Kong Reads His Poetry

William Trowbridge, deprived of pop culture as a child, infuses his work with it as an adult

May 16, 2001 at 4:00 am
There is something attractive about a poet who is more likely to refer to Nolan Ryan or the film Diner than to peonies or thundershowers. Maryville, Mo., poet William Trowbridge often alludes to movies, TV shows and other examples of pop culture in his work.

The poem "Walking Out," for instance, was inspired by Trowbridge's witnessing the death of tightrope walker Karl Wallenda live on TV, and "Walk Don't Run" was written after he saw footage of a Japanese soldier burning to death on Saipan during World War II. In "Enter Dark Stranger," he compares a typically clumsy person strolling through the woods, scaring the robins and chipmunks away, to hired killer Jack Palance scaring away the locals in Shane.

He concludes "Stranger" with the lines "But forget Palance, who would have murdered Alabama/just for fun. Think of Karloff's monster/full of lonely love but too hideous/to bear; or Kong, bereft with Fay Wray/shrieking in his hand: the flies circle our heads/like angry biplanes, and the ants hoist pitchforks/to march on our ankles as we watch the burgher's daughter/bob downstream in a ring of daisies."

Trowbridge, longtime editor of the litmag Laurel Review, is especially fond of monster movies and continues to add to his collection of Kong poems, which continue the filmic story as if the uprooted King Kong had not fallen from the Empire State Building and died but were alive and trying to fit into modern society. In poems such as "Baseball Been Not So Good to Kong" and "Kong Views an Experimental Art Film at the City Library," the bewildered behemoth earnestly tries to understand human ways but meets with disappointment and disaster, sometimes even accidentally killing a few folks. A recent poem from the ongoing Kong series was awarded the 2001 Stanley Hanks Prize, given to the best work by a Missouri poet published in a Missouri literary journal.

"My obsession with [movies and television] stems from when I was a kid," says Trowbridge. "I grew up in a house where there wasn't any art available -- no books, no music, not much of anything -- just because my parents weren't interested at all in that sort of thing. My first exposure to art was movies that they were showing on TV. It started with the late-night-theater stuff, and it imprinted on me pretty profoundly."

The recently retired Northwest Missouri State English professor's poetry references such pop-culture figures as Charles Starkweather, Minnie Pearl, Wile E. Coyote, Boris Becker, Gene Kelly, Buster Keaton, the wrestler Gorgeous George, the Lone Ranger, Michael Corleone, Snow White and Dan Marino. His poems tend to be relatively short and easy to digest, often centering on a single sharp memory from his life or our collective lives as consumers of television and film.

Trowbridge's accessible narratives work well with his sense of humor. In one memorable dispatch, "Poets' Corner," the author recalls his boredom playing left field as a young boy and how he once started to yank up dandelions until Little League Coach Bob Zambisi told him to stop acting like "some kind of Percy Bitch Shelley."

Sorry, Coach -- the poet gets the final word and the last laugh.