Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Working Class Represent

The first dozen or so poems in this charming collection by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz read like something a slightly more urbane version of Pam from NBC’s The Office might write if she lived and worked in New York City. Topics in this portion of the book range from the poet’s love for her morning cup of coffee to an odd talent for answering all phone calls with a sunny disposition. But then the collection takes a turn when a poem about 9/11 recasts all of the previous poems in a new light; there used to be something light and bouncy about working a dead-end job in NYC, this poem and those that follow seem to say, but in the wake of 9/11, it’s time to for the poet to get her priorities straight. In this case, it’s a matter of deciding to leave the relative comfort of a steady paycheck and health benefits in favor of the poet’s hand-to-mouth lifestyle. Needless to say, there’s no moment where the poet says, “And then I decided to focus on poetry because 9/11 put everything into perspective for me,” but the structure of the collection makes the lasting effect of that pivotal moment in both world and personal histories difficult to ignore. What follows, then, is a series of meditations on the place of the poet in society: poems about being a touring spoken word poet, poems lauding the efforts of baristas to hold off on making steamed beverages until there’s a pause between poems, poems lamenting the failures of other poets, and ultimately poems about falling in love with Shappy Seasholtz (no poetry collection is complete without at least a handful of these). Other topics covered in this collection include the “outsider” art of Henry Darger, college cafeterias, first words, abandoned words, and the exquisite sense of schadenfreude involved in seeing a rival poet fail. From tragedies both global and personal, Aptowicz expertly milks equal amounts of pathos, humor, and self-awareness. What’s more, there’s a story in this collection, a subtle narrative about priorities, about anxiety, about the myriad performances we put on throughout the day. And, ultimately, about finding one’s place in the world.

Oh, and also rejection:

Dear Future Boyfriend

Dear Future Boyfriend offers fans of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz a glimpse of the poet’s bittersweet past. The book is a reissue of her debut collection, which was initially published a little over a decade ago. As the title suggests, the focus of the collection is young love in all of its forms — excerpt, perhaps, the requited variety. Rather than coming across as a hopeless, pining adolescent throughout this volume, Aptowicz endears herself to the reader by coming across as a witty, charming, and self-deprecating adolescent who also happens to be hopeless and pining — a teen who wants nothing more than to be loved but also can’t help stopping to observe that a 25% off coupon for a discount bra store in the largest outlet mall in Pennsylvania does not make for the most romantic of anniversary gifts. Moreover, the poet doesn’t focus entirely on young love in this collection. Aptowicz also takes time to pay touching homage to her parents, her hometown, and the friends who shared the experiences that led her to becoming the poet she is today.

Of special note, at least for a Philadelphia native like myself, are the poems “August in Philadelphia,” which offers a backwards glimpse at the City of Brotherly Love as the poet prepares for her first big move to the Big Apple, and “To the Boy Who Builds and Paints Sets at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia,” which is a fitting paean not only to the “boy” in question but also to hopeless infatuation itself. Also noteworthy are “The Guy Who Hated My Stuff on Poemfone (A Found Poem),” in which the poet reproduces a borderline psychotic voice-mail response to one of her poems to great comic effect, and “Hard Bargain,” which sees the poet making an IPO of sorts for the rights to her virginity.

Anyone who’s ever been young and in love will find something to enjoy in Dear Future Boyfriend. What’s more, fans of Cristin O’Keefe Apotwicz will enjoy bearing witness to the initial stirrings of wit and sharp observation that mark her later work. Overall, a fun and at times moving read.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Hot Teen Slut

First, apologies to anyone who found this review by Googling “Hot Teen Slut.” More than likely, you will not find what you are searching for here, but you will find a review of a great collection of poetry — a memoir in verse chronicling poet Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s brief career in the adult entertainment industry.

Hot Teen Slut opens with a poem about a job listing for a “Guide Service Manager,” which is a nice way of describing (I think) the person who writes the copy for pop-up ads that guide those in the market to websites proffering pornography. From here, we move on to the job interview in which the details of the job are delicately explained, and then the first few days on the job during which Aptowicz describes her initial awkward conversations with coworkers (“The first thing you have to acknowledge is/that you will be looking at porn all day,” her supervisor explains while the “guy in charge of sports” grumbles in an adjoining poem that what he really wanted was the porn job) and the dawning realization that she does, in fact, work in the pornography business.

One of the things Aptowicz does especially well in this collection is write dispassionately about her subject matter. Hot Teen Slut is neither an investigative “tell-all” about the evils of working in adult entertainment, nor does it serve to glorify the industry. Rather, Aptowicz explores her own ambivalence with respect to her job to shed light on America’s odd relationship with porn. Pornography “has nothing to do with love,” she writes early on, and being immersed in the business produces a kind of numbness to the stereotypical imagery and language she sees every day. At the same time, however, Aptowicz also finds that working in pornography garners her plenty of attention when she returns home for holiday parties.

In many ways, Hot Teen Slut bears the trappings of a chick-lit novel: Aptowicz gives us the young college graduate struggling to pay the bills and find a happy medium between work and romance while learning something about herself. Yet Aptowicz takes the form a step further by placing herself in the role of the college graduate and by eschewing the traditional chick-lit job in editing for the Guide Service Manager position. In so doing, the poet offers a window into a world that most never see. Overall, it’s an insightful, frequently funny, always intelligent collection of poetry about the adult entertainment industry.

Oh Terrible Youth

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for anything set in the Philadelphia of my childhood, and Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz‘s recently re-issued collection of poetry Oh Terrible Youth captures that time and place perfectly. Aptowicz, it turns out, is a Philadelphia native, and her poetry speaks not only to the peculiar challenges inherent in coming of age in the City of Brotherly Love in the 1980s, but also to the forces of uncertainty that young people across the country confront during any era as they cross over into the choppy waters of adulthood.

The collection does a wonderful job of blending humor and pathos with a touch of sentimentality. Early on, Aptowicz recounts a number of “worsts” of her childhood: worst games (“Let’s see who can be the quietest” and “Regular Battleship when all your friends have Electronic Battleship” chief among them) and worst Halloween costumes (including “birthday present,” “Santa Claus,” and “homemade Ewok”). Later in the collection, she looks back somewhat wistfully on all that she took for granted in her childhood, as in “Apologies to My Childhood Dog” and my favorite piece, “Estephania,” which distills, among other things, the essence of being “best friends.”

While the poems in Oh Terrible Youth are largely about childhood, they’re also poems that only an adult could write. Throughout the collection, Aptowicz manages to strike a balance between the raw uncertainty of adolescence and the (relative) self-assurance of maturity. We laugh with her as she recalls the kinds of things that kept us all up at night as we muddled through our teenage years, yet we also smile with compassion for the children we were — trying to make sense of the universe, trying to make sense of ourselves, trying to convince everyone that we did, in fact, have it all together when, at the end of the day, we knew for sure that we didn’t.

An excellent collection. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever been a teen.

-Review by Marc Schuster