Suzie Doogan's experimental, experiential poetry spirals around overconsumption, grief, the internet

Screenshot from Suzie Doogan's interactive poetry piece
Screenshot from Suzie Doogan's interactive poetry piece (Courtesy/Suzie Doogan)

My hand is holding an object that looks somewhat like a bar of soap: smooth and pink, but not waxy like soap is. Pressed into it, like a brand, with haphazard letters and pieces of plastic broken to look like letters, are the words "CLEAN 5UM." I take the cord coming out of one end and plug it into the USB port on my computer, where now it feels more like a computer mouse than a bar of soap, and a folder opens up with a file called "HELLO_PLEASE_OPEN.html." This shifting, tactile-to-screen-based interaction in Suzie Doogan's digital zine (interface designed by Ryan Hammond) reveals itself in several of her poems, which touch on consumption, relationships, depression (among other things) at dark, playful, and funny turns.

My browser opens to a fuzzy image of a big paperclip; I click "proceed" and go to a page with a poem on it (in glowing text, in front of a pixelated background photo of a plate of crostini) that begins with a reflection on the helpful-but-annoying "Clippy" Microsoft Word assistant and leads into Doogan recalling a James Taylor interview (who she is not really a fan of, she adds): "During the interview as he talked about being young and confused, he formed a sentence self-directed and rhetorical: 'You're good at that,' he said, 'but how does it feel to be playing someone else's role?'" Other poems find the speaker performing a role, too, or subtly distancing herself from her actual current situation or her life. She seems removed, as if in a dream—like in 'The Hardly Boys are Weimaraners from Maine' ("Sitting in my room dressed like a woman in Maryland/ and feeling unwoman-like, more girl or dog,"); or 'Not Freak Flag Clothes' where at one point she talks about helping to puppeteer a red New Year dragon: "I will become like furniture...useful and established, heavily practiced." This feeling of distance, in other poems, couples with a motif of cutting away, or breaking things—but more on that later.


Hovering over the link to the second page ('Dogtown'), Doogan's voice comes through the speakers, singing "Peas porridge luck/ peas porridge stuck/ peas porridge in the pot/ nine years old." The next page contains another reference to "peas porridge" by way of Yoko Ono; and a quick search shows that this phrase is actually based on a children's nursery rhyme from 18th century England, but has been used or referenced by authors as diverse as Laura Ingalls Wilder, De La Soul, and whoever was behind Salad Fingers. On this page, there are four identical tarot cards—The Chariot, which often refers to control or assertiveness—with an illustration of a silly, smiling dog sitting in a convertible. I like to think of Doogan's repeated dog motif as a funny/serious ode to the dog—the wise, intuitive, loyal, and ever-cheerful creature. Each tarot card here will take you to a new page, but in the poem on this page, the speaker seeks a "spiritual guide dog" to make decisions for her.

We're put in a place, as the participants, of decision-making throughout the interface. I click one card called 'My Feet Rise and Fall,' and on this next page, my cursor lands on an image (one of three) of a wood floor. Hovering over the images creates rubbing, zipping, and drumstick-tapping sounds while the images flip over, each revealing feet or a cat's tail on the ground, photographed from above. You could create your own rhythm here, hopping your cursor over and back and forth across the images, perhaps, while reading the short poem about doing jumping jacks in front of a mirror, or you can continue onward.

There is something going on, in this way of interacting with these poems and within the poems themselves, about avoidance and distraction—recurring themes of being distracted by grief, but also distracting oneself from grieving by analyzing grief, which can also, in a way, help to ease it. But then there are the other workaday distractions that can allow us to dwell in our anxieties, such as spending too time on the Internet—and here, playing with this piece on my computer, it's impossible to not take a break to look something up (like that peas porridge thing) or whatever intrusive or relational question that enters my head that I must know the answer to now. It's easy to spend a couple hours with this piece, circling back around to each page and poem.

The aforementioned Weimaraners poem offers one paradoxical thesis for Doogan's work, and the way we interact with it. She writes: "I like bar soap because unlike liquid containered analog,/ it's content and form/ Must admit, while feeling more dog, it's important for me to Always Remember/ I actually don't like reading articles online/ Content and uninformed." It's a sly jab of course at the state of media these days—but also of the Internet in general, and the ways we use it, and maybe even the way we interact with her piece here, despite how we get to play with it in our browser window. It's worth noting, too, that many of these poems are available in print form (a zine called "I Know I Can Wash Some" which I bought at this year's PMF), which has a few pieces that aren't in the digital version and vice versa, so that both experiences differ from each other. The images that Doogan uses in the digital version are almost aggressively poor quality, showing all of their seams and pixels. They're jarring in a way that's reminiscent of early web design, before the user's screen experience was cleanly designed, streamlined and smoothly integrated.

Later on, in another poem, Doogan turns rather inward, on this same jaunt: "What do you do when you love someone so much,/ I typed into the/ Google search bar/ when at home/ later/ The answers were dissatisfying/ While I'm searching what do you do when you/ love someone so much/ the results coming up are for loving/ someone too much/ I think that's messed up/ Like:/ 8 Signs You Love Him Too Much/ 5 Reasons Why Loving Someone Too Much Kills The Love/ Why Loving Someone Too Much Can Be Dangerous." In a bout of either anxiety or banal curiosity, she uses the Internet for guidance, but instead of finding mitigation or peace, she's bothered by the results.

A few pages contain links to earlier ones, so you can go back in case you missed one, but you may get click happy at one point like I did, and wind up at "the end." The end is not really the end, but at a certain point there are no links that will take you back to earlier pages. Near what I'm designating as "the end," a page with a header of numbered birthday candles (3, 5, 9, 5—hovering over 9, Doogan's haunting, quiet voice creaks out the word "way" over a violin) features a poem which is kind of about depression—"I'm looking at my life and thinking that I've bent so far to accommodate so much bullshit/ that I might have accidentally turned into bullshit"—and a little girl who seems to help pull her out of it, if momentarily. The girl calls her a "sparkly witch," and the poem ends with an incantation wishing to become such a magical creature. The final line, where she pleads "Please don't let me die this way," feels hopeful in spite of itself.

Depression, dejection, nothingness, along with images of broken glass and blades, recur in many of Doogan's other poems. These feel more apparent on the actual last page, which is more of a coda or a long encore—a white page with bullet points listing small images (candle, boat, bear, and other motifs) and phases that you can roll over to hear Doogan read or perform a poem or a song. Many of these feature some kind of drumming pattern, whether she is reading or singing over it, adding at times to her cadence or to particular words—like in 'The Only Way to Decommodify' where the word "blade" is punctuated almost each time by a loud drum, or 'I'll Buy Anything In Quotes,' which features a long-running drumroll and surreal descriptions and seems to mimic an anxious Internet search spiral. And there's something about the isolation or sparseness of this page that makes me need to sit with the content on it. For one thing, if I move my cursor, the recording stops playing.

Throughout this poetic choose-your-own-adventure experience, Doogan gives the reader a few "instruments" to help create the sounds to go with her words; on another page, if you swipe with your finger on your computer's trackpad at just the right speed across two papier-mache bears, her voice says "soon." If you go too slow or too fast, it sounds glitchy, "soo-oon" or "soo-nnn." In the poem here, she almost avoids talking about what she ends up talking about: after describing not buying a stuffed bear for herself on Valentine's Day, she talks for a beat about perfume and smells, before dropping in: "And I wonder when your smell will also become nothing." Scrolling up again, my finger makes the cursor swoop just right across those bears: "soon."