I’ve grown bored with most writers.
I started writing because stories fueled me. Since the time I can remember reading, I’ve always gravitated to writers with a punk rock sensibility, the people whose voices rang from the pages and whose words stripped bare the essence of what it meant to be human and splayed it across the page.
They wrote about dangerous ideas. They challenged the world around them. They made you uncomfortable, and they were unapologetic about it. They wrote fuck you notes to the world, and did it because they loved the potential of humanity, and they hated the failings of humans. The wrote those notes to shake us into consciousness, and when I read their words, I could feel the electricity of my humanity crackling as I moved through the world.
When I’d finish their books, I would vow to live my life with the energy that gave me. I would dive into the world determined to drink, to love, to fight, to travel, and to rage against the dying of the light. I wanted to be the human that they wanted us to be.
It’s not an accident that for years I would pack my writer’s gear up, find a bar, drink my whiskey, write my words, and read my books in the dark comfort of bars where beers and shots were $2, and safety was not guaranteed.
I was the lost soul in a forgotten world, and I was never closer to the page.
Then I got older, and I started to read a different kind of writer. I found myself with bookshelves of serious people who wrote about serious topics, and I was surrounded by professional writers who spoke about professional problems. The fire-fueled souls of writers I’d grown up reading were replaced with weak-kneed laments about a strange family life, a changing publishing landscape, or realizations that the world was different.
Punk Rock and Poetry
The first story I ever reported professionally was Jim Carroll reading from The Basketball Diaries at a literary poetry festival put on by Ron Whitehead in early 1995. In attendance that night: Hunter S. Thompson.
I sat in the front row of this little hole-in-the-wall bar, feet crossed on the floor, listening to Carroll shakily read his poems, interspersed with what it was like to be a junkie. He was fierce in his writing even as he was fragile in his reading.
Thompson stood in the back, smoking through his trademark cigarette filter and drinking out of his martini glass. When the reading was over, I walked up to Thompson and mumbled a few platitudes. He garbled back. There was nothing much to be said. Our conversations happened on the page, and everything he wanted to tell me was there.
Later that night, I was in Carroll’s suite while he was interviewed about the 1970s New York Beat movement by a film crew from PBS. What struck me about the interviewer was an insistence on talking about how everything came together, and Carroll’s insistence that it was just writers and punk rock kids who didn’t really understand the world and wanted to express that.
A Scene from the Uptown Poetry Slam
Less than six months later, I drove to Chicago to write a profile on Marc Smith, the man who created the slam poetry movement, and the Uptown Poetry Slam he’s been running since 1986 at The Green Mill.
The Slam is a three-hour event: an open mic, a curated reading, and a slam competition, with jazz interludes breaking up the sets. I’d heard it was mayhem, but I had a hard time imagining any place with writers as the main attraction as anything rowdy.
Still, I showed up 2 hours before the first poet went on stage. I was terrified and exhilarated. Just a few months before I’d sat in a room and listened to Jim Carroll talk about Marc Smith in revered terms, and now I was in his literary home.
By 7 pm, I was thankful my nerves had sent me to the bar early. The Green Mill was packed with revelers, and I was mostly drunk. People packed into booths, the stood in the back, and they jammed into whatever open spaces they could find. When the Slam began at 9 pm and Smith took the stage to explain the rules, the crowd was gleefully shouting along. Poets who fell into cliche, rhyme, or poor literary musings would find themselves clamped, stomped, and shouted off the stage.
By 10 pm that night, the only person who’d been openly booed was me. As a special guest, Smith decided to give me the first-hand Slam treatment. I would be one of three judges. After each poet, I had to stand and declare my score. When I’d dinged a hometown favorite because the topic (now lost to me) bored the shit out of me, bar napkins rained down upon my head.
I was 23, and I was a hooked.
A Bigger Asshole
When I say I’ve grown bored with most writers, understand that I’m not immune to my own loathing.
While I’ve kept that Chicago sensibility, I’ve spent a lifetime suppressing it. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years trying to find a safe way to steer that punk rock soul into an acceptable harbor.
When our first book came out, I worried about book readings and radio interviews. I spent my days worried about the cover design and the press releases. I did everything that I’ve grown to hate about writers. I obsessed about the business of writing instead of the soul of writing.
As I’ve grown older, it’s gotten worse. I’ve become an even bigger asshole than I’d feared. I’ve become more attuned to stakeholders and constituencies than I have that punk rock ethos that stirred when I started writing.
The Downtown Writers Jam (A modest proposal)
I’m never more alive than when I tell people the stories from my forthcoming book, So Far Appalachia. My words are capture the audience. I know this because it’s not difficult to tell when you have the attention of your listeners.
I think of this every time I attend a writer’s reading. It feels as though I’ve walked into a sterilized laboratory. Gone is the intensity of Jim Carroll reading into the darkened, drunken room, and wiped away is the riotous invocation of the crowd. In its place is a very serious crowd listening intently to a very serious person reading very serious things.
Writers wonder why nobody wants to come to their readings, and yet nothing could make me want to listen to a writer less than that atmosphere.
So I’m faced with a problem: I love writing, but I have grown bored with writers. I love punk rock writer’s gatherings, but I can’t really find anything like that in Indianapolis.
So my summer project: to create The Downtown Writers Jam, an event that brings together a little bit of music, a little bit of writing, and a whole lot of attitude. I want to create a space for writers to leave behind the podium, and replace it with their soul. I want to create a place where we move the words from the page and bring them into the crowd.
In the next few weeks, I’m going to sit down with a few venues to discuss the particulars of how this might work, and then I’m going to start recruiting writers from the greater Indianapolis area. The only two requirements: you write something that hasn’t yet been widely read, and you read with passion.