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Reality TV Inspired This Poetic Look At People And The Things They Hoard


Why do people hoard things and what do the things they hoard say about them?

Artist and poet Kate Durbin explores this relationship between people and their stuff in her third book of poems Hoarders, out now.

Inspired by the A&E television series of the same name, the book is a collection of poem-portraits that focus on individuals and the objects they hold on to.

"My family experiences mental illness, hoarding, and substance use," Durbin says. "So I was both drawn to writing about the show and also resistant to it."

The artist's wariness came from knowing that the audience is not often well-positioned to fully understand the subjects of the show.

"When we watch reality TV shows there can be judgment that comes along with it and a lack of understanding," she says. "And one of my primary goals is to achieve some level of understanding, however small."

For the poems in Hoarders, Durbin achieved this in part by spending a lot of time with the show. She started by taking extensive notes on the episodes for a year and half.

When we watch reality TV shows there can be judgment that comes along with it and a lack of understanding. And one of my primary goals is to achieve some level of understanding, however small.

"At first I was unsure if I would be able to even recognize everything that I was seeing, because in some of these homes there would be just a lot of objects kind of smushed together," she says. "But then over time, I acclimated and was able to sort of see things in those spaces, partly that my imagination invented."

Then, she went beyond the show, using research and intuition to create poems that zoom into a single subject and one type of object. She used new names and gave them each a different city in the United States to showcase just how widespread the phenomenon of hoarding is.

"So [it] could be a category like Barbies or plants or vintage Las Vegas casino items. Because I felt like each category really had something to say both about that person and what they've been through in their life [as well as] life in the United States," she says.

Products in Durbin's poems often point to the hold that consumer culture has on American society.

"We're told that we'll be happy if we buy all of these things, so of course if you've been through pain [or] if you've been through suffering you're going to be drawn to buying those products... those little dreams that have been sold to you everyday," she says.

Here's an excerpt from a poem she wrote on a subject named "Cathy" from Centralia, Illinois:

I like the satisfaction of having something new JTV heart-shaped pink topaz ring and a box that says GIFT TO MYSELF

I've wasted a lot of money three identical Forever 21 beaded chiffon maxi dresses

$50,000 or more in credit card debt David's Bridal strapless corset wedding gown with a chapel veil

I have a sickness pink medicine ball

Objects in the poem also reveal that Cathy works a night-shift, has five kids, and a marriage that likely isn't working out. And towards the end, we learn of her children:

I don't want my children to have a broken home Thomas Kincaid for Target puzzle of a painting of a snowy cottage, windows aglow with cold and light

But technically it's a broken home already paper plate that says DO NOT FLUSH THE TOILET in Sharpie

This isn't the first time Durbin has been inspired by reality TV. In her 2014 book E! Entertainment she took off from several shows of the time to perform an excavation of the absurdity yet reality of the current cultural moment.

"I'm really intrigued by [reality TV shows] because I do feel like there's something almost anthropological about them," she says.

Not many poets write about reality TV. But for Durbin, it's part of the times we live in.

And it's by zooming into objects and slowing down time that Durbin makes her book so different from what you see on TV. In the show Hoarders, it can feel like the goal is to fix everyone really quickly, by the end of each episode. But with her poems, Durbin doesn't want to resolve anything for the reader. She simply wants to stop and listen to whatever the people and their objects have to say.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.