Needs Improvement. Jon Paul Fiorentino, 88pgs, Coach House, www.chbooks.com, $17.95
Last autumn saw the release of Jon Paul Fiorentino’s book of experimental poetry Needs Improvement, published by Coach House Books. The title, Needs Improvement, taken from the egregious system for monitoring children’s proficiency in assigned subjects, is a tongue-in-cheek play on institutionalized processes for valourizing or discrediting individuals based upon their ability to comply within certain normative modes of performativity.
One of the earlier poems in the collection, “Winnipeg Cold Storage Company,” is appropriated from Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. However, in these little poems, Fiorentino replaces “gender” with “Winnipeg” or allusions to popular Winnipeg-based references. This re-negotiates the signifiers of Butler’s work, taking it from the theoretical realm of systemic oppression and instead engaging with performativity as a sedimentation of identity with relation to place. Place, in and of itself, can imply certain other forms of compulsory performance with relation to class, cultural practices, specific dialectic identifiers, amongst others. Fiorentino, who is from Winnipeg, may have simply chosen the place as a site of his own nostalgic consciousness—however, one cannot help but ponder the relation between his past role as a young student in Winnipeg and his current job as a University professor in Montreal. There is a clear relationship between being the subject of a grading system and being the benefactor of that same system; one must negotiate their identity in relation to their own power within that very system that once deduced them to powerless.
Reading deeper into the book, one encounters mechanical drawings of machinery, a washing machine that details the parts and functions as they relate to “ideology,” a showerhead representing “displacement.” The reader begins to conflate theory with simple mechanics, models of production. Perhaps such impersonal modes of analyses problematize the role of the individual within that system. The individual disappears and all that is left is a model for how a thing might be used.
Abruptly Fiorentino inserts an experimental piece that is neither entirely poetry or prose. It is a series of report cards that reveal interactions between parents and teachers over the behavior of the hopeless student “Leslie Mackie.” Given a surface reading, the piece is sharp and funny. Leslie’s parents confess to his second grade teacher: “Thanks for your patience. We love Leslie but sometimes we wish he didn’t exist.” However, what Fiorentino is doing with these report cards is much darker. In stark contrast we finally see the individual, a young boy from Transcona (Fiorentino’s hometown) being abused by the education system, and also by those who hold the power within that system—and yet we feel compelled to laugh. Is the reader letting down Leslie Mackie too? Why should we care about him?
Fundamentally this book is a pointed critique of societal models of behaviour, models of which Fiorentino himself is a part. The way the cover is laid out is to imply that Fiorentino is grading himself, it is addressed to himself (if you look closely, the address cites experimental Canadian poet bpNichol) and reads “Jon Paul Fiorentino Needs Improvement.” The author deprecates himself, sacrificing the authority of authorship to that invisible system the book continually harps back to. »