Su’s Summer Books: Going Local With “Savage Pageant”

Words by Su Ertekin-Taner

This particular Thursday, I was hungry for some visceral verbs, some vibrant adjectives describing incisive nouns. I was starved for novel storylines and intriguing layouts, some collection of words that takes time to digest. Really, I was itching for some provocative poetry, and I found it in Jessica Q. Stark’s “Savage Pageant.”

I open the striking cover of a tapir framed by a mustard yellow background at the Ponte Vedra Bold Bean where the coffee is craft and the menu is current. With my iced vanilla latte and fresh sourdough sesame bagel on either side of my current literary fixation, I sit in the Scandinavian-esque coffee shop and the meal begins. 

This month, I decided to go local with my servings of syntax: Originally from California, Stark is an assistant professor in the English department at UNF who I met at the Women Writing for (a) Change June Book Festival. The festival, like the organization itself, highlights female and nonbinary authors in the Jacksonville community. Over 30 authors and literary magazines gathered to celebrate historically marginalized voices, promote their writing, and sell and sign books. 

Among the Jacksonvillian texts, I noticed “Savage Pageant” almost immediately, drawn to the beguiling title and cover art. My reading of the first couple pages and love of poetry exacerbated this innate pull. 

The ride home was short and long: shortened because I found my gluttonous self gorging on the text, elongated because I was immersed in thought all the while. Half of the book forfeited itself to me on this ride, and I read the other half now in between nibbles of my staple bagel. 

And, oh! The content is so filling despite the poetry book’s relatively short length. Stark narrates the disturbing past of animal theme park and training center called Jungleland USA — its mistreatment of animals for profit and its harmful spotlight on the Hollywood spectacle — while also discussing the journey of her first pregnancy. With every poem, the two events amalgamate coming to a peak, in my opinion, in the titular poem “Savage Pageant: 33 Weeks.” Finally, the pregnant body becomes performative, and the animal’s performance objectifies the animal body.

Overall, Stark writes in the name of theater; she herself is an actress equipped with full, tender verbs, a wealth of history, spoken brilliance and an essential understanding of irony. Her poetry frames itself as a spectacle with its “act” introductions, the timelines of Jungleland’s history mimicking the play’s program, the inclusion of a theatrical mentor found in philosopher Guy Debord quotes, the countdown of her pregnancy (which, in itself, is campy), the necessary withholding of information that fills the space, and the variance of poetic format (Google images marking Jungleland’s location, a play script, content from an online forum, speckled words, text that’s been struck through, etc.), all of which provides a necessary inconsistency for a ravenous audience. Stark’s writing is a well-tailored play; it is an act and composed of acts.

Of course, some poems distinguished themselves from the others for me. I leaned toward “Name Numerology K-Hole: 11 Weeks” for its reinterpretation of “name”; “A Note for Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer” for its snappy critique of entertainment; “B. Know Your Symptom: 17 Weeks” for cutting, dangerous phrases; and of course, the titular “Savage Pageant: 33 Weeks.”

I finish digesting now — both the bagel and pages are nowhere in sight. I know this breakfast catered to all my senses: The book weighs heavily in the palm; I whisper rhythmically phrases from the poems; the variance of form gratifies the eye; the phrases are meaty, muscled, and there is a certain umami flavor to poetry that doesn’t abide by the fundamental, the moral. 

Stark’s “Savage Pageant” is a beach, coffeeshop, patio, car, library, bench, airplane, bed, campus read. Wherever you choose to consume, prepare yourself for a long-lasting, strong, thrilling aftertaste.