pretend that he can capture reality on film, and in doing so he establishes a sense of trust with his audience. C.K. exposes the artifice behind representation and asks his audiences to engage with the emotional content of the show anyway. By heightening our awareness of the performed quality of his show, C.K. heightens our awareness of the performative nature of all communication. By allowing us to engage emotionally with the show despite that awareness, he demonstrates that harmony and connection are possible despite artifice.

Illusions and hallucinations feature heavily in Horace and Pete. Pete’s mental health issues cause him to see “a snake headed thing” with big teeth in the first episode of the show. Throughout the series, both illusions and hallucinations are depicted as upsetting, frightening, and unwelcome. In Episode 8, Pete learns that Propetol, the antipsychotic drug he has been taking, is being recalled due to adverse side effects. Following this news, Pete explains, “There are monsters that you gotta look at whether your eyes are open or closed and y’know they’re made of your very own fears. They never leave you alone and you never get used to it.” (Episode 8) When Horace replies, “It’s not as bad as you’re saying it is” and suggests that Pete could “fight against it in [his] mind,” Pete says, “you’re just saying that because you saw A Beautiful Mind and now everybody thinks you can just learn to live with it. Yeah, well that guy had a little girl following him around and two weird guys; try the floor has teeth and it’s biting you.” (Episode 8) Steve Buscemi as Pete criticizes an Oscar winning biographical drama for falsely representing schizophrenia. A Beautiful Mind does not self-reflexively call attention to its inaccuracies. Although director Ron Howard admits that the film was never meant to be a literal representation of schizophrenia or John Nash’s life, A Beautiful Mind was shot and marketed as a traditional drama. Audiences expected the film to provide insight into mental illness and Nash’s experience. Horace and Pete’s serious discussion about Pete’s prognosis is immediately followed by Tricia’s entrance into the bar. Tricia as a character perfectly embodies C.K.’s careful juxtaposition of sincerity and absurdity. Her relationship with Pete is nuanced and loving, and Maria Dizzia delivers an honest, verisimilar performance, yet Tricia’s vulgar, exaggerated outbursts (due to Tourette’s Syndrome) play as constructed and absurd. Her exclamation, “fifteen cocks and cunts in the market” (Episode 8), interrupts Horace and Pete. It cuts the emotional tension of the moment and reminds viewers that they are watching a performance. In A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht writes:

This detached state, where [the audience] seem[s] to be given over to vague but profound sensations, grows deeper the better the work of the actors, and so we, as we do not approve of this situation, should like them to be as bad as possible. As for the world portrayed there, the world from which slices are cut in order to produce these moods and movements of the emotions, its appearance is such, produced from such slight and wretched stuff as a few pieces of cardboard, a little miming, a bit of text, that one has to admire the theatre folk who, with so feeble a reflection of the real world, can move the feelings of their audience so much more strongly than does the world itself. (Brecht 6)

Brecht opposed Aristotelian catharsis as well as the emotional trance it creates. His plays reveal their artifice in order to dissuade from emotional engagement and ultimately distance or alienate audiences. Brecht sought to prevent illusion. He claimed that causing audiences to view the play objectively and critically would lead them to realize their own ability and responsibility to take social action in the world beyond the theatre. While Tricia’s outburst can be read as an instance of “Verfremdungseffekt,” C.K. allows viewers to “be given over to vague but profound sensations” before her entrance (Brecht 6). The structure of this scene in Episode 8 closely resembles a scene in Episode 1 in which an emotional discussion between Horace and his daughter is immediately followed by an absurd and jarring monologue from a recently released convict. Horace and Pete avoids the emotional realism of A Beautiful Mind but does not entirely adhere to Brecht’s ideology. By allowing audiences to feel pathos for Pete and become emotionally invested in his character, C.K. shows that empathy and an awareness of performativity can be generated simultaneously.

Pete’s monstrous hallucinations are never made visible on screen like the hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind; however, in Episode 2, Horace’s hallucination of his father’s lover, Marsha, appears fully realized. The first time Horace has a hallucination of Marsha at the beginning of the episode, it is not made clear whether their interaction is real in the context of the show or not. Later in the episode, Jessica Lange playing Horace’s hallucination of Marsha enters Horace’s apartment and the two characters discuss Horace’s sexual fantasies. Horace asks Marsha, “do you have any, like, gross fantasies?” to which she responds, “why don’t you go down and ask her.” Horace replies, “Oh yeah, you’re me.” C.K. allows his viewers to believe that Horace has a real sexual encounter with Marsha at the beginning of the episode before he later reveals that this version of Marsha is part of Horace’s imagination. This trick acts as a warning to viewers early in the series. We are not to trust appearances; everything is not as it seems. However, C.K. doesn’t maintain the illusion. He is ultimately honest with the audience. The Oedipal tone of this scene in combination with its self -reflexivity also connects Brecht’s epic theatre to traditional Aristotelian drama. Brecht criticizes Oedipus, the archetypal Aristotelian tragedy, for its emphasis on fate and its inability to portray society as changeable: “The theatre as we know it shows the structure of society (represented on the stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium). Oedipus, who offended against certain principles underlying the society of his time, is executed” (Brecht 7). C.K. adapts Oedipus into a fantastical conversation in which Horace, the Oedipal figure, understands that this sexualized version of father’s girlfriend is a product of his own mind and therefore both infinitely changeable and inherently constructed.

In the first half of the final episode of the series, C.K. plays Horace’s father, Horace the 7th, and Steve Buscemi plays a younger version of Alan Alda’s character, Uncle Pete. A different group of customers sit at the bar, one among them played by magician David Blaine. After young Uncle Pete asks Blaine’s character to pay for his drinks, Blaine performs a magic trick. He turns a one dollar bill into a twenty dollar bill in front of Uncle Pete and his customers. Uncle Pete’s responds by demanding to see how the trick was done. Blaine’s character answers, “I don’t know any tricks. I just watch nature happen.” (Episode 10) He then breaks a glass with his teeth before Horace and Uncle Pete throw him out of the bar. Illusions without explanation are not welcome at Horace and Pete’s bar, nor are they welcome in Louis C.K.’s series. In this scene, C.K. disturbs the illusion of Horace and Pete itself with double casting. In A Short Organum for the Theatre, Brecht writes:

This principle — that the actor appears on the stage in a double role, as Laughton and as Galileo; that the showman Laughton does not disappear in the Galileo whom he is showing; from which this way of acting gets its name of ’epic’ — comes to mean simply that the tangible, matter-of-fact process is no longer hidden behind a veil; that Laughton is actually there, standing on the stage and showing us what he imagines Galileo to have been. (Brecht 9-10)

For Brecht, double casting is another way of revealing the constructed nature of drama to audiences. It causes audiences to become hyper-aware of the performed nature of the action on stage. C.K. uses double casting, like Brecht, to show the “matter-of-fact process… behind [the] veil” (Brecht 10).

In Episode 9, a hallucinatory conversation takes place between Pete, who has gone missing, and Uncle Pete, who committed suicide several episodes earlier. Uncle Pete tells Pete about his childhood and the time he chose to play hockey instead of baseball. Uncle Pete asks Pete if he remembers the incident, and when Pete says that he does, Uncle Pete replies, “No you don’t. Because it never happened” (Episode 9). They continue:

“What? No. I remember it.”
“No, you just crazied that up. That never happened any more than you were chased by that fucking snake in the Port Authority, that first time when they put you in the hospital.”
“What? “

“ Or any more than any of this is real here.” (Episode 9)

Here C.K. displays unreality on multiple levels. Uncle Pete is a figment of Pete’s imagination causing Pete to question his own perception of reality in a hallucination in a fictional series. In this scene, C.K. heightens Brecht’s alienation effect by calling into question not only the representation of reality on screen, but also how the characters on screen represent reality to themselves. We as viewers are simultaneously compelled to empathize with Pete’s condition and realize the highly constructed and meta-fictional nature of the scene. Pete reveals to viewers that he knows he is hallucinating. Uncle Pete says, “Why do you think you’re here? I mean, you know you’re not here, right?” Pete replies, “I know. I know” (Episode 9). Uncle Pete reminds both Pete and C.K.’s audience that the action on screen is not real. Pete’s response mirrors our own. This is the penultimate episode of the series and we know by now to be skeptical of appearances. As the episode ends, Pete asks his father, “But can you just let me have this right now? Would you please? Just let me have it. Just a little piece.” Uncle Pete replies, “Okay, son. You go ahead and have it. And you sure did play hockey. I was just fucking with you” (Episode 9). Uncle Pete gives Pete (or rather Pete gives himself) a moment of catharsis, and somewhere in between the layers of illusion and disclosure, C.K. allows us to become emotionally attached to the characters on screen. Although we are aware that we are watching an actor perform a hallucinatory version of a fictional character, we are allowed to “have this right now… Just a little piece” (Episode 9).

Horace and Pete constantly considers the performativity and readability of facial expressions. In Episode 1, Horace and his daughter, Alice, discuss Horace’s inability to read the complexities of the human face. Alice tells her father, “No, it’s like, you are not aware of anything, you know? You, like, look at a person’s face, and if they’re smiling, you’re fine, and if they’re not, then you’re sad.” Horace replies, “It– isn’t that normal?” Alice answers, “Yeah, for a five-year-old, but you’re 50, you know?” (Episode 1). Alice understands that outward expressions of emotion are performed and are not accurate representations of true or authentic emotion. In the next episode, Uncle Pete discusses his friend’s experience of liberating a concentration camp during WWII. Uncle Pete tells his customers,

He’s walking into the camp with his platoon and they see all these people starving and dying, you know? And the whole platoon starts crying, only he can’t cry. He’s not crying ’cause he’s, you know, he’s stunned. He can’t get a tear out. And everybody’s, you know, crying their eyes out and the camp prisoners are all just looking at these people crying and he still can’t cry. So he feels, like, self-conscious and guilty, you know? So he starts trying to think about things, like his mother or his kids, you know? Still can’t cry. Finally, he thinks of “Bambi.
Yeah, it came out in 1942, you know, right before he shipped off to war.
So he’s thinking about how Bambi’s mother was shot, you know? Cries like a baby. (Episode 2)

Although Uncle Pete’s friend felt genuine emotion, he wasn’t able to accurately display that emotion on his face. In order to achieve an appropriate facial response, he summoned the memory of a sad cartoon. Uncle Pete’s anecdote re-enforces Alice’s conception of facial expressions as artificial and performative. Uncle Pete’s friend uses a method acting technique to help him emote in a real situation. In Training and Exercises Lee Strasberg, the leading figure in the development of method acting, writes, “Re-living a specific traumatic or joyful emotional experience is the way to access a sequence of behavior and express emotions when certain scenes are particularly demanding. The emotional memory is the actor’s weapon to create a complete reality on stage” (Strasberg 27). Uncle Pete’s retelling of his friend’s experience establishes a connection between the way actors in Horace and Pete perform and the way all people perform emotion as a form of communication. Leon, a customer at Horace and Pete’s, tells Uncle Pete that he “did the opposite”:

“I was watching “Bambi” with this girl I was seeing, she was a ballerina. And when Bambi’s mother got shot, she started crying, the ballerina. And I wanted to cry with her, you know, to show her I had feelings, but– but I didn’t care.”
“Wait, so what, you used the Holocaust so that you could cry about Bambi?”

“It’s sad. Isn’t it sad?”

“Which one, “Bambi” or the Holocaust?”

“It’s sad that it’s so hard to show your feelings when you really want to”

Again, a character admits to using a method-acting technique in order to convey a situationally appropriate emotion. In both cases, characters understand crying as a form of communication. They don’t cry because it is a natural expression of emotion but because it is necessary for the communication of emotion to others. Performance is portrayed as necessary for human connection. Horace and Pete’s self-reflexivity and persistent exposure of illusion allows viewers to recognize illusion and performativity in all human interaction. However, C.K. allows certain components of Aristotelian drama into Horace and Pete including climactic catharsis, narrative structure, tragic characters and “incidents arousing pity and fear” (Aristotle 9). By combining dramatic theatre and epic theatre in a filmed production, C.K. exposes the shortcomings of both while constructing a new “theatre” that addresses performativity and artificiality without minimizing “our enjoyment of the theatre” (Brecht 3).

Episode 3 opens with a nearly ten minute monologue shot in uninterrupted close-up. Horace’s ex-wife, Sarah, played by Laurie Metcalf, tells an off-screen listener (later revealed to be Horace) about her ongoing affair with her new husband’s father. Metcalf’s believable, naturalistic acting is made even more impressive by the uncut and unadorned presentation of the scene. After Metcalf’s intense and graphic monologue, C.K. cuts to a close-up shot of Horace’s stunned face. The close-up of Horace reveals C.K.’s not quite stage— but not quite screen acting style. C.K.’s facial expressions as Horace are less subtle than Metcalf’s. He gapes, open-mouthed, squints, furrows his brow, and frowns in close up. Often C.K. provides a quick close-up shot of Horace’s facial expression; however Horace’s verbal reactions to Sarah’s confession often happen while Horace’s face is off camera. Horace says, “you never lied to me” (Episode 3) during a close-up shot of Sarah. C.K. includes close-up shots of Horace purposefully to show and magnify his facial expressions, not simply because he is delivering a line at a given moment. These two characters in conversation personify the dialogue that Horace and Pete creates between epic theatre and dramatic theatre. This subtle juxtaposition acts as an equalizer of two opposing acting styles. Although Metcalf’s acting is superb, nuanced, and naturalistic, it calls attention to itself as an achievement in performance because of the unedited, theatrical tone of the show. Because Horace and Pete does not often make use of close-up shots, Metcalf’s long close-up monologue stands out as a magnified performance. C.K.’s comparatively more histrionic performance also calls attention to itself as acted.

Sarah tells Horace about her sexual encounters with her father in law, Roger. She mentions that on one occasion, Roger was doing housework downstairs while she stayed upstairs. She reports that the two of them participated in mutual masturbation while they were on different floors of the house:

I start touching myself and I let my own sounds drowned out his and I assumed that he’s doing the same but of course I don’t know. I don’t know anything. For all I know he’s guessing what I’m doing up there and the poor guy is just sitting there totally shocked or he has no idea that any of this is going on. (Episode 3)

Because Sarah is unable to see Roger’s face, she feels as though she is lacking vital information. She is guessing at his intentions and emotions. Throughout Horace and Pete, C.K. shows that faces and facial expressions have the ability to communicate necessary truths. Although both C.K. and Metcalf’s performances in this scene emphasize performativity as a function of human interaction, Sarah’s story shows that without access to the faces of other people, it becomes even more difficult to interact effectively. Although Horace and Pete establishes that facial expressions are ultimately artificial and constructed, the show also reveals the face’s ability to communicate concealed truths. In Episode 7, Horace tells Rhonda that he got his ex-wife, Sarah and her sister, Rosemary pregnant at the same time. Rosemary “took off” and Sarah raised both children on her own. When Rhonda asks if the children found out, Horace replies, “you can lie to kids about who their mom is, you can actually pull that off, but, uh, you can’t pretend that they’re twins” (Episode 7). While technically fraternal twins would be no more identical than ordinary siblings, Horace suggests that a lack of resemblance between his children prevented him from lying to them. Horace’s children do not resemble each other and their facial differences reveal the truth of their parentage. Familial lineage recurs as a theme throughout Horace and Pete, however, because of the self-reflexive tone of the show and its constant unveiling of artificiality, audiences become acutely aware that none of the actors in the show are actually related to each other. Horace’s assertion that it’s possible to lie about family relationships reminds audiences that Horace and Pete presents Louis C.K. and Edie Falco as full siblings even though they are not truly related. This lack of resemblance between characters who are supposed to be related appears in C.K.’s earlier work as well. In his FX show, Louie, Susan Kelechi Watson, a black actress, plays C.K.’s character’s ex-wife and mother of their two white children. While faces in Horace and Pete reveal truth, the actors’ faces reveal to us the truth that the entirety of the series is made up of performances.

After Horace tells Rhonda about his children, Rhonda suggests that she may be a trans woman. Although Rhonda tells Horace that he “had sex with a woman last night” (Episode 7), she refuses to straightforwardly answer his nervous question, “And always was a woman?” (Episode 7) Rhonda allows Horace to question the correlation between her gender expression and her gender identity. Whether or not Rhonda is actually a trans woman remains ambiguous. If Rhonda is not a trans woman, her interaction with Horace is performative. She allows Horace to believe that she may be trans by momentarily taking on the role of a trans person. If Rhonda is a trans woman, her gender expression is still performative according to performance theorists such as Judith Butler. Butler understands all gender as a performative. In her paper, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler writes, “Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself” (Butler 311). Horace is unable to determine Rhonda’s gender despite having been physically intimate with her. Rhonda’s possible performance as a trans woman, as well as Horace’s inability to determine whether or not she is performing, serves a heightened dramatization of gender performance theory. Horace and Pete demonstrates that physicality is not an accurate representation of identity. Gender is always “imitation” (311) and theatrical in nature. We can never be certain of a person’s gender, just as we cannot be certain of a person’s true emotions. Outward expression fails to accurately communicate both identity and inner feelings.

In Episode 10, after Horace has been informed that Pete has likely died, he conducts an interview with Maura, played by Amy Sedaris. Maura notices that Horace is upset. She tells him, “God, it’s driving me crazy, your eyes are, like, soaking wet.
They’re, like, soaking wet. Do you have an allergy problem or something?” (Episode 10) She then begins massaging Horace’s eyes, face, and temples. During his conversation, Horace becomes visibly happier. Maura tells Horace, “look at that, you’re smiling! Look at that smile. See, you use every muscle in your face when you smile” (Episode 10). Maura’s energy alters Horace’s attitude, however she also physically molds Horace’s sad face into a happy one. An outer physical force (and Maura is a force) changes not only Horace’s face, but also his inner emotions. Method acting proposes that conjuring a sad or emotional memory in the mind can make facial expressions appear more real and believable. This interaction between Horace and Maura shows that facial manipulation can create real, believable emotion. Horace begins the conversation as a man devastated by his cousin’s probable death and leaves the conversation ready to move to Chicago and begin a new life with Maura. Performativity and emotional realism are not diametrically opposed. Performance or artificial manipulation of the face can create emotional realism.

In the first episode of Horace and Pete, customers at the bar discuss liberal and conservative politics. One customer mediates a conversation between a self-identified liberal and a self-identified conservative. After the liberal and the conservative both verbalize how they unfavourably interpret the other’s party. The mediator replies, “See, the fact that you start out by seeing each other like that, I mean, how could you possibly ever respect each other or agree on anything?” (Episode 1) After both customers favourably describe their own parties, the mediator asks,  “So, if you start by taking his definition of himself and he starts with your definition of you, don’t you stand a better chance, have a better shot at getting to some sort of consensus?” (Episode 1) Horace and Pete does not claim that the inevitability of artifice and illusion results in a complete dissolution of communication. Effective communication is made possible by recognizing artifice and addressing its impact. At the end of Episode 10, after the credits, C.K. and the cast of Horace and Pete take a final bow. C.K. exclaims, “That’s a wrap on Horace and Pete, everybody!” (Episode 10) The inclusion of this curtain call, displaying the crew, cameras and lighting on screen, acts as a final reminder of the show’s artifice. Yet, at the same time we are reminded of the show’s real impact, of the real people who participated in its creation, and of the value of illusion.




Works Cited

Aristotle. “The Internet Classics Archive | Poetics by Aristotle.” The Internet Classics Archive | Poetics by Aristotle. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

Brecht, Bertolt. “A Short Organum for the Theatre.” Brecht on Theatre; the Development of an Aesthetic. Trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. N. pag. Print.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. By Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina. Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. N. pag. Print.

C.K., Louis. “About Horace and Pete.” | Horace and Pete. N.p., 4 Feb. 2016. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

C.K., Louis. “Horace and Pete.” | Horace and Pete. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

Strasberg, Lee, and Lola Cohen. “Training and Exercises.” The Lee Strasberg Notes. London: Routledge, 2010. N. pag. Print.