It took a montage of heck for poet Elizabeth Knapp to get the job done.
Knapp first sat down and tried to write about Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of ’90s grunge rockers Nirvana, after watching the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. But something stalled.
A year later, after watching “Montage of Heck,” the 2015 documentary about Cobain, something finally clicked. A series of 10 poems about the singer and lyricist, who committed in 1994 at age 27, came rushing out over the course of about a week.
“These are weird poems because they’re kind of meta,” Knapp said.
Now, Knapp, an assistant professor of English at Hood College, where she teaches courses in creative writing, literature and poetry, has won a national literary award for two of those poems.
New York-based ‘Literal Latte,’ an online literary magazine, named “Self-Portrait of Kurt Cobain in Drag” and “Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain’s Childhood Wound” first place winners in its 2015 poetry contest. The poems were published in the magazine’s winter 2016 edition. Knapp received $1,000 as a prize.
“I’m very pleased,” Knapp said. “I don’t normally submit to contests.”
The poems incorporate lyrics and imagery from Nirvana’s music, making references to songs like “Heart Shaped Box,” and reflect the anguish and tension that Cobain espoused in his lyrics and in interviews, in which he often rejected the idea of fame.
“Misunderstood poet-god strung out in petticoats, isn’t this what you asked for, a stage to playact your fantasies of grandeur and oblivion and an audience who’s paid to care?,” Knapp writes in “Self-Portrait of Kurt Cobain in Drag.”
While the poems may have the phrase “self portrait” in their titles and refer to narrator as “the speaker” throughout, Knapp said the poems are not about her personally, rather a “mask” through which she can try on other personas.
“I love to play dress-up in poems,” Knapp said. “I love to be in charge.”
Literal Latte publisher and editor Jenine Gordon Bockman said the magazine accepts about 1 percent of the submissions it gets.
“I would say one thing is that it is rare to be able to use famous people in writing in ways that work, become universal and personal and human,” she said in an email about what made Knapp’s work stand out. “And to do it in a poem is even more rare.”
For Knapp, 42, the Cobain poems are rooted in nostalgia. She was in high school when she first heard Nirvana’s 1991 hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Knapp was a sophomore driving to class at Amherst College in Massachusetts when she learned of Cobain’s death.
“I remember thinking in that moment that my youth was over,” she said.
It wasn’t until she watched “Montage of Heck” that Knapp learned more about Cobain’s chronic health problems, or that he was also an artist beyond the clanging guitars and often-sneering vocals. Neither did she realize how brilliant some of Cobain’s lyrics were, she said.
“I didn’t realize how versatile an artist he was,” Knapp said. “I just thought of him as a musician and nothing else.”
Knapp has taught at Hood for eight years. She won the De Novo Prize for Poetry in 2010 for her book, ‘The Spite House.’ Knapp said other publishers have shown interest in publishing more poems from the Cobain series. She is also working on a short book of about 30 poems that will include the Cobain series, she said.
Amy Gottfried, a Hood English professor who also directs the college’s creative writing concentration, said Knapp’s work as an active poet and her enthusiasm engages students to help them connect with the work they’re studying. Knapp once held a séance with students using a Ouija board to channel poet Sylvia Plath for the writer’s birthday during a class, Gottfried said. Knapp said the idea came from her students; Plath was a Ouija fan.
“She has fun when she teaches the Puritans, “Gottfried said. “It’s hard to make the Puritans fun.”