There’s this moment: late July in the Zane Grey Ballroom. Flagstaff, Arizona. Every seat has a butt to warm it. Three of the four walls have shoulders leaning against them for support. Somewhere around seventy-five or eighty people have come out and squeezed into this room. It’s a Sunday night and most of them have to work the next morning. And what are they here to see? A poet. In 2010.
The poet is James Jay. This is the release of his book The Journeymen. He’s reading the first poem, “Time Trapped in Light.” It’s about another moment frozen in time: a picture of Jack Kerouac. He’s tuning a radio to the perfect frequency. But the poem itself is a picture of James Jay tuned into the picture of Jack Kerouac, and right now it’s me in the front row of the Zane Grey Ballroom tuned into a frequency powerful enough to hold me, James, and Jack. There’s something about this moment.
You could say it’s a moment of vindication. After all, I published The Journeymen. James sent the poems to me individually and we talked about them. He sent me the collection and I edited it and he revised—often with enough good sense to ignore my advice. I typeset the words inside and designed the cover outside. I slapped cash on the barrel to print a couple thousand copies and moved those copies into bookstores and distribution warehouses and storage spaces. I even brought several here to sell later. And I could look around the packed house of Flagstaff locals—drinking their beers and hanging on James’s every word and looking like anything but a crowd for a poetry reading—and say, “This is why I did it.” But it’s not why I did it. That’s not what this moment is about for me.
It’s something else.
In a weird way, poetry and punk rock have blended together in my mind. Both came to me when I was still an adolescent stuck in small town Florida, hoping like hell that there was a bigger world than what I’d seen in my life. Hoping like hell that there was some form of rebellion, some meaningful way to, if not change the world, at least change my life. So, like most of you, I stumbled across bands that expanded my world. Maybe like a few of you, maybe like none of you, I stumbled across poets who did the same thing. Specifically, a teacher loaned me an anthology of hers that had poems by Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. The poems exploded the walls that I once thought were built around me. They invited me into a world of intense experiences. They inspired me to seek out my own.
All these years later, I still spend a lot of my time (maybe most of my time) with books and music. I read poetry the same way I listen to my favorite records: focusing mostly on new stuff, always looking for the latest releases, always stoked to find a new favorite, but also going back to the ones that invited me into this new world to begin with. The Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, the Clash, the Ramones on the punk rock side; Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the poetry side. Watching James Jay read in the Zane Grey Ballroom to me is tantamount to seeing the Riverboat Gamblers at Alex’s Bar. It means something.
But I also think about that time trapped in light, because there’s another aspect to this. Back in real time, the time when I write this column (which is a couple months before you read it), I’m still thinking about that frozen moment in Flagstaff, still trying to make sense of what’s significant about it. And I’m a little uneasy because, a couple of weeks ago, some college kids were playing around in a nearby park. They were dressed up as knights, doing battle with foam swords. Maybe you’ve seen these societies for creative anachronism reliving the middle ages at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Maybe, like me, a mean little man inside of you wants to make fun of them and the nice little man inside of you has to say, “Dude, they’re just having harmless fun. Let ‘em be.” For me, though, watching these kids play pretend made me think about the anachronisms I’m playing with. I wonder sometimes about poetry and punk rock in the twenty-first century. I wonder if they’re both part of a past that I pretend to live in even though their time has come and gone. I helped start this here punk rock magazine twenty years after punk was declared dead and two years after the smart money said that magazines were done and readers had moved electronic. Now this fucker is almost ten years old. On top of that, I just published a book of poetry in 2010 as it were 1956 and I were Lawrence Ferlinghetti trying to put the poetry renaissance into print. Then, I went to the reading in the Zane Grey Ballroom as if I were living in the Gallery Six scene of Dharma Bums. I wonder what’s next for me. Will I dress up in rusty armor and sally out onto the Spanish plains like Don Quixote, without even a trusty Sancho trailing behind on his mule? Will I get my own cloak and foam sword and join the kids in the park who at least acknowledge that they’re living in the past?
This issue of living in the past is a tricky one. The Japanese have a word that is sometimes translated as heart, sometimes as mind, and sometimes as soul. The word is kokoro. I don’t speak Japanese, but the nearest I can tell, kokoro doesn’t exactly mean heart, mind, or soul. It’s more like the aggregate memories and feelings about those memories that construct an individual’s identity. Think about that concept for a second. Think of how useful it would be to have a word like kokoro. In American English, we have over fifty ways of saying “shit,” over a dozen words each for various genitalia and bodily emissions, but we have no word to express the beautiful and painful memories that add up to make us who we are.
Even without the word kokoro, we still understand the concept. We understand that, when we talk about who we really are, that identity is just a sum of the things we’ve done and how we felt about them. This kokoro is stuck to us like a shadow. It determines how we’re going to act in every situation that requires us to act. It creates the context for how we’ll feel about that action. In this way, we live most of our lives trapped in memories.
Take this moment at James Jay’s reading. Part of the power of the moment resides in my kokoro. There’s the memory of a seventeen year-old me who was so taken by the Beats that he dreamed of one day fostering a Beat renaissance. There’s the memories me as an aspiring writer, kicking around Flagstaff, drinking beers with James Jay and talking about starting my own City-Lights-style press, or driving down to Phoenix with Todd Taylor, talking about how rad it would be to start our own ‘zine. There’s the fanatic in me who loves poetry too much to write my own, who loves punk rock too much to start my own band, but who still wants to publish it and write about it. There’s also the moment that goes with this memory when I can turn to that seventeen-year-old me and that aspiring writer me and that fanatic me—none of whom are really me anymore; all of whom still live inside of me—and say, “Look, man. Look what you’ve done, not to make this moment, but to nurture it to the point where you can now just sit back and enjoy it.”
Still, so much of the meaning of that moment in trapped in memories. And, still, I feel like there’s more to it.
I listen to the poem itself. That’s why everyone is really here: the poem. Sure, James Jay is a man about the town in Flagstaff. He’s well-liked. He seems to know everyone. He could probably draw a crowd for just about anything, if he really wanted. And sure he has a comfortable stage presence and stories and jokes to fill in the space between the poems. But it’s like a Dillinger Four show: sure Paddy’s antics between songs are funny. That doesn’t change the fact that you came for the music and your favorite part of the night is in hearing the actual songs. Likewise, for all the pleasing madness of this reading, the real pleasure is in the poem. And “Time Trapped in Light” captures something about this frozen moment. Because it’s the first poem in the book. It’s one of the first ones he reads. And in the poem is the sense of things to come. It’s as if James is looking at the picture of Kerouac, saying, “All right, Jack. I’m dialing in that frequency of beauty and pain and lunacy and transcendence. I’m gonna put words on a page and hope they give shape to the abstract notions that can’t be put into words. Maybe it’ll all be as meaningful to the next generation of readers as your poems were to me.” It’s this optimism, this looking forward, more than the connection to the past, that moves me.
Because, sure I live a lot in the past just like everyone else, but at the core my motivation isn’t to keep reliving the past. Instead, I want to be part of the construction of a future in which new records keep me from digging the old ones out of the stacks, in which new poems keep me from reading Howl for the fiftieth time. I want a future where punk rock and poetry are perpetually valid forms for new expressions, perpetually exploding walls and opening new worlds.
Author’s note: This is the twenty-first chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #59. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.