An Interview With Jenson Leonard on the Intersection of Poetry and Memes
Things are different now. You hear this every single day, but seriously, we interact with the internet in a way that has changed the sophisticated processes of our brains. When we see text online, it just doesn't do the same thing for us that it used to. This has led to artists, poets, and designers to change the ways they create and present their work, to varying degrees of success. One of the most markedly profound products of this change are memes. It's laughable when you see a think piece on memes, but if the insanity of the year 2016 proved anything, it's that people receive information more effectively in different formats, and memes are a really good format to convey and receive information.
We decided to talk about this format with poet and meme artist, Jenson Leonard of @coryintheabyss, who shared his articulated and complex view on where memes are at and how they can interact as art and poetry.––Eben Benson
Eben Benson: When did you start making memes? Did you start by making older style memes and you've changed it up since then? And has your style changed with time, or is it just the content that changes?
Jenson Leonard: I started making memes in 2015. My background is poetry. That's what I went to school for, but I wanted to make something that was more widely accessible. Instantly publishing content online through social media has always been more gratifying than waiting on a publisher to accept or reject a poem that will likely be read by a very select audience. My initial attempt at memes were all classic "twitter format" style memes—white box, black text. That was my perception of what a meme was. Organically, as I've learned more in Adobe, and thought more about exposition, language, and comedic timing, the memes continue to evolve.
Memes are clearly rooted in humor, but we don't always find ourselves laughing. Sometimes I just feel like, "Oh wow, that's good," which is where I see that "meme" or "digital collage" starting to communicate in the same way that art does. Where do you see memes becoming art, communicating something more than just humor?
A friend once described her process of reacting to my memes as, "Ha ha...oh." There's this comedic register followed by a recognition of truth, or a sobering contradiction that makes the laughter something to be studied and wrought over. The more I make memes, the more i become incredulous toward calling them memes. The word "meme" is good in describing one function of the work, in terms of it being a morsel of culture with an ability to move through certain channels of the internet. But it doesn't do a service to the visual or literary aspirations of the work. I think more memes need to challenge the rigidity of the definition so that people think differently about them. Memes are art, no question. Though I think for some people, "old heads," we'll call them, something being granted the title of art is intimately tied into its ability to be rendered into a commodity, into its compatibility with the art market. Memes, as they currently exist, are digital works. They exist outside of that structure. But they are no less of an art form. I'd argue that they preserve a kind of purity because of that.
Some of your memes are clearly very political, and thankfully not right-wing like many of the older 4chan-era meme pages and creators. When did you start seeing more political and specifically left wing meme pages coming out, and have you had issues with right-wing trolls on your page or your friends' pages?
Compared to the 2012 election cycle, memes gained a much larger role in shaping public perception this go-round. There was a boom in leftist meme pages around Facebook, prompting some people to call that sect of it "leftbook". 4chan, in a lot of ways, is the birthplace of meme culture and internet culture of latter day, but that birthplace is solidly batshit, politically, so I think leftist meme pages are just adding parity to a political discourse that has been framed for a long time by the toxicity of 4chan style message boards. If my memes were issued from a right-wing political orientation, there would be no @coryintheabyss.
What are some of your favorite meme pages and creators, both from when you started and from today?
I don't want to just glibly shout-out pages, but both Lettuce Dog and Gangster Popeye were formative for me. I think those pages were the nucleus, or nah, the ovaries of the leftist meme page political engine. Reading Lettuce Dog, I had never read political satire that was so sharp, funny and sincere. I was so moved by the content that I messaged the admin and, in a short time, was helping make content for the page. In no time, we reached over 100,000 followers on Facebook, but alt-right trolls reported the page enough times that it got unpublished. The other pillar in the great meme ovaries of Facebook is the page Gangster Popeye. Gangster Popeye introduced an entirely new visual language to meme making that helped birth my style and made me think in more imaginitive ways about typographic concerns in my work. Presently, the page Teenage Stepdad is bodying shit. That page is on the level.
What things or traits do you think make certain memes good or funny? A lot of them can be equally funny or just good for wildly different reasons. Sometimes I just be thinking can make me cry laughing, but I don't know why, and their memes look nothing like yours, and I also find yours super funny.
That's a question I'm still asking myself. I think the medium is so fresh that its hard to allocate what makes a meme good or funny. Just as a meme format starts to go stale, another fresh one pops up in its place. That's one of the exciting things about this new frontier. People are experimenting with form and the content in wildly poetic ways. My sense is that a lot of people I know who make memes are already funny people. If they wanted, they could be on the stage doing stand-up. But that's just doing memes with no pictures or cool text—where's the fun in that?
It's clear that some memes and pages have a higher quality than others. What do you consider a high-quality meme, as opposed to a picture on Twitter with a funny caption?
I think there is a distinction to be made between high quality and low quality memes that shouldn't be ignored, but on the macro level, as memes of all quality are fighting for validation and legitimacy as art, I don't want to get too caught up in categorical distinction. Sure, I put a lot of time into constructing a meme. I use Adobe software to add a level of production to memes that might be as absurd as the humor in them. But if you look at the statistics of people's engagement with my content, it's no contest; I get a fractional level of attention for my work compared to less produced, rushed, even sloppy content. But I think that says more about the lack of taste via the general public, and also reinforces that in memes, the idea is king more then how the idea is implemented. I could make Twitter-format memes all day, but I would be stagnating the medium instead of pushing it forward. "Something, something, Kanye, leader, follower, etc."
What do you think of meme personalities? People like GothShakira, Versace.tamagotchi, Brandon Wardell, etc.? Do you consider the whole online presence thing as something akin to performance art or just a more drawn-out stand-up set?
I think the aforementioned personalities are all going about it differently as they occupy this kind of new age internet celebrity, but memes are central to their personas. I see Goth Shakira as having a foot in activism centered around Latinx and feminist issues. Versace Tamagotchi announces himself in his Instagram bio as a director. Brandon Wardell is a comic. But their online presence is anchored and sustained by their memes. Their online content is what put them on, gave them their visibility. I think the performative and comedic affect is part of their craft but perhaps it's not as constructed and curated as we'd think. They all strike me as plainly funny people.
Was your poetry also centered around humor? Or is that a more recent thing?
My poetry had moments of humor, but it definitely trended toward a more militant tone. I think of the memes as an extension of my poetry, a logical continuation of my poetics, but in response to my own discontent with ivory tower elitism, and reconciling with my waning millennial attention span. I find the medium to be less stuffy then traditional forms of art. It's not beholden to the pressures of academic correctness. Academic correctness is the cousin of political correctness. Its a type of tone and content policing that decides what's deserving of criticality. And to that I say: y'all need to dig that crust up out your eyes so you can see the intellectual gravitas of my boner jokes.
Where do you see this format going in the future? Do you think more people are getting into memes that require a little higher of an access point, like yours?
I'm not quite sure where its headed, but I predict more motion graphics and 3D. More layers of irony and dimensionality. Content creators will get a handle on the software, tell their jokes with greater visual fidelity, but hopefully ask more of their audience too. I think the audience for what I'm doing has to do a little bit of digging to find me. The internet is an infinite market of novelty. People will grow bored of the traditional meme formats and seek out the elevated stuff. Memes are here to stay, but I anticipate a slow and divisive acceptance into the art world en masse.
To see some of Jenson's work physically, check out the show @ka5sh is curating on July 15th at Superchief Gallery in LA. View the link to the flyer here. Jenson is brilliant, we're stoked to bring more content like this to Juxtapoz and further explore the new ways that humor and art are brought to and consumed by the public. Thank you Jenson!