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The Decline of Northern Civilization: Jenn Gray of AK INK

(This is an ongoing interview series about the alternative / punk music scene in Anchorage and its attendant culture, from the 80s through the 00s.)

Jenn held down the punk rock fort in Anchorage from 2002-2006 with her zine AK INK. Local music live reviews, attitude, beer reviews? The local music scene needed an infusion of fresh blood, and she delivered. She was kind enough to speak with me a few years ago about her days in the Anchorage scene trenches.

Interview by Josh Medsker

When did you first get involved in the punk scene in Anchorage?

I guess I first became involved in the scene when I was 16. My family moved back to Anchorage from Germany in 1993. I started dating musicians, and going to the local shows.

Who were some of your models for zine writing? What zines (local or non-local) had you read or contributed to before the start of AK Ink? I still remember your Skeeve’s Christmas Story comic! Hahaha! I loved that.

I liked comics a lot, and tried to make some. Not dumb boy action adventures, but more cynical crass feminine humor. I wasn’t interested in zines at first because I had only been exposed to perzines where people drone on about their personal bullshit. I was familiar with the reproductive aspect of zines, and replicated my comics in the same way. I remember NNN a lot because of how the half legal sized pamphlet felt nice to hold. The full sized letter zines were bulky and lame, and the half letter sized zines were too narrow and awkward. I started making AK ink in half sized legal sheets too. NNN seemed to have the right amount of scene coverage, music reviews, and other shit that I found appropriate of a scene zine. I figured if I made one, I could interject all of my drawings and comics in-between the scene coverage. With NNN I could see that the past was documented, but at the same time I could see that no one was documenting the present.

I left AK in 2000, and honestly… from 1996 when I quit NNN, up until then, there didn’t seem to be a lot of zine-ing going on. And by the time you started AK Ink, the Verve had gone kaput, right?  What was the local zine/small press scene like at the onset of AK Ink?

Yeah we began at the end of 2002, and not a lot was going on zine-wise, aside from a few perzines found at Subterranea. There was some scene coverage in AK This Month and the Press, but I wanted AK ink to focus primarily on the local underground punk scene, because there wasn’t much documentation of that.

An important note about the timing of AK ink, was that it began right as the internet was starting to explode. Paper zines were practically already obsolete. So if there weren’t a lot of zines out there, that’s a huge contributing factor. Making copies at Kinkos was all revised; you had to have a credit card to run the machines, so I’m sure that deterred some of the kids. We intended AK ink to be a website zine only because we lived in this new digital world, but we made the paper version just for fun. Then we said fuck it, and made it paper too. Good thing because the paper copy is the only thing that remains.

I don’t know if you experienced this, but during NNN, it almost seemed like–because we were writing about it, more bands popped up, or maybe, the bands that were around took what they were doing a tad more seriously… dunno.  Was that your experience?

I think we noticed more bands pop up because we were searching them out, and collecting them into history. Not everyone remembers the lame band that three of your friends were in back in the early 2000s, but zines do. I think creating a zine is a big contribution to the scene, and compliments the contributions of the bands. Not everyone is a musician. Instead of making music with melody and lyrics, we made visual art with photography and type. Perhaps it does inspire, and encourage some people, but the scene was definitely already alive and kicking by the time we started writing about it. There were lots of mohawks in the pit, and fist banging all around.

Also, looking back on it, it seems like AK can only support one ongoing local zine at a time! Hahaha! I think the Ak Verve/NNN dual run was a fluke.  In the 80s, it was only Warning.  In the 90s it was me and Bmac (an anomaly), and it seems like in the 00s it was only you. Did you find that to be true?

No, I think we tried to encourage each other to create, whether it was in AK ink, or in other zines. Actually, there were several zines going on the same time as AK ink, maybe not as consistent, or in the same vein, or as reproduced and promoted, but we would run ads in each other’s zines to show support. The more perspective, and the different perspective, on the same subject is wonderful for archiving.

Tell me about the birth of AK Ink. What made you want to start a seriously local zine in Anchorage?

I wanted to do several things. I wanted to get my art published, I wanted to have a fun creative enslaving project, and I wanted to document the scene so I could remember it. I have a terrible memory so creating a zine was perfect. I was going to all the local shows and hanging out with band people anyway. I coupled it with my favorite genre, punk rock, and AK ink was born. “AK” stands for the geographically fucked location, and “ink” stands for pen art, type, toner, and the blackness in reproducing art. A nice plus was that it gave me something to do besides drink at the shows.

Why did you fold it up, ultimately?

It folded because I was poor and working with my back. I figured I better get my shit together and finish my bachelors before I got all crippled working manual labor jobs. I quit the zine, and my shitty warehouse job to go back to school.

Do you think you’ll put out #20 ever?

Yes. Everything for it is sitting safety in my attic waiting for my next move. Though, I’m not sure if I will release it this year, next year, or in 10 years, whenever the inspiration and time comes.

What are some of your favorite AK memories?

I’m really interested in subcultural group thought/aesthetic/action, and the conformity of nonconformity. Youth culture and underground communal response might be found in all cities, but we got to experience it, and document it, in Anchorage. I like how the scene doesn’t really pedestal the bands. They are usually just dudes with day jobs dragging their equipment through the snow, keeping the scene alive, giving a reason to congregate. The scene is about the people who come together, the bands and the crowds. Granted, everyone is usually more interested in finding drugs, an after party, or a lay, rather than focusing on the sound, but the music is the soundtrack to this weird intermingling. Sometimes there are tons of people contributing to this collective, sometimes people just stop trying, and go about their lives. It doesn’t matter; the Anchorage underground scene always peaks again. I find this shit fascinating.

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Profiles

LAURA PAGE (Interview by Josh Medsker)

I’ve known Laura for many years, via literary adventures, and have long been fascinated by her work. Laura, I’d like to welcome you as the very first poet in the Twenty-Four Hours Poetry + Interview chapbook series, which I’m publishing in June.

Thank you!

So, to start, I want to talk about your literary magazine, Virga. What was the inspiration behind it? What made you decide to undertake this crazy endeavor?

In 2015, I saw that a small press, Anchor & Plume, was looking for readers for their lit journal Kindred. I applied, was accepted, and began reading LOTS of poetry, essays, and short stories, and comparing notes with the founding editor, Amanda. It was an exhilarating process and it exposed me to so much that I would not have read otherwise. I noticed as I read that I gravitated toward a certain voice, a certain quality of imagination. Amanda’s and my own aesthetic overlapped very frequently, of course. But while I greatly admired Amanda’s vision for Kindred and Anchor & Plume, which is unfortunately no longer operational, I found myself envisioning space that could foster a more experimental, more lyrical voice. The observations and experiences with A&P were little seeds sown, and Virga grew from that.

Are there any literary magazines that you always come back to… ones that you just thoroughly enjoy?

There are! I’m very happy about so much that I’ve read from a journal, The Bennington Review, that went on a very long hiatus—30 years in fact—and is back in full force as of March of 2016. Benjamin Friedlander, the editor of Robert Creeley’s selected poems, 1945-2005, once said that poetry involves a “zeroing in on those points where particularity gives access to the common and commonalities take particular shape.” I think Bennington is doing this beautifully.

I also love Salt Hill. They just produce, invariably, issues that are full of artistry. The introduced me to writers like Nick Greer and Pilar Fraile Amador.

Some of my favorite new kids on the block, include Human/Kind, which is doing great things with short form poetry, especially the Japanese forms, haiku, tanka, cherita, etc, The Hunger, whose editors, Lena and Erin, curate issues full of pure music, and the Indianapolis Review, which is creating a real space for poets AND visual artists, one that, I think, is focused, more intentionally, on the poetry community, and on being a resource for poets.

What was the impetus to start writing poetry? Had you written in any other genre before poetry?

From a pretty young age, it just delighted me that language had such power to transform, that it seemed like a means of access. I wrote poems very privately as a teenager, but didn’t really begin intentionally developing this passion until later, as a freshman in college, after reading some critiques of Adrienne Rich’s poetry. Rich, and Theodore Roethke were influences that sort of ushered me in, you might say.

How do you know when a poem is working? What is your process like?

For me, a poem is working when the emotional kernel that prompts it can land on an image that soothes me, that validates the feeling, somehow. Or it’s working when the image or subject I’ve landed on can escape, through a trapdoor, maybe – a hidden passage – and emerge somewhere else without its clothes on. In other words, the image or the subject is stripped down and the result is some new insight.

I used to overthink process, used to feel a bit of anxiety about producing “work.” Lately, for better or worse, my process relies on writing very fast, in a very “un-thinking” way. I’ll often abandon these sorts of skeletal things for days or weeks, before returning to them and putting some flesh on the bones.

How often do you write? I know some people have bursts of inspiration… some write every day…

I’ve never been able to regiment my writing. I know it works for some, but I am at the mercy of those “bursts” of insight or inspiration. This has always been the case.

Who are some of your favorite poets? Both established and up-and-coming? Have you noticed any aesthetic/content-based connections between them?

Well, first, I love so many dead poets. Rilke, William Carlos Williams, Ann Sexton, just off the top of my head there. But contemporary established poets would include Norman Dubie, Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Ada Limon. Favorite newer poets include Danez Smith, Paige M. Lewis.

Connections…that’s a good question. I gravitate toward Rilke and Dubie for their distinct spirituality. Esoteric, I’d call it, sometimes with sexual undertones. Sexuality and Spirituality are, for me, really never divorced in poetry. The other names I’ve listed, I think, combine a confessional aspect with just this thing I can only call wisdom. It’s delightful, because some of them, like Smith and Lewis, are young and just beginning their careers, but the wisdom contained in much of their work can be as grave or mirthful as Olds or Hass.

If you had to pick ONE poet who informed your work more than any other, who would it be?

How dare you. Rather than answer that nearly impossible question, I’ll tell you the name of a poet who has been heavily influencing my recent work. I bought Paul Celan’s collected work, Breathturn Into Timestead, a couple years ago, and was impressed with how much he could pack into such very brief poems. His work relies on what I’d call “impressions.” I just love his idiosyncrasies, the playfulness and innovation in language.

You are also a painter. When you have an idea, a spark brewing… how do you know you have to paint, versus make a poem?

I think I paint when no image or subject is forthcoming for a poem. I don’t plan paintings; I just start painting as a sort of investigatory impulse.

A similar question to number six… what visual artist would you say has influenced you more than any other?

Oh boy, I’m a little obsessed, currently, with the work of a Chicago-based abstract artist, Shar Coulson. She explores the interconnection between humanity and nature, particularly the repetitions of each, over time, and the conceptual movement between reality and perception.

 What is the purpose of art, in your opinion?

I would say that human consciousness always, inevitably wants to push against the limits the natural world imposes. But not just the natural world. Really, it pushes against anything that is said to be “known” about our experience as humans. Art, I think, is a big what-if? What if this or that or the other so-called limit were not present? The purpose of art is to challenge or subvert the grooves we wear in our minds just by living on this planet. I’m kind of obsessed, sometimes, with the idea of collective consciousness, and believe that art is doing something on that level– all these humans, making it, looking at it—and I like to try to imagine what that will enact in the future.

*****

Laura Page is a poet and visual artist from the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including: Rust + Moth, Crab Creek Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Fanzine, Maudlin House, and TINGE.

Darren C. Demarree selected her chapbook, epithalamium, as the winner of Sundress Publications’ 2017 chapbook contest. Laura is founding editor of the poetry journal, Virga. (www.virgamagazine.com)

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creative nonfiction

Me and Lou (and Rhonda)

The first time I heard Lou Reed was in high school. It was 1990, and I was at this girl Rhonda’s house. Rhonda and I were on her bed, and I was wiggling my way up onto her, with one hand behind her head, and the other one fumbling to get the top button of her jeans open. I was a junior and desperate to lose my virginity. She was a cute redhead, running her fingers through my hair. If I’m not mistaken, she was wearing a tie-dyed Jane’s Addiction poncho–one of the ones that looked like a burlap sack. Even this didn’t stop me. She was a fox. Her boombox played in the background. A drumbeat was like a heart… Then a voice.

“I… don’t know… just where I’m going…”

I hadn’t heard this before. The week earlier she had turned me on to The Ramones, but this? The guy couldn’t sing! He was worse than Bob Dylan! What the hell was this? I wanted to ask Rhonda what this was, but I was in the middle of a very important task.

“But I’m… gonna try… for the kingdom… if I can…”

Seriously, what the hell was this? It was picking up a little bit. Now it really sounded like Bob Dylan, but like something else, too. Rhonda pulled back a little bit. A car pulled up the driveway. Fuck. We composed ourselves as best we could. My pants were completely askew in the front. I covered myself with a pillow and quickly saw how ridiculous I looked. I chucked the pillow across the room. We bolted from the bedroom and went to sit on the couch in the living room. She threw a copy of SPIN at me. We started awkwardly chatting about something, I don’t remember what. Let’s say it was something about music. Her father walked in and looked at us askance. We both said hello, voices on top of each other. I introduced myself, ears bright red.

Her father gone from the room, we turned to each other and scooted a little closer to each other on the couch. “Will you make me a tape of whatever that was?” I asked her. She smiled. I do remember that part. She did make me a mix tape. It had New York on one side, and Velvet Underground and Nico on the other side.

That winter, that mix tape–the VU side mostly—was my constant companion. I played “Heroin”, over and over, until the tape snapped and I taped it back together. That first time hearing “Heroin” was like a religious experience. So many times, walked through downtown Anchorage, scarf and collar pulled up around my neck, shivering, lost in my thoughts, happy that someone else understood the coldness and futility I felt. What can I say? I was a melodramatic kid.

“I’m gonna try… to nullify my life…”

The other layer, on to top of the personal connection to Lou Reed’s music, was the artistic connection. The feelings of frustration I couldn’t articulate at the time: about sex, about religion, about my inability to create… all seemed to be wrapped up in this one man’s song. I needed a way to escape the chaos of my teenage years, and Lou Reed stepped through the time-space continuum, from 1967, and said, “HERE, kid. I give you permission to not care so much.” Lou Reed’s un-self-consciousness was really powerful, and brave in my eyes.

“…and I feel just like Jesus’s Son… and I guess that I just don’t know… and I guess that I just don’t know…”

How could three minutes encapsulate so much? I wrote about it in my journal, that winter. I wrote:

Winter, 1992—

Lou really gets it. This isn’t about drugs. It is drugs. I am scared of needles… but maybe if I meditate on the essence of this song, it will transport me to where he was when he wrote it.

I paraphrased there, because I burned the actual journal in 1992, after the emotional turmoil of a girl, post-Rhonda. Lou Reed has inspired me for as long as I can remember. He went on to blow my mind with so many other albums: the gonzo glam of Rock N Roll Animal… the brooding sexuality of Transformer… and on and on… but that first time hearing VU… there will never be anything like that again.

The art that Lou Reed created was so transcendent that it’s hard to believe that his body is really gone. It’s almost enough for an atheist like myself to entertain the thought that Lou’s essence has just dissolved back into the “god ether” from which it came. Because was such a powerful musical force, it’s probably easier to think of him as less of a man, and more of a divinely-inspired demi-god. However, taking his humanity and craft away is doing a serious disservice to what he created. These songs were created with equal doses of hard work, deep thought, and yes, inspiration—and he’s someone I hold up as a creative model.

He walked by me in Barnes and Noble a few years back, in Chelsea, when he and Laurie Anderson were there looking at art books. I was too intimidated to say anything, and honestly… how could I tell Lou Reed what I just told you?

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I Love The Eagles! There, I Said It.

I first became aware of the Eagles when I was around ten years old. It was 1983, I was just beginning to listen to music, and generally, my tastes were quite diverse. My sister and I particularly liked their live version of Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” from their Greatest Hits Vol. 2, and would try to match their matchless harmonies. We’d play it any chance we got. Family trips up to Lake Wasilla, Christmases, Mondays… Sometimes, at home, I would put on the vinyl and the giant space-age headphones my folks had (the kind that covered half your head) and just marvel at that song. It was my first taste of a cappella. And fingerstyle guitar. And I’ve never quite gotten over it.

Once I got older, around high school age, I became keenly aware that the Eagles were not cool. They were to be openly mocked by the young musical cognoscenti. Too rock for hardcore country fans. Not rock enough for stoners or metalheads. Not street enough for rap fans. And for my crowd? Alternative kids? Too ubiquitous and mainstream. I mean, their first Greatest Hits is one of the best selling albums of all time. Would my Doc Marten-wearing, backcombed black hair sporting, top 40 out-of-hand dismissing friends sign off on that? Not bloody likely.

Dutifully, I kept my Eagle-love hidden until my late 20s when I proclaimed my forbidden love to the world. My love of rockabilly took me deeper into country music, then on to country-rock, and deeper into the Eagles.

I was surprised and delighted to find that their roots in country-rock run deep, with Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon stamping his twang all over their first three albums. His Gram Parsons tribute “My Man” is gold. And those harmonies, with heavy lifting on the high end from Randy “Take It To The Limit” Meisner? Again, they stomp everyone aside from CSNY. This is not up for debate. And the fact that Meisner was in Rick(y) Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band in the late 60s was just… damn.

For me, “Already Gone”, from their 1974 album On The Border straddles their rock and country sides perfectly. Lots of woo-hoos and tight harmonies, with that raucous (yet not quite unrestrained) guitar edge they’d take further as the 70s wore on. Don Felder rips at the end of the song, especially, and when they go up a half step in the coda, it still gives me chills. The song is rocking, pretty, economical and tight.

Generally I lean towards their early work, but I will admit that I once drove around the block 3 times, coming home from Walgreens, just to listen to Joe Walsh and Felder’s mind-blowing guitar duetting on “Hotel California”. Rewind, and rewind, and rewind…

For me, though, these songs, more than any fanboy music geekery, remind me of my family. Invariably, whenever my sister and I have hung out over the years, at some point the Eagles will come out. We’ll drive around Anchorage, Boston, or LA, wherever we are… blaring it, just enjoying, singing along, remembering.

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Reading

Controlled Chaos: What I’m Reading Now

My god… I’ve written and re-written this so many times. Haha! I started to write a post about “the state of literature in 2019” and “why we consume literature in this digital age” and it was just too big of a topic. So, I’m going small.

I have this habit, you might have it too… of reading several books at the same time. Lately, it’s been poetry. For the last couple of years. I have a row of books that I’ve already read on the left-hand side of my poetry bookshelf (yes, I’ve organized everything by genre. I’m working on getting a P-Touch labeler…). And on the right-hand side are all of the books I’m working through. I just finished:

Jack Kerouac – Book of Haiku

Allen Ginsberg – Airplane Dreams

and a few others (I’ll put them in later). I’m currently working my way through:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Pictures of the Gone World, 1995 Edition

John Berryman – The Dream Songs

Japanese Death Poems

Seamus Heaney – District and Circle

Sylvia Plath – Ariel

Tomas Transtromer – Collected Poems

Kenneth Patchen – Collected Poems

Denise Levertov – Collected Poems

Marianne Moore – Observations

And I’m also re-reading WCW, picking my way through Pound, TS Eliot, and some others, but these books above are the ones I’m actively reading (or have read). Looking at this list, I came to a realization… there is no rhyme or reason to my poetry consumption… except for the fact that many of these books are put out by New Directions. And this actually fills me with a pleasing sense of happiness. Back in the day, I was quite restrictive with my tastes. If I was into Kerouac, that’s all I’d read, for months… or if I was into avant-garde post-modernist stuff, that’s all I’d read…. or zines, or whatever it was.

I feel like just now, in my 40s, I’ve gotten to the point where I can be a whole person, not needed to belong to any fan-group or subculture, as a consumer of culture… and as a creator, not beholden to these schools either. Now I’m sort of free-floating… but it’s not unenjoyable… just chaotic. 😉 Welcome to my mind.


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Snacks on Snacks on Snacks – Guest Column by Tony Metz

“But you’re a potato!” Disgusting. (Frito Lay)

I need to bring something very important to your attention. Snack food cannibalism. The taboo of cannibalism is well-established in cultures across the world. There are forces at work which are trying to dismantle this ages-old social more, using our snacks to normalize this repellent, barbaric behavior. I for one, need to speak my mind. You must have noticed the onslaught of commercials slyly promoting this godless liberal agenda. Firstly, there is a Lays Potato Chips ad, where the husband and wife engage in eating one of their own, seemingly as some sort of precursor to intercourse (which is a whole bigger issue, but I digress). The husband catches the wife eating a stack of Lays, and gasps in horror. Rightfully so. However, by the end of the commercial has convinced him to engage in her abhorrent practice as well, and they bond over their sick delight in self-consumption. Are we meant to be convinced as well, through appeals of humor and gluttony? We cannot remain silent while these evil forces chip away at our long-established morality. A similar situation is portrayed in a current Snapple commercial, where a group of 4 Snapple Mango drinks sit, drinking Snapple Mango, which is horrifying enough. One of the Snapples inquires about the whereabouts of their friend, Phil. Upon realizing they are in fact drinking Phil, they shrug off their Snapplephagy and continue their previous conversation. Whatever compunction they had has been sapped by their lust for mango-flavored juice drink. Thanks, Obama. Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to the current series of commercials for the breakfast cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch whose tagline is “crave those crazy squares”. This commercial may be the most disturbing of the three, because it shows a series of cereal bits eating each other, one after the other, in what can only be called a bloodthirsty manner. Unlike the characters in the Snapple ad (who were unconcerned) and the Lays ad (one of whom at least started out concerned with his wife’s behavior) the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Squares exhibit any conscience or remorse whatsoever. No, liberal media, and your shills in agribusiness, I will not “crave” these squares or any other food that engages in such reprehensible behavior. Behavior that goes against the very moral fabric that this Christian country was founded upon, and I ask you, reader, to stand up and say NO MORE. Here is contact information for you to make your voice heard:Frito Lay North Americahttps://mcu.pepsico.com/m/Html/Home.htm?brand=fritolay&culture=en-USDr Pepper Snapple Group Consumer Relations(800) 696-5891General Mills (Cinnamon Toast Crunch) Consumer Helpline1-800-248-7310

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Born to Lose

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1996. (Photo by Virgil Porter)

What I remember most is the giant hill covered in black ice and trying to climb it, wearing Doc Martens, supporting myself by grabbing onto side windows of cars on my way up to the liquor store.  It was New Year’s Eve in Alaska—going into 1997 and I was at a party. I came with my friend Joni, who I’d been sleeping with, in-between drowning our mutual sorrows in cheap beer. In what was probably the darkest year of my twenties, hanging out with her was a bright spot.

It was this guy Gabe and I, climbing the hill. A year earlier, at a different party, Gabe and I got into it. He tried to beat me up because he thought I was a poser, a pussy, and a full-of-shit writer. I was majoring in journalism but flunking out of college. I had been doing a punk zine for a few years and had recently retired it, feeling burned out and overwhelmed by my life. It took a lot out of me, but I also lived for it. Music and writing were my life—and I was at an impasse. I was despondent that the local music scene— something I’d based my life and identity on for two, three, four years—was dying. I was very happy that Gabe and I were finally hanging out though. I felt vindicated in my quest to become a genuine punk rocker, whatever that means.

We finally reached the liquor store then made our way down the hill, sliding all the way back to Alan’s party house. The nice coat of snow on my motorcycle jacket complimented the pre-existing sweat, dirt, and vomit. I was looking forward to seeing Julia, Alan’s new girl, who was a good friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while. We’d all heard from around that she wasn’t doing so well, that she had relapsed. She was a fixture in the local music scene but had been AWOL for a few months, and no-one knew for sure what had happened to her.

She had moved up to Anchorage from Los Angeles a few years prior, to clean up from years of IV drug use. I was drawn to her, mostly because she I both came from very religious upbringings and had both rebelled in our own ways. I had much admiration for her outsized attitude and her willingness to try and make a better life for herself. Deep down, I knew she was fucked up—maybe beyond repair.

Gabe and I barreled through the door, dropping our bundles of beer onto the carpet. I sat on the couch when Julia came out, wearing a sloppy getup of sweatpants and a blank, dirty t-shirt. Her skin looked yellowed and rubbery, and it aged her ten years. She looked like she was pushing forty, hair plastered back onto her head and pinned with a barrette. She sat down next to me. I wondered where her daughter was.

“Hey, Josh,” she said, putting her arm around me.

“Hey,” I said, afraid.  I hunched my shoulders.

“How’s it going?”

“Good,” she said.

“You want a beer?” she asked, reaching down to grab a can from the box.

I had forgotten all about it. “Um, yeah, thanks,” I said, taking the can of Milwaukee’s Best that she offered.

“So, where’s Cheyenne?” I asked, looking around, trying to hide my disgust at her appearance.

“She’s in our bedroom,” Julia said, motioning down the hall.

I felt the sadness and anger rising in me. All of her friends, myself included, had tried for over a year, to keep her off of hard drugs only to have this stranger, this Alan guy, swoop in from Nevada—or wherever it was—and just blow the whole thing to shit. But ultimately, it was her choice in the end. We all knew it—especially me. The sick thing is, even after everything I knew about her drug problems, I still wanted so badly to do heroin with her. I was jealous that she had slid so far down.  It would’ve been so easy—just get up, walk back into the room, and boom, relief.

*

I wanted so desperately to be accepted by Alan, Gabe, Julia, and all of the gutter punks. I wasn’t satisfied with my skunk pompadour, tattoos, leather jacket, radio show, punk zine, or any of it. None of it helped alleviate my feelings of worthlessness. I felt that Gabe was probably right: I wasn’t living the authentic life. I was a college student—unlike these other kids. They drank until they passed out, shot drugs, and they had facial tattoos. In trying to achieve my goal of heading straight down, I became a dabbler. It started with whip-its in high-school, and then I moved on to weed, hash, mushrooms, acid, and eventually meth—all in varying degrees of use. I craved scene cred, but I never found what I imagined was true abandon. Then I finally found something that made me feel better, something that took the edge off of daily life: burning myself with cigarettes. I can’t recall the first time I did it, but I will never forget the rush. Every day when I look at my arms, I remember. The sizzling sound it would make, hitting my skin and the sick joy I felt, knowing I had marked myself permanently in the process. I wanted people to look at me and cringe, knowing what I had done.  I would do it when no one was around, to make myself feel better, and I would also do it on a dare because people asked me to.

“Do the smiley trick,” they would say. That’s where you press the hot lighter top to your skin, leaving a burn that, ironically, looks like a smiley face. I had found real release.

I had never been able to shake the feeling that I had failed my parents. When I was eighteen, I told them I wasn’t a Christian anymore. I dropped out of that life. At the time I wished that they had been self-righteous zealots, so I could tell them to fuck off and be done with it. But, religion aside, we had a pretty good relationship. So I was stuck. I didn’t have the guts to sink into the gutter, but I had turned my back on the person I used to be. I was nowhere.

*

A few months after Alan’s party, I saw Julia was at a Social Distortion show at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage—all the scene kids were there. It was February, 1997, right before my twenty-fourth birthday. I was in a mood and was burning myself again. I sat outside the auditorium, brooding, in my sleeveless t-shirt, which I had written “Sick Boy” on in black marker (and Joni stole from me!)  I was talking with my friend Rex, who owned the local punk shop. He was fiddling with his septum ring, and giving me his usual half-cynical, half-uplifting pep talk. As Rex got up to go into the show, he hugged Julia. She came and sat next to me. She had shaved the sides of her head clean again, revealing her “PUNX” tattoo, and her liberty spikes were freshly dyed green, and standing in all their glory. My leather jacket was draped over my legs. My arm was pink and raw. I brought the lighter down again.

“Stop it, Josh,” Julia said, reaching her arm out. “Stop!” I pulled the lighter away from her grasp.

“What,” I said, baiting her. “What?” As if to say, who the hell are you to tell me to stop, doing what you’ve done? I brought it down a second time, looking at her. She turned and walked away in disgust.

My arm really hurt. The second burn was right on top of the first one. It would be the ninth and last one I ever did. At the end of the show, the lining of my jacket stuck to the wound. I winced, slowly pulling it off. I decided to forgo hanging out at, so I walked the two miles from downtown to midtown: up C Street, to the Village Inn to eat alone, have my late-night coffee, and think. I realized that Julia was right—I had gone too far. It was frightening that she was afraid for me. I ordered my coffee, took out my notebook, and, like so many nights before, began to write.

I continued to use various drugs; but seeing Julia, during that winter of 1996, changed my outlook: I tried to stop using them as tools to obliterate myself. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. There were very few times that writing gave me the level of release that was comparable to burning myself or doing drugs. Still, I carried a little notebook with me, inside the secret pocket of my motorcycle jacket—just in case.

*

I had one of the most odd and, strangely enough, transcendent  experiences of my life on that New Year’s Eve, in Julia’s front yard. I remember standing with Julia, Gabe, Joni and a couple other people, smiling, watching the downtown fireworks show. Everyone just seemed so happy to be alive, looking at the bright explosions in the sky. I cut out early and quietly, an Irish goodbye as they say, and began scrambling back up the hill, filled with purpose again. I felt happy and newly innocent, and a feeling came over me: maybe things would get better eventually, if I just kept putting pen to paper—if I just kept going.

***

(This memoir originally appeared in Criminal Class Review, in a different form, in 2013).

Categories
Writing

Misspent Youth

 

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Pete. (Photo by JM)

I’ve been playing pool off and on (more off these days), since 1992… and played at every single pool hall in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. And I still can’t play for shit.

I was introduced to the world of pool at age 18, by two brothers, Pete and Dan Backus. Pete was a greaser and punk rocker: oil-slicked hair, cuffed jeans, leather jacket, the whole bit. He was smooth. Dan… also had charisma, but of a totally different kind. He loved to con people. He could talk the shirt off of your back, and make you like him at the same time. The “Backus Boys” and I played pool several nights a week, usually with our friend Chris, who was in awe of the brothers as I was.

One night we decided to go to Hot Shots, a pool hall inside the Dimond Center, a suburban shopping mall in Anchorage. I think Dan was trying to get with some of the high-school honeys that worked there.  Although having a pool hall inside a mall is classic Anchorage, the atmosphere was entirely too wholesome. The place was well-lit, neon carpet, filled with nothing but high-school kids. But it was always fun to watch Dan hustle some poor sap in front of the sap’s girlfriend. Dan never bet money. He just loved to win. But the thought of betting for cash must have crossed his mind, once in a while…

We also frequented a place called Northern Lights Billiards, when our favorite pool hall was full. It too was inside a mall, a strip mall, on Northern Lights Boulevard, a stretch of road in Anchorage, known simply as, “The Strip”. Long-haired dudes cruised by in jacked up pickup trucks, painted in purple metal-flake, decked out with hydraulics and tinted windows, checking out the girls in the cars next to them, while idling at stoplights. Every so often, they would pull off the Strip, to shoot a few games.

Northern Lights had a menacing edge and was less clean-cut than Hot Shots. The crowd was a little older, with a little more money, and more to prove. They wore doo rags in the back pockets of their giant gansta jeans. Although it must be said, that the wood paneling and general lack of décor left something to be desired. They did, however, have pin-straight tables. One night we went there with Chris’s cousin, who, at the end of the night, expressed his disapproval with the place by putting in 5 dollars worth of “Revolution #9” by the Beatles in the jukebox before we left, dooming the patrons to hours of unlistenable noise.

Not too soon after that night, Northern Lights Billiards changed its name to Minnesota Billiards, and moved to another strip mall down the street. According to local pool guru Buddah, Minnesota Billiards is a pretty rough spot now. I went in there recently, and there was a sign on the door saying “No Guns”. That’s pretty bad when it needs to be said. Still, the place was pretty cool, with Ping Pong tournaments in the back, and strip-poker video games in the front.

I met Buddah while hanging out at Son of River City Billiards, by far the best pool hall in town, and my all-time favorite. I first went to Son of River City in ’92, with Pete, Dan, and Chris. The owner, Kent Andersson, was sitting behind the counter, chewing on a toothpick, looking like ’77 Elvis, with his bowling shirt, mutton-chop sideburns, and mirrored cop shades. Classic. He gave us our rack of balls, and we picked a table, making sure to roll our cues on it beforehand, to make sure they, and the table, were perfectly straight. Then Dan proceeded to show us the rules to 9-Ball, straight pool, and every other game he knew. Chris stuck his cue in the pocket as Dan shot, which pissed Dan off to no end.

I haven’t played pool with those guys in years, and when I went back to visit my friends and family in Anchorage a few years ago, I drove by Son of River City, just for old times sake, and saw it was shut down. You have to picture a den from the 1950s… walls adorned with old Coca-Cola memorabilia and cigarette and candy ads from the 1940s and 50s. Framed pictures of Marilyn, Elvis, James Dean hung everywhere—even on the ceiling! Old dentists chairs in the corners, with clunky seventies ashtrays sitting on the edge of the pool tables. And all of it is for sale. The jukebox was free, and packed with classic Motown tracks , old Country and Western, and tunes from Roy Orbison, Sinatra, Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs, just to name a few. But the coolest thing by far, about Son of River City, were the quotes, written in chalk, scattered throughout the place (well, that and the “Butts and Shafts” sign over the john). There were even quotes on the ceiling… by Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and even the owner himself. My favorite one was from Lord Chesterfield, to his son:

“A certain skill at billiards is the mark of a gentleman, but to play too well is the sign of a misspent youth.”

Misspent youth? Not me.

 

***

(This originally appeared in slightly different form, as “Alaska Pool”, in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, August 2, 2000)

Categories
Writing

Memoir Prompts: Ten Years, Consolidated

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Courtesy of rfclipart.com

This is from my old writing teacher, Ellen Hagan. Take a decade of your life and for every year, write 3 items that defined that year—in 3 words each. Here’s an example for the year 2013, when I was 40.

Adjunct of English/Applied at Staples/No Going Forward

Making the items compact will help you focus yourself before you even start composing. You can even treat each year as a line of poetry. As the years start piling up, it has a staccato haiku-type effect that’s kinda nice.  -JM

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Categories
Reading Writing

On Discipline (Or, My Summer of the Greeks)

socrates_1_mdWEEK ONE

I got crazy idea a few weeks ago. I decided to spend my summer reading the Greeks. I enjoy loafing on the couch watching Law and Order reruns as much as the next guy, but after 3 weeks of that, I knew I’d get burned out. I knew it was a good idea because I laughed when I had it and thought to myself, “god that is ridiculous”.

Socrates, Plato, Aristophanes and the other masters aren’t completely foreign to me. I had studied them in college for my ethics and theater classes, but that was over 20 years ago. And, as I was remarking to my old friend Mark, “It was a hard slog even then. Usually I’d skip class and sit on the couches at the student center with an iced mocha, waiting for you or Brendan to come by.” Do you sense a couch theme yet? My go-to plan then was to put off the work as long as I could, and rush around in the middle of the night, hacking out a sloppy rough draft. Mark laughed and suggested I take it slow and skip around to the parts I will enjoy, with the help of Cliffs Notes. As good as this advice was, I didn’t take it. I dove right into Plato’s Republic. I got about five pages in and my head started to swim. A self-proclaimed theater nerd pal (Hi Ginger!) advised me to “read [it] aloud, use different voices, or beg someone to read with [you].”

All of this advising and joking came from a Facebook post of mine the other day, when I was grousing about how dense this stuff was. About a dozen people weighed in, either as cheerleaders, or to make a funny comment. Siobhan Devaney, my poet friend from Medskerpedia (and one of my college mocha suppliers, coincidently) lol-ed that Plato liked pontificating “and also butts” and said that reading Plato was like masturbation, a sentiment that another old theater friend, Thomas, agreed with. He said that when he was studying this stuff, he “kept [his] thoughts in a journal… like [his] own kind of summary. Many of the old philosophers were unnecessarily verbose.” What had I gotten myself into?

A whole slew of other folks (including my friend, the poet Sarah Nichols) chimed in and lent their support when I revealed that I just signed up for an online class at Univ. of Pennsylvania on Greek Mythology, for background and context, so my head didn’t explode (“That is fantastic!”). I wasn’t fishing for support, only trying to be funny, but I will take it where I can get it. I’m just excited that other people besides me are getting stoked about this. Hoping some of them will join me!

My current travel-mates on this journey are my old friends Eric Johnston, and Amy Bridges (an L.A.-based playwright). All of this reading and thinking isn’t just intellectual wanking, however. I have a serious goal behind it.  The level of discourse in our society has sunk to perhaps an all-time-low. I often find myself sinking into that morass, and I’m sure you have too. Posting unsubstantiated articles on Facebook, or going off on someone I disagree with politically, and generally digging myself further into my ideological hole. Old Socrates would have a field day with the intellectual laziness and name-calling that’s abundant right now in America. So I’m going back to the beginning, with a flexible mind, in true Socratic form. If you are curious, the first couple of pages of Republic deal with the virtues of ageing. Quite appropriate, given how all of this studying has circled back around.

I have a week until the online class starts. I suppose that’s plenty of time to read the Cliffs Notes, cry, and reconsider. –JM

 

—If you liked what you read, why not make a comment below? All political rants will be disposed of unread. Thank you to Mark Fitz, Bob Acampora, Ginger Lyons, Thomas Kircher, Ina Roy-Faderman, Siobhan Devaney, Sarah Nichols, Amy Bridges, Eric “Outback” Johnston, Ed Bremson, Scotty Weeks, Carolyn Roesbery, and Moan Lisa for their support and input.—