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Can Spencer Madsen make anything sad?

Why there's more to the alt-lit wunderkind's angst-ridden new poetry book than 'fuck it'

On the first read, Spencer Madsen's second book of poetry, You Can Make Anything Sad, out on April 29 with Publishing Genius, is overrun by an overarching angst. The poet is depressed and despite repeated attempts he struggles with the fundamental impossibility of connecting with others – he sees it happening but ultimately can't help himself. In one poem, a girlfriend tells Madsen, who is being particularly fatalistic, "You have two options and you’re choosing the sad one."

The book is very relatable, but that’s partially because it deals with an everyday that is inherently colourless, dull and repetitive. In one poem titled "A NEW REALITY SHOW CALLED:" Madsen reels off a list of ideas for reality TV shows, at once both emphasising how the mundane can feel incredibly dramatic ("A new reality show called I wish I didn’t have to pee that consists of people lying down comfortably in bed and then suddenly having to pee") and suggesting the potential for creation without following through with any actual creating. It’s wanting to make something out of what will seem, to anyone but you experiencing it, like nothing – one of many laments for the human connection that feels more and more impossible.

This explicitly fatalistic solipsism meshes with Madsen’s tone of ‘I didn’t spend a lot of time writing this and now I’m publishing it’ (see also: Madsen’s essays for Brad Listi’s recently re-launched otherppl magazine, which begin with qualifications like ‘I haven’t read what’s below. I wrote it in a panic.’  to really drive home what seems, at first, like a pretty standard sense of futility. When so much is shitty – and when a big part of that shittiness is related to the fact that it’s impossible for other people to understand and connect with you – you might as well publish whatever you want. If we interpret this tone as Madsen prioritizing putting work out there over the reader’s experience – if we, in other words, interpret this as him not caring if we’re engaged or bored, as long as his words might have readers – then we hit a logical wall: why would he, or anyone, feel compelled to put writing into a world that consists entirely of other people who fundamentally cannot understand it?

An easy answer, and one that many critics of alt-lit have leveraged against writers like Madsen, is: selfishness. But there’s another inconsistency here: Madsen’s first piece for the otherppl magazine project, Notes From My Notes App, implies a distinction between the note-like tone of his poetry and the actual notes he’s taking – that his artistic work is fundamentally different (and, presumably, more polished or considered) than the thoughts he – and many writers – jot down, virtually or otherwise. "I keep a list in my phone of miscellaneous thoughts, ideas, dream descriptions, etc." he writes in the essay. "I often refer to it when looking for inspiration, or to gauge where I’m at creatively. Some of these notes have been incorporated into books, poems, tweets, etc." This suggests, despite the sense of hopelessness that weighs down much of this book, that there is some will to try.

“There’s a disconnect between the narcissism Madsen and his alt-lit contemporaries have been accused of and the truly original insights you find yourself reading”

The lines "But you can write a whole book. / You can call it anything you want. / You can print it out and stare at it." seem to reinforce the sense of ‘fuck it’ out of context. But when you consider what comes before them, they become a challenge to the (perceived) futility of an existence spent in failed attempts at connection ("My forehead, marked permanently by attempts at conveying sincerity.") and disappointment in having to come to terms with the way the world and other people foster those failures As a rebuttal to the negativity that comes before, they function less as a cop-out kind of justification for the book – or any book potentially deemed worthless or narcissistic – and more as one of those statements of fact: just as you can make anything sad, you can, definitely, write a whole book. These lines come late, but they aren’t the first time books or writing conjures a relative optimism.

Much of You Can Make Anything Sad supports its title, sure, but at its core is a poet trying to resist that – just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. There’s a disconnect between the narcissism Madsen and his alt-lit contemporaries have been accused of and the truly original insights you find yourself reading. Amidst the ‘and then I did this daily activity/drug’ lines are hyper-articulate moments of ingenuity and observation. Madsen calls his sinuses the "tubes that justify my nose"; the insight "The illusion of relationships is the lessening of distance but a new distance arises when a stranger becomes a friend." is not only thoughtful, but it also offers the reader space to imagine how it might be true – a deft, evocative maneuver that many writers might mess up. One suspects these bright spots in the writing are also bright spots in the despair that characterizes Madsen’s work: it’s empowering to create something.

And actually, ‘A NEW REALITY TV SHOW CALLED:’ is an example of that empowerment. While its form inherently implies a lack of one kind of creation, in making the list of what’s not made, Madsen creates something else: a poem. And poems are one of the only ways to (try to) bridge the gap to other people. When we consider that so much of the force of alt lit as a contemporary literary movement comes from its community, the lines “I read poems by my friends. / I feel something for the poems and something for my friends.” are particularly poignant. The tone is dry and declarative, largely prohibiting the reader from empathizing fully, but there’s hope there. We have no idea what these poems are or what they make Madsen feel, but at least we have the fact that we both still can.

You Can Make Anything Sad is out April 29 through Publishing Genius