Neil Leadbeater

A review of Eileen R. Tabios' The Gilded Age of Kickstarters

The Gilded Age of Kickstarters
Eileen R. Tabios
dancing girl press & studio
Chicago, 2016

The Gilded Age of Kickstarters is a collection of 12 poems inspired by Kickstarter—an American public-benefit corporation based in New York that maintains a global crowdfunding platform focused on creative projects such as films, music, journalism, video games, technology and food-related subjects. Eileen R. Tabios chose projects at random from Kickstarter and wrote poems inspired by their pages.

The title hints at what is to come. The gilded age is a direct reference to Mark Twain’s novel of the same name which satirized an era of serious social issues that were masked by a thin veneer of gold gilding—a period that was, beneath the surface glitter, seething with corruption. The phrase also carries with it a suggestion of an age of glamour and superficial attraction. An obscure meaning of “to gild something” means “to supply with gold or money.” It also carries the connotation of glossing over something, of giving it a specious appearance. The caiman on the front cover may or may not be a reference to a previous Kickstarter project: “CAIMAN connected” which was billed as being the ultimate mobile device accessory but whose funding was unsuccessful.

One striking feature about this collection is that the titles of all the poems begin with the words There Was… or There Were… which calls to mind the opening lines of limericks by Edward Lear. The poems are very accessible and there is a lot of light-hearted humor here even though, beneath the surface glitter there are some serious issues being addressed.

In There Were An Alligator And A Duck, Tabios takes as her starting point the lithograph “Sitting Ducks” by the poster artist Michael Bedard. This lithograph, which dates from the late 1970s, is a depiction of the literal interpretation of the idiomatic phrase “a sitting duck”. Three ducks are relaxing in the sun by the poolside, one looks up and notices two bullet holes in the wall. In the poem, the threat of the bullet is replaced by the threat of the alligator.
One alligator decides to take a duck home
and fatten it up for a yummy meal.

But the alligator grows fond of his future dinner. Still,
can a duck and an alligator really be friends
in an alligator-eat-duck world?
Another way of putting this is: can the lion really lie down with the lamb? As Tabios says—this is the reality of existence…we’re all sitting ducks!

Beneath the title of each poem, statistics are given in italics which give the current state of play to the project on which the poem is based. These statistics give the number of backers, the amount pledged, the goal to be reached and the number of days left in which to reach that goal.

One project which had no backers and therefore had not raised any money at all at the time of writing was one on the subject of eyebrow wax strips. There Were Eyebrows offers a satirical slant on the vanity of beauty. Written in an earlier century by, say, Pope, it would probably have been called something like “On Vanity” or “On Being Vain” satirising those of a vain disposition, which is just what this poem does so well.

The poem entitled There Was Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” is a reference to a popular American science educator and television presenter best known for hosting the PBS children’s science show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, from 1993 until 1998. Each of the 100 episodes aimed to teach a specific topic to a young audience but gained a wider following. When portraying the science guy, Nye always wore a light blue lab coat and a bow tie. There is a serious side to this poem. At a time when science is under attack—especially with regard to the current situation concerning global warming and climate change—Tabios is saying that we need people like Bill Nye to bring us to our senses.
We are turning to you,
People of the Internet
People who grew up
               on Bill Nye!

People who care
about science and bow ties!
Is our interest in science primarily driven by our attachment to iconic figures / celebrities? If so, it is a precariously thin attachment but one that has a valid place if it turns out to be the catalyst that eventually leads to a generation of committed scientists.

In the poem There Was A Company of Flexible Dancers what begins as a list poem ends as a magical journey. Just as Royal Flux—a professional Contemporary Dance Company based in Los Angeles—aims to push the boundaries of movement and athleticism so Tabios ends her poem
on a magical journey
captivating and challenging your mind
leaving you on the edge
of your seat craving for more…

For which we need money.
The text mirrors the movement of the dancers and their aspirations. This is a “found poem” insofar as the majority of the text may be found in the project prospectus.

Another “found poem” There Was A Lost Banjo Pick relates to Benjamin Aroh’s project entitled The Wooden States of America. There is a reference to the popular myth about George Washington and the value of honesty by commenting that each state of the union is to be crafted from Pennsylvania Cherry. Again, there is a serious underlying element to the poem and it is already alluded to in the title: something in their make-up is missing.

There Was A Vegan in Sri Lanka is a list poem. Its exoticism lies in its vocabulary which consists of words not often found in poetry:
Rocket Coconut Curry—Gowa Atu
Deviled Chickpeas—Kadala Tjel Dala
Coconut Rice Syrup Squares—Kalu Dodol
There Was The First Vegetal Cyborg is another light-hearted poem with a serious message. The clue may be found in the word “Cyborg” —a term given to a robot made of biological and machine components which Tabios translates into the natural world and the urban environment and the need for both worlds to live in harmony with one another.
Cities encroach

Gentle them
with house plants

But not everyone
has a green thumb

The French come to the rescue
with “Still Human”

a company with a smart flowerpot

The pot alerts humans
to a plant’s needs…

Designed to sit atop railings
it may have the added benefit
of dissuading suicide
in the concrete jungle…
These poems offer thoughtful insights and commentaries on the world in which we live. They are all about individuals with a mission. The subjects range from a peace plan by zombies and a dance company to French boot designers and eyebrow wax strips. Kickstarter is a bit like trying to make a dream come true: the two bakers in Seattle who want to set up a gluten-free bakery; an artist who wants to publish a book of her illustrations in South Korea; and an author who wants to raise funds to publish a Vegan cookbook. Like these fascinating poems, some of these ventures are successful and have a future ahead of them.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).
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