Two years ago, a kitsch editor-in-chief summoned me to their office and handed me a blank check. Since that summons, I have learned what it means to be human. I have also learned what it means to feel shame. I know how hopeless we all are. It has taken years, but I have rediscovered happiness; I look forward to things now. It started with that blank check. It started with kitsch.
The lore is that kitsch are gnomes and that Gnomes are small. I’m not sure how I size up to things. All I know is the relevant truth: the editor-in-chief’s desk was too tall for me to see over. At least, I assume it was. I didn’t look at the desk. I was too busy looking at the check. It was written out to “Social Media Manager.” My vision cut out. Suddenly, I was a horse at the starting gate, stately and powerful. I understood that I had to win this race. I understood that people were counting on me. I understood that I had a purpose.
I understood those things then, but I do not understand them anymore. That was when the line between fact and fiction was clear. Whatever has happened since—whether it be a blurring, a distortion, or a disruption—had not set in.
I didn’t do much as Social Media Manager. Other people organized events; other people made the posters; other people wrote the descriptions; I just created the Facebook post. I never met the people involved in kitsch. None of us did, I don’t think. We hid behind names that weren’t our own. We held onto representations—we were in the business of trusting them. We did trust them.
I think of the famous Robert Frost—or was it Eric Carle—line, “The rawness of reality like the flesh of roadkill.” Where—or what—was my morality? I was a pawn in a game that I didn’t know the rules to. That’s how these things work out. Other people play the game, and if you’re lucky, you just watch. I was unlucky. I didn’t know what I was doing—incomprehensible things, ineffable things. It is always too late to run the tutorial. I am just an errand boy. This is what I have learned.
kitsch’s Twitter account is spectral. Consider this tweet: “blipblapblopboopop / whhozzsh / ‘’ *glurg* it storm’ owf yepsers there it is” (13 March 2018). Now consider this tweet: “My legs are eggs, hard-boil my body” (30 October 2018). Now consider this tweet: “I’m enraged if Frasier is ON Netflix and I’m infuriated if Frasier is OFF Netflix” (10 April 2019). The first is gibberish. The second is Mother Goose masochism. The last is disturbed. To circumscribe the three with a single cohesive self is difficult. More likely, there are a multiplicity of voices that speak as kitsch. Brands attempt personhood through the development of a unique, sustained voice. Is kitsch attempting to be subversive? Or does kitsch not get it? Maybe kitsch is attaining consciousness, but unable to mimic the human psyche? Maybe kitsch is an untheorized post-human?
kitsch is present on Instagram. Most of my efforts went into facilitating this space. When I came in, the Instagram focused on Gnome-posting (which I hope future Gnomes revive). The boom of “Instapoetry”—bite-sized poems/aphorisms accompanied by some visual flourish—signalled an opportunity for kitsch: publish the instapoems of Cornell students. We became the premiere outlet for Cornell Instapoetry. Students flooded our inbox with submissions. kitsch began with a 100% acceptance policy, but as submissions came from fans around the country, we became tougher. The social media department at kitsch grew from two to four. When the submission pile got bigger, so did we: four, to six, to eight. Soon kitsch had a staff of editors sifting through poetry submissions. It was a wonderful feeling to bring together a community of poets and give them a platform. We believed in inspiring student poets from Cornell, Ithaca, and beyond.
Then something changed. The posts were deleted. Other posts started going up. Some were the old works with an authorial “-kitsch” after the body of the text. Others were new works (also assigned to kitsch). People who submitted were blocked. Posts came in bursts at all hours of the night. Then one morning, we couldn’t sign into the account.
We laid off staff. We tried to reset the account. But all we could do was sit and endure the embarrassment. The confusion. I dreamt of my teeth falling out. My hair thinned. I searched for positions elsewhere: The Daily Sun, Marginalia, The Cornell Book Review. Nobody would accept me. I graduated and looked for a job. Under a pseudonym, I started as Archivist Assistant at New York Public Library. When they found out my past, I was given the boot. With no reference, no dignity, and no hope, I turned to the gig economy. As a rideshare driver, I was always given one star; all my reviews ended, “-kitsch.”
I left the city. I burned my degree. I tossed my phone. I forged a high school ID and got a job at Jenkinson’s Aquarium in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. I stood by the octopus tank and scolded children: “Don’t tap the glass, little boy.” I watched the octopus’s long body flow in the water with grace—“Don’t tap the glass, little boy”—the strange head of the octopus made me think of my own—“Don’t tap the glass, little boy”— the way it swung its tentacles, as if it all it wanted to do was get out—“Little boy, DON’T tap the glass!” I was on the floor, sweating and crying, because the octopus was beautiful and the little boy was tapping the glass.
I applied for a residency in the penguin exhibit. At the last minute, I got off the waitlist. I packed my things and moved in: a winter with the penguins at the Jersey Shore. At night, the custodians turned off the lights and I lay in the cold, dark loneliness. The penguins rejected me, just like everyone else. Living on the margins, isolated on my ice floe, I would imagine that the throbbing sadness in my chest was the reaction of my heart to the proximity of the stars in the Antarctic where I lived with a bird who loved me, who walked across the tundra with me, spotting constellations and sharing fish. When I closed my eyes and let my fingers freeze, it really felt like I was there, the desert of ice.
The morning comes when the custodians do; the artificial regularity of day and night does things to me. My imaginary life of contentment dies in the light. Penguins peck my knees, my back, my head. Spectators come in and stare. They’re not interested in me. They tap the glass for the penguins’ attention. They can’t hear me yell: “Don’t tap the glass, little boy!” And I realize, again, how lucky they are: to watch the game instead of playing; me, playing it without knowing the rules. I’ve learned from kitsch that in this world, we’re horses who can’t see our jockeys.
As I try to integrate with another species, I move into a space where my failures are behind me. I am still a failure, but a different kind. Here, I am a failure because I’m human. I can live with that disgrace. After all these years, this torturous life, I know that I now understand kitsch, the magazine who tried so desperately to be human. kitsch tried to have a cohesive sense of self, a poetic expressivity, denying itself its own polyphonic beauty. I hope kitsch liberates itself from the specious glory of the human; but if we share a will—and I fear that we do—then I know it will not. As for me, I will not stop until I hold my true love’s wing in the dark of the frozen night, nothing but the cosmos—and death—ahead.