I’ve never heard of the poet Kenneth Sherman before, but a freewheeling interview with Laura Albert at the Jewish Daily Forward has called my attention to his newly republished book, Words for Elephant’s Man, which was first published in 1983.
Elephant Man was a movie by David Lynch about a real-life man named Joseph Merrick who suffered from a horrible skin-and-bone growth disease (before the David Lynch movie, Elephant Man was also a Broadway play that starred David Bowie, though strangely the two works with the same title and the same subject were written separately). This movie’s sense of deep physical and psychic alienation is a big theme in the mind of Kenneth Sherman. Laura Albert, who contributed (in the guise of her past doppelganger J. T. Leroy) to the screenplay of the haunting Gus Van Sant movie Elephant can clearly relate:
Kenneth Sherman’s collection of poems “Words For Elephant Man” was first published in 1983 and has just been rereleased by Porcupine’s Quill. It reads with the richness typical of a painting or a novel — so moving at times that I found myself weeping. It is hard to keep in mind that one is not hearing the actual voice of the so-called “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick, so strongly felt is the authenticity of the outsider who longs to be welcomed in, which Sherman renders with restrained, elegant strokes. I felt I had taken an emotional and visual journey — something I’ve come to expect from reading a novel, but not always from a collection of poems.
Laura: What inspired the re-release of this book?
Kenneth: “Words for Elephant Man” has been kept in print for 30 years. It is a unique book of poetry, as the text is interspersed with etchings by the well-known print-maker, George Raab, that help to evoke Merrick’s period, the Victorian age. My current publishers are renowned for their exquisitely produced books of literature and approached me about an upgraded edition.
Laura: Why is the book pertinent now?
Kenneth: There is undoubtedly something timeless about Joseph Merrick’s story, which is one of compassion and dignity in an impossible struggle with misfortune. And yet it is particularly pertinent today for two reasons. The increased use of electronic social media is working to eliminate the sense of individuality that was embedded in our older print culture. I believe this book reminds us of the nobility of the individual; it’s an affirmation of our essential humanity. The second reason is subtler. Alienation is a product of any technological society and yet this alienation is being hidden, or glossed over, by social media. Chat rooms are no cure. Merrick’s tribulations are a reminder of our essential aloneness.