Poet examines pop culture, past and present

Author Alan Gann

We Americans sure do love our entertainment. Summer is the season of blockbuster movies, concerts, and binge-watching our favorite television series. And what’s the harm in a little distraction, right? Alan Gann’s poetry collection, That’s Entertainment, examines American culture, both past and present, and entertainment’s influence on our everyday lives.

Gann himself is somewhat of an unconventional poet; he’s a retired engineer living in the Dallas area, and he brings a certain flair to the craft of poetry, a playfulness with words that is truly refreshing. The poems in this collection are accessible, fun and wholly relatable to readers of many generations—to those who might remember the glory days of American theater to today’s politically engaged youth. With sharp humor, breezy images, and striking lines, these poems are full of both wisdom and fun.

The first thing I want to note about this book is the cover. It has a little bit of Beaumont in it, and features our own gorgeous Jefferson Theatre. The theater, with its nostalgic sense of Americana, is the perfect backdrop for these poems, many of which explore what may have seemed like a simpler time.

The opening poem of the collection, “Overture and Prologue,” re-imagines the creation of America as the opening of a play, that exciting moment the curtain lifts. “Somehow fifteen seconds … contain 13 billions years before people began cultivating fields.” Suddenly, we witness “the exchange of beads, waves of immigration / building and crumbling apartments” within four and a quarter orchestral minutes. In this ballet, there’s Sharks snapping up and down New York, a spotlight shining down on graffitied walls, and the sounds of bongos, brass, and timpani filling the theater. Then, “sirens and cops and Officer Krupke” speaks the first real line of dialog—”break it up” as the story of our nation begins.

The titular poem, “That’s Entertainment” begins with a speaker reminiscing about his past watching musicals with his family, with “Rogers and Astaire tapping up a spiral staircase / Gene Kelly dressed as a sailor / Judy Garland parading down the avenue.” Together, they eat popcorn, sip Cokes with lemon and squeeze “onto the sofa / beneath one of grandma’s quilts.” Ah, the sweet innocence of youth!

Many other poems portray this carefree space, including “Cowboy Code” in which the speaker learns about manhood while spending a weekend with his father watching cowboy movies starring Roy Rogers and Gene Autry; “Pink Sweaters and Poodle Skirts,” which depicts the speaker watching Grease with his mother, and, during the movie, she confesses a fun secret to him; and “Based on a Play by George Bernard Shaw,” where the speaker reminisces about watching My Fair Lady with his sister. But Gann doesn’t sugarcoat the past, and his poems delve deep into some of the darker sides of our culture. These poems offer subtle glimpses as to how these stories influence the way we see our own lives. For example, at the end of “Based on the Play by George Bernard Shaw,” once the movie ends, the poem considers the implications of the movie and the messages portrayed to the viewers, especially his young sister. The last image in the poem is perhaps the most significant: “a most unladylike Hepburn returns” to fetch Higgin’s slippers. It makes me, as a reader, reconsider and think about the power of films, television, and popular culture to influence and shape our identities.

Many poems, too, are set in the present moment and explore the current entertainment-obsessed cultural landscape, for better and for worse. “100 Word Letter from Caitlyn” is written in the voice of a young girl today. The poem opens with a salutation: “Dear Taylor Dear Pink Dear Beyonce.” The young girl confesses how she, like many of her friends, idolizes these stars, practices their dance moves, and sings into her hairbrush. It all seems fun and innocent until the volta in the center of the poem, where the speaker wishes her “hair or hips / chest or eyes / were just a little more” as she pulls on her “tightest pair of jeans / wishing they were just a little tighter.”

In the collection’s final poem, “L’chaim,” we see the speaker’s life juxtaposed against the narrative of Fiddler on the Roof. In the musical, the main character, Tevrye, a Jewish man from Russia, watches as the world around him changes and his family turns away from their traditions and customs. He “rages and stomps” in the face of the change. He laments how his daughter makes “her own match,” the coming of a world war, and emigration to America. In the same vein, we see the speaker chronicling changes in his own life in rural Mississippi as he experiences the end of segregation in his school, makes friends with African Americans for the first time, and learns about women’s empowerment. These new experiences open the speaker’s world as he learns about people’s lives on “another side of the tracks.” He looks back at his past longingly and critically at once. Now “Macy’s sells underwear” where his “tree fort used to be / and Interstate 40 runs through fields / once gold with corn.” It’s a complicated sort of nostalgia. The poem ends with an image of the fiddler playing atop a roof “tunes / kept alive / in our bones.”

Using entertainment as a lens, Gann explores American culture with wit, candor, and honesty. He holds a mirror up to our culture with images, lines, and metaphors that are both accessible and complex. These vital poems are at once nostalgic and prophetic and look both back to the past and forward to the future. So take a break from your movies, your television, your phone this summer and pick up a finely crafted book of poetry like That’s Entertainment. You’ll certainly be glad you did!

That’s Entertainment (Lamar University Literary Press, 2018) is available in paperback at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and locally at Fleur Fine Books in Port Neches.

Lamar University Literary Press publishes literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction right here in Beaumont. The press specializes in Texas and regional authors and has won numerous awards. Check back for the latest news on publications and literary happenings in Southeast Texas.