Posted by: cousinbrandon | February 26, 2010

Versus: The Poetry of Cousin Brandon

Today’s entry is a lesson in censorship. In 2006, I participated in a local art/fundraising project for The Circle School, an alternative school here in Harrisburg that fosters, well, an alternative style of learning. To raise money for the school, The Circle School organized a formal, black-tie auction at the Whitaker Center in downtown Harrisburg. What were they auctioning off? Chairs. Local artists picked typically run-down or partially damaged chairs and “renovated” them for auction. If memory serves, every artist, other than myself, was a visual artist, which meant the refurbished chairs were used as canvases for intricate paintings, were used as installation art, or were re-built into three-dimensional models/statues. In some cases, the redesigns were, well, off-putting at best. Still, the purpose was for the artist to come up with a unique reconstruction of his chair, and to then post these chairs online to generate interest in bidding, which would culminate in the Whitaker Center auction.

From what I could tell, I was the only writer participating in the event. Furthermore, the only reason I got involved to begin with was because my ex-wife, a painter, was doing a chair of her own, and I decided it would be fun to contribute a piece. Thinking of my daughter, who was two-years-old at the time, I chose a child’s step-stool, comparable to this one. I painted it white and, once dry, wrote a poem on its wooden slats in black Sharpie®. The poem, “Time Out,” is located below, and was inspired by the chair itself, as it reminded me of a perfect time-out chair (a chair used to essentially punish a misbehaving child). Now, you’ll notice the word “ass” in the poem, which is rather innocuous unto itself, and therefore not offensive. What’s more, according to the “rules and restrictions” of the fundraiser – well, wait. There weren’t any rules! That is, nowhere was it written that any sort of guidelines on content were being imposed. Keep that in mind.

On the day of the fundraiser, I arrived at the Whitaker Center and made my rounds. I looked over the various chairs, impressed by the creativity local artists utilized. After a few minutes, I realized something: my chair was absent. It was nowhere to be found. I located the Circle School representative hosting the event and asked about my chair. “We pulled it from the public auction,” she explained. “There was profanity on it.” I was immediately pissed off, because A) Nothing existed in the “rules” about profanity, and B) Umm, it might have been nice of someone to notify me beforehand that my entry had been removed. Fine, I thought. I’d collect my chair, bid them good day and leave. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. Why? Because despite my entry not meeting the standards for public auction, they found someone online who bid on the chair and sold it to her regardless. What the fuck?! In other words, my piece was deemed obscene and not suitable for public consumption, yet still okay to sell in order to make money for the school itself. I was livid. I left. I wrote a letter to The Circle School, telling them I’d never participate in another one of their functions. I told them they were wrong to censor me. I told them they were out of line to accept payment for my piece when they essentially failed to recognize me for it. Does this make me look like a self-centered prick? To some extent, sure. But as an artist, the bigger issue here is censorship. My contribution – my art – was “pulled from the shelves,” so to speak, and all because of a single word.

I’m not sure what or if there’s a lesson to be learned. I do know, however, it’s important to read the fine print first, assuming there is any.

Time Out

We never had it. We got smacked around
by our old man till our pale butts purpled,
so bone-weary and bruised that the mere thought
of sitting was more punishment than gift.
I went first always, let my father’s anger
wash over me, the magnificent slap
of palm against my ass, the sporadic
fist that got away from him and planted
itself on my leg, crippling my gait for days.
My father, his drunken rage tucked so far up
inside him, showered us in spittle,
garbled cursing that splintered from his lips
like woodchips kicked from an axed dogwood stump.
He didn’t aim to take us rotten punks
so far outside ourselves we boys would never
come back to him with love, spread our arms
wide around his crooked back and hold on
till he bucked us loose or lay us down to sleep.
He kept us close enough we never knew
if to reach for him was right, or to turn
and haul ass, away from him, like rabbits.



  1. You used “ass” twice. Once? Forgivable. Twice? That’s fucking profane.

    • Bunch of phonies in this town, #19. Bunch of phonies.

  2. Such profanity. Clearly they had no choice but to censor you. Morons.

  3. Wow.

    I’m a Circle School alumna, and now staff person, and I found your site doing my periodic blog search for “The Circle School”. I’m writing now totally totally 100% as an individual, NOT as a representative of the school.

    I remember your chair. I wasn’t involved in the decision to pull it, and actually didn’t even know until I read this that that was the decision that was made. I think that sucks, and I’m sorry to hear about it.

    It sounds like you approached the project in the spirit of art, created something meaningful, and were met with the bureaucratic and PC bullshit of someone who forgot that they’d asked for art, not just for happy-go-lucky expressions of joy.

    I also think that the “representative” — a parent volunteer — may have misrepresented some of the concerns others had about the chair. My memory is that some people were worried that it would look like the school was endorsing the “time out” method — because while “the school” has no official opinion of time out, I know that most staff here would never recommend it to a parent — and that because it was somewhat difficult to read the entire poem, the overall thrust of the message wasn’t clear (one person who read it thought it was a “celebration” of child abuse). I think the latter reason is stupid — just post the text next to the freakin’ chair, and, as with all art, screw the people who don’t get it — but the former I have a bit of sympathy for, and I’m not sure what to do about that.

    Again, this is just my personal musing, but I hope that if we do something like Circle Seats again, we’ll have much clearer submission guidelines, *and* have managing volunteers who are clearer about the definition and implications of “art”.

    Thanks for making me think about this…and for making more work to do for future events. 🙂

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