Buzzed Books #60: Gregory Orr’s A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry

Buzzed Books #60 by Amy Watkins

Gregory Orr’s A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry

Why do we write poetry?

As an experienced poet, I’m supposed to have an eloquent, compelling answer to this question. I’m supposed to acknowledge that the reasons for writing poetry are various and all valid. I’m supposed to quote Neruda. However, if I asked any of the earnest, inexperienced poetry writers in my English 101 class why they write poetry, I’m fairly certain they would all give some version of the same answer: We write poetry to express ourselves. As an experienced poet, I know I’m supposed to find that answer shamefully unsophisticated, but I don’t.

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In his new craft book, A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry (W.W. Norton, 2018), the great lyric poet Gregory Orr posits that poetry is ideally suited to meet the human need for self-expression because of the way it balances order and disorder. This, he says, is why so many people, even non-writers, feel compelled to write poems in moments of crisis. The disorder of emotional extremes–grief, love, rage, desire—welcomes the order of craft, and vice versa.

This is true to my own experience. I began writing poems in middle school, first for a language arts assignment then for the fun of making the world rhyme. I kept writing poems as a way to process disorderly emotion. At that time, my family life was chaotic; grief, addiction, and poverty imposed disorder on my life, to say nothing of the prosaic disorder of adolescence. Like many children experiencing trauma, I craved the control poetry offered. In a poem, I could choose what to tell and how to tell it. I could contain and shape troubling memories. I could let in only as much disorder as I could manage, using the rules I had established.

More available than therapy and ideally suited to my personality, poetry became a way to compartmentalize and impose order on my emotions. While my reasons for writing poetry have become more sophisticated over the years, I still respond to Orr’s paraphrase of Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry: the source of poetry is “emotion remembered from a place of safety.” For me, the poems themselves–my own and those I read–continue to be meaningful, if temporary, places of safety.

As Orr explicates and complicates the sources, tools, and craft of lyric poetry for his readers, he never loses sight of poetry’s basic initiating impulse: We write poetry to express something, often something we can’t express any other way. We make poetry to remake the world or imagine a new world in words. If this sounds a bit fluffy and vague, never fear. Orr is a great teacher, and he balances the emotion and mystery inherent in discussions of poetry with concrete explanation, analysis, and wisdom, delivered in the warm, intelligent voice of a kind, slightly dorky uncle. His approach to teaching language, rhythm, and other elements of craft leaves room for poets to work in a variety of styles.

The book is clearly aimed at a less experienced audience. If you’ve studied poetry for a long time, many of the ideas and exercises are not brand new, but I think it does us good to remember how and why we began to write, and to revisit some of the lessons that shaped our understanding of our craft. In that way, I read this book side-by-side with my younger selves. I underlined passages I doubt I would have understood at 15, passages that would have blown my mind at 25, and passages I desperately want to share with my students now. I wrote in the margins, “If only you’d learned this sooner,” and, “When you grasped this, everything changed!” I worked through the poems and exercises with gratitude for my teachers and hope for my students.

 

If you teach writing, this is an ideal textbook. I can imagine both introductory and advanced undergrad poetry classes using this text. In the introduction, Orr admits that his Primer does not include a wide variety of poems, and I appreciate that he acknowledges this limitation. If I were using this as a textbook, I would want a really good anthology to go with it. On the other hand, by foregoing a bunch of expensive rights, Orr and his editor have kept the book very affordable: $15.95 is cheaper than any craft book I used in undergrad more than 15 years ago.

If you’re a young poet, Orr’s Primer will offer you meaningful insights into the craft of poetry, without belittling your reasons for attempting it in the first place. If you’re more experienced, it will offer you a chance to reflect and maybe even rediscover the energy of your younger poetic self.


Amy Watkins

Amy Watkins (Episodes 124161164192, and 209) grew up in the Central Florida scrub, surrounded by armadillos and palmetto brush and a big, loud, oddly religious family, a situation that’s produced generations of Southern writers. She married her high school sweetheart, had a baby girl and earned her MFA in poetry from Spalding University. She is the author of Milk & Water (Yellow Flag Press, 2014) and the art editor for Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine.

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Episode 308: Get Shreked!

Episode 308 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

On this week’s show, the format is quite different.

Get Shreked

Episode 308 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

Episode 307: Brian Turner!

Episode 307 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

On this week’s show, I talk to poet, memoirist, and editor Brian Turner about how to build a strong anthology, how working in other media helps our writing, and working with our instincts in the writing process. His latest editing project, The Kiss: Intimacies From Writers, is now available from Norton.

Brian Turner

TEXTS DISCUSSED

The KissMy Life as a Foreign CountryTurner Phantom NoiseTurner Here, Bullet

NOTES

Episode 307 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

 

The Curator of Schlock #220: The Snowman

The Curator of Schlock #220 by Jeff Shuster

The Snowman

From Norway with Fassbender.

I did a snowy movie last week. I’ll do another one this week. It’s snowing, right? Isn’t it still a record winter? It’s not spring yet!

Oh. Passover begins today. Easter is this Sunday. Whatever.

It’s winter somewhere in the world. In fact, it’s in the high 30s in Oslo, Norway. That’s where tonight’s movie take place, Oslo, Norway. It’s 2017’s The Snowman from director Tomas Alfredson.

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I was a little shocked upon viewing The Snowman, coming to the stark realization that Norwegians are not that different from us. They drink coffee and use the Internet and wear suits. What happened to fighting epic battles on a beached whale or wrestling trolls in the moonlight? They’ve traded their long ships in for SUVs!

Still, that doesn’t mean that danger doesn’t still lurk on the slushy streets of Oslo. There’s a serial killer on the loose. And this one leaves snowmen as his calling card.

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You know, if I were a serial killer, I’d cover my victims bodies in cotton candy. Then the media could dub me the Candy Man. I’d leave them on display in shopping malls with a sign that reads, “Try some! It’s good.” Imagine pulling at Cotton Candy until a bloody hand or face emerges out of that sweet goodness. Naturally, I’d watch on from the crowd on onlookers, grinning sadistically as some poor grandmother screams, her memories of the Iowa State Fair ruined forever.

So, The Snowman. I hate to admit it, but I’m not good at solving mysteries. Oh, I watch a ton of mystery shows, but I usually get lost about five minutes in. This happen every time I watch Elementary. Holmes and Watson interview the first suspect, determine he isn’t the killer, only to revisit that same suspect at the end of the episode and determine he is the killer. Gets me every time.

Val Kilmer is in The Snowman. I almost didn’t recognize him. I don’t know if they lost his voice because the Kentucky accent his character is sporting sounds nothing like him. It doesn’t even match his lips. This is very disconcerting.

The Snowman Val Kilmer

I think he played a private investigator that went hunting for the Snowman only to get his head blown off and replaced with a snowman’s head. I also think Val Kilmer argues with Toby Jones at some point while getting sloshed in the freezing cold.

Speaking of getting sloshed, Michael Fassbender plays Detective Harry Hole, a brilliant police inspector with a bit of a drinking problem.

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In fact, the movie starts out with him waking up with a killer hangover in a children’s playground in the dead of winter … or it could be summer. This is Norway. While he isn’t out chasing serial killers, Harry Hole resides in a mold-infested apartment, listening to vinyl records while drinking Jack or Jim or both. Huh. He’s got Never Mind the Bollocks on vinyl!

Rebecca Ferguson plays someone important, Harry’s partner, perhaps.

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The whole thing is a bit of blur. The Snowman is filled with flashbacks that seem to take place in real time. Suspects and plot threads fade into the ether. There’s one scene where the murderer is in his apartment disguised at the exterminator, dancing to music, only to have Harry throw him out so he can get some sleep. This is never revisited. Harry never realizes the killer was in his apartment. I could explain more, but I think I should quit while I’m behind.

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Maybe the director should have done the same.


Jeffrey Shuster 1

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131, and episode 284) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Episode 306: Sean Patrick Mulroy!

Episode 306 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

On this week’s show, I share my interview with poet Sean Patrick Mulroy,

Sean Patrick Mulroy

plus I chat with my veteran friend Joshua Dull (on the right) about his plans to do more mission work in Costa Rica.

Joshua Dull in Costa Rica

NOTES

If you can, throw a few bucks into the can to send Joshua back to Costa Rica to work on clean water projects.

The Kerouac Project of Orlando is accepting applications for its 3-month residency program until April 16th.


Episode 306 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #219: Shut In

The Curator of Schlock #219 by Jeff Shuster

Shut In

Naomi Watts is the Shut In.

Lots of snowstorms assaulting the country right now. Our Northern friends are getting buried in their houses. In my home state of New Jersey, they’re saying these are some of the worst snowstorms in the state’s history. There’s an article about it online. I didn’t bother reading it. I mostly read headlines. That’s all you really need to read anyway.

How is any of this relevant? Well, I’m covering 2016’s Shut In from director Farren Blackburn.  See how I segued into that. Pretty sweet if I do say so myself.

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Shut In currently ranks in at 8% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Seems the critics weren’t too kind to this one, but your Curator of Schlock has different criteria for judging movies than your average cinema snob! For instance, Shut In stars Naomi Watts and that gangly guy from Stranger Things. The movie gets 12% for that alone. People put too much stock in Rotten Tomatoes scores anyway. I noticed a “Certified Fresh” sticker on the cover of the Blu-ray of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. It’s Walt Disney’s Pinocchio! You don’t need the approval of the herd, Disney. The movie was considered a masterpiece long before Al Gore and those Swedes invented the Internet. If you care so much about what the herd wants, make TRON 3 already.

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The herd wants TRON 3, Disney, and they want it now!

Shut In centers on a psychologist named Mary Portman (Naomi Watts) and her troubled stepson, Steven (Charlie Heaton, the gangly guy from Stranger Things). Mary and her husband, Richard (Peter Outerbridge), decide to send Steven away to some private academy because he is so troubled. On the way there, Steven gets into a fight with his dad, grabs the wheel, and steers right into the path of an oncoming Mack truck. Richard dies and Steven ends up in a vegetative state, leaving poor Mary in charge of his daily care.

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For Mary, daily care of Steven involves feeding him drugs and shoving him in front of a TV to watch infomercials. Mr. Popeil ain’t gonna knock this kid out of a coma, Mary. Try a KISS concert or some reruns of Mr. Belvedere. That would certainly work on me.

Also, singing that “Hush, Little Baby” song to your 16 year-old stepson is a little creepy in its own right. Maybe you think he can’t hear you because he’s in a coma or a vegetative state, maybe he can.

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In addition to taking care of Steven, Mary treats the troubled kids of her New England small town as a trained psychiatrist. One is a little deaf boy named Tom who’s being sent away by his foster family after breaking another kid’s arm. Mary feels bad for him, but is surprised when he manages to sneak back into her house. There’s a raging snowstorm outside, so Mary puts him up for the night, waking up later to find him running away into cold, dark night.

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The authorities start of a search and rescue for the young boy, but Mary thinks it’s too late. She’s also experiencing night terrors where little Tom is actually still in the house, living in the walls.

This might have something to do with the fact that Tom is still alive and living in the walls of her house. Also, it turns out that Steven has been faking his coma all along and has dastardly plans involving Mary, a bathtub, and the singing of “Hush, Little Baby.”

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Did I mention Shut In stars Oliver Platt as Dr. Wilson, Mary’s psychologist and trusted friend. That deserves a bump up to 16%. Steven stabs Dr. Wilson to death. That deserves a bump up to 20%.


Jeffrey Shuster 4

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131, and episode 284) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Pensive Prowler #17: The Indelicate Art of Teaching Writing

Pensive Prowler #17 by Dmetri Kakmi

The Indelicate Art of Teaching Writing

Being a writing teacher is not easy. Some days you want to strangle a student. Harsh words. Spoken out of rashness and frustration. Words I will regret. Let me explain and you might find sympathy in your heart for my predicament.

Earlier in the month, as I addressed a writers’ group about the work that lies ahead for the year, a participant asked what is genre. Later the same man asked what is a protagonist, and later still he ventured to query the meaning of chapter.

Flummoxed, I tried to accomodate and then threw my hands up in despair when he suggested I produce a list of “specialist publishing words” so that he can refer to it as I speak. This for a group of men and women who are supposed to have full control of English, and who have been writing for some time and wish to workshop their efforts with other writers. That is the course outline.

Genre, protagonist, chapter. These are English words in everyday use, I pointed out to the gentleman. There is nothing “specialist” about them. Besides, a professed writer such as himself ought to be familiar with elementary writing concepts if he hopes to get anywhere with his work. “What’s elementary mean?” he said.

Minutes later, another participant announced he does not read books. At which point the room closed in on me.

I boarded the train later that evening feeling dismayed and wondering what the hell I’m doing. This teaching to write business is a sham, I told myself. You can’t teach people to write. You can create a safe, encouraging environment. You can pass on techniques about how to achieve this or that effect, but talent and drive can’t be taught. They’re innate. You either have them or you don’t. You’re either driven to write or you play at “being creative”. You either practise until you hone your craft to the best of your ability, or you sit in front of the television, watching Game of Thrones and telling yourself you can write that book, given half a chance. Only better. One day. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. After that essential cup of tea. And the world will be astounded.

This palaver, this laziness of the mind, cuts to the core. I take my work as a writer and as an editor seriously. I’ve dedicated my life to it. Nothing was given me on a platter. As a Greek migrant in Australia, I fought hard for every scrap on my desk. Therefore, it’s galling to meet people who think they can waltz in and have everything laid out for them. It’s the lack of respect. Not for me. For the craft.

The blame fall squarely on the writing industry. To get funding and to perpetuate the many tentacled beast it has become it fosters the idea that we must all be creative; that every one is a writer and everyone deserves to be heard. To which I say, pish-posh. That’s very equitable. But it’s not true. Everyone is not a writer. That’s like saying everyone is a ballet dancer because they enjoy watching it once in a while. People may have a story to tell but that doesn’t mean they have the ability, or even the will, to tell it, even after they’ve attended a number of memoir writing classes in Paris or a Greek island. To claim otherwise is false and unfair. It brings in bright-eyed people who are bound for disappointment.

Writing is a discipline, like music or painting. A writer is someone who dedicates her life to the act of writing and who spends the better part of her life nurturing a talent she cannot step away from. A writer is someone who writes every day, who steals two or three hours here and there, and bends her back to the task, refining, honing. A writer is someone who has done the hard yards through daily practise and through persistence, study and contemplation, hoping to scale the summits.

It’s not someone who picks up a pen once and finds it a strain on the muscles.

It’s not someone who is taken by the glamour of it all.

In a way, the writing life begins the minute you pop out of the womb. For me it’s to do with love of words.

Growing up in Turkey, I could read before I went to school. Family legend has it I used to pick up newspapers and magazines in the street and read, as if it came naturally. Or as if I had been taught in a classroom of the mind to decipher the Turkish alphabet, which was the language ethnic Greeks spoke on the street. At home, we spoke Greek. Mind you, I could not read or write Greek, my native tongue until later, when I came to Australia. I merely spoke a dialect, which mixed an islander Greek with Turkish to create a unique melange of its own. In any case, I could read Turkish before I went to school; and then, when the family migrated to Australia when I was ten, I picked up English in a matter of months.

I’m not big-noting myself. The point is this. Language is imperative to communication, and I did everything in my power to meet the challenge. When writing’s clarion was too loud to ignore, I put myself through the wringer to learn inconsequential things, such as how to structure a sentence. Syntax. Grammar. Punctuation. Gaining an extensive vocabulary and so on.

In other words, I learned all the archaic things people deride nowadays as they jumble a limited stock of words and emojis in the faint hope of expressing themselves in wooly sentences.

The pleasure in teaching is in supporting dedicated writers. They absorb the teacher’s knowledge and experience and then they supplement it with their own intensive study and passion. They don’t turn up empty handed, expecting to be force fed like geese bound for foie gras. They do the groundwork. They know the rules of the game. They know that in certain literary genres the unwary protagonist, like the unwary student, can be killed in the first chapter. It’s elementary.


Dmetri Kakmi

Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.

The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #72: Richard III (2016)

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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

72. Dominic Cooke’s Richard III (2016)

This rogue who reviews Shakespeare films for you, dear readers, gets jaded sometimes. I expect these films to be good. Not just un-terrible, but quite seriously good.

Henry VI Parts 1-3 were so good on The Hollow Crown that I approached its Richard III with some sense of crankiness. Olivier and McKellan have given me high standards for this Machiavellian hero, plus I adore Benedict Cumberbatch, but I refuse to feel any personal emotion akin to hype.

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I am happy to report that Richard III is somehow better than those with Olivier and McKellan.

The opening soliloquy is given an exquisite gravity by Cumberbatch delivering it shirtless.

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Before he begins, the camera dollies around him, revealing the distorted range of his hunched back, his torso straining for breath. This would be in unforgivable taste if the effects were not credible, but these effects work, which makes his speech to us—letting us know of his motivations and his plot to manipulate the court into giving him the throne—more intimate and urgent.

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Richard is driven to this because in peacetime, he is a freak who his royal family is ashamed of and distrusts despite his loyal service to them. Now as a self-professed villain, Richard takes great joy in testing Machiavelli’s theories, lavishing in his amoral victories. In most performances, there is bravado with a tinge of pathos, since he is using the court’s moral and intellectual flaws against it, and if the court had valued him in the first place, he would not have undertaken these plots. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider can sympathize with Richard’s rage, and can identify with his sense of self-worth despite the world’s contempt.

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But Cumberbatch’s performance seems to add more than a tinge of pathos. Richard acts as if he is the most morally upright member of the court, and this could indicate that he is simply an adept liar who can believe his own lies when he is lying. Or, and I find this possibility intriguing, Cumberbatch’s Richard might be testing the court, and giving it an opportunity to prove him wrong. Perhaps the king will not be petty and superstitious.

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Perhaps Lady Anne will not be flattered into giving over her grief and loving her enemy. Perhaps Richard’s mother will not treat him with condescension and mistrust.

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One of my favorite lines from Richard III is “A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!” The logic of this is that Richard would trade the kingdom he is king of in order to have a horse he could mount in order to try to win the country he is king of.

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Richard doesn’t have any use for peacetime, and having won the crown has not solved any of those emotional wounds he expressed in the opening soliloquy.

The acting in this film is top notch. Phoebe Fox is a memorable Lady Anne, and Judy Dench manages to convey a dignified wariness as Cecily, the mother of Edward and Richard, that makes it difficult to tell if she has disliked her deformed son for his deformity, or for his aggressive tendencies. Sophie Okenedo returns as Margaret, mad and prone to cursing the royal family, and the older, haggard version of this de-throned queen is somehow more impressive than the mincing, self-entitled sociopath of Henry VI.

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There is a manic quality to Cumberbatch’s performance after Richard becomes king. The effect is almost like a Modernist play at times. This is a dervish compared to the simpering complaints of Richard II. Richard III is a perfect conclusion to a play sequence that questions the divine right of kings, and the unbearable likelihood that shifts in power seldom happen because of actual moral right. Power is such a volatile thing, and humans are all too flawed. These plays give those flaws and that volatility a brilliant clarity.

Oh, and it’s damned entertaining to have Richard offer meta-commentaries to us about his crimes.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

Episode 305: Jim Shepard & Jennifer Egan!

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Episode 305 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

On this week’s show, I share interviews I did with the short story writer Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard

and one of my favorite novelists, Jennifer Egan.

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Jennifer Egan © Pieter M. van Hattem.

TEXTS DISCUSSED

The World to ComeManhattan Beach

NOTES

Please leave a review of the show on iTunes.


Episode 305 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #218: Leprechaun: Origins

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The Curator of Schlock #218 by Jeff Shuster

Leprechaun: Origins

Don’t get your hopes up. It’s not an actual origin story.

The Suspiria Blu-ray came out this week. Synapse spent three years painstaking restoring the original film to full 4K glory under the supervision of the movie’s original director of photography, Luciano Tovoli.  I could be covering that classic this week, but I chose to cover movies from this current decade for the rest of the year. Oh well. I can always check out the Suspiria remake due out later this year, the one starring Dakota Johnson, star of 50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades Darker, and 50 Shades Freed. Yup. Looking forward to it. Can’t wait.

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By the way, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! We’ve got another serving from WWE Studios this week in the form of Leprechaun: Origins.

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Don’t be expecting Warwick Davis spouting limericks or whatever he did in those movies I’m trying desperately to forget. I think he made a pot of gold materialize inside some poor sap’s stomach. Not cool. Anyway, the leprechaun in this week’s feature is more beastly, more like a beast than a jolly gnomish creature. Huh? Gnomish is an actually word and I think I used it in the proper context.

The movie starts out with some Irish teenagers being chased by a monster because they stole some gold coins. They get killed and eaten by whatever is chasing them. Next up, we see some young American tourists backpacking through Ireland. I’ll never understand the protagonists in these modern horror movies. They’re all good-looking young Americans from wealthy families. They always end up traveling to Eastern Europe or South America and end up being getting their organs stolen or tortured to death.

No one likes you! Stay in Beverly Hills or you’re going to die!

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So we have a group of four vacationers. There’s Sophie (Stephanie Bennett), a history major who will end up being the final girl. There’s Ben (Andrew Dunbar), a Harvard man, and that makes him better than all of us. Then there’s Jeni (Melissa Roxburgh), a girl with lots of gold piercings. Those gold piercings may come into play later in the movie. Jeni has a drunk punk boyfriend named David (Brendan Fletcher). Brendan Fletcher also played the Parasite on Smallville. I’m just saying.

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One of the local Irishmen overhear that Sophie is a history major. He tells her about some cave nearby that has historic relevance. He buys them all dinner and offers them a cabin on his property so they can stay the night. They gladly accept, only to find themselves locked in the cabin in the middle of the night with a rampaging leprechaun that wants to eat their flesh.

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Look, there’s polite and then there’s too polite. Too polite is offering you dinner and a free room for the night. If it sounds too good to be true, it means you’ll be eaten alive by an angry leprechaun. As I said before, stay in Beverly Hills.


Jeffrey Shuster 3

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131, and episode 284) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.