In his introduction to the Hugo House’s Lit Series event on Friday night, event programmer Peter Mountford called “what goes around comes around” the “immaculate conception of clichés.” Most clichés, he said, have very clear, recognizable origins, but “what goes around comes around” has existed for as long as language has existed, and it can’t be broken down into any simpler parts. It’s one of the clearest, simplest concepts that exists in written language.
Which makes sense. Repetition holds a strange power for humans. We use repetition to calm ourselves and others, but repetition can also be incredibly annoying. Artists will use repetition as an artistic device, by mirroring an event at the beginning and end of a piece of art to demonstrate a change in the audience’s perception. Critics like to repeat an artists’ words back to the artist, as a refutation or a bolstering of a point. One of the easiest ways to get a laugh is to bring down an arrogant character with their own words or actions. Just about everyone on earth, regardless of their religion has a basic understanding of what karma is.
So the four artists the Hugo House asked to respond to the cliche — Seattle poet Sierra Nelson, author Heidi Julavits, Seattle musician OC Notes, and celebrated poet D.A. Powell — were dealing with elemental stuff. The pleasure of the Hugo House’s Lit Series is watching how many different ways the theme can be interpreted. But there was a risk with this particular assignment: the simplicity of “what goes around comes around” could also be a problem with creative interpretations of it — if this idea seems hard-wired into our brains, maybe that understanding might resist deeper explanation?
OC Notes recognized from the stage that he and Nelson demonstrated a similar understanding of the theme, in particular with reference to karma. Nelson started the night reading a list of words and phrases relating to the theme — dirty dishes, hangovers, ouroboroses — and the audience arrived to discover that every seat in the house had an index card with one of the phrases written on it. (Mine was “Diet Crazes.”) She encouraged people to introduce themselves to each other as the concept written on their card, creating a moment where the poem came alive.
Nelson’s greatest strength is in her scientific approach to poetry, her willingness to throw poems against a thesis in an effort to create a crack where meaning can get inside. She unveiled a number of repetition-based poems — pantoums, blues lyrics — to bring the theme into the form, as well as the spirit, of her work. Along the way, she unveiled several gorgeous little observations, about Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Justin Timberlake, and the stunning revelation that Aplets and Cotlets are the flavor of grief. OC Notes shared Nelson’s spirit of investigation, crossing musical genres and demonstrating a playfulness in his three songs created just for the evening. The last song, a blues-based declaration that “Karma’s calling on the line/won’t you please pick up the phone?” captured perfectly the dread of actions coming back to haunt a person.
Powell was less successful. His interpretation of the theme materialized as a batch of new poems written in the spirit Powell brought to his poetry when he first started writing as a teenager. This kind of neo-juvenilia was occasionally funny, but Powell stuck with the theme way too long, reading what felt like dozens of poems, many of which had titles like “That Pussy Is Tight” and “Fuck Buddy.” At five minutes, it would have been a hilarious interlude. At near twenty minutes, it was interminable.
Julavits addressed the theme with an essay — possibly one that might expand into a book, she mused from the podium — about the possibility that one day her young son might rape a woman; every rapist has a mother, after all. Julavits reflected on her son's infancy, when he screamed and cried and demanded her body with the bone-deep understanding that he might die if she withheld her body from him. She called her father “a total non-rapist,” but suggested that, basically, she didn’t understand how to raise someone who would not rape. While all the other artists responded to the theme with a florid spray of playful work, Julavits dug deep inside, questing around parenthood and free will and destiny and consent. Without the density of her inquiry, the night might have felt a little too light. With her essay, everything came back around to making sense again.