How the Potato Chip was Invented by Daniel Shapiro
Sunnyoutside Press, 2014

Everyone has at least one celebrity story. And if you worked at a Tower Records in Southern California as a teenager in the nineties, then you’ve got hundreds of them. Like the one time Will Smith came in and bought hundreds of cds without even looking at them. Or when Heather Locklear leaned across the counter to answer the phone, “Hello Tower Records, this is Heather Locklear. No shit.” That’s just par for the course living in SoCal; it wasn’t outside the realm of normal to see Joey Buttafuoco cruising Sunset in a gold Porsche, or to have Mickey Rourke shout “peace out” every time you made eye contact, or to be verbally berated by Eddie Money (his Christmas album wasn’t in stock). But even years later when I relocated to the Midwest and celebrity run-ins were relegated to seeing Tom Arnold at the Cedar Rapids airport, it was still sort of thrilling. That’s the magic of celebrity. It’s transformative and fluid and tingly. Even if it’s just Joey Buttafuoco.

Daniel Shapiro’s first book of prose poetry “How the Potato Chip was Invented” is a celebrity tour de force that captures the same kind of magic as catching a glimpse of Sinbad at an Albertson’s. Shapiro’s poetry is sharp; he comes in at an angel and creates persona for a variety of celebrities. He’s a poet paparazzo, aiming his own lens for the most revealing shots. What seem like deceptively accessible poems are carefully crafted for authenticity.

Some of the poems read like snippets from news articles and the titles with dates lend a surreal kind of legitimacy. The persona poems are particularly memorable though, like “Bob Dylan on the Set of a Victoria’s Secret ‘Angel’ Commercial, Venice, 2004”. Does anyone else remember this shit-show airing? It was clash of commercialism and youthful idealism exploded into a three minute spot of Bob Dylan’s “comeback” delivered at the hand of his son’s success with the Wallflowers. Shapiro’s accuracy is striking in this poem. Check out Dylan’s laissez faire cum poet voice:

The press was half right: These underwear folk give me not
 only money—hey give me another murky dot for
 the cordoned biography. Though I won’t mind
 leaving this town. Even you must know that line
 about water, water everywhere.

The line about Coleridge’s long, lyrical ballad “The Ancient Mariner” is well-placed and intentional. Even the play on the word “folk” is funny. Shapiro’s consciousness in these poems is important, because it grounds the reader by constantly holding up the mirror in the face of the absurd—and at a glance, the absurd is celebrity. And Shapiro has a knack for pinning the ephemeral down to the page before it can flit away. By the time you get to the set of poems about the Match Game, celebrity starts to get stripped away, and the effect is that under that surface glance, the absurd begins to look a lot like Art with a capital A.

One of the standout poems for me book is “Thomas Kinkade Drops by Andy Warhol’s Grave, Bethel Park, PA., 2/22/07”. The first line, which made me laugh aloud, reads: “Keep the car running, Kinkade tells his driver.” The poem then devolves into Kinkade’s madness as he attempts to create himself into permanence by using a Polaroid of Warhol’s grave (hosting a can of Chicken & Stars soup). It’s a clever exposition on art as object, as identity, and how art works itself into the permanent lexicon of consciousness.

Shapiro’s book is so chock full of celebrity sightings that a reader might get distracted by the glare of all that bling. Don’t do the disservice of reading this book without having Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” planted firmly in the back of your mind. A younger reader might not be moved by a poem about Patricia Neal (or the brilliance of the line: “we crave the flesh of characters, the intimate slivers of ourselves we’ve gone too long without finding”) but Shapiro is smart to modernize. There really is something here for everyone. If you never spent hours contemplating Charles Nelson Reilly’s campy-ness then perhaps Tom Hanks is more for you; and if not Tom, then maybe Fergie, or Poetry the whole family can enjoy.

The book is aptly named, if not a little metaphorically punny; these poems are salty and addictive. Shapiro is the master of the persona, because he’s able to craft multi-layered poems that each encapsulate their own moment, or series of moments as the case may be for the Match Game series poems. The prose is surprising and delightful, and weirdly dark and affirming at the same time. Whether you read this book as an uncanny unpacking of Echo and Narcissus operating as high art, or as a slack-jawed-yokel gaping at Chuck Mangione’s floating flugelhorn, you will find something to relate to, something to fall in love with, and something to laugh at. Shapiro’s debut is strong in its arrangement and prose, and memorable for its honed, narrowed lens and surprising humanity. Who knew? Celebrities: they’re just like us.