67 Mixed Messages
Suzi, the dark lady of these sonnets, is the breathtakingly beautiful, hopelessly elusive love object for their writer, who recognizes well the absurdity of his feelings. A collection spiked with puns and literary references, 67 Mixed Messages could best be described as a work of passionate playfulness, pained sexuality, and deadly serious jokes. Every line scans, every acrostic makes sense, and every joke (really!) is funny.
“With breathtaking ease, Ed Allen takes on the whole tradition of the sonnet, from Shakespeare to Frost, and emerges a clear winner…. After finishing 67 Mixed Messages, I found myself echoing Allen’s constant refrain, ’I love you, Suzi, too.‘”—R.S. Gwynn
#43: Suzi Drinking Soda on a Hot Day
I wish I had the skill to frame her face:
Lips ringed around an ice-cold Royal Crown,
On days so hot the trained greyhounds won’t chase
Valley Park’s rabbit, so the track shuts down.
End of the summer; Suzi takes the sun,
Sun touches Suzi. Next week every hall
Up in our building will see people run,
Zipping up stairways, meaning now it’s fall.
I love you, Suzi. When you lift that clear
Glass bottle to your lips, and swirl the dark
Raspberry-flavored cola-spiked root beer
Around your mouth—the world’s a water park,
Crowded with swimmers drinking Mountain Dew.
Each bottle, spun, finds north, and points to you.
Copyright © 2006 Ed Allen
“The least politically correct but also funniest book under review here is Ed Allen’s 67 Mixed Messages, a sonnet sequence that is technically proficient, thoughtful, surprisingly ambivalent, and very inappropriate. These qualities are all advantages. . . . Clearly, an obsession is at work, but fortunately, the poet retains his self-awareness, a crucial source of the book’s strength: whether Suzi actually exists or is only an invention, Allen subverts our expectations for poems of unrequited lust. . . . [Suzi] emerges as more distinctly individual than the majority of her sonnet-courted kin: ‘she smokes, she’s friends with homophobic men,’ spells overalls as ‘overhauls,’ lives off her student loan check in a trailer with ‘leaky sink,’ fibs when she wants to avoid the speaker, and may well be promiscuous . . . . While 67 Mixed Messages probably won’t earn kudos from an academy where unsmiling grimness cancels human feeling, Ed Allen’s hilarious poetic account of loneliness and love—of forbidden feeling, fantasy, and lust's inevitable fading—shows that contemporary experience and centuries-old tradition continue to combine in striking ways.” —from the review in Pleiades by Ned Balbo.
“With 67 Mixed Messages, Ed Allen gives a technically breathtaking tour-de-force of the sonnet form. . . . I read this book straight through in one sitting. The relentless meter is hypnotic, and builds a momentum that makes it almost impossible to stop turning the pages. The reader becomes as obsessed as the narrator, counting iambs and matching rhymed words, reading ‘I LOVE SUZI GRACE’ with increasing awe each time it shows up, and anticipating each ‘I love you, Suzi’ as if he/she is complicit in this affair, saying I love you too. . . . The tension between high and low diction—between this traditional form and the modern setting—is the sort of tension that a sonnet needs to be truly compelling.” —from the review in Cranky by Amy Schrader.
“For his first book of poetry, novelist and Flannery O’Connor Award-winning writer Ed Allen (Straight Through the Night, Mustang Sally, and Ate it Anyway) has set himself a formidable task. Each of the 67 poems that comprise 67 Mixed Messages is not only a Shakespearean sonnet, but also an acrostic, and all of those acrostics bear the exact same message: ‘I LOVE SUZI GRACE.’ The first four words of the second stanza in each poem are also the same: ‘I love you, Suzi.’ The result is oddly compelling, intellectually satisfying, occasionally disturbing, and loaded with equal amounts of pathos and humor. . . . What is most pleasing about these poems is how Allen maintains the traditional form of the sonnet while addressing his humble subject matter, acknowledging that ‘Eros lives among the lawn-parked cars.’” —from the review in Whistling Shade by Dallas Crow
I was born in New Haven Connecticut in 1948. I grew up mostly in the suburbs of New York, and received my B.A. in English from Goddard College in Vermont. At Goddard I enjoyed some success as a promising undergraduate poet, and later attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop for one semester in 1972.
After spending some years bouncing around in various lousy but distinctly writerly jobs, such as taxi driver, butcher, and shipping clerk, I finally decided to get serious about writing. In 1984, I entered the graduate program in creative writing at Ohio University, where I began working on my first novel, a story based loosely on some of my Dickensian meat-business experiences. This novel, eventually to be published as Straight Through the Night, occupied most of my writing time while I was working toward my master’s degree.
After receiving my master’s degree in 1986, I continued on in the Ohio University Ph.D. program. In 1989, while I was still a Ph.D. student, Straight Through the Night was published by Soho Press. This novel attracted considerable attention, with reviews in such publications as The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, and the Christian Science Monitor.
I received my Ph.D. in 1989, having completed as a creative dissertation a book of poems titled The Clean Place. My first academic position was as an assistant professor of English at Rhodes College in Memphis. While teaching at Rhodes, I published three stories in The New Yorker, and also had stories taken by Story magazine and Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Southwest Review published a story called “River of Toys,” which went on to be chosen by Richard Ford for Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Short Stories, 1990.
In 1991, supported by the advance on my second novel, as well as by the proceeds from a three-day stint on Jeopardy!, I moved to Pahrump, Nevada (which I now think of as the Barking Dog Capital of America), where I spent a year living in the desert in a little double-wide trailer and writing full time. During that period I published stories in The New Yorker, Story, and Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Mustang Sally, my second novel, was published by W.W. Norton in 1992.
The following year I was appointed Creative Studies Artist in Residence at the University of Central Oklahoma, where I wrote and taught for two years. While in Oklahoma I published some more stories in Gentlemen’s Quarterly and The New Yorker, wrote some book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, and also began putting together a creative writing textbook called The Hands-On Fiction Workbook.
For the 1994-95 academic year, I was awarded a Senior Fulbright Fellowship to teach American literature at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. During my year in Krakow, I finished The Hands-On Fiction Workbook, which was published by Prentice-Hall in 1996. I returned to the United States in 1995 to join the faculty at San Jose State University, where I taught a mix of composition, literature, and creative writing classes, while struggling to keep my writing on track. In 1996 I accepted a position as associate professor of English at the University of South Dakota.
In 2002 my short story collection Ate It Anyway won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, a publication that came just in time to coincide with my application for tenure. I still get something of a chuckle when I look at the University of Georgia’s description of the award as being intended for the encouragement of “gifted young writers.” Since I was fifty-four when I received the award, I guess that makes me the oldest gifted young writer in America.
In 2003 my novel Mustang Sally was produced as a movie, under the title Easy Six. (I can be seen wandering around in the background in two scenes.) My most recent success has been the acceptance of my “hyperformal” sonnet collection 67 Mixed Messages by Ahsahta Press at Boise State University. That book is scheduled to be published in the winter of 2005-2006. I’ve lived in Vermillion, South Dakota for almost ten years now. By now, much of my east coast snobbery has melted away—except that I still wince when I hear otherwise educated people use the word lay when they mean lie. I’ve also discovered that when you have lived in a smaller town long enough, talking about whether it’s going to rain or not actually becomes interesting.
One reason I have ended up as a writer is that my parents read stories and poems to me, usually at bedtime. I think I came to associate that sense of security with the things they read to me, so that gradually the stories and verses themselves began to seem like a kind of protection against childhood fears. This gut-level sense of the solace to be had in poetry and stories is perhaps part of what Frost was talking about when he described a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion.”
Growing up, I spent a fair amount of my time daydreaming, amusing myself with my own thoughts. In school I was surrounded by a children’s culture that prized rhymed insults, disgusting songs, parodies, rituals. I was particularly lucky to grow up amid the rich tradition of children’s metrical formulae for determining who in a game will be “it.”
For me, these childhood experiences, in their directness and simplicity, are the original source of literature. Believing in the importance of that source sometimes makes me impatient with poetry and prose that tries to be too rarified, too intellectual, and too adult. (Fortunately, that impatience doesn’t keep me from liking Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane.)
I’m glad that I’ve been able to keep one foot in poetry and one foot in prose. I don’t think that the distinctions between one and the other are ultimately all that important. I’ve written plenty of free verse, but I have tended to gravitate to poetry in rhyme and meter, perhaps just because I find it more fun. The sonnet form in particular seems to be a happy and versatile invention.
One of the things that has been particularly fun and particularly challenging about putting together 67 Mixed Messages has been the project of balancing the speaker’s sexual desire for Suzi with his own sense of sexual ambiguity. The heart of these messages is that they are mixed, that they are spoken in the voice of someone who is pulled so strongly in multiple directions that he is unable to narrow his desires down to the point where he can do anything about any of them—a sort of Miniver Cheevy character, pathetic and comic at the same time, and having some sense of his own absurdity.
Even though most of the sonnets focus on heterosexual fascination, it is clear to me that this sequence could not work without its bisexual undertone. If it were just about a middle-aged man yearning for a woman half his age, the story would sound too much like the ruminations of a borderline pedophile. I think the bisexual nature of the work has allowed me as a writer to take a step backwards and to look at this hopeless relationship from an ambiguous viewpoint that I hope will make the salaciousness of the speaker’s fantasies seem less creepy.
On the other hand, I didn’t want the voice of the poems to be perceived as distinctly gay, either. In fact, I asked the Library of Congress to change its Cataloging-in-Publication classification for the book from gay to bisexual, in the hope of emphasizing the mixed nature of these messages, so that the book, ideally, could become a celebration of sexual diversity, not just among different groups of people, but within one person.