REVIEW: Fake News Poems by Martin Ott

Martin Ott is a writer from Los Angeles.  In April of 2014, Euphony Journal published “Fireside Chat,” a collaborative poem between Ott and John F. Buckley, online.  Fake News Poems is Ott’s eighth book.

The concept that underpins Martin Ott’s Fake News Poems is compelling, of course: for every week of 2017, Ott took a headline from the news and used it as the title and inspiration for a poem.  Fake News Poems is the document of those 52 weeks—see its subtitle, “2017 Year In Review.

Often this approach shines: on June 9, the New York Times published “A Crack in the Arctic Shelf is 8 Miles from Creating an Iceberg the Size of Delaware,” and Ott’s poem breaks down the headline, word by word, and free-associates one noun at a time, reflecting on his family, his life, his regrets.  The result is touching, and the interplay between muse and message is gratifying. August 29 brought“‘We Never Thought This Area Would Flood,’” where the hurricane waters become a metaphor for a nervous breakdown; here the poet hews closer to the headline, but the result is still striking and intensely emotional.  Ott’s selection of headlines contains some absolute zingers—see July 24,  “Tech Firm Starts Microchipping Employees So They Can Buy Potato Chips”—and his language is competent and confident throughout, with a very strong sense of tone.

This, however, is the main struggle with Fake News Poems: that tone verges on overpowering.  A sense of foreboding hangs rather too eagerly over the work from first to last (see the potato chip poem, which runs entirely on vague technofantastical malaise).  His evaluation of his times is dim and often emotionally distant. Sometimes this impersonal anguish works—consider “It’s Time To Do Nothing About Guns,” a pointed rebuke of American gun culture wrapped in a particularly terrifying flight of fancy—but it’s just too easy to tune out the drone of Ott’s alarmism.

I want to be clear that I have no problem with the poet’s politics (though someone, somewhere, will certainly take issue with something).  His allusions to then-current events are generally tasteful (with the possible exception of January 13th’s “Origins of a Golden Shower,” which takes an already-uncomfortable newsday and leans into it a little too much), and in fact many headlines fall far, far below the level of so-called “national discourse:” right after “A Crack in the Ice Shelf” we get “Are Choose Your Own Adventure Movies Finally Becoming a Thing?”  Ott’s answer, a series of send-ups on pop-culture icons, is entertaining enough, but the subject matter isn’t quite rich enough to sustain his bitter irony.

Reading Fake News Poems is really a fascinating experience. On the one hand every headline is matched to its date and publisher, so an intrepid reader might actually breadcrumb her way through the year in Ott’s references; on the other Ott’s approach visibly evolves from the beginning of the year to the end.  He stops leaning so heavily on the anaphoric poems of the late winter and early spring, and breaks off his brief flirtation with rhyme entirely. There’s a particularly strong stretch between August and October, where Ott scales his verses against his headlines just so, and delivers some solid, affecting poems—though then in November his headlines overpower him again and Ott delivers a joyless poem about the Abominable Snowman.  

Ott isn’t shy about addressing his times, and there’s value in that.  Many poets have taken contemporary strife and made timeless art with it.  Fake News Poems, however,  is simultaneously so keyed into its era and so emotionally removed from it that the book already feels dated.  Certainly the idea that underpins the work is a fascinating one, and certainly when Ott hits, he hits gold.  But week after week he’s got to keep swinging.